Thursday, 29 September 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived," by Michelene Wandor



Like London buses, good books come about in pairs.

Having read and reviewed Michelene Wandor’s Critical-Creative Writing: Two Sides of the Same Coin, I delved into an earlier book of hers about Creative Writing, and was at once captivated and intrigued, and it is not often that I have felt that about a non-fiction book. We can only admire Wandor’s own bibliography and in this book we can see why she has become such a successful writer. She ‘gets’ Creative Writing and this book will help the reader to ‘get’ it as well.

In The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived, Wandor has written the first history of Creative Writing, within it analysing the often complex relationship with English, literary studies and cultural theory. Scholarly, though not prescriptive, and challenging, her book presents us with an  inquisitive approach to Creative Writing that asks the reader, no challenges the reader, to look into their own practice and to see what they can add to the subject. 

Wandor looks at Creative Writing’s position in higher education, and what its future is and investigates and critiques the methodology of the workshop approach that we know so well, asking is this the right approach. Wandor looks for strategies for change in Creative Writing.  Should we be content with past practice or do we need something radically new in our approach as students, teachers and especially writers? This really is a ‘must read.’

There is so much in the book that we can learn from and can add to our own best Creative Writing practice. As Professor Philip Martin, former Pro Vice-Chancellor at DMU, says “A compelling, exciting read …” and its not often you can say that about an academic text!

The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else is an indispensable read for teachers and students, and all those who are worried about the future of Creative Writing, especially under our current government who seem to view creativity in all forms as subversive.


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Critical-Creative Writing: Two Sides of the Same Coin" by Michelene Wandor



In life, as in academia, how often do you think, “if only they had written a book about …?”

Well, I’ve found the one that I’ve been missing all this time and Michelene Wandor’s text would have been ideal for me when I set out upon my PhD. Not only that, it would be perfect at whatever level you are studying. It is that sort of book. It bridges the gap between the Creative Writing how-to handbooks, and the myriad anthologies of Literary and Cultural Theory.

This is wonderful as it divulges the roots of the concepts which determine a critical study of Creative Writing. There is a fascinating introduction to the roots of Creative Writing as an academic subject - an area alongside English that is under threat from our so-called rulers. We need to beware their machinations, too many Universities have suffered because of them, and through them, a generation of students may miss out on what we took for granted.

In this book, we can read up about how images in the Old Testament are echoed in the classical texts of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, which then lead us onto Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats and nineteenth-century realism, not forgetting to harvest the thoughts of such eminencies as Sidney, Bacon and Johnson before them. And Shakespeare of course. We read about the development of twentieth-century literary criticism as well as the development of the foundations of Literary and Cultural Theory.

This is a perfect entrée at any level and, once picked up, is truly a book that will be riven with underlining and annotating. The way it is structured gives you a taster of a world of literature that you can follow up in your own time, using the pointers and aide-memoires that Wandor has printed. We can see what each writer is promising us the reader and then from that to us the writer. We learn from the imaginative writing of, amongst others, Bakhtin, Barthes, Browning, Burke, Eliot, James, Kant, Leavis, Montaigne, Milton, Pope, Ruskin, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Woolf, and many others, providing the reader with a bank of knowledge and sometimes disparate views, that only help to challenge us about what we are writing, as well as reading.

This is a text that can happily be used in lectures, workshops, essay writing, research and seminars, as well as an enjoyable insight into creative writing and critical theory. As Wandor writes, “It is about thinking about writing, and about ways of thinking about thinking about writing.”

This is a must have book for a student of Creative Writing, as well as those looking for inspiration in their own work.


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.


You can read more about Critical-Creative Writing by Michelene Wandor on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday, 5 September 2022

Interview with Melissa Harrison


Melissa Harrison, photograph by Brian David Stevens


Melissa Harrison is a novelist and nature writer

Melissa contributes a monthly Nature Notebook column to The Times and writes for the FT Weekend, the Guardian and the New Statesman. Her most recent novel, All Among the Barley, was the UK winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. It was a Waterstones Paperback of the Year and a Book of the Year in the Observer, the New Statesman and the Irish Times. Her previous books have been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (At Hawthorn Time) and the Wainwright Prize (Rain). She lives in Suffolk.

