Books From The Pantry: Inside the Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock reviewed by Kev Milsom

They say I’m mad – I say they’re mad – I lost the flip – That’s me locked up in Bethlem Hospital – “Come boys, who’s for Bedlam?”

Personally, as an avid devourer of all things in written form, the sense of utterly losing oneself within words is a tough feeling to beat on an emotional/sensual level. On those occasions when the creative force possesses the skills to fully immerse us within their world, via a strong first-person perspective, there is no better feeling than to see this through the eyes of a thoroughly well-crafted character. Inside The Beautiful Inside by Emily Bullock (published by Everything With Words) is such a grand occasion, worthy of our literary senses to throw a party, open up the Prosecco, turn on the karaoke machine and don the glittery, disco trousers in celebration of a very talented author in full, creative flow.

Plot-wise, the novel is based upon an actual historical figure. In the late 18th century, James Norris was a marine; British by conception, American by birth. Although tough and hardy, James finds himself imprisoned within London’s notorious ‘Bethlem Hospital for the Insane’ in 1800. It is here where we first encounter James as he struggles to cope with the psychological aspects of his strict – and often brutal – confinement.

As a side plotline, we also know that James has personal issues with a certain Christian Fletcher; famously renowned for his role in overthrowing Captain Bligh on the ‘HMS Bounty’ in Polynesian waters during 1789. Once upon a time, James and Christian were brothers of the sea; bound by their experiences and locked in deep friendship. However, we soon learn that James now holds Christian Fletcher in utter contempt, now wishing only to brutally end his life. All James needs to do is to somehow escape the considerable perils of Bethlem Hospital, known to its inmates since its conception in the 1400’s as ‘Bedlam’. Once free, James can pursue his illustrious foe and kill him.

It’s a simple plan. Yes, the guards are both numerous and brutal. True, James has been told he only has months left inside the asylum before being released, but can anything that he sees, or hears, be trusted? Can James rely upon his natural marine abilities to overcome all odds? How will the guards and doctors react if he does so? As readers, we are with James every step of his tortured journey; constantly searching for any speck of hopeful light in this world of twisted, tormented darkness.

As can be imagined, in terms of literary genres, this subject matter comes with layers of added depth and emotion. As our narrator and guide, Emily steers us through every step of James’ perilous voyage with considerable ease. For this, she is to be soundly applauded, for at times the narrative intrudes into very personal areas, including loss of mental balance, brutality and illness.

Emily’s chosen writing style is paramount to the success of her narrative. In a harrowing, mind-altering world, which could easily drag the reader down into woeful contemplation, Emily’s writing style tends to adopt a series of short, punchy sentences, often containing only a singular verb. This strongly reminded me of being back at university and being introduced to writing in ‘streams of consciousness’, whereby thoughts and ideas ‘tumble’ out in a rapid form, as expressed here with James laying upon his bed and returning to his childhood. 

‘I am twelve years old. Laying flat on my front, up in the hayloft. Dust and husks skip in the air about me. I’m supposed to be turning the hay, but I’ve fallen asleep in the warm gloom. Arrows of daylight cross the loft floor. I was dreaming of a battle, leading the cry on a bright, white horse, men cheering. Rub my eyes. There’s a creaking noise behind me. I roll over. And she’s there, in the far corner, under the eaves.’ 

This style greatly helps with the pace of relaying the story, as well as focusing upon a very personal, individual narrative from the main character, through whose eyes and senses we become aware of everything going on. Thus, as James’s world becomes darker, we gain great clarity about his current mental well-being on any given page of the book. 

This is skilful writing at its peak and allows us to slip easily into James’s life, his hopes, fears and state of mind. James is strong and we’re naturally rooting for him. Not because he is a paragon of virtue, but due to the fact that he has been well-crafted for us by an artisan writer. Yet also, we hold a natural degree of trepidation that he might not get out of this wholly intact; either physically, emotionally, mentally or a combination of all three. The mere fact that we care is entirely down to Emily’s impressive characterisation.

This is a mighty, insightful and powerful book guaranteed to instil thoughts that will cling to the memory for considerable years ahead. As with her 2015 début novel,The Longest Fight, which I was fortunate enough to review for Ink Pantry, Emily’s research skills are impeccable and it thoroughly shows throughout every page of the writing here. 

Highly impressive and a must-read. More please, Emily. 

I’ve left footprints on a glacier – I’ve seen the Sun burst out of the Atlantic – I’ve eaten sweet papaya from a low-hanging tree in Tahiti – I’ve glimpsed Paradise – Life made sense when I was all at sea.

Emily Bullock won the Bristol Short Story Prize with the story ‘My Girl’, which was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She worked in film before pursuing writing full time. She has an MA in 19th Century Literature from King’s College, London, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and completed her PhD at the Open University, where she teaches Creative Writing. Her debut novel, The Longest Fight was shortlisted for the Cross Sports Book Awards, and listed in The Independent’s Paperbacks of the Year.

Emily’s author page at Myriad books.

Books From The Pantry: The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes: Reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I get lost in a good story. It’s always unintentional on my part, but when I dive into a good read, I can find it difficult to let that story go. I don’t mean that habit of reading until 2 in the morning because you can’t put the book down ‘lost’. I mean, ‘heart and soul lost’. I think that’s also what happened to Elizabeth Haynes when she found some papers relating to the death of Harriet Monkton whilst researching in the National Archive. Something in Harriet’s story touched Haynes and she decided to write about it.

