Wednesday 31 March 2021

Review by Simon Elson of "The Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham

If you haven’t read The Day of the Triffids, then firstly I envy you as you can read it for the first time, but secondly, I bet you know what a Triffid is. The book turns seventy this year and is the perfect example of the sci-fi sub-genre Post-Apocalyptic. You may have seen one of the two BBC adaptations, the first made in 1981 starring John Duttine was great, the second made in 2009 starring Eddie Izzard was mediocre at best. The 1962 film starring Howard Keel has the same name but it didn’t seem to be based on the book I’ve read!   

I digress, back to the book. It takes the form of a first-person memoir by Bill Masen and you only know what he knows; any further information is told to Bill and recounted by him. It starts with him in hospital with his eyes bandaged after a Triffid sting nearly killed him. During the previous night what was described by the news as a comet storm lit up the night sky and was a worldwide phenomenon. Bill, however, later suggests a different cause for the lights. Everyone who watched the display is now blind. You quickly learn that he has no dependents or relatives alive and is in a unique position to tell us about the origin of the strange plant.

The novel follows his adventure through London where he meets his future partner Josella Playton, an infamous novelist who had written a Fifty Shades style of book. He battles with both the Triffids and the fact that most other people are now blind. An interesting minor character is Coker, an Orator – a voice for hire, who starts off as an enemy of Bill.     

The author John Wyndham is almost prophetic in this work. The Cold War was only a few years old when he wrote it, yet he has it escalating to what it became in the sixties. The space race, satellites (Sputnik was launched seven years after it was written), a weapons defence system that sounded very much like the STAR WARS system proposed by Reagan in the eighties and genetically modified crops are all described perfectly.

A lot of classic sci-fi novels (Jules Verne and H. G. Wells etc) whilst still excellent have noticeably aged, whereas The Day of The Triffids with the exception of a couple of paragraphs (mainly describing News-reels at the cinema) could have been written yesterday 

I’ve read most of Wyndham’s other novels. The Kraken Wakes runs this book a very close second. In 2009 a ‘lost’ novel of his, Plan For Chaos, was published posthumously. It was, for me as a lifetime Wyndham fan, a disappointment. Some critics described it as almost unreadable. I’ll remember him for the almost perfect novel The Day Of the Triffids.      


About the reviewer
Simon Elson is a Freelance Features Writer. His articles  have appeared in numerous national magazines including Best of British, Derbyshire Life and Writing Magazine. He also writes for the popular cycling website and has been a guest blogger on The Huffington Post.   

Tuesday 30 March 2021

Interview with Gail Aldwin

Gail Aldwin is a novelist, poet and scriptwriter. Her debut novel The String Games was a finalist in The People’s Book Prize and the DLF Writing Prize 2020. Her first children’s picture book Pandemonium was warmly received. In July 2021, Gail’s second novel This Much Huxley Knows will be released. It tells the story of community tensions during Brexit from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old narrator. Gail regularly appears at literary and fringe festivals. Prior to Covid-19, Gail volunteered at Bidibidi in Uganda, the second-largest refugee settlement in the world. Her home overlooks water meadows in Dorset. 

Interviewed by Dawn Knox

DK: Why do you write?

GA: As humans, I think we all need a creative outlet. For others, it may be cooking or gardening or painting, but for me, it’s all about writing. I find the whole process absorbing: from the terror of a blank page to the gruelling process of getting a first draft down. The drafting and redrafting bring joy. I love the way stories become nuanced and layered with more detail and crafting applied. I find nailing the plot the biggest challenge and when it’s done, this brings the greatest satisfaction.

DK: What do you write?

GA: Like most other people, there are shopping lists, birthday cards, emails even the odd letter. Of course, my most focused forms of writing are for publication and include contemporary novels, poetry and short fiction. I also co-write plays and comedy sketches that have been performed at venues in Dorset, Brighton and Salisbury. When I set out in 2009 to become a published writer, I never imagined I would also have a children’s picture book published. Writing for children was the last thing on my mind! It was while working as a lecturer delivering input on children’s books to students at the University of South Wales that I struck upon the idea for Pandemonium. Over the years the idea for a cheeky panda causing havoc in a department store developed. The proposal for a full-colour children’s picture book aimed at 2–7-year-olds was accepted by Victorina Press and Fiona Zechmeister appointed as the illustrator. It was then the intensive collaborative work began to ensure the text told one story and the illustrations told a parallel and more nuanced version. 

DK: Who do you write for?

GA: When writing fiction, I always have the reader in mind. I strike upon one person (usually female) and create an imagined dialogue with them as the work progresses. I don’t go as far as giving them a name but I’m pretty clear about their age, family commitments, work, interests etc. When I’m sure about who I’m writing for, it’s easier to tailor the voice of my characters and the plot to its readership. Without this in mind, my story could easily get wildly out of hand and go down all sorts of avenues and dead ends. For poetry, the process is different with a focus on patterns of words and images. 

DK: When do you write?

GA: Starting out as a writer, I was still working as a teacher and bringing up my two children. I got up at 5am each weekday to secure quiet time dedicated to writing. I no longer have a day job but I continue to get up early to complete a few writing tasks before breakfast. With more free time, I approach writing flexibly. If I don’t sleep well, you’ll find me tapping away at my laptop. It’s not good sleep hygiene but when ideas are flying around my head, I like to pin them down. 

DK: Where do you write?

GA: I share a desk with my husband in a back bedroom of our Dorset home. He has the lion’s share of the space and I’m bundled at one end. I don’t mind because when I’ve got my head down, the writing environment really doesn’t matter. So long as it’s quiet and there’s a power point, I simply plug in my laptop and get to work. 

DK: How do you write?

GA: Plotting is the most difficult part of writing a novel. I now plan to the nth degree before committing a word to the page. In the past, I’ve wasted too much time writing without knowing where the story was going to attempt that again. I write most things on a laptop but I always have a notebook at my side and my diary. I like to set deadlines and make ‘to do’ lists which help to keep me on top of the process. Writing a novel is an unwieldy beast only tamed by good organisation! When working collaboratively on comedy sketches and scripts, my co-writers and I use an online website called WritersDuet. This enables us to work on one document from our different homes and we talk using a WhatsApp group call. This works well and I even contributed to some comedy sketches using this method while I volunteered in Uganda. 

