Books from the Pantry: Falling and Flying by Jeff Phelps reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Prize-winning poet, acclaimed novelist, editor and playwright, Jeff Phelps, is the author of two novels Painter Man (2005) and Box of Tricks (2009), both published by Tindal Street Press and the poetry pamphlet Wolverhampton Madonna (2016) published by Offa’s Press. He is a founding member of Bridgnorth Writers’ Group and was recently a ‘poet on loan’ in West Midland libraries. He is married with two grown up children and now lives in Wiltshire. His website is

Falling and Flying is an impressive first full-length collection of poems. The presentation and running order of the 57 poems contained in this volume is well thought out. The falling poems and the flying poems provide a strong opening followed by a series of poems that cover subjects at ground level and beneath the ground. Further in, there are groupings of poems about the moon, birds, saints and churches, memories from childhood, current affairs, music and art.

The collection opens with two powerful poems titled ‘Cadman’s Leap’ and ‘Cadman’s Wife’ which narrate the tragic early death of an 18th century showman and rope slider from Shrewsbury and the subsequent loss felt by his wife. The second of these poems achieves through rhyme and repetition a sense of sustained lyricism in its poignancy.

In ‘An Avebury Stone’ the distant past struggles to come alive where ‘one frozen circle dancer / [is] waiting for the music to begin’ and in ‘Devizes White Horse’ the animal that may have once ‘cantered across this sweet meadow / of orchids’ is now ‘a stranger to itself’. A preoccupation with the more recent past is evidenced in ‘The Lost Village of Imber’, an uninhabited village that forms part of the British Army’s training grounds on Salisbury Plain where the entire civilian population was evicted in 1943 to provide an exercise area for American troops preparing for the invasion of Europe during the Second World War. To this day, the village remains under the control of the Ministry of Defence.

Staying on the subject of war and the ravages of war, ‘On the Bommy’, Phelps’ concluding stanza makes us think about some of the bigger consequences of history turning a poem about a children’s playground among bombed-out buildings into a more powerful statement about the futility and cost of war:

Damage brings forth damage in its turn.
Each generation pays the next with interest.
We plundered that barren patch with no concern
for that family so cruelly dispossessed.

One of my favourite poems in this collection is titled ‘Waterway’. Its subject matter, an old canal, is only hinted at and not named. The details are sketchy and the location not given. A lot is left up to the imagination and the disconnection between what might have been there then and what is there now is handled well:

Now I haul myself up
expecting water or a towpath
and find only derelict gardens,
no sense of direction.

For all its evasiveness, it is a poem full of atmosphere and mystery.

Other poems range widely in both subject matter and location: a visit to an eye hospital, bicycles outside Oxford station ‘ranks of them waiting, flashing / in the sun like Wordsworth’s daffs’, dowsing with a ‘Y-shaped hazel, alder or goat-willow’, poems in praise of the moon, an ekphrastic poem based on an oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby and a poem about Cornish saints. Some pieces are light-hearted, such as ‘Gerald the Ginger Cat’ and ‘An Idiot’s Guide to Freedom’ while others are more serious such as ‘I have been a stranger’ and ‘Yes I have wished.’

Several poems make reference to music, in particular, the ‘Psalm for Musicians’ and the ‘Schubert Variations’. This is not surprising given that Phelps’ son is a classically trained musician. The prose poem ‘Schubert Variations’ is a very fine piece of writing.

Here is the opening section:

When I heard the sound of coal tumbling into the cellar under my window I imagined black notes falling from a piano in a cascade of sharps and flats. The streets were full of horses pulling coal carts, heading to the country where there were operas in huge palaces. And that was how I came to run after them, pulling up my borrowed breeches, my spectacles thumbed and greasy.

Even here, attention is paid to form. Each of the six paragraphs begins with the phrase ‘When I heard the sound of…’ It might be a knock on the door, someone’s voice, a piano or the ‘symphony in [his] head’. As a composer, every sound is important to Schubert and it carries with it its own connotations. What is more, all these sounds are already present or hinted at in the first paragraph. Each one of them is expanded upon and explored in its own right in a poetic equivalent of a set of variations on a stated theme.

