Books From The Pantry: Deep Dark Light by Mark Sheeky

Congratulations on your new book, Deep Dark Light, which is a surrealistic work in three parts, combining poetry and prose. Can you tell us about it?

Deep Dark Light is a combination of poetry, with lots of images, and a short story. It’s an experiment in form, inspired by classical music and how each section or movement of, say, a piano concerto is organised to portray a certain idea or mood, yet the whole thing is inter-related, too. The majority of poetry books are simply collections of poems about various things. Sometimes collections are themed, which gives the reader more of a strong sense of what the poems are about or how they are supposed to make you feel. I wanted to structure a book like that but include any form of text, breaking free of poetry to include stories, letter-like essays, thoughts, notes, and images. Perhaps the closest analogues are William Blake’s mythological books, but there was no intentional influence from those.

Deep Dark Light has a theme too. It is a somewhat surrealistic work that has a feeling like a journey or quest, always searching and trying to understand, looking for light. Some of my writing is rather abstract, and this is designed to evoke a music-like feeling, a journey from darkness to light, rather like a symphony by Beethoven or Sibelius.

I bet everyone thinks this is a very odd book already! Perhaps it is. For me, the writing process was something of a quest; I find that many books are. I think that many writers quest and seek things while writing, and that this often manifests itself in the story itself. So many books are about looking for an ending, the narrative reflecting exactly the psychology of the author. Do the writers notice? As a reader, I didn’t until I began writing, and then I saw this pattern in so many novels. I hope some people will find it inspiring.

How did you structure the novel?

The first part consists of short poems with illustrations. These arose from a period of introspection, a searching for artistic meaning. This opens the gateway to a second part about a larger quest for meaning. The reader is also asked questions and, hopefully, engaged in this unusual dialogue. Parts of the second part involve physics and philosophy.

The final section is a surrealistic story that brings together some of the thoughts and ideas explored, and on some level unifies and concludes these. It is the story of George, a man searching for his lost love who has been kidnapped or taken somewhere. George begins before a vast door at sunset, and is pulled forwards through various fantastical worlds, ultimately towards love, daylight.

What philosophy do you explore?

The short philosophical pages, which are often something like prose-poems, are generally about the nature of thought and reality. They’re strongly related to Descartes; my own Meditations on his.

What inspired you in the first place?

The first section was written in a short period when I wanted to push some sort of boundary in poetry, to write something that was somehow universal, rather than social, or about something specific. In effect these poems were about art and the serious matter of living a life of creativity. I set those poems aside for some time, for over a year, then looked at them again and thought that they deserved to be put together. They were not long enough to make a book from, so I had the idea of making those the first ‘movement’ of a larger work, a grand experiment.

You have also illustrated the book, with pen and ink. Is a lot of your writing imagery based, would you say?

Definitely. I find writing easier when I form an image and describe it, and my narrative writing is always a sequence of images. In this book, as in all of my illustrated books so far, the illustrations were all created after the poems; I wanted to make a multi-media work, but I certainly had some images in my mind before I started to write, too.

Perhaps the most image-rich area in the writing is the story at the end, which isn’t illustrated. Sometimes illustrations can strongly colour a story. Can anyone now imagine Alice in Wonderland without the famous drawings? In prose, one has to be careful not to ride over the reader and the images that their mind makes. Illustrations, in the technical sense, can do that, so my images are more like complements to the text, devices to augment the mood rather than depict anything.

The ultimate motivation for the images is that I wanted the book to look beautiful, to create a book that was a work of art in every sense. These things can’t be hurried along. All beautiful things take time and care to construct. Addition. Subtraction. Addition. Subtraction. Sculpting until everything feels right.

Did your imagination surprise you along the way, or did you have a definite plan for the whole novel?

The first set of poems were certain and written in a short period, then it was a case of making things that fitted with those, parts that made sense and chimed. I like to make a plan before starting things, working out all of the main points out, then fill in the contents with a relatively high level of detail so that a first draft is largely complete. As a painter, musician, and occasional sculptor too, I can see that all art is about starting rough and then refining. All writers probably do this too, even when they don’t form a conscious plan: by the end of the first draft, they can start to refine.

I prefer to have a skeleton that lists the main flows of scenes and characters and emotions, and use that crucial blueprint as my guide. Once you stick to that plan, the rest can be anything and the result will still work. No matter how many layers of refinement an artwork receives, one of my tenets is that a good artwork can be called finished at any stage and still work.

A global plan also gives an author a sense of feeling in advance. The key to writing, as in any art, is to feel what you want to express, then express yourself through your medium. This is a lot easier if you know what you are supposed to be feeling.

Could we have a snippet from Deep Dark Light, with commentary?

This is from the Dark section:

Dearest Lucine, I have discovered the most wonderful thing, that we are connected. Each of us lives only in the minds of others. We can know ourselves, but we cannot ever know what came before us, or what comes after us. Our lives, from our perspective, are infinite. Life, death, the passage of time, these are social constructs, things only exist in others, the people we see. We know death only through seeing it in others, and by feeling the decay in ourselves. We cannot die ourselves; we exist, then do not. How can anything experience non-existence?