Melissa is represented by Jenny Hewson at Lutyens & Rubinstein. She can be found on Twitter at @M_Z_Harrison. 



Interviewed by Joe Bedford

JB: I’d like to start by asking how you feel about the tradition of the English rural novel to which At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley belong. As a genre which was immensely popular especially in the interwar period, and seems to be in resurgence now (I’m thinking of writers like Tim Pears, Claire Fuller and yourself), how do you see your work speaking to that canon? Do you feel, when writing, that you are entering a dialogue with Hardy, Lawrence, the interwar writers and others?

MH: You’re absolutely right: rural novels have a long history in this country, but reached a peak of popularity in the years after the First World War, part of a wave of countryside writing that included dozens of farming memoirs like Adrian Bell’s hugely popular Corduroy trilogy, and a rash of motoring and walking guides such as Grigson’s Shell Country Alphabet. Some of these books were aimed at helping the (still relatively recent) phenomenon of ‘townies’ reconnect with their rural roots; others were a reaction against the new horrors of mechanised warfare, and a balm for the social and economic upheavals that followed. The boom in nature writing we’ve seen for the last 10–15 years has its roots in some of the same soil.

I wouldn’t personally include Lawrence as part of the interwar tradition of rural writing – his primary concerns are people and ideas rather than place, I’d say – but you’re right, it’s certainly a period I have a deep and complex relationship with. I suppose I want to interrogate the image of rural England that was conjured up in those years, or if not conjured up, buffed to a high shine. Nostalgic even at the time, I find the vision of farmland and villages and market towns captured by many of those books utterly alluring: it feels rooted inside me, part of my inner architecture, something lost that I long for in a bone-deep way, as I long for the ordered, bucolic rural landscapes drawn by Charles Tunnicliffe and Ronald Lampitt in the Ladybird books of the 1940s and 50s and elsewhere. But at the same time I’m deeply suspicious of this longing, knowing full well how reactionary, excluding, unjust and frankly unhealthy that fantasy of England was then, and still is in the wrong hands today.

My mother was born and brought up in what’s now Pakistan, in the last days of the British Raj. Her mother was Anglo-Indian, her father a British school teacher: national identity, for both women, was never clear-cut, given the prejudices and political complications of that period in that place. My five siblings were born in India; I’m the only one in my family who was born here, in commuter-belt Surrey: a place where none of us had roots. In the foothills of the Himalayas, Mum grew up speaking Urdu and hearing talk of ‘home,’ a country she’d never visited, yet when she came here she missed the country of her birth for the rest of her days. The books she loved best – and that she read to us when we were small – were stories of English rural life: Cider With Rosie, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, Lark Rise to Candleford, the Miss Read books, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and nature novels like Watership Down, A Black Fox Running, Tarka the Otter, Duncton Wood and BB’s The Little Grey Men books; even The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings contributed, I think, to a reading culture which was intensely romantic (and elegiac) about the English countryside – although the rural villages and farms it described could be found nowhere around us in the Home Counties of the 1970s and 80s. My continued fascination with that kind of writing feels a bit like picking at a scab, I suppose: nostalgia for an imagined rural past is a faultline in our national psyche that also runs through mine, and I find it hard to leave its contradictions alone.

JB: Running with that theme of looking back, I’m also interested in your attitudes to nostalgia, both in your own work and elsewhere. You’ve written that ‘political and social nostalgia may be dangerous, but ecologically it’s unavoidable’ (Stubborn Light), which feels like a nuanced view on nostalgia as a potentially useful conservationist tool – something active, akin to what Svetlana Boym calls ‘reflective nostalgia.’ What are your feelings on the role nostalgia has to play in conserving our environment, and in the ways you yourself approach the natural world as a writer?

