Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The hype around this book gave me high expectations, instead, I spent the book waiting for something interesting to happen only to be left bored and disappointed.

Pros:

– The idea that everything that happened to women in the book has, in some time and culture, actually happened stuck with me
– Atwood’s way of using the final chapter as a history lesson was a brilliant way to finally get some answers but in my view, even this didn’t go far enough to give more depth into this murky world Atwood created
– This book is a great one to discuss, regardless of your own opinion on it, you can pretty much guarantee it’ll provoke a good debate in one way or another if you bring it up in conversation. Part of this is thanks to its insane popularity at the moment (helped by the Hulu adaptation that’s recently been aired) and partly because the book’s plot points, though presented in an extreme way in the book, are a good vehicle to talk about feminism, politics and religion.

Cons:
– The way the world switched from familiarly liberal to radically misogynist felt wholly unbelievable without any explanations as to what changed
– Similar to the above point, the book relies on constant guesswork to keep up suspense but in my view, it never delivers
– Atwood’s writing style and the use of an unreliable narrator (something that I always find irritating in any book) doesn’t make this easy reading. It’s not that the ideas or language is complex but the book itself is confusing and leaves the reader constantly trying to figure out the rules in this strange world.

First of all let me just say that I’m all too aware of the heated debates on this book, especially when someone doesn’t leave a favourable review. In fact, this initially put me off writing a review at all when the book is clearly not meant to be enjoyable for a general reader but instead is meant to be a social commentary that needs deep analysis before it really becomes interesting. After some thought, I came back to the reason I review books in the first place – if in 10 years time someone asks me about the book, I’ll need some help from past-me to remember the plot and my own thoughts on it straight after reading. And y’know, books are wonderful.

So, the book. My biggest irritation with The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t actually the book at all but the hype surrounding it. This book is probably the one that’s been recommended to me the most by friends knowing my interests in history, politics and gender. For me though, it just didn’t deliver on any of the expectation and had I read this book without knowing its reception, I probably would’ve been apathetic to the whole thing and it would’ve ended up on its way to a charity shop or shoved in the back of a cupboard to be forgotten about.

Hype aside, the impression that I had after reading this book is that it’s main and best purpose is to be used as a conversation piece – don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s a good book to read on a lazy afternoon as some light entertainment because it certainly doesn’t fit that category. Atwood’s fictional world isn’t absorbing and isn’t believable, despite the passionate fans constantly reminding reviewers who say this that all of the ways in which women are treated in the book are historically accurate to some culture or another. That may be the case but thrown together in a jumble of dystopian extreme misogyny means that, without the context of the historical elements, they lose a lot of their meaning and become a ‘everyone hates women’ statement rather than an insightful analysis of why/how they occurred, why they were unfair, how they were received, and how similar mistakes can be prevented in the future.

That being said, I found the final chapter a solid conclusion to such an ambiguous storyline and enjoyed Atwood’s commentary on how history is taught. It’s difficult to explain this without spoilers but as a history student, I found it a refreshing reminder of the gap between what is formally taught and the experienced realities of the historical actors.

All in all, I would encourage readers to open this book with a far more open mind than I did and to dismiss the hype surrounding it until you’ve read it for yourself and processed your own thoughts. As I said before, it’s not a book to read for its entertainment value that has a strong political message which is the mistaken impression I had got from friends and reviews, instead it’s a political book aimed at provoking discussion points and it’s the way it’s written makes that quite obvious from the beginning. Personally, I far prefer a book that is both entertaining and political or, at least if it’s political only, to be formally so as the guesswork involved in analysing The Handmaid’s Tale can be incredibly frustrating.

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Review: The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #5) by Rick Riordan

The Last Olympian
The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fittingly brilliant finale to an incredible series.