Although fictionalised, The Murder of Harriet Monckton is based on incidents surrounding a true story from 1843. It’s a compelling and compassionate, all too real crime story. The body of a young woman is found behind a chapel in Bromley. The local community are appalled, but we soon learn that not everyone in the town is as innocent as they appear.

Based on written records from the time, including witness statements, press articles and documents from the coroner’s office, Haynes has produced a remarkable novel which transports you deep into the soul of Victorian society, whilst telling the previously untold story of Harriet Monckton.

I enjoyed reading this book. It made me doubt, it made me question, but most of all it made me want to keep on reading. Haynes has a clever writing style and has the ability to make the innocent appear guilty whilst giving the guilty a calm and almost composed presence on the page. But this is always changing, and nobody is who they appear to be, even Harriet has secrets which she diligently documents in her journal each evening.

The characters and suspects all appeared strong to me. We have the local Reverend George Verrall who ministers at the Chapel where the body was found; Frances Williams, a close companion and colleague of the deceased. Thomas Churcher, her would be fiancé, and Richard Field, Harriet’s former landlord and mentor. Throughout the novel, each tell their story about their relationship to Harriet, but who can we believe?

Little clues are peppered here and there, but you have to spot them. The use of language is extremely effective and precise, but not overpowering.

But when the characters start to doubt themselves and one another, as a reader you begin to suspect everyone. With lines like;

“…We both have secrets…neither of us is very good in keeping them…”

and,

“…my voice rose and sounded guilty even to me…”

Which character can you possibly trust? And this book did make me want to trust that some of the characters were innocent, and that the guilty would eventually be brought to justice. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the story so much.

As you’d imagine from a crime story, truth is a reoccurring theme throughout the book. What is truth to one character, might not be to another. Truth and lies merge seamlessly and Harriet’s story is easily recognisable in the post #MeToo movement.

As one of the characters says, “… Trouble is, the truth is plain and easy to remember. Lies, though, that’s different. You lie once, you have to remember the lie, and the truth doesn’t fade when time passes, but a lie does…”

In real life, Harriet Monckton didn’t receive justice. We will never know what happened to her. But Haynes deals with her story with humanity and compassion. If you’re a fan of reading crime drama, then I think you’ll like this book. I would certainly read more from this author.

There is a tantalising hint in the afterword that Haynes may write another story connected to one of the characters, after she uncovered more information about them in the public records during her research. I do hope this is true, I would very much like another trip to the Victorian town of Bromley. Maybe I’ll know which characters I can really trust by then.

“…I looked at her directly. People do not challenge you when you look them in the eye…”

As one of the characters says “… Trouble is, the truth is plain and easy to remember. Lies, though, that’s different. You lie once, you have to remember the lie, and the truth doesn’t fade when time passes, but a lie does…”

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is available from Myriad Books.

Books From The Pantry: Riverrun by Danton Remoto reviewed by Yang Ming

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr describes memory as ‘a pinball in a machine – it messily ricochets around between image, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off.’ That’s what Filipino author Danton Remoto uses to craft his most intimate novel, Riverrun.

The Philippines edition of Riverrun was first released in 2015, and the international edition was published in 2020 by Penguin South East Asia. This expanded edition has two additional chapters that are set in London and Scotland.

The form of the novel is a memoir. It chronicles the life of Danny Cruz, a young gay man in the Philippines between 1960s and 1970s in two parts. As the title suggests, the narrative runs gently like a river. This coming-of-age story is exquisitely told through vignettes, short prose, recipes (yes, you read it right) and song lyrics. It begins with Danny learning alphabets before he enters kindergarten. His mother would guide his hand to form ‘the arcs, loops and crosses, the dips and turns of the letters’.

Remoto is a keen observer of people and situations. He has a way of presenting beautiful quotidian moments in a delicate manner that shows the longing and the depravity of a human soul. One is the tragic story about his cousin, Naomi, a bright and sassy girl, who runs away from home with a classmate at the university. Before long, she returns home not only with a broken heart, but expecting. She eventually dies from a complication during childbirth. Though the family mourns for her death, her uncle is less sympathetic. Being a staunch Catholic who reads the Good News gospel during service, he has no qualms in expressing his disdain for Naomi’s actions and how God disapproves of them. Such is precariousness of youth and the hypocrisy of Catholic faith, which many of us have witnessed at some point in our lives.

The sharing about his sexual awakening as a teenager illustrates the tension between his innate desire and the societal norms. Living in a deeply Catholic and conservative society where gay relationships are frowned upon, he can’t express outwardly what he really feels internally about his sexual inclination in those times. As a result, he often let those cherished moments slip by. The time when he and Luis are sitting on the Ferris wheel at a local carnival, and his desire to touch Luis’s hand that is within reach. The private moment he almost professes his love to Mario at a garden in the chilly air.

However, what I enjoy most about this novel is the folklore and mythologies that Remoto weaves into his story. The family’s housemaid, Ludy often narrates Filipino mythologies to little Danny during meal times. Her narration of Manananggal, an evil spirit that assumes the form of a shy and demure woman in the day and morphs into a beast with the most powerful wings by night, is most alluring and terrifying at the same time. A nymph who lives in the bottom of the village’s lake and takes the life of a young man every year becomes the centre of attention when Danny’s classmate, Felix, disappears in the lake. After diving into the depth of the lake a couple of times, a Navy frogman finally encounters the diaphanous woman in white and has to plead with the spirit to let the boy go. Here’s the fun fact: this is based on a true story.

