Tuesday 23 February 2021

Interview with Anietie Isong


Dr Anietie Isong has worked as a corporate writer for some of the biggest brands in the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His first novel, Radio Sunrise, won the 2018 McKitterick Prize. The novel was previously shortlisted for the Kingston University Big Read, and longlisted for the 9mobile Prize for Literature. His individual short stories have won several prizes including the Commonwealth Short Story Award. His collection of short stories, Someone Like Me, published in 2020, won the first annual Headlight Review Chapbook Prize for Prose Fiction, administered by Kennesaw State University, Georgia. Isong has spoken at the Birmingham Literature Festival, Marlborough Literature Festival, Henley Literary Festival, among other literary festivals. He holds a PhD in New Media and Writing from De Montfort University Leicester, an MA in Communication from the University of Leicester, and a BA in Communication Arts from the University of Ibadan.

You can read a review of Anietie's novel, Radio Sunrise, on Everybody's Reviewing here.

In February 2021, Anietie gave a guest lecture and reading at the University of Leicester. Below, he is interviewed by first and second-year undergraduate Creative Writing students at the University of Leicester about writing, research, novels and his short story 'While We Were Sinners,' which you can read on the Mechanics Institute Review here

Interview with University of Leicester Creative Writing students

Q: Which methods of characterisation methods work best in your opinion, or which one do you like best? 

AI: I think I employ speech the most. I started writing for radio before focussing on fiction. Back then, when writing radio plays, I had to make my dialogues as convincing as possible. I couldn't describe scenes - except through the characters' words. I believe this background in radio has played a key role in my current writing style.       

Q: Did writing about a familiar setting in the story 'While We Were Sinners' make the overall process easier, or did rooting it somewhat in your own experience make fictionalisation more difficult?  

AI: Indeed, writing about a familiar setting made the process easy for me. Almost all my works are set in places I have lived or at least visited. I lived in Lagos which is why part of Radio Sunrise was set there. I envy authors who can write about places they have never visited. I like to observe people in their natural settings so I can write about them properly. In addition, my works are usually set in contemporary times that I have experienced. This is why I have never attempted to write historical fiction. 

Q: How do you go about in creating characters? Do you draw inspiration from people you know? 

AI: My inspiration is drawn from my surroundings. I like observing people. I watch out for many details - their walks, clothings, looks. The majority of the characters in Radio Sunrise were inspired by the people I had met at some point in Lagos or in the Niger Delta. Even my own parents inspired me! I grew up in a deeply conservative Christian home, that's why there's always a religious slant in most of my works.    

Q: Do you know how a story will end from the very beginning or do you change your mind during your writing? 

AI: To be honest, I don't. Most times, I start my stories not knowing how it will end. Even if I know the ending, there's always a possibility that it will be changed. Sometimes, when I start writing, I know the ending but not the beginning - this is the case with my forthcoming novel. 

Q: You said that it is easier for you to write about Nigeria because you already know a lot about this country, but do you still have to do some research to enhance your work, or would it be possible for you to write without? 

AI: For Radio Sunrise, yes, I still needed to do some research, but it wasn't much. In the novel, I focused on writing about the places and topics I knew - like journalism, the Niger Delta, Lagos. I worked in a radio station, so it was easy for me to write about Ifiok and the other characters on the book. Nigeria is such a vast country. I couldn't possibly write about the northern part of the country without doing a lot of research, since I have never lived there. For my forthcoming novel, I did quite a lot of research, and since the story is related to healthcare, I also spoke to a number of medical practitioners. 

Q: How did you decide on the title of the short story ‘While We Were Sinners’? 

AI: There is a verse in the Bible that my mother always recited: 'While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.' I simply took the title from there! 

Q: If you were to continue the story 'While We Were Sinners,' do you have an idea of what might happen to  Solomon? 

AI: To be honest, I have not thought about this. Maybe Solomon could be sent to prison for a long time. 

Q: How did you decide to write about Solomon and his questionable career choices? What was your inspiration? 