Pros:
– There was so much action in this book that it felt almost never-ending yet despite this, it didn’t lose its suspense or become repetitive (and this is coming from a gal who isn’t typically a fan of action!)
– It kept well away from the clichés I thought were going to happen
– Riordan manages to bring back characters we haven’t seen for a while with such delicacy that it fits into the storyline seamlessly, not an easy feat in a series finale
– This book (okay, the rest of the series too) made me want to jump headfirst into the library’s section on Greek mythology.

Cons:
– We had to say goodbye to such a magnificent series, it felt bittersweet to reach the end.*

I’m one of those readers who is perpetually disappointed with the final instalment of almost every series I’ve ever read, and watched, come to think of it. There is just something about endings that aggravates me – everything is tied up too neatly or there are gaping problems of things that aren’t tied in the end at all.

This wasn’t the case with The Last Olympian. The whole book was just so satisfying to read that I wanted to smile, cry and clap my hands together like a delirious madwoman all at the same time with how well it managed to do take care of everything.

Let’s start with the pace, it is so absorbing that you barely even notice the pages flick by. The suspense throughout, as built up from the previous novel, keeps you wholly addicted to finding out what’s going to happen in the chapter. The funny chapter headings certainly help with this as the whole reading experience becomes a classic dilemma of, ‘oh, just one more chapter…’.

The character development that has been slowly trudging along in the background of the other novels simply shines in this brilliant finale that manages to showcase what we love and hate about each character and how they’ve been changed by their individual journeys through the series. Though this could easily result in everything being too neat and unrealistic, it certainly doesn’t feel that way thanks to Riordan’s writing that weaves detail, action and humanity altogether in such a way that the reader is sucked into the story’s believability.

And the ending, oh my, the ending. Let’s just say that few fictional characters have battled against such odds that I was willing them to give up and let something/someone else take on all the responsibility. In fact, it brought me winging back to the nostalgia and emotional trauma that was the Last Battle of Hogwarts (but in a good way). Riordan’s writing made the characters so believably human (okay, even the ones that aren’t strictly human) that their decisions and actions made for reading so inspiring that it made me, after the novel was finished of course, sit back and think about the brave and not-so-brave choices I’d made in my own life.

A book that can prompt such self-reflection, particularly a YA fiction book full of non-humans, action and mythology such as this one, is one that I’m wholeheartedly a fan of.

Read this series, there’s a very good chance you will love it.

*I’m aware this isn’t a con but I genuinely felt so sad when I got past the halfway point and realised how little was left of Percy Jackson’s adventures that it seems worth mentioning!

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CogWheel Films: Creating ’27 Pictures’ & the 48hr Sci-Fi Challenge

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to take part in a fantastic competition with the filming company I work with, Cogwheel Films. This competition happens once a year, this time I took part, it was as fun (albeit stressful!) as it was the first year I did it (2015).

27 pictures

 

A still from 27 Pictures

The Challenge:

For those of you who don’t know, the 48hr Sci-Fi Challenge is a national competition open to filmmakers of all backgrounds and abilities. The challenge begins when a brief is sent out to all participant teams with set compulsory elements to include in your film: a title, a line of dialogue, an action/prop, and an optional science prompt.

Your team then has 48 hours to go from the prompts to producing a finished short film. For more details on the competition, visit 2017’s official website.

The Brief:

Title: 27 Pictures
Action/Prop: A USB/SD card is pushed into a slot
The line of Dialogue: ‘The images were sourced randomly if such a concept exists.’

The Finished Film:

27 Pictures
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Di3vkRQUS20&t=1s

Coming Up With a Story:
It’s pretty nerve-wracking stuff waiting to be told what randomised prompts you will have to craft a story around and to know that the longer it takes you to figure something out, the less time can be spent on actually creating the film. With this in mind, this year Cogwheel Films’ directors, Tori and Paul, suggested we gather around Paul’s house to await the brief. Traffic delayed half the team, however, and I got delayed by Molly (doggo) deciding to pee just as our metro was pulling into the station. When the whole team was finally together, we started throwing around some ideas for what the story could be. This challenge was particularly difficult because the compulsory line of dialogue (see above) kept throwing a curveball in all of our ideas. We were far behind schedule at this point as we’d anticipated it’d take an hour to an hour and a half to come up with a basic premise. Almost three hours after receiving the brief, we had all agreed on the storyline that was to become 27 Pictures.

