Tuesday 28 September 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country" by Edward Parnell

As a reader whose own childhood is rooted in the 1970s, I instantly recognised a very familiar soundtrack to this book: essences of the eerie that accompanied the TV productions of gothic tales from M. R. James, Kipling, Algernon Blackwood and others, the hypnotic hurdy-gurdy music of the black and white productions, often shown at Christmas in line with the Dickens tradition of an uncanny  tale for Christmas Eve. Parnell returns to his own childhood experiences and revisits the parts of the country directly connected with each story, speaking to people connected to the history and taking a fresh look at the landscape involved. 

The author Robert Macfarlane mentions in his article, ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside,’  the nation’s obsession with the ‘sceptred’ in this ‘sceptred isle.’ This seems to ring true with Parnell’s mission to travel to its furthest corners and poke about in all its ‘sequestered places.’ Using his own memories to exorcise some sad periods, this also becomes an exercise in dealing with grief, to ‘not let those particular ghosts slip away, even when the very act of remembering is sometimes terribly painful.’ M. R. James noted that ‘for the ghost story, a slight haze of distance is desirable,’ and from the distance of adulthood we try to make sense of our haunted past. My own encounter with the vivid description of ‘the thief and his load’ in Jane Eyre at a young age pales in comparison with Parnell’s experiences, which are bound to send a shiver of recognition through its readers because of the wide net it casts. TV productions of ghostly classics, ‘folk horror ’ films, startling Public Information shorts, all form a backdrop to the childhood of this era, creating a ‘haunted generation,’  who will enjoy the detail this book goes into, researching these creations. The landscapes involved have their own tale to tell and many of us will enjoy seeing the pastoral idyll portrayed in a new way. Rather than a ‘stage set to offer the picturesque, it is a realm that snags, bites and troubles.’   

Landscapes of the desolate are a great environment to inspire and set the uncanny, the X MOD land off Orford in Suffolk being a great example. However, large houses with fading decadence also dominate these stories and this leads us to enquire why storytellers were fixated on them. Clarke thinks it is because they resonate with our social expectations of the eerie: ‘toffs like ghosts because it’s a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.’  Parnell explores this in more depth: what is it about the place, brick, gravestone that brings us back to our fears? As John Clare puts it,

          We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stone
          On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
          On rank weeds, battening over human bones,
          Till even one’s very shadow seems to fear. 

The eerie has a tendency to surface at times of hardship, endurance. Several authors suffered losses as a result of two world wars, and this gave birth to an outpouring of ghostly grief from Rudyard Kipling, M. R. James and Walter de la Mare. We can find echoes within our own times as the 1970s was an era of unemployment, depression and darkness following the power cuts of 1972. As we find ourselves in troubling times again, writers of all genres are turning their sights to the uncanny once more and I for one can’t wait to see where it may lead. 

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster has been teacher of Art and Design in schools in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland for over 40 years. She took part in the Comma Press short story course in 2019 and had a short story published in a collection, Tales from Garden Street. She had a poem about Covid published by BusPoetry Magazine and has since commenced an MA in Creative writing at Leicester University. 

Monday 27 September 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "Driftwood by Starlight" by Caroline Gill

Caroline Gill has been lucky enough to have lived in some beautiful places over the years, Suffolk, Kent and Swansea to name a few. These coastal settings have given rise to an undertow of nature that whispers within her poems and at times takes the centre stage. Her passion for the environment and dismay at the turning tide is evident in 'Puffin’s Assembly' and 'Raft Race.' Together with her archaeologist husband David in their present home above Swansea Bay, they can watch the beam of the Mumbles lighthouse and see the expanse of Exmoor in the distance. So, like the moors and waves that surround her, the impressive might of nature surrounds and permeates the poems: ‘Watch a scroll of rippled words extend / Beyond the cove as surf and stars collide.’

Working with her husband on an archaeological dig in Rome in the 1980s, she spent time washing bones and pottery fragments - a theme that has found its way into two of her poems, 'The Ocean’s Tears' and 'Ice-Blue Blood,' which refer to Homer’s The Odyssey. The two poems face each other in the book, and are not connected but draw from imagery in the tale of Troy. This ability to look at her everyday surrounds from different perspectives enables her to assimilate fragments of stones, bones and embed suggestive imagery for the reader.

