January 2022 Reading Stack: A Handmaid's Tale, The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story, and My Dark Vanessa

January 2022 Reading Wrap Up

Hey friends, and welcome to my first reading wrap up of 2022. January has been a long-ass month, but I’ve been attempting to work through the hefty AF stack of books that I’ve added to my TBR list since Christmas. This year, I’ve made it one of my priorities to spend more time reading rather than doom-scrolling through my phone, but despite all that, I’ve still only managed to conquer three books this month. Let’s just say it’s been a busy one. Anyway, I guess we can only go up from here, right? 

Note: While I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this post, there may be one or two, so proceed with caution!

January Reading Wrap Up 2022 Pinterest artwork

My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell (4th Estate, 2020) ★★★★

From the Back:
“Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when she first had sex with her English teacher. 

Now the teacher, Jacob Strane, has been accused of sexual abuse by another former student, and a journalist has asked Vanessa to contribute a story about him. But no one seems to understand that what Vanessa and Strane had together wasn’t abuse. It was love. 

Wasn’t it?”

Cover artwork for My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

TW: Sexual abuse, coercive behaviour, manipulation

My Dark Vanessa has been a book that’s popped up in my Bookstagram feed quite a bit, and it’s been on my shelf for a while. From the reviews I read, I was aware that it’d be quite a difficult read in places, and that was certainly the case. Set in 2017, during the rise of the Me Too movement, the book crosses between present day and Vanessa’s teenage years, during her sexual relationship with her teacher, Jacob Strane. The narrative changes between 32 year old and 15 year old Vanessa, allowing the reader to see the contrast between her younger and older self. 

The book highlights the sheer power of manipulation and coercion, and it brings with it so many different emotions – frustration at Vanessa’s insistence that their relationship was love, anger at Strane’s manipulation and disgusting behaviour, and sheer heartbreak at what she goes through. It presents so many issues that are present in our current social climate – issues of consent, abuse of power and victim shaming are just a handful of them – and at times, it’s not an easy read. Be warned, many of the sex scenes are incredibly graphic and were intensely disturbing, so proceed with caution if you think it’s something you may be affected by.

Given its subject matter, to tell you that I enjoyed My Dark Vanessa wouldn’t be the right words to say, however there’s no denying that Kate Elizabeth Russell paints an accurate and realistic portrayal of a manipulative relationship that is sure to fit right in with the stories of the Me Too movement. It was raw, compelling and incredibly difficult to put down at times. I can certainly see why it received so much hype – although I appreciate that it may not be for everyone given the sensitive subject matter.

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story – Christie Watson (Vintage, 2018) ★★★★

From the Back:
“Christie Watson was a nurse for twenty years. Taking us from birth to death, from A&E to the mortuary, here is her astonishing, heart-warming account of a profession defined by acts of care, compassion and kindness.”

Cover artwork for The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story by Christie Watson

TW: Emotional content – cancer, baby loss, child loss, self harm, suicide, child abuse

You knew another medical memoir was going to pop up sooner or later. Christie Watson’s memoir from her twenty years as a nurse was certainly a delight to read, although I didn’t realise quite how emotional it would be. Of course I’m aware these types of books deal with emotional topics, but this was probably one of the most powerful, and genuinely had me tearing up at times. The Language of Kindness is an honest look at what it’s like working as a nurse in the NHS, and delves into so many different areas that I haven’t read much into – paediatrics, palliative care, even the mortuary (don’t judge me, I’m oddly fascinated by death).

What I loved the most is that Christie weaves her own personal story in with tales from her career and the patients she cares for, and it makes each account just that bit more personal. There’s also a good balance between the medical and personal side of each patient’s story – enough to understand more about their condition, but not so much that you end up getting lost in medical jargon.

The downsides? Well, it’s not for the faint hearted – there’s graphic depictions of pregnant women giving birth, elderly patients experiencing incontinence, and that’s just for starters. Alongside that, the book goes into Christie’s time working in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and on paediatric wards, so be warned there are some stories that are hard hitting and may be triggering for some. However, reading these particularly tough stories just gives you a whole new respect for nurses and what they deal with on a daily basis. As these genres often do, it puts things into perspective for those who have ever complained about waiting times in the NHS – you have no idea what’s going on behind those hospital doors.

If you’re like me and are a fan of the medical memoirs, I would definitely recommend The Language of Kindness. It’s a heartfelt, powerful, and honest look at life as a nurse and the tribulations that come with it – and this is all pre-pandemic.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (Vintage, 1985) ★★★

From the Back:
“The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on whom her future hangs.”

Cover artwork for The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

TW: Rape, violence, suicide, disturbing content

After getting hooked on the TV show last year, I wanted to give the book a try. I remember this was on the recommended reading list when I did A-level English Literature, and I can’t help feeling now that if the TV series had been around, I would have picked it up and written a cracking essay on it, getting myself a better grade than the C I ended up with. Or maybe not – I’m a little worried you’ll think little of me by saying the TV show was better. Even so, this review is largely going to be based on comparisons with the TV show, because it’s what influenced me to read the book.

It was very hard to separate the TV show from the book, as I’m sure you’ll already be thinking. While there were a number of similarities, there were also a number of differences including the fate of Ofglen, the timeline of events in the book, and the appearance of some of the characters. I feel as though having seen the TV show first, it made it easier to follow along with the book – particularly the flashbacks that occur. I know in the TV series, they pop up out of nowhere, but it’s much more difficult when you’re reading it in a book. In addition, it also meant that it was easier to paint the picture of Gilead, its laws and its surroundings in my head. Maybe that’s the lazy way out. I don’t know.

Okay, let’s attempt to separate my love of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale aside from the book while I try to salvage a stand-alone review of the book. The overall concept of Gilead and its laws is something that’s powerful and disturbing, and Margaret Atwood’s writing and detailed descriptions mean that you almost feel fully immersed in the dystopian society, wanting to know more about the backgrounds of the handmaids.

Was The Handmaid’s Tale my favourite read so far this year? No. But did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. While it wasn’t an easy read at times – in particular things get pretty grim towards the end – it was a book I felt fully immersed in and even though I was already familiar with the story, I still wanted to keep reading.

What have you been reading this January? Let me know in the comments!

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