Friday 30 October 2015

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Degrees of Twilight" by Maggie Butt

According to Shelley, "poetry ... may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time" - and there is certainly something peculiar to poetry about its relationship to time, something which marks poetry out - which, maybe, is part of its essence. Whereas painting and sculpture are naturally static forms, with no obvious fourth dimensions (though, of course, there are ways in which that stasis is subverted or complicated); whereas prose narrative fiction, at least in English, is naturally a linear form (in that it's read in a linear way, and set out as such, even when linearity is brought into question); and whereas music is necessarily experienced in a linear, almost narrative way; poetry is different. Often read in a non-linear way (you read a poem, then perhaps re-read it, and your eye does not necessarily move smoothly across the page, left to right), poetry is perhaps the most successful art form at capturing the complexity of time, at throwing a "bridge ... over the stream of time." Clearly, narrative prose fiction does have a fourth dimension - but, as I say, that time element assumes, more often than not, a basic linear, chronological mode, even where that linearity is disrupted.

Poetry can do something different: poetry, as Maggie Butt realises in her brilliant new collection, Degrees of Twilight (London Magazine, 2015), can simultaneously hold in its hand the present, past and future. In Butt's poetry, the reader can "listen to the future: rain-rocked, lake-like" precisely because "nothing divides the waters from the waters" - past, present, future waters all intermingle in her poems. Butt's poetry hears voices "calling down the years" from the past, watches as the present "all goes on," and foresees "futures latent as a roll of undeveloped film."

There are poems here which, to use her own words, are "forward-facing" and ones which are "backward-facing," watching the "open country of the past / spread itself far as the eye can see." And there are a lot of poems which are both: in the remarkble poem "Time Travellers," for example, "time zig-zags like a running man avoiding bullets," encompassing, as it does, scenes from a whole personal history; in "New Mothers," the mothers cry not just for present pain, but also for future "falls we can't womb you against: / the bully teachers, failures, phone calls in the night / beyond our arms," for which the mothers "paid up-front in tears"; in "Variance Analysis," a dull meeting "in a windowless room" is happening simultaneously "while the first day of spring unfurls outside; / and you are motorbiking scented country lanes / absorbing this year's deficit."

This is the poetry of simultaneity, of synchronicity, as multiple pasts, presents and futures co-exist in the same poems, sometimes even same lines. In the final poem, "Wish," the narrator poignantly attempts to reach towards a kind of Shelleyean timelessness, whereby, as Shelley himself puts it, "time and place and number are not." Here, future, past and present - the "years scampering by"- all finally seem to dissolve in the face of the narrator's wishes: "let there ever be you / let there ever be you."

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is

Thursday 22 October 2015

Review by Dips Patel of "Dead Leader" by Jang Jin-Sung, and "Nothing to Envy" by Barbard Demick

And I’ve just finished reading Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung, which is a memoir/autobiography of a guy who escaped out of North Korea (and escape is the right word, though fleeing for his life is more apt). He was a poet/writer/musician who somehow got himself into the inner-most circle of Kim Jong-il (this circle is referred to as "the Admitted," which tells you something about the cult of Kim) and right when he was riding that popularity wave at its highest, one careless slip, one "unthinking" moment meant his life was up for grabs and escaping to South Korea (via China) was the only option.

It is an immensely affecting insight into one of the most secretive, insular countries in the world and a disturbingly intimate look into Kim Jong-il’s reign and also reveals the history of the country post WWII, the split with the South, and how the North Korea of today came into being seen not from an outsider’s perspective, but a man who had access to government documents and workings.
I’ve read and recommended Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy countless times and while that chronicles the lives of the ordinary Korean on the street (so to speak; it’s essentially a series of interviews with six defectors given some novelisation stylings), this gives you the chance to see North Korea from a different angle, from a real insider’s view, life in N. Korea for the privileged few and what that looks like and means. As Jin-Sung recounts his life and escape, it also reveals how North Koreans are seen and treated by the Chinese, by South Koreans and by fellow North Koreans, particularly ethnic Koreans living in China. As is the case with Demick’s book, there are several moments reading the book where I put it down, got up and walked away, got myself a brew, went for a walk, just did something to give myself some breathing space before I continued reading, as lumps-in-the-throat appear with more frequency than is comfortable and what you read becomes almost overwhelming. Yeah, I would say Dear Leader is absolutely worth reading as it is bang up-to-date (2014) and if you haven’t read Nothing to Envy (2009), that’s an essential read too!

