Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Unburnable" by Marie-Elena John

Unburnable by Marie-Elena John was published in 2006, and named Best Debut Novel in that same year by Black Issues Book Review. The novel is about a woman haunted by an unclear and traumatic childhood, and an entrenched idea of an inherited evil. The novel tells the tale of three generations of African Caribbean women, and how their history and beliefs impact on their island community. 

Although a little confusing at the start, one of the strengths of this novel is the way John weaves back into the past, and forward into the present again. She takes the reader on a journey of discovery, fascinating and informative: walking through the lives and experiences of Matilda, Iris, and Lillian on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

John creates characters the reader can relate to, even in their sad and unfortunate life struggles. There are delicious twists and turns with added humour and horror. This painful tale may seem shocking to a novice of African Caribbean culture, but very real to many who’ve lived deep within it. One of the darkly humorous aspects of the stories centres on the Catholic religion and a nun, Mary-Alice, who, in her Western ignorance and drive to save the blacks from themselves, fails to understand or even accept another way of life. This arrogance leads to the slaughter of a whole people - one of the novel's major horrors, along with the retribution served by Mrs Richards on a young Iris, starting another chain of events.

As I read the novel, I felt for Lillian, her difficulty in trusting herself or allowing people into her life. I understood her outer success, but internal sense of loss and lack of connection with her roots. The characters felt human, as John shows their pain, confusion and misinterpretations throughout. I particularly like John’s ability to describe the voices and sounds from far beyond Lillian’s own age and times - back to the voices of her African ancestors, calling her back to find out the truth of who she is and what happened to her mother and grand-mother. Unburnable serves as an allegory of how the past controls the present and our future, and cannot be ignored, however hard we try. 

Another delight of this novel is how it delves into and portrays African and Dominican culture, history and beliefs. It demonstrates how much these have been trampled down, with the intention of being stamped out, but are still felt in every area of the society, and culture of the island. Unburnable has strong female characters with a matrilineal tribe, the foundations of which hark back to Africa.

Unburnable and the life of Lillian parallel in many ways the wider history of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and America, and the people's journey to find who they are, understand and connect to their own history, beliefs, spirit and spirituality, uncensored by Western ideologies. The more we fight a thing, the more it invades us - that would be my inscription for this novel. This is a rich, well-paced and vividly described novel.  

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

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Secure Your Own Mask" by Shaindel Beers

Secure Your Own Mask provides a brilliant depiction of the experiences of women in today’s society. If you are female, you would be hard pressed not to find something you can relate to in this collection of poems.   

There were poems that made me cringe, others that ventured into areas not usually exposed to the light of day - such as ‘There Are No (Simple) Happy Endings.’ I loved the way this poem and others bravely exposed the reality of many mothers struggling with the demands of parenthood, along with the cultural expectations of women. 

Beers bravely opens up her womanhood, her humanness, exposing her experiences, good and bad - her inner frustrations, disappointments and sense of loss. She addresses uncomfortable topics, such as of control, abuse, violence, abandonment. ‘Playing Dolls’ and ‘This Old House,’ for example, are two poems which confront these subjects well.
Many of her poems start simply, lulling you into a sense of innocence, only then to confront you with words that make you sit up and focus on what is really being said. The arrangement, ordering and presentation of the poems also work well. The sentences pull you along, making it impossible to stop mid-flow, drawing you on inevitably to the poems' conclusions.  

Some pieces, such as ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican’ and ‘Finding Place,’ felt more like micro stories than poems. Beers is articulate and perceptive in her ability to create imagery, through her choice of words. What she does best, in my opinion, is to play on those words and images. My favourite poems in this regard are ‘The (I’m) Precision of Language,’ ‘First Flight,’ ‘Curious George Loves the Man with the Yellow Hat.’ These take you on a fanciful flight of images and emotions, as you skip along with the changing inflections of words, meanings, and perceptions.  

How many times have we read something, heard a song or read another author’s work, and it has taken us off into another world?  Beers seems to have made this her speciality.  ‘The Old Woman in the Forest,’ ‘When Lights Flash, Bridge Is Up,’ ‘A Catalogue of Pain,’ ‘After Mary Oliver’ are good examples. Some will find this a therapeutic read. Others, an open exploration of twenty-first century female experience. 

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

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Interview with David Belbin

David Belbin is the author of fifty books, including several novels for adults, numerous YA novels and two collections of short stories. He lectures in Creative Writing part time at NTU and is chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. See: http://www.davidbelbin.com/.

