Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Favourite Reads of 2019

At the end of 2019, 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 2020!

Maggie Butt

Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley: "Rich, evocative nature writing, a compelling plot and a surprise ending - perfection."

Michaela Butter

Madeline Miller, Circe: "A brilliant feminist retelling that breathes life into the shadowy and maligned figure of the witch Circe."

Vaishnavee Chousalkar

Elie Wiesel, Night: "Absolutely heartbreaking, raw and vulnerable. It makes you live the horrors of the Holocaust and the Auschwitz camp through words."

Laurie Cusack

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star: "Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector breaks down walls in her novella The Hour of the Star and the reader tumbles through, amazed … I love her!" 

Andrew Dix

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina: "I'm a late (but enthusiastic) convert to the graphic novel, and I loved this one - if 'love' is the right word for a book that, in its meticulous images and words, is so poignant about grief and so harrowing about the violence lying beneath America's bland suburban surfaces."

Simon King

David R. Bunch, Moderan: "Corporate Man propelled into the far, far future and given a crash! bash! smash! uberviolent and madcap Futurist sheen - Marinetti would have loved it (though he wouldn't have grasped the joke)."

Mary Ann Lund

Raymond Antrobus, The Perseverance: "This debut poetry collection experiments with voices, signs, and broken sounds as Antrobus explores deafness and his Jamaican-British heritage; discussing 'Dear Hearing World' with my first-year students was a real highlight of my teaching year."

Kevan Manwaring

Richard Powers, The Overstory: "I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time."

Dan Powell

Hanne Ørstavik, Love: "Beautifully translated and compelling account of a single winter evening, told through the seamlessly alternating voices of single-mum Vibeke and her son Jon as they move separately and inexorably toward the dead of night and a darkness that lies both without and within."

Robert Richardson

Don DeLillo, White Noise: "A family’s life in America towards the end of the twentieth century, as viewed through DeLillo’s satirical lens: the noise might be white but the comedy is decidedly dark."

Sally Shaw

Ian McEwan, The Daydreamer: "This book returned me to the wonderful world that is childhood."

Ashley Lloyd Smith

Emily Maguire, Taming the Beast: "The most disturbing book about sex, violence and jealousy you are ever likely to read, especially if it is the first gift from a new lover ..."

Jayne Stanton

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: "An odyssey of hope, empowerment, love and redemption; a story for our time."

Jonathan Taylor

Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps: "No-one does misers like Bennett - and in this claustrophobic and beautifully-observed novel, compulsive miserliness is screwed up to a terrifying degree, a kind of death drive. I can't imagine any reader penny pinching again."

Maria Taylor

George Seferis, Complete Poems: "This is a beautiful collection of poetry which captures moments of pain, exile and transcendence."

Miranda Taylor, aged 11

Yusei Matsui, Assassination Classroom: "In this manga, the children have to kill the teacher because he's already blown up the Moon, and is going to blow up the Earth next graduation. It is very funny and violent."

Rosalind Taylor, aged 11

Koyoharu Gotouge, Demon Slayer: "I really like this manga because Nezuko, one of the main characters, is very cute. I'm glad she doesn't get killed like lots of other people in the story."

Ernst von Weyhausen

Kamal Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered: "A genuinely intelligent examination of the modern problems of an ancient land that has ramifications for far beyond Lebanon."

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Life in Translation" by Anthony Ferner

Who’d have thought that translating foreign texts into English could lead to so many different bedrooms.

This seems to be a story about one man wooing and winding his way around the workplace, discovering uncomfortable sexual relationships with Gabi, Julia, Sonja, Trudy and Rachel - all in the first 81 pages! - as he moves from continent to continent, workplace to workplace. He seems to lead a shallow life, never quite managing to stick to anything, be it translating El Sexto, a Peruvian prison novel, or staying in a satisfactory grown-up relationship. He finds neither one thing nor the other; there is very little in his life, unless he counts shallow, meaningless sex as a success.

