Everybody's Reading

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Review by Victoria Pickup of "The Goldsmith's Apprentice" by Keith Chandler

Keith Chandler’s The Goldsmith’s Apprentice is a fascinating collection of poems which explores humanity with great empathy and skill. Chandler’s style is insightful and accessible, initially probing the working lives of people and revealing the details which make each job, and each subject, extraordinary. 

Chandler goes on to examine subjects in a variety of abstract situations, from a bigamist ('My Other Wife') to a brutal observation of an 'Old Man at the Gym,' whilst 'For a Day or Two' ponders what life might be like as a woman.

The collection broadens further with ‘Upper Slaughter: a “thankful village,”’ an original war poem shining a light on areas fortunate enough to see all their men return from the ravages of The Great War, as well as a confessional account from a survivor of Pol Pot’s regime in ‘The Witness.’ Chandler includes poems inspired by issues raised in the media, considering the lives of immigrants in ‘At the Car Wash,’ as well as the touching ‘Lullaby,’ a devastating reaction to the picture which caused a press frenzy of a refugee toddler washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2015.

Chandler draws his collection to a close with an array of personal poems which turn the lens inwards. ‘Mac, 4F, My Teaching Career’ looks into what we presume is Chandler’s own role as he laments subjects of his own past, before going on write several beautiful poems from the perspective of a new grandparent. 

This collection provides many moments of comedy (his description of using the M6 Toll services and purchasing a ‘superior cup a soup’ rang true) which only serve to enhance the more poignant moments in his poetry; displaying fragments of people's lives and focusing upon one or two tiny observations designed to simultaneously draw us in and pull us apart (usually with a impactful concluding line). It’s powerful and emotive writing about the everyday stuff we could so easily choose to walk past and ignore.

The Goldsmith’s Apprentice is a triumph; an absorbing and impactful collection of heartfelt poems which should be on the wishlists of glass-eye fitters, fishermen, politicians - and everybody in between.

About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the Café Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts" by Maxine Hong Kingston

We are made, destroyed and remade by the stories we are told as we grow up. Maxine Hong Kingston’s fantastic The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts provides us with a vivid representation of an Asian-American woman and shows just how much stories shaped her identity. 

Each of Kingston’s five chapters are beautifully woven with mythical and traditional stories passed down from her mother. They overpower the narrative, excellently depicting the suffocation of these stories upon Kingston’s childhood. Yet her voice still seeps through, thorny and bitter against the elevation of males and the oppression of female sexual desire in a patriarchal world. Each chapter of this memoir is hauntingly beautiful, giving life to the past by giving it space on the page. 

My favourite chapter was ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe.’ Through the memoir, we journey from the silenced female in ‘No Name Woman,’ to this final explosive voice, where Kingston weaves the story of Ts’ai Yen, her voice clear and vocal. This story finally gives us a direct and raw voice, no longer overpowered by a story from childhood, instead using Ts’ai Yen’s story to show the end-point of Kingston’s search for identity. It explores Kingston’s childhood, the silent Chinese girl in the American schooling system, using an interplay of personal stories and the theme of shame and repression.

All our parents tell us stories growing up, they ‘talk-story’ as Kingston puts it. These stories play a large part in making us who we are. Yet for the generation after the emigrants, there is a huge gap between the stories and what we see outside our Western windows. I expect it’s worse for parents, who see a world so completely different to the one they grew up in. So, parents create an impossible distance between culture and Western society. Kingston’s memoir shows the destruction and turmoil that parents create by talking-story, bringing children up with fantastical superstitions to frighten them in the new Western world, making them curl further and further within themselves. And the Western world doesn’t help. White people, the ‘ghosts,’ the centre of society, cultivate shame and repression of culture and identity. Kingston’s The Woman Warrior depicts the strangeness of our generation, eloquently showing oppression from both sides, culture and society, and how we succumb to both, and consequently, belong to neither.

It is only in doing what Kingston has done in her final chapter, ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,’ rejecting both sides and embracing our hybridity, our distinct voices, that we can fight away the shame and even begin to be remade by the stories we tell ourselves. The Woman Warrior, with its honest and bitter narrative, makes way for Asian women, but it’s also a true inspiration for people of colour and different ethnic backgrounds to take another step forward into the Western world, out of the stereotypes, by beginning a new generation of stories that will remake us all.

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "Howl's Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones’s terrifically funny Howl’s Moving Castle has long been eclipsed by other fantasy novels of our time. Published in 2001, it humorously pokes fun at the traditions of fantasy and fairy tales. This pleasantly chaotic novel that can be universally enjoyed by all ages has been shelved behind more popular books for too long. I say, no more!

Jones’s extraordinary novel begins with Sophie being cursed into old age. She runs away from home and ends up at Howl’s castle. To the people of Ingary, Howl is known to eat young girls’ hearts. This doesn’t stop Sophie, though. She sees Howl for the eccentric and ridiculous man that he is. And so their banter begins, as Sophie looks for a cure to her curse, whilst also learning more about magic and Howl.

Sophie is an incredible protagonist. She is witty and strong. She is one of my all-time favourite characters (I definitely say that too often about a lot of characters). But I don’t think there’s ever been a character so blasé about being cursed into old age that they would essentially react along the lines of meh, it could be worse. Sophie fiercely argues with Howl, and gets exasperated with Calcifer, the little fire demon with his vague hints. She has the heart of a young girl, but the body and wit of an old woman.  We’ve all had those grandparents, or elderly friends that said whatever they wanted. That’s Sophie! She takes no prisoners as she says exactly what she wants and means, effectively turning Howl’s life upside down. Poor Howl, in response, can do nothing against Sophie - other than throw a tantrum because he accidentally dyed his hair ginger because of her.

