Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Review by Nakisha Towers of "Astral Travel" by Elizabeth Baines

Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines is a metafictional novel that follows Jo, a writer, who, years after his death, is hit by an unexpected urge to write about her father and the effects of his abuse during her childhood - remnants of which still continue in the lives of his adult daughters.

Framing the narrative is a familiar process of writing and storytelling. Through this process, Jo attempts to understand her father and the many mysteries surrounding his tumultuous and often troubled life. As a result, the book is a weaving together of a life through memories, vague stories and imagination – a tool Jo uses to fill in the gaps of missing or reluctantly provided information. 

Placing her father, posthumously, into the moments of her childhood that she remembers – or thinks she does - Jo tries to re-imagine or even recreate her father’s reaction; forcing him - in death - to confront the torment she experiences as a child. Instead, she is often faced with a deepening sense of the mystery she is attempting to resolve. She's unhelped by her submissive mother, who, in denial, has a stoic unwillingness to face reality.

Baines’s ability to evoke internal outrage and frustration through prose, that is sometimes brutal but always beautiful, is a skill that works so naturally on the page. With her narrator, we re-live painful and disturbing memories of childhood. We feel rage at the injustice she suffered at the hands of both parents. Readers who have had a difficult relationship with a parent may well find themselves re-living their own experiences too. Such is the power of her prose.

The story, that reads more like a fictional autobiography than a novel, is comfortable leaving loose ends; a reminder that, although Jo’s mother does eventually reveal a deep family secret which goes a little way to providing an explanation for her father’s all-consuming rage, real life cannot be tied up in a comfortable, bow-like conclusion.

About the reviewer
Nakisha Towers studied a Creative Writing Masters at the University of Leicester. In between navigating parenting and home-schooling, she likes to write poetry. She is currently re-working a collection of poetry she wrote for her MA dissertation about maternal mental health.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Interview with Damian Barr


Damian Barr is an award-winning writer, columnist and broadcaster. Maggie & Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher's Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year, winning the Paddy Power Political Books 'Satire' Award and Stonewall Writer of the Year. You Will Be Safe Here is his debut novel –a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, it was shortlisted for awards by the Saltire Society, Authors’ Club and Historical Writers Association. Damian has been a columnist for the Times, Big Issue and High Life and often appears on BBC Radio 4. He presents the television series Shelf Isolation and the Big Scottish Book Club on BBC Scotland. He is creator and host of his own Literary Salon, which premieres work from established and emerging writers and sees him and his team host events online and around the world. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Damian holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Damian lives in Brighton. He is on Twitter @Damian_Barr and his website is here.

Interview with Jonathan Taylor

JT: What first gave you the idea of writing Maggie & Me? How did it develop from that initial idea? 

DB: I was working as a journo at The Times and was tiring of only ever having 800-1500 words on any given subject. To begin with I wasn’t sure I could write anything longer than that. What I began with was a novel but it soon became clear that the central character ‘Darren’ had an awful lot in common with someone very close to me …. But, schooled in journalism where I was not the story and suffused with West Coast self-effacement, I couldn’t contemplate memoir. Then I went home to visit my sister and got lost driving from the train station to my childhood home—a journey I’d done many times. The road had changed because the steelworks had not just gone but been levelled—the ground itself had shifted and memory did too. So I started writing about the Ravenscraig steelworks, which lit up the sky so we had two sunsets, and that was that.

JT: What were your aims - political or personal - in writing the memoir? What did you want it to do, whether for yourself, the reader or the world?

DB: This is  generous question—thank you. Well, the personal is, of course, the political. I was working at the Times and folk there loved her (not everyone but more than I’d ever met growing up near a steel plant). Thatcher, the Maggie of the title, dominated my early life, for better and for worse (mainly worse). I remember reading the obituary in the system and thinking  about the one the Guardian had prepared---there had to be room between damnation and beatification. I wanted to find the grey area that was making me feel uncomfortable and explore that. I wanted, simply, to take the reader to there and then—a small village near a small town where once coal was mined and then steel was forged and then nothing.  To a family that was breaking down and a boy that was waking up.