We are all citadels of cells, tiny animals that work together to make us. Tiny animals, trying hard to make their own way, each sharing, loving, giving.

Our perspective of the universe is unique. This makes our experience of the universe unique, but also makes our knowledge unique, our truth unique and therefore our universe unique. There is no shared universe, we each have a personal universe, and you are in mine.

There was a time when you were alive in mine.

You exist in my memory.”

Like a lot of that section it is a written thought about existence and what is real, what is true, and what is a right path. It has elements of searching, and coping with loss, but also something larger and beyond normal life. This part also links with the story at the end, as the (unnamed) narrator here is George, the protagonist, and Lucine is his partner, the love that he has lost.

Are you working on any other literature at the moment?

I’ve been working on poetry, recently. The poems here were written some years ago, well, maybe not that long ago, but for me, they seem to be from a different epoch. So much has changed in my literary life this year, due to getting to know some really good poets and writers, and reading more of the best poetry. I want to focus on producing a good poetry collection for its own sake, and have created a theme of the circus, a rich area for characters, and also, hopefully, an alternative reflection of life. I may structure it like Deep Dark Light to some degree, adding an overall shape to it. Good aesthetics is a balance between order and chaos. Structure adds order, and looser forms add chaos. These are the condiments of literature.

Where is the best place to get a copy of Deep Dark Light?

Amazon, available worldwide.

I’d like to end with a few words from the foreword, a third party perspective on the book which your readers might find informative. It was written by Ink Pantry author Dr. Ken Pobo, Professor of English Literature from Widener University:

If you are looking for a straight-up narrative work, move along. Connections happen here—in each illustration and written piece—but these are not built from traditional forms of narrative. The words converse with the illustrations. Sometimes we clearly overhear what they say; other times we have to go strictly by impulse and intuition. In John Lennon’s song “Intuition” the speaker says that intuition takes him everywhere. Everywhere, nowhere, light, dark.”

Mark Sheeky’s Website



Just A Boy From Bristol by Michael J. Kelly: Reviewed by Kev Milsom

‘On September 3rd, 1939, a war started that would not only change the course of history, it would also deny millions of children across the world an opportunity for a normal childhood. I know, because I was one of them.’

A personal autobiography remains one of my favourite genres of writing, because it allows the reader into a seemingly private world of memories, both positive and negative – heartwarming and sad. One potential danger with this genre is that the writing becomes too personal, or that the wealth of memories become so scattered that it sends the reader bouncing around like a pinball, as we try endlessly to make sense of what is being relayed. Therefore, the emphasis is strongly upon the writing to be easily understandable and exciting enough to carry us the length of the reading journey.

In Michael J. Kelly’s memoirs of his early life, Just A Boy From Bristol, thankfully we have a master storyteller, who produces top quality prose with effortless ease.

Michael’s story begins in 1939. War has just been declared and his father is away fighting in the Royal Navy, leaving his mother to bring up Michael and his baby sister, Mary. The book follows the plight of the Kelly family as they move around Bristol, dodging air raids and looking to settle down, to wait for the war to end and for Michael’s father to return to the house.

Each chapter of the book takes us into new challenges for the young family in such dangerous times and, as readers, we are carried along with Michael’s skilful writing and allowed to explore everyday life around 1940, in a Britain rapidly becoming devastated by rationing and bombing.

We get to see the good side of life during wartime; the kindness of strangers, counterbalanced with the social judgement of some towards others. Michael’s growing passion for sport and the games of football that led him into new friendships. The simple thrills of being able to go to the cinema. We read of the devastating impact on schoolchildren and schools, especially when the names of some children would be forever missing from the register. We get to see the impact that the American G.I. soldiers had upon Bristol and how they brought dangerous excitement into a grey, fearful world.

‘Good morning, Ma’am. We’d like to give your young brother a packet of gum. I hope you don’t mind!’ He tossed me a packet of chewing gum and Mum nervously started to explain that I wasn’t her brother. She had only just started speaking when they both started laughing and then they moved a little way up the road. They stood smoking, talking and laughing for several minutes. I was struggling with the packaging on the gum and one of the other G.I.s jumped down from his jeep to help me. His name was Buddy…what a lovely name. We were hurrying up Perry Road now. Mum was wearing that look on her face; the Hedy Lamaar look. It was the look that usually spelled trouble. ‘He thought I was your sister. Do I really look that young? I didn’t reply. I just knew there was indeed trouble ahead.’

Michael’s writing style is superb – simplistic and no-nonsense, he merely states it as it was. Indeed, a major effect of the book is that it is written entirely through the eyes of an innocent child; a young boy who dotes on his mother and wants only the best for her.

Personally, I was fascinated by this book, as it covers a lot of ground that I knew from my own childhood in Bristol, including some of the very same people that I grew up with. However, this is a book for everyone with a passion for social history and a curiosity about life in 1940’s Britain.

I hear a follow up book is on the way from the 82 years young, Michael Kelly. It will be a genuine pleasure to read it, as it was to glide through the pages of this astonishing book.

