Friday 7 December 2018

Review by Lee Wright of "Some Kind of Ghost" by Mike Barlow

You don’t necessarily need to be a champion of poetry in order to appreciate this new collection by Mike Barlow. To a certain extent there are a lot of false hang-ups linked to poetry. Some readers can feel beaten before they have reached the second page. Where Mike Barlow is concerned, however, and this collection in particular, there is no “beating around the bush.” He is good at describing what he sees with minimum fuss. In his latest collection from New Walk Editions, Barlow slows everything down into basic language and everyday emotions. 

A former winner of The National Poetry Competition, Barlow's poems have staying power: 

Ella who finally left home at sixteen with nothing 
but a pocketful of change and the rag doll of her childhood. 
May she find the latchkey in her purse one day 
and courage enough to use it.

Poems that are about the most honest of moments:     

With my scars,
tattoos and broken teeth
I’d have been a son my mother feared for. 

For some, writing poetry is a form of therapy. Not so with Barlow. With these poems, it is as though we are all family members, gathered around a death bed, only this will be a New Orleans jazz funeral, with trumpets and dancing and multi-coloured parasols and handkerchiefs twirled in the air.  Barlow’s gifts are on full display here, as he cuts the body loose:

So I slow down, tip-toe the long hall to the scullery. 
And there’s Aunt Dora washing plums. I knock 
on the old plank door and hold my breath. 
She’d always ignore me when she knew 
I was making things up but this time she turns, 
hands me a bowl of glistening Victorias to stone. 

Barlow does a good job of showing us what others are thinking: 

Les, fitter who didn’t fit, chucked the factory job, his mates, 
the lies and moved away where he could be 
Lesley. Shaven legs, coiffed hair, skirt and blouse, 
the bare truth of lipstick and mascara. 
A shout for her, a shout for her.    

All the poems here (even the ones that shouldn’t work, like "There’s that scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy first realises the deaf and dumb Chief Bromden can hear and speak") have a deceptive ease about them. They can be at times sombre, yet they still leave you itching to read them again. 

It is true that all poems should make you think. And that is something which resurfaces again and again over the nineteen poems. On a deeper level, the pamphlet could be seen as a meditation on what life is like for the people left behind after the death of a loved one, squeezed between ordinary observations like in the poem "Encounter," which opens with a quote from a plaque on a bench in Drinishader, on the east coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides: "On this bench 22nd October 2008 Angus Forbes proposed to Athlone Findlay in the rain." What follows is a masterful poem about sweethearts, that was fuelled by a chance encounter while walking through a park. 

But what is the trick to good poetry? Barlow himself tells us the trick in one poem: "The trick? The trick’s to keep it simple." And by sticking to that rule, he has fashioned a collection that will leave any aspirant poet wishing that they too might be able to achieve similar with mere words.          

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.

Review by Heidi J. Hewett of "The Plankton Collector" by Cath Barton

I had been meaning to read this novella, which won the New Welsh Writing Award in 2017, and I kept putting it off because it’s about grief - it would be late, just before bed, and that sounded depressing. But it turns out the book is anything but. From the very first sentence, it’s like being able to crawl into the lap of your grandmother or grandfather in a rocking chair. There’s a flow to the language which is like breathing in and out, or rocking gently in a boat, and then the characters are drawn with such subtly, honesty, and compassion. Even though the central event of the book is coming to terms with death, it was the David and Rose—the quiet disintegration and equally quiet rebuilding of a marriage—that had me riveted. This is a short, utterly original, very human, marvellous book.

About the reviewer
Heidi J. Hewett writes science fiction, mysteries, and romantic comedies. When she is not reading or writing, she plays the violin, inspired by Sherlock Holmes. She also enjoys tinkering with recipes and inflicting strange food combinations on her hapless family. She is a member of RWA.

Review by Lee Wright of "Sunny and the Ghosts" by Alison Moore

It is said that a good writer can turn their hand to any genre, and with her debut children’s book, Alison Moore has put that to the test. There has always been a child-like innocence to many of the protagonists in Moore’s adult novels. This time, however, she has come full-circle, making the protagonist a child in a child’s story. 

Sunny and the Ghosts tells the story of eight-year-old Sunny, whose parents buy an antique shop in Devon, and move into the flat above. 

Sunny’s father likes old things. He plays old songs when driving around because it “Makes the van feel happier.” His mother likes the butterflies which are preserved in frames, while Sunny helps around the shop, polishing the antique furniture - one of which, a blanket box, has a stowaway ghost inside (the first of six), named Herbert. 

Of course, Sunny’s parents don’t believe him, even when the Victorian piano begins playing by itself during the night. We swiftly meet Walter, Violet, the sisters Mary and Elise, and finally Peregrine. 

Moore keeps the story ticking over (quite literally in the episode with the antique cuckoo clocks), always conscious of her readership. Along the way, strange things happen, like an invasion of stray cats into the shop, “First it was ghosts,” says Sunny’s friend. “And now it’s cats.” 