MH: If you’re at all engaged with the current crisis you’ll know that we’re facing ongoing losses and extinctions, some of which may yet be ameliorated but many of which are now unavoidable. Yet one of our greatest blind spots is to the rate of diminishment, captured by the term ‘baseline shift.’ We each take as a norm the state of nature in our childhoods, and though we may notice the losses that occur ‘on our watch’ (and many of us never do), it’s very hard for us to understand the far, far greater losses that have occurred across greater sweeps of time. And here, nature writing can prove to be invaluable. The world I grew up in was much richer in wildlife than the one I inhabit now, and I grieve for the nightly hedgehogs, lesser spotted woodpeckers, great crested newts and flocks of lapwing on the Somerset Levels that I remember from when I was a child; but in rural writing from earlier in the 20th century, and beyond, I read of creatures like corncrakes that I have never and may never see in the wild, and of abundance – flocks, swarms, shoals – I can’t even imagine. It’s impossible to read those accounts without a keen sense of nostalgia, and rightly so: we can and should use that feeling as a spur to try and restore species and landscapes not to their condition in our youth but to a carrying capacity we may never have experienced ourselves. That doesn’t, in my view, mean picking a date in the past and somehow rolling back time to try to recreate it; it means working in the here and now to great a newly rich, dynamic and resilient ecosystem that responds to the pressures but also the technologies we have today. And books are part of that toolkit: as I’ve mentioned before, stories are powerful: they can drive engagement and connection, and create change. They can also be a way for us to collectively process our grief, and can be a vital act of witness – a memorial, even – just as books written a century ago are today.

You mentioned the writer and cultural theorist Svetlana Boym. The distinction she makes between what she defines as two types of nostalgia is interesting: 'Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt' (‘Nostalgia,’ in Atlas of Transformation). Going by that definition I’d agree that reflective nostalgia is central to the kind of writing I do. Certainly, I don’t believe in restoring the past intact – or in any version of ‘absolute truth.’ Any truth we can approach in our own lives is always partial, culturally inflected, temporally unstable and subjective. There is no ‘view from nowhere,’ and we’re in trouble if we believe otherwise.

JB: Tied to that theme of nostalgia, I’m interested in the tensions between place and identity that come to the fore not just in All Among the Barley, but in your non-fiction as well. You’ve written about the ‘very real dangers in tying national identity to place … because it leaves no room for change’ (Article for Foyles, 2019), but also about how ‘connecting with and defending our “home patches” is a powerful way to protect the environment’ (Stubborn Light). I wonder how you feel about the tension between these two ideas, and how that continuum from localism to nationalism (and even fascism) is handled in your work.

MH: It's crucial that we nature- and place-writers don’t fall into the trap of believing that only a certain set of people with a prolonged history of living in a place really ‘belong’ there, or can appreciate or understand it. If we do that, then any change to the social make-up of an area becomes a threat – and we cannot afford that kind of thinking in an age of climate breakdown and mass population movement. We absolutely must cultivate a way of thinking that is flexible and open and welcoming of change when we create stories and narratives about place – because, as I’ve mentioned already, stories are incredibly powerful.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that as someone bewitched by history, heritage and tradition, welcoming change would be difficult. I love nothing more than to discover an ancient dialect word for a wildflower, or a regional method for laying a hedge; I’m fascinated by folklore and the hyper-local forms of culture that have been preserved in large part by groups of people interacting in a prolonged manner with the specific geography of a place. But there’s only a conflict between caring about tradition and welcoming change if you see the past as a fixed entity, and change as a new thing. Yet we are a nation built on constant immigration: over and over we’ve folded into ourselves the gifts other cultures have brought us us, adding to, not erasing, our set of stories about these isles. All we need to do in this current moment is to keep doing what we’ve been doing for centuries, rather than believing in the (frankly ahistorical) idea of static national, regional or local identities.

When it comes to conservation, the beauty of looking after a ‘home patch’ is that anyone can do it, no matter their cultural background or how long they’ve lived in a particular spot. Whether it’s a garden, a street tree, a park with a ‘Friends’ society or a local nature reserve, everyone can find somewhere to connect to and develop a sense of custodianship for. Entering into an imaginative and emotional relationship with a ‘home patch’ – watching it grow and change, finding out what lives there and what those things need, protecting it from damage – can bring enormous benefits, both for people and for the natural world. Added up, garden by garden, tree by tree, park by park, that kind of care can utterly transform an area’s richness in wildlife, as well as its custodians’ mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, and their feeling of belonging and rootedness, too.

