Wednesday 30 January 2019

Review by Colin Gardiner of "Coal Black Mornings" by Brett Anderson

Brett Anderson, lead singer of the indie group, Suede, describes an eccentric childhood in an ‘oddball’ family's marginal existence in a Sussex housing estate. The portrayal of life in a commuter hinterland is sharply observed, from childhood land-fill explorations, family gossip and adolescent angst in the local comprehensive school. Anderson describes suburban boredom fraught with tension along with the possibility of escape through creativity, in affecting detail.

Anderson’s mother was a frustrated artist. She encouraged creativity within her young family, with a ‘make-do’ attitude, but, ultimately, was destined for domestic servitude to an overbearing, but sensitive father - a classical-music-obsessed taxi driver. 

The most effective sections of the book describe the complicated relationship between father and son. Anderson uses biography as a way of examining the relationship with his father, in order to strengthen the bond with his own young son. Anderson’s emotional collapse and subsequent spiritual paralysis at the death of his mother is devastating, and subconsciously affected his subsequent songwriting and creative persona.  

The tribal youth culture of the eighties is also sharply observed. Anderson describes an existence on the outside of the mainstream, not quite fitting in between the goths, headbangers and neo-mods. His adolescent awkwardness will be instantly familiar to any readers who came of age in the Thatcher years.

Life in an almost unimaginable pre-gentrification London is also portrayed, in a series of dope-hazed bed-sits, lager-soaked concert venues and cramped recording studios. His band was no overnight sensation, and the struggle of poorly attended gigs, inept songwriting and the search for musical identity in an indifferent business is revealed, in unflinching hilarious detail.  

Coal Black Mornings is an honest account set in the dying embers of youth culture in the United Kingdom. A highly recommended read, at turns heartbreaking, excruciatingly hilarious and always convincing.

About the reviewer
Colin Gardiner lives in Coventry. He is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He writes short stories and poetry.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a story created from forty-four beautifully written vignettes. Opening this book is like opening a window onto Mango Street and breathing in the Chicagoan-Hispanic air. From the window the reader can see and hear the characters that live on Mango Street as they appear, impact and influence Esperanza Cordera on her journey of discovery. 

Each vignette is a story with its own message. In "The Family of Little Feet," Esperanza tells of the time she and her friends learn to walk in high heel shoes and the effect of this on men who should know better. At first it appears like innocent fun, then the girls change, the atmosphere changes and danger lies in wait: "It’s Rachel who learns to walk the best all strutted in those magic high heels. She teaches us to cross and uncross our legs, and to run like a double-dutch rope, and how to walk down to the corner so that the shoes talk back to you with every step. Lucy, Rachel, me tee-tottering like so. Down to the corner where the men can’t take their eyes off us. We must be Christmas."
In "Edna's Ruthie," Esperanza takes the reader with her on a miniature journey away from childhood. She moves from acceptance of her not-so-grown-up friend Ruthie - "Ruthie, a tall skinny lady with red lipstick and blue babushka, one blue sock and one green because she forgot, is the only grown-up we know who likes to play" - to trying to fit in when she meets Sally, and finally to betrayal by Sally, leading to a traumatic experience.  

Each vignette is perfectly crafted.  Cisneros’s writing is accessible to all ages and levels of readers. The vignettes, when read together, tell the full story of Esperanza and how she makes sense of her experiences on Mango Street. These experiences are her guide to what she needs to do to become the person she wants to be, and this ultimately means she must leave Mango Street - in the knowledge it will always pull her back.  

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

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories," ed. Karen Stevens and Jonathan Taylor

I have seen High Spirits advertised on social media for months and had always thought its sub title was A Round of Drinking SongsA bit bold I thought, but I do enjoy a good song. So without reading the blurb, I assumed there would be plenty to choose from! Then when I received my copy, I realised it was Drinking StoriesSucking up the disappointment I began to read them.

So Drinking Stories: would this be an uplifting, joyous approach to the theme of having a carousing time and the benefits of being let loose through alcohol? No. What I did learn is that, on a very basic level, drinking is not that good for your body, your mind or your soul. Just some of the outcomes in the short stories here include death through drinking too much, suicide, and a woman scarred when she is burnt, who loses an eye after excess consumption. There is an emboldened paedophile. There are catastrophes that follow people's divorce and the estrangement from their children. Another character is lost in an underground labyrinth, and presumed dead. We also see intoxication resulting in cheating on a dead husband with his brother, then infidelity with new neighbours. 

Though sometimes depressing, the stories are all very well written and surprising in every sense. If you did want to be uplifted, this is not the right book; if you want to read clever description and subtle depictions of relationships under pressure then this is the right book for you. We go deep into characters who, though under the spell of alcohol or alcoholics, are able to show life in a clear, even visceral way.