Stylistically, the collection covers a variety of forms including sonnets, tercets, a prose poem and visual poems. The circular ‘Heartwood’ poem, reminiscent of tree rings, is a dendrochronologist’s dream because the exposed stump of the tree does all the talking. A number of poems follow strict rhyme schemes which are well executed. Helpful footnotes are provided where appropriate.

This is a wide-ranging collection that takes us through a good deal of history while at the same time raising questions about some of the more pressing issues of our own time. Highly recommended.

Books From The Pantry: The Second of August by Peter J Donnelly

Peter J Donnelly lives in York where he works as a hospital secretary. He has a MA in Creative Writing and a degree in English Literature from the University of Wales Lampeter. Thanks are due to the Dreich magazine, Writer’s Egg, Southlight and South Bank, where some of these poems have previously appeared. His poetry has also been published in other magazines and anthologies including One Hand Clapping, Black Nore Review, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Obsessed with Pipework, High Window and The Beach Hut. The 22 won second prize in the Ripon Poetry Festival competition in 2021 and The Second of August was a joint runner up in the Buzzwords open poetry competition in 2020.

Do check out his poetry collection by Alien Buddha Press: The Second of August by Peter J Donnelly

Also this great interview by Wombwell Rainbow.

Peter’s other collection, Solving the Puzzle is published by Alien Buddha Press.

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

To the beetle, the foxglove towers high, waving in the wind and is impossibly beyond scaling. But, when beetles learn to step out of themselves, they become bigger than they knew was possible. Foxgloves become small. Treetops can be reached if beetles are willing to believe it possible. And, should they be willing, that which was unknown comes into view – if they want to of course, only if they want to.

As an author, Hampshire-based Michael Forester is no stranger to us here at Ink Pantry Publishing. As such, looking back I realise that I’ve included the phrase, ‘I wish I could write like Michael’ in former reviews. Thus, this time around, I’ve pledged to abstain, instead choosing to look both deeply and critically at Michael’s writing to see precisely what makes him ’tick’. The review book in question is Michael’s latest publication, Forest Pathways (Paralight Press, 2023) and, according to the blurb, it comprises ‘essays, metaphorical stories and poetry, inspired by walks of solitude in England’s New Forest and beyond’.

To start, I thought it might be a good idea to explore Michael’s possession of descriptive powers; surely a sign of an adequate writer on any platform? So, let’s skip to Chapter Three to see how he personifies nature, herself, and what specific words he chooses to describe the end of summer, as Nature prepares herself for the colder, autumn and winter months ahead.

So, we come to Anderwood where the tall Scots pines reach up to eternity. We have come to watch the love of my life as once more she begins to prepare herself for her long sleep. We have eyes only for her as she goes about her bedding ritual. A mattress of coarse bracken she has laid upon the earth and now she begins to quilt it with the first dry leaves that tumble down in the early autumn winds.

Certainly passable, I think. But hey, let’s test this further and observe a direct communication between Michael and Nature, concerning why he’s not visited for some time.

But you had more important things to do?’ she enquired. No, I replied…nothing is more important than coming to be with you’. ‘Why then?’ I fell silent again. ‘It’s hard to explain. There’s been a listlessness about me. A drop in my energy. I can’t explain why’. ‘I know what you mean,’ she said, gesturing to the waning colour of late autumn. ‘I was depressed,’ I confessed finally…’I’m still here for you,’ she responded. ‘I’ll always be here for you. You know that, don’t you? Just like you know you always feel better when you come to me’. She was right.’

Well, that’s not bad at all. And yes, we must make a note, in sharpest pencil, that a vivid picture is easily formed from Michael’s earnest, heartfelt words. But, hang on a minute, what does his soul really feel about the coming months, where nature is about to sleep?

Sleep safely, my love. When the snow lies upon your curving uplands, we will walk your leafless lanes and wander only where the woodland creatures sleep within your nurturing arms. 

Okay…well, we’ll concede that this writing is definitely adequate and we’ll also graciously admit that Michael can produce words on a page that elicit the strongest of imaginative, visual treats. A man at the height of his creative arc. Surely, nothing can diminish the light here? In Chapter Five, we hit a wall, just as winter is receding into the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of spring. Sadly, as I read, I feel every word, as if it is empathising with me and how I have felt this year.

It has been a harsh and silent winter…The words that cascade through the Summerlands have not come. I have been unable to write for some time now, perhaps for many months…No poetry; no prose. Every attempt produces jagged, awkward phrases, malformed paragraphs and stanzas that hide in shame from the angry eyes of judgement.

