Iona Grey’s ‘Letters to the Lost’

Letters to the lostIn wartime Britain, American airman Dan Rosinski falls in love with the newly – but unhappily – married Stella Thorne. Against their better judgement, they embark on a passionate affair. But the odds are stacked against them. Dan risks his life every day and Stella is trapped under the weight of social conventions, and their relationship is soon tested to its limits.

Many years later, a young girl is hiding out in an abandoned house on the run from an abusive partner – ill, broke and with no plans for the future. But when Jess opens a letter addressed to an ‘S. Thorne’, she’s immediately drawn into a love story that spans over half a century.

Now ninety years old and living in the USA, Dan is determined to find the girl that he fell in love with all those years ago. As Jess reads through a box of old letters she finds in the house, she becomes determined to help him to find an ending to his story. Continue reading


Terror and Wonder at the British Library

If you’re interested in gothic literature, the British Library is currently running an exhibition called Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination.

From the birth of the vampire to Frankenstein’s monster, from creepy houses to cobwebs and capes and from driving rain to flashes of lightening and roaring thunder, it has it all. The setting and the lighting, combined with the natural hush of a library, all contributed to a brilliantly creepy atmosphere and there was an amazing selection of rare and old books and notes on display.

The first part of the exhibition focused on how the ‘gothic’ theme really came into being, with a focus on the first gothic texts. While this gave me some good ideas for potential reading material, I really enjoyed the second part of the exhibition, which looked at gothic in the Victorian times all the way through to the impact of gothic style on modern clothing, film and culture. Particular highlights for me were the handwritten draft of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the vampire slaying kit and an original newspaper with illustrations and speculation on Jack the Ripper.

I also really liked seeing how the gothic theme is still being given a new lease of life today for children and teenagers, both in literature and in popular culture. The ever popular Twilight series made an appearance, alongside Coraline or even Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events.

The inclusion of Victorian mourning dress next to what we now think of as ‘goth’ clothing was really interesting and there were some great photographs that also helped to give the exhibition a more modern element.

If you’re interested in going, ‘Terror and Wonder’ is on until 20 January, so you still have a few days left to catch it!

‘The King’s Curse’ by Philippa Gregory

The latest installment in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor epic follows the life of Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury. The daughter of Isabelle Neville and George, Duke of Clarence, granddaughter of the Earl of Warwick, also known as the Kingmaker, and the niece of two kings, Edward IV and Richard III, Margaret is no stranger to the perils that come with being close to the throne. Her brother Edward was locked in the tower from boyhood and executed, her cousin Elizabeth married to the Tudor usurper, Henry VII and her father drowned in a barrel of wine.

With her title stripped from her, she is married off to a Tudor loyalist and renamed plain Lady Pole. But she can’t escape her lineage, and is soon drawn back into the centre of the scheming and unpredictable Tudor court. Keeping the household of her cousins oldest son and heir to the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, Margaret becomes a close friend and confident of his young bride, Catherine of Aragon. Over the years, Margaret witnesses Catherine marry Arthur’s younger brother, the soon to be Henry VIII of England. She stands by her side as she loses child after child, and takes on the role of governess and protector to the treasured Princess Mary.

But when his wife fails to give Henry a male heir, Margaret has no choice but to watch as Catherine slips from his favour. Through the troubled times ahead, as more and more people are sent to the tower and the executioners block, Margaret has to make a choice – whether to defy the king and stand up for what she believes in, or to pull back and protect her family in any way she can.

Over the course of the novel, we watch as Margaret transforms from a scared young woman desperate to fly under the radar to a powerful matriarch in her own right, advancing herself and her family by asserting her rights as a member of one of England’s most influential families.

Comparing this latest novel to the previous books in Gregory’s ‘Cousins War’ series, Margaret stands out as a woman who is able to influence events and wield real, demonstrable power. She is one of few women to be made a peer in her own right without a husband, she runs her households and business with precision and, in Philippa Gregory’s imagining, she guides each and every member of her family in their careers and choices. She is the one who makes decisions about if and how they will make a stand against the King, and as a true Plantagenet, her name gives her the authority to influence the common people.

She’s an interesting character to get an insight into, and Gregory, as the undisputed queen of this genre, has a gift for creating characters with strong, believable voices that bring the past to life.

‘The Vanishing Witch’ by Karen Maitland

thevanishingwitchSet in Lincoln in the 1380’s, Karen Maitland’s ‘The Vanishing Witch’ follows Robert Bassingham, a wealthy cloth merchant, and his family as he is pursued by the beguiling widow Catlin.

