5 Star Reads of 2021

I can’t think of a better gift than a good book. A book is permission to take quiet time for yourself. It’s the gift of jumping head first in to an adventure no matter where in the world we are and, in times like this where travel is almost impossible, we all deserve the gift of true escapism. Over the last 12 months I have reviewed every single book I’ve read, over on my Goodreads page. I’ve spent some time trawling through my reviews, reminding myself of the amazing books I’ve had the privilege to read this year and compiled all of my 5-star reads, to point you in the right direction for some 2022 reading inspiration.

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Blood Orange

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Author: Harriet Tyce

Genre: Thriller

Date Read: 18/01/2021

Initial Thoughts: “My first read of 2021. Not only my first read, but my first 5/5 (which is very rare, I only rated 6 books with 5 stars in the whole of 2020). I heard so many good things about this book and I agree with every single one. Whilst reading this novel I have had so many theories, purposely trying to solve the puzzle, and still not expecting the twists and turns within this thrilling plot. One of my favourite aspects of this book was the stunning character development, effortlessly introducing the characters to the reader and allowing us to make immediate judgements. On several occasions, I wanted to jump through the page and scream with rage or lean in and give someone a big hug. This novel is completely immersive and I’m so happy I chose this one to get my 2021 reading journey to one hell of a start. I can’t wait to hear more from Harriet Tyce!”

Fattily Ever After

Author: Stephanie Yeboah

Genre: Non-Fiction

Date Read: 25/01/2021

Initial Thoughts: “This book feels like a natural extension of Stephanie’s social media; fun, insightful and moving, with the perfect balance of fact and personal experience/ opinion. I have learned a lot about myself, about Steph and about society. I have learned about black history and white privilege; specifically about the similarities and differences in treatment of people living in fat bodies, depending on their skin colour. It was particularly enjoyable to read the personal accounts of others which Steph sensitively included, as well as directing us to social media’s of other inspirational people we can look up to and learn from. Oh, and the book is super pretty with gorgeous, bright illustrations throughout. I’d 100% recommend.”

Such a Fun Age

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Author: Kiley Reid

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: 15/02/2021

Initial Thoughts: “I heard a lot of hype about this book and now I finally understand. On the surface, Kiley Reid has written an easy to read, entertaining novel with intriguing characters and a wonderful plot. Delve a little deeper and she introduces us to the complexities of racial inequality, the issue of fetishizing race, sexism, friendship and parenthood. This book gave me all the feels! At times I felt uncomfortable (and so I should) as it opened my eyes to other aspects of white privilege. It also introduced me to the concept of ‘white saviourism’ which I hadn’t heard of before, but is definitely something we should all learn more about! This debut novel is a good shout for a book club read, with so many talking points right up to the very last page. Even the last line is thought-provoking (but I won’t spoil it for you, I’ll let you go read it for yourself!).

The Hormone Diaries: The Bloody Truth About Our Periods

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Author: Hannah Witton

Genre: Non-Fiction

Date Read: 13/05/2021

Initial Thoughts: “Another 5 star (finally, I haven’t had one of those for a while!). I’m a big fan of Hannah, and forever thankful for providing us with the sex ed we never had, so I was so excited to read this book. Periods, hormones, sex, pregnancy, contraception, STIs, fertility issues, miscarriage; this book touches on so many topics in just the right amount of depth and with the perfect balance of sensitivity and light-heartedness. This book has taught me so much about subjects I thought I knew. It is both informative and entertaining, as well as super thought-provoking with extracts from people all over the world with so many different experiences. This book is a must-read! It’s empowering to learn about our own bodies… we’re living it!”

If I Disappear

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Author: Eliza Jane Brazier

Genre: Mystery

Date Read: 24/07/2021

Initial Thoughts: “Full of tension, I was obsessed with this book as Sera is with true-crime podcasts! I’ve never read a book quite like this one. My heart raced as I turned the pages of this book. The atmosphere was dark and storyline very easy to read, like I was right there watching it happen, in the centre of a movie. Although I found the ending a little hard to follow at times, it was truly unexpected, which is exactly what we want from a mystery/ thriller. I enjoyed this book so much I finished it within 2 days.”