There is such variety. No two stories have the same theme: drink may be the cause of problems and is never the solution, but we see this in every which way. We see how children are affected. In "The Ballad of Barefoot Bob" by David Swann, it is not enough for young Bobby to have an alcoholic father; he also has to suffer his own mental torments. In "May Day" by Alison Moore, we see Gareth trying to do right by his daughter now living with his estranged wife and her new partner, battling the bottle and also his jealousy of the new man. He sinks into his own metaphorical and literal maze and we are left asking: does he survive or not? For me, the most evocative tale, "Bones" by Hannah Stevens, concerns Henry, who sees his drunken partner Bethan topple from his bedroom window to her death. It underlines the futility of drinking to oblivion.

This collection is a vibrant, thought-provoking set of stories. A collection that makes us think, makes us confront a way of life that is so self-destructive, yet so attractive until events take over and control is lost. You may not be singing along at the end of reading this book, but the stories will remain with you and are accessible in a way that that begs us to challenge and to discuss the outcomes. The editors have done a fine job in bringing these carefully crafted stories to us.

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 Waterstone's 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.

Thursday 10 January 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Magic Toyshop" by Angela Carter

The memorable opening chapter of The Magic Toyshop introduces Melanie. a fifteen-year-old girl, acutely aware of her developing body and personhood. Carter defines with precision the physical, emotional and mental turmoil of a teenage girl on the brink of womanhood. Melanie’s vague thoughts of marriage take her into her parent’s bedroom in search of her mother’s wedding dress.   

The wedding dress is destroyed, ripped to shreds as Melanie climbs the apple tree up to her bedroom window. When tragedy strikes Melanie is haunted by guilt. Melanie and her two siblings leave the comfort of their grand country house and travel by train to London into the care of their Uncle Philip.  

To Melanie’s surprise, they are met on the platform by two young Irish men, Francie and Finn. They take a taxi journey to South London, past melancholy Victorian houses to a parade of shops. In between a boarded-up jeweller’s and a grocer’s shop is a dimly-lit cavern of a shop. In the window of the cavern, Melanie detects the nebulous outlines of stiff-limbed puppets dangling from their strings, and the flaring nostrils of a rocking horse. Above the door of the shop is a sign that reads 'Toys: Philip Flower Novelties' - and once Melanie steps through that door, her life changes forever.  

The house seems to exercise control over the family even when Uncle Philip is absent, through some creepy dysfunctional power. Aunt Margaret has no voice to speak her mind; she is psychologically and physically controlled by Uncle Philip.   

The Magic Toy Shop is an uncanny fairy tale for grown-ups, a voyage of discovery to womanhood, love in its many forms and the darker side of human nature. There is an unearthing of past events and emotions that ultimately leads to mutual acceptance and understanding and a realisation of the power of family.      

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 8 January 2019

Review by Charis Buckingham of "928 Miles From Home" by Kim Slater

Kim Slater, author of the award-winning Smart, never fails to tackle difficult issues in her novels. Her third Young Adult novel, 928 Miles from Home, is another deeply resonant story that doesn’t shy away from subjects such as immigration, poverty, and bullying. 

Fourteen-year-old Calum Brooks dreams of being a screenplay writer but believes his background will impede his success. Trapped in the cycle of poverty and neglect, he absorbs and repeats the ignorant opinions of his bully friends and abuses those different from him. However, when his dad’s Polish girlfriend and son move in, Calum is forced to re-evaluate his mindset. He realises everyone has something to offer, and diversity is beneficial.

Told through Calum’s eyes, the story can at times seem frustrating, as the reader watches him struggle to overcome his prejudices. His angst, anger and, at times, helplessness is authentic, genuine, and hard-hitting. The grim reality of life on the estate is never disguised; this contributes to the gritty realism of the novel, but could prove too heavy for some younger readers. Slater’s approach is blunt and direct, and her messages of acceptance and tolerance come through loud and clear.

For anyone wanting a reflective and moving novel that delves unflinchingly into societal issues, it’s a must-read. 

About the reviewer
Charis Buckingham predominately writes Young Adult and historical fiction, and loves to sing and read. She lives in Leicester, having recently graduated from the University of Leicester with an MA in Creative Writing.

Thursday 3 January 2019

Favourite Reads of 2018

At the end of 2018, we asked readers to nominate a favourite read of the year, and write a micro-review of their chosen book. The book could be from any time or genre - the only qualification was that it had to be a book the reader found particularly memorable, striking or enjoyable during the last twelve months. Here are the responses we received. Wishing everyone a great new year of reading in 2019!

Kirsten Arcadio

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire: "A powerful retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is one of the best novels I’ve read in ages. Intellectual, sharp, powerful, Shamsie’s style contains a kind of distance that cuts. This writing has the power to leave scars, and rightly so, for hers is an important story to tell. I found myself able to empathise with all the characters in turn, from the misguided nineteen-year-old from Wembley who gets corralled into joining ISIS, realising too late what a terrible mistake he’s made, to the plight of the privileged son of a British Muslim Home Secretary who falls in love with the terrorist’s twin sister. The story was tragic but believable, the characters well drawn, the terror and tragedy of their situations gripping. And not a word too many – everything quite deliberately crafted more reminiscent of poetry than prose. This is the kind of literature I love to read."