Blinded by her charms, Robert soon allows Catlin, along with her daughter Leonie and her son Edward, to worm her way into his life. Catlin has no qualms about pushing his existing family aside along the way, allowing nothing and nobody to get in her way. But the two families are haunted by a sinister figure that lurks in the shadows at their every turn. And after one too many unnatural deaths, suspicions and fears are rife and tensions threaten to come to an ugly head.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Peasants Revolt. Through Gunter, a punter on the River Witham, and his family, we get a glimpse into the hardships of life as a peasant, the hardships visited on the poor when they couldn’t pay their ever increasing taxes. Intimidation from royal enforcers was extensive and the demands unattainable. This story of revolution is woven throughout the book to create an atmosphere of general unrest and used as an interesting device to drive the main plot forward. It offers a fantastic insight into a period of history that I personally know very little about. Continue reading

Historical melodrama with Philippa Gregory

If you’ve read any of the other books in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins War series, then you’ll soon see that the White Princess is very much in the same vein. Each book in the series is told from the point of view of a woman at the heart of the royal court. Here, we experience events through the eyes of Elizabeth, Princess of York. Daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, the young princess is no stranger to war, loss and hardship – having experienced the extreme highs and lows of being in a position of power throughout her father’s reign.

The White PrincessAfter her father’s death, his youngest brother, Richard III is King. Her two younger brothers are believed to have been murdered in the Tower of London. Her mother continues to plot and conspire with enemies both at home and abroad – determined that, one way or another, her children will find their way back to the throne.

As Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard grows, and his wife continues to fail to provide an heir, she reigns over the royal court like a queen. But when Henry Tudor invades to take Richard’s crown, Elizabeth must learn to adapt to a very different way of life. With her lover dead on the battlefield, she must play the role of a dutiful wife in a court where her heritage means that she will never be trusted, even by those closest to her.

This novel does a great job of exploring a marriage arranged for political reasons. In this case, their match has been made out of a need to protect their families and to win over the hearts of the Yorkist public. At first their relationship is portrayed as being driven by hate, fear and suspicion. As plots by York loyalists continue to abound, Elizabeth is viewed as a threat and tightly controlled by her husband and mother-in-law. But as her relationship with Henry grows, and her beloved children are raised in the ways of the reigning royal court, Elizabeth is forced to come to terms with what it means to be a Tudor.

Royal women at the time were used as nothing more than pawns in a strategy to get to the crown. Elizabeth is married to a king, but the people closest to her continue to conspire to get a York boy on the throne. If they are successful, Elizabeth would be cast down and her sons disinherited in the name of her father’s family. She is trusted by no-one, putting her in the most dangerous and precarious position of all. For her, there are no outcomes that can truly be a win, as someone she loves will have suffered.

Unlike some of the women featured elsewhere in the series, Elizabeth has very little power to control events. She is kept in the dark and must make her way through as best she can, doing anything she can to emerge unscathed. The helplessness of her situation is quite frustrating. However, Gregory’s writing remains compelling and riveting and her characters are entirely convincing. This book also goes over a lot of the material that we’ve already seen earlier in the series. For these reasons alone, I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as some of the others.

Other reviewers have made a lot of the fact the Gregory take liberties with the historical evidence that we have, twisting it to meet her fictional narrative. I’ve never had a problem with this aspect of Gregory’s writing – the facts that we have are all open to interpretation in some way and it’s interesting to read someone ‘s take on things, even though one look on Wikipedia will mean that we all know what will ultimately happen to all of the characters.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s ‘We Need New Names’

We need new names‘We Need New Names’, the debut novel from author NoViolet Bulawayo, is split into two distinct halves.

In the first section, Darling is growing up in a shanty town in Zimbabwe, playing with her friends on the hot streets and eating guavas. Each chapter takes us through a different aspect of living in Zimbabwe at the time – from the violence or political oppression to religion or AIDS – taking us through the history of the country to how Darling now sees it today, through a child’s eyes. This innocence and the matter of fact style in which Darling recounts events is particularly harrowing – in particular some of the games the children invent and their horrific attempt to abort a child pregnancy.