About the reviewer
Dips Patel is a graduate in Graphic Design which means he can colour in without going over the lines and when he does he makes it look deliberate, cool and edgy. He much prefers fine art where the art of talking nonsense is finer still allowing him extremely moderate success in introducing his work to a wider audience. Hobbies include reading stuff, watching stuff, commendably misguided attempts at painting stuff and consuming copious amounts of coco pops, clementines, curries, cakes and cocktails, not all at the same time which is frowned upon in polite society.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Dips Patel reviews Justin Kurzel's "Macbeth" and writes about his "Snowtown" and Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood"

The latest version of Macbeth hit the big-screen recently, directed by Justin Kurzel (who brought us Snowtown, which if you haven’t seen is well worth catching; brutal, grim and based on a true story it’s worth bracing yourself before you press play on that one...)
I digress, back to Macbeth, this time we have Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles. Visually sumptuous, the cinematography is exhilarating (and could easily be cast as a character in its own right) some interesting modern flourishes to the story and generally casting is spot on with Fassbender immensely affecting and pretty much perfect as the initially sceptical and apprehensive would-be king turned maniacal tyrant. My only issue with the film is, and it pains me to type this, Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Don’t get me wrong, I love her, I think she’s a fantastic actor and has a great screen presence but a presence which doesn’t quite ring true for this role, her understated take on the character lacking any ‘theatrical’ quirks (a good thing) but also lacking (a bad thing) in that believable insidious lust for power that in my head, the character is consumed by, not just for her husband but herself. In my ever-so-humble-opinion, it’s the Lady Macbeth character that’s the driving force of the play and sadly I just didn’t get that from Cottilard’s performance, nonetheless , the film as a whole is definitely worth watching. 
Now then, for a pretty awesome Macbeth-y film I would highly recommend Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which loosely takes the story and sticks it into a feudal Japan. Starring Kurosawa stalwart and long-time collaborator, Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu in the Macbeth role, and even given the deviations from the original source (of which there are many, including having just one witch instead of three who, by the way gave me the heebiejeebies) for the most part it’s a fantastic take on the Scottish Play. The point of me mentioning this now, sapping the last vestige of your patience is simply the performance by Isuzu Yamada, who plays Lady Asaji Washizu (the Lady Macbeth equivalent role). Creepy as hell, hugely impressive and wholly believable as the quietly Machiavellian wife whose whispering words in her husband’s shell-like unleash a murderous monster before falling to pieces as the realisation and ramifications of her machinations make themselves at home. A mesmerising, stunning and exquisitely pitched performance, well worth a peek.

About the reviewer
Dips Patel is a graduate in Graphic Design which means he can colour in without going over the lines and when he does he makes it look deliberate, cool and edgy. He much prefers fine art where the art of talking nonsense is finer still allowing him extremely moderate success in introducing his work to a wider audience. Hobbies include reading stuff, watching stuff, commendably misguided attempts at painting stuff and consuming copious amounts of coco pops, clementines, curries, cakes and cocktails, not all at the same time which is frowned upon in polite society.

Friday 16 October 2015

Night out with the Nanna's: Alex Bliss writes about a live gig by “Nanna Radleys Band”

Night out with the Nanna's by Alex Bliss

Nanna Radleys Band
So on a Saturday night, I have a problem. I’m not much of a clubber anymore; I’m fed up of having to shout to talk to my friends, I’ve got absolutely no rhythm and I am growing ever more angry at rising cloakroom prices. I like to sit in a pub until the early hours, chatting with my friends.

But my best friend, Verity, now she likes to dance and won’t hesitate to cut into the pub conversation with a cutting, “I’m bored now.”

Some weeks ago, Verity and I were trekking through town heading to a bar (to avoid paying the cloakroom fee at the eventual club, I am wearing only a T Shirt and am freezing!), when we pass O’Neills Bar on Loseby Lane and hear Ain't Nobody by Chaka Khan being belted out. I wanted to warm up (and get a pint), and Verity spied a dancefloor…

The Nanna Radleys (a band neither of us had heard of) were playing, and your foot starts tapping (or in my case shoulders bopping) almost the moment you walk in the door.

The atmosphere was heady with pure and simple fun! There is not posturing from the band, no slightly irritating attempt to be "cool" (they just are). It is brilliantly performed covers all the way and it is clear they know their job is to entertain their audience.

I got the drinks in and Verity headed straight for the dance floor. But soon the infectious music - songs you are either guaranteed to know or at the very least sort of remember the tune - had me dancing on the edge of the crowd, clutching the drinks. The bar was packed, and all seats long claimed.

The Nanna’s (as they call themselves) are a six piece band. They are led by singers, and sisters, Lauren and Sarah Bird. Sarah has a powerful, belting voice that brims with soul and a diva presence as big and fabulous as the flower pinned to her quiff. Lauren has a sensuous voice that leads you happily to the dancefloor (shoulders bopping!) and injects excitement into the repertoire as she throws herself into a rendition of Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out.

The rest of the band is made up of David (guitar), Glen (bass), Carlos (drummer), and Craig (keys); all (to my unprofessional yet judgmental-a-though-a-professional-eye) brilliantly talented. One really nice and quite unique point to note about the Nanna’s is the range of ages: 27 - 57. Yet their laidback camaraderie and genuine warmth can be easily felt by the crowd.

