The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t sure what to expect reading The Testaments, especially after its prequel, The Handmaid’s Tale had such a profound impact on my life – as it did with so many others too (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the TV series, despite all the amazing reviews and awards, because I didn’t want the impression the book left to be diluted or, dare I say, translated in any way). It’s not incorrect to say that because of studying that book at university (and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus), I underwent a career change becoming an academic for over 25 years. Over some of that time, I introduced others to the wonder, power and terrible vision of Offred and Gilead’s story, reliving and appreciating its formidable narrative every single time. So, what would the sequel a book, as Atwood herself said, 35 years in the making offer? Would it destroy the foundations laid so long ago or build upon them in a way that is as astonishing and frightening as the first book?

The Testaments begins fifteen years after Offred disappeared from Gilead and readers heard her harrowing tale (and which we’d just borne witness to), interpreted through the lens of history and the dry rhetoric of an academic conference – a brilliant metaphor on its own. Told from three different points of view – that of one of the most influential and dreadful of the Aunts, a young Gileadian girl destined to become a Wife, and then from an outsider’s perspective – Gilead, the state that oppresses and subjugates in the name of God and specific interpretations of the Bible – is no less chilling and the themes and incidents no less prescient than they were in The Handmaid’s Tale. Once more, the reader is given insight into the socio-cultural structures that make Gilead; how the regime demands complete and utter surrender and also how it inculcates people into being complicit in upholding its dominant paradigms, even when they oppress them.

Just as we were in The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re given snapshots into the coup that overturned a mighty Republic, and how those in power maintained it. Through particular individuals and roles, we’re also given entrée to the domestic arrangements – whereas it was once through the eyes of a Handmaiden, this time it is mainly through the Wives, Marthas, Commanders, and daughters of the privileged.

How Gilead is viewed by the rest of the world, how it is and isn’t tolerated and the resistance movements that try and aid those wishing to escape its clutches, is also shown, as are how these organisations are represented within Gilead. Propaganda is not exclusive to one country or ideology, even if the reader is clearly meant to identify with the freer world.

Whereas the three different narrative strands first appear distinct, as this tale unfolds, they’re slowly woven together until the title of the book becomes both literal and another powerful trope.

Questions posed or left unanswered in The Handmaid’s Tale are mostly resolved (which was terrific), and what I really liked is that once more, historians are not let off the hook, even if the work they do isn’t disrespected but revealed to be, by nature, limited as well as complex and nuanced (even if some in that field are not).

This was an at once extraordinary and terrifying read in that so much of what unfolds holds up a dark mirror to contemporary politics, gender and sexual identity, social roles and movements. But it’s also fabulously entertaining, page-turning and exciting as well – Atwood is a master storyteller who knows how to keep her readers riveted. I wish I could say that The Testaments is only a marvellous and authoritative work of fiction, but I fear it is something much more and even darker – it’s also a warning. One has only to look at the state of world politics now and the rise of the extreme religious right to see parallels. Atwood has put us on notice and woe betide if we don’t heed what she says…

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The Naturalist’s Daughter by Tea Cooper

This is a wonderful novel, set in Australia and England, about two extraordinary young women, a century apart, who are embroiled in the great scientific mystery of the Antipodes that was the platypus.

In 1808, young Rose Winton adores working with her father, Charles, studying and creating detailed drawings of the platypus in its natural environment. Clever, quick-witted and resourceful, Rose is a wonderful foil and encouragement to her kind, studious father who is supported in his research, in part, by a meagre sum of money from none other than the great botanist and scientist, Joseph Banks in England. When an opportunity to present his findings to the Royal Society in London arrives, Charles Winton is thrilled – at last, all his hard work and dedication will reap the rewards and recognition he deserves. But when something happens that prevents him going, he sends Rose, equipped with his glorious and detailed sketchbook and findings, in his stead. Filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation, little does Rose know that her journey to the “mother-country” will be just that – a dangerous journey into a past that she had no knowledge of and which her mother, transported to the colonies years earlier, has tried hard to forget.

At the newly established Mitchell library in Sydney 1908, Tamsin Alleyn has been tasked with proving the provenance of an old sketchbook that is going to be donated by a reclusive woman living in the Hunter Valley. Sent to see the old woman, Tamsin is thrown into the company of lawyer and wanna-be antiquarian book dealer, Shaw Everdene, and his clients, people with a vested interest in not only the sketch-book but discovering the origins and real owner as well. What Tamsin learns – about the book, but also about Shaw, herself and her past, simply deepens the mystery of not only the sketchbook, but those who filled it with their studies and what happened to them so long ago…

Once I started this book, I found it hard to put down. The settings are wonderfully created, whether it’s the Hunter Valley, early 1900s Sydney or London and Cornwall in the 1800s. The characters are as vividly drawn as the sketches of the platypus and the small but rich details of life on the land and in the city and the spaces between captivatingly rendered. History is brought to life in this cleverly plotted book, as is early Australia and the relationships between the Indigenous population, the land and the white settlers, but never at the expense of a rollicking good story. I stayed up till the wee hours to finish this marvellous novel and it was worth the thick head and bleary-eyes today. I look forward to reading more of Copper’s books.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

I had been meaning to read this book ever since I first heard about it last year and I am kicking myself it’s taken so long, but then also glad I was able to delay the pleasure.