Here, Rosalind Rustom talks to David about writing, short stories and his collection Provenance: New & Collected Stories

Interviewed by Rosalind Rustom 

RR: Provenance is a collection of your new and older stories - is there one which is your personal favourite?

DB: Seems wrong to choose, but if you put a gun to my head I'd probably choose one of the new ones, 'The Way It Works,' as it encapsulates a lot of the themes of my work and goes into several points of view, which stories rarely have room to do. Although, in a sense, that's
cheating as, at over 10,000 words, it's what I'd call a long story rather than a short story.

RR: My favourite thing about your short stories is the focus on the interesting lives of everyday people. Are any stories drawn from real-life experiences or people you've known?

DB: The one I just mentioned features two Beth Orton concerts I was at, and the experience of the person with the tickets not turning up did happen to me, although not quite in the same way. 'Being Bullied' is a true story, told to me by the boy it happened to. I own most of the paintings described in the title story, including the one on the cover. All of them are forgeries! That's it.

RR: You sometimes call yourself a 'Nottingham writer.' How is this sense of place reflected in your fiction?

DB: I've not counted recently, but suspect around half of my novels are set in Nottingham. There isn't as much space for a strong sense of place in the short stories but 'Vasectomy,' 'Paying For It' and 'The Nabob of Rococo Park' are very Nottingham stories. It's a city that's always changing, with plenty of strong contrasts and a vigorous, caustic sense of itself, all of which is useful in fiction.

RR: How was your experience writing 'Witchcraft' in 1989? Was it difficult to turn a real, sensitive event into a story?

DB: Some stories seem to write themselves. I heard about the so-called 'ritualised' child abuse being investigated from a trusted source long before it became news and fictionalised it because I had to make some kind of sense of what I'd heard, get it off my chest. It had to be from the child's point of view, which, of course, makes the story heartbreaking. Writing it was straightforward but getting it published wasn't. Numerous magazines turned it down before JG Ballard and Martin Bax took it for Ambit, nearly thirty years ago, and that began my career as a published writer of fiction.

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

DB: Loads of answers to that question but the most straightforward is the Northern Ireland novelist Brian Moore, who I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on. A fine, fine writer, most of whose work still holds up well. Check out The Doctor's Wife, Cold Heaven, The Statement or Judith Hearne. I learnt a lot from him about style, point of view, suspense (he worked with Hitchcock, who I also revere) and he made me feel it was fine to write frequently from a female point of view. I'm only sorry I never wrote to tell him what I just told you. I did write to Patricia Highsmith, who I also was very influenced by, and got a lovely note from her in response a few months before she died. You should always let writers you love know how grateful you are for their work. We're insecure - it goes with the territory.

RR: How do you find the process of writing short stories compared to your novels?

DB: I can't write short stories at the same time as I'm working on a novel or teaching heavily. They require complete concentration and have to be written in a burst, then revised at (lengthy) leisure. There are one or two stories in the collection that I couldn't get right and
left for years. The final story, 'Games in Bed,' for instance, sat around my metaphorical bottom drawer for the best part of a decade before I worked out how it needed to end. I used to write novels very quickly and intensely too, but those days, sadly, seem to be gone.

RR: Can you tell us about anything you're working on at the moment?

DB: I've just finished revising a short story, 'The All Night Bookshop,' which will be published as a pamphlet on National Bookshop day (October 6th) by Candlestick Press. With Rory Waterman, I'm editing an anthology to celebrate 25 years of the Creative Writing MA I teach on at NTU. There'll be a new short story in that. And I've nearly done the fourth Bone and Cane novel although, having seen the sequence's previous two publishers go bankrupt, I'm not sure whether anyone will dare to take it on ...

About the interviewer
Rosalind Rustom is a recent graduate from the University of Leicester with a degree in English and American Studies, with a particular interest in fantasy fiction.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Interview with Katherine Hetzel

Katherine Hetzel has been an egg-pickler, weigher-outer of pic ’n’mix sweets, bacon-and-cheese-slicer, a pharmaceutical microbiologist (the serious job choice), a mum, a learning assistant, and a volunteer librarian at a primary school. She’s a published author who writes fiction for children (StarMark and Kingstone with Dragonfeather Books, Granny Rainbow and More Granny Rainbow with Panda Eyes) and visits schools to share her love of creative writing. She also writes short stories for adults, and blogs about life and writing at Squidge’s Scribbles, http://squidgesscribbles.blogspot.co.uk 

Image result for kingstone katherine hetzel

Interviewed by Evie Doyle

ED: Where did the idea for Kingstone start?