Between them, they soon even have the men dancing and you feel like they are at least partly drawn by the music and not the ladies on a Hen Night already occupying the dance floor. I soon make my way to join Verity, sufficiently embarrassing myself with my dance moves but cheered by the Hen flirting with me (I think…).

Without a doubt, the Nanna’s provide Leicester’s least boring night out. You can sit, sup and sing along or bound onto the dancefloor and enjoy the fact that it’s not sticky. Like the Nanna’s themselves, the bar was choker with different ages; this is a band suitable for all.

Verity wasn’t bored. We’re going back.

Nanna Radleys Band website:

About the reviewer
Alex Bliss is a writer and producer. He is co-director of Original Ink, a theatre production company who have supported local writers, directors and actors by producing evenings of short plays which include: Hashtag, Mashed and The Meltdown Test. He has written plays for the 14/48 at the Y Theatre and currently works in events at Curve in Leicester. He is writing the book for a new musical soon to be performed at the Sue Townsend Theatre called Madeline and Joe, which revolves around a relationship between a young couple trying to conceive.

Review by Lloyd Wright of “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr

Many first time foreign visitors to Japan arrive with an impressive set of delusions about their new surroundings, but American writer Alex Kerr avoided that fate by spending the best part of several decades there, from 1960s schooldays to middle age in the compelling and award winning Lost Japan (1993).

The upshot is an eclectic, insightful and very enjoyable collection of essays which take the reader into areas such as kabuki, calligraphy, to his sterling efforts renovating an abandoned old farmhouse in rural Japan.

He beautifully weaves intellectual curiosity with personal frustrations and trenchant opinions about contemporary Japan and its shortcomings (e.g. Kyoto). “After centuries of political intrigue ... the people of Kyoto have developed the technique of never saying anything.”

He unravels myths and celebrates the best aspects of his adopted country in a chatty and engaging style. Along the way, the reader is introduced to some key friends and associates who shaped his understanding such as his first Japanese teacher in America who chastised him in an early lesson for introducing himself as “Alex-san” (i.e. Mr Alex) because “san” is a value-laden honorific suggesting a degree of self-promotion that would not go down well in modest, ego-suppressing Japanese society.

One impressive feature of Lost Japan is the way that pan-Asian perspectives, whether Burmese mandelas or Chinese temple design, are dropped in to remind the reader of a much larger context beyond Japan. He states: “I realised I could never understand Japan if I did not know something about China.”

This book is a gloriously honest and passionate piece of writing which repays multiple readings. So, should you be lucky enough to find a copy, let “Alex-san” take you on a memorable journey up, down and through one of the most fascinating places on the planet.     

About the reviewer
Lloyd Wright is an under-employed EFL teacher who values engagement with students and others from across the globe – Chile to China – and especially their quirky views about British life. He writes occasional articles for diverse outlets and was briefly on the Disney payroll while writing about the unfolding drama of the 2002 World Cup.

Review by Dips Patel of “Alone in Berlin” by Hans Fallada

Easily ranks as one of my all-time favourite books and is one of my “go-to” books whenever I’m asked to recommend a book to anyone who asks me, “I want something I can really get me teeth into.”

It’s probably better to describe this as “faction” – the story is littered with biographical details of the author (as is the case for a lot of his novels) and is about a couple who were opposed to the Nazi regime in Berlin. After their son is killed fighting for the Nazis, the couple embark on a campaign of dissent, writing anti-National Socialist slogans on postcards and then dropping them in the stairwells of apartment buildings around the city.

The book can be seen roughly in a split, the first half is about the couple and the effect the war has on them, their relationship, and their relationships with their family, friends and neighbours. The second half becomes a real cat-and-mouse thriller with the couple trying to evade the attentions of the Gestapo Inspector charged with finding and stopping them.

What makes this book, for me anyway, is that the couple the story revolves around were real (and in the paperback there are facsimile copies of documents on the couple as part of the Gestapo’s files on them, as well as copies of some of the postcards they created). The author knew of them but didn’t really know them personally as such, so this is a fictionalised account of who they were and what they did. An extraordinary novel, brutal, harrowing and exhausting you will remember this long after you’ve finished reading it.

About the reviewer
Dips Patel is a graduate in Graphic Design which means he can colour in without going over the lines and when he does he makes it look deliberate, cool and edgy. He much prefers fine art where the art of talking nonsense is finer still allowing him extremely moderate success in introducing his work to a wider audience. Hobbies include reading stuff, watching stuff, commendably misguided attempts at painting stuff and consuming copious amounts of coco pops, clementines, curries, cakes and cocktails, not all at the same time which is frowned upon in polite society.