AI: Many years ago, I read in the Birmingham Mail about a man in the city who fell on hard times, and how he turned to fraud to make ends meet. I began to imagine the man's background, and how he had found himself in the situation. That's how I decided to write the story of Solomon. Of course, not every penniless person would consider questionable career choices, but it's something I wanted to explore in the story. 

Q: How does short story writing differ to novel writing, do you think? 

AI: I love writing short stories. I wrote and published a number of short stories before deciding to write a novel. I think writing a novel requires much discipline because you are telling a longer story over a period of time. I prefer brevity. My novel is a slim volume. Most of my short stories are actually quite short. 'While We Were Sinners' is one of my longest stories. 

Q: What motivates you to write? When you have off days and don't feel as motivated, or aren't happy with your work, how do you deal with this? What do you do to fight writer's block? 

AI: I try not to force myself to write. There are times I could go months without writing a word of fiction because of a lack of motivation. But I don't let it bother me. When really motivated, I could write for hours every day. 

Q:How easy do you find it to innovate? Do you always feel in touch with your imagination, or do you feel reality makes it difficult? 

AI: I read/watch the news often so I can know what's going on around the world. While my fictions are usually based on my imagination, I try to blend it with reality. 

Friday 19 February 2021

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Like Fado and Other Stories" by Graham Mort

Graham Mort’s latest short story collection, Like Fado, is a wonderfully engaging read. The thirteen stories are standalones, but they share thematic and textual traits that bind them into a single whole. 

'Fado' is a dance that can be traced back to Portugal of the nineteenth century, but also derives from the Latin term ‘fatum’ – fate, death or a final utterance. Both definitions apply to the stories here. At times, the prose moves with the musicality and rhythms of a dance but there is also a mournful, almost elegiac mood to each piece as the protagonists do their best to overcome various sorts of existential crises.

The photographer in the title story, 'Like Fado,' wanders the Lisbon streets, keen to put his wife’s extra-marital affair out of his mind. He is drawn to the tiny details of everyday life – that is, until he is asked by a local girl to take a picture of her mother’s final hours. 'The old woman,' Mort writes, 'was beautiful in the way that only the very old and the very young can be, her skin exquisitely creased, her irises and pupils dark, merging to the point of invisibility.' In many ways, Mort behaves like his photographer, dipping in and out of the lives of the characters he’s created. His astute eye falls on singular moments in time, then magnifies each one, with denouements masterfully executed. There are no weak entries in this incredible collection, but for this reviewer standouts include the aforementioned 'Like Fado,' 'Shoo,' 'Olivia' and 'Whitehorn' - novella-like in its scope, and a profoundly moving portrait of guilt arising from a childhood mishap. 

I was new to Mort’s work before reading this collection, and this has certainly left me wanting to read more. 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is a doctoral researcher with Leicester University, following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall. You can read more about him here.

Wednesday 17 February 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "Something Happens, Sometimes Here: Contemporary Lincolnshire Poetry," ed. Rory Waterman


          Suddenly, the shattered hedges, ancient culverts, 
          our huge ruined villages, give way as 
          dimpled fields tilt to the Fen 
          and the treeless otherworld begins.  
- Rory Waterman

A seductive title that draws the reader in, even before s/he’s had chance to crack the spine - whose interest can’t fail to be piqued by the claim that Something Happens, Sometimes Here? This is a short collection of poetry by a selection of writers who were either been born, lived or worked in the Lincolnshire Fenlands, and who have been inspired to turn to words to express the effect this watery landscape has had on them. Anyone familiar with the region will understand how the landscape gets under the skin, as it did with these poets' predecessor Tennyson, who liked to evoke the ‘silent woody places’  of his youth. This is a land of dykes and sluices that fight a constant war with water, keeping the sea at bay with an army of workmen who brought their own tales and superstitions. Alison Brackenbury sums this up with her poem simply titled 'Ditches': 

          Still they lie deep, though I have gone, 
          The great dykes with their glinting load, 
          brown winter floods, fields’ wasteful run, 
          planted too soon. Are there machines 
          which rear and dip from the firm road, 
          scoop glistening banks, clear rotted leaves?

