Sunday 30 September 2018

Review by Evie Doyle of "Sabriel" by Garth Nix

Garth Nix is a talented and well-known author but his Old Kingdom series is definitely one of my favourites. Sabriel combines magic, adventure and death in a completely original way. The story follows Sabriel, a young necromancer who has spent her whole life outside the Old Kingdom, where free magic and death roam. On the disappearance of her father, however, Sabriel is forced to cross the Wall and embark on a quest to find him.

This book begins with a beautiful prologue which thrusts you into the Old Kingdom, inspiring so many questions about the realm that are not answered straight away, forcing you to turn that extra page before putting the book down. There are countless enchanting descriptions of the Old Kingdom and every explanation of its rules and features is written in a way that is neither tedious nor expository. 

The magic in this series takes on an entirely new form in the charter, an ordered power which has rules and limits. Formed of charter marks that can be spoken, whistled or drawn, your power is as great as your knowledge when delving into the unending sea of the charter. These rules ground the charter and the story as a whole as every action has a purpose and it means that not every problem is solved by magic. As well as the charter, the seven bells of a necromancer are unique and are wonderfully described. Their chilling properties add an even greater sense of danger to the plot and I cannot imagine the book without them. 

Sabriel’s characters are just as intriguing as its locations. The namesake of the book is instantly likeable, and charmingly realistic. She is mature and clever but made more interesting by her own desires. Her flaws only make her more compelling; I found myself hoping again and again that her confidence and knowledge would be enough to save her from the dangers that lie north of the Wall.

One of the other most intriguing characters within the book, interestingly enough, takes the form of a cat. Mogget is by far the biggest mystery in the book. A servant bound to serve the Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer, we know that Mogget is not to be trusted, and yet he proves to be a true companion to Sabriel. His quips and sarcastic nature making you forget the potentially bloodthirsty creature that is kept at bay by the collar round his neck.

I would seriously recommend this book for anyone who loves fantasy, adventure and strong female role models who can do amazing feats of magic.

About the reviewer
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.

Review by Peter Flack of "A Monster's Tale" by Kelso Simon

Kelso Simon left his Leicester school school without any qualifications. Not the ideal start for a novelist, but despite this his first book, A Monster's Tale, came out in August. It isn't a horror story - unless the harsh, brutal realities of working class life in communities raddled with drugs counts as horror. In essence it is a return to the 'kitchen sink' novels of the 1950s, and one which is upfront about the effects of inequality and poverty on people. It grinds them down, dehumanises them and, in Simon's book, brutalises them to the point where, with nothing to lose, they become all-too-like the monsters strutting around them, buoyed up by fear, violence and money. 

That the novel has a moral core is undoubted. None of the violence in the story is gratuitous. It leads us inexorably to the inevitable outcome at the end of the book. It also contributes towards the main theme: that caring, looking after your community and gentleness ought to be more valued in our society than the Thatcherite values of status, power and money. Well worth a read.

About the reviewer

Peter Flack is a former teacher and member of the  National Union of Teachers. He is co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy project and chair of Everybody's Reading Festival in Leicester.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "margerykempething" by Pattie McCarthy

Autobiography in English was invented by a woman – a fourteenth- and fifteenth-century mystic called Margery Kempe. As Pattie McCarthy writes, in her remarkable and highly original pamphlet of sonnets, margerykempething: ‘margery kempe invents the autobi- / ography &     vernacular tell-all.’ Kempe founded the autobiographical tradition, which – despite its associations more recently with patrilinearity – is hence, at heart, about ‘ladies [who] write history concerning ladies.’ 

For McCarthy, this autobiographical tradition clearly does not just consist of individual ‘ladies’ writing for and about themselves; rather, these writers are also writing ‘histories’ for and about other ‘ladies’ plural. Unlike, say, the more solipsistic tradition of post-Romantic male autobiographers, this is a matrilinear tradition where women write their histories for other women – where autobiography is a collective form, which might encompass or speak to the experiences of other women across history. Certainly, there are moments in margerkempething where Kempe’s experiences speak to twenty-first century experiences – and, conversely, there are also moments where the twenty-first century speaks back to Kempe. 