I wince as I read these words, because I feel that the author is writing directly to me. I am also sure that many creative souls, who are privileged enough to read this book, will identify with them also. As an author, Michael has never failed to amaze me at how effortlessly he manages to connect to his readers. Perhaps, some of this lies within his dazzling honesty? Michael is opening his heart and admitting that the creative flow is not always a beauteous waterfall of constant momentum. Sometimes, it slows to a trickle. On other days, it disappears completely, leaving us wondering where it has gone and why. Michael’s words resound so clearly, as he gradually finds renewed hope on the horizon.

There have been times in the silence of the recent weeks when I have wondered if I would ever write again. But now the words are my domain once again and I feel the power pulsing through the conduits of the soul. There is no book yet. There is only the earliest hint of a structure.

Each chapter of this glorious book shines with the wisdom of a man who has walked many different and difficult forest pathways of life. It is (at times) a brutally honest account of how the author feels mentally, emotionally and spiritually; armed with a massive arsenal of finely-chiselled words with which to convey his thoughts and feelings. Luckily for us, the author is a crack shot and hits everything he aims for. I was enchanted by the author’s viewpoint on how he felt that his best work was behind him, these darker beliefs perhaps encouraged by the fact that his books about dragons and dogs had performed admirably in the past, while his more recent wanderings into personal musings and poetry had not achieved the same commercial success. His ability to ‘ride the clutch’ in literary form on human emotions is staggering. One moment, we’re laughing and marvelling at his connection to nature and the simple joys of life. The next, he takes us upon a rougher, winding pathway; one that tests our emotional balances, as the words hit home…hard and true. Interspersed within the deeply personal thoughts are occasional artillery blasts of poetry. Once again, Michael’s aim is spot on, with his words leaving a lasting impression. Yup, he can do poetry too.

Whose skin is not dark,
Who are not gay, not female, bi, nor Trans,
Not refugees,
Nor penniless,
Who suffer no disability,
And have no special needs,
No mental illness,
Who are not homeless,
Sick, nor unemployed,
Who have committed no crime,
Who suffer no persecution for your faith;

Who, having no shrill voice,
Nor advocate,
And, choosing devotion over protest,
Knew only how to work at desk or lathe:

You, too, are loved.

‘You’ – Michael Forester

I read most of this book outside the local café in Stonehouse – usually accompanied by a cooked breakfast and mocha. I freely admit that there were some unplanned pauses to breathe. Sometimes to puff on my vape and once even to buy some cigarettes, as I was completely blown away by some of the emotional pieces that flowed from Michael’s pen. It is also apparent to my creative self that I desperately needed to read this book….right now…for my own inspiration. Often, I needed more mocha, and to check that no-one was nearby, as I wiped away a respectful tear to what my soul had just ingested. I could easily just complete this review by reproducing steady chunks of Forest Pathways, but then that would ruin things for those who also wish to ingest this incredible piece of literature into their minds, hearts and souls. I would urge everyone to do so, especially us struggling writers, seeking to leave the conventional trails and find their unique, creative pathways. 

It has to be said…I wish that I could write like Michael. In truth, after a harsh winter of not believing in myself as a writer, while reading Michael’s book, I have felt the rusty hinges of creative doorways begin to give way. Multiple mochas and unhealthy puffs have given way to new self belief. Blessed inspiration has begun to flow once more. So now, I believe that I can write. How? Michael told me so. You know. Michael Forester. The bloke who writes about the most important aspects of life and truly makes a profound difference to everyone who reads his words.

When we understand we are not apart, we rise above the foxgloves and soar above the trees. We realise how the ground beetles can become kestrels – when we are ready to grow wings, that is, when we are ready.

Forest Pathways by Michael Forester

You can find more of Michael’s & Kev’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: Journeys in Europe by Neil Leadbeater & Monica Manolachi reviewed by Kev Milsom

‘Rivers connect people and places. They carry water and nutrients to areas all over the globe…to travel down rivers of this length is to travel through different languages, societies and cultures’.