David Clark

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: "I've never been into graphic novels, but this was a revelation. I loved the way the images complemented and slyly commented on the funny, tragic, and insightful text."

Megan Corbett

Karen M. McManus, One of Us is Lying: "Like The Breakfast Club, but add murder and social media to create a genuinely unpredictable mystery that's so much better than The Breakfast Club."

Sharon Eckman

C. J. Sansom, Tombland: "The latest installment of C. J. Sansom's brilliant Shardlake series nearly didn't arrive, as he has been seriously ill - so for those who love these superbly-researched historical novels, it was a double joy. Tombland is so immersive and enthralling that I managed to get to and from Portugal without panicking about how much I hate flying. I also learned more about the Norfolk peasant rebellion of 1549 than I ever would have done at school." 

Kershia Field

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: "Beautifully vivid storytelling in a way that makes you feel both warm and deeply sad. I'd recommend it to anyone!"

Aimi Francis

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: "I think I’ve got a new favourite author."

Colin Gardiner

Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea: "Tells the story of four young people in World War II who flee the advance of Soviet troops across war-torn East Prussia. This novel is profoundly moving and fast-paced with believable characters. The forgotten stories of so many refugees fleeing the collapse of the Nazi Reich are revealed. This book will stay with you." 

Katharina Kalinowski

Henning Mankell, The Chronicler of the Winds (1995, translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally in 2006): "A beautifully poetic translation of human violence and warmth. Set in an unnamed African colony during civil war, the novel weaves an intricate web of unheard voices to tell the story of the street boy Nelio. In a moving tale of magical and painfully real elements, it appeals to the power of imagination and shows that being old has nothing to do with age. This was a very special book for me; one of those that permanently change how you view the world."  

Simon King

James Ellroy, Perfidia: "Crime fiction as history - Ellroy’s saw-toothed prose offers us Los Angeles in December 1941, a city high on bigotry, Benzedrine, and brutality."

Mary Ann Lund

Zaffar Kunial, Us: "Zaffar Kunial's first poetry collection reflects on his British and Kashmiri parentage, on language that joins and separates us, and on the experience of loss. His poetry inhabits NHS hospitals, Midlands post offices, and the outfields of cricket pitches; and we find George Herbert and John Donne there too. An exciting and humane new voice in British poetry."

Dan Powell 

Robert Shaw, The Flag: "Undeservedly out of print third novel from writer and actor Robert Shaw, The Flag wrestles with the politics of capitalism and, despite being published in 1965 and set in 1925, still speaks directly to our contemporary world."

Robert Richardson

Muriel Spark, The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories: "Published in 1958, Spark’s collection of short stories are broadcasting from a lost world, but her acute presentations of comedy, tragedy, sadness and absurdity continue to resonate."

Kate Sharp

Sarah Corbett, How To Be A Craftivist: "Inspiring, empowering, practical guide to challenging social injustice in a friendly, creative way." 

Sally Shaw

Nicholas Tromans, The Artist and the Asylum: "What are the secrets within the paintings of Richard Dadd?  This book will tell you."

Jacob Spivey

Vladimir Mayakovsky, A Cloud in Trousers: "I was unsurprisingly caught off-guard by the optimism and hope that exudes from this piece of Soviet-era Russian poetry."

David Swann

Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic: "A classics scholar gets stuck with his cantankerous Dad as a student on his Homer course, and then tries to go to Ithaca with him. My book of the year. Learned, wise, moving, and funny." 

Jonathan Taylor

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial: "Ironic, cynical, psychotic. A very domestic Book of Revelations."

Maria Taylor

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: "A delicately-written novel about the lives of disparate characters brought together by a mute called Mr. Singer. Very memorable."

Miranda Taylor (aged 10)

Rachel Renee Russell, Dork Diaries: Birthday Drama!: "This book has a lot of drama in it. The main character Nikki has lots of crazy ideas for a party, which are very funny."

Rosalind Taylor (aged 10)

Matt Haig, To Be A Cat: "I loved this because it was exciting when the boy turned into a cat. I enjoyed reading about all of the dangers he had to face as a cat."

Paul Taylor-McCartney

Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling: "Enlightening and entertaining journey into the mind of the great storyteller - essays, conference papers and articles on his approaches to building narrative and art’s role in shaping both author, reader and society. Essential reading for any aspiring or established creative writers."

Harry Whitehead

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad: "Virtuosic technical skill in these enormously entertaining and profound connected short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. What a book this is."

Lisa Williams

Tasha Kavanagh, Things We Have In Common: "Yet another 'girl goes missing' tale but told in a breathtakingly refreshing way." 

Lee Wright

Michael Winter, The Death of Donna Whalen: "A non-fiction novel from 2010, based on the records of a man’s trial for murder. Michael Winter turns normal lives into living nightmares in true Capote fashion. Raw language, ingenious structuring, pure storytelling."