Sunny also attempts a day trip to the seaside for the dead, all accompanied by the illustrations of Ross Collins, who adds a George Adamson style quality to the story.    
And Moore’s literary influences are sprinkled throughout this book. Herbert the ghost’s favourite novel is Wuthering Heights for instance. Macbeth and Hamlet are mentioned, so too A Christmas Carol. And one of Sunny’s new ghostly friends gets trapped in the stationery cupboard while looking for notepaper to fulfil her beyond the grave ambition of writing a book. An encounter which leads to one of the funniest lines:

“Can’t you walk through doors?” asked Sunny. 

“No,” said Violet. “Can you?” 

A further influence can be found in the creation of the infuriating Mr Ramsbottom (and what seven-year-old wouldn’t titter at that choice of name?) who comes across as a combination of Mr Gruber and Mr Curry from Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear series. 

This book also draws on Moore’s last two adult novels. Death and the Seaside and The Missing both explore that place where the real and fictional worlds meet. And since being propelled into the spotlight in 2012 when she made the Man Booker Prize shortlist, alongside well-known heavyweights like Will Self, Deborah Levy and eventual winner Hilary Mantel, Moore has developed an almost cult fan-base that’ll surely buy her work, whether children’s fiction or not.   

And even though this is Moore’s first foray into children’s literature, it certainly won’t be her last. A follow-up book, also to be published by Salt Publishing and titled Sunny and the Hotel Splendid is already in the works. A tidy stream of adult novels and children’s books looks set to continue from the prolific former Man Booker Prize short-listed author.      

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.   

Review by Hannah Stone of "prison recipes" by Jeremy Paden

How does one capture the pain, confusion, and brokenness of Argentina’s Dirty War?
Jeremy Paden’s prison recipes explores this dark time of turmoil. 

Throughout his chapbook, shocking images are portrayed in lines slashed to pieces, seeming to represent a broken state of mind while in captivity. His “how-to” poems often lead to unimagined places, transforming simple items into unfamiliar territory.

From the generous detail Paden provides, it’s clear that he spent a considerable amount of time researching the conditions of Argentine prisons. In “on the need to clean everything from your mess plate,” he shows the reader the frightening image of prisoners grinding and eating eggshells in order to get enough protein and minerals to survive:

        use like salt/your gums
        will still bleed/hair lose luster/bear
        the grit for your bones/the hardness
        of your teeth/your heart and nerves

This world of hard survival is unfamiliar to most readers, but Paden makes it accessible with clarity and detail in his writing. He creates an artful balance between clarity and ambiguity in his poems, leaving some parts open to imagination.

Paden also shows how violence affected those outside of the prisons. During this time in Argentina, countless families were torn apart by war. His poems often represent a yearning or searching for lost loved ones. In “poem 2 after juan gelman’s carta abierta a mi hijo,” Paden writes,

           I turn about on my bed/ I twist
           through these city streets/for waking
           & sleeping is now the same to me/
           where are you?

These haunting notes of longing give a human face to these prisoners. Paden’s close attention to the emotions and thoughts of his subjects makes his poetry effective and poignant. Throughout his chapbook, Paden is true to the struggle and pain of his subjects.

About the reviewer
Hannah Stone is an undergraduate student of Creative Writing in Cleveland, Tennessee. She enjoys poetry and fiction, and hopes to pursue an MFA upon completing her undergraduate program.

Thursday 29 November 2018

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Table Manners" by Susmita Bhattacharya

Susmita Bhattacharya is a writer and creative writing tutor. She was born in Mumbai and graduated in applied art from B.D.Somani Sophia Polytechnic. Following her marriage she sailed around the world with my husband on oil tankers. Later they moved to Cardiff, where she did her Master's in The Practice and Teaching of Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Her first novel, The Normal State of Mind, was published by Parthian in 2015. This collection of short stories, Table Manners, is published by Dahlia Publishing.

This is a beautiful book, so beautifully written. I don’t really need to expand upon that , but I will. Every story is a subtle blend of place and setting. We identify with every situation as it is always so clear as to where each story comes from. Be it India, Venice, Wales, China or England, we know almost instantly where we are and start the process of empathy with the writer. We are sad when she is sad, homesick as she misses her birthplace, jealous of others as they have what we aspire to and we feel the pain of those who are dying. All the emotions are finely wrought and we feel them all.

All the sorrow that Bhattacharya writes about tugs at our heart. We really do feel what her protagonists feel and this is due to her concise compact writing that doesn’t waste an idea or a heartbeat. Life is brought to life, in the kitchen where we can smell and taste the food being prepared, in the streets of India where we feel the heat and see the poverty, in Wales where we can measure the racism line by line.

The women, the strong women in every story are unwavering. They see all and have an undiminished power about them no matter what their situation. They are key. Bhattacharya  allows us to see into her worlds and to experience what she feels in them. We share her pain, we share the loss of her youth, we believe in her strength as she fights against what is wrong with the world.