About the interviewer
Dawn Knox enjoys writing in different genres and has had romances, speculative fiction, sci-fi, humorous and women’s fiction published in magazines, anthologies, pocket novels and books. She’s also had two plays about World War One performed internationally which led to the book, The Great War: 100 Stories of 100 Words Honouring Those Who Lived and Died 100 Years Ago. Recent books include The Macaroon Chronicles, a series of quirky adventures on the exotic Isle of Macaroon with Eddie and his zany friends. It is written in a similar style to The Basilwade Chronicles. Both are published by Chapeltown Books. And her latest is written with writer friend, Colin Payn, and is a cli-fi romance called The Future Brokers. You can follow Dawn on her blog here. She is on Twitter here.

This interview was first published on Dawn's blog here

Monday 29 March 2021

Review by Sally Evans of "Upturned Earth" by Karen Jennings

A men’s book written by a woman, this historical novel about late-nineteenth-century mining conditions in a South African township is a thoroughly researched and detailed portrayal of a community of poverty-stricken workers dependent on mine work for a living. It cleverly keeps the workers in view, using a few middle-men with various degrees of conscience to hold the story together. 

Blindly overseeing rough justice, Hull, the new magistrate, deals with fights and spats in the corrupt society. He comes across the boy Noki whose brother has been arrested and disappears. Noki’s search for his brother holds the timeline of the story, until the inevitable mine disaster in which Noki is one of the few to survive. The incompetent Hull faces up to his shortcomings, leaving his amateur natural history studies to warn the sympathetic rich mine owner’s daughter away as she tries to intervene in a workers' strike on behalf of her absent father. Their incipient romance is torn apart as she is sent home with her jars of homemade jam intended to feed the starving. Her father, brought back from the comfort of Johannesburg, sends his daughter back to England and deals with the strike in the only way he knows, with soldiers and a massacre. There are strong male characters among both workers and controllers, but mostly the women come packaged as ‘women and children’ or are otherwise drunk and in despair. 

The acceptance of rough and ready life, dangerous sea transport, lack of education and comforts, poor communications and uncheckced wickedness, give this world a grim reality. We come to believe in the boy Noki, the Cornishman Tregowning, and the motley nature of this mining community. Sympathising with Noki and to some extent with Hull, the reader is drawn into the unfolding disastrous story to make a racy and unusual novel. 

It is always difficult to guess how individuals would respond to historical conditions. What knowledge can we have of people’s feelings in such times?  A novel such as Upturned Earth fills the gaps in historical records with imagination and informed guesswork. We are shown the responses both of the workers caught up this situation and their overseers, as these men rationalise the harsh world they are helping to maintain.

There isn’t room for more women in this book. The kindly but immature Iris – Hull uses her first name but once – is sent back to England. Jam making, and looking after her young privileged son, are all she is fit for. Was it absence of power among women that made those worlds so harsh? Was it an acceptance that mining was necessarily inhuman?

This book enlivens history, the purpose of historical fiction, and looks critically at an actual industry, which is something that can be done better in fiction than in reports. A nicely produced book and a worthwhile read. 

About the reviewer
Sally Evans is a bookseller and poet.Her books include The Bees (2008) and Poetic Adventures in Scotland (2014), both from Diehard publishers. She edited Poetry Scotland for 20 years, and is currently studying for a PhD at Lancaster University. Her novel Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets is due out from Red Squirrel's Postbox Press soon.

Sunday 28 March 2021

Review by Tony R. Cox of "The Beloved Children" by Tina Jackson

The Beloved Children is skilfully crafted and delights with every page, every character, every action and a plot that trips the light fantastic with the touch of a master wordsmith.

The central characters, the Three Graces and the surreal, magical wardrobe mistress and her even weirder Russian ragdoll, meet up in Fankes Music Hall in 1940s wartime London. The teenagers’ dancing establishes them in vaudeville as well as the hearts (and elsewhere) of the audiences of servicemen. Author Tina Jackson’s crafted words dance on every page. They flow and wave, weave, dip, bow and curtsey, pirouette, twirl, trip, slip and entice, and always captivate. At the end of every chapter the reader takes a breath and smiles at the audacity of the almost physical movements of the writing. But such choreography requires strict discipline and, while Jackson’s writing is almost florescent, every word has its defined place and role.

Jackson’s characterisation brings wartime London and music hall entertainment to vivid life. There’s brutality, brutal relationships, rampant egos, beauty and style, weird and wonderful characters, heinous crime and retribution, villains and heroes, and the constant threat of a single bomb, physical and metaphysical, falling to obliterate everything and everyone.

Rarely do I pick up a book and read just for the sheer pleasure of experiencing a free-flowing style that knits and sews the plot seamlessly into the lightness of touch. The Beloved Children is a flowing, twisting, turning adventure through blitzed and dangerous London up to the present day.

The Beloved Children is also the only book I’ve read where the word ‘Terpsichorean,’ and its many shortened and linked forms, are used so often and to such great effect.

About the reviewer
Tony R. Cox is an ex-regional journalist, ex-public relations consultant and now the author of the Simon Jardine crime thriller series, which features a young reporter who is drawn into the plot through his search for a front page lead story. Published by Fahrenheit Press. He was born in London, and has lived in Scotland, Cheshire,  Pakistan and Derbyshire, and is now retired in Leicestershire. Writing has never been a choice; it’s been a drug since he was at school.

Saturday 27 March 2021

Review by Katy Johnson of "Love You Gone" by Louise Mullins

I love a psychological thriller involving entangled relationships and when I saw that this one was set in Bristol where I grew up, I couldn’t wait to get started!