JB: At the height of the pandemic, a set of posters (falsely attached to Extinction Rebellion) were circulated claiming that ‘humanity is the disease, coronavirus is the cure.’ Reflections of this kind of anti-humanist, deep ecological theory (including problematic aspects like population ethics) are something I sometimes recognise in what is otherwise very mainstream contemporary nature writing (though not, I should point out, in your own). Is this a phenomenon that you’ve noticed in nature writing, and how robust do you feel nature writing is in handling these complex feelings of blame towards the human population?

MH: Right now there’s a real danger of nature writing (and nature writers) being co-opted by both the very far left and the very far right – who, of course, are not very far apart. We can’t afford to be naïve about the potential for texts lauding pure and untouched nature and bemoaning the sullying influence of humankind being used by these groups to promote dark ideologies, often in a way that begins fairly uncontroversially (and sometimes lyrically and persuasively) but leads somewhere very unpleasant indeed.

It seems to me that if what truly exercises you right now is the ecological effect of rising population levels you should be advocating for women’s education and improved access to contraception and abortion, supporting migration into countries with falling birth rates and an ageing tax base, and working to help new citizens connect with and care for the natural world in their adopted homes (which means making access possible, but not dictating the form in which it occurs). Yet I don’t see many eco-fascists doing that work.

We all also need to think carefully about the language we use around native and non-native wildlife so that we using it much more mindfully. Many native species, such as bracken, behave invasively and are causing enormous issues; many introduced species, such as little owls, are not only unproblematic, but beloved. We need to assess species (and people) as individuals, rather than drawing damaging equivalencies between country of origin and intrinsic worth. How we talk about ring-necked parakeets or yellow-legged hornets may seem like a small matter, but frankly, I feel it’s often where we let our pants show.

Finally, you mentioned the idea of ‘blame’ towards the human population, and this, I think, is where a lot of resistance to the changes we need to make is stemming from. None of us like being blamed, so we try to shift that blame on to others, or on to species, or to rid ourselves of the discomfort we simply switch off from the entire notion of engaging with the problems we currently face. But there’s a difference between something being your fault and it being your responsibility. It’s not your fault, or mine, that we are where we are. We were born into the world as it is now, and must live in it: we are not to blame. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our responsibility to try and lessen the losses to come, while we still can.

JB: Finally I’d like to touch on something I discussed recently in my interview with the author Will Burns. In Will’s novel The Paper Lantern, our capacity for hope in the face of the degradation of the countryside is stretched to breaking point, as it is for many of us when we read about the continuing challenges our landscape faces. That said, how do you envision the future of the English countryside? Does it have a future, and if so, what do you think that future might look like?

MH: Of course: England’s villages, with all their varied, vernacular architecture, aren’t going to be pulled down, and we’re still going to need to grow food, which means the farmland we’re used to seeing will survive, too; in fact, it’s likely to become more and more important that we produce as much food as possible at home, and that requires land. For many people, those villages, set between rolling green fields (or golden ones in summer) are the epitome of rural beauty – despite the fact that although they look unchanging and bucolic, under modern agricultural systems those fields can be staggeringly empty of wildlife (not for nothing did the naturalist Chris Baines once say that if you want to make farmland more biodiverse the best thing you can do is build houses on it, as urban areas are often far richer in wildlife than intensively farmed land). So yes, in that sense, the English countryside has a future.

But I’m guessing that when you talk about hope you mean hope for a countryside that’s species-rich as well as productive, a home for hedgehogs, nightingales, turtle doves, otters, purple emperors, water voles, stag beetles, song thrushes and all the other forms of non-human life that make this country their home. And here I think it’s important to move away from the ‘hope / no hope’ binary: if we fall into that trap, we’re effectively letting ourselves off the hook by saying either that everything is going to be fine so nothing needs to be done, or that the battle is already lost so there’s no point making any effort. The truth is, everything isn’t going to be OK, but how bad things get is in large part still up to us.