Every story makes us think, makes us confront our own prejudices and makes us aware that though we may feel we have everything that others, even if they lack money, status or power, have more. It may be that people in Cardiff are richer than those in Mumbai, but at least the rain drops are bigger in India.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Review by Robert Richardson of "Anni Albers" Exhibition at Tate Modern, London, 11 October 2018 - 27 January 2019

Tate Modern’s Anni Albers exhibition ends in 2019, and in so doing helps mark the centenary of Walter Gropius’s founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar. There will be celebratory events throughout the world for the twentieth century’s most famous and influential design school, and in Germany two new Bauhaus museums will open.

Anni Albers became a Bauhaus student in 1922 and was head of its weaving workshop for the couple of years preceding the Bauhaus’s closure by the Nazis in 1933. For those interested in the Bauhaus, she has long been a member of its pantheon, but having this solo exhibition at one of the world’s leading art museums justifiably establishes her with a wider audience. Strictly speaking, re-establishes, as she was the first textile artist to have a solo show at MOMA, New York in 1949.  She died in 1994, and the Tate Modern exhibition is a survey of her entire career as a designer and artist.

After completing the Bauhaus preliminary course, Albers wanted to enrol in the glass workshop, but, as with almost all female students (Marianne Brandt being a notable exception), she was channelled into weaving, in what became known as the “Women’s Workshop.” The Bauhaus was generally liberal and progressive, but this denial of equal opportunities to female students has been the subject of strong criticism.

Albers became committed to turning the traditional craft of weaving into a Modernist artform. She was the epitome of a Bauhaus artist/designer: her work consistent with the Bauhaus’s ethos, practices and Constructivist aesthetic. The workshop approach meant an understanding of materials through experiment and imagination. The exhibition shows a sample (and historical photograph) of her diploma piece: a wall covering produced for a trade union auditorium. The black and white threads were interwoven with cellophane, giving a vibrant, shimmering effect. She attended Paul Klee’s colour theory classes (a page of her notes is exhibited) and her sensitivity to colour is present throughout the exhibition. A palette of greys, blacks, whites and yellows is quiet and subtle, but when she restricts herself to red threads, there is a blaze of fierce intensity.  

Born in 1899 as Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann, in 1925 she married Josef Albers, destined for fame as painter, colour theorist and teacher. He was a fellow student and later a junior Bauhaus Master. Together, soon after the Bauhaus was shut down, they crossed the Atlantic to rural North Carolina, where both took up teaching posts at the recently formed Black Mountain College, participating in a second legendary teaching institution for the arts. It was here, in the thirties and forties, that Anni Albers began a weaving workshop, using Bauhaus methods with her students, some of whose precise visual and written notes are displayed: meticulousness seems to be an example weavers set for us all.

Anni and Josef Albers made a number of visits to Central and South America, and the pre-Columbian weaving of Peru profoundly influenced her. This culture never had a written language, and weaving was a form of communication. I found this a fascinating section of the exhibition, and a work such as Red Meander (1954) has a wonderful, seemingly ancient, maze-like quality.

In the 1950s, after moving to Connecticut when Josef Albers was appointed a professor at Yale, she increasingly used her craft as a medium for fine art, calling these works ‘Pictorial Weavings.’ Are they equivalent to the best non-figurative Modernist paintings? On the evidence of this exhibition, I think the answer is a resounding yes. This was a personal project and there are entertaining pieces where rickety grids are subverted by threads that intervene like sparks. During this time, she also continued as a designer, and did not forget the Bauhaus position of using industrial processes to make good design available to more than the moneyed few. The exhibition shows her designs for the Knoll Textile Department, and they are still in production today. The Bauhaus idea of architecture as a unifier for all arts and crafts was adhered to when Gropius commissioned her to design textiles for the accommodation part of the Law School building he designed for Harvard. On display is a bed with an Anni Albers bedspread that helped a lucky student stay warm in an aesthetic and art-historical way.

In the early 1960s, weaving became too physically demanding for Albers, and she switched to printmaking. The exhibits include her use of an embossing technique to produce white on white prints: small reliefs that deserve recognition as well executed Minimalist artworks. 

The exhibition has clarity in its organisation and exhibition text, and a good balance between artworks and documentation: e.g. notebooks and photographs. It comprehensively shows Anni Albers’s work has an important place in a visual culture affirming the Bauhaus precept of design closing the gap between art and daily life.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer living in Leicestershire. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He 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.

Thursday 15 November 2018

Review by Colin Gardiner of "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is a masterful storyteller who perfected the idea of a twentieth-century American Gothic – where the dark and twisted thoughts of seemingly normal characters are revealed in gripping and shocking detail.

Her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle centres on the life of the remnants of the Blackwood family, who live in self-imposed seclusion in their grand home at the edge of a hostile village in rural Vermont.

Jackson expertly juxtaposes the "vulgar" behaviour of the villagers with the eccentric life of the Blackwood family, a seemingly happy but fragile existence, under threat from familial tension, small-town resentment and dark secrets.

This is a powerful novel of family tragedy, isolation and magic, told through the singular and unpredictable prism of the young protagonist’s consciousness. The central character, eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, has to be one of the most fascinating and multifaceted creations in modern literature. Jackson gives us insight into the macabre thoughts of this unique eighteen-year-old teenager, on the cusp of an unwanted adult-hood. Merricat is child-like, yet sharp as a knife. She is a daydreamer in touch with nature who harbours thoughts of violent retribution on those who seek to destroy her idyllic existence with her sister and uncle.