That this novel is well-written is beyond dispute and, though uncomfortable to read at times, I could still not put it down, even though I wanted to. I didn’t like the character portrayed and found him needy and patronising, especially towards women, but I had to find out more. I wanted to know if he would eventually achieve a successful relationship that didn’t just rely upon sex, and I certainly wanted to know whether he finally succeeded in translating El Sexto into the English language in a way that overcame all the linguistic problems it carried with it.

It is ironic that the character spends his working life trying to tease out the exact meaning of the smallest of words so as not to mislead the reader when he is such an abject failure at reading his own lifelines and methods. Perhaps it is too simplistic to place the two themes side by side and say that his translating life is a metaphor for his sex life - never quite getting there, despite chasing around the world to find that elusive ideal. I won’t tell you what he finds. You’ll need to read it and when you think it is all too much, buckle up and knuckle down, it is well worth the effort.

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.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Review by Lee Wright of "Freedom of Movement" by Reuben Lane

London, 2018 and uncertainty is everywhere. As Theresa May announces her Brexit plan, Reuben Lane walks the streets, from Clapham Common to Brixton, living an apprehensive existence. Freedom of Movement is a curious self-published book, part micro-memoir, part everyday diary. It would probably find a home somewhere between Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and Will Self’s Walking to Hollywood

Able to be read in a single sitting, it begins in the National Theatre foyer, as a security guard’s walkie talkie crackles, vacuum cleaners hum and people argue over the proper way to dispose of ice-cream cartons. The author moves all across the capital, an undertone of trauma following him from a canteen in Russell Square, to the streets around Millwall football stadium. There are inner battles being fought alongside everyday observations, like a Romanian plasterer arguing on his mobile phone while the author eats a deluxe vegetable burger at a McDonalds. At times the prose dips into (poet) Charles Boyle territory: “My cotton tote bag that I have stuffed with some dirty underwear; a couple of carrots, a root of ginger; a towel; a paperback.” 

And there are even entries into flights of fancy, such as when Donald Trump sits on the edge of his hotel bed, masturbating at the sight of Stormy Daniels on his television screen.  
“He pumps his pumpkin-hued penis.” 

There are tales of DIY mishaps in West Dulwich and morally polluted thoughts like artistic cannibalism. An old man calls a black girl “bitch,” while she shouts back, “Old man, you should be ashamed of yourself.” At times, the book reads like an overheard conversation you wish you hadn’t heard. Yet there are still glimpses that this could have been a fidgety mini-epic, perhaps with a little more time. If this book leaves you with the sense that Reuben Lane’s story is unfinished, perhaps that’s because it is.                                

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

Review by Elizabeth Morgan of "The Last Children of Tokyo" by Yoko Tawada

Generations after a fictional (and very vague) environmental catastrophe, Japan struggles. The elderly often outlive their grandchildren in the world of this novel, a feat of magical realism and ecocriticism. Young people have fallen sick, due to the older generation’s negligence of the natural world. In this post-Fukushima society, reflections of intergenerational suffering are astute. Guilt for his generation’s selfish actions towards the planet are present always, in the elderly protagonist. 

This is also an exquisite feat of psychological exploration that ties the past to the future. In banning the naming of foreign cities, the author not only nods to Orwell, but leads us to remember isolationist Japan during Edo times. Tawada’s imagination leaves us with painful questions. Why is the prose describing irremediable catastrophe of nuclear meltdown so arresting - and yet, the creeping effects of pollution and global warming more subtly written? Present, too, is the fear of surveillance - quite popular with dystopian authors, as the elderly protagonist writes: "He was already well into it when he realised he’d included the names of far too many foreign countries. Place names spread throughout the novel like blood vessels, dividing into ever smaller branches, then setting down roots, making it impossible to eliminate them from the text. He’d had to get rid of the manuscript for his own protection, and since burning it was too painful, he had buried it." 

Mumei, the protagonist, is introduced to us in his silk pyjamas, waking up one morning. This is a Kafkaesque opening (reminiscent of the awakening in "The Metamorphosis"), bleak; yet the author still makes room for aesthetically gentle prose. Typically Japanese literature contemplates beauty, even in the remains of horror.  We are left understanding that we must rage on for all that is withheld by the government, never relaxing our search for protecting those simple pleasures we rely upon for happiness. 