I think of what’s coming down the line as a bottleneck. There are going to be more extinctions, and further falls in abundance, but how many species we get through that bottleneck depends on the work we all put in now. And it really will take all of us. Not everyone has the singlemindedness necessary to be an activist; some of us are thinkers or communicators, some are community mobilisers, some have political or public-facing skills, some have the ability to guide children in a way that benefits the world to come, to influence an employer or to flex their economic muscles to bring about change. We can’t each take on all of those roles, and that’s OK. But I think we should all be taking on at least a couple.

And there are enough good things happening to counterbalance the bad. I usually avoid the term ‘rewilding’ as I think a lot of the discourse around it has become polarised and toxic – for which the environmental movement should shoulder a lot of responsibility – but the energy that is currently being generated around restorative and regenerative forms of land use is absolutely staggering to me. From individuals to farmers to landowners and councils, there has been a dramatic and sudden sea-change in people’s understanding of what land might be for that has occurred at a deep, perceptual level and is still gathering pace. Just as much of the degradation of our countryside took years to become apparent, this shift will take decades to fully show results, and there’s very good reason to be hopeful about what those results might be.

Hand-in-hand with that ongoing process, Brexit – for all its terrible effects – has given us the opportunity to change how we pay farmers and landowners to manage land, and what we ask them to provide. We’re still kicking about in the weeds, which is causing all sorts of problems for farmers who need to be able to plan ahead, and many of the most exciting initial proposals have predictably been watered down, but I do think we’ll end up with something better for nature than we had before. And finally, the burgeoning movement for improved access to the countryside is interesting. The pandemic did what nature writers like me could only have dreamed of: connected many people with their inner need for nature, got them outdoors, looking for solace and finding it. And with that has come a growing appreciation that access isn’t always easy or equitable, and that there are barriers – economic, cultural, social, practical – for many groups when it comes to outdoor activities other people take for granted.

I’d like to see a countryside where farmers are supported to produce high-value crops on the most productive land while helping marginal land to become truly species-rich; where dozens more oases of true rewilding such as Knepp are connected to each other by thick hedges, strips of woodland and other wildlife corridors so that creatures can move across intensively farmed land; where rivers are rewiggled and beavers used to restore wetlands, locking up carbon and preventing flooding downstream (and with a sensible management system such as exists in Bavaria). I’d like to see more gardens, parks and entire villages allowed to become overgrown and ‘untidy,’ rich in insects and birds and full of decay and dynamic, changing, connected habitats; and I’d like to see people from all sorts of backgrounds finding their way into the British countryside, making rich new connections with it, and feeling welcome there.


About the interviewer
Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. He is currently a PhD Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. His short stories have been published widely, including in Litro, Structo and MIR Online, and have won numerous prizes including the Leicester Writes Prize 2022. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People will be released by Parthian Books in Summer 2023. For more information see Joe's website here.

Sunday, 4 September 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Come the Dark Night" by David Tregarthen

 


Oxford, traditional epicentre of murder and scholastic mayhem in England doesn’t want to miss out again, and in this skilfully constructed crime thriller by David Tregarthen we are introduced to a new murderer and of course a new Oxford-based detective, following in the footsteps of too many to mention. DS Kate Stewart and her partner turn to medievalist Dr Jonathan Reynolds to help them solve a grisly murder, with reference to Beowulf, the eponymous hero who fought an epic monster in Grendel.

This is a carefully crafted, sophisticated novel of suspense, that draws the reader into the dark shadows of the University town, where a relentless killer with a penchant for literature hides in the shadows. A student is found decapitated in the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre and, with the body, is a cryptic note in a strange language. The note is finally recognised as a passage from the heroic poem Beowulf, and soon we see that the grisly murder replicates a bloody death in the work.

Then we see a second, equally grisly murder and find that the victim is Tom, a former student of Reynolds. A horrified Reynolds sees the crime’s link to another literary connection, an early English poem. We are forced to ask what is this obsession with medieval times, or is it with Dr Jonathan Reynolds himself? 