The novel is suffused with a beautiful dark magic – from the totemic objects buried or nailed around the house by Merricat – to the gothic trappings of the family home and its enchanted gardens. Jackson casts a spell on the reader in this bewitching anti-coming-of-age tale.

About the reviewer 
Colin Gardiner is following a part-time Masters degree in Creative Writing at the University of University. His interests include short story writing, screen writing and poetry. He lives and works in Coventry with his husband and two cats.

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Child That Books Built" by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford was born in 1964; he describes growing up in a golden age of reading, comparable to the heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. The Child That Books Built is a memoir out of the ordinary intertwining childhood and reading.  

In the memoir, the reader is taken on a literary journey through a forest, island, town, and "the hole." Each of these places forms a major theme or chapter. Throughout the journey, books are Spufford's constant guide and landscape. Books help him hide away from the harsh realities of a sibling’s illness. 

In a chapter about the forest, we glimpse of Spufford’s early childhood, living on the campus of Keele University. The reader is taken through the history of storytelling. The forest is symbolic of storytelling, a primal setting for fairy-tales like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood. Spufford takes the reader deep into the forest Where the Wild Things Are, as well as Alice, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.  The psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Bettelheim are also encountered.

Once through the forest, Spufford delights in the freedom his ability to read gives him. It was this delight that kept me reading, onto the island. Spufford read books that took him away from the reality he was living. The magical moment he connected his mind and language with the words he was reading was in The Hobbit. Woven through this chapter are insights into the lives of authors, including the fascinating early childhood of C. S. Lewis.

In the last two chapters, the books he reads help him make sense of his expanding world.  To Kill a Mocking Bird provides the vicarious experience of a town in uproar. He gains personal strength from the Little House books.  In the chapter on "The Hole," books navigate Spufford through boarding school, puberty and the transition to adult life.

This memoir reminded me of my own childhood reading: how reading added adventure and imagination to my playtime. I consider the key message of this book is that children need to read to develop their imaginations; and as they grow they need to keep reading to maintain a learning and questioning mind. This is a book well worth getting lost in the forest for.    

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing Student at the University of Leicester. She writes poetry, and is starting to write short stories. She was a nurse for 33 years.         

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Review by Katharina Maria Kalinowski of "Persona Non Grata," ed. Isabelle Kenyon

Against the backdrop of Brexit talks, global refugee crises, and an ongoing endangerment of the refuges of our collective home planet earth itself, Fly on the Wall Press have launched their new poetry anthology Persona Non Grata. Following the success of Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, editor Isabelle Kenyon’s second charitable book project brings together 45 poets who explore what it means to feel unwanted. Reasons for this not only include an institutional status of undesirability, but range from social exclusion because of “my deep routed melanin / Dark brown eyes and thick-tongued accent” to mental isolation because “one is of the wrong gender.” 

Arranged into seven thematic sections, each poem offers a glimpse at people who don’t fit in; people to whom the “star-strung door to HSBC” remains forever shut; people whose voices we fail to understand or have learnt to ignore. Issues of marginalisation and injustice are put in dialogue with invisibility at best and humiliation at worst. There’s the husband who “tells you to call / what he’s been wearing diapers”, old Ida who used to “dance on a moonlit beach / With a handsome man from Italy”, Abdul from Libya who is told to “Go home!”, Otto who sings “Latvian / folk songs till some / drunks give him / a good kicking”, the girl who is “tired, dead tired” of “sitting single in a bus seat meant for two.” They all have a story to share – but “it seems you were all deaf.” 

The motif of “home” is reoccurring in all these stories, and it does not just refer to the physical place “where my heart was formed”. Home is a narrative of togetherness, a sheltering body of one’s own, a secure job, a safe country, a family of some kind, a hot meal, a childhood memory of “learning to fly on swings.” Losing the comfort of such a refuge feels like losing one’s breath, especially when taken away by disaster and violence. With homes, lives are left behind in a “land that was once / called cradle but is now a mass grave.”

The poetic voices emerging from the taboo of silence are as varied as the backgrounds of the contributors themselves. They find the intimate thoughts of a poetic I, the perspectives of an outside observer to the outsider, boldly adapt a collective “We”, prose-poetic speech, or a sarcastic distance in order to claim that “There’s nothing wrong anywhere.” While many make use of the space their stories are denied in real life and experiment with free verses on the page, the occasional rhyming scheme is also welcome. This includes one of Kenyon’s poems herself, which chimes in with the grim humour of the last section by suggesting: “Let’s make Britain great white again.”  

Forming a moving mosaic of dissent, the poems begin to echo each other’s concerns and imagine political action. Poetry comes to us “in gun-shapes.” Anger is cultivated, grief segmented. Bodies are exposed, pain is tangible. Guilt creeps into the “comfort of living rooms.” When do we stop noticing? Who decides on a normative skin colour, gender, BMI; who decides who is welcome? Who decides who is not?