          Yet still, I know, there is a day –
          A stone-blocked pipe, a tumble tree-
         When a man slides down with a spade,
         Beats back dead nettles, elder’s switch,
         sunk from sky as under sea, 
         dig, sweats and clears the gurgling ditch. 
The workmen, once locally called ‘Fen Tigers,’ are a presence in the book as they dig and clear the ditches, sweating and telling us tales as they work at the mercy of the elements and the attack of rats and the fatal Weil’s disease. This marshy land evokes memories of a time past and proves, as Robert Macfarlane claims in his book The Old Ways, that we recall a land most keenly once we have left it: ‘there are landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after we have withdrawn in actuality.’ Some poems are an ode to a way of life which is gradually being lost, as with Rory Waterman’s simply titled: '53 9’33.17”N, 0 25’33.18”W,' a grid reference to a place long abandoned and left to be reclaimed by mother nature, and in Alison Brackenbury’s 'The House':

          Hard through the dream’s cold spring I raised
          My house again. My bones and heart ache
          In every joist. 

Waterman wanted to collate a range of voices in this book and saw it as a response to Ian Park’s Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry. Setting out to showcase the poetry that was inspired by land ‘where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet,’ the fenlands are England’s second biggest county, but often a land overlooked.

The more recent ‘bastard countryside’ of mud, litter and graffiti is nicely summed up in his poem 'Pulling over to Inspect a Pillbox with a North American Tourist.' This rings true of the wasteland the Fens have become today - a home to scrapyards and dog kennels, food processing plants and used tyre collections, concrete pillar boxes and rusting Nissan huts. Nonetheless, this landscape still has the ability to inspire poetry. I can recommend this collection to anyone who has ever driven over this vast flat land on the way to somewhere else, and been curious to discover just who is it that chooses to live here? 


About the reviewer
As a teacher of Art and Design for over thirty years, Tracey Foster has channelled her imagination into getting the best creative output out of others. She is now hoping to restore her create mojo and has enrolled on the Creative Writing MA course at Leicester University. Last year, she completed the Comma Press short story course with Rebecca Burns and collectively published Tales from Garden Street. She is due to have first poem published by the Poetry Bus magazine and is currently working on a poetry collection.

Monday 15 February 2021

Review by Rosalind Adam of "Blood and Water" by Rebecca Lowe

It was Rebecca Lowe’s use of imagery in her poem ‘Snowman’ that first attracted me to this collection. I knew I had to read more of her work and I was not disappointed. 

Blood and Water is a collection of thirty-eight poems that took me on a dizzying journey through the love, pain and anguish of a lifetime. In ‘First Kick’ I felt the unborn baby whose move was no more than ‘a whisper of assent.’ In ‘Signature’ I watched the young girl still ‘a sketch half drawn’ and I empathised with the poet’s desire to keep her ‘in serene suspension between child and woman.’ Lowe explores the pains of adulthood with reality that ‘cuts deeper than the sharpest blade.’ In ‘Holy Ground’ I was hanging on ‘a tangle of strings,’ daring to look up into ‘the face of the Puppeteer glowering down,’ while in ‘Ego’ I became transfixed by the gift of a balloon ‘filled with my own breath,’ a balloon that becomes ‘warped and puckered’ evoking the emotions of a ‘gentle, creeping death.’

Lowe talks of the terrors of the climate emergency in her award-winning poem ‘Tick tick tick,’ and in ‘Last Will and Testament’ she declares a bequest to all poets. She bequeaths her skin ‘to try on, whenever you tire of being yourself’ but it comes with a warning to be gentle because ‘it is not as thick as you think.’ Rebecca Lowe will not need a thick skin to read this review because I am highly recommending her collection, Blood and Water

About the reviewer
Rosalind Adam’s poetry has been published online and in anthologies. In 2018 she won the G. S. Fraser poetry prize for ‘Fresh Canvas’ and, in the same year, was awarded a distinction for her MA in Creative Writing at The University of Leicester. She is the author of The Children’s Book of Richard III and blogs at rosalindadam.blogspot.com.