KH:  It started with a challenge at our writer's group - find a picture you like, and write something inspired by it. I ended up with a picture of a woman whose skin was covered in square patterns. I had it in my head she was a priestess and wrote 'Puzzle Piece.' In that piece of flash, the priestess was going to 'read the destiny' of a girl deemed unworthy by her parents. That little nugget grew and filled out ... and I decided I wanted to write a novel that explored faith. I had wanted to write a novel that explored faith for some time, but had a couple of failed attempts before Katia jumped out at me and demanded for her story to be told! As a Christian, I try to live by a certain 'code,' but I'm all too aware that I often fall short and question what I believe. That sort of grew into an idea for a story where, if you were forced to do 'wrong' things for the sake of your faith, how would that turn out? What would happen if you had to lie or steal to protect something you really believed in? The Triple Gods and belief system of Katia's world in Kingstone became something which reflected some of my own beliefs and experiences. 

ED: Where did the idea come from for the gods to be of sun, moon and mountain? Sun and moon are common deities, but 'mountain' less so. 

KH: I needed three gods to reflect the Trinity with which I'm familiar. Sun and moon, like you say, seemed obvious ones to pick and didn't need too much thinking about! But I needed something to anchor them. My first attempt was sun, moon, earth, but as I played around with the earth bit, I had the idea of earth reaching towards the sun and moon, and bingo - mountain. It sounds good when you say it - as Katia would have had to in the temple. There's a rhythm to the words and the images lend themselves very well to both a recognisable faith symbol and hand gesture. I have great fun making it all up! 

ED: How in-depth is the lore behind the story? Are there myths and procedures within the temple that didn't appear in the book? 

KH: I tend to write character-driven stories, so write to infuse my books with enough detail to let the reader know the important things about the world the characters inhabit - in this case, Katia's home, her desires, and the impact they have on her. It's a fine balance, trying to make a fantasy world believable without overwhelming the reader with so much that's different to their experience, they get lost. Having said that, I'm sure there are lots more myths and procedures I could've written ... it's only really limited by my imagination! There are lots of scribbled ideas in my handwritten notes which play around with the temple procedures and outlines of myths, but not all of them made the cut, as they say. 

ED: How long did it take you to write Kingstone?

KH: This is the only book I can tell you exactly! An author friend (the lovely Amanda Berriman) had begun a writing chart, where she challenged herself to write every day for a year. I'm not a very disciplined writer - I don't have set times to work - but I thought I'd give it a go. I set myself the target of 100 days. I didn't write every day, and not always on Kingstone, but I had a first handwritten draft after 74 days. It took another 65 to edit and type up before I showed it to anyone. Those writing days were spread over a good six month period, and after that, there was more work to do before I was happy enough to send it to Bedazzled Ink. I think I was relatively lucky in that the idea had been in my head for some time and when I started to write, it came fairly easily. Other novels have taken much, much longer. 

ED: Both Kingstone and Starmark could be described as fantasy novels. What is it about fantasy that you enjoy writing?

KH: As a reader, I've always loved losing myself in different worlds (my favourite has got to be Discworld), so I suppose it was natural I'd end up writing fantasy myself. I like the fact that you can shape the world how you want it to be, and stretch the muscles of imagination of both myself as a writer and of the end readers. I've tried to write stories about 'the real world,' and somehow they never feel as real as what I create in my head. Perhaps I just have a desire to escape 'real' life and lose myself for a while. 

ED: Is Kingstone inspired by any specific period in history?

KH: Not consciously. I suppose it might be that I tend to a more olde-worlde (definitely pre-tech) setting because it can help highlight the differences between what we experience nowadays and the life my characters live in my imagination. I do look to past history for inspiration for certain scenes and settings, but I don't replicate them exactly; I'd be worried about getting the details right!

ED: What age range is Kingstone directed at? And why that age range?

KH: It's aimed at middle grade readers, or 9-12 years according to the way the publishing industry likes to label books. I prefer to write for children because they are still able to let their imaginations fly and ready to believe the worlds you present them with, but my main motivation in writing for children is to try to encourage a love of reading from an early age. Having said that, I think adults also enjoy reading children's books because of the escapism they offer; so long as the books I write are read and enjoyed, I don't really mind how old the reader is.

