Wednesday 20 December 2017

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Now You Can Look" by Julia Bird

One of the historical strengths of poetry as a 'form' is its protean ability to mingle and assimilate different genres and sub-genres. Poetry is a hybrid. This is very clear in Julia Bird’s beautiful new collection, Now You Can Look, which mingles memoir, autobiography, biography, history, ekphrasis, prose poetry and fiction, alongside beautiful illustrations by Anna Vaivare. 

This mingling of genres is everywhere in Bird’s collection: the final poem of the collection, ‘I Wait for My A-Level Results,’ may well be partly autobiographical; ‘A Bomb Damage Report’ is ostensibly local history; ‘We Leaf Through Her Sketchbook’ sounds like a biographer – or biographers plural – retrospectively looking back on a female artist’s life; ‘The Artist, Aged 9, Plays a Parlour Game’ reads like a scene from a novel, about a fictional, early-twentieth-century female artist. If the collection as a whole mingles genres in this way, so do the individual poems: ‘Without Confiding in a Soul, She Goes to Get Her Hair Cut’ mingles the styles of biography and fiction, and even (possibly) autobiography. 

In this sense, the poems also intermingle characters across time – a fictional female artist from the early-twentieth century, with traces of real-life twentieth-century female artists, with the author’s (or narrator’s) own experiences, with an almost-trans-historical ‘you.’ ‘The Artist, Aged 9, Plays a Parlour Game,’ for instance, is not only about a female artist, but also addresses ‘you’ as reader, as if the liberation involved in the ‘parlour game’ not only applies to the young artist, but potentially to the reader too. In this respect, the final line of ‘Without Confiding in a Soul, She Goes to Get Her Hair Cut’ might stand as what Bird calls ‘a simultaneous double vow’ for the whole collection: ‘I don’t know you and I do.’ The reader does not know the characters in the poems, and yet does, at the same time. 

As well as mixing characters and genres, the poetry shows how art in general intertwines with life: art is omnipresent, and gardening, cooking, hairdressing and so on are artistic genres just as much as painting and engraving. A parlour game results in a formative artistic moment, in which the nine-year-old artist first asserts her individuality through drawing; the sound of two gold bangles as they ‘slip, / percuss and ring’ is an ‘overture to [an] … overture’ at the opera house; a haircut is a kind of sculpture and a statement of independence; a kimono is a painting ‘that’s drunk up all the / colours from the room,’ which combines both ‘silk’ and ‘skin’ – artwork and human being – in its patterns; making omelettes and snowmen are part of – not separate to – an artist’s life; a gardener is also a poet who ‘will cut a word / into a marrow hide to watch it grow.’ 

In such images, Bird’s poetry shows how artwork is not separate to everyday life, but entwined with it – and, moreover, bound up with its transience: in these poems, omelettes, snowmen, marrows are all short-lived moments of artistic beauty. Similarly, in the powerful poem ‘The Artist in a Field in November,’ the strange and momentary beauty of Guy Fawkes at the bonfire’s ‘peak, flames in his hair,’ comes to represent the transience of the artist’s marriage – ‘that something in her home is burning’ too. Perhaps, in its dynamic hybridity, this is what poetry can capture: passing moments, where images and life, moments of spontaneous artistic beauty and personal history, meet and intertwine, and then – just as quickly – vanish. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

Monday 18 December 2017

Review by Siobhian R. Hodges of "The Road of the Dead" by Kevin Brooks

Kevin Brooks, author of the 2014 Carnegie Medal winner The Bunker Diary, is best known for writing gritty young adult novels with a strong sense of realism, and he does not fall short with The Road of the Dead

The Road of the Dead is a 2006 young adult crime fiction novel about two teenage brothers trying to find their sister’s killer. Fourteen-year-old Ruben Ford and his older brother Cole both set out with little money and a lot of drive to the deserted moorland in Lychombe where her battered body was found. What’s done is done. Now they just want to bring closure to their family by finding out who raped and murdered their sister, Rachel. Only then can the police wrap up the investigation and finally give them back her body, so they can bury and mourn her properly.

The story is told in first person, focusing on Ruben’s thoughts and feelings towards the situation and how it has affected his family. It also allows us to see the bond he has with his brother on a personal level. The fraternal relationship between Ruben and Cole makes the events that unfold more impactful – because if something bad happens to one of them, you know it will affect the other. However, the two could not be more different: while Cole is streetwise, sometimes putting himself in the line of fire if it means protecting Ruben, our narrator is academic-smart, making up a brain-and-brawn unity.

Ruben is also, in a sense, telepathic. Not only do we read the story from Ruben’s point of view, but he is sometimes able to see events happen outside his body to people he is close with (like Cole and Rachel). He feels Rachel’s pain the night she is murdered and sees parts of the event unfold through her eyes. It allows the reader other perspectives without the narrator physically needing to be there and sets the tone for the rest of the novel, showing the story is something more than a simple first-person narrative.

The graphic events Brooks describes keep readers hooked: the situation is bleak and the antagonists are brutal. It made me root for Ruben and Cole. Ruben does not belong in the danger-zone he finds himself entering and because his voice is so believable, so relatable, you cannot help sympathising with him. You want to follow him on this hazardous journey and you don’t want anything bad to happen … But bad things do happen. However, while the graphic detail in Brooks’ novel reels in readers, it could also deter some parents. Not everyone will want their teenagers exposed to the grittiness of rape, murder, swearing and violent attacks. Although the book is for young adults, I feel it depends on the individual’s maturity.