Kempe – who bore fourteen children, then renounced sex, experienced visions, and who was, on multiple occasions, imprisoned, accused of heresy – was apparently ‘no good wife’ or ‘wifthing.’ She was not even a ‘good saint,’ because ‘a really good [female] saint does nothing,’ and is ‘smaller & duller’ than a male saint. Instead of doing nothing, she went on pilgrimages, preached in public, made noisy displays of her ecstatic faith, and threatened ‘to lure / … [other] wifthings [away] from’ their husbands. She was, in short, a fifteenth-century proto-feminist, and what a certain president might now call a ‘nasty woman.’ McCarthy’s pamphlet shows that only the sexist terms of reference have changed over time, not necessarily the attitudes behind them. In the twenty-first century, rather than being called a bad ‘wifthing,’ Kempe is accused, by various modern critics, of being ‘petty    neurotic    vain / illiterate’ with a ‘mental banality.’ 

Faced with all these accusations, new and old, Kempe is ‘churched postpartum’, and ‘is arrested & is arrested / & is arrested & is arrested / … & she is … questioned / … & then … / is threatened with rape & prison.’ The threat is at once individual and collective, persisting across history. Despite having lived ‘thirty-eight years … with … [her] husband, / when … not on pilgrimages,’ despite having given birth to fourteen children, Kempe is still seen as a ‘strumpet,’ ‘no good wife,’ and is hence threatened with rape, violence, imprisonment. As a woman, it seems impossible for her either to be a good wife or good saint – the society sets up impossible (and paradoxical) ideals, and threatens her with extreme violence for failing to live up to them. This, as one particularly powerful sonnet makes clear, is a failure and threat shared by women across history:

we heretics we wolves we birth we birth
we winterward we cluster we blister we quire
we escape the fire we lucky creatures
we latin we goodwives we daughterthings
we patience figures we soft unforgiving …
inordinate love we hairshirt we lapse
we churched we bloody we slide we between
we margery kempe we gentle bedtime

Here is a powerful statement of a shared, collective, almost transhistorical female identity and lineage; here, in this poem and the pamphlet as a whole, is a statement which is timely – given current conservative rhetoric about women – and which is perhaps always timely: ‘we swive we margery me marry we burn’. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's most recent books are the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

Thursday 6 September 2018

Review by Robert Richardson of "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2011, is divided into two parts, both narrated by Tony Webster. In part one, Tony recalls significant moments as a sixth former and subsequently a student at Bristol University in the 1960s.

In the second part, it is clear Tony’s vantage point is this century’s first decade. He has a settled life: retired and divorced, though still on good terms with his ex-wife (they have a grown up daughter whose life, in turn, is steady).

Tony’s smooth, if somewhat boring, progress through time is disrupted, and in effect the book’s second part becomes an interrogation of those memories, and their veracity, of his years in late adolescence and as a young adult. This includes an emotionally and sexually frustrated relationship with Veronica, his girlfriend at university. Tony has a humiliating experience when accompanying her on a visit to her parents. On a later occasion, he introduces her to his three close friends from the sixth form. One of them, Adrian, the most intellectually gifted of the group and now a student at Cambridge, is pivotal to the novel. Tony does not take it well when after breaking up with Veronica he receives a letter from Adrian: it lets him know that Adrian is now going out with Veronica. After university, Tony travels in America and returns home to the news that Adrian has committed suicide.

The beginning of the second part has the older Tony receiving, through a solicitor, five hundred pounds and a brief, vague letter as part of the will of Veronica’s mother, who he met only once during that awkward weekend many years before. She has also left him Adrian’s diary, and there follows his attempts to acquire it from Veronica, who is refusing to give it up. Uneasy meetings with Veronica only serve his failure to obtain it.