About the reviewer
Elizabeth Morgan is a twentysomething who enjoys reading Japanese literature.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Review by Miranda Taylor of "Tokyo Ghoul" by Sui Ishida

Humans are meant to be at the top of the food chain but instead, in this manga, ghouls feed on humans to survive. They can easily blend in with human society. Ken Kaneki sees a girl named Rize-san who he ends up asking on a date not knowing that she’s only interested in eating his body. As Ken is almost about to be eaten, steel beams fall on Rize. He needs an emergency organ transplant because Rize is dead. Then he has to learn how to live his life as a ghoul … 

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys manga and violence. There are fourteen main books in the series but also there is another series called Tokyo Ghoul: Re. These books are illustrated and written by Sui Ishida. 

About the reviewer
Miranda Taylor is eleven years old. She enjoys reading manga and drawing her own pictures too. 

Friday, 13 December 2019

Review by Maizey Batchelor, aged 14, of “Straight Outta Crongton” by Alex Wheatle

This book had me hooked right from the start. It’s very relatable for teenagers: 

He hasn’t got anything to bring apart from his drunk-up bruk-ass self,” says Mo, the main character of this book. I really love the way Alex uses slang and colloquial language. 

Mo is a fifteen-year-old girl who lives with her mother and her mum’s horrible boyfriend Lloyd.  She tries her best to stay out of their way, since Lloyd has been to prison for all the wrong reasons. She prefers to hang out with her two G’s Elaine and Naomi or spend her time wishing she was Sam’s girlfriend. 

One day, Lloyd beats up Mo and she runs away to stay with Elaine. But Lloyd is not finished. He hurts one of Mo’s friends and Mo needs to make it right. Who does Lloyd hurt? Will Mo ever get revenge on Lloyd.  And Will she ever be reunited with her mum?

Alex Wheatle has written lots of other great books such as Liccle bit, Home Girl and Crongton Knights. He really captures the minds of teenagers and his books are far more enjoyable than any others I’ve read previously. Straight Outta Crongton is full of both drama and romance and I give it a five-star rating!

About the Reviewer 
Maizey is fourteen and loves drama, dance and performing. She has recently re-discovered books after a long break from reading. This is her first ever book review!

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Review by Kathy Hoyle of “The Confessions of Frannie Langton” by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton is on trial at The Old Bailey and the crowds are baying for the blood of the ‘Mulatta Murderess’.

‘Any gaol-bird could tell you that for every crime there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner.
That story is one only I can tell’ 

Frannie’s lawyer gives her a sheaf of paper, ink and pen, so that she may confess the terrible secrets she has kept so close, and somehow find a way to escape the noose. 

This meticulously researched bawdy, brutal tale brings to life to Regency England, where reputation is far more important than truth, and freedom is an impossible dream.   

As a young girl Frannie Langton is given her massa’s name and brought into the big house in Paradise, Jamaica, but for what reason? Living in fear of her spiteful mistress Miss Bella and with no answers from Phibba the housekeeper, Frannie must learn to fend for herself under Massa Langton’s watchful eye. Soon Frannie learns just how terrible the mind of an inquisitive gentleman can be. When Langton forces her to perform his ‘negro’ experiments alongside him, Frannie is drawn into unspeakable acts, scarring her soul forever.  

A fortuitous event follows. A fire wipes out the Plantation and sees Langton flee, with the only chattel he has left… Frannie. Could this be the chance for freedom Frannie has hoped for? Gifted to the prominent writer George Benham in return for the publishing of his scientific papers, Langton ensures that Frannie is simply passed from one wicked master’s hands to another. 

The only light in Frannie’s life is her new mistress, the beautiful but delicate Madame Marguerite. As the love between maid and mistress grows, terrible secrets unfold. Both women are slaves to the master, each one suffocated with dreams of freedom… and then the unthinkable happens. A double murder in the Bentham household, and Frannie is the only suspect. 