In 2007, the novel was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and it is clear why. The Road of the Dead is a powerful read that will have you gripped until the last page. Not only is it action-packed and fast-paced but it creates suspense in all the right places. I struggled to put it down. It is a book that will stay with you for a long time.

About the reviewer
Siobhian R. Hodges is a Creative Writing MA graduate of Loughborough University. She currently runs a monthly two-hour Creative Writing workshop at the Hive in Worcester and is a script writer/editor at Gatling Gun Productions – a non-for-profit film company based in Leicestershire. She is also currently writing a Young Adult trilogy.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Interview with Rod Duncan

About Rod Duncan 
Rod Duncan writes alternate history novels set in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. The first of these, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award. He has previously written contemporary crime, his novel Backlash being shortlisted for the John Creasey Dagger. Born in Wales, he has lived in Taiwan and Ghana but has been in Leicester since 1993. A dyslexic with a background in scientific research and computing, he now lectures in creative writing at De Montfort University. His next novel The Queen of All Crows will be published in January 2018.

Interview with Lee Wright

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

RD: I was slow learning to read and write. Writing with a pen is still a painful process because my hand cramps up after half a page. So being a writer was never something I was going to do. But then the word processor came along. By the time I turned 30, I’d learned to type. I wrote a few poems at first and a short story. Then, naively, I started working on a novel. My writing was very poor, of course. The book wasn’t destined to get published. But creating the imaginary world of the story, I felt something ecstatic. I don’t remember thinking ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ It’s just that one day I realised I was one.

LW: Was there ever one particular writing hero that you found encouragement from? 

RD: I’ve found writers to be very generous with their knowledge and time. Many have helped me along the way, and continue to do so. But I’d like to mention the late Graham Joyce in particular. As writers, it’s our job to explore the strange lands that lie deep within our own minds. Graham exemplified that quest. Not because he wrote psychological fantasy. It was a quality revealed in the dizzying clarity of his vision. He was very helpful and encouraging to me and I will always be grateful for that.      

LW: Do you have a favourite novel? 

RD: No. And I don’t believe you do either. How could you choose? But there are certain books I keep around me to dip into from time to time for inspiration. Titus Groan, Polar Star and Under Milk Wood for example.

LW: What comes first when you sit down to write a novel? Does it start for you with a single scene? A character? Or a whole plot? 

RD: Backlash began with the voice of a character. She told me her story and I wrote it down. The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter began with an idea for an alternate history and moved on to a scene, which I didn’t understand until I wrote it. My work in progress began with a location. I don’t go out of my way to make the process different each time. I just try to approach the blank page as if I know nothing. Then I see what happens.

LW: You lived in Taiwan for a time. Do you believe that it is important for a writer to travel? 

RD: Intensity and breadth of experience are vital, in my opinion. You might get those things by travelling around the world and immersing yourself in completely different cultures. But you could equally get them by turning a corner in your home town, by looking in a different direction, by practicing seeing things as if you’ve never seen them before.  

LW: What was your 'breakthrough' in writing? 

RD: The breakthrough other people talk about would be my first big publishing deal with Simon & Schuster in 2003. Or perhaps being shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2014. But the real breakthroughs are moments of insight when the writing moves forward. I remember a moment when I stopped self-censoring. Or, rather, I learned to put aside the part of me that was asking ‘Yes, but is that seemly?’ trusting myself to ask those questions during the edit. That was a breakthrough. Another was realising what it was that created narrative drive in my work and thereafter being able to harness it consciously. I’ve made another breakthrough writing The Queen of All Crows - a conscious fluidity in the narrative voice. These are the moments that matter.  
LW: You take on projects that form series: The Riot Trilogy, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. How do you pace yourself when writing and planning such long works? 

RD: It’s all about deadlines and fantasizing. The publishing contract will say that novel N1 should be delivered by date D. I can’t worry about N2 and N3 until the first one is out of the way. In the first month or two I relax into an experimental phase of writing. Then anxiety about date D pushes me into getting the first few chapters down in order. Then I need to keep myself going through the main body of the novel. Imagining it finished is a great help. By that, I mean fantasising about opening a box and getting out my very first copy, or standing in a shop and finding it on a shelf, or planning my acceptance speech when it wins a major award. Yes, such fantasies are thoroughly indulgent. (And yes, I know that last part is not ever likely to happen). But somehow imagining it in this way keeps me going. Please don’t judge me.

LW: Does the writing process get easier with each new work? 

RD: No. You learn something new. You work at perfecting it. By the time you have mastery over it, you’ll have spotted another couple of techniques to add to your toolbox. So now you have more things to practice. There’s never an end to the struggle. That’s the curse of our craft. But also the blessing.

LW: Have you ever had a piece of work published that you’ve later regretted? 

RD: I’ve had five novels and one non-fiction book rejected by publishers. I can stack those against the nine books I’ve seen published. The commissioning editors  have done the job of weeding out the sub-standard work. I’m a better writer now than I was at the start. But I don’t regret any of it. I hope to be a better writer in the future. 

LW: Is there a certain time of day when you work best? 

RD: I can’t work in the evening because then my mind won’t slow down enough for me to sleep. Other than that, any time is good. But generally I work on new writing in the morning. 

LW: What is your approach to the teaching of creative writing? 

RD: The writer’s life is like a journey. However long we’ve been on the road, we still approach the blank page as a challenge. We still struggle to make our writing better today than it was yesterday. This is the foundation of my teaching work - to regard all my writing students as fellow travellers. I do my best to create the conditions for them to advance along the road. You can find out more about my approach to teaching and mentoring through The Writer's Shed (a writer development agency I set up with Siobhan Logan). I share articles and resources about my own writing here:
Also via Twitter, where I am @RodDuncan

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