Gemma, an 18 year-old student with her life ahead of her, has disappeared and is soon found to have been murdered. As the story unfolds, it’s clear there’s no shortage of people who’d like to have seen Gemma gone including her stepfather, real father, friend (and love rival), her tutor with whom she was having an affair, his wife, and Gemma’s angry boyfriend. I love the way the author peels back the layers of these multi-faceted characters to reveal their innermost thoughts and secrets, and reasons to hate each other as their lives intertwined.

My favourite character is the person best equipped to solve the mystery, investigative journalist Rachel – but she’s an alcoholic and has a history with one of the suspects, so is she reliable? Can she trust her own addled judgement, and can she stay safe?

I’m obviously biased when it comes to the setting but I felt it was ideal, with the iconic suspension bridge the perfect place for the dramatic climax, which would make a great TV scene. I recognised the places (right down to my local coffee shop!) which made it even easier to visualise the scenes in this suspenseful read.

Love You Gone is a fast-paced, twisty read that I devoured in one go, and highly recommend to fans of psychological suspense. 

About the reviewer
Katy Johnson is a bookworm, blogger and writer with a passion for flawed characters, dysfunctional families, old houses and dark secrets. She's a journalist, editor and author of four novels including The Suspects, and a history book, published as Katharine Johnson. When not writing or reviewing, she can generally be found drinking coffee, walking with her canine writing buddy, or patching up a small farmhouse in Italy where two of her books are set. This review was first published on her blog here.

Friday 26 March 2021

Interview with Linda Rosen

Linda Rosen is a twice-published author living in America. Formerly a fitness professional, Linda became a novelist when her debut The Disharmony of Silence was published in March 2020. Linda’s second novel is Sisters of the Vine, published in March 2021. Her books are set in the “not-too-distant past” and examine how women reinvent themselves despite obstacles thrown their way. Linda was a contributor to Women in the Literary Landscape: A WNBA Centennial Publication for the Women's National Book Association and has had stories published in online magazines and print anthologies. She is a member of the Women's Fiction Writers Association and the Women’s National Book Association where she is National Recording Secretary and Selections Coordinator of the Great Group Reads committee which chooses books for National Reading Group Month. Her website is here.

About Sisters of the Vine

Housewife and mother with a loving husband to take care of her – that’s all Liz, a Fifties gal, ever wanted. Over her father’s objections, she drops out of college to marry Rick, who dreams of living off the land. They buy a farm on a verdant hillside in the Hudson Valley, but can’t agree on what to plant. When they discover French-American hybrid grapes, Liz is confident they’ll be happy. Grapes are classy.

As the rich soil sinks into her soul and the vines begin to thrive, the marriage grows rocky. Refusing to disappoint her father again, Liz is determined to make her marriage work ... until she discovers a photograph hidden in the old barn.

Faced with impossible decisions, Liz is desperate. She has a vineyard ready to harvest and no idea how to accomplish the task. Does she have the moxie to flourish? Or will she and the land turn fallow?

Sisters of the Vine was published in March 2021 by Black Rose Writing. 

Interview with Gail Aldwin

GA: Sisters of the Vine is your second novel. Can you tell us about your debut, The Disharmony of Silence

LR: Thanks for asking. I’m happy to. The Disharmony of Silence is about a clandestine love affair in 1920s Brooklyn that leads to a family secret held for eighty-four years. Carolyn Lee, the protagonist, is desperate for family. When she discovers this shocking secret, she is determined, against all advice, to reveal it. The secret has the potential to tear lives apart. Or, it could bring her the closeness and comfort she longs for. It all depends on how she handles it.

GA: The Disharmony of Silence was published at the start of the pandemic. How did this impact on you as a writer launching a debut novel?

LR: Actually, having my debut published during this time was, for me, the silver lining in this pandemic. With book events all turning to virtual, I was able to “meet” readers from all over, from places I never would have gotten to if events were in person. In addition, the writing community is extremely giving and many well-published authors stepped up to help promote me, as well as my fellow 2020 debuts. Facebook groups were formed with on-line book clubs and podcasts and Zoom took over virtual book talks and interviews. I’ve met so many wonderful writers who I now call friends. And met readers, who I probably never would have met if not for Covid 19 shutting down in-person events. That said, I am looking forward to this pandemic being over and am so very sorry for everyone who has lost a loved one to this horrendous virus. 

GA: A sense of place is important in Sisters of the Vine. How do you choose your settings?

LR: Thank you. I worked hard for the vineyard to come alive. Settings are so important to me when I read a novel that I wanted to make mine evocative. I want my readers to inhabit place, smell the aromas and feel the textures. Therefore, I choose places that I know well, where I’ve walked the streets and ate the food, heard the birds sing, or, as in Sisters of the Vine, stood in vineyards, felt the grapes in my fingers, smelled the rich moist earth and tasted the bold wine. 

GA: I understand the vine to be symbolic of womanhood in your novel. Was this your intention?

LR: Absolutely. The original title for the book was Flourish because as the vines flourished, so did Liz and the women. I’m glad the title changed. Sisters of the Vine is so much better and, as I wrote the second and third drafts, and more, the vineyard became more of a character, more of a metaphor for Liz’s life and for all the women in the story – hopefully for all women in general.

GA: An inherited diamond marquise ring features in Sisters of the Vine. Why did you include a piece of jewellery in each of your novels?

LR: The Disharmony of Silence centers around the mystery of a cameo brooch. The painting in the story, of a woman wearing a cameo, is actually what brought me to write the book. When I added the diamond ring to Sisters of the Vine, it didn’t dawn on me that I had something going with jewellery. When it was pointed out to me that jewellery is part of my brand, I decided to stick with that and I’m adding an emerald to the book I’m working on now. So, to answer your question, I suppose it is simply organic. I hadn’t planned it for books one and two, but now, for future books, I am.  

GA: In Sisters of the Vine, we see the women characters offering each other mutual support. How do you plan character development in your novels?

LR: Before I begin writing, I give my main characters a full biography: birth date, color of hair and eyes, body type, marital status, etc. and then I go deeper to their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, emotional triggers, habits, even if they get along with their mothers. I make them human, to the point that one day I was walking down the street and saw someone coming towards me and almost told my friend who was walking with me that the woman looked just like Carolyn (my protagonist in Disharmony)! Sometimes something happens when I wonder what Liz or Carolyn, Kate or any other character would say. I hope my characters are as real to my readers as they are to me.