Lauren Bird interviews writer and producer Alex Bliss

Lauren Bird interviews writer and producer Alex Bliss

Alex Bliss
Alex Bliss is a writer and producer. He is co-director of Original Ink, a theatre production company who have supported local writers, directors and actors by producing evenings of short plays which include: Hashtag, Mashed and The Meltdown Test. He has written plays for the 14/48 at the Y Theatre and currently works in events at Curve in Leicester. He is writing the book for a new musical soon to be performed at the Sue Townsend Theatre called Madeline and Joe, which revolves around a relationship between a young couple trying to conceive.
LB. What inspired the story between Madeline and Joe?

AB. I was writing a musical with Jed Spittle about a band. The plot revolved around the members of the band and their lives in and out of the group (think Almost Famous but set in the 80s in Ibiza). We managed to get funding from the European Regional Development Fund to stage the musical, but quickly realised that the idea was too large - especially as we wanted the actors to also play the instruments.

There were two characters in that original story who were, for me, the most interesting characters: the most complex and real; and they had the most powerful storyline in the piece. That of, trying and failing to have a baby.

LB. Why a musical?

AB. Musicals, with some notable exceptions, have a reputation for being frivolous, superficial; all jazz-hands and kick-ball changes. There are very few musicals which try and address a challenging subject, such as infertility. Then, when writers do try to change the status quo, the project fails commercially. For instance, there was a musical called Next to Normal which dealt with a mother with bipolar disorder. The show won a Pulitzer Prize, but flopped commercially. I want to try again with a musical with a serious subject matter. I believe that a good musical should have a song at a moment of high emotion (whether that's happy or sad) as the characters need to reach for more than words in that instance and that's why I felt it was important to write this as a musical.

LB. We did our undergraduate and postgraduate degrees together and have been set similar assignments during our education, which mostly involved writing alone. I want to know how it is working in close collaboration with the other people involved in this project.

AB. It is challenging! But also very rewarding. So, we have Jed Spittle and Martin Slipp who have composed the songs and Michelle Gutteridge, who has directed the show and the main problems come when everyone is looking at the idea from their own point of view; from their discipline. We're all opinionated and a big bone of contention in the writing of the piece has been about the ending. We couldn't agree on whether it not it should end in a positive way; with there being strong opinions and arguments for a happy ending and the opposite.

Eventually, I wrote a new ending and then went to visit my parents in Devon. I sent the new scenes by email and heard nothing until I met up with the group for a rehearsal. We try to be as collaborative and inclusive as possible, but everyone had either added in or taken aspects from the new ending I wrote. At first, I was annoyed! We should've spoken about it first. However, when the actors played it out, I realised it was so much better and now we have an ending we're all proud of. And it's a lovely thing to know that it was a joint effort.

LB. How tough has the research aspect of the project been? Are you all clued up on ovulation and conception now?

AB. All I know is: ovulation is extremely complicated! I try not to get too bogged down into the medical jargon and have focused more on visiting forums and websites where couples going through IVF and fertility issues talk about their experiences. Some of the lines from the musical have come from being inspired by the emotions conveyed through those blogs and forums. Such as: "£6000 down the drain and our arms are still empty."

LB. You are co-director and co-producer of a theatre production company Original Ink. As Original Ink is acting as producer of the show, how easy is it to marry both roles as writer and producer?

AB. You have to go beyond what you want to write when you're thinking as a producer. A producer is about the bottom line: what sells. And so, as I'm writing, I'm fully aware of this.

There's also the stress of trying to promote the show whilst writing it. I have to prioritise writing social media statuses over re-writing scenes sometimes and that can be a hard way to think, as a writer. I had to console myself with the fact that there's no one to throw a hissy fit at, as I'd just be throwing one at myself!

It's also very easy to lose the quality of the show; or the perspective of the quality of it. I've seen it and read it so many times I sometimes don't know what to think of it. What was invaluable was being able to workshop the piece and showcase it to family, friends and industry professionals at Curve. I think this entire project has been a learning curve in collaboration and taking on constructive feedback and just having the balls to show something you've created to a group of people and honestly asking: "How can this be better?"

About the interviewer
Lauren Bird is a writer and musician from Leicester. She has written and directed two short plays which were produced by Original Ink and performed at Upstairs at the Western. She performs in various covers and originals bands in Leicester and currently works at the University of Leicester library.

Monday 12 October 2015

Review by Alexandros Plasatis of a scary event at Fosse Public Library

I slowed down as I cycled along Tudor Road so I could take in what I saw, and I saw people standing outside their front doors, some holding a can of beer or a spliff, it was a lively road, and I wondered if Everybody’s Reading Festival was good enough to reach out to those people, not only the ones that see themselves as book lovers or whatever - that would be too easy - but those ones, those with the hard lines on their faces. And, down down down then left and right, I reached Fosse Library.

It was a tiny library, and the children’s section was set for the event with spider webs here and there, on the wall a dark castle surrounded by bats, witches’ hats all over the floor, and 15 or so children, some of them dressed in scary costumes. Some parents were there too. A boy was on the floor, underneath blankets, pretending to be asleep. I heard some kids talking about me, saying, “We have never seen this man before, who is this man?” and I didn’t say anything, I was looking mean, because I wanted to add to the atmosphere, because I am mysterious anyway.