But even though the author takes us through some of the worst sides of Zimbabwe’s history, there is still a vibrancy to her writing and a really strong sense of culture comes through. The children accept their lives and see the world around them in a way that their parents can’t. They might dream of leaving and going to America, or other developed countries, but even though they have very little, their community is supportive and bound together by strong family and cultural values. Continue reading

A truly extraordinary tale

Museum of ETAlice Hoffman’s latest novel, ‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’, takes us into the beating heat of New York city at the turn of the century.

Born with webbed fingers, Coralie has been raised to be a human mermaid in her father’s museum for the strange and the unusual. From an early age, she’s been trained to hold her breath, withstand extreme cold and swim for miles in the Hudson River. Now eighteen, she performs in a tank for people who come to view her and a whole host of other living wonders for their amusement. Her father, the cold and detached Professor Sardie, rules every aspect of her life, and ruthlessly exploits his star attraction to help bring in business. As the large amusement parks of Coney Island threaten to tempt away his customers, the Professor’s methods become more and more extreme.

Eddie, born in Ukraine and driven to New York with his father after vicious pogroms killed his mother, has spent his life railing against the expectations of his Jewish faith. Now a photographer working for the New York newspapers, he sees first-hand some of the city’s most horrendous crimes and events, including the notorious Triangle Fire. But Eddie also has a skill for finding people that are lost, and when he’s approached by a man hoping to find the truth of what happened to his missing daughter, his world and Coralie’s are set to collide.

But while Coralie and Eddie and their romantic story-arc take centre stage, the story that I fell in love with was the story of New York itself. Continue reading

The King in the car park

Today, a skeleton found underneath a car park in Leicester was confirmed to be the remains of Richard III. The last King of the Plantagenet line, his remains have laid undisturbed on the site of the old Grey Friars church since he died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485. I won’t go into details of the discovery as it’s been discussed in great depth all over the Internet, but suffice it to say that DNA testing and extensive examination of the skeleton has proved his identity beyond reasonable doubt.

Richard IIIThroughout history, Richard III has proved to be a highly contentious figure and has long been shrouded in mystery, not least because of his suspected involvement in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. This mystery, along with the dubious politics and intense and famed rivalry of the York family, has inspired numerous and varying depictions of King Richard III in literature throughout the ages, from Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to Philippa Gregory’s latest series, The Cousins’ War.

These works have immortalised the Richard III and have irrevocably shaped the way that we view him today. However, the reliability of our literary sources has been called into question, with many insisting that this representation of the long dead king was born out of fear, prejudice and hate. It’s just one example of how literature, both past and present, can have a powerful influence over our thoughts and shape how we’re remembered by future generations.

However in this case, one of the most prevalent myths about Richard III circulated by Shakespeare’s play has actually been proven to be true. The late king really was a hunchback. But there’s only so much that physical evidence can prove. No matter how hard we look, his skeleton will never reveal what really happened to the princes or the true relationship between Richard and his brothers, wife, nephews or country.

It’s this ever present ambiguity that continues to fascinate historians, authors and the public alike – and it’s what keeps past and present historical fiction at the top of the bestseller lists. The fact that we can never really know what happened continues to prompt a hunger for knowledge amongst readers, and authors are only too happy to have the chance to fill in the blanks. So until we invent a time machine or find a portal to the past, historical fiction is most definitely here to stay!

A review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

Set in 1960’s Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a heartbreaking and moving account of civil war from the points of view of a group of people experiencing conflict in a very different ways.

The reader experiences the Nigerian Civil War through the eyes of Olanna, a privileged and educated young woman, Ugwu, a houseboy for a university, and Richard, a white Englishman living in Nigeria. The lives of these three central characters, each of whom effectively represent different social, economic and ethnic groups, are intrinsically linked, although the horrors of war will tear them apart and test their loyalties to the limits

Before reading Half of a Yellow Sun, I have to admit I knew very little about Nigerian history and culture. I actually took a break after the first few chapters to research the country as well as its languages and its politics. This massively increased my understanding and made it much easier to concentrate on the main plot.

I’m only ashamed that I knew so little about the conflict in the first place!

The novel doesn’t shirk on details or shy back from difficult or controversial topics. The thread of the story that follows Ugwu in particular was one that I found actually quite hard to read. That said, I was utterly gripped from page one. I really empathized with all the characters and couldn’t stop imagining how I would react if I found myself in a similar situation.

The author writes beautifully and communicates strong, recognizable and very real emotions through simple and seemingly effortless prose. I haven’t read any other books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but I definitely will in the future, and I wouldn’t hesitate to whole-heartedly recommend Half of a Yellow Sun to anyone.