Sunday 29 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 26 July 2018

Interview with David Belbin

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

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

Interviewed by Rosalind Rustom 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 15 July 2018

Interview with Katherine Hetzel

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

Image result for kingstone katherine hetzel

Interviewed by Evie Doyle

ED: Where did the idea for Kingstone start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 6 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the reviewer 
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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