ED: For a while, I didn't think we'd get to see the triple gods. Why did you decide to have them appear?

KH: I wasn't sure myself, until I reached that point in the novel! For many who believe in God or other deity, there is often a personal encounter which impacts on their faith, which serves to strengthen their belief. It felt right for Katia to have that kind of encounter for herself, at a point when she's at her lowest and believes that she isn't worthy of the gods she worships - and to see how that affected her. What was more fun was making them appear for others.

ED: And finally, have you got anything I can look forward to reading next?

KH: Well, I signed a contract earlier this month with Bedazzled Ink for publication of The Mage of Merjan, the first in what I hope will be a series of five fantasy adventure novels collectively called The Chronicles of Issraya. I don't have a publication date yet, but I would imagine it'll be out sometime next year. (It usually takes up to eighteen months from signing a contract to getting the book 'out there'). I'm writing up No 2 in the series at the moment, working title The Black Diamond. The stories focus on a young girl called Tilda as she learns to use the Power of Issraya and helps to protect it - and the people of Issraya who depend on it - from those who would steal it for their own dark ends. So fingers crossed, there's lots more for you to look forward to - providing I can get them written reasonably quickly.

About the interviewer
Evie Doyle is currently studying Psychology, Biology and Performing Arts at Charnwood College. She is an avid reader in her spare time as well as a scout and guide. She is also part of an amateur theatre group.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Reviews by Lee Wright of "With Invisible Rain" by Polly Atkin, and Jonathan Taylor of "Tidemarks" by Alan Jenkins

It doesn’t take long to get a steady fix on Polly Atkin’s new poetry collection, With Invisible Rain

In this pamphlet from New Walk Editions, she brings together twelve poems. Some of them are part-autobiographical, exploring the subject of pain and her treatment for Genetic Haemochromatosis, a disorder which causes the body to absorb too much iron from the diet. The treatment for this condition is the regular removal of blood, helping to remove excess iron from the body. Atkin compares the condition to living in a mansion and filling every inch of space with scrap like an obsessive hoarder. 

One poem describes the feel of the standard-issue hospital plastic pillowcase beneath her head, and the wretchedness she depicts is beautifully conveyed. Along with her own struggle, Atkin draws on James Hilton’s The Mystery of Pain: A Book for the Sorrowful, Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals, and Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill.

These poems are not gentle - each one changes in pressure and colour, leaving a stark sense of pain. The dislocation of the body, the soreness of the limbs are at times intensely portrayed. 

You may find yourself wondering why you would read this collection given this intensity, but these are also poems of purity. After all, what can be purer than rain? Almost everything here is seen through cloud and rain, always taking the reader to a deeper level of affliction.  Branches snap against skin, arms are pinned down, the body refuses its own blood. In one poem, Atkin writes that she “cannot control it.” That is what invisible rain is all about, the uncontrollable. This pamphlet expresses in twenty-seven pages what some books might take 400 pages to convey. It is a profound instance of a gifted poet at the top of her game.            

About the reviewer 
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 in 2017.      

Ever since Matthew Arnold heard on Dover Beach the Sea of Faith’s ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ there has been a strand of British poetry that hears in the sea a sense of loss. No doubt this is tied up with British history on a national scale, and its loss of naval power. But as Carl Jung says, ‘the psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation’: and there is personal loss in Arnold’s poem, just as there is in Alan Jenkins’s remarkable and highly original pamphlet of poems, Tidemarks

In the pamphlet, Jenkins looks back from maturity on a lost youth spent (and misspent) on or near the water. This is poetry of nostalgia – but barbed, naughty, witty, grotesque nostalgia, a Rabelaisian Swallows and Amazons. The narrator can ‘hear whispers far below / The river’s susurrating flow,’ which tell him it is 

“Too late … to take the helm,
To master that unruly realm
Your father loved, who often sat
With Conrad, Forester, Marryat,
With tales of HMS Kelly or
The Compass Rose.”

‘You signed up for rum, bum and the lash,’ declares one ‘long-dead master-mariner’ to the narrator, but instead ‘you heard the south sing o’er the land at Fairlight and at Ore / So you affected Oxford bags, the elbow-patches pansies wore // And learned to lisp in numbers.’

