Thursday 24 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 21 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 20 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Ancestors" by Paul Crooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 12 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 10 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childish Gambino's Bonfire:

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