Jones’s characters are irresistible. They are so ordinarily extraordinary. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I found myself deeply engaged in the narrative, interacting with the characters to the point that I was arguing or laughing along with them. And that’s where the charm is. They argue, they laugh, they’re infuriating, making them so much more than characters and more like family, so we stick with them, even whilst they go on dangerous missions and make ambiguous deals with little fire demons.

To be honest, my interest in this novel started with Studio Ghibli’s movie with the same name. Though they follow a loosely similar plot, the novel and movie feel like separate entities to me. It is in reading this novel that I became involved with the narrative, retelling it to myself, rolling my eyes at Howl’s dramatics and reliving the laugh-out-loud moments.

Diana Wynne Jones deserves a place in the fantasy writer’s hall of fame for her riveting Howl’s Moving Castle. This charismatic novel crosses boundaries of target audiences, as readers young and old will both inevitably find that when they read the last sentence they’ll be itching to begin the book again, just as I’m about to do now.

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Something Dark" by Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay's play Something Dark is powerful in its ability to allow us to enter directly into the mind and experiences of a child lost in the system: a system set up to protect itself from children who don’t fit in.

If you’ve forgotten or don’t think you understand the mental state of a young person, read Something Dark and then read it again. The sense of loss, confusion, pain, loneliness and rejection are articulated with simplicity and with a profundity that gets through to your soul.

I love the mix of script, prose and poetry – yes, I know it’s a script, but Lemn combines these, pulling you into his life experiences in a way that I find unique.  I applaud Lemn for sharing his journey to find his blood family; his determination to find meaning for himself, not giving up on others, or settling for being a secret of someone else’s choosing, even though this may have been a recurring experience of his. 

Through sharing his story in Something Dark, Lemn has shown how we continually make choices. When facing rejection, we still have a choice as to whether or not to accept or reject ourselves - whether we pick up what we do have and make something else out of it, bring it into the light, the light of our own making.

To have clawed his way through the darkness of what he was given and the intermittent periods of light he has experienced, to a place of light which now serves to help so many young people today, all this sets Lemn out as an outstanding example of what we can achieve as human beings even in the face of adversity.  Something Dark also shows us that it is okay to share what has been our experience and this can be done without judgement.  Declaring the facts is not judgement.  

Something Dark is a small book, it’s easy to read and I read it twice.  It’s fast moving, emotionally challenging and thought provoking.  It may well deserve a third visit.   In the introduction to the book, Lemn says: "I needed to speak… I found my light.  And though it was a spark enveloped in the darkness it was light all the same."  Something Dark gives a powerful light. Thank you Lemn, you speak your light well. 

About the Reviewer 
Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry, is passionate about Black British history.  She is currently taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Ancestors" by Paul Crooks

Ancestors, published in 2002, is the debut novel of Paul Crooks, written after his personal journey into his own African and Jamaican ancestry. It is a fictionalisation of some of the facts found in the history of his research. It depicts the pain, horror, disappointment, frustration, and the bravery Africans presented in the face of intolerable treatment on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and their fight for freedom.  

What stands out to me about this story is how well Crooks has enabled us to connect with the characters. Part of the power of Ancestors stems from the use of the actual names of his forebears: making them become more than fictional characters, real people. By this decision Crooks enables us to feel, almost first-hand, the experience of those stolen into slavery in the Caribbean. In addition, the use of the dialect of the slaves - due to the banning of the use of their African tongues, as they learnt to manage to speak English sufficiently to communicate effectively with their captors - adds to the realism and believability of the characters. Ancestors gives us an idea of how this could have all worked.

August is the protagonist, the great-great-great grandfather of Paul Crooks, captured in Africa as a ten-year-old boy, stolen away from his father, his homelands: taken into slavery.  Ancestors charts what Crooks imagines could have been the life and experiences of August and his adopted mother Ami, who travel to the colony on the same slave ship, and others whose names he discovered through his research, to emancipation in 1838. Anyone who has researched slavery in the Caribbean would know that his depictions are a real representation of the experiences of many slaves during those times. 

Ancestors has been paired with Roots by Alex Hailey and I see why. It has given Black British people a connection and insight into the experience of their lineage back to Africa through slavery in the Caribbean, in its depiction of a real individual African whose journey mirrors that of their Black British ancestors. With the help of Ancestors, with its foundations in real-life data and research, the disconnect felt by many to Africa has been clearly erased, if it ever truly existed at all. For Black British people, Roots was brilliant but based across the pond, therefore at a distance; while Ancestors is not only closer, personal, but based on British soil and history: politically, economically and religiously.

Crooks achieves additional points that I think bring respect and value to this work. He casts female slaves of the Caribbean as much in the fight for freedom as their male counterparts, a point that is missed in other narratives. Many slave women like Ami, Sarah, Nancy, and Missy were as much a part of the resistance as the males. Secondly, he avoids the sexualisation of slaves and shows their true respect for relationship partnerships. 

Crooks also endeavours to depict his history with a semblance of balance, to portray the issues faced by all involved - including those who, in the British parliament, fought for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean, the interests of the plantocrats and the slaves themselves by his inclusion of the "British Apprehension" chapter. Although this chapter feels a little out of place within the story, it works to show the role of all the players in this part of our British history so many try to ignore. 