GA: You’ve now had two novels published, what’s next?

LR: In addition to being interviewed and having virtual book talks for Sisters of the Vine, I’m working on book 3 set in South Florida in the late 1960s. At this point, I’m getting words on the page. I am what’s called a pantser. I don’t outline or plan too far ahead. I know my characters, my theme, and I have an idea where I’m going with the story and I let it come to me organically. The characters talk to me and sometimes when I wish they would keep quiet so I can sleep! It’s fun. And this has been fun, too, answering all your questions. Thank you for having me.

About the interviewer
Gail is a novelist, poet and scriptwriter. Her debut coming-of-age novel The String Games was a finalist in The People’s Book Prize and the DLF Writing Prize 2020. Following a stint as a university lecturer, Gail’s children’s picture book Pandemonium was published. Prior to Covid-19, she volunteered at Bidibidi in Uganda, the second largest refugee settlement in the world. Her second novel, a contemporary story for adults, This Much Huxley Knows, uses a seven-year-old boy narrator to show the adult world in a new light and will be released in July 2021. It explores friendship and community tensions during the Brexit referendum. When she’s not gallivanting around the world, Gail writes at her home in Dorset. Find out more about Gail on social media: Blog: Twitter: Facebook:

This interview was first published on Gail's blog here

Thursday 25 March 2021

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Scent" by Isabel Costello

“For the greatest burden is to exist without living”: this quote by Victor Hugo begins our read and, throughout the novel, we are to ask ourselves, is Clementine living the life she deserves or the life she has created for herself? Why does it seem she is being punished? What has she done in the past to be deserving of her fate?

This is a really beautifully written book with delicate depictions of character, place, and time. I was enchanted by it. Clementine is a well-crafted person and so believable. 

She makes perfume in her artisan shop in Paris. I can smell this scent, just as I can smell the city of Paris and the countryside of Provence, and when we visit Marseille all the smells of the city and the sea are there for us to indulge in. This is so appropriate for a book entitled Scent. But what scent are we to follow?

It is this that makes the novel so believable, almost tactile in its descriptions and imaginings. I love the scene of her apartment and the energy that flows from the page when she describes it - and her place of work with its inner cocoon where she mixes her perfumes and is safe until a figure from the past arrives. Her former surroundings of Provence with its heat and its history weigh heavily on the outcome.

Clementine is a complex character trapped in a loveless marriage to Édouard, flirting with the idea of an affair with Frédéric when a lover from the past, Racha, arrives in her perfume shop. What chaos will she bring to her life, a life she has chosen to lead in a particular way after the frenzy of her youth and her mother's constant vitriol?

Her assistant Suzanne, a Vietnamese woman who we thought might also be a candidate for an affair, looks down on her just as she looks down on Clementine’s best friend Martha, who looks down on everyone else. It is a strange cast of characters and also a large one, with each being developed cleverly as an individual and recognisable to the reader as a person in their own right. Bastien, Clementine's gay son who hates his father, and Apollinaire her daughter, Édouard’s favourite who is out in Australia, are just as important as Frédéric the antique shop owner. Then there is Dolores, the impossible customer striving for a perfume that is just out of reach for the creator and the wearer.

You can see there are so many avenues that we can be taken along, and indeed we are. I think you have to read this. It is an intense, yet delicate story of love lost and love wanted … but also complex in the way we are asked to dissect the outcome of Clementine’s musing. Just what scent is she following and can she find it?

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. 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. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Review by Simon Elson of "The Separation" by Christopher Priest

My favourite novel genre is sci-fi (preferably earth-based and near-future). I’ve read most of Jules Verne, a lot of H. G. Wells and pretty much all John Wyndham, although recently I’ve been reading World War Two fiction – Ben Elton and Jack Higgins. The other day on a recommended books list a title I’d not heard of popped up - The Separation by Christopher Priest (published 2001) that straddled both genres. It’s already making ‘classic sci-fi’ lists after just a couple of decades. 

Its subject matter of Nazi Germany alternative history has been done a lot: Fatherland by Robert Harris, The Man in The High Castle by Phillip K Dick, SS-GB by Len Deighton, 48 by James Herbert to name just a few of them.  Because of this I nearly passed on it. I’m glad I didn’t. It was different to all the books I mentioned; it was a novel with a real ‘Oh!’ moment at the end and then a sleepless night trying to make sense of the whole book.

I hope my last comment and the sci-fi label won’t put you off. It’s not a Hitler-wins-war scenario where England lives in fear. It starts in the present day and tells its narrative through several people’s first-person memories and historical documents.

The style of it, rather than being like alternative history, was more like normal historical fiction. it reminded me a little of Robert Harris’s book Munich rather than his Fatherland. I’d also say in places there was also a touch of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five without (spoiler alert for people who haven’t read S-H-5) the aliens.     

There were plot twists and turns all the way right up to the last full stop. If I’d been reading a physical copy of the book, I’d have been aware of arriving at the last page as I would have run out of paper to turn but reading an electronic copy it was less obvious. I tried to read the next page to find notes about the author. ‘WHAT…’ was my thought, so I turned back and re-read the last couple of pages, savouring them more the second time, then finally understanding the end (I think) after an hour or so of not sleeping, even though it was late. 

If when I’ve finished a book, I think ‘Oh no, I’ll never read that book again for the first time’ then that’s how I judge how good it was. This was one of those books.


About the reviewer
Simon Elson is a Freelance Features Writer. His articles  have appeared in numerous national magazines including Best of British, Derbyshire Life and Writing Magazine. He also writes for the popular cycling website and has been a guest blogger on The Huffington Post.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Review by Kathleen Bell of "Travellers" by Michelene Wandor

Travellers by Michelene Wandor is a thin book with great depth. The eleven poems within repay many re-readings. They suit this time. When we’re urged by politicians and the media to take single, simple views about almost everything, these poems offer complexity and multiple perspectives. Even 'Beached,' at two pages the shortest poem in the book, keeps shifting viewpoint ranging from the texture of cowrie shells 'fine ridged, oval' to the surfer 'haloed spiderman red / by the sinking sun' and the 'crow-black verger' sweeping sand from the cathedral nave.