These poets use language to challenge the status quo and are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. As lyrical attentiveness is joined by activist ideas, words themselves become uninvited troublemakers, non gratae in an illusion of harmony. It remains up to us then, to accommodate every word and everybody, “uncover the other in ourselves” and learn, as the final poem invites us, to celebrate difference.

About the reviewer
Katharina Maria Kalinowski is a bilingual poet and EUmanities fellow at the Universities of Cologne, Kent, and Dublin. Her practice-based PhD project focuses on ecopoetry and translation. She has most recently published in Magma 72, Epizootics, and The Transnational: A Literary Magazine. 

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Interview with Andrew David Barker

Andrew David Barker was born in Derby, England in 1975. He is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of The Electric and the novella Dead Leaves. As a filmmaker, he wrote and directed the cult, post-apocalyptic indie feature, A Reckoning, in 2011, and has recently made the short films, Two Old Boys and Shining Tor. He lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughter, trying to be a grown up. His website is: Twitter: @ADBarker

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: As a novelist and filmmaker, who has influenced you the most? 

ADB: Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, probably. They, above all others, were possibly the first creators I knew of that made me want to write and to make films. The filmmaking thing came first as well. I was born in 1975 – the summer Jaws came out – and so I am very much of the Spielberg and Lucas generation. I’m part of the last wave of Gen-Xers; I grew up with TV and movies that gave me a sense of wonder and then came of age in the '90s when we thought life was one big party – the long hangover began around 2001. 

I’m someone who is always hungry for new inspiration. Once I find out about a new author, filmmaker, songwriter, whatever, I tend to want to find out everything about that person, soak up everything they’ve done, and once I’m sated I move onto the next artist. There are mainstay artists though, people I always come back to, but really I’m always looking for something new. I’m on a big Magnus Mills kick at the moment, who I think is fast becoming my favourite English writer. I understand his world and his characters, and he’s very funny.  
I think influences are important. I’ve written a lot about fandom – about how being inspired by a film/book/band whatever can propel you to create your own art. Without those first sparks of excitement I felt watching, say, Close Encounters or reading The Stand, I wouldn’t be doing this stuff.  

LW: What’s your definition of horror?  

ADB: That’s a tough question, but I guess it’s something that horrifies, simple as that. I tend to be drawn more to tales of the supernatural, the uncanny. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent now, but if it exists in a realm that is too real for me, I can’t do it nowadays. It has to be detached from my everyday life. So, humans killing other humans doesn’t do much for me. That said, I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the greatest horror film ever made. I think it’s a masterpiece. An incredible piece of filmmaking that works on so many levels. It’s very much like a Grimm Fairy Tale in many ways. It’s not a film I can watch very often, but I don’t need to because it’s never left me. 

I had a love of horror films from a very early age. The first horrors I saw were the old Universal pictures, which are just beautiful to look at. Then I saw Salem’s Lot at a ridiculously young age. Yes, Tobe Hooper again. I’m sure it’s very dated now, but the memory I have of those kids scratching at the bedroom windows frightened me very badly. Dawn of the Dead was another seminal film. I was probably about nine when I first watched that and as you can imagine at that age, it had a profound effect. In many ways actually, as that was one of the first films that got me interested in filmmaking. 

I think for horror to really work it has to tap into universal fears. We all understand a fear of what lies beneath the ocean while we swim, which is why Jaws will always work. We all understand nightmares and so we have Freddy Krueger. We all understand the fear of someone wanting to murder us – Psycho, Halloween and so on.
There is the fear of something external – the monster outside – or internal – the monster inside. That is pretty much it. The best books and movies tap into those areas and to really be scary they need to peel back the many layers of our defences and strip them away one by one.     

LW: Your novel, Dead Leaves (about the video nasty area and a group of teenagers), has just been republished by Black Shuck Books after first being published in 2015 by Boo Books. Can you tell us about your experiences of having to find a new publisher?  

ADB: The world of the small press is pretty tough. No one makes any money. These publishers – and writers – do it for the sheer love of books. I think it is a pure thing. Boo Books gave me my start. They published my first novel, The Electric, in 2014, and Dead Leaves in 2015. I thought I was on a roll. Then soon after Leaves was published, Alex Davis of Boo Books had to close its doors. There is pure love, then there’s making something that is tenable. This stuff is hard to do. 

Anyway, I’m always going to be grateful for Alex giving me a start. After Dead Leaves, though, I kind of stalled with my writing. It wasn’t a writer’s block, because I was still writing, I just didn’t finish anything. I started and abandoned two novels. But also, in that time I became a parent, which, as wonderful as that has been – and it is the greatest joy in my life – it will seriously cut into your writing time. So before I knew it three years had passed since I’d published anything. Aside from a short story called "Bank Holiday All-Dayer" anyway. 