The creation of Ancestors demonstrates an outstanding feat of research, determination, obsession and passion which has given light and inspiration to many Black British people who felt that their African roots were impossible to chart. Crooks has shown us it is possible. I found Ancestors difficult to put down. Highly recommended reading. 

About the Reviewer 
Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry, is passionate about Black British history.  She is currently taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "May" by Naomi Krüger

This is a deftly-written and highly moving account of the effects of dementia on an elderly woman, May of the title, and those around her, including staff at the nursing home where she is resident. The story is actually centred on solving the mystery of a figure from May’s past that no-one around her can recall; and all wonder if he is merely a figment of her rapidly disassembling mind. 

Krüger uses two specific narrative devices to help convey her story and subject matter. Whole chapters are assigned to a number of unique characters - including May - each competing for our attention and wonderfully depicted. The narrative also shifts back and forth through decades, helpfully indicated by a date at the top of each chapter, which very much reflects one of the disorienting aspects of the condition: the unravelling of time itself. These alternative perspectives on May’s life allow us to see her at her worst, but also as caring wife, mother and friend, before the disease takes hold and her mental deterioration commences. Here is a central character that could be any of us; the familiar settings and landmarks of an ordinary northern town, Preston, help further ground the work in the domestic, the everyday, and give it a real authenticity.

Beyond structural experimentation, Krüger’s talent lies in the assured command of her prose. Short, rhythmic sentences relay the steady beat of conscious thought, allowing her to show subtle differences between her characters, whilst also unifying them. In May’s own chapters, the formal constraints of syntax and grammar are abandoned and prose becomes verse: “but I remember         the boy    He/runs into the trees. He doesn’t have       words.” These passages are not only beautifully written, they also contain all the clues required to assemble multiple interpretations of the novel’s conclusion. By the time it ends, the reader is very much left to reflect on the ways in which the past comes back to haunt each of us, despite our best efforts to bury it - which is especially difficult for those, like May, at the mercy of such a debilitating disease as dementia.    

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the discipline of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Review by Elle Morgan of "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Do you like Childish Gambino's new song, This is America? If so, read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book, Americanah. It discusses racial identity in America. Actually, read all of her books. Cover to cover.

Americanah starts off narrated by Ifemelu, who is a Nigerian woman living in America. She has received a Fellowship from the University of Princeton, lived there for years, and is in a loving relationship with a 'black American' (note that Chimamanda distinguishes between the African students who travel on a visa in the novel, and the African-American citizens’ experience since birth).

In spite of all this, she still has to travel a long distance to get her hair braided. On the way, she notes that the majority of people getting off at Brooklyn are black, while the people at the Manhattan train stations are white. This is a discomforting experience for Ifemelu, who has worked hard to get to where she is, and left her home country as a young woman to stay with her Aunty, whose experience of America turned her 'prickly'. Ifem finds some fellow African women discomforted by her intellectual pursuits. It’s as much about the politics of America as it is Africa. 

Ifemelu left military-occupied Nigeria years ago, in pursuit of her education. Why is this strong, feminist woman, settled and content in the U.S., returning? 

Because America creates just as many barriers as it does tickets, it seems. This is a story about womanhood, in relation to cultural identity. Ifemelu navigates awkward encounters with women at the hair salon who ask why she wishes to return to Nigeria. Is it because of a man? It must be because of a man. Is it because the men in her family have money? The men in her family must have money. 

Ifemelu is in fact a self-made woman, and her journey through education is a heartening one to read. She does, however, face issues with identity, missing home, and missing the love of her life, Obinze, who she parted from years before - but Ifemelu never loses her independent nature. In contrast, Obinze's wife is suffering from her own neuroticism, to the point where she won't invite single friends over in case they threaten her marriage. There is a sadness to this story, in regards to what might have been, and what could happen, or may not - I won't spoil the book, anyway. 

Ifem is a heroine most would love to know, picking up on discrepancies in how people like her Aunty behave around their domineering or uncaring husbands. It's a bildungsroman that is just as much about finding role models, such as Obinze's strong and hardworking mother, as it is about realising that your childhood ones are flawed, such as Aunty.

If you are looking for feminist fiction that's relevant to the politics of America, which addresses themes of belonging, homesickness, and cultural identity, then please read this book. Its complex themes are threaded with the deftness of a literary hand, and has the heart of a romantic comedy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's works, portraying the experience of America through an 'outsider's lens, are definitely what you want to be packing into your beach-bag, or your student satchel, this summer. 

Childish Gambino's Bonfire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY

About the reviewer
Elle Morgan is a Creative and Critical MA student at the University of Sussex, who loves reading and reviewing, particularly 1920's Jazz Age fiction. Her website is www.ellemorganreads.wordpress.com.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Interview with Alison Moore

Alison Moore's first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories. She published her third novel, Death and the Seaside in 2016 and latest novel, Missing, will be published on the 15th May 2018. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.

Interviewed by Lee Wright

In April 2016 I enrolled on a five-week course titled "Elements of Fiction," taught by the 2012 Man-Booker Prize short-listed author Alison Moore. It was the first time I had ever been in a creative writing environment, and Alison was the first “real” writer I had met. 

I was in a state of awe for the first two weeks. I read her two novels, The Lighthouse and He Wants, back-to-back. I couldn’t read them fast enough. Then, by the third week, I began to calm down. I listened, I took in every element, style and approach Alison spoke to us about. 