Adrian, even when dead, has the capacity to grip Tony’s consciousness: his friend’s greater intelligence and heroic existential rejection of life (Adrian was a devotee of Camus) are offset against his own unexceptional personal history. Nevertheless, he discovers Adrian’s suicide was partly grounded in a disturbing reality. I will avoid the detail of this because it would be a “spoiler.” A recent film adaptation also means there is now a choice: to read the novel first and have the “spoiler” for the film, or vice versa.

Barnes’s control of a tight plot and, more especially, of tone are exemplary. Tony is a genuinely decent person, but Barnes makes his narrative voice at times annoying with its trite observations. He becomes a more bearable character when his complacency is undermined, as with the outcome of a meeting with Veronica about the diary. It ends with her handing over a copy of a letter he sent to Adrian about the two of them (Adrian and Veronica) getting together. Through it, Tony has to come to terms with his younger self as peevish and malicious. He had suppressed the memory of this letter, and selectively remembered another he had sent to Adrian, which though bitter was also not as horrible.

Of course there are descriptions of characters, places and situations, but much of the novel is the presentation of relationships, inevitably from Tony’s point of view and, towards the end, his growing appreciation of the problems of others. It might easily have led to a tedious narrative, but this is prevented by the form Barnes adopts: not chapters but a succession of short sections separated by spaces, and he achieves quite a fast moving pace for the unfolding of surprising realisations.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has recently had a solo exhibition of photographs at the Museu Municipal in Faro, Portugal, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Interview with Dustin Illingworth

Dustin Illingworth’s writing has appeared in a variety of outlets including The Atlantic, Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, and a contributing editor at Literary Hub. Dustin lives in Newport Beach, California and is currently finishing a debut novel. 

You can also read a list of Dustin Illingworth's Top Reads of 2016 here

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: What motivates your writing? 

DI: It is something I try not to look at too closely. If the motivations behind one’s obsessions become fully intelligible, their power is somehow weakened. If pressed, I would say I write fiction to rescue time. Even if what I reclaim isn’t completely satisfying, the effort represents a stand against the loss we are always in the midst of.  

LW: You are in the process of finishing a debut novel. Have you kept to a strict writing schedule? 

DI: I believe a writer is someone who finds a way to write every day. Ideas are cheap and plentiful, and inspiration pales in comparison to work ethic. My own schedule is very well-defined due to my having a day job. I write every evening after work from six to ten, and much longer on weekends.

LW: In a piece about the Journals of John Cheever, you wrote that Cheever was “a natural miniaturist, a collector of set pieces.” How effective is this style of writing? 

DI: I think writers possess natural capacities, and the best writing arises from an artist discovering the ideal formal vehicle for their vision. Cheever’s digressive richness makes for some of the greatest short fiction ever written, whereas I always feel like his novels are threatening to dissolve into fragmented incident. He can’t help but meander.

LW: What makes for a good piece of creative non-fiction? 

DI: As someone who loathes the personal essay, my favourite non-fiction situates art as existing in conversation with other art rather than (strictly) with oneself. Elizabeth Hardwick is my ideal essayist, a writer whose work moves beyond mere analysis into a kind of luxurious intuition. It is beautiful, often ambiguous, and possessed of a tensile strength.

LW: Is fiction harder to write?      

DI: Infinitely so. An essay or review is a discrete, self-contained piece of writing—if you’ve written enough of them, you begin to have a feeling for pacing, transition, where to include the offhand flourish or coup de grace, etc. A novel, though, is a torment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Fiction rubs your nose in your own ineptitude day after day. Again, it is as much an act of endurance as a work of inspiration.

LW: How did you develop your writing in the early days? 

DI: I read (and continue to read) writers who are vastly superior to me. Writing daily and reading those who have achieved an authoritative style are the only ways I know how to improve as a writer. Reading Shirley Hazzard or Mavis Gallant or John Hawkes or Malcolm Lowry impresses upon me how poor of a writer I am, and how far I need to go.

LW: What has been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer?  

DI: “Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.” AndrĂ© Gide wrote this, and James Salter memorably condensed it: “Save nothing.”

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 in 2017.