Another death suggests that a killer is working his way through the University’s English Literature syllabus, and the police and the scholar are drawn further into a hideous mystery where no one is safe. 

The novel is set in an Oxford of Morse, Gervase Fen, and Nigel Strangeways, the town of the traditional detective, but also an Oxford cowering in fear as the murders gain media coverage. DS Kate Stewart is an interesting character who bears comparisons with the aforementioned sleuths as she neatly steps towards the maniac taunting the town.

Who will be next? Who is the murderous enigma mocking the police, the public and especially the scholar Jonathan Reynolds?


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Come the Dark Night, by David Tregarthen, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday, 3 September 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "There Is (Still) Love Here" by Dean Atta



Words make such a 
difference,
they have to be in the right
order
of course and need to make
sense,
but when they do simplistic
beauty
is here before us as true
art
shows itself to a wondering
world.
Dean Atta a brave and courageous
writer
wears his heart on his
sleeve,
as he constructs a world of
love
and lost love, of family ties
broken
and strained as love tries to
win 
the day. Lovers are lost as the 
lonely 
world of covid swirls about us 
distancing 
him from those he
adored,
tearing him away from the 
loves
of his life at home and
abroad. 
You can almost 
taste
his grandmother's food as the 
aroma
pervades the page,
filling
your world with Cypriot
jewels
teasing taste buds and
nostrils
with words and perfect
images.
His Greek heritage teased and 
tormented
by matters so far from his
control.
His heart strained by the relentless 
pressure 
of a modern world that tries to 
press 
upon him their own limited
version 
of life and what love should be. 
Thankfully 
Atta resists this unwholesome
pressure
and tells us, in words so
beautiful,
what his own world 
is
and why his path is the true
path
and why his love can never be 
broken
despite what our world will
say.
We learn how to deal with
death
and division, of loss and
remorse
as loved ones leave us 
And loved ones 
join 
us in relationships
new.
Black Pride enhanced with
remembered 
kisses that taste of
Marmite
and toothpaste and coffee and boyish
love.
To see two black boys in
paradise
is to see how love
should
be and how it will always
be
if we only give his
love
a chance to show its worth and
shine.
A beautiful set of poems describing
life
today and how hard it can be to 
follow 
your own desirable path to
happiness.


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Thursday, 25 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Death of a Bookseller" by Bernard J. Farmer



If you are a crime fiction fan, you will be aware of the wonderful series published by the British Library of out of print crime classics that they have reintroduced for public consumption. The breadth of work covered is mesmerising and some have once again become best sellers.

I have just finished reading Death of a Bookseller in two sittings over coffee and cake at my favourite pub, the Royal Oak in Kirby Muxloe. It is a place highly conducive for reading crime fiction. All the usual suspects drink there!

I usually prefer the Golden Age of Crime, but this novel was written in 1956, the author unknown to me and the echoes of the period are clear even now. 

We are introduced to policeman Sergeant Jack Wigan who befriends bookseller Michael Fisk. Early in the novel the bookseller is murdered and the crime blamed on the unfortunate Fred Hampton, an unpleasant man without a friend in the world. Wigan believes him to be innocent of the crime, even when he is convicted and sentenced to death. 

He fights to clear his name and his journey is faithfully recorded here, as along with new-found friends Charlie North and Searle Connington he endeavours to do this, despite Hampton being the most unsympathetic and ignorant of clients. 

The story delves into the murky 1950s world of book selling where a slash of the razor is as regular as under-the-counter payments. We meet unscrupulous book sellers the Ferrow brothers and the sleazy Corky Edwards, the glamorous Ruth Brent and American multi-millionare Dithan Dand as well as a less than endearing Detective Inspector Saggs. There are so many characters who are described so eloquently that we struggle to discover the culprit until all is revealed. 