Not only do these folklore and mythologies play an important part in Remoto’s childhood and upbringing, it adds texture and layers to the novel.

The volatile political landscape affects the lives of many who live under a corrupted military dictatorship. Remoto, who has lived through it, uses those events to give a hint of irony in his stories. Without naming the political figures, he describes who they are by indicating their idiosyncrasies, such as, the First Lady who amasses 3,000 pairs of Italian shoes. Students express their deep frustration and resentment through a mass demonstration outside of old Congress building during the president’s State of the Nation address. The confrontation between the police and the students is raw and heartbreaking.

The police and the military put on their black masks and began to lob canisters of tear gas into the air, in the direction of the protesters. Then they swooped down on the students, their wooden sticks and trenches swinging wildly. They bashed heads; they shattered arms and knees. You could hear the bones breaking. In turn, the students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, heaping a rain of curses on the cops and the soldiers.’

In short, Riverrun is a tender, poignant and moving novel that offers a glimpse of everyday life in the Philippines. Unlike a typical novel with memoir elements, Remoto uses evocative language to paint factual events and vivid description of places and people he encounters. The result: a lyrical prose that is filled with lovely details, such as kitsch-decorated jeepneys, the acacia tree in his home’s yard, and the food. It reminds me of reading a collection of creative non-fiction stories. But that’s what makes this novel so unique and beautiful. He said in one of his media interviews recently, ‘I wanted to show the dissonance between the official version of the news and the version that happened down there, in the real world. This is the real version that touched people’s lives, reshaping them into lives of sadness and grief.’

The description of those homely cuisines and food recipes just whets my appetite each time I turn those pages. It symbolises a spirit of home and family history. Remoto writes deftly about existing class disparity and social issues. Reading this book evokes a certain sense of nostalgia and satisfaction. Who knows, in a few years’ time, this novel might be considered to be part of the Filipino literary canon.

Books From The Pantry: Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters With Syrian Refugees: drawn and recorded by Olivier Kugler: reviewed by Kev Milsom

In December, 2013, I travelled together with Julien Rey from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to Domiz Refugee Camp (Kurdistan, Iraq). Accompanied by two Syrian Kurds, Mazen and Amer, who helped us with translations, we met open-hearted people who invited us into their tents and houses where they told us, over a cup of tea, about their lives back home, their escape from Syria and about the living conditions in the camp. My opening words to the people I met were, “Hello, my name is Olivier Kugler. I am a German Reportage Illustrator, based in London. Médecins Sans Frontières commissioned me to portray Syrian refugees in order to help raise awareness about their situation. May I interview and take photos of you? ’ The photos won’t be published, but I need them as reference for my drawings.

For most of us, it would be fair to state that 2020 has not been the greatest year within living memory. At times, surrealism has merged into a new form of normality; not aided by the notion that things may perhaps get a lot worse before they start to get back to any form of what we perceive to be everyday ‘normal’. At such times, it’s important for us to realise and recognise that while we may have to don a face mask and perhaps queue a short while to enter a well-stocked supermarket, for others across our planet their lives have been shrouded in the darkest, deepest surrealism for a long while. Likewise, as we look forward to future halcyon days when we can again flock en masse toward sunlit beaches, or travel on public transport without the aid of any damn irritating facial armour, for some people this level of normality is lost in time and may never return.  

The 2018 book, Escaping Wars and Waves (Myriad) allows us multiple, enlightening glimpses into the daily lives of people torn from their homeland and forced into new, uncertain lives. Put simply, it is a book of highly educational words and inspirational illustrations. Every page is packed with sketches of the people Olivier Kugler met between 2013 and 2017, as he followed the trails of refugees fleeing from Syria, into neighbouring countries and further onward toward Europe.

Every page portrays a harrowing personal story. In Iraq, we meet some psychologists who have formed a mental health team to care for refugees. Their plight is tough, for Syrian men tend to view any offer to aid their mental health as an affront to their masculinity. Similarly, Syrian women are not comfortable with any aspect of psychology improving their personal well being, although some women do come into the mental health unit, sometimes using their children’s medical needs as the main reason for attendance. One of the centre’s psychologists, Ahin, shares her thoughts concerning her child, Kawa. 

The happiest day of my life was when Kawa, my baby boy, was born. He is seven months old now. We would love to go back to Quamishli where my parents are. They haven’t met their grandson yet. Every night, before I put Kawa to bed, I tell him how beautiful Syria is.

Still in Iraq, Olivier was waiting for a translator to join him, in snowfall and freezing temperatures. A local man, Muhamed, took pity on the shivering illustrator and gave him hot coffee from his roadside stand; sternly refusing any payment. Muhamed is 55 and fled Syria 15 months ago. One day, a helicopter appeared and randomly began destroying houses in his Damascus street. Muhamed, his wife and daughters barely escaped with their lives as their home was flattened by a bomb. They ran with only the clothes they were wearing. He cries when he speaks of his wife. She is severely depressed and no medication is available for her. 

One Syrian lady, Vian, does visit the mental health team here. Her husband had been arrested 16 months earlier. She has not seen him since. Their youngest son was born only 7 months ago. She is unsure if he will ever get to meet his father. 

Some younger refugees struggle to make the best of their situations in the Iranian refugee camp. Djwan has found a living, renting out some sound equipment. He earns around £30 – £50 for each rental. He also supplies chairs so that people can sit and listen to music. To raise morale, he teaches break-dancing in the camp. In Syria, he had been in the army but escaped, along with several others. 