Other poems are more complex still. 'The Clock of Heaven: a Fugue' begins with a Marc Chagall painting but reaches back through time to John Harrison, inventor of the marine chronometer. It travels across seas too, taking us on a voyage where 'winds whistle and sing,' listing luxuries associated with colonialism and plunder – 'cloves gold silver pearls / diamonds calico ebony,' pausing to hear Harrison play the viola da gamba, before whirling out into the expanse of space where 'the earth is a cog in the clockwork universe.'

Shifts of power play out in the Biblical story and handed-down tales of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Even in the opening sensual encounter there are warnings of a future in which 'women’s voices and / instruments will be banned' – a prohibition later lifted. In the final section a family of Ethiopian Jews, now outlawed, encounter the poet in Regent’s Park where 'isn’t it strange' one woman says to her, 'how we live / such different lives.'

'Travellers' and 'Two Men' explore, obliquely, hundred-year-old roots of today’s Middle East conflicts. The 'Travellers,' Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence, meet in the desert. Both have found happier selves in Arabia: 'he has quitted his English self / in England she is just a woman, an empty jar / here she is in linen and khaki.' But for all this, their first loyalty lies with their own government. 'The British will break their promises' the poem’s commentary reminds us. 'They have sold the same camel twice.' The 'Two Men' are Khalil al-Sakakini and Alter Levine, both poets, imprisoned together in 1917 because 'the word "guest" is sacred from Jordan to Euphrates.' There is some common ground but also crucially different hopes for a future in the same land. Finally free, 'they take down the tent and depart.'

About the reviewer
Kathleen Bell's new poetry pamphlet Do You Know How Kind I Am? will be published shortly by Leafe Press. A book-length collection, Disappearances, is scheduled for publication by Shoestring in the autumn. Until last year Kathleen taught Creative Writing at De Montfort University. She lives in the East Midlands.

You can read more about Travellers by Michelene Wandor, and an extract from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 22 March 2021

Review by Tionee Joseph of Two Events at Literary Leicester 2021

Literary Leicester took place from 17th March to the 19th March 2021 and was hosted online by Dr Harry Whitehead at the University of Leicester.

Marlon James in conversation with Dr Michael Bucknor streamed simultaneously from Leicester, New York and Jamaica. The author was the first Jamaican to win the Man Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings. He stated the importance of reading in his childhood and how it can make one a better writer. He also reflected on how the lockdown has affected his writing practice, saying that he used it as an escape from reality.

When asked about the relevance of the literary canon, he said that it is important that it is actively and continually interrogated. In the genre of magical realism in which he writes, James says that there is room to explore queer perspectives. 

Jeffrey Boakye in conversation with Dr Emma Parker

The University of Leicester graduate, author and teacher Jeffrey Boakye spoke about race in Britain within the context of grime music. He said that for young, marginalised people, grime music is a way to experience joy, creativity and their heritage. He also emphasized the role of the media in perpetuating negative stereotypes about black people and how this is a narrative spawned from colonialism. Boakye said that for change to happen, we need to challenge oppressive ideologies and he encourages young people to prepare to have these conversations. 

The talks that I attended were very thought-provoking and I learnt a lot about the craft of writing. The conversations were relevant to current issues and I thoroughly enjoyed watching both events. This was a brilliant programme of diverse figures and I hope for more of the same in future festivals.

About the reviewer
Tionee Joseph is completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She has a blog where she writes about writing and gives lifestyle advice, which you can read here. Her poetry and articles on film, TV and adaptations have been published.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Review by Sue Mackrell of "#MeToo: Rallying Against Sexual Assault and Harassment: A Women's Poetry Anthology," ed. Deborah Alma

This powerful anthology of poems has gained new resonance and purpose with the murder of Sarah Everard and the police response to a vigil held in her memory. It is a witness to the courage and strength of women who are speaking out against violence and intimidation. It harks back to Maya Angelou’s ‘And Still I Rise’ and reaches forward to a new era when women’s voices are heard and respected. 

Particularly pertinent are the poems which explore the ways in which women’s lives are circumscribed by an implicit sense of threat: ‘you think / you are being followed / and you pick up speed’ (Meg Cox). Familiar routes are charted: 'There’s the “Cheer up Love it Might Never Happen” Spot,' 'Here’s the “Avoid At All Costs” / Underpass' and 'I still had to walk round / the block to make sure he didn’t know I lived here / on my ordinary street at the end of my ordinary walk home' (Emma Lee).

The anthology opens with the barely understood experiences of childhood, the ‘whispers of kids being “interfered with”’ (Angela Topping), the invitations to look for rabbits and lost dogs, and the ‘It’s just a game ... the girl who tolerates it the longest / is the winner’ (Sally Jenkinson). Frustration and anger are expressed at  everyday abusive language, the ‘cocksure roar of boy used to his own way, / one more of the ones we warn each other about, / whose reputations we pass around like classroom / secrets’  (Jane Commane).

For some ‘all my stories [are] small / but always wary,’ the 'ground floor flat / a face at the window / no phone / no back door' (Amy Rainbow). But the most harrowing poems are gut wrenching and visceral, ‘Unwrapped / like a parcel of offal / slippery, coming / unstuck’ (Linda Goulden). Disturbing images stay in the mind, a child waiting for ‘the lock that unclicks, the coffining dark, the / hooded stranger with Papa’s voice, the makeshift bed’ (Pascale Petit). There are unanswerable questions:  ‘What do you do when your child is born of rape?’ (Louisa Campbell).