Books are stolen and resold, enmities cultivated and entrenched, the merest slight never forgotten. One cannot envisage the Waterstones Bookseller to behave in this manner but who knows? The denouement is blood-curdlingly fulfilling as Wigan fights to the very end to clear Hamptons name. You will enjoy this romp through the bookshops of London and might even be inclined to become a book collector yourself as the leading lights in the novel do. A gem.


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Detective Inspector Huss" by Helene Tursten



Following in the footsteps of Swedish crime writers, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, we are invited into the world of a detective and, through them, discover what life is like in Sweden. There is so much more in the Irene Huss novels than a simple crime and discovery and that is how it should be. That is the true delight of the stories. 

In brief, to introduce the main characters, Irene Huss is around forty years of age and is a police inspector working in Göteborg with the Violent Crimes Unit. She is happily married to a chef, Krister. She has twin girls Kristina and Jenny and a dog, Sammie. Many years ago she was European champion at jujitsu. 

Work colleague Tommy Persson is her best and oldest friend. They have known each other since the police academy. Indeed, Irene feels the pull of family in the police force as she says: “We’re just like an old married couple … though she’d never said so out loud.” 

Her boss, Commissioner Sven Andersson, is actually too old for his job and should retire, but he does not want to. He regularly has high blood pressure and worries Irene. 

Jonny Blom is the most unsympathetic of her work colleagues, always on the edge with a spiteful selfish nature. He seems to represent the old fashioned machismo side of the police. Jonny Blom is a corrosive influence within the group. If this was real life, he would have been formally reprimanded for his misogynistic behaviour and I see his character as a weakness in the series. It is all well and good having a defective character, but it has to be true to life. He is an embarrassment and disciplinary proceedings would have been started against him. Blom may be married, but his womanising and drinking as well as his sexism and intolerance would not be acceptable in a modern police force. To say that his boss has old-fashioned values, so doesn’t really understand Blom’s faults, is a little naïve and he doesn’t confront him as he should. Blom is tolerated more as a dramatic device, but I feel in real life he would have been ostracised by his work colleagues, especially after his sexual assault on Birgitta, and sanctioned by his bosses for his intemperate and inappropriate behaviour.

Fredrik Stridh, Hannu Rauhala, Birgitta Moberg and Svante Malm are more sympathetic colleagues and we can warm to them all. The final main character is Professor Doctor Yvonne Stridner who is the forensics specialist. Brilliant at her job, she seems to intimidate everyone in the office, especially Andersson.

The Irene Huss series by Helen Tursten is unique in Scandinavian crime fiction in that as well as being a contemporary story about a Göteborg Detective who has made it to the top, the stories also show that she’s happily married with her two daughters and lives a normal family life as a contrast to the seedy, unpleasant, and often violent work she is involved in. It is the everyday ordinariness of Swedish life that is pivotal here and so the awful murders that do occur stand out in their savagery compared to the day-to-day actions at home.

If you start with Detective Inspector Huss, her first novel, you will be on a journey into Swedish crime and the metamorphosis of a character who should be more widely read.


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Utrecht Snow on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Not So Quiet" by Helen Zenna Smith



In 1930 author Evadne Price was asked by her publisher to write a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Instead, she wrote a serious work, based on the now-lost diaries of Winifred Young, who served in France during the war as a volunteer ambulance driver.

As Helen Zenna Smith, Price wrote a supposed semi-biographical account providing an incredible female insight to the horrors of World War I. Not So Quiet criticises nationalism and the social, physical, and psychological effects of the war upon England's youth, men and women.

Praised by the Chicago Sun-Times for its "furious, indignant power," this story offered a rare, funny, bitter, and feminist look at war. First published in London in 1930, Not So Quiet ... (On the Western Front) describes a group of British women ambulance drivers on the French front lines during World War I, surviving shell fire, cold, and their punishing commandant, "Mrs. Bitch." The novel's power comes from Smith's outrage at the senselessness of war, at her country's complacent patriotism, and her own daily contact with the suffering and the wounded.