Doing My Bit:
Once the backbone of the story was settled, it was up to me and Paul to add some flesh to it while the others began gathering/creating props, contacting our actors, sorting out location ideas, distracting my dog Molly from giving Paul an allergic reaction that gave his eyes the appearance of chronic alcoholism…the usual stuff. Here, the thing I find most challenging is writing a script that’s feasible with the limited time and resources you have. It’s quite disheartening to write something that you think would add a lot to the story but ultimately realise it just isn’t possible to include. As Paul said himself when editing and having to cut out a short scene from the film that everyone enjoyed, sometimes you have to kill your darlings. And in a 48hr challenge, this can feel incredibly frustrating.

As soon as the practical side of things was sorted, which took a while given that we had to make ‘government’ documents, a picnic, and a life-long scrapbook as props, the whole team headed out to the film’s location. Unfortunately for us, it was a beautifully sunny day in Newcastle meaning the area of the Quayside that we’d expected to be quiet was full of families, joggers, and dog-walkers alike. Knowing that I’d be out for most of the day, I’d brought my dog along with me and she suitably went nuts at a German Shepherd that kept walking by us and caused some problems with the sound when she got too enthusiastic about destroying a crisp packet and chasing clumps of grass (Sorry Cogs!).

While trying to keep a beady eye and a quick hand on the destructive beast that is Molly, I continued to thrash out the script as the team began filming the scenes in sequence. It really was a race as I frantically wrote to keep one step ahead of the shoot and in the end, I had to leave the last few scenes in the safe hands of Paul and Tori as Molly’s patience (and the sunlight) grew thin and we headed home.

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Editing
Unlike 2015’s competition where I spent the duration of the 48hr challenge in a rented Scout hut alongside the whole team, this year our schedules didn’t quite allow for that. For me, this meant I missed out on the editing of the film which is something I thoroughly enjoyed learning from during the previous challenge and hope to be more involved in next time round. That being said, it was nice to go back home and sleep easy in my memory-foam bed knowing that the fate of the film was firmly in the hands of Paul and Tori from now on.

The event was great fun though and considering the film was created over the space of a weekend, and with limited resources and without the full team, it’s turned out really well.  It’s refreshing to take on a task that challenges your creativity and problem-solving to such a degree, the added pressure just makes the teamwork needed all the more vital and being part of Cogwheel Films is a brilliant team to be involved with.

You can find out more about Cogwheel Films by visiting the Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/cogwheelfilms/?fref=ts

We’re always on the lookout for a diverse range of talented creative people so please give the page a message if you’re interested in getting involved.

 

Review: Once (Once, #1) by Morris Gleitzman

Once
Once by Morris Gleitzman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books that don’t let go of you once you’ve lived through their story. Once is certainly one of them, this haunting, bittersweet story managed to tell so much in a mere 160 pages that it has captivated me as a re-reader for life.

Pros:
– Gleitzman does an astounding service to both the readers of the story, by protecting them from some of the more extreme aspects of the Holocaust, and to the history, by not allowing protection to discredit the historical realities of the trauma suffered during, and as a result of, this time.
– This short book is so powerful it made me weep.
– One of the main characters, Barney, is based on an inspirational person, Janusz Korczak.
– The prose is simple but this can be misleading, this is a book with many layers of meaning making it suitable for all but very young (under 13 or so) readers.

Cons:
– Although the book is short, Felix’s initial naivete can be irritating in the first couple of chapters. Stick with this, it makes much more sense as you see his character develop.
– Though not a criticism of the book itself, its marketing and presentation make it appear as though it’s for young children. I don’t believe it should be read by anyone under the age of 13 without an appropriate adult mediator or learning support to supplement the material and discuss its content.