‘Britain in 1945 had no supermarkets, no motorways, no tea bags, sliced bread, microwaves, dishwashers, CDs, flavoured crisps, mobile phones, duvets, contraceptive pills, trainers or ‘Starbucks’. But we did have shops, pubs, fish & chips on every corner, cinemas in every high street, trams and steam trains. We had Woodbines, Craven A, Senior Service, smoke and smog. There were no launderettes, automatic washing machines, but we had wash day, every Monday, put through a mangle and hung out to dry. No central heating or hot water, but we did have a hearth, coal fire, chilblains and impetigo. Abortion, homosexuality and suicide were all illegal. We treated our ailments with Vicks Vapour Rub, Andrews Liver Salts and Germolene. We were happy. We were winning the war. Mr Hitler was on the run and our fathers were about to return home.’

Buy your copy of Michael’s book here

Books From The Pantry: Ghosting for Beginners by Anna Saunders: reviewed by Claire Faulkner

Ghosting for Beginners by Anna Saunders is a wonderful collection of poems centred around the themes of haunting and loss. The poems expertly weave in and out of each other using characteristics of mystery, folklore and tradition. It left me with an overall sense of ancient fairy tales and contemporary ghost stories. A concept which worked incredibly well as a collection.

Saunders is haunted by many things. Grief, politics, environmental issues, humanity and religion all feature throughout this collection. She writes with strength and clarity, in a style I find extremely effective.

In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’ instead of starlings, Saunders invites us to see the ghosts or souls of Cabinet Ministers. Describing them as:

Black spots, iron filings, broken particles..

and a

fluid mass with one mind

Circling in the sky Saunders tell us that they are:

wishing that in life
they had acted differently
but airborne, and dead, it is too late.

We look up from Food Banks
to watch the sky teem

The poem finishes with a reminder that the Cabinet Ministers are “fat from stolen fruit”, but the reader is left watching:

…them wheel and turn,
our bones almost through our skin

Powerful words indeed.

There are some beautiful lines and poems in this collection. One of these, focusing on memory, is ‘Ghost Horses’. It starts with:

Do not think that after death
the Mind dismounts.

Do not think that once the race is run
the Mind puts down the reins

I’ll admit that this poem stayed with me for a long time after I’d first read it.

I loved the idea of humanity and missed recognition which appears in the ‘The Prophet is Mistaken for a Fare dodging Hipster on the London Overground’, and the humour of a confused angel over wind chimes and scented candles in ‘The Angel of Revelation visits a New Age Centre.’

Dressed only in a cloud, he can bear the temperature
of the central heating turned up high,
but the scented candles are noxious
with their chemical rendering of Heaven

As you read further into the collection, the poems seem a little darker and a lot more personal. Saunders’ Father is mentioned throughout, and her grief is evident in ‘The Ghost Room’ and ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’.

I enjoyed reading this collection, and I’m sure it’s one I will return too and look at again. I found the concept original and creative, the poems individual and thought provoking. The collection is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

Anna’s Website


Books From The Pantry: Did You Put the Weasels Out? by Niall Bourke: reviewed by Giles Turnbull

Niall Bourke’s poetry novel Did You Put The Weasels Out? was a hard one to review … because there were so many lines that I wanted to quote that I nearly ended up quoting the whole darn thing! I confess that I love novels in verse. The first poetry I ever owned was a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s verse novel The Lord of the Isles which I bought aged 8 from a school jumble sale for the princely sum of 2p — its poetic images captured my imagination.

Available from Eyewear Publishing, Did You Put The Weasels Out? is Niall Bourke’s début poetry collection and it is a novel in verse. Even the numerous footnotes are in verse. It is an impressive undertaking and is written with aplomb.

it is worth getting the following out in the open:
his oaty breakfast resolve has broken.
That is: he usually eats porridge but, and without warning,
has decided to have toast this morning…
…But there is no bread!

The protagonist of the poem is Mark.

I chose my words, whetting them
so they came out edged. I chose them
so they slotted out flat and cornered,
like the tray under the toaster that collects the crumbs,
And I delivered them
in between your fourth and fifth ribs
like I was sliding in that rusty fucking crumb-tray
to collect the little croutons of your heart.

This is a story infected by science:

(Seconds dictated by the rate
Caesium atoms dissipate )
Elsewhere in the cosmos, perhaps,
Electron death is not so sure;
Jobs and work-days would collapse,
9 to 5’s could not endure,
Dependent on what weird speedings
Atoms release their quantum seedlings.
Death to Chronos, whose scything hands
Control our lives!’ Mark demands.
But, on arriving late for working,
He sees that here on earth the clock
Still roars a tyrannical TOCK
And mechanic tick, as, irking,
Red of face and unimpressed,
His boss stands waiting, by his desk.

Sometimes the difficulty with end of line rhyming is that the words can seem a little contrived in order to create the rhyme. Here at the start of section VIII of Part The First is one that I felt a little forced:

‘Why did you leave old Dublin city?
Was it to choke on swallowed bile,
And wallow in your own self-pity,
You left behind the Emerald Isle?’