(Neil Leadbeater & Monica Manolachi)

Here’s an interesting and original idea. Take two prolific writers and poets, both of whom have a passion for the natural beauty of rivers. Let them create evocative literary pieces concerning two of their favourite European rivers, thus engaging a global audience into their emotional ties to aforementioned rivers; also allowing readers to feel as if they are with the authors on their personal journey. Thus, Edinburgh-based writer Neil Leadbeater and Romanian lecturer, Monica Manolachi set out to achieve this ambitious goal and completely triumphed within their creative endeavours.

Let’s begin with Neil; an author, essayist, poet and critic, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Neil’s emotional connection to the Rhine began over sixty years ago, as he accompanied his parents down the river. According to Neil, ‘it was an idyllic time and one never to be forgotten’. The 765 miles of the Rhine flow through five countries: Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Austria. Neil begins his poetic journey in the Dutch city of Delft.

‘Let’s go to Delft:
Home of Spierinex tapestries,
Italian-glazed earthenware
And Delft Blue China’.

Cool, I’m only four lines in and I’ve learned two things already. The Rhine flows through Delft and I now know more about the Spierinex tapestries than I did before. I also realise that I’ve seen some of these at Warwick Castle. What else about Delft, Neil?

‘Looking at Egbert van der Poel’s paintings,
Hands over ears,
We can almost hear that thunderclap
When tons of gunpowder
Stored in barrels
Exploded into fire’.

Okay, I’m now au fait with the paintings of Egbert van der Poel, especially those that depict the ‘Great Thunderclap’ of 1654, when barrels of gunpowder exploded and destroyed half the city. My ever-curious mind is loving this intake of knowledge.

‘Crossing canals,
in your blue dress and matching heels,
your mind is full of fragile things
authentic and collectable’.
(‘Delft’ by Neil Leadbeater)

My mind is now peaked by who this woman may be. I definitely want to know more. But then, I’m nosey. Neil continues his journey through The Netherlands and beyond. Perhaps we might like to explore the Rhine online to learn more about it? Neil’s poem, ‘The River on-line’ suggests otherwise. 

It’s not the same river.
It can’t escape from your smartphone.
It’s out of its element
with nowhere to run.

You can’t shake hands with it,
let it in.
You can’t dive into it
or go for a swim.

Let’s move on to Germany and see Neil’s feelings on the city of Bonn, with a poem of the same name.

‘A seat of government and a seat of learning’
please be seated.
Zuccalli’s baroque Elector’s palace housing the university. My father and I, standing in front of the yellow façade. Thirty-five windows on the middle floor. The symmetry beautiful, the measurement exact.
When I grow up, I decide that I want to be an architect.

An informative opening, followed by some lines of personal remembrance – a key point captured in the mind of a young boy, relayed now for us to appreciate and ponder. This style of poetry continues for the whole journey; namely some information to tickle the mind, intertwined with personal memories of key locations along the flow of the Rhine – memories that clearly mean a lot for the poet and allow the reader into the river’s importance for him.

Moving our attention across toward Monica, we learn that she is a lecturer in English and Spanish at the University of Bucharest in Romania. As with Neil, Monica’s attraction to the chosen river stems from childhood, when her parents would take her to Sulina, a location at the mouth of the river Danube. We learn that the Danube is the second longest river in Europe, covering 1,770 miles from Germany to the Black Sea and a total of ten countries. Monica’s poetic approach sometimes mirrors Neil’s, yet hers often flows freely into a heavily visual, creative poetic form. If I had to compare, I would say that Neil’s reminds me of beautiful, detailed oil paintings, while Monica’s sometimes flow effortlessly into impressionism, offering a deep visionary, imaginative feel to them. Sometimes, the words of the two poets merge together as one, like…well, like two rivers. Anyway, more of that later, let’s sample Monica’s literary expressions within the poem, ‘Kepler’s Ghost on the Stone Bridge’.  

‘A crater on Mars, another on the Moon,
a street in Regensburg and more in many other cities,
a metro station on U1 of the Vienna U-Bahn, a university in Linz, where I wrote ‘harmonices mundi’,
a space telescope and thousands of habitable zone planets –
Guys, thanks for this growing recognition’.

