Friday, 22 January 2021

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Entertaining Strangers" by Jonathan Taylor

It’s a match made in heaven. As the blurb at the back says if you are interested in impossible relationships with a landlady, a neurotic mother, a psychotic brother, a domineering ex-wife, a dead grandfather and an ant-farm, then this book is perfect for me. Added to that another protagonist who has dreams of a great fire, a massacre and one girl's drowning in Smyrna, seventy-five years earlier, what isn’t there to like? And that’s just the back cover!

It ticks all the boxes:

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Review by Rob Jones of "Take A Hint, Dani Brown" by Talia Hibbert

One of the reasons I enjoyed Take a Hint, Dani Brown so much was undoubtedly nostalgia for my student days. I attended seminars led by people as sharp and uncompromising as Danika, in campus buildings as forbidding and draughty as Echo, guarded by security staff as gruff yet good-humoured as Zafir.

Of course, this only goes to show that one of the real strengths of Talia Hibbert’s writing is her characters, who manage to be vivid, distinct and yet familiar. Their backgrounds are handled sensitively and genuinely, and their personalities and mannerisms are cemented in a few short pages, the third-person personal narration providing an insight into their thoughts and the way they see things.

This narration is conversational, self-aware and liberally sprinkled with humour, but the funniest parts of the book are in the dialogue between characters. Dani and Zaf are clearly well acquainted with, and fond of each other from the start, and although nothing has previously happened between them their witty exchanges are up there with those between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (other Shakespearean romantic protagonists are available).

Hibbert shows admirable creativity in how Dani and Zaf are brought together and how things develop between them. Each is hugely driven, Danika by the search for professional fulfilment in a competitive field and Zafir by his heart for the rugby-based non-profit he has set up. The pair’s sudden social-media stardom, driven by an apparent romantic relationship between them (which doesn’t actually exist for most of the book!) leads to a huge increase in publicity, donations and interest for the latter, with which Danika is happy to assist despite the stress she faces in the run-up to a key symposium.

Zafir’s fondness for romance novels provides a pleasing metatextuality as well as further opportunities for comedy, and this book shines as a romance as much as any other genre in which one might class it. It is tender, gripping, sometimes steamy and always the right side of believable. It is worth reading however familiar you are with literary academia, rugby, witchcraft, mental health, social media or romantic relationships.

About the reviewer
Rob Jones studied English with Creative Writing options at the University of Leicester and completed an MA in Victorian Studies there. He lives in Sileby with his wife, sings with Leicester University Chamber Choir and dreams of working in heritage.

You can also read an article about Talia Hibbert's Take A Hint, Dani Brown, on the Creative Writing at Leicester blog here

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Review by Neil Fulwood of "Venus in the Blind Spot" by Junji Ito

This beautifully produced volume collects ten short stories in manga form, two based on works by Edogawa Ranpo, one from a story by Robert Hichens, the remaining seven original to Ito. Already recognised as one of manga’s leading artists thanks to Tomie and Uzumaki, it goes without saying that the artwork Ito has produced here is as beautiful and imaginative as it is dark and visceral.

Venus in the Blind Spot delivers an impressive spectrum of storytelling. 'Billions Alone' is a genuinely unsettling study of loneliness and social inability set against a broader enigma of mass disappearances, sharing a similar sense of disquiet at the emptiness of modern life as Will Carver’s recent novel Nothing Important Happened Today. Elsewhere, ‘An Unearthly Love’ and ‘Keepsake’ explore the dark side of human relationships, ‘The Enigma of Amigara Fault’ trades in folk horror and the unexplained (Ito’s haunted landscapes subtly evoke Picnic at Hanging Rock), while the title story veers into sci-fi and is bound to appeal to fans of Black Mirror

Surprisingly, in amongst the chills, gruesome set-pieces and twist-of-the-knife endings, Ito includes a heartfelt and energetically drawn paean to manga pioneer Kazuo Umezz. Part memoir of what Umezz’s work meant to the young Ito, part ardent fan letter, it’s a sharp contrast with the grotesquerie of the other tales.

For anyone new to manga and general or Ito in particular, Venus in the Blind Spot is an ideal starting point. I’ll certainly be exploring more of his work. 

About the reviewer
Neil Fulwood was born in Nottingham, where he still lives and works. He is the author of two poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere, with a third forthcoming in June 2021. 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Review by Asha Krishna of "How We Met" by Huma Qureshi

As the title suggests, this memoir is about Qureshi met her husband. But it is also about so much more.