One week she asked us to write a short story, gave everyone the same starting point, and expected us to read the piece out the following week. At this time, I had never tried the short story form, but with the challenge thrown down, I bought a copy of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love

So, I wrote my story with Alison’s advice and Carver’s clipped style rolling around in my head. I read it out that next week (I had never read my work out aloud to anyone before, and for those reading this who find themselves in a similar position now, I can only sympathise). From what I remember, the story was heavy and far from perfect, but the comments that followed acted as a springboard. I went home and wrote another one, and another, and another. 

Eventually I began to have a small slice of success, and my fiction continues to be published. There is no doubt that Alison Moore’s course was the turning point for me. Those five weeks in 2016 I won’t forget.          

LW: You made the leap from writing short stories to novels with The Lighthouse in 2012. What difficulties (if any) did you encounter during the process of working on a longer project?

AM: In between the short stories and The Lighthouse, I wrote a 12,000-word story, which went on to win a novella competition and became the title story in my collection The Pre-War House and Other Stories but which was a struggle to write. That’s partly because I was writing due to having an unexpected free month (in between working full-time and having a baby) as opposed to having a specific story I was keen to write, but also because I was tackling a story that went beyond the kind of size I could see all at once, so I was navigating the story with no sense of what was coming. Now, that’s the best bit: writing into the darkness, not knowing what I might find.

LW: Do you find the short novel form more agreeable?

AM: I naturally seem to write short novels, all under 50,000 words so far, which might be due to my short-story writing background. Perhaps whatever draws me to writing short stories, and indeed that novelette/novella length which I love, also makes short novels sit well with me as a writer. As a reader, I enjoy plenty of long novels too – right now I’m reading the 900-page Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates.

LW: You’ve published a contemporary novel every two-years since 2012. Yet you don’t write to a formula (like authors in genres such as crime). How have you stayed so prolific?

AM: That time frame feels about right to me – if I gave myself too much longer I think I’d start to doubt and unpick the whole thing. So, I aim to draft a novel in about a year, and once I start it I live with it, so I avoid the difficulty of coming back to a project that’s cooled off since I last looked at it. I work with one eye on that two-year cycle which seems to work but which is entirely flexible if necessary.

LW: Have you matured as a writer?

AM: I’ve certainly developed better habits. Many moons ago I would merrily jot down a story idea on a slip of paper and then just stash it, never developing it; I had dozens of these slips of paper which never became stories. I also had to get better at reading and editing my own work. It’s second nature now, to take that starting point and just write, to see where it leads me, and then, when I have a first draft, to edit the hell out of it.

LW: Do you need a title before you begin a work of fiction?

AM: Yes, I like to have a title as I begin a piece of work, knowing that I can always change it later, once I know the story better.

LW: Since its publication, The Lighthouse has been translated into many different languages.   Did you work with the various translators and how has the experience been for you?   

AM: It’s been very interesting to see how different translators work. Sometimes I’m sent queries throughout a translation, sometimes I get a list of questions at the end of the process, and sometimes there is no communication at all. It’s quite odd knowing that I’ll never know quite how a translation reads. In fact, my new novel Missing is concerned with a translator and the importance of the language we choose.

LW: This November also brings the publication of your debut children’s book, Sunny and the Ghosts. What made you decide to try your hand at children’s fiction?  

AM: Just as reading fiction when I was growing up made me want to write, so reading fiction with my son made me want to write something for his age range, which was 7 at the time. Having started to think along those lines, the basic idea came along quite quickly, and once I’d drafted the story I read it to my son, who gave me really useful feedback.

LW: What was the genesis for your new novel Missing?  

AM: I have a very early note along the lines that someone suddenly, quietly, almost in passing, slips out of life "e.g. going through ice." The specific has changed but that sense of quick and quiet loss is a key element in the finished novel. I was also more generally interested in boundaries, borders, crossing from one place to another, and whether someone who has left will or can come back.

LW: Which one book (from any author or genre) would you recommend for the aspiring writer to learn something from?

AM: I’ve usually got a novel, a short story collection and a non-fiction book on the go, and my current non-fiction is John Yorke’s Into the Woods which discusses the nature of a wide range of works of fiction. I nose my way through my novels without planning, and when I came across Yorke’s idea of the midpoint ("Occurring almost exactly halfway through any successful story, the midpoint is the moment something profoundly significant occurs ... there can be no return to how life was before ... Do writers who are entirely unaware of story theory write them subconsciously?"). I took a look at my novels and found that at the midpoint of The Lighthouse, Futh "has passed the midpoint of his circular walk" and is heading back to Hellhaus; and, immediately afterwards, we have the scene on the cliffs in which his mother says she’s leaving, which is essentially the catalyst for everything that follows. I’ve found similar midpoints in all my other novels too. For someone who has never formally studied creative writing, it’s a fascinating read.

About the interviewer

Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Review by Elle Morgan of "Birdcage Walk" by Helen Dunmore

How many of us read historical novels, wondering how the events of the past can help us interpret those of today? Helen Dunmore blends the post-modern with the nineteenth-century: “a man doing t’ai chi” is perched next to “skeletal” Georgian architecture. Birdcage Walk opens in the twenty-first century, and then delves into old documents from the time of the French Revolution.

“I touched the paper as if the heat of their lives might come off on my fingers”: we are introduced to the period by a contemplative man who stumbles across the past while walking his dog; Dunmore used a real place in Bristol to concretise the present. Timothy Jones snapped the black-and-white photograph on the front cover “using a Nikon D300, in between a walkway in Clifton Cemetery.” Noir-like and ethereal, it suits the genre perfectly. 

Helen uses one close psychological portrait of a family to encapsulate a broader landscape, one of the revolutionary wars happening across the Channel. In the novel, the effects of the French battles are widespread, and divide British households into anti-Royalists, and the upper-class bourgeoisie. Lizzie’s household is no different. The author asks, why do we love the people we do, even in spite of our political differences? 