The Whisper Man

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Author: Alex North

Genre: Thriller

Date Read: 20/08/2021

Initial Thoughts: “Genuinely, the first book to make me scared! A creepy, suspenseful plot that literally gave me the chills. I love reading before bed, so continued to while reading this book, but I genuinely had nightmares *wuss I know*. Surely that’s a big tick for Alex North’s debut thriller?! There is so much to this novel, from difficult familial relationships, grief and imaginary friends to child-killers on the loose! The way this author writes is compulsive and hands-down, the best crime-fiction I have read OR watched (and trust me, I’ve watched countless crime dramas on Netflix). Whilst reading I thought, “this MUST be a TV series or movie?!” and after a little research, discovered that the rights to make a movie have been sold in the last few years- so watch this space. New Alex North fan-girl right here.”

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: 14/10/2021

Initial Thoughts: “5 stars just don’t do this book justice. Hands down, this is one of my favourite books I have ever read. The characters feel like real people, the story is diverse and the emotion is raw. It is so much more than a historical romance. This book serves it all: sex appeal, heartbreak, success, pain, beauty, love, lust, jealousy, lies, manipulation and GLAMOUR. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, as I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but what I can say is that I envy people reading this book for the first time. No matter how much I dissect this book, I can’t think of anything I’d change. After being on my ‘to be read’ list for a while, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to pick it up. Now I wish I could rewind time to read it all over again…”

Life’s Too Short

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Author: Abby Jimenez

Genre: Romance

Date Read: 09/12/2021

Initial Thoughts: “This book is the only 5 star romance novel to add to my collection from this year. I expected this to be an easy read rom-com but it is so much more than that. There are some hard-hitting topics so delicately implemented throughout the story; ALS, grief, mental health (OCD/ hoarding), neglect, addiction and so much more- but it didn’t feel overwhelming. Each aspect of the story was perfectly placed and from the very first chapter I was completely invested in the heroine. Oh, and I think Adrian Copeland is the first fictional character I have ever had a crush on!? I’m so glad I picked this up as one of my last reads of 2021.”

I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING… yes, I seem to have been rather harsh with my ratings this year with only 8 being granted the coveted 5 stars, and so I have also included some of my 4-star reads below too (which are also brilliant, they just didn’t make it to my highest shelf).

For more reviews and book recommendations, head over to my Goodreads page.

Happy reading!

The Horrifying Truth Behind The Handmaid’s Tale

I have been hooked on The Handmaid’s Tale. With being a die-hard feminist and Margaret Atwood (writer of the original novel) being an absolute genius- this was the perfect recipe for binge-watching. This novel, and Hulu TV Series, is a fictional depiction of dystopian America. It’s eerie and devastating, but what makes it even more horrific is that Atwood’s inspiration for this story was based on real-life religious and political history.

If you haven’t yet watched The Handmaid’s Tale *totally judging you*, you can find a great synopsis here.

So, the reason you’re here, what truth lies behind this fictional masterpiece?

The repressed state of The Republic of Gilead is a dictatorship developed by Christian extremists who use violence and aggression to control everyone living there. Gilead is ran by a hierarchy of male commanders and high-class couples whose primary focus is to increase levels of reproduction. Despite this, pleasure is a sin, and so instead of making love with their wives- they rape and abuse women (those who are fertile and therefore chosen to be handmaids). When their handmaid has successfully given birth, they will get moved on to the next family.

This entire concept was inspired by The Old Testament of the bible- particularly the story of Rachel and Leah (Genesis Chapters 29- 35). It tells a tale of these two women, both married to Jacob, who are trying to conceive. Leah discovers she is pregnant quickly, whereas Rachel struggles with infertility. Somewhere along the line, a handmaid named Belhah is offered to Rachel as a “vessel” in which she could have children. Although Gilead isn’t real, this is a perfect example of how extreme interpretations can lead to the misuse of scripture to validate oppression and hate crimes.

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Photograph from Hulu.

Atwood has advised in several interviews that the constant oppression of women in Gilead was also inspired by conservative control in America, specifically in relation to the views of Ronald Reagan in 1981. He was the first president to propose a constitutional amendment for organised prayer in schools. He teamed up with religious organisations and, as you can imagine, this had a dramatic impact on views of fertility and access (or lack of access) to abortions. The similarities of this to current politics in places like Ireland and Mexico, are unnerving- but it doesn’t end there. In 1966 Romania, there was a ban on both abortion and birth control, instigated by President Ceauseacu to increase the countries population. How barbaric.