This book is incredible in what it achieves. I firmly believe everyone should read and discuss this book, particularly people interested in trauma and childhood, and I don’t say that lightly. Gleitzman’s brief novel promotes a great deal of deep thinking about the Holocaust, trauma generally, and children’s responses to trauma.
I’ve read this book twice within six months and after analysing it (alongside other books) for an essay on the representation of the Holocaust in children’s/YA fiction, I can’t emphasise enough what a compelling book it is. Saying too much more could ruin it or dampen it’s effect so I’ll avoid that and instead, ask that you read and reflect on Once. This book that can be read in under two hours will have a lingering, albeit haunting, effect on you.

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Review: The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #4) by Rick Riordan

The Battle of the Labyrinth
The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most exciting YA fiction books I’ve ever read!

Pros:
– It’s packed with high-quality action scenes
– The whole idea of the labyrinth is executed brilliantly
– There is so much in this book for an adult reader to appreciate
– This left me so excited for the fifth and final book that I finished this one and started the fifth one on the same night, reading until I fell asleep (book in hand!).

Cons:
– Percy isn’t as great as he could be in this book, we see him repeating his mistakes a lot and it feels like it’s done just to jump the plot along at times.
– This isn’t really a con but I’m clutching at straws here – as Riordan uses increasingly obscure creatures and references to mythology, it gets harder to decipher them and appreciate the work he’s putting into it. I’d love it if there was some sort of glossary or mythology accompaniment in the books!

Before delving into this book, clear your schedule in advance. After you get to the mid-point, it’s so gripping it’s almost impossible to put down and it is one of the best build-ups I’ve seen to a series finale. Aside from the plot itself being wholly absorbing, the characters are great too. Whereas many of the recurring characters have been quite two-dimensional up until this point in the series, they are given far more depth in this book which makes their previous dullness completely forgivable in the grand scheme of things. On that note, we also have some wonderful moments in this book that will no doubt make you reminisce about your own teenage years.

The humour in this is noticeably better than the previous books too, although some jokes are clearly more for a younger audience, there’s a lot in this instalment that adults can whole-heartedly enjoy as well. This works hand-in-hand with making the whole novel feel far more well-rounded than its predecessors (and indeed, many other YA fiction series) as it’s as though Riordan is paying attention to what older readers want without compromising any of his appeal to younger readers.

All in all, this is a great fantasy adventure book that I’d recommend to anyone looking for an entertaining read full of suspense.

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Review: Introducing Freud by Richard Appignanesi

Introducing Freud
Introducing Freud by Richard Appignanesi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to figure out what this book is trying to achieve and what audience it’s trying to pitch to but it’s a good springboard to jump from.

Pros
– Easily the best part of this book is the artwork, it keeps the text engaging and adds a nice touch of humour to the whole thing (plus the many subtle penises hidden everywhere kept it interesting!)
– It can be read in under two hours making this a bite-size way to get a little more familiar with the topic
– The ‘Little Dictionary’ at the back was brilliantly helpful but it should’ve been at the beginning!

Cons
– This is an overview rather than an introduction, I found it quite hard to access and needed a bit of help from dear old Google
– The explanations could have done with more/better examples, I found them confusing rather than helpful
– I get a strong impression that this book is aimed at a psychology/sociology student audience rather than a layman or someone with a casual interest in psychology, despite its title

I found the title of this book misleading – it wasn’t so much an introduction to Freud but a brief summary of his ideas accompanied by very brief examples of them in action and the tiniest mentions of his personal life. Unless you already know what’s going on, it just doesn’t make all that much sense as the explanations and technical terms come at you hard and fast. At the very end of the book, I found the ‘Little Dictionary’ of terms. This added much greater understanding to the book, I only wish the dictionary was at the beginning (or that it was mentioned at the beginning) so I could’ve used it alongside the reading. I do think this would be far more useful as a revision tool rather than an introductory text, there have got to be simpler ways to introduce Freud than this book.
Though the book is short, be prepared to spend some time online digging around for simpler explanations or further examples to the theories that are mentioned.