Before Helen Dunmore passed away, Oliver Hurst, a Bath-based illustrator, was commissioned to paint a piece for The Financial Times, that would highlight her novel’s themes. He painted the main female protagonist, Lizzie, in a cage. She is turned away from the eighteenth-century houses, presumably from her Royalist-supporting husband’s doomed enterprise, and I wanted to know what she was looking at. Upon being contacted for interview, Hurst said he’d painted her husband smaller and insignificant, and “all that was left to do was ‘hang’ Lizzie’s cage in Georgian Bristol.” Being based locally, like Dunmore and Jones, he did not have to do much research into the historical setting. But what was Lizzie looking at?

It's a compelling novel, which channels modern themes and feminist complexities with political undertones. Dunmore was an excellent researcher, and reading this will add to any knowledge on the treatment of women in the nineteenth century. Lizzie’s mother is a typically radical, freedom-supporting character who wants the working masses in France to win; Lizzie’s husband is the opposite, with a business to think of. He becomes more and more domineering as the novel goes on, and Lizzie’s sense of liberty is compromised.

Where is Lizzie looking? Towards freedom, perhaps. 

About the reviewer
Elle Morgan is a Creative and Critical MA student at the University of Sussex, who loves reading and reviewing, particularly 1920's Jazz Age fiction. Her website is www.ellemorganreads.wordpress.com

Review by Katie Lewington of "Carnival Games" by D. E. Kerr

As Kerr writes at the beginning of Carnival Games, this is not a book about love. This is a book about abuse, and Kerr makes a point not to romanticise the relationship described in the poems. Kerr spills vulnerabilities into her writing of a relationship that was toxic, and questions how she got to that point: "the twists and turns / are enough to drive anyone 
to the edge," being controlled: "be the master of the puppet / and I'll be your marionette,"  and triggers: "-my triggers are not yours to pull."

The carnival theme is a subtle one, with rollercoasters and distorting mirrors used as metaphors. Kerr writes the truth in her poems, and in the final lines  she scorches the page with a put-down. These provide a good balance, and context.

The book finishes strongly, with Kerr regaining her power, and flourishing again. The epilogue chapter is something special all on its own, and I was captivated by what I was reading.  An excellent, triumphant debut from D. E. Kerr. 

About the reviewer
Born with a pen in her hand, Katie Lewington has continued to write since the year dot, and develop her unique style of writing. She has self-published several chapbooks of poetry on her travels, experiences of love, and humorous food-themed pieces too. She works on her blog The Poetry Hub reviewing books, sharing poetry, and interviewing writers.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "Mulan: Five Versions," trans. Shiamin Kwa and Wilt Idema

Kwa and Idema’s Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts gives five beautiful versions that preceded the much-loved Disney rendition of Mulan. It begins with an insightful introduction full of essential information regarding the original legend. The collection begins with ‘Poem of Mulan’ (386-533 A.D), moving onto ‘Song of Mulan’ (8th century), ‘The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of Her Father’ (16th century), ‘Mu Lan Joins the Army’ (1903) and finally ending with the script of the same name, ‘Mulan Joins the Army’ (1939).

Mulan is a household name. Disney’s Mulan (1998) was released during the third wave of feminism. I for one can unashamedly say that it is my favourite Disney movie of all time (yes, it’s better than Frozen). In every version, Mulan dresses as a male and goes to war in her father’s place. Mulan is always initially presented in a stereotypically female role, dissatisfied with her situation and ends back in the feminine role as a stronger and more well-rounded individual.

Yet this poses the question: why does she need to return to the private sphere that women have occupied over centuries? This is where Kwa and Idema’s expert unification of these versions is so essential. Mulan’s tale has grown from the original ballad. Kwa and Idema have scratched beneath the surface and have shown the development of not only the story of Mulan, but also the character. Mulan deconstructs the private and public spheres of women and men respectively, by transitioning between them. Also, Mulan evolves across centuries from the weaver, the hunter and the martial artist. In her male character development, she begins as a struggling soldier and develops into a heroic warrior.

It is by showing this evolution that Kwa and Idema have presented Mulan’s monumental journey over the ages. Consequently, they have also presented important attributes of Chinese culture, such as, filial loyalty to her family and kingdom, attributes which have persisted in the story until this day.

But to me, it’s Mulan’s loyalty to herself and her conviction as a woman that is truly highlighted in this collection. Mulan shows confidence and awareness in all the different versions. She knows she is right in her decisions as a warrior, it’s not a gendered question, it’s one of self-esteem. Mulan holds herself in such high esteem and self-respect, that in these versions, she has never felt the need to provide an explanation for her gender. In fact, in many of the renditions in Mulan: Five Versions, her gender is only highlighted at the very beginning and end. Mulan is simply a warrior, not a woman, not a man; she is a general and a saviour. Without question she is a heroine.

Kwa and Idema’s collection brings together a history to the character we love, presenting readers with the significance of Mulan as a Chinese popular cultural heroine first and foremost, before her international conquest as a result of Disney’s Mulan (1998). She is there to show that the image of the submissive Chinese female is a misconstrued stereotype and that women are able to fight just as well as men, and most of the time, better.

Disney’s Mulan will always have a warm place in my heart, but it’s Kwa and Idema’s translations, showing her independence and feminist attitude across centuries, that have earned her a place in my soul.