A young female library staff member was hanging about in the children’s area, and after a while she said, “Are you prepared to be scared?” and someone switched off the lights. She stood in the middle of the children’s section, in the semi-darkness, all about her the scary decorations, and said: “Close your eyes and switch on your imagination,” and the kids sat on the floor, around her, circling her, and closed their eyes. Some parents closed their eyes too, but I was a bit suspicious of all that and kept my eyes open, just in case. A little girl stood up: “Wake up!” she said, and gave a threatening glance to us all: “I’ll tell you a story and you won’t be able to sleep. Ever again.” I thought, “Oh you mean little thing, I will sleep like a log.” Then the library girl ordered the children to make scary noises and the children went bonkers, they screamed screamed screamed, they were mad.

We were going to hear stories now, the library girl said, written by the children, especially for the occasion. One by one, the children stood up and read their stories, they read them out loud, and I heard about the ghost of Fosse Library, a strange creature called “Zozo” who ate two girls in the Library’s toilets the other day; about the training witch who wanted to transform a TV into a dog but unfortunately it came out as a sausage roll that tasted really bad; about radiators who bubble and gargle maliciously; about spiders who follow us. They all told their stories, and when they felt self-conscious as it can happen sometimes, they glanced at the library girl who encouraged them with a smile or a scary face.
Then a male member of staff took over and read out a scary poem, which was fine, but his real expertise showed straight after that, when he told us the story of Cold Johnny and Mean Morgan and some other chap whose name I didn’t catch. The guy was a natural storyteller, he narrated without reading from the book, and his performance was flawless, professional and impressive.

Back to the library girl, she ordered the kids to make scary faces and noises and they went mad again. Then she asked all of us to come closer (of course I didn’t), and those who dared formed a circle, and they had to keep on jumping because, apparently, a big scary hairy ball was after them: they jumped and laughed and they had fun and I laughed too. Meanwhile, I noticed (because I’m a very observant guy) that the boy who was pretending to be asleep earlier, had slipped out of the blankets and crept outside the library. He moved from window to window now, making scary faces at us, turning reality into fiction, living the fiction, but I got worried because no-one else seemed to notice him; I was wondering if he was real or if I was slightly influenced by the whole thing.

The children stood in a line, having a creative task to complete: the first one was supposed to come up with a sentence, the second would continue it, and eventually we would hear a scary story, but the first child was so excited that told us a whole scary story in one very long sentence.                   

And I sat back, thinking what a pleasure it was to listen to their stories, how much effort and love the library staff put into this event, how they had ignited the kids’ creativity, what great things happen in tiny public libraries like this one in this urban neighbourhood: in other words, I was lost in kind thoughts, when... “Boo!” three silly girls came behind me and made me jump.

“Now we will hear the Fosse Singers,” said the library girl: “Music, please,” and a lovely piano tune began (good coordination with the person who pressed “Play”, I thought), and the children’s lovely voices sang a scary scary song, and then another one, and it felt good, I liked it.

The library staff thanked the participants and the audience, and asked for a goodbye tune and the piano tune began, and as I turned to make my way out, I encountered my last surprise as I saw this chap right behind me playing the keyboard, waving his musical goodbye.  

About the reviewer
Alexandros Plasatis lives in Leicester and had short stories published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (2012), Unthology 6 (2015), and Crystal Voices: Ten Years of Crystal Clear Creators (2015).

Review by Lloyd Wright of “Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria” by Kapka Kassabova

From time to time my book collection has been significantly enlivened by obscure gems from old library stock, made available to the public for 50p or less. A few years ago I stepped out of a Leicester library clutching a copy of the wonderful Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, by Kapka Kassabova (2008).

As Bulgaria was about to join the EU and I knew little about the place beyond its role as a cheap property magnet for some Brits, I was eager to get reading.

The author superbly combines travel and memoir with a generous sprinkling of Balkan history in a book that evokes the grim atmosphere, contradictions and absurdities of growing up under Bulgarian communism at the height of the Soviet Empire. As if in direct dialogue with the old regime, she quickly asserts: “Beauty might be more important to the ego of a country, but truth is more important to me.”

Now a successful expat writer living in Edinbourgh, Kapka travels back after a long absence to a changing country, yet brings the perspective of a sharp-eyed outsider with an insiders grap of the good, the bad and the unbearably nostalgic. Her travel companion is an English-speaking boyfriend which only adds to the feeling that she now occupies a very different world from the everyday Bulgarians they meet.

The chapters zigzag through various stages of the author’s life before emigration with vivid descriptions of Sofia life spent in a residential complex known colloquially as “Soc Bloc.” Nevertheless, as someone with professional parents, her family enjoyed occasional trips to Moscow and other foreign delights.