The confessions of Frannie Langton is a stunning debut from Sara Collins. The inherent racism of colonial England comes through loud and horrifically clear as we follow Frannie in her search for freedom and a love that crosses the boundaries of race, gender and class.  Collins weaves gothic strands of tension throughout the story with a masterful edge, holding us in the palm of her hand as we wait with bated breath, for Frannie’s final day of judgement. A page-turner from the get-go, this novel will leave you breathless. 

About the Reviewer  
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate of Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her Flash fiction and short stories have appeared in various Online Zines. She has been shortlisted for The Exeter Short Story Award, The Fish Publishing Short Memoir prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of “Betsy & Lilibet” by Sophie Duffy

It’s 2016, Bognor Regis, when a feisty voice is heard …

I never thought I’d be old. But here I am, sitting on a wee-resistant armchair in the overheated lounge of a residential home on the south coast.”

This is the introduction to Elizabeth Sarah Sunshine, born in 1926, London. A few hours later and a few miles away, another Elizabeth is born. One will wear a crown and be known to her family as Lilibet and the other will bury the dead, and to her family, be Betsy. She will be the ‘son’ at Sunshine & Sons undertakers, the family business. 

Betsy recalls her life over the past ninety years, as friends and family visit her at the retirement home. She journeys back to her childhood, relationships with her sisters. Marg and Mab, school bullies and best friend, Janet.  Betsy recalls the horror of the Blitz and how this led her to take the action she did to help Janet. 

It’s the visitors and staff at the retirement home that cause Betsy to reconsider events, her actions and the behaviours f others. Along with life’s complexities, family tragedies and unspoken truths, she drops in the three times she crosses paths with Lilibet and the influence this has had on them both. 

Sophie Duffy has written a protagonist in Betsy who will make the reader laugh, cry, be surprised but above all, want to listen to. Betsy has lived a life. The story is just that, about life, love, loss, betrayal and trying to work it all out, even at the age of ninety. 

About the Reviewer 
Sally Shaw completed her MA in Creative Writing in September, 2019 at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She is currently writing a composite novel relating to the Overhead Railway and Liverpool 5 area. She gains inspiration form old photographs, history and writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan and Liz Berry.  Her short prose has been published in Newmag, Ink Pantry and the anthology Tales from Garden Street. Most recently she was longlisted in the Sunderland Short Story Competition. Sally worked as a nurse for thirty-three years and lives in Warwickshire with her partner and three pekin bantams. 

Monday, 9 December 2019

Seren Price, Aged 8, review of “Skellig” by David Almond

Skellig is a really good book. 

It’s about a boy called Michael who finds a man in the garage of his new house. The man has bones that are all weak, he has a disease called arthritis. Michael finds some strange lumps on the man’s back, they have soft feathers, he thinks the man might have wings. 

Michael’s mum and dad are always at the hospital because his baby sister is very poorly. The only person he can talk to is his friend, Mina, who lives next door.  Mina doesn’t go to school, but she is very clever and good at drawing. She knows all about birds and about the poet William Blake, who writes about angels. Mina and Michael help Skellig get better by bringing him Chinese food and beer.

They think Skellig might be a sort of bird-angel, especially when he helps Michael’s baby sister get better. 

This book is very different to other books I have read. It is very interesting because I learnt about clever girls, birds and their hollow bones, and William Blake the poet. It was good and sad at the end when Skellig got his arthritis fixed and flew away. 

About the Reviewer 
Seren Price is 8 years old. She loves to read all kinds of stories and has already written three of her own. She loves history and when she grows up, she wants to be an archaeologist. 

Friday, 6 December 2019

Review by Jeannette Flannery of “The Last of Us” by Harriet Cummings

The Last of Us tells the story of 82-year-old Nettie, a lonely widow whose memory is not as vivid as it once was. Ostracised by her neighbours, taunted by local children and estranged from her only daughter Catherine, Nettie enters the story as a sympathetic figure.