But just 5 lines later we get this fantastic slant rhyme

He works hard, earns good wages
Has good friends and pays his tax

If you read that on the page it can be easy to miss the subtle rhyme between ‘wages’ and ‘pays his’ which is why this story deserves your time to absorb the full flavour by hearing the words as you read them.

It’s very Dylan Thomasesque in the characters and tales, evoking Under Milk Wood. This section, which first introduces the title of this book, being a perfect case in point:

the lad with the ferret on the sparkly lead who always
buys four Carling and a six-pack of rashers,
that degenerate Toes who drank himself legless the night
he fell asleep in his own bonfire and the shins only burnt
claane offa him, his total spunksprout of a father who
turfed Toes out on the street after the sixth time he’d
pissed the stairs while trying to crawl to the jacks, your
wan who lived only on cider and porridge for a whole
year and contracted the first case of scurvy since 1837, that
chap with the wife who looks a bit like a curtain, the poor
auld Sniper’s Nightmare who got polio when he was little
and now zig-zags up the street, that quarehawk who sits
on the wicker chair in the sweet shop muttering did you put
the weasels out?

Maybe not so politically correct these days to describe a man who had polio as a child as a sniper’s nightmare, but in the same vein as Thomas’s Evans the Death (the village undertaker), Organ Morgan (the church organist), Mrs. Organ Morgan (his wife), Ocky Milkman and Butcher Beynon.

I found a section about a ‘symphony that has been written by a foot / when its sock has fallen down below its heel’ and performed by household appliances — an open beeping fridge, microwave, ‘the dishwasher pipes up with its falsetto’ with a tumble dryer completing the quartet — as fascinating as Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes; sometimes it’s the new perspective on everyday domestic scenes that can make you see things differently.

If we pan up along the stairs
We can now watch them, unawares,
Snuggling down under cotton seams.
Around the house, cooling lightbulbs clink
As outside orange streetlights wink
Against the night. Jen turns in her dreams.
‘Did you put the weasels out?’
‘I did,’ says Mark, ‘without a doubt.’

There is a continual sense of humour bubbling through the story, such as when the character Lushy pops into a bar for a pint

‘Ah, sure, one’ll be grand.’ And sure, just one
woulda been grand. Maybe even a couple
But it was the twelve that got him buckled.
but enough sense
still to realise that vengeful recompense
would surely be paid if he dared return
to Bernie empty-handed and so, taciturn
with woe, but not ready to admit
defeat (meaning her going pure ape-shit)
he concocted an ingenious plan of attack:
a large sausage supper from Wonder Macs

which all goes wrong after he stops to take a drunken piss, placing the chips on the ground whilst he does.

that some quick relief
would help him avoid the aperitifs
of Bernie’s anger as then he could billow
in, leaving the supper on her pillow
as a deft anniversary surprise,
before sneaking down and inside
the sheets like he’d never been out on the tear.
But wasn’t Lushy forgetting something?
Sure he lived on a hill. And pumping
down the slope was a yellow and steaming
river of piss, one that was now streaming
all over the chips. And what was worse?
Hadn’t the mangled strains of his cursed
singing only woken up Bernie, now leaning
out the doorway in the nightgown, her keening
eyes like murderous floodlights, as she watched
the sorry excuse for a poorly botched
shambles that was unfolding before her.
But Lush was not one to be deterred.
Over he staggered, picked up the chips
and offered them out to Bernie – the thick
trickles of warmth running over his cursory
‘Shere,’ said he, ‘Shappyshannyvershary.’

This story in verse is totally engaging, very refreshing and an absolute delight to read.

Niall’s website


Books From The Pantry: Fealty by Ricky Ray: Reviewed by Claire Faulkner

Ricky Ray’s collection Fealty took me completely by surprise. It’s a magical mix of surreal, dream-like verse with reoccurring themes including the environment, politics, overcoming difficulties, and survivorship. Ray is skilled in storytelling, and his work has that rare mythic quality which leaves the reader contemplating the past, present and future all at the same time. It’s an impressive first collection which took my breath away.
I found that many of Ray’s poems have a beautiful meditative quality to them. ‘Listening’ and ‘They Used to be Things’ help the reader to escape, if not briefly into the past to understand where they are now, from ‘Listening’:

He puts his head
to the table and listens.

It speaks through his skin, his skull, his mind, tells him all he can
remember of tables – of wood, trees, seeds and growth, of splinters
termites, rotting and soil

From ‘They Used to be Things’:

In the book were pages
and on the pages was ink
and in the ink were words

that were once ideas
we made of things

I find poetry like this takes you to another level before you’ve even realised it.

I also enjoyed how this collection made me question human nature and our belief systems. One of my favourite lines in the book comes from ‘Way of The Bear’:

Have the ghosts lost touch or have we lost the art of how to hear them?

The way of the bear stays in the bear, though we wear its head
and coat as we chant and pray to the forces for guidance

Every time I feel I’d found a favourite poem in this collection, I’d turn the page and see another. ‘A Neighbourhood of Vertebrae’ stood out to me for the way it described continuous pain and the effect this has. Not an easy to subject to tackle, but Ray does it with sensitivity and compassion:

…what would you think of
me if I admitted to hearing the spine speak in ten different

The other poem which stood out for me was ‘The Seven Hundred Sights in a Horse’, which reminded me of old legends and superstitions we carry around with us:

A wild horse ran through town.
It was always running.
Gospel was: something had
to be wrong with you to see it.
Everyone had seen it.