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States" by Lan Dong

Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States depicts the evolution of the woman warrior Mulan, contextualising her away from the Disney palimpsest, within the frameworks of her origins in Chinese literature. Dong leads us through thought-provoking chapters on the woman warrior, the lady knight-errant, Mulan as a virtuous icon and an inspired vision in Maxine Kingston’s collection The Woman Warrior. Additionally, the final two chapters show a depth of research, considering alternative modes of literature, such as picture books and the more controversial animations that preceded Disney’s Mulan.

In the Western world, we have been tricked into believing that Mulan was always a feminist icon. Disney’s Mulan has enabled this belief with its questionable feminist portrayal of Mulan seeking independence as a woman. Lan Dong unravels the literary journey with her reading of not only the original text but also the later renditions. In earlier versions, Mulan’s cross-dressing and subsequent trespass into the male dominated sphere of the war zone was ignored and viewed without the contempt it later faced. Dong reveals that this is due to the overpowering key attribute of filial loyalty accepted in Confucianism. Mulan goes to war for her father in many renditions of the story. Her act is out of familial love. The trespass is dismissed, thus becoming traditionally acceptable due to Mulan’s motives.

Yet why is it that when we watch Disney’s Mulan filial loyalty isn’t what we predominantly relate to? Yes, it is a crucial factor, but it’s not the height of our analyses. Dong exposes these questions, problematising the view we see as a Western audience. In her chapter, ‘Of Animation and Mulan’s International Fame,’ she explores the bemused view of Disney’s Mulan in mainland China. Dong interrogates the legend’s evolution, poignantly evoking the hybridity of Disney’s Mulan, and raising pertinent questions. For example, she considers whether the evolution of the character is in fact a modification. There is a fine line to toe there, but perhaps the Western world, in trying to carefully present the legend of Mulan to an international audience, has modified and therefore reconstructed a large part of what endears the original legend to the Chinese public. The Western world has diminished the idea of filial loyalty and has instead raised the question of female independence.

Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy has truly been an eye-opener. It’s an informed text which questions, intrigues and answers. As myself a “hybrid” person stuck between two worlds it really made me consider whether I would be happy to see a story from my heritage so changed, maybe not in plot, but so overtly in feeling. Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy explains those feelings in Chinese culture, exploring the rich literary history of a story we all love and cherish.    

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.

Interview with Michael Winter

Michael Winter is the critically acclaimed author of the novels The Architects Are Here, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Death of Donna Whalen, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, The Big Why, which was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and This All Happened, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award and won the Winterset Prize. Along with two collections of short stories, in 2014, Michael’s first work of non-fiction, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, was published by Doubleday Canada. Michael lives in Toronto and Newfoundland.     

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: Am I right in saying that Edgar Saltus’ A Transient Guest was a pivotal moment in your decision to become a writer? And what was it about Saltus’ book that turned your head? 

MW: The book itself is a hilarious fantasy full of purple writing. What changed me was the contrast from reading and writing dry, science-based material. And happening upon the novel by accident: I was looking up “road salt” and came upon the name, “Saltus”. Then I searched for “Transportation Canada” and discovered A Transient Guest. I was heading towards a degree in the sciences and this discovery of an imaginative novel reminded me that the way I saw the world was not merely surface, but human and interior.  

LW: I have heard you mention that you re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night every ten-years or so. Is this your favourite novel? And why this particular work? 

MW: I’ve read everything of Fitzgerald’s, including his unfinished The Last Tycoon which is pretty spectacular as well. I hold a greater affinity for books by, say, Nicholson Baker, books I think I might be able to write myself. But Tender is the Night, there are so many crazy passages and thoughts in that book, things that match a feeling I have about living in the world, and yet I know I will never write a book like that. It reminds me another type of person I may have become. And yes, every ten years or so the book seems to find me and it’s as if I’ve never read it before, that the publishers have altered the book. It’s not that, of course - it’s that I’ve changed. And so I pick out new things, new characters, from the book to admire and love. And the book is big and complex enough for that new selection to happen.

LW: Talk us through your writing day routine.

MW: I wake up and get the boy to school and then go upstairs. In the winter, I zip up this little down vest that is too small for me. The vest, as I zip it up, gives me a little hug to say, “it’s going to be okay.” It’s a reassuring zip. Then I write until noon. That’s it. I keep a cheap small notebook with me through the day to write down observations. For instance, this is something I wrote just now: “one of his friends wore a hoodie with the soft fangs of a shark around the brim.”

LW: You divide your time between your homes in Toronto and Newfoundland. In which do you write better?  

MW: The location doesn’t affect me, except I do tend to write more things in the small notebook when in Newfoundland. I always think I’m going to write more while there, but then a roof needs repair or a friend is going on an excusion I can’t pass up. There’s a man I buy firewood from, and I saw him last when it was raining. I knocked on his door and he opened it. I thought you might be in the woods, I said. “No,” he replied, “in weather like this I tend to stay busy around the door.” That expression, “busy around the door,” that is the sort of thing I like to write down. And those expressions occur more frequently in Newfoundland.

LW: In your novels you write without using quotation marks. Why is this? 

MW: The atmosphere I am trying to create is one of saying, quietly, to the reader, “Come with me and listen to these people converse.” If I use quotation marks, it sets up an external form, a pre-set notion that what one is reading has already happened, or I’ve shaped it somehow. I want to conjure up a “cinema-verite” feel to fiction, that the narrative is occurring outside of my control, even though the tense structure is almost always past-tense (and so has the look of hindsight). The lack of inverted commas allows the reader to eavesdrop on characters talking to one another; the author, or narrative voice, drops out of the equation. The book should give the reader two feelings at once: you are on a selected tour infused with meaning; you are not being led at all – you are on your own experiencing things in your own way.