JT: Do you have an intended reader in mind when you write? Or intended readers?

DB: No. I hoped my family wouldn’t read it and most of them haven’t.

JT: Maggie & Me is one of the most single-mindedly (and powerfully) immersive and 'novelistic' memoirs I have read. Unlike many memoirs, for example, there is very little retrospective musing in it - rather, it tells the story in a linear and immersive way. Was this a conscious decision on your part? Why do you think it took on this form?

DB: I started writing it in the past tense and it was dead—it was full of fully-arrived-at thoughts and neat summations—none of which I had at the time. It was also very angry and one note. This book took seven years. A good part of that was giving myself the permission to speak (and maybe be heard) and another was finding a way to connect with my voice. First person present tense made it come to life but it also made it harder emotionally. The form gained momentum and in the end I spent nearly two years editing a lot—taking stuff back, just for me.

JT: Given that it's a very novelistic memoir, how true is it? I know that's a very difficult question to answer - but how much licence did you feel you had to fictionalise what happened? 

DB: Everything that happened in the book happened to me. But, of course, other people experienced those events differently—they may disagree. That’s subjectivity. I can only seek to tell my own story. I never made someone do or say something they would not have but I did move some events in time—there are many boring months and not all events were of interest to the story. It is a story and not a diary.

JT: What ethical questions arose in writing and publishing the memoir? Did you have (for instance) any issues in terms of dramatising real people, events and places?

DB: I was terrified of what my family would think of me—many of the events in the book concern moments I’d lied about for years, particularly abuse I experienced from my mother’s partner. I was ashamed still of so much—of somehow not having stood up to my abuser, of the poverty we were plunged into after the divorce and then the steelworks closing, and there was (is always) internalised homophobia too. So I was concerned with exposing myself, yes, but more worried about others. Eventually the pain of not writing overtook the fear of publishing. I was guided by the hope that if I had read this book as a child my early life would have been very different—I’d have felt less shame and felt more seen, in a good way. I was thinking of a young scared kid reading this in a school library, if I thought of anyone. As for the ethics of legal matters, that is what legal editors are for.

JT: Did you enjoy writing Maggie & Me? What did you learn from it, or gain from it, personally? 

DB: No and also yes. The toughest scenes to read were the hardest to write—when my mother's partner almost drowns me in the bath, for example. It feel surreal even writing it now. That was not fun to revisit. But it was necessary. I learned more about what happened that night simply from writing it all down—that was therapeutics, cathartic we are supposed to say. Writing it also made me more sympathetic to the plight of my parents and especially my mum—how hard she had to work to recover form the brain haemorrhage that nearly killed her, how she had to fight so many men who wanted to control her and her kids, how she had to stretch impossibly mean benefits to feed and clothe her family.

JT: What sort of response did you have in publishing the memoir? 

DB: Well, it came out the week Thatcher died—that was uncanny. There was a year of hoopla. What I find most moving and enduring is the responses from readers—I still hear from readers at least every week. They are very different people with very different stories but they share their lives with me and that is a great honour, if sometimes also a pressure. Everybody has a story to tell and I would like everybody to feel the freedom and power that comes from being able to tell and own your own story, with all its flaws, even if you never ever publish it. Most of the benefit I got from M&M I got by the time I finished that last edit. The rest was publishing and I have been very lucky and remain very grateful.

JT: How does your memoir-writing relate to other aspects of your writing life?

DB: Writing M&M set me on the path of writing my novel—much of what I chose not to put in the memoir was spun into the feelings that fuelled You Wil Be Safe Here, another story of mothers and sons, oppression and survival. I arrived at the novel a writer with some awareness of their weaknesses and tics (a terrible overreliance on EM dashes and a tendency to warm the pot rather than crack on). I will write another memoir, I can’t not. And right now M&M is being adapted for TV by the brilliant Andrea Gibb and I am also writing on it. That will be another degree of separation between my life and me and in that gap we will what darkness and brightness can be found.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is here

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