If you like reading poetry which makes you question everything and can stay with you for days after you’ve first read it, then this is the collection for you.

Ricky Ray is an outstanding poet and definitely one to watch for the future.

Ricky’s website


Books From The Pantry: the x of y by Colin Dardis: Reviewed by Claire Faulkner

the x of y is the début full-length collection from Northern Irish poet Colin Dardis. I find his work is often reflective and expresses themes such as childhood, humanity, and the fleeting nature of life. It’s a strong and deep collection which demonstrates Dardis’ skill and ability to tackle almost any subject and write about it sensitively, and with passion.
‘Prescription’, the opening poem in the collection, not only lovingly instructs the reader on how to take poetry, but possibly reflects its importance to both the reader and writer. Its advice is:

Recommended dosage:
Take at least ONCE daily, or as required. Do not skip
doses or discontinue use unless directed by your local

I particularly like how Dardis captures and reflects moments of life we all recognise and experience. Poems such as ‘Coupled’ and ‘Two’ are quite simply beautiful.
I love the quality and effect of the prayer like lines from ‘Bird-Bathing’:

Every morning,
I baptise the birds
They do not know
I’ve blessed the water
so that each wing
may become holy

I enjoyed the idea and series of ‘The Peeling of Many Things’, in which Dardis describes the action and reasons for peeling things including: apples, bananas and the humble Crème Egg:

You must perform
the Dance of the Single Veil
before you can enjoy, consider
the foil container, rickety shell
between fingers and chocolate

In ‘Pliers’, Dardis writes about a trip to the dentist I think we all recognise:

You are a butcher of the mouth;
although one may proportion the blame
between us: I of indolent care
and you of savagery and destruction

The collection becomes more poignant with ‘Lepidopterology’ which draws comparison of being treated like a pinned down butterfly, and the subject of loss and grief in ‘Removal Day’.

There is a lot to read in this début collection, and I found it hard to pick a favourite poem. There were so many that stood out for me. Lines from ‘Fire-lighting’ reminded me of my own childhood and in it I heard echoes of my own Mum who tried repeatedly to teach me to lay a fire:

Mother reveals the exact procedure
perfected over the years without fuss:
how to twist and set yesterday’s paper,
bunching them together, laid at the base

I enjoyed reading this collection. Dardis writes with focus and expertise and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Inky Interview Special: Colin Dardis: with Claire Faulkner

Colin’s Website

Colin on Twitter


PoetryNI on Twitter

Books From The Pantry: Isn’t Forever by Amy Key: Reviewed by Claire Faulkner

Amy Key’s new collection, Isn’t Forever, published by Bloodaxe Books, is hypnotic and addictive. I became intoxicated by the verse. It’s full of poems that have a beautiful, almost dream like quality to them. They’re unique, strong and inspiring at the same time.

I particularly enjoyed the use of language in this collection. Sometimes harsh, sometimes with humour, but always with remarkable depth and insight.

Baby, wait a lifetime before you love somebody’ took my breath away. It has the lines:

Today I woke wishing for a baby.
I woke thinking – next year I will be married.
Strange since I’m not a mascot for such things.

It finishes with:

Starlight tastes less like snow than you might think
and I woke with a temporary sense of what love is,
like getting away with a good lie.
I am watching my breath mist up the windows
thinking – I made this.

The poem, ‘She lacks confidence, she craves admiration insatiably. She lives on the reflections of herself in the eyes of others. She does not dare to be herself’ is collaged from self help and agony aunt websites, and I adore the lines which give the reader advice:

Take a self-appreciation holiday.
Build a fortress
around your best self.
When you hear your worst
selves yelling from the ornamental moat of your
self-esteem. Ghost them.

Beauty, love and the female body are recurring themes throughout the collection. ‘No one should be scared of pleats’ is an amazing cento based on the words of Coco Chanel. It has the wonderful lines:

I don’t have to explain my creations; they have explained themselves


If I built aeroplanes, I would begin by making one that was too beautiful.

In ‘Two cats’, one of my favourites in the collection, Key demonstrates an elegant nature of vulnerability with the lines:

I whispered love to both cats
and tried to pay them equal attention. The vet prescribed
a hormone diffuser to take the edge off their fretfulness
and I worried about its effect on me. I had trouble both
sleeping and waking and was often in tears.

Hauntingly beautiful are the lines from ‘The Garden’:

I encountered a surface that was not safe to stand on
it was between me and the garden.
The garden said take as much time as you need.
It said you don’t even have to tell me.

I find myself intrigued by Amy Key’s style and words. The poems felt real to me, and one more than one occasion they made me pause for breath. I was delighted and surprised by them. It’s a stunning collection.