As she states earlier on, it is not a tale of drama and oppression but more of a coming-of-age story.  She reflects on an upbringing where the houses were always full of guests, tables full of food and the mindset that girls who do not have a vocational career must marry young.

One may cringe at the way she puts herself through the matchmaking process. But we have all been in situations which in retrospect we would have handled differently. It takes courage to relive them again with transparency and that is where Qureshi wins hearts. 

Although marriage plays a pivotal part, the memoir also reflects on the personal trauma of losing a loved one – her father - around the time she was starting a new job at a newspaper office. Her experiences resonate as she battles grief and workplace bias at the same time, such that the reader feels triumphant when Qureshi finally begins to feel at peace with herself.  

The latter half of the memoir reflects on how she meets her now-husband and their efforts to convince the family. However, there is reference but no in-depth analysis about the cultural conflict. Perhaps that is where the appeal is. It is an upfront account of a woman relating her experiences and, in doing so, highlights societal stereotypes and pre-conceived notions. 

It is a feel-good story after all, and we know how it ends. The facts are neatly lined up like a well-planned fictional story, but the authenticity and the voice remind one that it is a memoir, and an engaging one at that.

About the reviewer
Asha Krishna hated homeschooling in the first lockdown and now does so even more. Her articles and stories have been published in print and online. Her twitter handle is @ashkkrish. 

Friday, 15 January 2021

Review by Mark Mayes of "Turquoise Traveller" by David John Griffin

Another very intense novel from David John Griffin. I enjoy stories about dreams and dream worlds, and also the concept of the quest, both are aspects of this novel. The imagery was rich and well-described, and almost hallucinogenic, like some extended hallucinogenic trip.

The further you go on into the story, the more apparent it becomes that this is a spiritual quest which Stave must fulfil, both for himself and for others. The book looks at dream states as their own kind of reality, with rules and a purpose. Tremelon Zandar, who is a keeper of nightmares, is a formidable foe for any dreamer, and his concern is to corrupt any dreamer's dreamscape, and turn all beauty into ugliness and pain and, quite frankly, nightmare.

Towards the very end we have some deeper sense what Tremelon might represent.

As said, the descriptions are powerful and vivid, and in some ways Stave's nightmarish journey reminded me of a computer game, with he as the hero passing through various 'levels' of skill and understanding, in order to fully manifest his spirit.

At times, the imagery is so rich and comes so thick and fast, you need to pause in order to take it in and visualise it in your mind. Aspects of the story reminded me of Jung's concept of the shadow self and needing to face that in order to fully integrate oneself in life.

I found the ending satisfying and was glad that Stave and Cassaldra had made it through - I won't mention who Cassaldra is here, as this may spoil your reading of this book.

So, in some senses this is fantasy, and in another it is more a psychological adventure into the dreaming mind, and the nature of being, and the quest for a full manifestation of the pure self. In that sense, it has a spiritual component, as well as being an intriguing and at times startling ride into the unconscious.

About the reviewer
Mark Mayes has written three novels (The Blue Box; The Grass Below; Crimes of Others), a children's book (Is it Tomorrow Yet?), a collection of short stories (Take Away the Sky, and Other Stories), and a collection of poems (Winter Moon). He is widely published in magazines and anthologies. Mark also writes songs.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Review by Rosalind Taylor, aged 12, of "Uzumaki" by Junji Ito

Uzumaki is by Junji Ito and is a book about a town infected by spirals. People in Kurôzu-cho are becoming abnormal, having obsessions with spirals  or having weird reactions to them. 

The main character, Kirie Goshima, is a high school student who is living in Kurôzu-cho with her family. Shuichi Saito is Kirie’s friend and his father has started having a weird obsession with spirals. He doesn’t go to work but just stares into them, following them around with his eyes. Shuichi’s family all become affected by the obsession, when the father dies. After this happens, Kirie is beset with many challenges caused by spirals. 

I thought this book was very creepy. The storyline was good, and very original.  

About the reviewer
Rosalind Taylor is twelve years old. She enjoys Manga and Anime and Roblox. 


Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Review by Katherine Hetzel of "Marmalade Skies" by Gus Gresham

It took me a while to get into this story, as to begin with it didn’t really feel like a story as such – more a stitching together of scenes of childhood from a time I well remember living through myself. I used to play ‘over the fields’ too (rather than in the woods) with a gang of friends, witnessed school-lunchtime fights and the chanting that went with them, played my LPs on the record player, watched my dad carry home a Party Seven …

I’d describe it as a young ‘coming-of-age’ novel, as it follows Vonnie and Matt through most of their first year in senior school. They face a variety of challenges – some mere inconveniences, others more serious – at home and in school during this time. Such as, how many new pennies are in half a crown? What’s the best way of dealing with communal showers after PE? How to keep out of Skinner’s way when he’s had too much to drink? Will mum ever be brave enough to leave him? And can you really parachute off the extension roof using a tablecloth? (You can’t).

Gresham describes the day-to-day living and schooling in detail, capturing the mood of the era well. At times – for me at least – there was a little too much of this description and not enough story; the descriptive scenes didn’t always help to move things on. They felt more like an indulgent meander down memory lane rather than an integral part of the novel in some places. The voice of the novel feels much older than that of the 11 year old characters, and could therefore impact on the age range of the target audience, but if a child today read this as a study of their grandparents’ childhood … I think they’d be left gobsmacked at what we used to get up to. 

About the reviewer
Katherine Hetzel writes fantasy adventures for middle grade readers and is a founding member of NIBS, a small creative writing group in Loughborough. She blogs about life and writing at Squidge's Scribbles and enjoys working with writers of all ages to enable them to tell their own stories. You can see her books here

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Review by Neil Fulwood of "Lake 32" by JLM Morton

Graced with stunning cover art by Naomi Walker, Lake 32 collects nineteen poems written during Morton’s year-long residency at a former gravel pit since converted to a man-made lake in the Cotswold Water Park - “a world of wayward crayfish and self-help magpies,” as she describes it in the field note that serves as the volume’s introduction.

Morton’s engagement with nature, landscape and ecosystem is tactile and immersive, the poems thrumming with life and activity even as they hymn the underrated pleasures of sanctuary and solitude. 

Modernity (“the drenching squalls of camper vans and gravel trucks”) is a nagging presence, however, at the periphery of this world, the resulting tension elevating these poems above the merely pastoral. “Suppose there was a tree” Morton speculates in "Courage," the second poem in the pamphlet, “that did not burn, / but instead contained a fire / that lit the taper of our hopes.”

Morton’s poetics are confident, whether she’s distilling the contrast between white violet and nettle into the sharp minimalism of a haiku in "Lakegram" or crafting an onomatopoeic account of the ecosystem in "Hibernal Solstice, Soundscape." Experimentalism never gets in the way of immediacy, though, and Morton’s gift for shimmering yet unpretentious language gifts the reader with stanzas like this (from "Night Swimming"):

           Let’s break the stars on the surface
           with the lightness of bodies in water,
           remembering this celestial night
           when we met with the best of us.

Lake 32 is a lyrical, intelligent and life-affirming pamphlet that deserves a wide readership. Lake 32 is off the A419 and deserves a visit.

About the reviewer
Neil Fulwood was born in Nottingham, where he still lives and works. He is the author of two poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere, with a third forthcoming in June 2021. 

Monday, 11 January 2021

Review by Asha Krishna of "Ten Things About Writing" by Joanne Harris

When Joanne Harris’ name appears on a book about the craft, it is bound to attract attention. So, how is it better or any different than the ones already out there? 

Ten Things About Writing is clearly designed for the tech-savvy contemporary learner attracted to the luxury of a well-laid-out website. The book is moulded in a similar fashion, offering writing advice in a very palatable format with its crisp short sentences. 

It is divided into ten sections, each section containing ten short chapters. Each chapter is further laid out in ten bullet points. It is so easy to dip in and out that you whizz easily through the pages and marvel at how much has been packed into those short chapters. 

Right from getting into the zone to constructing a nuanced narrative, the book covers a wide range of topics. It offers tips on basic skills of “show not tell” and foreshadowing with equal ease, making it a comprehensive writing toolkit for the novice as well as the advanced practitioner. 

Harris’s experience as a contemporary author shines through when she discusses commercial issues like readings and requests. There is a section that addresses all sort of random queries from publishing trends to handling frustration. The questions are random and yet relevant for the writer navigating their way round the writing world.

The book ends with section, “Welcome to the dark side” and this is the best part where the stern, but warm voice inspires the reader and urges them to take pride in leading the life of a writer.

For someone keen to understand the concepts, this is a great book; for someone looking to sustain the joy of writing, this is invaluable. 

About the reviewer
Writer, mum, craft-crazy, Asha Krishna was one of the mentees on the Middleway Mentoring Scheme in Leicester. Her fiction and articles have been published in print and online. She tweets as @ashkkrish