You can read more about Rebecca Lowe's collection, as well as sample poems from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday 12 February 2021

Review by Laura Sygrove of "WITCH" by Rebecca Tamás

           when the witch first met the devil the devil was 
           a beautiful man and a beautiful woman 
           the devil had long eyelashes and a body that was hard and soft 
           at the same time so that you wanted to hold him 
           and also be held by her …

WITCH is an exploration of feminine power and masculine beauty, of the complexity of human beings (and non-human beings). Tamás’s poetry is gender-fluid, poignant, risqué, and raw. She writes with a duality akin to Anne Sexton; with the tenacity and vigour of a woman force-fed with falsehoods, reborn in vomit. The Witch is liberated of mind, body and spirit. The Witch is full of fire, full of life. The Witch is in all of us, if we dare to delve deep enough. 

WITCH gathers modern musings on the natural world and the occult, amidst an air of apathy and cultural malaise (as in 'WITCH GOVERNMENT' and 'WITCH EARTH'), tackling subjects of inequality ('WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES'), alienation, damnation ('WITCH TRIALS'), morality, and acceptance ('WITCH AFTER'). Tamás conjures spells and hexes for political change, for agency, for mysticism and reality. She speaks directly to women, with their 'soft bodies and hard placards,' and to men who embrace and embody this dichotomy. 

WITCH is profane, carnal, lyrical, and lilting. Tamás conjures hypnotic rhythms which slice through the rigidity of regulated verse, and bares all to the reader – 'legs open to the sky.' Tamás details the Witch’s intimate relations with the Devil-made-flesh, her romance with 'petrol station boy,' and her immaterial exchanges with God. Similarly the Witch undergoes a series of interrogations by an omniscient figure. What do we learn from these interactions? That we have little time on this earth and that there is no 'just' way to live.

A daring debut, Tamás’ poetry-turned-spell book is a call to arms, and to expression without restraint. This crude and wonderful collection consults history and myth for guidance, encouraging love and light in its discussion of tragedy and loss. WITCH is ephemeral and everlasting; it lives on even after we turn its final pages. Unabashed and unafraid, Tamás burns the Witch, bathes in her divine light, relinquishes control, and refuses to be silent:

the wind rubs away their voices
they sneak them back.

About the reviewer
Aspiring screenwriter/writer for video games/graphic novelist, Laura Sygrove is ambitious and indecisive. She graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in Film and Literature, and is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Review by Hannah Westwood of "Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites (2013), set in Iceland in the 1800s, tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant woman who is sentenced to death on suspicion of murder. Burial Rites sat on my shelf for quite a long time before I picked it up because of the number of good reviews I read and recommendations I’ve had. I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised by how good Burial Rites is. 

The novel follows Agnes through the winter, as she lives with a servant family who are charged with housing her until her death. She is also visited by Tóti, a young assistant reverend, who is tasked with preparing her spiritually for her death. Throughout the novel, Kent slowly reveals Agnes’ past as she tells Tóti her history and the two form a strong bond. The reader slowly learns the events of Agnes’ life leading up to how she came to be accused of murder. This keeps the suspense going and I found that I really couldn’t put the novel down once I’d started.

The novel is partially based in reality, which makes it a really interesting read. In fact, Kent started it as a historical inquiry when she was studying abroad in Iceland. Using the historical record in which Agnes’ death is documented, Kent started to piece together the story, enhancing it with fictional details until it eventually became a novel. 

Kent’s writing style is very lyrical, and it was an easy but thoroughly interesting and, at times, a moving read. For me, the ending fell a little flat as it felt rushed, but overall it was a really great read and I definitely recommend it, even if historical fiction is not your usual go-to genre. 

About the reviewer
Hannah Westwood is a final year English & American Studies student at the University of Leicester. She likes reading feminist and sci-fi novels and her favourite author is Terry Pratchett.