Many of my friends died. During one mission in Boyedah, I was on a roof, surveying the area. A man tried to kill our colonel. I was calling and screaming at my comrades for help. Moments later, a rocket-propelled grenade was launched and hit the tank dead on…there was a lot of fire. Two of my friends were in the tank. They burned to death. They became ashes.

On the Greek island of Kos, Olivier meets Claudi, a Swiss market trader. She explains that her business profits are down 50% because of the incoming refugees. Locals get nervous around them and she now has to find a trading spot in a quieter location. She says she does not blame the refugees, as they are her friends. Sherine, a physiotherapist from Aleppo, tells Olivier that 30 of her friends and family had escaped from Syria. Half of the group were on Kos. The rest of her group were still in Turkey, still attempting to join them. This had been her 4th attempt to reach Kos. Initially, their boat’s motor had broken. On the second attempt, they were intercepted by pirates at sea, who stole all their fuel. 

The tales of people losing all their money to traffickers is common, with many refugees saying they have given people everything they have to board a boat. Often, the traffickers take all of their money and are never seen again. 

In Calais, France, we find three young Syrian men sharing a simple tent. The point is made to Olivier that Europe is no ‘promised land’. They don’t want to be here and want to get back to their homeland. One poignantly states, ‘I prefer Syria, but without the war’. They say that Médecins Sans Frontières have been exemplary and that Britain gives them most of their food. The men say that initially, the French gendarmes used to catch them trying to escape to Britain and jokingly say, ‘Bad luck, but try again tomorrow’. Now, they are referred to by many as ‘jungle animals’. In Calais, several right-wing fascists regularly attempt to find refugees and badly beat, or cripple them, while stealing everything they own. On his last night in Calais, Olivier meets a confused-looking Afghan gentleman. He has lived in London and wants to get back there. He says sadly, ‘I miss Croydon’.

In the English city of Birmingham, we meet Wisam and his wife, Hadya. Their story is typical of countless others who have literally ran for their lives. They have moved from country to country and felt unwelcome in all. They have been told, ‘Why do you come here? All you do is eat our bread!’. Refugees have been charged up to 10 times the regular price of food, compared to the local population. Back in Syria, it was common practice for soldiers to open fire with machine guns on random houses. Wisam was shot several times in his legs and he is now disabled. Here in Birmingham, with their three children, Wisam and Hadya are beginning to find stability again. In Syria, they had owned a couple of shops, selling beauty products. Wisam was always in work, but one day everything was taken from them and suddenly they had nothing. Wisan got his family free from Syria first and then tried to join up with them. He tells how he paid good money to find a place on a small fishing boat. The capacity for the boat was 150 people. Wisam says there were nearly 500 on the boat when he tried to cross the Mediterranean to get to Italy. Meanwhile, at the same time, Hadya learned that some other boats had capsized and sunk to the bottom of the sea, killing around 800 refugees. She feared one of them was her husband and did not know how to tell their children.

Each story in this book is personal and meaningful. The reality of each refugee’s tale is given face on, with absolutely no sugar-coating. This is what happened. This is how we got here. This is what we have lost. Usually, as Ink Pantry reviewers, we focus on the prose, the grammar and where the writing takes the reader on a literate, creative journey. Here, the writing is nothing less than the often harrowing truth. It simply is. Each illustration on every page is remarkable, because Olivier manages to capture the ‘soul’ of everyone he meets and draws. In a world often tainted by ignorance and lack of awareness, Escaping Wars and Waves should be a mandatory read in schools and libraries, for all children and adults. For anyone who dares to suggest (as I have sadly observed all too often on social media) that these people have ‘deserted’ their country and are therefore ‘cowards’, or even that they are treated lavishly – being given absolutely anything they want – I would simply say, read the book and try…just try…for the very briefest of moments to understand their personal experiences. 

I am very grateful that I had the chance to meet the people I portrayed in my drawings. I feel connected to them and want to thank them very much for their patience and trust. I hope that their circumstances have improved significantly and wish them, and their compatriots, all the best.

Books From The Pantry: An Accident of Blood by Charles W. Brice reviewed by Giles L. Turnbull

The poems in Charles W. Brice’s latest collection, An Accident of Blood, are heavily autobiographical and portray a sobering mix of strength and fragility.

The collection, presented in four sections, kicks off with poems focussed on the experience of growing up. The opening poem, The Fishes, is about keeping secrets, being in a gang, and being thrown out of a gang for not keeping the secret. The way this poem is delivered perfectly captures the young boys’ spirit, allowing readers to imagine similar antics from their own lives:

Okay, Joe said, you can join.
Great, I said, what’s it called.
The Fishes, Joe said,
but that’s a secret.
You can’t ever tell anyone
the name of our club.
Do you swear never to tell?
Yes, I said.
Then Joe taught me the handshake.

Olfactory senses are stirred in The Smell of Home in Wyoming with reminiscences of feeding a horse an oatcake, how to approach it from behind, and the smell of the barn: Warm horse fragrance, creek of leather / saddle, breath mist before us— / a synesthetic blast of beauty.

It is easy to empathise with poems that relate to the effect of his growing up with an alcoholic father, for example in the poem, Deal Me In, which relates the despair of how his father’s gambling debts all-but wiped out his mother’s household savings:

During a night of failure-to-grow-up
daddy, drunk and deluded, sat with hoodlums
at a poker table and said, “Deal me in.”