As for Black Shuck Books. I went along to Edge Lit in Derby, as I often do, which is a great writing festival, and saw Steve Shaw, who runs Black Shuck. I’d met him a few years before and got on well with him. He’d read Dead Leaves when it first came out and had told me he really liked it. Anyway, I happened to mention that I was on the lookout for a new publisher and he immediately said that he’d be interested in reissuing Leaves. That was in June of this year and it came out in September, so it happened very fast. I hadn’t sent out Dead Leaves or The Electric to any other publishers. I really should though as I’d really like to get a new publisher for The Electric. Anyway, I hope I can do more stuff with Black Shuck Books.  

LW: Your novels and short stories tend to depict the “coming-of-age genre.” Do you fear growing up? 

ADB: Ha, yes! I’m 43, but still feel like a kid most of the time. Growing up is boring. Grown ups are boring! 

I don’t know, I like the genre. There’s something about that time of firsts that has always appealed to me. It’s an exciting time, and a universal one. We all go through it and it’s always life-shaping. Who you are going to be, what you are going to love, hate, everything is formed in those early years. Plus there is a magic to childhood that we can forget when we grow up. But I never want to forget it, and writing can bring it back in very vivid ways. 
That said, it is probably time to move on. My next projects have older protagonists. I’ll more-than-likely return to writing about kids again at some point though. 

LW: Have you ever drawn on any autobiographical content for your fiction? 

ADB: Always. You’ve got to have skin in the game. All my work is drawn from my life. Dead Leaves and the short story "Bank Holiday All-Dayer" especially. That said, I don’t so much as write what I know, more write what I feel. I’m a very instinctive writer. For novels I don’t plan, don’t outline, although I do for screenplays. But for novels I like to see where the characters will lead me and through that very process, memories, feelings, moments I’ve had with people from my life always filter in. 

Like many writers, I spent a good deal of time in my early writing trying to write like authors I admired, but it never worked. You do have to find your own path, dig deep within yourself. It will give your work the honesty that will eventually become your identity. And if that identity can then connect with readers, then you’re well away. 

LW: As well as being traditionally published, you have also self-published a couple of short stories as e-books. What advice would you give for writers thinking of going down this route? 

ADB: Do it. 

Don’t wait for anybody’s permission to do any of this stuff. Get your work out into the world any way you can and don’t apologise for it. There are snobs out there about self-publishing – a lot of them established writers, it seems – that feel it’s a cheat. But a lot of doors are closed in the so-called established world. You’ve got to forge your own path. 

What I find curious is that being independent is celebrated in other areas. If you make an independent film, raise the money yourself, or, like Kevin Smith, pay for your first film yourself, it’s celebrated. It’s also inspiring. How many filmmakers were born through watching Clerks, or any number of indie films? 

If you’re a musician and you bypass the record industry and put your music out yourself, it can be celebrated. But books, no. Yet, when an Andy Weir breaks through or someone like that, a lot is made of the unsung talent out there. And there is a lot of talent out there. There’s also a lot of crap, of course. But there’s a lot of that being put out by established channels as well.  

But anyway … the walls are being torn down to a certain extent. All media is shifting. The old paradigms are crumbling. Get your stuff out there and be the best you can be. By that I mean, treat it as if you are being professionally published. Get an editor, a book cover designer; don’t just throw it out there. Think about the marketing, reviewers you might be able to tap, quotes you might be able to get. Everything a big publisher would do, apply it to your book. You won’t be able to get in Waterstone's or get reviewed by The Guardian. You might, but you probably won’t, but in everything else give it the absolute best shot you can. 

LW: One of your e-books, The Fin, is a short story, based on a scene in a film (Jaws), that was originally based on a novel by Peter Benchley. What were your thoughts when working on that story?   

ADB: Everyone who knows me knows that I’m fairly obsessed with Jaws. Spielberg’s film anyway, I don’t think Benchley’s novel is as strong. The Fin was just a bit of fun to be honest, nothing more than that. It’s fan fiction and I was certainly writing outside of my identity, which I was speaking of earlier. Although it is still about kids I suppose. I haven’t read it in a long time and it’s probably pretty clumsy, but it was fun to write and really fun to write in that world. It’s set in the world of Spielberg’s film, not really Benchley’s novel. I did think recently about taking the story down, but then decided against it. That was where I was as a writer at that point in my life. It’s a document of my abilities at that time. Every book and story is. Every film is. So that’s fine with me. Plus, I still think it’s a fun little story, and it’s very short.  

LW: Though your interests lie in the horror genre, you are yet to write a straight-forward horror novel. Do you believe that “writing scary” is a hard thing to do?

ADB: Really hard. It’s like comedy, which is also very difficult. In fact I think comedy and horror are very similar. They both work in the build-up and pay off. Plus, what scares people and what makes people laugh are very subjective, which is why I said earlier the best ones are the ones that speak to a universal truth. 

As for my writing, I haven’t written a horror novel, although I’ve written about horror. I have, however, started work on a horror novel – a '70s set, occult horror that I hope to finish one day, and I’ve just completed a short collection of ghost stories which I hope to be published next year. But really I’m interested in all kinds of stories. 