But the sheer quality of the writing keeps the reader going. Anger invigorates the language. More reflective pieces are sensitive and nuanced, and flashes of dark humour lighten the tension. Many contributors are nationally and internationally published poets such as Pascale Petit, Helen Ivory, Helen Mort, Roz Goddard, Jacqueline Saphra, Kim Moore, Sabrina Mahfouz and Jane Commane. Others are just beginning to find their voices in writing.  This anthology represents a place of safety where women can speak out without fear. As Deborah Alma writes, it is a call to action from a ‘pride of lionesses who learned to roar stories that choked us.’ It is a rallying cry of anger and impatience. ‘We stand together, each one a Spartaca / no longer silent or alone: each voice stronger, / massing, alive, a wild murmuration / of me too / me too / me too’ (Pippa Little).  

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell’s poetry has been published online and in print anthologies and journals, most recently in Agenda Poetry, Ekphrastic Review, and Bloody Amazing (Dragon Yaffle 2020). She has an MA (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Loughborough University, where she was a part-time lecturer for several years. Now retired, she has taught and facilitated Creative Writing workshops in Higher and Further Education, schools, museums, art galleries, hospitals, and with ex offenders.

An earlier version of this review was published in Agenda Poetry Autumn 2019. 

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Review by Rob Jones of "Light" by C. M. Taylor

I’m too young to be personally familiar with the heady, turn-of-the-millennium setting of Light, but it’s enjoyable enough to reminisce about things I can just remember – genuinely down-at-heel pubs, the Eurostar leaving from Waterloo – and trace the way things have changed and the recent origins of things which now seem assumed and enshrined.

The description of East and West London and the way they intersect in the art world is abstract but profoundly evocative, however rapidly East London is becoming unaffordable in our present. The sardonic criticism of the swish, fast-moving and unobtainable West and the way it “slums over” to the East in search of “authentic” art will resonate with and amuse anyone whose visits to the capital are fleeting, who engages with it as an interloper.

Humour is a strength of this novella, underpinning descriptions, interactions and events. Larger-than-life characters spill out of the glass towers into bistros, galleries, barns and fields, to be dismantled at a distance in the self-centred voice of the jaded narrator, Ben. Beyond humour, Taylor is a creative prose writer in the best sense, using a broad spectrum of detail, from sparse to decadent, to relate, reflect and characterise.

In the best traditions of the form, the story gains pace like a piano rolling down a hill. Disparate strands clunk into place in a finale which only once you have read it seems all too horrifyingly predictable.

I would argue that there are different ways to read Light. I certainly enjoyed it as a critical and meta-textual examination of art in different forms, including prose, an opinion which would doubtless earn me the derision of its narrator. It’s a funny old world.

About the reviewer
Rob Jones studied English with Creative Writing options at the University of Leicester and completed an MA in Victorian Studies there. He lives in Sileby with his wife, sings with Leicester University Chamber Choir and dreams of working in heritage.

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Whose hand would you like to hold ..." by Patricia McCarthy

Patricia McCarthy’s poignantly titled chapbook, written during the first lockdown, invites us to ‘Draw the curtains, light the candle.’ It is ‘Time to sit as the Brontes did,’ she says, ‘Fight off the attacker’ and write. She tells us: ‘Emily will scribble – /with yours – her secrets, fast as she can.’ The predator stalking the Brontes was tuberculosis. For us, Covid 19 has forced us into introspection, to explore the ‘geography of the heart, ‘... deciphering more / about your selves than ever you knew.’ McCarthy asks us to ‘Reflect on those stolen moments / of grace; re-live them despite your skin-hunger,' to ‘think whose hand you would like / to hold one last time, then press softly to your lips.’ 

A thematic link in this cycle of poems is past epidemics, plagues, and pestilences, a seeking of causes and cures. The poet describes her own experience of polio, an evocative portrayal of a 1950s childhood watched from a sick bed, recalling images of ‘tiny faces peering, as if from Advent calendars, from communal iron lungs.’ 

The course of the lockdown in these poems is charted in the heavens; in March, Venus is ‘bright as a searchlight / over all our lives.’  In times past three ‘super-moons’ in as many months would be a sure sign of planetary maleficence; 'influenza' comes from medieval Latin, meaning ‘influence of the stars.’ Ancient Native American names for the moon are invoked, the ‘worm moon,’ when the earth is warm enough for worms to become active and begin the growth season, the ‘pink moon’ when wild ground phlox of that colour is in bloom. The poems are woven together with children’s rhymes, old country sayings, and ancient oracles. Natural phenomena are interpreted as auguries – flights of swallows, skeins of geese, oak branches offer portents of the future.

McCarthy writes of a close relationship with horses, observing how they can survive the brutality of humans, and understand death better than us. A deep connectedness to the natural world gives authenticity to the poems in this chapbook;  flowers blooming and fading mark the passing of spring into summer, from the primroses and daffodils of March, to June wedding roses ‘with no bride to wander under their perfumed roof,’  through to the first of the Michaelmas daisies. 

There is deep sympathy for those denied their solace, ‘Terrible to get the sun only by balancing / an arm or a leg on a window- ledge.’ McCarthy remembers those in care homes, ’The forgotten ones who have forgotten themselves: / see them stare out behind barred windows.’ She  writes with tenderness about her mother, 'suddenly I am you, / our bones knit together, wrapped / in all our ages in waiting rooms,'  an aunt ‘dialling random numbers like life lines,’ a sister ‘newly widowed’ in France. These are deeply personal poems but they resonate, ignite a shiver of recognition from experience or from stories heard on the radio or television, read in newspapers or on the internet. She writes, too, of domestic abuse, for which lockdown provided perfect conditions. ‘Many tales untold not for the telling / within four walls, no escape ...’ Cases of sibling abuse have escalated; the story of Cinderella is recalled: 'She never reported them, only too aware / they would have the last word ...' 