Leukemia is a particularly powerful poem of lives and deaths, in which the sister of his best friend dies yet he survives, and the death of his dog, ‘the same morning that my dad, / rumpled and red-eyed, arrived / home after a night of drinking and whoring.’ The statement, ‘I lived.’ separating the death of his friend and that of his dog, says all that needs to be said but the poem isn’t done yet … ‘He mocked my cries rather than face his embarrassment. / He made fun of my grief while my mother / railed at him for his drunken infidelity. / I knew then that, / in the family I called mine, / there was no place for me, / no place for me on this earth.’

The intensity of the personal poems eases up with a scattering of more whimsical subject matter. In The First Time, the title hoodwinking the reader into expecting a poem about loss of virginity, is rewarded with a poem about the creation of a perfect Italian pasta sauce — rhyme augmenting the lines like herbs enriching the sauce.

Was his name Luigi, or Antonio, or Amedio—
who first threw garlic into olive oil? Did
he slice it thin, inhale its pungent fragrance
on his thumb and think, maybe a little oil?
Did Maria, or Beatrice, or Sofia, one of his
lovers, dip a soft digit into the mix, exude bliss,
kiss his lips, prance the room, dance and swoon?

There are four ekphrastic poems that take inspiration from famous artworks. The Land of Cockaigne is a wonderfully succinct example, after the 1567 painting of the same name by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne, being a mythical land of plenty, the brevity of the poem perfectly captures Bruegel’s unflattering imagery. The ten-line poem includes the observance that, ‘Memory and desire silence / the squeals of the slaughtered— / never spoil our appetites’. In a manner akin to the cow that approaches the table in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, urging diners to enjoy, “Something off the shoulder perhaps … braised in a white wine sauce?”, in Brice’s version of Cockaigne, ‘Even boars come / with knives attached.’

Pork Chops in Raspberry Vinegar Reduction is a decidedly insightful take on the ingredients for a successful relationship. Beginning with the sprinkling of herbs over two thick pork chops dredged in olive oil:

Let them marinate for an hour or two.
Tell him it takes many ingredients and time
to make a relationship work.

… continuing with:

While the chops are browning
marry a quarter cup of water
to a quarter cup of raspberry vinegar.
Tell him that the recipe for a good relationship
means always putting the relationship first

before the wise culmination:

Serve immediately. Tell him that
nothing of importance can be solved
after 11 PM. Always kiss each other goodnight,
you might not get another chance.

The politically-charged Section III features poems addressing topics including the Vietnam war, Hilary Clinton and, in the craftily-titled poem, The Trumpet Shall Sound, the Trumps.

Melania appears in stiletto heels,
Hurricane or not, you can still make deals.
Commerce revolves on a gigantic wheel,
And Trump sits atop it.

Charlie Brice is the author of Flashcuts Out of Chaos (2016), Mnemosyne’s Hand (2018), and An Accident of Blood(2019), all from WordTech Editions. His poetry has been nominated for the Best of Net anthology and twice for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Sunlight Press, Chiron Review, Plainsongs, I-70 Review, Mudfish 12, The Paterson Literary Review,and elsewhere.

Books From The Pantry: Forest Dawn: by Michael Forester reviewed by Kev Milsom

All those years ago, when I left my family home, I hugged many of the tall Scots Pines that ringed the gardens, towering in silent majesty over the crumbling edifices of human existence – the house, the outbuildings, the possessions now consigned to the skip. A year later, I passed by that house again. The new owner, with his different map of the world, his different understanding of value, had felled every one of them. I felt great pain – perhaps that of the trees, certainly my own.

This book (and talented author) both remind me somewhat of the supermarket, ‘Aldi’. No, it’s okay, I’m absolutely fine…please bear with me.

Every now and again I shall purchase a bottle of red wine from Aldi and, being a cagey spendthrift (no, not a miser, just careful), I shall usually plump for a nice £3 bottle which does the trick, because a) Aldi have excellent wine merchants and b) my taste buds have adapted nicely to their £3 range, which is comparable to the £20 range of wines at Tesco, or Sainsburys. Since becoming disabled, my eldest daughter occasionally goes shopping for us. She knows I like red wine, but she doesn’t drink a lot of it herself and therefore picks out something from the £10 to £15 range, because she thinks that is what I would choose also. So I get my wine and, naturally, my £3 taste buds are completely blown away by the difference in quality. Thus, I make the new bottle last twice as long, because every sip is utterly delicious and definitely not to be rushed. Which brings us neatly (via the scenic route, past the vineyards) to Michael Forester’s latest book, Forest Dawn – Reflections of the Rising Light.

This is Michael Forester’s new collection of essays and poetry, succeeding his awesome 2017 book, Forest Rain, which we were honoured to review here at Ink Pantry. The focus this time is for the author to ‘illuminate the profound that hides in the simple and the eternal that shines through the commonplace’. As such, the book begins in fine fashion with the inspirational essay, ‘A Pound of Peace’.

‘A pound of Peace, please, mate,’ said the man in front of me in the queue at the market stall. His shopping bag was packed full and I wondered how he was going to fit any more into it.

‘Beautiful bit of Peace this is,’ the stallholder commented, weighing out a pound on the scales. ‘You’ll not find better in the market today.’ The customer smiled his thanks and pressed the Peace down into his bag that was already bulging with Worry, Regret and Frustration. It looked precariously balanced as he walked away. I wasn’t surprised to see it topple out and splatter into the gutter.