LW: For your last book, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, you turned your hand to non-fiction for the first time, going back to the First World War and telling the story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at the Battle of the Somme. How did that project come about? 

MW: I was standing on a piece of land I had just bought. It took a lot of effort to find out who owned the land and to persuade the owners to sell it, for it wasn’t worth much money. Anyway, during the research at the government offices to discover ownership, I realized that the grandmother of the people who now owned the land had had a previous marriage in the early 1900s. She’d had a son and then her husband died. When that boy was a teenager his mother remarried. War broke out and the son signed up. He was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While at the war, his mother was pregnant and gave birth to a new son. This birth occurred a few days after the death of her first son. And it struck me that she would have heard about the death of this first child soon after giving birth to her second. And this second child was the father of the people I was now dealing with, trying to buy their land. But how mixed with grief must her joy have been! Anyway, standing there in that field, realizing if there had been no war that boy would have lived and had a family and that family would be here on this patch of earth now instead of me, that sort of moved me. I wanted to write about how a distant war still affects us today.

LW: What was the research process like for Into the Blizzard and how did it differ from researching a novel?

MW: I knew I wanted to follow, physically, where the regiment trained and fought. And to enter archives and read material stored there. In that way it was a bit like a return to the life of scientific research. But I promised myself to avoid big ideas and concentrate on small things - things that might point to big ideas. Let the reader connect to the big ideas. I read, in an officer’s diary, that he spent four years trying to join the regiment in France, only to be kept back because he was a good marksman and was better to the army if he trained new recruits. That man was finally sent over to join the regiment just as the war ended. He didn’t get to fire a shot. But what I didn’t know was some regiments, the Newfoundland regiment included, marched into Germany to occupy the country after the war. And, on their way, this man noted they had stopped at Waterloo. There was a museum there, to the battle with Napoleon. And the soldiers went into the museum and were struck by this huge panoramic mural of Napoleon’s army. He wrote that, for the first time in his life, he felt he knew what war was like. And he was in a museum! To a war that occurred a century before. And here I was, in another museum, reading about his experience a century after he had felt it. In that way, noting down this transference of feeling, the research was quite similar to writing a novel.

LW: You have written short-stories, novels, and non-fiction. Which form do you prefer and why? 

MW: A common desire in writers is to be writing something other than what they are currently writing. Right now I’m accumulating paragraphs that, I hope, will be a novel. And so, unwittingly, I have two shapes in my head for things I might think are stories. But I tend to believe that whatever one thinks for five years can be shovelled into a novel. And so I will do my best to convert those story-scenes into novel passages. I must, or else I’ll never finish anything.

LW: Have we seen Michael Winter’s Magnum Opus yet? Or do you believe that is still to come?  

MW: I doubt that is something one can predict – an artist’s big book is usually labelled as such with hindsight. My sister sent me a small book entitled Minor British Poets and I thought how funny is that – none of these poets would have carried such a meagre ambition. My son’s mother is a writer too, and we often write his memoir for him. It begins, “I was the son of two minor Canadian novelists…” and all three of us roll on the floor at the humility. But one can only be humble. Many of the grand, ambitious, rolled-up-their-sleeves novels by my contemporaries bore me to death.

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Review by Katy Louise Gearing of "Please Hear What I'm Not Saying," ed. Isabelle Kenyon

There is a lot of poetry about mental health. Some overt, some subtle. As a poet who focuses on writing about my own mental health, I try to read a lot of poetry about it. It makes me feel less alone, as it does for a lot of people. Despite this, I’ve never read a full anthology of mental health poetry. Odd I know, but there we are.

Reading Please Hear What I’m Not Saying was not always an easy experience, but it was always worth it. Along with more subtle hints of mental health tip-toeing into the room, there were steel capped boots running in and kicking everything in sight. I loved it. When reading a book about mental health written by only one person, I find that you’ll only get one point of view. Or one specific set of issues. For instance, I tend to gravitate towards books surrounding depression and anxiety, because they are the issues I suffer with. However, this book contains poetry about several mental health issues, which is refreshing. And heart-breaking. 

What I also found refreshing was the way the poetry was set out - in eight different sections, numbered chronologically, but with no names. Instead there was a space for you to write your own title for each of the eight sections, encouraging you to read and consider what each part does for you, and name it accordingly. I love the openness of this, as if the writers know that we’re all going through individual struggles and, as such, want us to take whatever we need to from the poetry instead of telling us what each part should mean.

I won’t name one favourite poem or poet in here, because to do that would do a disservice to all the other poetry involved. All the poets dissect mental health in their own way, and every one of them does it successfully.  I would just recommend that you read it and take anything you need to from it.

About the reviewer
Katy Louise Gearing is a writer in her 20’s who focuses on poetry surrounding mental health and feminism. She occasionally writes fiction, but tends to get distracted too easily for anything longer than a short story. When not writing, you can probably find her petting cats, or reading.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Interview with Rob Palk

Rob Palk has previously published work in Litro Magazine and the Erotic Review. Animal Lovers is his first novel, written in London, Burgundy and Haifa. He currently lives in Leicester with several other writers and a cat.

Interview with Sandra Pollock

SP: When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer?