The end of lockdown is tentative, ‘See they return, one and by one they cross Westminster Bridge, not quite yet / undone by death ...’ and then ‘ the criss-cross of pollutant jet-trail tells / of a sky-spoilt world gone back on itself.’ But there is also a sense of comfort; in an earlier  poem McCarthy writes of the loss of childhood faith in Easter liturgies, of  ‘swapping naves for woodland paths,’ wondering instead if ‘his heart [is] beating in every tree ... his pulse in throats of nightingales.’ Here she writes it is ‘Best to rely on the anima mundi which has / no language, but is Love feathered with Peace.’ Its ‘Grace’ she writes ‘will not let those who died alone seem, / amongst Michaelmas daisies, to leave no trace. / All the farewells that could not be said, / are on the backs of swallows, ...Mine amongst them, for my father, spiral into a chorus of Creation psalms.’ 

In the final poem we are encouraged to ‘Draw back the curtains, snuff out the candle / and let Rilke’s angels clean misted windows / with their wings.’ But there is a warning – the angels ‘call out / Fear and Fear not. The look on their faces is terrible.’ 

Covid had not yet finished with us, still hasn’t finished with us. We are back again in March, still hunkering down, drawing strength from writing and from story-telling, as those who wrote the Decameron ‘reeled off tales / to avoid epidemics of fear in a plague.’ In the first lockdown McCarthy expressed what seemed then such a vain hope that a vaccine ‘simple as the one then found’ for polio, ‘dissolved / on a sugar cube,’ would be discovered. Miraculously, her wish has been fulfilled.  

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell’s ‘Lockdown’ poem will shortly appear on the Words for the Wild poetry website. Her poetry has been published online and in print anthologies and journals, most recently in Agenda Poetry, Ekphrastic Review, and Bloody Amazing (Dragon Yaffle 2020). She has an MA (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Loughborough University, where she was a part-time lecturer for several years. Now retired, she has taught and facilitated Creative Writing workshops in Higher and Further Education, schools, museums, art galleries, hospitals, and with ex offenders.

Monday 8 March 2021

Review by Karol Nielsen of "The Very Small Mammoths of Wrangel Island" by Craig Finlay

Craig Finlay, in his debut poetry collection, The Very Small Mammoths of Wrangel Island, moves through Africa, the Middle East, and the American Midwest in his surreal poems that blend history, philosophy, and myth with personal narrative. He tells us about polar bears with poison livers, the evolution of miniature mammoths, Neanderthals who “created art,” fugitive slaves who were the first colonial settlers in North America, the development of chlorine gas as a weapon, and other bits of history threaded into poetry. The most moving poems are more personal. His narrator smokes and drinks to excess and struggles with sobriety. He tries to make amends: “l’m ready for you to tell me all the ways I hurt you. And by that I mean, I’m ready to sit and really listen. I won’t distract you with stories. Like how the color blue doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible.”

About the reviewer
Karol Nielsen is the author of two memoirs and two poetry chapbooks. Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction. Her poetry collection was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry.

Thursday 4 March 2021

Review by James Holden of "Les couleurs primaires" by Mélissa Verreault

Camille lives a colourful life. She works for a paint manufacturer, where it’s her job to invent names for the 2,000 unique shades they produce each year. And yet, for all this colour, Camille’s life is colourless. She says her brain is blank and her hours at work empty. It is to fill this emptiness that she sets out on a quest to discover whether or not someone has ever loved her but not had the courage to tell her. It’s a quest that takes her to old friends and haunts, and ultimately to a decision about her life.

This is the outline of Mélissa Verreault’s charming short novel Les couleurs primaires. It is published by Les Éditions Didier as part of their range aimed at French language learners, ‘Mondes en VF.’ The texts in this range are all pitched at a certain language level as defined by the CEFR. Verreault’s novel is defined as being A2 level, which means that it’s intended for learners at an ‘Elementary’ standard. I should say here, though, that this does not make the text suitable for beginners.

Language acquisition is a slow process. Professor Stephen Krashan’s has outlined in his theories just how important reading is to that process, and has emphasised the fundamental need for what he calls ‘compelling comprehensible input.’ The texts in the Mondes en VF range all work towards that aim – they are designed ‘pour le plaisir de lire en français.’ Verreault’s novel certainly provides compelling content for language learners. The inclusion of definitions in the footnotes make it an even more useful tool in the learning process (the definitions are themselves given in French). Additionally, and like all the texts in the range, Les couleurs primaires comes with a range of free supporting materials, including vocab sheets and exercises. Better still, it comes with a free audio version which can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

As a language learning tool, this novel is great. The story drives the reader onwards. I was concerned enough with Camille’s quest not to feel put off by the extra effort of reading in my target language. Whilst the text is pitched at A2 standard there are definitely some trickier passages and structures. The reader will encounter the passé composé, the imparfait, the futur proche, the future simple and the conditionnel and will need to be able to differentiate between them. There are also a number of idioms. Verreault herself is from Quebec, so the reader should be aware that some of these idioms might not be heard in Paris – however, this is explained in the footnotes.

The text’s short length and its necessarily uncomplicated French means that its plot also lacks complication at times. The story is charming, and the reader feels for Camille during her quest. However, there were moments when I wanted to know more. For instance, the revelation that Camille’s school friend Karine had loved her when they were younger was passed over in a rather cursory fashion. So, too, was the revelation and then refutation of Camille’s unwitting role in a suicide.

Nevertheless, I was thoroughly charmed by this short novel, and was happy enough after finishing it to read it again immediately, this time with the audio book playing. I felt a great sense of motivation from having finished this text in my target language. I also felt motivated by Camille’s commitment at the end of her adventure to live colourfully. As she says: ‘J’ai envie de vivre en couleurs.’

About the reviewer
James Holden is an independent academic and writer. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian, and a proud nerd. The author of In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained, his recent research has focused on the piano playing and aesthetics of the Romantics. He is currently working on improving his French. His website is here.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Review by Gus Gresham of "Drowning: A Memoir" by Andy Palmer


This is a well-crafted real-life tale that packs a punch with its no-nonsense language. It’s funny, sad, moving, and shocking in places. But what will draw in, disarm and beguile a reader most of all is the courage and honesty of the writing.
The book is subtitled A Memoir, but it definitely reads like a novel. With its unflinching scrutiny of human failings and the depths to which addiction can drag a person, it put the reviewer in mind of the extraordinary Melvin Burgess’s Junk.