‘And what can I do for you today, sir?’ The stallholder’s voice brought my attention back to the table. ‘How about some Pleasure for your supper? Just sprinkle a bit of Indolence on it and fry it in Indulgence – beautiful!’

Tempted, I checked my wallet. ‘Sorry,’ I replied, ‘I’m all out of Trust to pay you with.’

‘That don’t matter’ he retorted. ‘I take all the major cards – Gullibility, Foolishness, Ignorance. And if you’ve got that new one, Complacency, I can even give you a discount.’

Each carefully crafted essay and poem carries a stream of messages via positive metaphors and symbolism. The description of a dream leads to a lesson in forgiveness. A childhood memory of a spider focuses on the myriad of choices we face in this lifetime. The recollection of a faulty wire in a garage door looks into angels and God’s sense of humour…and so on, throughout the thirty-two chapters of the book.

The writing in all the essays and poetry is direct and thought-provoking. Michael’s sense of humour and skilful writing creates a steady platform between some of the harsher subjects covered (such as refugees fleeing from their war-torn homes), meaning at no point are we feeling that this is all part of a grand, egotistical speech and we are being lectured to. Michael’s talent as a writer is both simplistic and genius; he draws the reader in like a magnet. We’re never pulled in, but merely guided by Michael’s total command of the written word. Another bonus…we also learn from what is being presented to us.

I raced through this book’s wonderful predecessor, Forest Rain, as it is an utter joy to read. This time around, something seems different for me. The sheer joyousness is retained, but I found myself tackling this book in smaller chunks, as after each chapter my head was swimming with what I had just ingested. If Forest Rain captured the energy of an energetic teenager passionately exploring the world, Forest Dawn seems to me to be somehow maturer and worldly-wise in its approach.

Michael’s humour shines through his writing, as demonstrated in a short poem called ‘Oh My God!’, which immediately took me back to being a young 1970s choirboy; my 7-year old mind earnestly trying to make sense of the vicar’s authoritative sermon.

‘Repent!’ he shouted.

I didn’t know what penting was, but I promised there and then, I’d definitely re-do it more in future.

‘All ye like sheep have gone astray!’ he yelled.

I thought of new season’s lamb with mint sauce and some potatoes.

‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand,’ he snarled.

I looked at my hands. There was nothing on them, certainly not a kingdom.

‘I see you, sinner,’ he said.

I checked my flies.

The writing throughout the book is top quality, in terms of pace, tone and depth. Every chapter leaves a trail of fascinating, informative foam in its wake, along with the knowledge that, as readers, we’ve been privileged to share in this gentleman’s Earthly journey and what he has learned from it so far. It’s a masterclass in creative writing and the author should be extremely proud of what he has created here.

As I said at the end of the Ink Pantry review for Forest Rain, this is an excellent book and I sincerely wish that I had written it. Nothing has changed.

And we are but flying fish, breaking the surface for a moment, to bask in the reflected glory of a transient elevation.

Get your copy of Forest Dawn: Reflections of the Rising Light

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Books From The Pantry: Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution by Maggie Shaw

Congratulations on your new novel, Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution. Can you tell us about it? Have you an extract that you could share with us?

Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution is a sequel to Diviner’s Nemesis I – Avenger but can be read as a stand-alone book, too. Both books are set in 1970s London against a backdrop of occultism and the paranormal. In Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution demonic forces are amassing against the protagonist Liz Graham to remove her as head of the psychic society P.S.I. Her husband Alec’s plot to destroy her predecessor Jonathan Keast, leaves her defenceless against Keast’s schemes to depose her. Can Liz destroy the evil powers at work before they destroy her?

A short extract from the book: part of section 3.5:

Outside, the night was cold and damp and still. The heavy fog deadened the lamplight and the sound of their footsteps, and enveloped the sloping fellside around them in a foreshortening grey curtain of silence. Liz confidently led the way along the streaming path beside the fell wall, at one with the elements. Though she felt disturbed by the aura of death overshadowing the crag, the messages from the rocks reassured her that should anything threaten her in that eerie walk, men would spring up from the very stones in her defence.

Keast followed her cautiously, using her as a shield against Alec’s men who he knew would be waiting among the rocks ready to kill him as mercilessly as he had killed two of them earlier. The eerie trek brought to his mind another bleak night when he had followed a woman who had shown him the way to a darker destination. All the women he had loved had had the power to elevate and destroy; but he could not understand even now why they had used such powers so capriciously. He stopped on the path and spoke to chase them back into the past where they belonged.

‘Liz, how can you live with this solitude?’

‘I’m a Celt: I am one with these surroundings. There is no solitude here,’ she said. She turned back to look at him and laughed as scornfully as he had so often laughed at her.

‘You thought this night was yours, Jon, didn’t you; but even you are frightened now. All Hallows Eve is far older than the syncretic Christianity which adopted it and spawned your bastard faith. This night is Oidhche Shamhna, Samhain, when the gates of Hades, Ynys Wair, are open to receive the dying sun. Tonight the spirits rove the earth again to torment those who once tormented them. For the next six winter months nature will sleep with the spirits in the underworld; but if you join them now, you will not return with them in the spring.’

She turned and walked on down the path, leaving her unexpected threat hanging in the air. He hurried after her, knowing not to retaliate against her bizarre tirade because she could easily extinguish the storm lantern and disappear into the night, leaving him to the fate she had threatened to bring down upon him.

A video of Maggie reading another extract, part of Section 1.6.

When did you first discover your love for writing?