Okay, astronomy…cool! I’m already fascinated, as Kepler and his laws of planetary motion have been known to me since I was a young boy learning the layout of the heavens above. This poem takes me back to my youth (akin to a young Neil Leadbeater in Bonn, staring up in fascination at the baroque palace). Reading into the rest of the poem, I wasn’t aware of the specific religious persecution that Kepler was always in fear of, as he lived a bit beyond the main years of religious turmoil between Protestant & Catholic Europe, so my brain nods as another piece of information creeps in. Meanwhile, in Hungary, Monica offers a beautiful poetic moment in time.

‘We advance on the water
as the planet rows through the universe.
The river is so dark and you
like a beacon, among the tiny stars,
cannot stop laughing.
(‘One Night in Gyor’ by Monica Manolachi)

The short poem paints an iconic moment in time, leaving the reader/viewer both intrigued and fascinated to know more. That’s me being nosey again, but you must admit that these poets are creating some intriguing visuals with their words. In Budapest, Monica offers another imaginative piece to savour with her poem, ‘Kertmozi’, again to leave the reader delightfully intrigued.

‘Like an open codex
In the middle of a cloister room,
You float on the river of time
Throwing the crowns you receive
To the souls beneath the water’.

Each poem is written in English and then translated into Romanian by Monica. It’s clear that both poets have a way of expressing wide-ranging thoughts onto the page – some informative and clearly etched out skilfully in ‘literary marble’, while other pieces flow with imagination and visual dexterity across the pages of this book. For me, a strong aspect of poetry is for the creator(s) to supply my mind with any excuse to close my eyes and simply be there…on the page with the author(s) as they open up their minds, hearts and souls. This fabulous book achieves precisely this.

You can purchase a copy of Journeys in Europe here or email Neil direct: [email protected]

Books From The Pantry: The Cold Store by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough reviewed by Kev Milsom

How odd the imagination.
It often takes you close
To where the flowers grow,
Splendid and perfumed and failing
On their dehydrated stalks.
Then gives you an ashtray full of dogends.

‘Colitas’ by Elisabeth Sennit Clough

It’s fair to say that the talented poet Elisabeth Sennitt Clough has a passion for the easterly portion of England, known as ‘The Fens’ – or ‘Fenland’ –  covering much of the county of Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, alongside parts of Suffolk and Huntingdonshire. Indeed, her 2019 publication, At, Or Above Sea Level, focused strongly upon this region of marshland, and former marshland, much of which originally consisted of fresh, or salt-water, wetlands. Now, in her recent book, The Cold Store, Elisabeth returns to this area with a collection of imaginative and personal poetry. 

The title of the collection – a real place called The Cold Store; an automated warehouse located at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire; once the largest frozen food warehouse in the UK, until superseded by another in 2018 – is used throughout the poetry as a metaphoric, shapeshifting presence. Elisabeth morphs The Cold Store into different forms across The Fens, allowing her to address memories from her youth, as well as buildings of importance, specific characters and various objects. 

In some ways, the poems remind the reader of the Fens’ landscape; as they can be edgy, dark and mysterious. Yet, the poetry also contains consummate measures of light, with abundant detail and creative imagination, played out via Elisabeth’s choice, adept vocabulary to immortalise the flat landscape and unhindered skies that hold so much personal meaning for her.

Here, beyond the old toll gate
Where the edge-of-town factories
And car showrooms have long faded,
Agriculture becomes the only industry.
Each square of land carries me into the next
And a pink horizon emerges from dark Earth.

‘Fenland Elegy’

The poems are varied and eclectic. While some focus upon descriptive elements to create powerful visual descriptions, others are clearly more personal, focusing upon an individualistic glimpse into the past, such as the poem, Widowed Single Mother, 1970s’, that I could strongly relate to.

After she drops me off at the school gates,
I try to mimic the villagers, call my mother
By the names they give her.

Elisabeth’s mastery of words plays through this entire collection and produces strong, creative visuals within the reader’s mind. 

You can find more of Elisabeth’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: A Pocketful of Chalk by Claire Booker reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Brighton-based poet and playwright, Claire Booker’s debut pamphlet of poems, ‘Later There Will Be Postcards’ was published by Green Bottle Press. A further pamphlet, ‘The Bone That Sang’ was published by Indigo Dreams. She was a recipient of a Kathak International Literary Award in 2019 and, in the same year, travelled to Bangladesh as a guest poet at the Dhaka International Writers’ Festival. Her stage plays have been performed in Europe, Australia, America and the UK. She is a member of the Brighton Stanza Group.