Review by Tracey Foster of "Sounds in the Grass" by Matt Nunn

As the wind whispers through the grass, what sounds does it make? According to this poetry collection by Matt Nunn it whispers a tale of anarchy, teen angst and rain plop on a crapola landscape. From his early school days with a 'right-venerable tosspot' headmaster to the two-tone reggae beat in his poem 'Coventry Calling,' this self-labelled 'dumb brummie buffoon' takes us on a roller-coaster ride of gutsy language that holds no truck with any refined sensibilities. 

‘What’s it all about big ‘ead?’: Nunn's poems evoke a Burgess-like quality with their old-school expressions, insults and in the creation of Nadsat-like words ‘the screaming Pollocky sky of angels.’ Nunn manages to capture the love for ‘this soaking beloved isle of sodden crapness’ that is both new and yet harks back to a familiar past. His poems juxtapose the everyday with the sublime, making us look at our experiences in a renewed light, like ‘God with a spray can’ attacking our insensitivities. 

‘Grubby precincts of paradises’ are populated with the bizarre and bereft, from the have-a-go-heroes and 'grot-faced nippers' to the 'prissy cagouled tourists' and 'Tudor-haired truckers.' Nunn scatters a range of characters throughout his text to share their stories with us, affectionately reminiscing on the revolting recent past of Mini Metros, cassette tapes, Vespas, Chernobyl and disco lights, taking us on a stroll down memory lane with an eye on the profane. His opening 'Prologue' sums it up:

          Come you tender violinist lovers
          and rude thumping drummers
          and you too, you strangely alluring
          but precipice-stiff
          and I’ll teach you in a boom frazzled
          in daydreams of thunderstorms.

          Come you who turn yourselves audaciously
          inside out until you are nothing
          but a bloody shredded kiss
          hanging off a borrowed skull’s humming lips.

          If you want,
          I can be all crazy flesh,
          the epitome of polite romance
          as sweet and delicate as you would wish:

          not a proper man but the Sounds in the Grass …

Open your ears and visualise the scene, as Nunn transports us to an all too familiar ‘screaming landscape.’

About the reviewer
As a teacher of Art and Design for over thirty years, Tracey has channelled her imagination into getting the best creative output out of others. She is now hoping to restore her create mojo and has enrolled on the Creative Writing MA course at Leicester University. Last year, she completed the Comma Press short story course with Rebecca Burns and collectively published Tales from Garden Street. She is due to have first poem published by the Poetry Bus magazine and is currently working on a poetry collection.

Monday 8 February 2021

Review by Vic Pickup of "Feverfew" by Anna Saunders

So hotly anticipated was Anna Saunders’s Feverfew that I’d already bought it when a review copy landed in my inbox. I wasn’t disappointed; the cover says it all – scorching, mystical, full of powerful connections – there’s a lot to see here. 

Indeed, if it’s dazzling imagery you’re after, Feverfew is rich with bejewelled moments. The poet’s talent for gorgeous, vivid description shines throughout the collection, right from the opening poem ‘What I Learnt from the Owl’: 

          how to hunt in silken plumage
          tooled up with talons and hooks

          how to split the seam of the night
          with saw-tooth wings

          how to consume all I kill
          yet stay hungry.

Magical lines are scattered throughout all these poems, as we read of Icarus in ‘Now the Earth is an Embering Coal’: ‘when he hit the sun, the feathered sky wept.’ 

Saunders even manages to turn the darkly humorous into a thing of beauty, as in ‘Hades Justifies His Off-Roader’:

          Not the winged martyrs that collide
          with his windscreen

          turned angelic white as they are picked out
          In his headlights

          before glistening like broken berries
          When they hit the road.

Just as the poet’s description of Hades mowing down innocents in his 4x4 still manages to be both  beautiful and amusing, so does her portrayal in ‘The Ghosts of Intimacy Fuck on my Bed’:

          I am thinking how they could not get any closer
          when in a quick dart she slips into him,

          slides under his tracing-paper skin, to be subsumed
          into his heart as they soar above.

Many the poems in Feverfew are political and mythological creatures are a regular feature. What holds the body together is their boldness, rawness, at once stark and glittering. 