RP: I wanted to be a writer from about the age of seven or eight. I was a big fan of Roald Dahl and my primary school had a picture book biography of him as well as some of his books. He had a very glamorous wife and a shed he could not be disturbed in and this seemed to fit well with my plans for life. For a long time, I used to spot the names of the writers of TV and films and I was full of awe for these beings who had the power to invent situations and jokes. In my adolescence I abandoned this for dreams of being a rock star, but absence of ability set me straight. I discovered Jack Kerouac and again it was the lifestyle rather than the work (which I can’t read at all now) that appealed. I wanted to wear check shirts and listen to jazz and laze around and I am happy to say I succeeded in this. 
From Kerouac I discovered Celine and Joyce and the big Russians and started to love literature for its own sake.

SP: What type of writing or genre first caught your interest and why?

RP: I’m pretty ignorant of genre, my reading mainly being the trad canon of capital letters Great Literature, although the comic strain in this especially appeals. I’ve had periods of enormous receptivity though, moments when all I seemed to do was read. In my sixth form era, as a lovelorn aspiring writer I raced through Joyce, the Romantics, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy with that teenage ability to let myself be swallowed by the work and live inside it.  Between my second and third years of university I had a lazy summer job and got into the big post-war Problematic American Beast novelists - Roth, DeLillo, Ellison, Vidal. In my early twenties I discovered the mainstream English tradition - Woolf, Eliot, Austen and Lawrence. I wouldn’t compare myself to any of the above but they’re invaluable as measuring points.

SP: Who would you say has had the most influence on you as a writer?

RP: I’m not sure who has had the most influence on me as a writer, but I think my stuff exists at the end of a not very fashionable strain of comic writing - Austen and Fielding as grandparents and then on into Anthony Powell and the Amises. But there isn’t one overriding influence. It’s more a case of spotting the styles you respond to.          

SP: When did you begin to see yourself as a writer? I mean really believe in yourself.

RP: I believed in myself far too much when I was young and untested which meant as soon as I got rejections I gave up for several years. Fully believing in myself only came quite recently though - I knew with Animal Lovers that if people didn’t like it, I did and that it deserved to be read. I didn’t have that with earlier attempts.

SP: Where did you study your writing?

RP: I’ve never studied writing or even literature past GCSE level. I did a six-week course at the Groucho Club in the early 00s but that was more a chance to compare notes than an academic course. I’m not convinced much study is needed, beyond writing and reading as much as you can. I've never studied Creative Writing, although I'm available to advise and mentor other writers. I don't think not studying it has hindered me in any way although it will make it harder for me to teach it which is now one of the few ways novelists can pay the bills. The main advice I'd expect to get from a course is to read and write as much as possible. It's possible I'd have learnt that quicker if I'd had a professor telling me, but who knows? 

SP: Where does the inspiration for your stories come from?

RP: Life. And other books. 

SP: Your first book Animal Lovers, was this in anyway autobiographical?

RP: Animal Lovers is very autobiographical. Which is not to say it all happened- it shouldn’t be read as autobiography. It starts with my own life then rockets off. I knew I didn’t want to write a memoir, that I wanted the freedom of fiction. Like the main character, Stuart, I have experienced heartbreak and illness but then so have most of us - it’s what you do with it on the page that counts. 

SP: Did you use the process of writing this book to help you with your own life experience?

RP: Not consciously. I was just aware I had some good material. It’s possible that the process of writing had some therapeutic benefit but that was never the point. I’d go as far as to say it should never be the point. 

SP: Do you think that all write about themselves through the characters in anyway?

RP: Not necessarily. Some writers put a lot of themselves in to the work, some not at all. I don’t think either way is the right way.

SP: I’m researching publishing as part of my own MA.  What has been your experience of publishing in relation to your book – getting it out there?

RP: How did I get it published? I sent to five agents a day for a month until a few got interested. I went with one and a few of the big four circled for a while but ultimately, I parted company with my agent and sent it to Sandstone. The whole process took around two years.

SP: What were the challenges? 

RP: It's hard getting your voice heard but for this novel, despite the slowness, it seemed to happen pretty smoothly.  There are some brilliant committed people in publishing and I’ve been lucky to meet and work with several of them. 

SP: What did you need to learn? 

RP: I’m afraid I’ve learned nothing. 

SP: What have you done to get your book on the market? 

RP: Sent it to publishers. I also showed it to people I know who are writers, partly for feedback but also so I could get quotes to put in my letter to agents/publishers. Otherwise I just let the book speak for itself. I understand the impulse to self-publish, especially for people excluded from the narrow circles of the publishing world but I was confident my stuff would somehow break through. 

SP: Where/how did you promote? 

RP: Twitter is a blighted inferno filled with the furious and stupid but it’s an excellent way of meeting like-minded people and promoting your work. Otherwise I had a launch at Kirkdale Books in London and am eager to talk and sign wherever.  

SP: What are your hopes for your future as a writer?  What are your dreams?

RP: I want to continue writing novels, one every two years or so, hopefully with each one a little better than the last. I’d like to write at least one book that will be read after I’m dead. I’d like to avoid getting a proper job.

SP: Are you working on another book?  Can you share anything about this yet?

RP: I’m working on a second novel called (at the moment) The Great and the Good. It’s another comic novel, a quarter-life-crisis story and a love story, with sex parties and tramps. 

SP: Do you think there are too many writers currently?

RP: Far too many writers. But if there weren’t so many of us, there’s a danger there’d be more artists and musicians and that would be so much worse.

SP: What advice would you give new writers?

RP: I’ve given it already - write as much and read as much as you can. Don’t avoid doing either. Be prepared to learn. Enjoy it too, it’s supposed to be fun for yourself and the reader. And don’t confuse being an artist with being an arsehole.   

About the interviewer
Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry and is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.