This collection of poems features some that have been broadcasted and published in other anthologies as well as being heard at readings in poetry festivals from Hay to Aldeburgh. The confidence in her voice is evident when reading the text; she speaks directly to the reader and appeals to the humanity within us all: ‘What causes us to go on standing by? / Our fenland spider pools could soon be dry.’

Caroline writes a wildlife blog and is an active campaigner for wildlife conservation. This collecting and cataloguing of images helps to shape her words into simple, effective snapshots. The reader is drawn to see an image, picked out with alliteration and rhyme: 

           A shadow hovers in the midge-cloud air
           As mountains drift or disappear from view.
           A watercolour wash, applied with care,
           Rolls on waves of glass; its turquoise hue.

A visit to the gallery admiring the work of Turner and Hepworth inspires the poem titled 'Afternoon with Alfred Wallis.' Scrutinising the brushwork and craft of the sculptor’s chisel leaves her in awe of the artform, but she too is welding her artistic craft with a pen. For instance, she leads the reader to feel the weather as an immersive experience:

           A belt of lashing rain tears strips of blue
           And indigo from fleeting rainbows; white
           Grenades explode as gannets pierce the sea

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of poems and was buoyed by her call to arms to defend the landscapes that we have and be passionate about the wildlife in them.

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster has been teacher of Art and Design in schools in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland for over 40 years. She took part in the Comma Press short story course in 2019 and had a short story published in a collection, Tales from Garden Street. She had a poem about Covid published by BusPoetry Magazine and has since commenced an MA in Creative writing at Leicester University. 

Monday 13 September 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "The Ormering Tide" by Kathryn Williams

Mercury music prize nominee Kathryn Wiliams is a successful singer / songwriter who has tuned her musical ear and channelled her creative flow into creating this first novel. The sea ebbs and flows through this coming-of-age story and just as the abalones are uncovered with the low spring tide, so too secrets and truths are gradually revealed to the tight-knit island community. 'Ormers, also known as ear shells, are abalones that can only be accessed to harvest on big spring tides. You may catch ormers on the day of the new moon, and two days after that.'

Rozel lives with her parents and triplet brothers in a small cottage in a bay on one of the Channel Islands. The small community that lives there go out on the shores at the ormering tide to collect the shells and work together to harvest the bounty. The events following her eldest brother’s accident leave the community fractured and rumours begin to break their bonds. Rozel uncovers the truth of the accident by piecing together fragments of conversations overheard as she wanders the island and spends time with her elderly neighbour - collecting memories like picking shells off the beach.

Williams laces the narrative with echoes of menace and weaves an undercurrent of threat that keeps the reader guessing who the perpetrator is. The claustrophobic setting of her family life holds us close to the narration and we eavesdrop on snippets that help us come to our own conclusions. ‘My life was like a bowl, filled each new day. The sloshing around of the same faces, the same concave world, filling in and tipping out.’

Sounds play an integral part of the aural experience within this novel. Williams cleverly uses the sounds of the sea, wind, grasses, stones on the beach to frame her settings. This roots us in the landscape but also whispers at us from the side-lines as if suggesting other conversations: 'The shell sounds of oceans, whistling around and up. Twisting inside like an ear to the ground.'

After the accident, her brother is unable to speak and she becomes his voice, translating the incomprehensible babble that streams from his mouth. This raises her from the bottom of the order of hierarchy in the house, as she becomes essential in communicating his thoughts to the nurses and his parents. This link between ears and shells, listening and retaining sounds within, plays well with the theme of the novel. Her best friend Bunny also has a speech impediment that echoes the sound of the sea that surround them: ‘The whispering licks of the wind in dry grass, the circling of dry sand in swirls. The wind at the top of the cliffs rushing past the holes in my ears, all had the same lisp.’

Readers will be swept along with the narration and stung with some uncomfortable truths - similar to how Rozel says ‘the sand would whip up with the wind and hit our legs like little pins.’