Saunders's work is wild and honest; as reviewer Stephanie Jane wrote, some poems seem so personal that reading them feels like 'staring into a stranger’s window.' Whether the subjects of these poems are real or imagined, the poet has delivered each one with flare, creating a collection full of stunning observations which linger in the heart and head. 

About the reviewer 
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid’s Arrow Competitions, and shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth prize on YouTube. Lost & Found is Vic’s debut pamphlet, published by Hedgehog Poetry Press and featuring Pushcart-nominated poem ‘Social Distancing.’ She is on Twitter @vicpickup and her website is here. You can read a review of Vic's pamphlet on Everybody's Reviewing here

Sunday 7 February 2021

Interview with Tim Relf

Tim Relf is a Leicestershire-based novelist. His most recent book, What She Left, was published by Penguin under the pen-name TR Richmond and his two previous novels, Stag and Home, were published by Piatkus. His day-job is as a journalist, specialising in writing about farming and the countryside. He's also contributed to national, regional and local papers and magazines, along with BookBrunch and The BooksellerHe's a tutor for the Professional Writing Academy, and has given guest lectures on fiction and the media at Nottingham Trent University and Harper Adams University.

What She Left is a psychological thriller about the life and death of a young woman told through the digital and paper trail she leaves. As well as telling the story from multiple perspectives and in a non-linear time frame, What She Left draws on multiple mediums, including newspaper and magazine articles, diary entries, emails, blog posts, Facebook and Twitter messages, letters, police transcripts and forum posts. Pitched at the literary end of the commercial market, it’s a contemporary epistolary novel – a modern story told in a very modern way. It was published in 21 countries and turned into an audio book starring Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance (who both starred in Game of Thrones). The Daily Telegraph included it in its must-read books of the year, and it was featured as a book club choice by the Daily Mail’s You magazine.

Q: Where did the original idea come from?

TR: It was actually on Twitter. I saw a tweet by someone about what piece of music they’d like played at their funeral and it struck me how bizarre and intimate that was to read. That got me thinking, what else could I learn about this person on Twitter, and that eventually took me to the idea of reassembling, jigsaw puzzle-like, a suspense story from a young woman’s digital and paper trail.

Q: Why did you write it in this format?

TR: I wanted to write a novel that not only passed comment on the way we receive / consume news and information these days, but was actually structured in that way. Hopefully it has something interesting to say about communication, the media and our digital identities, as well as such timeless issues as love, loss, revenge and redemption. Ultimately, I’m very conscious that the internet and social media have revolutionised how people relate to each other and communicate – and it was my fascination with this that drove the idea. Fact is, more than at any point in history, each of us leaves a digital footprint nowadays and it’s from this, jigsaw puzzle-like, that I wanted to reassemble my protagonist’s story.

Q: How do you do research?

TR: The internet is essential. Plus, I always badger people I know who are the same age as a particular character to find out what their cultural reference points are. Most of the research never gets used, but it helps shape my sense of a character. Who would they vote for? What do they like eating? What do they watch on TV? It’s details such as these that help you fashion a sense of someone which, in turn, helps you understand what decisions they’d make.

Q: What or who inspired you to become an author?

TR: I’ve always been preoccupied by capturing detail – whether that was keeping a diary as a kid or taking photographs. Maybe it’s because memory is fickle, but I’ve always worried about 'losing' the past. My desire to write was born out of the same sentiment – it’s partly about helping me remember. It’s also about wanting to start a dialogue with readers. When you publish a book, you’re saying to people: ‘This is how I see the world, what do you think?’

Q: Name a book that has impacted your life significantly.

TR: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I was a student doing a summer job in London when I read it. I’d got off a bus, was late for work and about 30 pages from the end, but just stood by the side of the road outside the office and carried on reading. I simply had to finish it. My boss even walked past me at one point and asked me if I was alright! If ever I need reminding of the power of books, I think of that moment.

Q: Give would-be writers one piece of advice.

TR: Have an amazing elevator pitch for your novel. If you can sum it up in a sentence, it'll massively improve its chances of getting picked up by a publisher.