Photography by Jamie Drew

Get your copy of Isn’t Forever by Amy Key

Books From The Pantry: Gwithyas – Door To The Void by Isha Crowe: Reviewed by Kev Milsom

We don’t get many visitors. In fact, we don’t get any, ever. The midwife who helped deliver my sisters and me was probably the last one. Ordinary people don’t like to mingle with lunatics in a haunted house on a cursed hill.’

I’m always a little tentative when it comes to the literary genre of fantasy.  Raised devoutly on the writings of Mr Tolkien, the ‘bar’ has been set to a high level and sadly, many books I have encountered within this genre tend to lose me by page seven, as my poor memory struggles to remember all the names of characters and locations, often difficult/impossible to pronounce, but words which would score very highly in a game of Scrabble, with a sixteen-letter name of a wizard, introduced on page two, or the seven-syllable location on page one, wherein lies the magic pot/sword/wand/banana required to fulfil the main quest.

Thankfully, by page three of Isha Crowe’s new book, Gwythias – Door To The Void, I was already hooked – most noticeably because Isha’s writing is outstanding and draws the reader completely into the book…but much more of that later. First, grab your enchanted swords/daggers/spears/catapults/bananas and travel with me to the starting point; the plot itself.

The story focuses on a lad aged sixteen, named Peregrine Zircon Gwithyas. At first glance, Peregrine is no likely hero. Nor is his world an easy one to handle, for weirdness surrounds and engulfs him, like flames around a well-toasted marshmallow. Peregrine lives in an old, creepy house with his parents and two sisters, being the eldest of triplets. Nothing too odd there, perhaps, except that his sisters have a decidedly odd – perhaps even slightly reptilian – appearance and a fascination with ouija boards.

‘My sisters have bulbous heads that are way too big for their emaciated bodies, eyes that resemble rabbit droppings, and lips that are so thin and dry that they remind me of parchment. They have no eyebrows or lashes, and their grey, wrinkly scalps boast only a few brittle tufts of hair. I reckon they must have an undiagnosed genetic disorder, because they don’t actually look like girls; more like clumsily put together nightmarish interpretations of human beings.’

Their father is also blessed with ‘the odd’, although he mostly secretes himself away in his study/library and has an unnatural obsession with thimbles. Mother is also of little help, perhaps because she tries too hard to rectify the balance of normality within the Gwithyas household; mostly by obsessing over nosing online at houses, well beyond the reach of the family budget. Speaking of the Gwithyas household, there is another important member not to be overlooked, who resides in an ancient, seven-storey tower which stands in the back garden. Herein, lies ‘Nanny’; a lady of undeterminable age who may be just short of her 90th birthday, or someone easily old enough to remember the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 and events much earlier in time.

Thus begin the mysteries of the novel, guiding the reader easily into the odd world of the Gwithyas family and provoking some key questions early on: ‘Why is Peregrine so geeky and awkward?’… ‘What powers does he truly possess within his ‘bony, greasy acne-skinned and carrot-coloured haired’ frame?’….’What is the Void and who/what lurks there? and ‘How old exactly is ‘Nanny’, why does she live in a tower & why on Earth does she need to be becalmed by magical spells once a day, just to stop her from turning into something from ‘The Exorcist?’

Such is the complex world of young Peregrine Zircon Gwithyas, but – like all good stories – it’s about to get a whole lot more intense with a storyline that never fails to disappoint and ultimately could lead to the collapse of the human race and life as we know it.

As stated before, the writing is spot on – just right and well balanced. Unlike some previous books I’ve encountered in this genre, Isha’s writing truly allows the reader into the storyline, where the focus is upon the created characters and the development of a solid plotline, rather than an attempt to create complicated, often impenetrable, worlds with plotlines that fail to match the ambitiousness of the characters themselves. It takes good, genuine writing skill to pull this off and, most importantly, to create a piece of literary work which effortlessly encourages the reader to keep turning pages. Isha establishes and maintains the story as the most important character in the book, ultimately allowing the reader to care about what happens to the cast within the storyline and live it with them.

Magic, horror, teenage angst, love, family, potential Armageddon… this book has it all. Much recommended for young adults; indeed, all age groups.

‘It’s all in the mind. My mind. Tiny little fingers, paper-white with blazing red claws, scratch over the door frame, feeling their way out. Or in. Out of the Void, and into my world.’

‘We are coming, Gwithyas.’


Get your copy of Gwithyas: Door To The Void by Isha Crowe

Books From The Pantry: Hope by Rhian Ivory: Reviewed by Kev Milsom

Plan B’s are for people who fail.

I just never, not once, not even for a tiny moment, thought that I would ever need one.

As a gentleman who relishes being honest and true to his word, it’s fair to say that the arrival through my letterbox of Rhian Ivory’s new novel, Hope announced a personal sense of mixed emotions.

On the uppity side, I’ve read Rhian’s writing before with her splendid 2015 novel, The Boy Who Drew The Future. I also met Rhian last year at Cheltenham’s Wychwood Festival and heard her speaking in gloriously enthusiastic tones about Hope, which was ‘mostly finished’ at that time.