The protagonist of this book/ series June Osborne, or ‘Offred’ when in Gilead (of- Fred, a reminder that she is property of Commander Fred Waterford), is placed in the Waterford household solely to provide them with a child. The expectation is that once the baby has been born, she will be moved to another household for the same purpose. This happens frequently to every handmaid and the emotional turmoil of immediately removing a new-born baby from their biological Mother without consent, is brilliantly portrayed. Unfortunately, this happened in reality to women during World War 2. WW2 generals in Argentina were reported to be ‘dumping’ people out of aeroplanes, however, if they were pregnant- they’d be looked after (to some extent) to provide a healthy baby. This baby was then given to those in command and Mum put right back on the aeroplane. There is also evidence to say that Hitler kidnapped children depending of their appearance in hope to raise them in to being blonde Germans. Similarly, there are so many reports of children from unwed or indigenous women being removed and given to families deemed ‘more worthy’ throughout 1950- 1970.

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Photograph from Hulu.

It’s well known that one of the main inspirations for Atwood was The Salem Witch Trials, with a specific interest in the case of Mary Webster. Webster was accused of being a witch in 17th Century New England. She went to trial and was declared guilty- which was followed by a series of physical assaults and the decision to hang her. After years of avoiding the noose, she survived. Evidence of misogyny yet perhaps a symbol of hope- as Atwood says, “she made it through”. It is rumoured that the fabulous Atwood is actually a descendent of Webster. Who knows? Either way, she definitely has a keen interest in her story, writing a poem about her in 1995 called Half-Hanged Mary.

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Photograph from Hulu.

Of course this is a feminist masterpiece, but Atwood also draws attention to other forms of oppression- such as the criminalisation of homosexuality. I wish this was just fiction but homosexuality is illegal in 69 countries around the world and, even in the UK where we like to think we’re forward-thinking, it was still illegal until The Sexual Offences Act was published in 1967. It’s worth baring in mind that marriage equality was only passed in 2014.

One of my favourite characters in the show is referred to as a ‘gender traitor’ as people discover that she is a lesbian. Not only does she have to deal with toxic, derogatory slurs on a daily basis but when she finds love in what otherwise seems to be a loveless place, she is punished with Female Genital Mutilation (and her girlfriend hanged). FGM is used in Gilead as a ‘corrective procedure’, whereby they forcefully remove their outer labia, inner labia and clitoris. The belief is that women will no longer experience pleasure but can still be baby-makers. Devastatingly, this happens in the real world too. It is estimated that this has happened to 140 million women around the world and, despite FGM being criminalised in the UK in 1985 (a little bit late, don’t you think?), research suggests that approximately 23,000 English/ Irish/ Scottish girls are still at risk.

Another form of punishment in Gilead is being sent to The Colonies whereby women who have broken ‘the law’ are expected to perform intensive manual labour in dangerous conditions for the rest of their shortened lives. Atwood talks openly about how this idea stems from prisoners of The Soviet Union during the 1970’s who were sent to work in toxic uranium mines and exposed to fatal levels of radiation (making their expected life span only 2 years).

Incarcerating women and stripping them of their human rights is completely inhumane and it’s mind-blowing (in the worst possible way) to discover that this actually happened. In America during World War 1, during the implementation of the American Plan, women whom were thought to have sexually transmitted diseases or were seen to be ‘promiscuous’ were sent to detention facilities. The purpose of this was to protect soldiers (whom were men, because equality was an abstract concept back then). Clearly, they didn’t think twice about the women.

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Photograph from Hulu.

Atwood’s attention to detail is astounding. The dialogue used by handmaids, “blessed be the fruit” and “may the lord open”, are inspired by the book of Deuteronomy (5th book of the bible) and the enforced dress code relates to both religions’ and cultures (both historically and currently) whom place these expectations on women and to the idea of uniform dehumanising people, making it easier to cause them harm. There are so many more subtle yet equally thought-provoking features of this book and series; such as the handmaids sitting in a circle, pointing their fingers at a peer whom is thought to have done something wrong in the eyes of Gilead, and repeating “it’s your fault”. This encapsulates the stigma thrust upon survivors of abuse, whom are often not believed and made to feel ashamed, despite them being a victim.

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Photograph from Hulu.

I could write for days about The Handmaids Tale. The concept is intriguing. The actors in the TV series are extremely talented. Antwood is a genius.

If you plan to watch, you’re going to want to clear your diary. You’ll be hooked! The rest of us will have to patiently wait for series 5…

Biancha