But when young handyman James arrives in the village Nettie is thrilled to discover he is an old friend of her daughter and the two of them quickly build an unlikely friendship. As James begins to question Nettie about her past, Nettie begins to remember treasured memories of her husband Harold, as well as memories she’d rather forget. James, much like the reader begins to wonder if Nettie is really a harmless old lady or if there could be truth in the rumours circulating about her around the village.

Harriet Cummings is an accomplished writer of the domestic mystery novel. Here, as in her first novel, We All Begin as Strangers, secrets simmer under the surface of an idyllic village. The reader experiences Nettie’s nostalgic memories for themselves in the tiny details; the music and miniskirts of the swinging sixties; Harold’s garish red Ford Cortina of the seventies. 

The sights and sounds as we travel with Nettie through scenes of her past are vivid but as the reader learns more about Nettie, we too begin to question her version of events. What really happened to Harold? Why doesn’t her own daughter want to talk to her? How much of what she remembers is the truth?

The Last of Us is a heartfelt exploration of loneliness, ageing and complicated family relationships: a slow burning novel where tension builds to a final devastating climax. I found the character of Nettie stayed with me long after I had turned the final page.

About the Reviewer
Jeanette Flannery is a writer of fiction for young adults. She loves all things Japanese and lives in the midlands with her partner and a pair of mischievous kittens.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Review by Colin Gardiner of “Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson

Cayce Pollard is a young American woman with a ‘sensitivity’ to corporate branding symbols. Cayce makes a living advising clients on the viability of their product. She has been hired by an eccentric, rich client to investigate the origins of a mysterious film clip that has appeared on the internet.

Gibson deftly draws the reader into a post-11 September world of espionage and intrigue.

The novel has a melancholic feel, suited to the geo-political tensions of the era.
His characters are sharply defined, in particular the protagonist, Cayce, who forms a sympathetic but sharp-eyed lead.

Gibson has a talent for describing the cultural undercurrents of the city. London, in particular comes across as a potentially lonely, but vibrant place, filled with possibility.

The novel works, both as a compelling thriller and as a curious historical time-capsule, written just before the social media boom of the mid 2000’s. Recommended for readers of science fiction, and techno-thrillers.

About the Reviewer 
Colin Gardiner lives in Coventry. He writes short stories and poems and has been published by The Ekphrastic Review, Ink Pantry, The Midnight Street Press and The Creative Writing at Leicester blog. He is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing at Leicester University. More of his work can be read here

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Review by Kathy Hoyle of “The Glass Woman” by Caroline Lea

The Glass Woman is a stunning debut from Caroline Lea, taut and atmospheric from the very first page. 

Set against the unforgiving claustrophobic landscape of an Icelandic winter, the reader cannot help but be pulled into this dark and isolated world of secrets and superstition. 
The year is 1686. In the remote Icelandic village of Stykkishólmur, the ice cracks, and a body is pulled from the water. The villagers have their suspicions, there is talk of murder, witchcraft and punishment … and newcomer Rosa is determined to find the truth. 

Rosa’s heart belongs to Páll, but when Jón Eriksson passes through their village and asks for her hand, she cannot refuse. A girl must be dutiful and pious and Jón is not the sort of man to take no for an answer. Desperate to help her ailing mother and knowing that Jón will provide for them both through the harsh Icelandic winter, Rosa agrees.

Rosa is afraid. The women of Stykkishólmur refuse to talk, save for whispers of Jón’s first wife, Anna and her mysterious death. Rosa must stay in the house, forbidden by Jon to be anything other than his dutiful wife, trapped and afraid. Then there is Petur, Jon’s strange but trusted friend, who seems intent on catching her out. Rosa must find answers. 
What are the noises she hears in the attic above? Why do the villagers fear Jon so? And what happened to Anna, his first wife?

In this tense and powerful story, Lea weaves a brilliant tale of mystery, witchcraft secrets and lies. This debut novel is rich, dark and poetic, with twists and turns that keep the reader guessing all the way to the end.  

About the Reviewer  
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate of Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. Her Flash fiction and short stories have appeared in various Online Zines. She has been shortlisted for The Exeter Short Story Award, The Fish Publishing Short Memoir prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. She will write for chocolate.