Last year I reviewed, and loved, John le Carre’s famous George Smiley novels, beginning with Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy. When I found A Small Town in Germany hiding away at the back of my dad’s bookcase, I was very excited for much of the same: quick-witted character insights, twisting and complicated spy plots, wonderfully realised worlds of Cold War-era deception and intrigue.
Of course, A Small Town in Germany was not bereft of any of these elements. The action centres around the British Embassy in Bonn (the capital of West Germany), where a junior official has disappeared, along with numerous top-secret files. Suspicious spy renegade Alan Turner is sent over from London to investigate, but it’s imperative that the Germans don’t find out about the Embassy’s breach: because Communist-leaning rabble rouser Karfeld is stirring up trouble in Bonn.
So far, so John le Carre. Long yet snappy interrogation scenes are interspersed with high-level bureaucratic drama; personalities clash and boundaries are crossed, while all the time the absent figure of Leo Harting hovers ever closer like an ominous spectre – his motivations unearthed inch by absorbing inch. It’s all very engrossing – up to a point.
Although I’ve been posting a lot of travel writing lately, unfortunately life isn’t all jetting off to Europe, wandering around beautiful sights and taking endless photos. (Although sometimes I can’t help but wish it was!) But as I mentioned in my blog post How To Be A Tourist in Your Own City, you don’t have to be travelling all the time to appreciate the culture and history around you. I love of my home city of Glasgow, but I rarely explore it in the way that it deserves – can you believe that I hadn’t even been to half of the top Tripadvisor attractions since I was a child? So part of my (belated) New Years’ Resolutions is to make more effort to be a tourist now and then. Welcome to the first part of my Glasgow Guides: a selection of three of the best museums the city has to offer!
Eowyn Ivey’s adapted fairy-tale The Snow Child has garnered lots of sparkling reviews. This will not be one of them.
I started out reading with high hopes: beautiful blue cover, sprinkled with snowflakes; a historical novel set in Alaska in the 1920s; a child who appeared out of nowhere, possibly carved by the snow… Although I do have some niggling problems with magical realism – let fantasy be fantasy and reality be reality, okay?? – I had to read this for my university course, and I’ll admit that I was happy for my opinion to be changed.
But, unfortunately, it wasn’t. The plot follows a middle-aged childless couple Mabel and Jack, whose recent move to the wilderness of Alaska has caused their already fragile relationship to disintegrate. Desperate for a child, they are both wary – and delighted – when they discover the mysterious Faina on their homestead. She’s young, reticent and shy – with a home in the mountains and skin that could cool frost.
Arguably the best thing about a weekend away in February is the sense that, come rain or shine, the weather really can’t get much worse. Arriving in Dublin on a grey and misty afternoon certainly doesn’t promise a break from the gloominess of winter, but the lure of cheap flights (£30 return was just too much to resist) and a break from dissertation stress is enough to justify a mid-semester weekend away to Ireland’s bustling capital even on the rainiest of days.
There’s no denying that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin is a pretty grim book. There’s plenty of violence, disturbing psychology, manipulation and teenage delinquency – not something that I would normally pick up with glee. But there’s also no denying that this is an incredible, breath-taking work of fiction and a very important read.
Narrated by Eva, the mother of the eponymous Kevin, in a series of letters to her estranged husband Franklin, Shriver’s novel is undoubtedly hard-hitting. Most readers will know that the novel focuses very heavily on the subject of school shootings – a social issue that was unbelievably common in America at the time of first publication – and, more than anything else, probes the very difficult question of why this phenomenon was occurring. What drives privileged teenagers to shoot and ultimately kill their peers? Nature or nurture? Society or instinct?
Upon first arrival at Venice Marco Polo airport, it’s quite easy to be disappointed. Considering the city after which the airport is named – frequently described as one of the most romantic cities on earth – the muddy waters and murky countryside over which the plane soars is an inauspicious beginning to say the least.
I was staying in Marghera, a quiet, industrial town near the historic city of Venice – an economical choice and one that enabled me to see more of ordinary Italy; allowed me to experience the packed buses full of Italians inexplicably wearing jackets and jeans in stifling heat, and the provincial bars where you’re lucky to get served after nine o’clock. But Venice was the reason that I had decided to come to Italy: to glimpse the winding canals and elegant bridges and historic, charmingly decayed buildings that had been described so eloquently in so many books. There were lanes thronged with tourists, like cattle, and squares that were eerily quiet and streets full of business-like Italians, unappreciative of the beauty surrounding them. It is a city to get deliciously lost in, where every new turning yields a glittering canal, or a verdant garden hidden in the midst of jumbled townhouses, or a dilapidated palace, its distinctive ‘Oriental’ windows subject to decline.
On the day of my graduation in June, I walked out onto University Avenue when the ceremony was over and was suddenly struck by a flurry of emotion. I abruptly realised that, if I hadn’t been returning for a postgraduate degree, then this might have been my last moment as a student. It was an unnerving prospect to contemplate – no more essays, no more student discount, no more afternoons spent researching in the library – but it’s one that, for most of us, will inevitably become real in the near future.
University can often be such a transformative period in our lives that it’s difficult to imagine a world that’s not ruled by impending deadlines and ridiculously long summer breaks. Crying fits in Week 3 and dissertation panics aside, it’s great being a student. And as a current postgraduate student bracing myself for entering the big bad world of full-time employment, this question is increasingly relevant when imagining some sort of life beyond graduation next year: just what are the things that we’ll miss when we’re no longer students?