I have always written stories, ever since my childhood – it’s just a part of me. I wrote my first story soon after I was able to write. It was about a working horse that broke his milk-cart traces and escaped to the mountains to live with the wild horses in a hillside cave.

You are also a musician. Do you write your own songs?

Yes, I also write songs, and again, I have been writing songs since my childhood. The first song I can remember composing was a sea shanty about a storm. My stories are a good source of inspiration for the songs I write. I am in the process of recording some of them for my new website which is due to go live in the next month or so. It was also good to be able to perform songs like ‘Merry-go-round’ in the ArtSwarm video magazine series.

Who inspires you?

Inspiration comes from the everyday things around me – a chance remark in a conversation, anger at an injustice, compassion for those struggling with life. My Christian faith, recovery discipline and my own back story are all fertile sources of material for stories and songs. People who have influenced me include the Inklings writers Charles Williams, J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, and from my childhood, Alan Garner who lives in nearby Congleton. Landscapes that have inspired me include London, Scotland and the Lakeland valley where my family farmed for several generations, Ennerdale.

Have you any other projects on the horizon?

My next project, which I hope to complete this autumn, is to publish my novella Eregendal which I wrote when I was 21. This is a fairy tale-like fantasy about a heroic quest that goes wrong, in the genre of Visionary Fiction. The name of the leading character, Eregendal, is now also the name of my indie publishing house.

Maggie’s website

Books From The Pantry: She-Clown and other stories by Hannah Vincent reviewed by Yang Ming

Women are often seen as resilient creatures in the face of adversity. But beneath this façade lies something deeper: vulnerability and the desire to be a better version of themselves. That is what British writer Hannah Vincent hopes to convey in her debut short story collection, She-Clown and other stories. Packed with sixteen fierce and funny feminist stories, this extraordinary collection is a delightful read.

The stories are told from the women’s perspective. They are brutally honest, raw, witty, and at the same time, moving. There is Charlie in the title story, She-Clown, which was shortlisted for the Manchester Writing Competition 2017, and Words & Women Competition 2017. Charlie is She-Clown, a magician who performs magic tricks at children’s parties. When the girls’ mother introduces her to the party guests Charlie realises she knew some of them. They are men who previously treated her with no respect by engaging in sexual acts with her. The ordinariness of the magic tricks she performed emphasises the absurdities of life, as if women are meant to clown around for them. But Charlie is enlightened when the girls’ father, Tony, who first mistook her as ‘She-Clam’, explains that ‘There’s no difference between male and female clams, did you know? No difference in colour, or markings, no mating behaviour. So only the clam knows who’s who and what’s what.’ This metaphorical commentary brilliantly encapsulates what gender equality means.

While Charlie gets a glimpse of reciprocal attraction, others are seeking to find freedom. There is Charlotte in ‘The Poison Frog’, a simple story about an unlikely friendship between a frog and a girl, with a hint of surrealism. First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2016, it tells the story of Charlotte who lives with her mother, even though she’s thirty years old. They are a close pair often seen together for grocery shopping and dental appointments. During their visit to a specialist, Charlotte’s mother discovers there’s a poison frog living in her throat! Over time, Charlotte is strangely drawn to it. After a successful operation, she takes the frog home. She takes care of it like a human companion. She dresses the frog up with a bonnet from one of her mother’s dolls. She even takes it for a walk where her neighbours chirp, ‘Morning, Froggy!’

The unexpected appearance of the poison frog marks as a turning point in Charlotte’s life and she begins to understand what makes her so happy. Fundamentally, the story asks the question of how much does one willing to fight for what they want, achieve it without destroying a relationship?

The collection ends perfectly with the story, ‘Woman of the Year’. It’s achingly funny yet empowering. Written from a second person perspective, the reader gets invited to a formal luncheon in ‘so-called intelligent buildings where no one can hear you when you are inside.’ Everyone is seated at a table according to the first letter of their names. The reader is reminded again the reason behind the invitation that ‘someone thinks highly of you, considers you worth inviting, wants to celebrate you.’ But who invited them?

As everyone tries to figure out who invited them, the conversations at the table begin to flow freely around the reader. You listen to their life stories and their achievements as if you are right there with them. The luncheon drags on until an impending storm throws everyone into disarray.

Writing about women takes a lot of courage and sensitivity. In this case, Vincent delves deeper into the feminine psyche, and incorporates them into her characters. With a greater understanding of their emotions and behaviour, these characters become sublime and multi-faceted. She’s a talented writer whose strength lies in turning ordinary stories into something extraordinary. Ultimately, She-Clown and Other Stories is a page-turner, and with every page, it will invigorate your soul. Now, that certainly establishes her as one of the freshest voices in contemporary fiction.

She Clown and other stories is available from Myriad

Special thanks to Emma Dowson.

Books From The Pantry: Ann of Green Fables: pocket- sized reflections of cosmic proportions by Christopher Gilmore: reviewed by Kev Milsom

Photo credit: Claire Faulkner

Breath

‘All-round inner and outer good health
Rate higher Ann than bad wealth
Feeling fine in fresh air I feel rapture
Science now onto carbon capture
Though storage or dispersal problematic’.
‘Grandad, Mother Nature’s got her own solution
Like me autistic with outer and inner pollution’.
‘She’s no sinner, just asthmatic’.

Over the course of time, it’s become (slightly) clearer to me of the importance of poetry within the field of creative communication.

As a wannabe poet, I’ve often twisted and turned over finding just the right word/rhyme/phrase to insert…a real ‘head-turner’ that absolutely nails the full scale and majesty of what my mind sees; squeezed masterfully into perhaps 4 or 5 words within a line.

