‘Motherland’ by Jo McMillan

MotherlandGrowing up as the only child of the only communist in the Midlands town of Tamworth, Jess has felt like she’s ‘different’ all her life. When her mother, Eleanor, gets the opportunity to spend time in East Germany over the summers, her and Jess jump at the chance. Living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), they begin to feel like they’ve found a place where they finally fit in.

While in Tamworth, Eleanor was the butt of every joke, in East Germany she is valued and appreciated. When they meet Peter, a widower, and his daughter Martina through the party, it seems like the final pieces might be starting to fall into place. But it soon clear that the Party comes first, and personal relationships that don’t meet with approval from the top are forced to come second.

Jess is the main character – we see through her eyes and are heavily influenced by her views. Despite this, the character that I emphasised the most with was Eleanor. She clearly has incredibly strong beliefs and a tireless commitment to a cause that she believes in completely – even when she’s spit on, ground down and disappointed. Her steadfast commitment to her values doesn’t even waver when her chance at true love is whisked away by the party. I admire her for sticking to her convictions through thick and thin, but can’t help but think that she’s choosing a life that doesn’t necessarily lead to her being very happy. Continue reading

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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!

London’s top literary locations

London is jam-packed with inspiration for literature lovers. If you’re in need of inspiration, here’s my top five literary locations worth a visit in the city…

IMG_14981. If you want to combine some literary attractions with socialising with your not-so-book-geeky friends, Fitzrovia’s pubs are overflowing with literary history. The historically bohemian area has been home to many literary greats – from Virginia Woolf to George Bernard Shaw. The Fitzroy Tavern and the nearby The Wheatsheaf were both frequented by some of the UK’s literary stalwarts in their day. The Fitzroy Tavern in particular is full of photographs and steeped in history and tradition – George Orwell and Dylan Thomas were regular drinkers here.

2. The British Library often hosts literary events and talks. They currently have an exhibition on called ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which looks the impact of the gothic theme has had on our culture, featuring iconic works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and going all the way through to Twilight! I haven’t been yet, but it’s on my to do list! If you explore the events page on the library’s website, there’s usually something on to suit all ages and interests.

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3. For second hand book-lovers, the book market under Waterloo Bridge is a must see. It’s open every day and usually offers a huge selection of pre-owned or antique books for great prices. It’s just outside the Southbank Centre and the river bank itself often plays host to events and food festivals, meaning there’s always plenty more to do and see in the surrounding area.

4. Southwark’s Shakespeare’s Globe theatre is another one that has to feature on this list. Today’s theatre is a reconstruction of the famous Elizabethan playhouse. Performances of Shakespeare’s works are as authentic as possible – there are no spotlights or microphones and all music is performed life – and all of the materials used in the building mirror the original, right down to the fact that the theatre has the only thatched roof allowed in the city since the Great Fire of London in 1666. Although plays are only performed during the summer months, thanks to the open-air nature of the building, educational tours are available all year round.

5. Finally, Bunfields Burial Ground is the resting place of some of the UK’s literary greats, including William Blake and Joseph Defoe, and is always worth a visit. It may seem macabre, but it’s just a short walk from Old Street tube and the park attached to the cemetery is a beautiful spot to enjoy on a sunny day.

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Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’

On a snowy night in 1910, a baby is born. The doctor is unable to reach her due to the weather, and she dies. Or the doctor makes it in time, and she is saved. Or a mother’s instinct pulls her back from the edge, and she lives. This is how Ursula Todd’s life begins, again and again.

life-after-life-coverOver the course of her life, Ursula continues to die and be reborn, over and over again. Each life brings with it a different set of choices, different experiences and a different fate. Her family and certain key characters throughout the book feature in many different incarnations, their lives at some times entirely separate and at some times intrinsically linked with Ursula’s. Her decisions see her take a variety of paths – sometimes to the London war office and sometimes to Germany, sometimes as a mistress and sometimes as a wife, sometimes happy and sometimes utterly alone.

The main point of the novel seems to be to demonstrate how the smallest thing can impact on your entire life. Ursula is continually faced with deadly situations, but some lingering feelings and an uncanny sense of déjà vu from a past life continues to propel her forward. Some incidents are harder to avoid than others – a deadly outbreak of Spanish Influenza proves particularly hazardous. In other cases, a few offhand words spoken here or there can change the course of an entire life.

War is a major theme throughout the book, and in many strands it is a pervading influence on the central characters. Ursula’s role in events changes from life to life, but the reality of fighting and the hardship of living through World War II is constant. Ultimately, Atkinson uses Ursula’s individual story to ask if one person’s actions can influence events on a global scale, and change the course of history forever. It’s a really interesting concept, although I personally found the ending a little abrupt and there wasn’t a great deal of build up to her final actions in the same way as with some of her earlier turning points.