As the central character of his own story, Andy is a flawed anti-hero who is desperate to be understood and loved, but who frequently hits the self-destruct button. Even during the experimentation of his adolescent years, the seeds of desperation are sprouting. In one passage, he is abusing his medicinal inhaler, taking snort after snort because it produces a kind of high. When the inhaler is exhausted, “I grabbed a can of deodorant, wrapped a towel around the top and sprayed it into my mouth breathing in the fumes. It worked …”

We feel his pain and shame as he rips off his grandad and raids the neighbours’ medicine cabinet. Anything to get a fix. And as he leaves school and gets paid work, he begins to consume truly frightening amounts of alcohol. The writing cleverly distorts the narrator’s motives: is he getting wasted for its own sake or doing it as a means of self-annihilation? “Nothing can beat oblivion. I wanted all my feelings to go. I wanted to be numb.” There was a scene in the Mike Figgis film Leaving Las Vegas (1995) in which Elisabeth Shue’s character says something like, “So you’re drinking as a way of killing yourself?” And Nicolas Cage’s character says something like, “Or killing myself is a way to drink.”

In Drowning, however, it’s not just booze. And amid the spare language, room is carved out for arresting imagery. There are fine passages describing tripping on acid or coming up on MDMA: “My stomach turned into a jellyfish and floated off.”

Andy Palmer’s prose is very real and immediate. And disturbing. You have to keep reading because your head is whirling with questions like, What’s going to happen? How can it possibly end?

A fantastic reminder, too, that indie publishing has some priceless gems to offer.

About the reviewer
Gus Gresham is an avid reader and writer. He has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and has worked variously as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, interpersonal and communication skills facilitator, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines Brittle Star and Under The Radar, and his recently published novel, EARTHRISE, is available on Amazon. You can read a review of it here

Tuesday 2 March 2021

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness"


These outsider stories are full of characters that could live on the fringe and margins of any society. Vital stories! A cracking read for the Greek taverna and Cafe Neon that awaits us. They stimulate and generate insight. Manna from heaven. Bravo! Alexandros Plasatis’s superlative new collection of Greek-cum-Egyptian-related tales are packed with crafted sentences that are balanced, punchy, acerbic, staccato and engineered with quirky detail. 

One gets a buzz when something as good as this blows its way in from left field. In Plasatis’s pugnacious ‘The Legend of Zaramarouq,’ for instance, two local hard men lock horns in a Kavala taverna: blood, sawdust, cigarettes and beer fly in this epic brawl that resonates with mythical undertones: ‘Pavlo moved. He jumped up from his barstool and ran towards the giants. He didn’t know what  he would do once he got there, he just ran, and, when he got close enough, he took a leap and smashed a shoulder against Zaho’s body.’ 

Also, expletives detonate within Plasatis’s prose like an air bomb repeater fired into the hush of night. Such language helps build a rich vernacular tone that fuses the text with verve and believability, often surprising and shocking the reader at the same time: 'Knowing that the young waiter was watching him, he would catch Pavlo’s face and pull a face: “Un-fucking-believable” – then get on with the story.'

Harbour life is often brutal and seedy in Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness, and Plasatis portrays this in a compelling matter-of-fact fashion. Plaudits. I was reminded of Charles Bukowski, Lucia Berlin and Denis Johnson’s narratives, as I carved through  Plasatis’s pared-back incendiary tales. Life can be scruffy, dark, funny and invariably, tough within their prose. Renowned texts of such ilk have a ‘terrible beauty’ about them – blue-collar-kitchen-sink-dirty- realist-in-your-face truths that knock you for six! In every rollicking story, Plasatis manages to capture these sensibilities. And by the end of this dark harbour stroll, you, too, will be gagging for retsina, ouzo and tsipouro. Down the hatch. Yamas! One for the road, then?

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. He is currently working on his first collection of short stories. His story 'The Bottle and the Trowel' is published in the anthology High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories. You can read more about his work here

You can read more about Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness, as well as an excerpt from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 1 March 2021

Review by Neil Fulwood of "The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster" by Sarah Wimbush


When a pamphlet wins a major competition adjudicated by such luminaries as Imtiaz Dharker and Ian McMillan - and when a number of the poems within that pamphlet have been placed in or won the Mslexia, Red Shed, Live Cannon International and Bread & Roses Poetry Competitions (and others: the acknowledgements page does some heavy lifting) - it’s a safe guess that the reader is in for some good poetry.

The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster isn’t just good; it’s as good as it gets. As a second salvo following the Seren pamphlet Bloodlines (2019), which explored the poet’s Traveller heritage, it doubles down on that work’s statement of intent, that establishes Wimbush as a major new talent, a distinctive voice, in British poetry. 

Broadly, The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster explores geography, class, recent history (key poems take the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a backdrop), heritage and landscapes, both internal and external. There is arguably more going on in its 35 pages than many a full-length collection achieves. I could easily write a couple of thousand words by way of review, studded with any number of eminently quotable excerpts, but for reasons of brevity, ‘The Lost’ serves as an exemplar of the pamphlet’s aesthetic. A social history linking people to jobs and places, it unspools through two pages, moving from nostalgia 

          Elsie’s grand-kiddies scrubbed up nice
          on Saturdays at Greyfriars Baths,
          changing them in poolside cubicles,
          all their worldly goods in one wire basket

to the starker realities of those times:

          the seven lads who never came back
          while the filthy rich lorded it in NCB’s Coal House
          and Plant

to the socio-economic changes that bring the poem up to date:

          ... the factories turned call centres,
          the schoolyards, the ginnels, the smokeless chimneys
          and beneath them, beneath all that, those lost men,
          and all that blackness still down there.

This is muscular poetry, wrought with precision and loaded with experience. Mordant humour runs through it. Wimbush has a keen eye for human foibles, and heart and talent big enough to transform them into art.

About the reviewer
Neil Fulwood was born in Nottingham, where he still lives and works. He is the author of two poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere, with a third forthcoming in June 2021.