Thursday, 23 August 2012

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

There seems to be a huge influx of dystopian novels on the market again. I recently read an article which claimed that the number of books in this genre rises and falls in relation to the political or economical situation in the real world. Perhaps people are looking for reassurance that things could in fact be worse, and what better place to get it than a dystopian novel?
I personally love a good dystopia, hmmm seems a bit of a contradiction there, but it's true. I'm a big fan of 1984, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange (the classics) however Margaret Atwood is definitely getting closer to the top of the list.

This is the second of her novels I have read, and this one far surpasses the previous one.

As with any good dystopia, it is written in a sort of way which presumes that the reader knows what this world is like, and has experience of it, so you have to learn slowly about this horrible new place as you read and gleam small pieces of information dropped casually into conversation. The narrators are writing, not to readers in the past or in a different dimension, they are writing to their peers, and the commonality amongst them all is that the point of view we see is contradictory to the expected or perhaps even legal one of their world.

From what we know of the world in The Handmaid's Tale, something (an unknown something) has happened which has caused a large percentage of the population to become sterile. Because of this, young and fertile women are given the position of Handmaid's. These handmaids are then selected to serve rich or powerful couples, such as members of government whose wives cannot bear children. The thing I particularly like about this part of the novel is the incongruity in what exactly this means. In one way, a Handmaid is a servant, however in another way they are looked upon with awe and respect by many. Within the families where they are employed however, many of the wives feel threatened by these women brought in to do something where they have failed. It's a mixture of reverence and revulsion that they experience in their daily lives. 

At the back of it all however, they are nothing more than slaves, whose only purpose is to bear children. If they cannot do this after 3 attempts, they are banished and declared an unwoman. Sex becomes a ritual almost religious ceremony where husband, wife and handmaid all take part. But women have no rights, and no power in this world. Both the handmaids and the wives partake in this almost primitive lifestyle, with no hope of escape. Once again, failure to conceive is blamed on the woman, the chance that the man may be the sterile one is never really considered and I'm sure would be considered blasphemy. 

The further you read in this novel, the more familiar I think it sounds. That's the disturbing part of dystopias for me, the knowledge that something like this isn't as alien as it appears at first. This world was created by a military dictatorship who froze women's assets and made them completely dependent on their husbands and partners. It could happen, in fact, it is almost a return to earlier times.

Either way, I absolutely loved reading this book, I was completely hooked and it just got better as I read on.

Score: 5/5 - Amazing Read

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Butterfly Cakes

Started craving these cakes one day, and had to ring my mum and describe them to her to find out the actual name for them.  I remember these from when I was younger, they were the staple snack at all my friend's birthday parties and they are yummy!  So when she finally understood what I was talking about... (my description went something like "you know those cakes with the cream and the top of the cake is cut off and stuck on top....") I went looking for the recipe, found a really easy one at BBC Good Food to which I added my own small touches.  Also had a fabulous 6 year old helper with me making these, hence the pink icing and the sprinkles!

Recipe: (Makes 14)

113g butter (softened)
113g castor sugar
113g self raising flour
2 medium free range eggs (again, I only had small ones so threw in 3)
1 tsp vanilla essence

Butter Cream Icing:
56g butter (softened)
113g sieved icing sugar
1 tbsp boiling water
1 tsp vanilla essence
Few drops of red food colouring
Lots and lots of sprinkles

1) Preheat oven to 190° C
2) Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy and pale
3) Beat eggs and add them bit by bit with spoons of sifted flour to ensure mix doesn't curdle
4) Gently fold in any flour left over when egg is used up and add Vanilla essence
5) Half fill paper cases with mixture and bake for 15 mins until risen
6)When cakes are cool, carefully cut a slice from the top of cake and cut this in half
7) Spread the butter cream icing on top of the cake, cover with sprinkles and stick the 2 halves of the top of the cake back on to resemble wings!

They were absolutely gorgeous for a first attempt, only thing I forgot to do was sprinkle some icing sugar over the top, but they worked without it too!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Review: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Otto and Anna Quangel lose their son, fighting for the Nazis in the war. Soon they go from being loyal Germans to being rebels in the only way they know how, writing anti Nazi postcards and leaving them around the city of Berlin. It may not seem like much however the punishment is still very severe for being seen to be anti German. 
I really enjoyed this, you really felt for all the characters, how they got swept up in the times and some got carried away with the strict regime,so eager to survive that they would give up their friends and neighbours. It really showed how helpless some Germans felt at the time, knowing that it was wrong but needing to make themselves come out the other end of the war. It also showed the bravery and determination. 

It was heartbreaking in places and I shed a tear or two at times. Worth a read.

Score: 4/5

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Review: One Day by David Nicholls

The story begins on St Swithin's day 15th July 1988. Dexter and Emma having graduated, spend the night together. However Dexter starts off thinking purely how he can leave Emma without ever having to see her again, but as the night progresses and nothing sexual actually happens between them, they begin to talk about themselves, about their futures and so the friendship begins. Each chapter focuses on that same day each year for twenty years. Their friendship becomes closer and closer during this time, and they each go through major upheaval in their own lives, with jobs, partners and life in general. 

The annoying part of this book is that there were times when I didn't like either character. Dexter took Emma for granted. Emma whines a lot. However you can't help but root for them, and want them to get their act together and admit the way they feel for each other. It becomes painfully clear early on in the novel that Emma has feelings for Dexter, and he seems to have feelings for her also, but not as willing to admit them to himself as she is. Life always seems to keep them apart, which is frustrating for the reader, however would we really do anything differently?

It's a book which is un-put-downable until you reach the end, and when I did, I wished I hadn't. I wanted to keep reading about these 2 people, who I had seen grow up and mature and been a part of their lives for so long, even if it was only to catch up with them one day a year.
Still haven't seen the film but will definitely be doing so, just hope it does the book justice.

Score: 3/5

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Chocolate Meringue Biscuits

Really getting back into baking at the moment and wanted to try something a little bit different.  So I decided to try making biscuits.  I really want to learn how to make those chewy chocolate chip cookies but need to start somewhere.

This was a really easy peasy recipe, the electric mixer my mum got me for Xmas is working overtime these days!

Recipe: Supposed to make 10 biscuits but I got 9 good sized ones out of the mix.

2 Egg Whites (I had really small eggs so decided to use 3)
125g Icing sugar (sieved)
125g Water Crackers (finely crushed)
100g dark cooking chocolate (melted and cooled)
A few drops of Vanilla Essence

1) Preheat the oven to 180° C and line a baking sheet with baking parchment
2) Whisk egg whites until they form stiff peaks
3) Whisk in the icing sugar 1 spoonful at a time
4) Gently fold in the crushed crackers, melted chocolate and vanilla essence
5) Place spoonfuls of the mixture onto the baking parchment (leaving a little room for them to spread out)
6) Bake for 15 mins until they are firm to touch
7) Allow to cool on a wire rack

Before going into oven:

Finished product: 

End Result:  I found the texture to be a little chewy so I think next time, I would try adding less of the water crackers, although got good responses from the other 2 people who tried them!  I was considering replacing the crackers with flour, but again was advised that this might not work as well. But maybe a little more experimentation will get them just the way I want them.