Surely, both excellent signs that Rhian’s new novel would also set my creative senses alight, as her earlier novel had done so? Well…my initial response was more cautious and it’s also fair to say that my good lady wife almost took over the review, before I’d read a single page.

My solitary concern? The genre.

As a gentleman, my preferred genre(s) within literature fall pretty much within the same borders as my television and cinematic tastes. I’m not adverse to a well-written rom-com here and there (‘Love Actually’ and ‘About Time’, take a bow). I’ll even admit to sofa-dancing and singing off-key to a few, melodic musicals over the years, but it’s also fair to say that I do tend to fall back on my preset, safer preferences – usually involving fast action, invigorating car chases, starships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate….that sort of thing. It’s also fair to say that I’ve never really tackled (or felt the desire to tackle) a young adult novel with a female protagonist, focusing on things that a young, female protagonist might be concerned about or engaged in. Might there be a car chase? Fisticuffs or football? Both?

‘Do you want me to do it?’ asked my wife helpfully, as she watched me pore over the back cover of Hope. It was a serious question, and, admittedly for a good three minutes I hovered between two answers.

Thankfully, by minute four, I’d remembered how good a writer Rhian is and decided to go all in, battle helmet on and wielding my finest impartial reviewer’s battle-cry.

How utterly glad I am now that I did so. But, let’s look at the premise of Hope and what it entails.

Hope Baldi is a young lady, whose ambitious dreams to become a student of acting/singing have been cruelly smashed on rocks of despair due to rejection letters from drama schools. As the book opens, she is on a boat, perched by a rail and staring into the sea. It’s not clear whether her intention is to jump, but nonetheless she is interrupted by the calming Irish voice of a young knight, Riley, who clearly recognises a damsel in distress when he spots one. Riley’s gentle humour, although thoroughly unappreciated by a dejected Hope, is enough to guide her away from the rail and thus, a fascinating friendship is formed.

The reasons for Hope’s despair soon become apparent. Her mother – a soul who doesn’t fully appreciate the depths to which Hope’s drama dreams reach – has given an ultimatum; her daughter can apply to five drama schools, in search of her odd thespian goals, but if nothing has opened up then Hope is to seek out a ‘normal’ life, away from acting. Hope has just received her fifth rejection letter and currently a deep, dark cloud of normality has fallen upon her; all ambitions broken and laying in tatters.

To make it worse, it also appears as if every single one of her drama friends are knee-deep in acceptance letters from various drama schools & academies and naturally engaged in lengthy celebration rituals and mutual, celebratory slaps on the back. Hope is fighting to keep herself afloat, while her world crumbles all around her.

To deepen the blow, Hope’s best friend, Callie (a strong and feisty character) cannot seem to grasp why Hope is so low, as she herself ponders over which drama school to attend. Also, as if this wasn’t enough, Hope has realised that medically she has ‘issues’; primarily associated with irrational anger.

Rhian’s novel becomes a journey of discovery for Hope, as she battles against depression, despair and illness. To accompany her, she has a rich, varied set of characters from the fields of family and friends; a key aspect of why this novel works so well. Career, illness, depression, love, friendship, family, dreams…all are covered in depth within the pages of Hope.

As previously stated, Rhian Ivory is a great writer. In Hope she brings out a full spectrum of colours for each character portrayed; each shining brightly at times with glittery hues, or displaying deeper layers of a muddier, unclear colour. The truth is that, as in life, each character possess their own flaws and weaknesses and Rhian is never backward in showing these levels to the reader. We get to see everyone for good, or bad and this totally assists us in being able to relate to them, as well as enhancing the main story of Hope Baldi.

The writing is…to put it simply; flawless. The plain beauty of Hope lies in the utter believability of everything; from the locations mentioned, such as the children’s ward of the hospital where Hope is destined to work, alongside her mother, to the realism of the many characters we encounter along the journey. It is also clear that Rhian has engaged in a great deal of personal research to bring everything together into one believable, honest package.

The plot-line is intriguing and never strays into the realms of dull, or mundane. This is also greatly aided by Rhian’s decision to keep the chapters short, so the pages soon begin to fly by and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll get to the end of one chapter and have to make that decision to put the book down to get on with daily life, or perhaps…yes…yes…I’ll just do ONE more chapter…or maybe two.

For me, the best sign of whether a book works is whether it engages with my brain. I found this almost impossible to put down and, trust me (I’m an honest man, see paragraph 1, sentence 1) I don’t say that very often. In fact, it’s a genuinely rare occurrence for me, but Rhian has managed it with ease.

A beautifully, brilliantly-thought out and thoroughly well-planned novel by a very talented and caring writer. Finally, a personal lesson. Perhaps, this is a genre of book that I would never have considered, had I glanced at it on a shop bookshelf. As previously stated, I am so very glad that I did, for verily I have been converted by the writing skills of Rhian Ivory. Amen and several hallelujahs!

More please.

Get your copy of Hope

Books From The Pantry: Vicious by Michael Forester: Reviewed by Kev Milsom

Rule Two: The Game will be initiated upon the occurrence of an event, outside the control of the players, which establishes a tear in the curtain (“a random tear”). Players are free to observe the occurrence of the event if they wish. A player who initiates a tear in the curtain will forfeit the Game and may, at the discretion of the Arbiter, be excluded from any future Game.