Does it make sense? Is it relevant? Is the rhythm digitally correct to the nearest zillionth of a heartbeat, or does my poem (that sounded utter genius at 4am) compare equally in the cold light of day? In some ways, I’ve always admired poets who seem to be able to bypass the frustrating ‘yes, but what might other people think?’ aspects of poetry creation and get straight through to the luscious green fields of creative, raw inspiration.

To personify that last sentence, please allow me to introduce you to Crewe-based poet, former actor and drama teacher, Christopher Gilmore. Christopher’s book, Ann of Green Fables, is packed (literally) with a variety of poetry exploring one constant, recurring theme of the current global environment. I use the adjective ‘packed’ in good context here, as the book contains almost 460 items of poetry upon its pages, with illustrations by Tony Smith, Michael Crouch and Mary Macgillivray. Christopher’s poetic style has a unique flavour to it and certainly doesn’t pull any punches in its delivery, such as ‘Darkness’, issuing a clear warning to humanity.

Darkness

If a distant date dawns no daylight
If man bloats our frail planet with blight
What wasn’t created will get incinerated
Mankind reimagine your ego’s might
Our blue global kindergarten some sun-soaked some Spartan
To higher classes way past Paul Tarsus
Heaven on earth now disheartened
Nature Spirits in the slough of despond

The book begins with a list of all poems, followed by some excellently-phrased essays concerning aspects of global warming and the ecological state of our planetary abode, thanks to the efforts of humanity.

‘Animals can teach us much. Instinctively, as Soul, in not fearing death they seem to know we all survive more than one life. 

How well this is illustrated by the lives of snakes, frogs and butterflies. 

These creatures in one lifetime morph through a series of many bodies – symbolizing the continuum of all of life’s energies whatever its form or lifestyle and temporary physical needs’.

Also intriguing for me is that Christopher isn’t just focusing his goal upon beating a single, environmental drumbeat through 459 individual poems. There is also a questioning, philosophising, spiritual depth here to his writing which I personally found exciting, as typified in a poem titled ‘Om-ni-al?’.

Om-Ni-Al?

Isn’t odd that God’s everywhere
Deep within seas as well as in the air –
Everywhere?
God is here, God is near
God’s clear in all we love
That flows from way above
Each to their due, through me and you,
Through all the beauties of repartee
Talking to a tree

In these uncertain days of home-confinement – questing for creative inspiration to fire our imagination and understanding – one could do far worse than journey through Christopher’s poetic world. The passion demonstrated through every line of his poetry is admirably undeniable.

Watch this space for the release of Ann of Green Fables!

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Books From The Pantry: The Missing Girl by Jenny Quintana: reviewed by Kev Milsom

You disappeared in the autumn of 1982, when the leaves switched their wardrobe from green to burnished brown, and our mother made great pots of jam from the fruit we picked in the garden. I was twelve, with clumsy clothes and National Health glasses. You were fifteen, crazy-haired and willowy’.

As a wannabe successful author it’s always been my personal belief that if I was to complete the very, very, very difficult task of creating a stunning, debut thriller, the novel would need to have various qualities to it. Firstly, it would need to be readable, from the very first sentence and then hold the reader firmly to every page from there on, in much the same way as I was captivated as a teenager by Douglas Adams’ opening line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, who masterfully allowed us into his thoughts with, ‘Space is big’.

Secondly, the successful debut thriller would need to do exactly what it says on the tin…namely, to thrill the reader and keep them on the edge of their seats. Thirdly, the characters held within the pages would need to be relatable, relevant and non-cardboard-like in their delivery. Fourthly, if I were the author, I would need to hold the readers into that wonderful fantasy ‘grip’, where they become enchanted by my writing, especially all that descriptive stuff that sounds so easy to produce, but actually really isn’t.

Jenny Quintana’s 2017 debut novel, The Missing Girl, achieves all of these above qualities, which is probably why it has been acclaimed so much and been excitedly promoted by publications such as The Sunday Times, institutions such as Waterstones, and even lauded by the formidable sofa-king and queen combo of Richard and Judy.

Let’s start with the plot line. It’s the modern day and Anna Flores is returning to England from her home in Athens, because her mother has passed away. A part of the reason that she resides in Athens is because of long-standing fragilities within the family home, especially since the mysterious disappearance of her elder sister, Gabriella, in 1982.

Coming home to less-than-sunny England naturally evokes some strong memories for Anna; most of them unpleasant and revolving around what may have happened to Gabriella, over three decades on. In returning ‘home’, Anna must confront remnants of her past, which systematically begins to reopen old doors. Now, with both parents dead and her sister missing, Anna feels very alone, surrounded only by mounting prompts to try and solve the family mystery once and for all.

Jenny Quintana demonstrates, with ease, what a strong writer she is on every page of this novel. As a reader, you find yourself being carried along effortlessly from page to page. Jenny skilfully manages to involve us at every twist and turn and at absolutely no point do we feel left out of what is occurring. There is a gentle build up of pace, to establish the characters and story-line and then, just as we’re feeling comfortable, the pace quickens and we’re carried along to the next, invaluable piece of the ‘jigsaw puzzle’. What’s most important about all of this is that we want to get there, because we care about the main character and her story.

This is a very difficult book to put down and it makes me realise two things. Jenny Quintana can write extremely well. Furthermore, I now want her to finish her next project so I can read more from her creative, skilful mind. Over to you, Jenny.