Indeed, one highlight of the book concerns her mother’s reaction while visiting her father in Holland on a 6 month job placement during the cold war: the “orgy of abundance” in department stores, the “supernaturally clean sheets” and the “sparkling, perfumed” toilets in a provincial Dutch town puts her on the brink of a breakdown. When a Dutch colleague and his family then visit her father in monochrome Sofia in their brand new camper van wearing “bright pastel colours,” it is a moment of real comic beauty tinged with sadness.

I have subsequently visited Bulgaria on several occasions and can honestly recommend the country as much as the book. Happy reading – and happy travelling.

About the reviewer
Lloyd Wright is an under-employed EFL teacher who values engagement with students and others from across the globe – Chile to China – and especially their quirky views about British life. He writes occasional articles for diverse outlets and was briefly on the Disney payroll while writing about the unfolding drama of the 2002 World Cup.

Review by Dips Patel of the BP Portrait Award 2015 at National Portrait Gallery

Annabelle and Guy by Matan Ben-Cnaan, 2015: Oil on Board 1195 x 1395mm

While I was in the big smoke I strolled off to the National Portrait Gallery to check out the BP Portrait Award. This is the first year it's been open internationally and it shows in the breadth of the work. (Previously it was open to UK based artists, regardless of nationality.)

There's been a very strong return to photo/hyper-realist styles and pieces over the last few years and while the sheer technical execution of the work renders you more often than not utterly speechless (and at times light-headed, for example the picture below) after a while, when you see it over and over again, it loses its power somehow and that's really unfair on both the work and the artist, but what can you do? We are at the mercy of the judges and the curators! Anyway, this year it was staggering! The first prize winner was astonishing (it’s the picture above with the artist himself), capturing light at the best of times is damn difficult, but to be able capture a light that is so recognisable and inextricably linked to our idea of what light, colours and textures are in that part of the world is nothing short of miraculous (the picture on screen just doesn't do it justice) up close in the flesh, as it were, it is almost unbelievable. And I can say that about any number of the pieces in that exhibition, my favourite ones tend to be the more expressive “painterly” works rather than the photorealism ones.

Juanito by José Luis Corella, 2014: Oil on board
Don't get me wrong about this, I can only stand in awe and admiration for the skill and technique these folks have and detract nothing from them or their work, but my own artistic sensibilities have always leaned toward the more expressive, “abstracty” style of fine art. Put simply, given the choice of a Pollack or a Constable, I'd pick the paint dripper 9/10 times. As much as I like the 1st prize winner in this exhibition, I actually liked the third prize winner piece more (below), there is something I don't know, “other,” about it, the fact it's not “complete,” there's bare canvas showing around the portrait, you can see paint drips and washes and “underneath” work, coupled with just the way the portrait has been executed it's just got that “je ne sais quoi” about it…

My Mother and My Brother on a Sunday Evening by Borja Buces Renard, 2014: Oil on Canvas 1600 x 2200mm
Again, seeing it onscreen isn't the same as in the flesh. Anyway, whenever it's the summer be sure to catch this show, it happens every year, it's free and you never know what you'll see, very exciting!

About the reviewer
Dips Patel is a graduate in Graphic Design which means he can colour in without going over the lines and when he does he makes it look deliberate, cool and edgy. He much prefers fine art where the art of talking nonsense is finer still allowing him extremely moderate success in introducing his work to a wider audience. Hobbies include reading stuff, watching stuff, commendably misguided attempts at painting stuff and consuming copious amounts of coco pops, clementines, curries, cakes and cocktails, not all at the same time which is frowned upon in polite society.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Devil's Bit" by Richard Byrt

In Richard Byrt's poem, "How to Behave in a Museum," the narrator is told by a museum official that "it's time / [he] ... grew up." In response, the narrator asks "'Why? / I'm only 75.'" This is after setting off the fire extinguisher, skateboarding down the balustrade, and staging a miniature food fight in the canteen. In many of the original and memorable poems in Byrt's first pamphlet-length collection, Devil's Bit (De Montfort Books, 2015), the narrators - the multifarious voices assumed by the author - are similarly mischievous, ironic, mocking, disruptive, anarchic, anti-authoritarian, mock-ironic-authoritarian, and so on. This is a mischievous, naughty collection of poems, where First World War soldiers nip off together for stolen liaisons, bored partners get drunk in the interval during performances of Hamlet, ex-tax inspectors become inept graffiti artists. 

In a general sense, the collection moves from childhood attempts to bow to authority, in poems such as "Learning the Hard Way," to adolescent and adult moments of sexual rebellion, in poems such as "Others," and finally to "mature" (very much in inverted commas here, thank goodness), open forms of rebellion, in poems such as "A Small Price for Freedom," as well as poems in which the narrators assume mock-authoritarian voices. Indeed, this is one of Byrt's real strengths as a writer: the ability not merely to capture moments and voices of rebellions, but also to mimic voices of authority, and then undermine them from within:

As a Government
we have solved
the Problem
of The Elderly,

reduced the burden 
and staffing bills
by introducing robots
who can hydrate
The Elderly, ...