The structure of the novel, which flits around in time and place indiscriminately, is quite hard to get used to. Central characters appear and disappear, and live or die, depending on which particular narrative strand Ursula’s life has taken. Some of her lives are truly awful, seeing her a victim of extreme violence, loneliness, or emotional turmoil. I found myself hoping for the death that was sure to come just so she could escape whatever horrible reality she was in at the time. On the other hand, in some strands she is happy, successful and simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In these cases, I was desperately hoping she could fight fate.

Kate Atkinson writes with immense skill. Despite the continually shifting time periods, all of the characters are really well rounded and developed. Ursula is portrayed especially well. Her circumstances, frame of mind and outlook can change completely from chapter to chapter but her core remains the same and I was really rooting for her to choose the right path and end up happily ever after.

There’s a certain inevitability about this book. Death comes no matter what choices Ursula makes, and all she can do is to try and overcome obstacles until she gets it right. In the end, there was an overwhelming sense that we can’t have everything. Every one of Ursula’s lives had a sense of compromise and its own share of tragedy. But at the end of the day, that’s just life.

Review of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

With over 2 million copies sold worldwide, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was one of the most talked about books of the last year- and rightly so.

Gone GirlA dark and disturbing thriller, Gone Girl is the story of the disappearance of a seemingly perfect wife on her fifth wedding anniversary. For Nick, left behind in smalltown Carthage, Missouri, Amy’s disappearance plunges him into a waking nightmare. As the police and the American public begin to turn against him, it’s clear that something about his take on recent events doesn’t quite add up.

The first part of the novel switches between Nick’s first hand experiences of the days immediately after the disappearance and Amy’s diary entry’s, dating back to the day that they first met. But as the book progresses, we begin to realise that the two narratives we’re hearing are telling very different stories, and that at least one of the two of them is not telling the whole truth. In fact, they’re telling anything but the truth.

Then – and there are spoilers coming up so if you don’t want to know, don’t read ahead – the second half of the book hits and we realise that we have two very unreliable and wholly unlikeable characters on our hands. Both Nick and Amy are lying, concealing and misleading both themselves and the reader. It’s a bold move from Gillian Flynn, as she runs the risk of alienating her audience. Not everyone wants to read a whole novel with central characters they can’t relate to.

But in this case, it’s a risk that really paid off. Nick and Amy are human and throughout the novel they display very human weaknesses. Whether they have any redeeming qualities is a very different matter.

Gillian Flynn really ramps up the tension and holds her readers in suspense the whole way through. I was hooked and couldn’t put it down until I turned last pages in the (very) early hours of the morning! Ultimately, in Gone Girl Gillian Flynn has created a master psychological thriller that thoroughly deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it.

A Review of ‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeSet in 1980’s New York, ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ is an intimate portrayal of one family in the grips of grief. Narrated by 14-year-old June, the novel follows the Elbus family in the wake of the death of Finn, June’s uncle, from AIDS in the opening pages

Devastated by the loss, June forms an unlikely connection with a strange man she sees at the funeral who might just be able to understand what she’s going through. The fact that this man is someone who her parents clearly don’t want her to know anything about is one more obstacle that June must overcome in her journey to make sense of recent events. Along the way, she must also find a way to reconnect with her older sister, Greta, who is dealing with issues of her own.

‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’ is not just a novel about a family in turmoil. It’s also a novel about love and loss, friendship and jealousy, guilt and regret – and everything else in-between.Each member of the family has their own demons to tackle, and throughout the novel we’re right there with them as they attempt to come to terms with their feelings and mend the cracks in their relationships.

The author takes a difficult and highly emotionally charged topic and addresses it in way that’s both sensitive and refreshingly honest. As well as looking at the realities of living with and coping with AIDS, she also examines people’s responses to the disease, which in the mid-1980’s were all too often misinformed and misguided.

I found it hard to believe that this was Carol Rifka Brunt’s first novel. She writes with unerring compassion and conviction to create a vivid cast of characters that really come to life in the imagination of her readers, and I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

A review of ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

Sometimes when you pick up a book you just know that you’re not going to be able to put it down. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was one such book for me.


Essentially, the novel tells the story of two competing magicians and their protégé’s Celia and Marco. Against the backdrop of Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) these two trainees are pitted against each other in an elaborate challenge that spans years and binds the two young protagonists together in more ways than one. Competing to out-do each other with displays of increasingly brilliant magic, neither Celia nor Marco know how or when the contest will end. All they know is that there can only be one winner.

The circus, with its wonderfully individual and meticulously described signature clock and its individual tents with fantastical names like the Pool of Tears, appeals to all the senses. Every detail is recorded with such brilliant imagination and detail that the reader is transported there through the pages. Add to that the fact that the circus only appears at night, and the whole book feels as if you’ve entered a magical (quite literally!) dream world. In the end, the circus itself is central to the survival of Celia and Marcus, who battle to save their love against all odds and against the will of magic itself.

I’m actually jealous of all those who have yet to read this as I’d love to do it all over again. I’ve been searching for another book like this but as yet I’ve been running up against a brick wall. Any suggestions from other Erin Morgenstern lovers would be more than welcomed!