If these long-dead voices haunt the narrator, so do their associated places, haunts. Indeed, some of the poems mark attempts to return to the old haunts, as if to a time before the ‘elbow-patches’ of Oxford took over – to the old seashores, harbours, boats:

I knew the path, the promenade, the lanes,
The park where a stone Victoria frowned …
Heaps of rotted feathers, stinking bladderwrack,
Gull-shit and tar-stains, and the intimate whiff
In broken shells. Why had I come back? …

… aged nine, I watched a little girl,
Sea-water shining on her sun-browned skin
As she ran shrieking in the shallows’ sudsy foam,
Ran shrieking up to me; I’m going in!
A last-swim sadness, last day before home …

Half a lifetime later I still clutched it,
That gritty towel, arms crossed on my chest
For burial at sea. 

Like a maritime John Clare, Jenkins’s narrator tries to find the old places, but now ‘No-one was waiting on the path’ – the girl is gone, and the ‘gritty towel’ is buried at sea. 

Other poems attempt to reclaim the past by imagining alternative paths the narrator might have taken – that is, by attempting to retrace ‘the sea-roads not taken,’ half a lifetime earlier, in moments of ‘What if   What if   What if   What if   What if.’ In the end, though, the mournful conclusion is that ‘bridges [have been] burnt,’ and it is ‘Too late now’:

“Too late now,
To go to him and show him how
Your hard-learned seamanship has brought
Three stripes, a wife in every port – 
Or even one wife, son or daughter – 
A man’s life, on or off the water!”

The poems poignantly suggest that it is not just too late for the narrator, but also more generally for the kind of life he recalls. The narrator’s personal sense of loss is connected to a more general loss: ‘Everything you are and care for [is] standing ready to be scrapped // Like Ark Royal and half the fleet.’ In place of the Ark Royal, half the fleet, ‘the harbour at Rangoon … / Trafalgar, circumnavigation,’ now stands a vacuous consumerist fantasy:

Instead, I was next to someone’s super-yacht,
motionless behind its oil-rich haze of heat –
… a super-model, fresh from her shoot in Casablanca
… on the sun-deck inviting him to eat
in a tone that acknowledged frankly how boring

it all was …
and everything I’d loved was up for sale. 

As Jung and Arnold might expect, the loss here is simultaneously that of an individual and of a nation: a maritime past – vibrant, riotous, violent, seedy, Rabelaisian – has been lost to both narrator and coastal community. Jenkins's poems are by no means nostalgic for a lost imperialistic naval history, but rather for a seafaring way of life which has been superseded by a millionaire’s boredom. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Review by Evie Doyle of "Kingstone" by Katherine Hetzel

Image result for kingstone katherine hetzel

Katherine Hetzel's second novel Kingstone introduces us to a world in which the triple gods reign supreme, where temples lie in every corner and where a devious plot is hatching. From the very first page, Hetzel's descriptions of Indigon will draw you into a world of fantasy, treachery and adventure. 

The hero of this story is Katia, a simple temple novice who is struggling to learn the arts and nuances of religion. Katia is written is such a way that makes it impossible not to feel sympathetic for her. Her ambition and determination make her a compelling character, despite her flaws. Perhaps it is those flaws, in fact, that make Katia such a well rounded character. Even while disguised as a boy, Katia wheedles her way into your heart, so that by the climax you are left on the edge of your seat, heart pounding and praying that she will survive.

This novel is most definitely a page turner; each moment is filled with action or suspense, and the story never loses speed or tension. From the moment Katia finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time - or perhaps it is the right place at the right time - her faith guides her to take the Kingstone and run. We see her moral struggle as she breaks rules and laws to get the stone to its final destination: Eraton and the prince. The story has essentially a religious plot line, Katia's desire to work in the temple and her faith being the main driving forces behind the story.

There are so many intriguing characters, minor characters and antagonists included. I wanted to know more about all of them. Katherine is a splendid writer who kept me interested through the entire book and still managed to shock me with the ending. This book is definitely worth a read.

About the reviewer
Evie Doyle is currently studying Psychology, Biology and Performing Arts at Charnwood College. She is an avid reader in her spare time as well as a scout and guide. She is also part of an amateur theatre group.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Review by Evie Doyle of "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire

Every child knows the wonderful story of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum: a light-hearted children’s tale of a wicked witch and a pair of magical shoes. Gregory Maguire took this world and twisted it into something new, dark and political. In Wicked Maguire built a world where talking animals, dwarves and magic are real; but the world he envisioned involves issues of race, class and a corrupted dictator. He creates a sense of an entirely original world that has its own dialect, quirks, charms and hidden secrets. The story of Elphaba Thropp will leave you unsettled, but intrigued to the last page.