... thus providing 

holistic care 
of The Elderly,
closely supervised

by a robot matron
at a central panel
who operates

All the Controls. 

About the reviewer Jonathan Taylor's books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is 

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Interview with Jonathan Taylor

 Writer Jonathan Taylor interviewed by Alexandros Plasatis
Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007), the novels Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) and Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators. His website is and he tweets at @crystalclearjt.

AP. Why did you write Melissa?

JT. I didn't want to write a second novel. I'm one of those writers who always think the book they're writing will be their last - who think there may be a more sensible way of spending their time (such as electric trains, or breeding guinea pigs, or something like that). But one day, a few months after I'd finished the first novel, I was in the bath - which, as everyone knows, is where the best ideas happen - and the whole idea behind the novel, the whole central image, even most of the storyline came to me all at once. That's never happened before - I don't believe in inspiration, really - and I was really pissed off, I can tell you. I got out of the bath thinking, damn, that's the next few years gone. No guinea pigs. No electric trains. Instead, I'm going to have to write this novel, so it'll go away. Of course, having said all that, when it came to starting to write, it was the most pleasurable thing in the world, and I've never enjoyed writing a book more.

AP. How did it feel writing about Stoke-on-Trent, your hometown?

JT. I often write about Stoke. Oddly enough, there are a lot of novelists and poets from Stoke: though they usually have to leave (like Arnold Bennett did) before they write about it retrospectively. "No man (or woman, for that matter) is a prophet in his own land," and all that. For these writers, home becomes a kind of imagined place, a kind of Midlands, industrial (or post-industrial) Ithaca. I've always said that there are two types of writers - though I think now that it's a continuum, not a polarity - those who endlessly write about somewhere called home, and those who endlessly write about the unhomely. I'm definitely in the former category. Never thought I would be when I was growing up: then I hated Stoke, and couldn't wait to get away. But clearly, things change when you are away.

AP. You've published a few books now: a memoir (Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself), a novel (Entertaining Strangers), a poetry collection (Musicolepsy), a short story collection (Kontakte and Other Stories), and now you have this new novel coming out. Which one did you enjoy writing the most and which one do you think is your best work?

JT. I think it would be depressing for a writer not to think that the latest book is the best. I love "Melissa," my second novel, and it means more to me - at the moment - than anything else. The process of writing it was a joy, but also I just think I've learnt a lot by writing the other books which I've applied here. I think it's the closest I've come to telling a simple story, and it's also my most overtly emotional book.

AP. I've told you before how much I like your fiction, but I've never read your two non-fiction books, Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing and Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Are they any good?

JT. Well, I think they're for specific readerships: they're academic works of literary criticism. But in many ways they share the same concerns as some of my fiction and poetry: the relationship between music and literature, the abuses of power, cosmology and physics and so on. Incidentally, I'm currently writing a third academic book, this time on the role of laughter and dark comedy in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature. Again, this reflects my creative work, which is often grotesquely comic.

AP. You're married to a poet, Maria Taylor. Does this influence your writing in any way? And I had the chance to meet your notorious twin daughters. Have they influenced your writing somehow?

JT. Yes to both: the twins and Maria are the most major influences in my life, of course. Maria's always been my first (and probably main) intended reader. All writers need an honest, trusted first reader and critic - and Maria's criticism of the memoir, my poetry and the two novels shaped what these books eventually became. It's not just a matter of getting good feedback: it's a matter of trusting the judgement of the person giving you that feedback. As regards the twins, well, they've influenced every single thing I've done since they were born. I've even written about them on various occasions (e.g. in the poetry book). Even though they're only seven, they've also shaped - oddly enough - my two novels. The rhythms of daily routines with the twins have determined how the books were structured. Entertaining Strangers is all short chapters, because a lot of it was written in short bursts between feeds and nappies, when they were young. Melissa is more of a linear, sustained story - but is also quieter, I think - because I wrote it mainly at night, after they'd gone to bed.

AP. And a last one for Melissa: Has it changed you as person in any way?

JT. I think Melissa reflects a certain part of my life - my own childhood, and particularly the years from about 2011 to late 2014. Quite how, I'll leave people to guess.

At roughly 2pm on 9th June 1999, on a small street in Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl dies of leukaemia; at almost the same moment, all her neighbours on the street experience the same musical hallucination. The novel is about this death and accompanying phenomenon – and about their after-effects, as the girl’s family gradually disintegrates in the wake of a terrible trauma.

Jonathan's second novel, Melissa, is published by Salt
About the interviewer
Alexandros Plasatis lives in Leicester and had short stories published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (2012), Unthology 6 (2015), and Crystal Voices: Ten Years of Crystal Clear Creators (2015).