Rule Three: The Arbiter will confirm the existence of a randomly established tear in the curtain by passing through the tear’.

It’s fair to say that the plotline to some novels are relatively straightforward and commonplace.

Boy meets girl…girl meets boy. Passions are ignited. Romantic poems are uttered. Mopey ballads are hurriedly composed and played under bedroom windows. There may be a cute and cuddly cat/dog/hamster/aardvark/dragon involved, especially for the ladies, somewhere down the line. A dangerous car chase, gunfight, swords or a set of fisticuffs shall be provided for the gentlemen readers. Perhaps, three quarters of the way through, a passage of doubt or trust shall ensue, whereby boy doubts girl and girl doubts boy, probably down to the fact that boy really doubts boy and girl deeply doubts girl. Ultimately, these silly doubts shall be hurriedly cast aside like the cellophane on an eagerly-awaited DVD and all shall end well, with a kiss and a song, complete with a merry, dual dance into the sunset.

As much as these types of novels are wonderful in their own way, it is a true pleasure to find that Michael Forester’s plotlines hold considerably more depth of meaning and a greater variety of incidents, as visibly demonstrated in his newest publication, Vicious.

OK…so let’s get the basics of the plotline…please remember to hold on tight. Firstly, we have a character called Tolly, or to give her full name Tolly Boudicca Tolpuddle Jones (Mother was a feminist, Father was a trade unionist); sometimes known merely as ‘Tracy’ Now Tolly is not what we would call a ‘one-dimensional character’, because Tolly has…well, to be quite frank, Tolly has enough personal issues to fill a celebrity’s mansion house, to its absolute mock-Tudor limits.

For a start, Tolly is a punk rocker. Not your contemporary, retro-punk, who wishes they had been alive when the likes of The Damned and The Clash were noisily rocking London to its roots in the mid-1970’s. No, Tolly is a genuine antique from that very era; one who witnessed the glories of the bygone days of angry music, blasting out to equally-angry, pogo-dancing, spitting crowds.

In particular, Tolly liked the Sex Pistols. Well…one Sex Pistol in particular…namely the bass player – Sid, of the Vicious variety. Not only did she like Sid Vicious, but they briefly shared a moment of rough passion in an alley after one gig, during which Sid had initiated foreplay by spitting and swearing loudly into Tolly’s face as she watched from the audience. Naturally, to Tolly, this was a sign of true love, destined by the Gods themselves.

Of course, Tolly’s life mission was now crystal clear – she and Sid were destined for each other and nothing/no-one would ever stand in their way, despite the fact that Sid showed not the merest sign of making this happen and refused to acknowledge her mortal existence. Undeterred, Tolly followed the path of her divine ‘holy grail’ in making Sid Vicious her soul mate; a path that would ultimately lead to elements of Trans-Atlantic arousal, denial, cheating, murder and theft.

Thankfully, in 2008, despite Sid being long deceased, Tolly notices a new intern at her workplace, named Henry. The meaning of life suddenly becomes clear. Henry is, without doubt, the reincarnation of Sid Vicious. Thus, Tolly simply HAS to have him for the remainder of eternity and Lord help anyone who stands in her way.

Unfortunately, Henry has some major issues of his own, as he seeks to woo the love of his life, Laura, but has woken up to find a miniature, ugly, ebony talisman in his bedroom, which suddenly springs to life and becomes animated. The talisman – known to Henry as Talis-Man, or simply Talis – spends most of his time in Henry’s pocket, naturally creating chaos in his daily life, especially in his most private of moments with Laura.

And what of Laura? Well, Tolly has her demonic addiction to Sid Vicious and Henry has a tiny, animated talisman causing havoc in his young life, but – not to be outdone – Laura has an angel friend called Gabriel and believes herself to be the future mother of the next Messiah.

Add in a charlatan minister of God, some ethereal characters playing some form of Divine board game throughout the length of the book and you have the basis of ‘Vicious’.

So, the plotline is busier than a bus load of bees. How does it scan for the reader and will we need a notebook, pen & abacus to keep up with unfolding events?

Thankfully, no, for we have an exceptionally talented writer in Michael Forester. The characters are deliciously complex, but the prose takes careful time to explain each step of the way, leaving us in no doubt as to who is who, where/when they are and precisely what is occurring. The ‘when’ part of this is doubly important, as Michael frequently swings us back to the 1970s to tell parts of Tolly’s story but, as each chapter begins with the name of the character being explored and the exact date on which this happens, the reader is never unsure of events.

As usual, Michael’s writing is precise, to the point and positively splattered with fine humour; the latter employed most effectively to bring lightness to some darker elements of the story; particularly surrounding Tolly’s tragic attempts to make sense of the world around her.

The characters in Vicious are clearly individual and never dull. The plotline never once crosses into the world of mediocrity. Michael’s descriptive talents ensure that the reader is always aware of what is happening, even when story events steer us into the world of ‘weirdly odd’.

A thoroughly good read and very much recommended.

Get your copy of Vicious