Writers are often boxed into genres, but I admire writers who break that and write across genres. I like Michael Chabon for that. He’s seen as literary, whatever that means, but very much plays around in genre, all different kinds of genre. Paul Auster is the same. I think he’s an incredible writer. Joyce Carol Oates is the same. Stephen King, who is classed as a horror writer, has written in every kind of genre there is. In fact, I think he’s only written a handful of pure, balls-to-the-wall horror novels, the rest is across the board. 

One of the main projects I’m working on seems to be a love story, very much in a kind of Nick Hornby or David Nicholls mould. It might be a detriment to my career that I’m jumping from one thing to another – that I’m not doing any one type of novel – but I can only write what I can write, and I have ideas in all kinds of genres and areas. What I try to bring to all these things though is a great sense of me, my identity. I hope that will tie them all together. 
It’s interesting to me that film directors can work in all kinds of genres and stories, and yet writers don’t have that same amount of freedom. I don’t know why that is. 

LW: What was the last novel that scared you?  

ADB: I haven’t read many horror novels in recent years, although I did read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist last year and thought it was quite brilliant. There was some very unnerving stuff in that one. I’m going through a bit of a Blatty stage at the moment. 

I did recently read James Herbert’s The Rats that I had great fun with, but it didn’t scare me. It takes a lot to scare me, in fiction anyway. The real world scares me greatly. 

I love a good ghost story. Michelle Paver’s "Dark Matter" was the last really good one I read. Actually, there’s a section in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore that really upset me. The torture and killing of cats. That was horrible. He’s an incredible writer who defies any box a publisher would try to put him in. That’s an inspiration to me. 

LW: Do you ever get disheartened with writing? 

ADB: Yes. There’s what I call the Demon Doubt. He’s an arsehole. You can be happily writing away, thrilled with what you’re creating, but you come back to it the next day and it can feel and seem completely different. It can feel like what you achieved yesterday in unbridled joy is now utter crap. That’s the Demon Doubt taking hold. 

I’ve learned to ignore him, but it is sometimes hard. Once he’s got his teeth into you, entire projects can die. Believe me, I know. 

The trick is to trick him. Leave the work for a few days, weeks even. Make him think you’ve forgotten it and then go back to the work and more often than not you’ll think, “Hey, this is pretty good” and you’re back in the game. 

Truth is though, I think it’s healthy for a writer to have doubts and fears. If I were blindly confident and thinking everything I’ve written is amazing, then I’d be really worried. That path leads to mediocre, or even crap work. 

There have been times when I couldn’t write, or just had no interest in it, but they’ve been rare. Even on bad days when the Demon Doubt is playing his merry little games with my head I’m still compelled to do the work. And I think that is the key to actually making it as a writer. Now, I haven’t made it in the West’s view of success. I haven’t made big money from my writing and I still have to have a day job, but I’ve made it in the sense that I’ve kept on going and will continue to keep on going. I need to write. It’s who I am and I think I’m a better person when I do write. That’s what my wife says anyway. 

So you have to push on through those times when it all feels pointless and you think you’ve got nothing to say. Dig deep, push through and you’ll have a piece of work that you’ll be proud of. That’s the key. Ignore the Demon Doubt and finish it.   

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.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Review by Anthony Church of "Stained" by Abda Khan

I've come to the party late in reviewing Abda Khan's first novel, Stained. But seeing Abda speak at the recent Everybody's Reading festival about her forthcoming second novel, Razia, made me want to read her earlier work.

The Booklist
described Stained as 'a contemporary Tess of the D'Ubervilles' and that is not a bad way to define Khan's novel. Certainly Hardy fans might feel she has borrowed considerably from the classic. But Hardy was decidedly English, whilst Khan's work deals completely with the contradictions of a Pakistani community growing up in a Britain that they have made their home.

The central character, Selina, (a first person narrator) is utterly believable as a young woman caught between two cultures and trying desperately to do the right thing to prevent dishonour being brought upon her family. But what a Muslim woman like Khan brings to her narrative is a clear understanding that women like Selina have their lives moderated through the views and actions of men.

It is a powerful feminist message and not just one for the Islamic community.

Definitely a book to be read.

About the reviewer 
Anthony L Church is the principal writer for Loughborough-based Stage Left Theatre Workshop, for whom he also acts. For the company he has written A Man of Humble Beginnings, an adaptation of The Queen and I, Bella and the Tyger-Man and is working on a modern version of Hansel and Gretel. He is also the author of several short stories and poems.

Review of “The History of Crime Fiction”: A talk by John Martin

John Martin began his talk by explaining that crime fiction began with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ published in 1841. This short story by Edgar Allan Poe was the first to feature a murder and a detective. Since then crime fiction has become a wide-ranging genre, and occupies a large part of the fiction section in libraries.

Fictional detective Sherlock Holmes first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in 1887. The Holmes novels dominated crime fiction until 1920 when Agatha Christie began her decades of publishing with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

We heard how Christie introduced new concepts in crime fiction: the unreliable narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; a female detective, Miss Marple, in The Murder at the Vicarage; and multiple murders in Murder on the Orient Express. Other well-known writers of the ‘Golden Years’ include Leslie Charteris (Enter the Saint) and George Simenon (The Crime of Inspector Maigret).

Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming and Alistair Maclean are among the ‘Big Names’ from the forties and fifties. Fleming’s James Bond novels are a variant on the crime novel with the action being played out on an international level. Ruth Rendall, John Le Carre, and Colin Dexter are some of the prominent crime writers of the sixties and seventies, and their popularity was boosted by the advent of the ‘TV Years’ which saw a huge increase in television adaptations of crime novels.

Crime fiction continues to evolve, and John Martin ended his comprehensive talk by outlining the most recent developments. Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo are the most well-known of the Scandinavian crime writers. ‘Domestic Noir, a term first used in relation to fiction by Julia Crouch, includes Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of National Poetry Day Event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham

Time is of the Essence: Three poets launch their latest collections at Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham and help celebrate National Poetry Day, 4th October, 2018.

It could be argued all poems reveal an obsession with time. The form itself demands something else of the writer: a sort of shorthand or sketching ability over the usual compulsion to provide readers with a full, intimate study of a particular setting, character or situation. Poems have to be compact, immediately engaging - the voice, everything. It is not that good verse does not require a great deal of time to craft, but even the heavily revised and redrafted can be read aloud in a few minutes, which makes them of the moment: of the present.

Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham) is hidden away down a side alley in the city centre, and has recently been named Independent Bookshop of the Year (British Book Awards, 2018). This event was held to celebrate National Poetry Day and mark the launch of three new collections by local writers.  Rebecca Cullen’s Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings (Smith/Doorstop Books) is centred on the power of memory to shape and re-shape subjective experience. Sue Dymoke’s What They Left Behind (Shoestring Press) celebrates the immediacy of the present and the poet’s role in capturing the small and powerful details of life going on around us. Whilst Jonathan Taylor’s Cassandra Complex (Shoestring Press) serves as a meditation on the long-standing power of prophecy in shaping our perceptions of personal and political biography. 

Standout moments from Cullen’s choice of readings this evening included ‘Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings,’ which explores the impotency of a mother unable to shield her child from the horrors of a conflict going on around them, where ‘the guns shine in the sun' and even a blackbird ‘likes the meat hanging on the goalposts’ of a local football stadium. In ‘Swimming in a Lake,’ sensory experience is personified, becoming ‘the shock of cold water, swallowing your thighs’ or the ‘metal taste of ache.’ Many pieces gain additional weight when performed, not least of all ‘When I found my father in my thirties’ where Cullen issues a warning to a man who suddenly appears and expects to assume a critical role in the lives of those he has ignored for decades. ‘You can’t give up your daughter, then collect her children.’ For this poet, errors of the past cannot always be so easily undone and she reminds us that time is not the greatest of healers.   

Dymoke treated her audience to a number of humorous and poignant poems from her collection, including ‘Their Pinnies,’ whereby generations of women from the same family are adorned with this ‘household armour’, the poet using this single motif to remark on the confines of female identity and servitude - an item of clothing ‘Never ever worn by men.’  In the equally-amusing ‘I Know this City’ she brings to life a local Wetherspoon’s pub, of people who ‘like to drink and plan their stages of inebriation,’ warning the ‘wrong kind of Sambuca selfie shot can be a horror.’ Her collection contains some visually challenging poems for readers to enjoy, but one she shared with us that evening, ‘What They Left Behind,’ is presented as a list of objects that were discovered in Hiroshima following the atomic explosion of 1945.  People and objects are organised as a mere inventory: ‘Her uniform / His tricycle / Her daughter’s hair.’ Here, the poet re-visits a defining moment from history and shows how personal artefacts – including poems – are there for future generations to use as a way to collectively remember the horrors of the past. 

Taylor’s poems also gained a great deal in performance. The author provided some context about Cassandra of Greek mythology - a princess of Troy and daughter to Priam and Hecuba - who was blessed with the gift of seeing the future, but cursed in that no-one ever believed her. Taylor uses this conceptual framework to revisit a tapestry of long-forgotten myths, not least to comment on the cyclical nature of civilisations: the rise and fall of human endeavour. He often casts himself as the poet-clairvoyant, with ‘refugees from an Apocalypse yet to happen … flooding through the time-gate in bloodied rags,’ predicting it will be the ‘godless, hairdressers, authors … ’ who will be ‘shoved back / whingeing they can’t win on either side of history’ (Teleology II). Other highlights include ‘Determinism’ in which he ponders how chaos theory may or may not have played a pivotal role in bringing he and his wife together, the highly comical poems ‘Pitch for a Horror Movie’ and ‘Person Specification,’ as well as the emotionally-charged ‘Liar,’ in which a father’s assurances to his son following an accident that ‘everything – head, world, etcetera – would be okay,’ are considered a lie by the adult left alone in the world. Taylor’s collection proves time sets out to make fools of us of all, holding us to account for the words we once said – either in jest or all-seriousness - whilst holding a mirror up to the mistakes yet to be made by our future selves. 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at the University of Warwick. 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. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of publications including Aesthetica, Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature and Education in Practice (National Association for Writers in Education).