Review by Figen Gungor of the "Telling Our Stories" event at the Donkey Pub, Leicester

The Donkey Pub

Telling Our Stories – Everybody’s Reading Event

Wednesday 30th September – 7:30pm

KGB Jazz, Harry Whitehead, Mellow Baku ft Marcus Joseph

Entering the pub at around 8:40pm, I walked in on KGB Jazz’s performance. A four man (well two being female) jazz band – their attitude lively and their music filled with even more life. The band members had great chemistry with one another and this was reflected through their music filled with mellow harmonies. The lead singer sported some rather joyous footwork.

Next on stage was Dr Harry Whitehead, who was the main focus of the Everybody’s Reading event and the main reason for my trek down to the small but cosy The Donkey Pub. He announced that his short story may put a downer on the previous spectacle. His short story was a comedic-but-grim-at-times gripping tale about fatherhood and the idea of family with hilarious pop culture references. A Father that had abandoned his family left behind a mangled mess of confusion and hurt brewing within the mind of his son. A son still looking for validation from his Father who has given up on any sort of connection causes awkward and forced conversations and a feeling of humorous empathy within the audience.

To brighten the mood Mellow Baku entered the stage, a beautifully charming character with a beautiful voice sang songs entailing many controversial topics such as police brutality, racism and the idea of one being free. She called upon stage Marcus Joseph, a Jazz musician who she had collaborated with on his latest album. Together they were a wonderfully delightful duo to listen to.

Overall the night was spectacular.

About the reviewer
Figen Gungor is currently a first year undergraduate student studying English at the University of Leicester at the late age of 21. When she isn’t busy studying she enjoys drinking tea at cute local cafes with a not so cute horror novel. She is currently working on finishing a transgressive fiction novel.

Monday 5 October 2015

Review by Charlotte Selby of "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs

I first heard about Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children when I discovered that Tim Burton would be directing the film adaptation. Despite not being a big fan of things on the eerily creepy side, I have a lot of admiration for Tim Burton’s works. So I picked up a copy of the book. 

Ransom Riggs has a fascination for things of the peculiar and started visiting abandoned places and collecting eerie photographs which the intention of creating a books of the things he had collected. However, his editor said this wouldn’t sell, so suggested that Ransom try to create a story from the photographs, and so this novel was born. 

This is the first book in the trilogy and follows Jacob who idolizes his Grandpa due to the stories he tells from his time in Miss Peregrine’s orphanage, to the odd photographs he owns. In Jacob’s fifteenth year, his Grandpa takes a bad turn, believing that invisible monsters are coming to get him, and shortly dies leaving behind his dying word: Rosebud. Suffering a monumental loss lands Jacob with a psychiatrist who tells Jacob that to best way to deal with his depression is to go the his island his Grandpa grew up on, and find the explanation behind his cryptic last words. 

On Cairholm Island in Wales, Jacob finds Miss Peregrine’s home – which is in ruins – and starts to investigate. Here he discovers a girl who can create fire with her hands and a boy who can turn invisible. Both he has seen before in his Grandpa’s photographs. They chase him and Jacob suddenly finds himself trapped in September 3rd 1940, the day Miss Peregrine’s home was destroyed by a bomb dropped during World War II. And he’s stuck in a time loop where the day restarts just as the bomb hits the home. 

I simply adored the use of prose and photographs and how they worked together to move the story forward. If you’re looking for a creepy read, this is it!

About the reviewer
Charlotte Selby is a 22 year old Creative Writing and English DMU graduate who can be found in a dark corner working on her novel. 

Sunday 4 October 2015

Review by Hesmita Patel of Dips Patel’s unnamed series paintings

Untitled. Oil on Canvas (40” x 30”) 2009

Having seen some of the previous figure work in the unnamed series by Dips Patel, I was excited and honoured that he offered to create a one off unique piece for me.

Untitled. Pen and Indian Ink on Canvas (60” x 24”) 2012

Looking at this piece it is easy to overlook the complexities depicted within the perceived simplicity of the figures. When I look at this piece I am drawn to the emotions that I feel each individual figure appears to represent. The slight tilt of a head showing me sadness, two figures facing each other showing me friendship and love and two back to back figures showing anger and frustration. I feel that you can look at this piece in a range of different moods and find a figure that you can relate to at that specific moment in time, demonstrating the subjective nature of this work.

Untitled. Pen and Indian Ink on Canvas (40” x 35”) 2014

Each time I look at it I notice new intricacies and have new thoughts about the work. The fading of the figures into the background adds another level of depth and the perception of infinity, perhaps also representing the infinite amount of emotions one can displace onto the figures.

About the reviewer
Hesmita Patel has recently qualified as an Occupational Therapist, embarking upon her career in sunny Manchester. She likes baking, reading, occasionally running quite far for charitable causes and has been known to worship at the altar of fizzy cola bottles, having converted from the Church of Strawberry Laces.