I’ve now read a handful of books from this series and the comic-book style never fails to disappoint. As I’ve come to expect, the illustrations manage to be funny, entertaining and are a brilliant addition to the text. They really stood out here as the memorable drawings creatively flow with the text to make the whole book more engaging and the complemented the ideas, particularly the more sensitive areas regarding the discussions on incest and the sexuality of prepubescent children as it gave such taboo issues a different degree of approachability. Some of the illustrations were a bit distasteful but if you’re reading anything to do with Freud and you’re not at some point squirming in your chair, you’re probably doing it wrong (or at least, too often!).

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Review: Billy Connolly by Pamela Stephenson

Billy Connolly
Billy Connolly by Pamela Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Passively interesting but not inspiring, this biography had the potential to be great if it had kept up its pace and had injected just a little humour into Billy’s eccentric life to give it some of the vibrant colour he’s known for.

Pros:
– How much the author, Pamela Stephenson, loved her husband Billy Connolly shone through the entire book, in the more dry parts, it was the backbone that kept the pages turning.
– The book feels heartbreakingly honest.

Cons:
– There was next to no humour in this book.
– The celebrity name-dropping was clunky and felt out of place.
– The book’s pace dropped considerably in the middle.
– The writing can be quite dry and more like reading a Wikipedia page than a biography.
– Though this is very much a rags-to-riches story, I got the impression that all the fame and money was taken for granted, if not resented, by Billy. I’m not sure if this is the accurate impression or just Stephenson’s writing but given her depiction of his youth, I found it disappointing.

Reading this book involved a lot of giving up and returning to it later. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, I did, it just felt repetitive and the humour in the anecdotes felt like they were being spoiled by the matter-of-fact writing. Stephenson clearly loves her husband dearly, that shines brightly from the book and is ultimately what kept me returning to the pages after entire months of leaving it on my bedroom windowsill. This can be seen poignantly in the early pages of the book and it any references to Billy’s upbringing, it is dealt with such sensitivity that you can feel the author rooting for everything to be okay.

It surprised me a great deal to learn that Stephenson was a comedian herself as there’s no comedy in this book whatsoever. In fact, even the funniness in the anecdotes wriggles away with the Wiki-style writing. I spent the whole book wanting to feel some of that humour Billy is known for, the humour that the book spends half its pages advertising to us, only for it not to come across in any of the writing, except perhaps, in the very last page. It isn’t advertised as being a funny book in all fairness, but in the back of my mind I just kept wishing Billy was telling his own story instead, or at least alongside, Stephenson’s version as I can imagine him having a far more uplifting take on things. I’d love to see his comments about it or his reactions upon first reading it!

One thing that I did strongly object to was the celebrity name-dropping. It wasn’t so much that it was there, that was interesting to get a glimpse of and the present-to-past chapter openings gave the book some much-needed variety. The problem of it was the specific extracts from their celebrity lifestyle that were chosen – they were dull and a lot of the time you could see that there was so much more to the anecdote that was being shared. This is understandable, everyone needs privacy, but these teasers from the lives of the rich and famous made the text frustrating to read.

On that note, the ease in which Billy suddenly found his wealth and famous friends felt a bit off. It seemed like he took the whole thing for granted and didn’t care much for it. This doesn’t seem quite at peace with his character or background so I get the impression that the issue has either been skated over entirely on purpose or that some ruthless editing was done.
Because of this, the middle of the book is just a complete flop in pace. It gets boring and I was left treading water waiting for it to get more interesting again. Fortunately it does but the lull caused enough damage to put me off rereading this book again or recommending it.

If you are a Billy Connolly fan, you may want to read this if you see it in a dentist’s waiting room or abandoned in some hotel room on holiday. I don’t recommend you actively go out and buy it though, the writing just doesn’t match up to the wonderful charisma of the subject and that’s a downright shame.
If you do read it, it’d be wise to miss out a chunk in the middle, of course you’ll probably end up doing that naturally anyway as your eyes glaze over.
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