Friday 5 February 2021

Review by Jo Jenkins of "Becoming" by Michelle Obama

Fresh from the White House, Michelle Obama found herself with a sense of freedom she’d almost forgotten and an opportunity, at last, to take a breath. Becoming, written at a time of reflection after a significant change in her life, is a deep dive into her past, to better understand her choices, character, struggles and successes before considering what to do next. I am the same age as Obama and can relate to her sense of being betwixt and between, young enough to live life to the full but, perhaps with a greater sense of urgency and need to get it right from now on. 

In her autobiography she details her early family life through to the end of her husband’s presidency. It isn’t quite a rags-to-riches story, but there is a stark contrast between her childhood and her adult life. However, it is apparent early on in the book that what matters to Obama was never money. The overriding sense of her early years is one of joy, love, security and seriousness. She was a quiet, studious girl determined to succeed and surrounded by a family who encouraged her and sparked an interest in activism.  


She focuses less on her family’s financial position and much more on the relationships that formed her. She understood her family’s history with links to slavery and the injustices experienced by her grandfather, unable to get a union card because he was Black. This important theme runs through the book and the significance of her arrival in the White House, as a descendent of enslaved African Americans, is immense. 


From her childhood, through her teen years, university and into her career as a lawyer, Obama is aware of the important opportunities available to her that had been denied to her forebears. She meets and is influenced by other women of colour who guide and encourage her and, of course, her most important relationship, her marriage, takes her in a direction which enables her to encourage and influence the generations of young Black women who follow. Obama has embraced her position as a role model, not just for her own daughters but for girls around the globe. In looking back at her own life, she can see that it is relationships that have shaped her more than circumstances. 


The book is, first and foremost, a simple autobiography--it does document her life and it provides the reader with plenty of juicy snippets of life in the White House, even giving some insight into Barack. Michelle Obama's writing though, cleverly blends the details of her life into a social commentary, stressing the importance of relationships, strong positive role models and community activity. It is a welcome antidote to individualism, advocating a route to success which rewards hard work and determination, and providing a beacon of hope for us all, but particularly for young women. 

About the reviewer
Jo Jenkins lives in Portsmouth and runs her own business selling children's clothes. She's a keen baker, cyclist and Archers listener.

Monday 1 February 2021

Review by Paul Jenkins of "The Mirror and the Light" by Hilary Mantel

Anticipation, comparison and expectation are difficult emotive foes to appease. How do bands and singers follow their breakthrough song or album? Few rarely do successfully. How does a writer follow not only best sellers, but two Booker Prizes?  

Eight years had passed since Hilary Mantel's ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ had secured her second Booker Prize. Anticipation, expectation, and comparison had never reached such heights before ‘The Mirror and the Light’ was published in 2020, drawing the life of Thomas Cromwell to a conclusion. It is against these measurements and emotions with which we must contend, to write a fair review of the final novel of this Tudor trilogy. It is exceptionally difficult to do so.

What is without doubt, is that Hilary Mantel continues to write with exceptional knowledge and clarity of Tudor life. It's hard to pinpoint whether the title author or historian suits her more. The detail around Tudor life; food, colours, fashion, and house décor are extraordinary. You are given an unparalleled vivid lesson into the textures and fabrics of everyday Reformation Britain. You can feel and breathe it. The characters are alive as the political noose tightens around the hero. Is he a hero or deserving of his fate? Texts books portray Cromwell as a villain, but Mantel offers a more nuanced perspective.

The Tudor court was all about survival, and Cromwell was better at survival than most – he needed to be. Mantel makes him come alive, and I for one was urging him to navigate the class machinations that ultimately secured his downfall. For me he became a hero and I wanted him to survive. Alas, no, and Mantel’s final words still pain me as his blood spills onto the scaffold. The jury decide that there will be no third Booker Prize, but that does not diminish this final book of the trilogy. For me, the emotive foes have been successfully equalled and that is more than good enough. Take a bow, Hilary Mantel.   

About the reviewer
Paul Jenkins is 56 years old, with wide ranging interests in history, hill walking and the arts.