Book Reviews

Book Review: UEA Literary Festival, Spring 2014

UEA’s famous Literary Festival has been going since 1991 and has seen countless bestselling authors giving talks and lectures. This spring it is running from the 5th February to the 2nd April, with authors such as Margaret Atwood, Susan Hill and Alastair Campbell featuring. In celebration of this season’s stellar line-up, we’ve highlighted works in the collections at City College by some of the authors.

blair years amazonAlastair Campbell – The Blair Years: Extracts From the Alastair Campbell Diaries

Alastair Campbell’s memoir The Blair Years is a fascinating insight into the period when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. It was published shortly after Blair stood down and, as Campbell was the Director of Communications and Strategy, he has a unique insight into the public relations side of politics at the highest level.

Considering the amount of media coverage of Campbell’s time as Director of Communications and Strategy, it is interesting and refreshing to hear it from his point of view, though obviously that is likely to depict events in a particular way! Campbell’s book covers many controversial events, most notably the Iraq War, so if you want to know more about it, try reading The Blair Years to get an insider look on the decision making process and how it was presented to the public.

handmaids tale 2 amazonMargaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

In Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel, an unnamed part of America has become the Republic of Gilead, a militaristic state run on strict religious morality in which women are massively restricted. Women who are able to have children are forced to serve as ‘handmaids’, bearing children for other families and are not allowed their own relationships or children.

Offred, the main character, is a handmaid who is sent to the house of a high-ranking military commander. She begins an illicit relationship with the chauffeur of the house, but is constantly in fear of the Eyes, the secret police, coming to get her.

The Handmaid’s Tale explores the oppression of women in a religious fundamentalist state and different ways of resisting that oppression. While The Handmaid’s Tale is tightly-focused on Offred’s perspective, Atwood does consider why the other characters remain complicit in Offred’s oppression and how they encourage her to rebel (and why). Offred is a difficult protagonist to like, as one moment she will seem too passive in a difficult situation and the next she will react strongly and suddenly. However, Atwood is a skilled writer who manages to build a sympathetic and bleak story out of a big and controversial idea. Her writing is dense with meaning but the story still comes out clearly, and there is always more to understand about The Handmaid’s Tale with every new reading.

woman in black amazonSusan Hill – The Woman in Black

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black was recently made into a film with Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) and the stage play has also become the second longest-running play in the history of the West End, but it all came from this short book about a solicitor sent to go through the papers of a deceased woman in an isolated house.

Susan Hill is such a big fan of the classic English ghost story that she has penned several of her own, and The Woman in Black remains her most popular. When Arthur Kipps, a solicitor, is sent to Eel Marsh House to deal with the estate of the late Alice Drablow, he realises there is more to the isolated house than bricks and mortar. He sees a mysterious woman in black at Alice’s funeral and the villagers warn him to stay away from the house, claiming that it will bring only doom on them all. Kipps slowly uncovers the truth of the Woman in Black as the horrors of Eel Marsh House continue to mount.

The Woman in Black is a brilliant gothic ghost story, with the crumbling Eel Marsh House providing an appropriate setting. Hill paces the story well and, while there are fewer jump scares in the book than the film, there is a brooding atmosphere that makes you feel like the terrifying ghost could emerge at any time. Even the classic scares that have become cliché now (the creaking rocking chair, the causeway to the house that cuts off in a storm, the strange knocking sounds) become genuinely creepy again. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the story – not for the faint-hearted!

If you’d like to know more…

Hear Tony Blair’s story of his time in office in A Journey (BOOK ZONE 658.4092) and, for context, read commentaries on his leadership in The Blair Effect: the Blair Government 1997-2001 by Anthony Seldon (BOOK ZONE 324.24107).

Read the York Notes for The Handmaid’s Tale (BOOK ZONE 823.91) to understand the many references (especially to the Bible) that Atwood makes. Also take a look at Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (BOOK ZONE 823.8), which is often compared to The Handmaid’s Tale. It is about a pair of male explorers who discover a society that consists entirely of women. We have the film adaptation at (BOOK ZONE 823.91) as well.

Experience The Woman in Black as an audio book (BOOK ZONE 823.91) and a play script, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt (BOOK ZONE 822.91), which provide very different approaches to the story.

Find out more about UEA’s Spring Literary Festival 2014 at:


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