As well as a successful musical career, Williams has worked with other poets at writing retreats and has collaborated with Carol Ann Duffy to produce a piece about the Waterloo massacre. She was given a New Writing North commission and was the poet in residence at Alnwick Garden. The Ormering Tide is her debut novel, and she continues to produce music on her own record label, CAW records.

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 has had her first poem published by the Poetry Bus magazine and is currently working on a poetry collection.

Monday 6 September 2021

Review by Simon Elson of "Gigantic" by Ashley Stokes

There’s a genre of book that has come to the fore recently: humorous sci-fi / fantasy. Perhaps the late Douglas Adams might be considered the father of this genre, but in recent years more and more authors have taken up the challenge, which is great news as I love a good sci-fi book and if it's a funny one then all the better.

Gigantic by Ashley Stokes fits nicely into this genre. Kevin Stubbs is convinced a Yeti / Bigfoot-type creature is living in woods just off the A127 near Sutton in Surrey. He spends his life searching for it. The narrative takes the form of letters and reports of an organisation called G.I.T. They are written in the first person by two different authors, with Kevin’s being the lion’s (or perhaps Bigfoot’s) share of the text.

This book had me from the prologue, when Kevin tells the reader that as a child he watched Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and read a weekly encyclopedia magazine entitled The Unexplained. As a twelve year old, I also did both. I have only recently lost the ESP cards that were given away with issue 1 of The Unexplained and I’ve still got the hardback book that accompanied the Mysterious World T.V. programme. At the risk of sounding a little strange, myself and a couple of friends were also convinced that a Bigfoot and an alien landing site were both situated in a nearby wood in Staffordshire, probably because we all watched Arthur C. Clarke and read weird magazines. Add the fact that my wife’s family hails from Surrey and I know the A127 and Sutton very well, the coincidences stacked up and I just had to keep reading. 

The book takes place over just a few days and you can’t second guess the ending. If I could read it again for the first time, I would just stop trying and enjoy the twists and turns. If this genre is your thing, then you should let this book share space on your bookshelf (or virtual bookshelf) alongside the classics of this style.

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 Veloballs.com and has been a guest blogger on The Huffington Post

Thursday 2 September 2021

A Book That Changed Me, by Mikiko Fukuda: "Obasan," by Joy Kogawa

I read Joy Kogawa’s well-known, CanLit novel Obasan for the first time while I was in high school in Ontario. As a young Japanese Canadian, I knew I was reading something that was important to the canon, to Canadian history and to me, but as I was still learning how to do close readings, I didn’t fully comprehend how much this book would mean to me.

Obasan is a story about a woman named Naomi who recalls her life while she lived in an internment camp in Canada. The dual timeline is narrated by Naomi as a child and as an adult. Her aunts, Obasan and Aunt Emily, help Naomi piece together her and her family’s history.

The next time I read Obasan, I was a busy undergrad student completing courses in North American history and English Language and Literature. During a history lecture about WWII and the Japanese internment camps, I knew I had to reread Obasan. This time around, reading the novel roused feelings of anger in me. Although I’m thankful for the emotions that it stirred in me, I kept thinking that my reading experiences with Obasan couldn’t end in anger. I wanted to turn my anger into positive action, so I did: I applied to the graduate program “Literatures of the West Coast” at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. I felt certain that UVic would be the place that I could finally write a thesis based on Asian North American literature and, in 2010, I turned my reading experiences of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan into my MA thesis.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Obasan. I know that it’s not a novel everyone will enjoy. But there is something powerful in Naomi, Obasan and Aunt Emily’s stories that reveal dark secrets about Canada’s supposed “multiculturalism.” For me, Kogawa’s novel highlighted incidents in my life that serve as reminders that - even today - I’m not welcome or accepted in Canada as a (Japanese) Canadian. 

About the reviewer
Mikiko obtained her MA in English Language and Literature from The University of Victoria in Canada. She has worked as a language and literature instructor at post-secondary institutions in Canada, Japan, Kuwait and Oman. She worked as the Editorial Manager at a publishing firm in Shanghai and currently writes reviews for sabotagereviews.com. You can find her on Instagram @mikifoo82 or on her blog, thetravellingeditor.blogspot.com.