Circe is a beautifully written and structured novel about the Titan nymph, Circe. Daughter of Helios, the sun-God, and related to all the powerful beings in the Titan universe who’ve been subjugated by the mighty Olympians, Circe is nonetheless best known from Homer’s Odyssey, as the witch who turned Odysseus’ men into swine, delaying his already long and arduous journey back to Ithaca further (not nearly as much as others – including his own crew’s foolhardiness and greed and his own amor – would subsequently do).

Commencing while she’s still “young” (by immortal standards), the reader follows her story from a rather neglected and rejected junior member of a pantheon of almost-forgotten gods to a powerful wielder of magic in her own right years later. Barely noticed by her family, despite doggedly following her father around, one compassionate act separates her literally and metaphorically from the rest of her scions. Offering succour to the Titan Prometheus, who is about to be punished for daring to give fire to man, what Circe doesn’t expect when she confesses to her deed, is the way in which her world will be turned upside down.

Exiled to a remote island, over time, Circe finds that being alone doesn’t necessarily equate with loneliness. Honing her powers, teaching herself new ways of conjuring magic, Circe begins to grow in strength. When visitors come to her island, she is able to not only put her new skills to the test, but ensure justice is served – on her terms.

But it’s when the great trickster, Odysseus and his crew, wash up on her shores that Circe’s abilities to remain distant from those she encounters and the results of the spells she casts is tested. Seeing something both recognisable and repellent in Odysseus, she manages to keep him by her side long enough to not only learn about him, but change the conditions of her exile forever.

Understanding that Circe has used her ‘son’ to further her own ends, the goddess Athena swears vengeance and binds Circe to an impossible condition. But Athena hasn’t reckoned on how Circe’s experiences have not only changed her, but honed her into a formidable enemy. Locked in their enmity, neither Circe nor Athena, are quite prepared for what the fates have in store for them and those they love…

Flawed, riddled with contradictions and possessed of an ability to recognise and at least work upon her weaknesses, Circe is both a heroine and anti-heroine for the ages. Alternately cruel and kind, loyal and deceitful, she is a magnificent character and, for a goddess/witch/nymph, so very human. True to the myths of old, so are all the Titans and Olympians that appear in the book – their foibles and shortcomings are on grand display making them both larger than life and impossibly human. Against this, many of the great myths and their leading players take the stage, moving in and out of Circe’s remote life, leaving their mark on her and on the reader. The recognition, of not just mythic heroes and villains creates a deep frisson – not just because of the qualities they display and the commentary they make on the human condition, but because they are at once familiar and strange. This makes the emotional heft of the novel enormous.

I can’t speak more highly of this outstanding book. I read it a couple of weeks ago, and it is still resonating and will for a long time to come.

For lovers of the Greek myths, the great epic tales of old and for those who appreciate a superbly written narrative.

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The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner

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This absorbing book took me completely by surprise. Not only is it a skilfully told story of a time in Russian history (the final years of the decadent Romanovs, and the rising rebellion among the workers as dissatisfaction and real anger towards the ruling classes, economic instability, food shortages, dreadful working conditions and war, grew worse), using two ballet dancers employed by the elite Imperial Russian Ballet as foils, it’s also a tragic tale of class difference, and the lengths those who were born with nothing will go to in order to ensure they don’t lose what they’ve gained. 

Luka Zhirkov is a young, up and coming dancer who has been given the chance of a lifetime when he’s asked to join the Imperial Ballet. For his father, a staunch member of the proletariat, who has already given one son to the civil war tearing Russia apart, Luka’s dancing career, where he mainly entertains capitalist elites, is a betrayal of class, family and country. 

When one of the principal dancers, Valentina Yershova, a woman born into poverty and whose talent and dalliances with rich protectors has allowed her to climb the ballet ladder, spies Luka, even she recognises his talent. But Luka hasn’t yet learned the rules that govern the ballet dancers behind the scenes – how who you know and associate with and who you share your body with is almost as important as skill. Disgusted and confused by the careless wealth of some of the dancers and those they choose to align themselves with, as well as their wilful ignorance about deteriorating social conditions for those who cannot afford to change them, Luka is nonetheless drawn to Valentina and his feelings for her begin to grow.

As great opportunities for both Luka and Valentina manifest, war and revolution follows, meaning they’ll soon be forced to make choices that will either grant them their every wish or tear them apart. 