Born with unnaturally green skin, Elphaba faces discrimination from the beginning, though perhaps this is what makes her such an intriguing character. Sarcastic, witty and cynical, Maguire writes her as a protagonist you cannot help but root for. The main secondary character is Glinda, Elphaba’s roommate due to an unfortunate accident. She is pompous and childish, which is what makes her development throughout the book even more satisfying. Over the many years that the book takes place, not only do we see the growth of their relationships and the growth of all the characters within the book, but we are introduced to the mystery of the Wizard, a dictator who has begun dark workings reminiscent of Nazism. 

The issue of racism is the main dilemma within the book, seen not only with the segregation of Animals but with the Vinkus and Quadlings as well. It is the motivation behind many of Elphaba’s actions and sets a wondrously dark theme to the whole story. The religious undertones, though not essential to the plot, help create a realistic world, for in a world where there is magic wouldn’t there be a great controversy about religion? I personally was captivated by the religions Maguire has created, and can only attribute this to his skill in writing something unique but relatable.

Inspired by the likes of Orwell and C.S. Lewis, Maguire has been unafraid of broaching subjects that shroud the story in a sinister mystery: death, discrimination and torture, awaiting young Miss Elphaba around every corner. As mysteries unfold and the intent of the Wizard comes to light, we witness the formation of his private army, and Elphaba living underground. Maguire amps up the tension in this final section as we wonder whether Elphaba will survive.  

This novel, though quite long, is an intriguing read that introduces a completely new take on the Land of Oz. Filled with tragedy and suspense it does not fail to create empathy for a whole host of characters, including multiple animals and Miss Elphaba Thropp from start to finish. Perhaps this novel's greatest asset is, as I’ve mentioned before, the unique nature of the world it presents: dark though it is, it draws one in and I for one will remember it for a long time to come.

About the reviewer
Evie Doyle is currently studying Psychology, Biology and Performing Arts at Charnwood College. She is an avid reader in her spare time as well as a scout and guide. She is also part of an amateur theatre group.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Review by Robb Doyle of "Thatcher Stole My Trousers" by Alexei Sayle

Some of the best years of my life were in the first half of the 1980s. Although I didn’t notice much at the time, in this post-punk era there were huge social and political changes afoot.  In some ways Alexei Sayle was an embodiment of a quiet revolution.  From his energetic TV politically themed stand up performances to his pivotal role in The Young Ones he was an enlightening and refreshing change from the hackneyed comedians who dominated the 1970s.

Thatcher Stole My Trousers is about Alexei Sayle’s journey from 1950s Liverpool to the fame he found in London in the 1980s. Whilst the autobiography acknowledges the TV career, it is in the main about the people and experiences which led him there.  The book skilfully weaves together the numerous threads of his life. Alexei’s humour shines through with amusing anecdotes appearing at regular intervals through the book.

Sometimes we assume that successful performers have been working at it from a young age. This is not the case with Alexei. His political views are well known and the book acknowledges his committed associations with various communist groups. The first of these were through his parents. His formative educational years were spent as an art student at Southport College. This was followed by Chelsea College of Art and Design. None of these would suggest a successful career as a comedic performer. Yet from his first steps at the Comedy Store in 1979 he has had brilliant career in comedy. Alexei is clearly a great communicator, performer and a natural comedian. Was this from the well-known Liverpudlian gene? I had also forgotten his top-twenty chart hit with “Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?”  He also had a number of roles in films such as Gorky Park.

There is a great deal of honesty within the text and he seems open to sharing stories where he can only be described as a complete and utter prat. He is equally honest about his personal relationships and how they formed his life. This is particularly true of both his mother Molly and his wife Linda.  

Is this the best writing you will see? Probably not, but it does not offend either. However, for anyone who lived through the 1980s it is a fascinating read. In the end I was both informed and entertained by the book. 

About the reviewer
Robb Doyle currently teaches Product Design Engineering at Loughborough University with over 35 years experience. He is also a keen amateur photographer, having won several awards. He works as part of The Bradgate Park Trust, in both the photography voluntary team and the education voluntary team.

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.