At the heart of the novel is the juxtaposition between the families of the young women back in England, who are puffed up with pride for what their girls are doing and the visions of glory that come with it, and the realities of the women’s lives on the front. Details are not skimped here and we are plunged into the filth, the squalor, and of course the unrelenting gore of transporting the critically injured soldiers from the battlegrounds to the war hospitals. Quickly Helen becomes bitter about her mother’s constant boasting about what she is doing and, when Helen is sent home ill for a time, she is faced with repeated encouragement to get better quickly and get back out there, if not to do her duty then to make her mother proud.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is seeing Helen gradually stop caring what her family think. In particular, there is the matter of hair. One of Helen’s new friends, Tosh, has chopped her long hair short, to the horror of some of the other volunteers. How ghastly and unfeminine! But in the filth of the situation, dealing with long hair is nothing more than another inconvenience in a life filled to the brim with them. The difference with hair is that you can do something about it. Yet, Helen is reluctant to do the same, and that reluctance comes from one place: her mother. The moment, about halfway through the novel, when she does chop her hair off, is an important symbol of her increasingly fractured relationship with her family, and more importantly, her family’s expectations.

When Helen is at home, ill, she becomes determined that she will not go back to France. She will not even get a "cushy" job in England. She is done with war, absolutely.

Helen’s sister, Trix, is also a "war girl," and comes back to England pregnant and in need of an abortion. The first thing she does is beg Helen not to tell her parents that she is in the country. Helen is against the abortion – not for moral reasons, but because it is dangerous, and girls die having them – and asks whether the man might marry her. Trix declares it could be any one of three men, and so Helen agrees to raise the money needed. There is only one thing to do. Go back to the front.

It is important that this is the reason that she goes back. She does not do it for glory, nor duty, nor to make her family proud. She does it because her beloved little sister needs her help, and because Trix also understands the horror of war. They were close anyway, but they are bound even tighter by the shared understanding that their experiences separate them from their family back at home. They have seen things that their parents and aunts will never see, and could not begin to comprehend.

This is a wonderful exposition of the crimes of the First World War. Suffering and the pointlessness of war are at the forefront of the novel. The denouement is heart-rending. It must be read.


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Review by Lisa Williams of "Madwoman" by Louisa Treger



          It was struggle, loss and longing that propelled the narrative forward ... 

 - Louisa Treger, Madwoman

Although this story is based on biographical facts of Nellie Bly’s life, the author stresses from the beginning that we are reading a work of fiction. The gaps in the record have been filled with Treger’s invention and this blend of fact and fiction is seamlessly woven into a fab read. Although a compelling character in real life it is Treger’s yarn-spinning skill that gets us rushing through the book.

In the prologue we find ourselves shackled to Nellie on the way to Blackwell’s Island, ‘a place of criminals, paupers, the sick and the insane’ with a guard warning us ‘you’ll never get out.’ Despite this prophecy, Nellie and the reader are comforted by the fact that ‘storytelling would get her through this.’ We’re hooked immediately, needing to know how this will end but Chapter One throws us back in time to her childhood.

After a taste of what’s to come, we find out how she got there; we’re with Nellie as she has the dawning realisation of the injustices of the world, discovers the fetters of her femininity. We share her struggles as she rallies against the differences between the opportunities available for her and the ones her brothers are given. At each stage we get glimpses of Nellie’s strong fighting spirit and how she battles against the usual role of women at that time. 

Nellie is, however, encouraged by her father to follow her dreams. At eleven he gives her a journal and fountain pen, bucking against the Victorian idea that ‘too much imagination can play havoc with a young girl’s mind.’  She has an unflinching drive to tell her story and we share her frustrations at the limited options available to her through her formative years before her story continues back on Blackwell’s Island.

The book is about storytelling. We follow Nellie in her struggle to create her own story as a woman in a male-dominated world. The Nellie we read about is part fiction, part fact and is a character you warm to instantly. She recognises the untold stories in the world, and with her indomitable strength of spirit she forges a way to tell them, getting them an audience while helping the other protagonists ultimately find their own voices too.


About the reviewer

Lisa Williams is a shopgirl and a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. https://linktr.ee/noodlebubble


You can read more about Madwoman by Louisa Treger, as well as an excerpt from the novel, on Creative Writing at Leicester here