Beautifully written, evocative and moving with characters both strong and flawed (which I love), this wonderful book and the ballet dancers at its heart explore a period of history and a country that for many of us remains mysterious. Petrograd (St Petersburg) is brought to life in all its hedonistic and dangerous glory. Ballet becomes a powerful metaphor for the struggles, passion and sacrifice the Russian people themselves make as their country plunges deeper into poverty and war, and those at the top attempt to continue with a decadent lifestyle that is fast becoming as dangerous as it is deplorable. Using the story of one of the most famous ballets, Swan Lake allegorically, Turner weaves the romance and tragedy of Odette and Prince Siegfried and the villainous Von Rothbart, cleverly throughout the novel. 

This is a photo I took inside the Alexandrinsky Theatre (mentioned in the novel) in St Petersburg (formerly, Petrograd). It is simply stunning. I saw my very first ballet there as well – appropriately, it was Swan Lake. Kerri’s novel brings all this to life.

One of the hallmarks of good historical fiction is that the author doesn’t only craft a marvellous tale, but you learn something about the past and the human condition in the process. Turner has done these things seamlessly and, in doing so, written a book that will, like its lead characters, dance its way into your heart. 

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Queens of the Sea (Blood and Gold #3) by Kim Wilkins

I have so enjoyed the first two books in the Blood and Gold trilogy by Kim Wilkins and felt ambivalent about reading the final one, Queens of the Sea, because I knew that on completion, my time with the amazing warrior queen, Bluebell and her dysfunctional and fascinating family must come to an end. But what a magnificent closure it has been.

In this concluding novel, the simmering war between the followers of the old gods and those of the new, violent Trimartyr god, comes to a brutal and bloody conclusion. The time for “mad” Willow, one of Bluebell’s sisters and Ivy’s twin, to rise has arrived and she grasps her opportunity with wild and unforgiving hands, turning on those she once called her people and even her own kin in a murderous grab for power at all costs.

Having lost her city through terrible deceit and betrayal, Bluebell and her remaining sisters, some of whom have their own personal demons and burdens to carry, must turn not only to the gods they know and love, but place their faith in what has always been believed to be myths and legends in order to even have a chance of defeating Willow and the Crow King, Hakon.

But with Ash divested of her powers, and Rowan, Rose’s estranged daughter uncertain whether she should embrace hers or not, and Ivy struggling to find the strength to leave her abusive lover, and arguments and tensions erupting among remaining tribes, Bluebells allies are no longer as dependable as they should be. Forced to seek help across the seas, Bluebell’s voyage is not only fraught with personal risks, but with the very real chance she could lose her kingdom and, worse, the faith of her people, forever.

As the Trimartyr’s unleash a reign of terror upon Bluebell’s people, promising more if their queen dare retaliates, time and trust – in herself and others – is running out for Bluebell and the kingdom that is her legacy.

Beautifully written, this is a page-turner par excellence from the mistress of the cross-genre tale. The pace is perfect, the characters alternately flawed and formidable but always possessed of a realness that makes you invest in them in a myriad of ways. A combination of fantasy and history, in this series – and this final instalment especially – Wilkins has drawn on her own deep knowledge of Celtic and Nordic history and myth to give readers a thrilling story that will live in the mind and satisfy the senses long after the last page is finished. Brilliant.

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Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5) by Kate Atkinson

I adore Kate Atkinson’s writing, and I particularly love her Jackson Brodie series. Big Sky, the fifth book to include the exacerbating PI, finds him older, not necessarily wiser, and relocated to what he thinks is a sleepy seaside town. Waltzing in and out of his life is his former flame, the actor, Julia and their monosyllabic teenage and the lovable Labrador who, just like Jackson, is ageing – sometimes disagreeably.

When the novel opens, Jackson is in the middle of a fairly standard case, investigating a suspected adulterer. But it’s when he has a confrontation with a man on a cliff, that Jackson stumbles into something both incredibly seedy and very dangerous, not just for him, but for an ever-widening circle of victims – some who don’t even know that’s what they are.

Once more, Atkinson produces a marvellous, slow-burning and atmospheric work that not only deepens readers’ relationship with Brodie, but introduces us to a dizzying cast of characters. At first, I have to admit, I did wonder where the book was going, as so many other characters seemed to dominate the chapters and Brodie didn’t seem to get much of a chance to shine. Even so, I loved the way that, in a few words, she could capture the essence of a person – their flaws, foibles and strengths. The deceptions that seemingly decent people perpetrate on each other all while occupying high moral ground is explored and exposed. As the book continues, you become caught up in the lives and relationships of these other characters and the tangled web that is being weaved but – and this is to Atkinson’s credit – never so tangled that you can’t or don’t want to know how it’s going to unravel.

About half to two-thirds of the way through, there’s like a eureka moment where this large cast and their motivations suddenly (in my head at least) find their place and it all becomes clear, but not to the point you’re not astonished at where the finale takes you. What has already been a good read suddenly becomes a great one as you race towards a resolution and finally get to see what role, if any, Brodie will play in this masterful, twisty and clever plot.

As always, the writing is sublime and the characters so wonderfully and realistically portrayed, they breathe life into the pages. Cannot wait for her next one.

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