Titles can be magical as well as memorable. Following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie’s detective novel, ‘A Pocketful of Rye’, Aisha Bushby’s novel ‘A Pocketful of Stars’ and Richard E Grant’s memoir ‘A Pocketful of Happiness’ we now have Booker’s first full-length collection ‘A Pocketful of Chalk’.

Of course, a ‘pocket’ can also be a seam, a cavity in a rock or stratum filled with ore or other material as opposed to a small patch of land or a space for carrying small articles in one’s clothing. In this collection, Booker digs deep beneath the surface to mine a rich vein of poetry from the chalk deposits of the South Downs. It is here where we see that Booker is very much a poet of place as she takes us over a range of coastal cliffs and hills such as Beachy Head, Folly Hill, and Beacon Hill to the inland grasslands and meadows of Sussex which are all very much a part of her landscape.

In an interview for The Poet Magazine, Booker says ‘I think words, for me, are often a way to delve into the unexplored, to fling my net and see what comes up.’ Nowhere is this more obvious than in her opening poem, ‘Breaking Out’, where space is used instead of punctuation to indicate the length of a pause. The full-stop (‘I’ve had it with full stops’) is not permitted to put in an appearance until the whole poem has ended, allowing nothing to hinder the full flight of her imagination, a dazzlement of constellations, butterflies, marigolds and dandelions. The lyrical drive inherent in this and many other poems in the collection comes from Booker’s love of English hymnody.

By contrast, full stops are very much in evidence in ‘Looking Towards Smock Hill’ where short sentences help to drive the poem forward, enabling it to cover a lot of ground, giving us a sense distance in the view out to sea.

In ‘Drone Boys’ technology meets sheep. The sound and sight of them scything the air with their blades is distressing to the sheep. Reading it put me in mind of the dangers birds face when confronted with the whirling blades of wind turbines. Booker handles the clash of forces between machinery and the natural world very convincingly here. We ignore the needs of the natural world at our peril.

‘Long Man Dreaming’ is central to this collection. This is the chalk giant, known as the Long Man of Wilmington that is carved into the Sussex Downs. The jury is still out as to whether it is a guardian, some kind of war-god or a fertility symbol and its origins are unclear. The narrator imagines the giant dreaming himself back into the past to the point where the landscape returns to the seabed. Even the car the narrator is sitting in becomes a part of the transformation: ‘Inside the carburettor petrol chatters /its abrasive dialect of long-dead foliage… We sink / into blue haze. A brook has begun to babble / through my head.’

Thinking of another pocketful, the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence / a pocketful of rye’ several poems bear reference to childhood such as ‘Hey Diddle Diddle…,’ ‘The Horse in my Bedroom,’ and ‘The Museum of Childhood’ where

…the little train clatters along N-gauge tracks,
disappears into the papier-mâché tunnel.

A long heart-skip, before it emerges still guarding
its secret: the dark curved space,

a pin prick of light dilating like an amazed pupil
at the approaching world.

Even the name of the gardener in ‘Mr McGregor’s Seedlings’ is a distant echo from Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’.

In ‘Italian Hair’ Booker manages to convey a whole spectrum of moods ranging from envy to humour and pathos in five quatrains against a backdrop that swings between the romance of Italy to the reality of England, from Sophia Loren to the fictional character of Nora Batty.

‘Framed Woman’ is an ekphrastic poem based on a painting titled ‘Cape Cod Morning’ by the American realist painter Edward Hopper. In the actual painting, a woman is looking out of a bay window, her attention caught by something beyond the frame. She herself is framed by tall dark shutters and the shape of the oriel window. Booker focuses on the woman’s tense pose, the way her hands are ‘welded to a table’ and tells us her own take on the story of this woman and how she lives day by day in her own interior space.

‘News Flash’ reads like an intrusion into our settled lives. The violent headline haunts the narrator with endless repeats until the carefree girls playing on the beach become fully cognisant of it. The poem is the musical equivalent of the renegade snare drummer in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony who is given the freedom to ‘improvise’ to the point of waging a war with the full forces of the rest of the orchestra.

Many of the poems in this collection are about nature but there are others which explore relationships with family and friends. Whether she is writing about a father mending nets, an osprey fledging or mirabelle plums, Booker dazzles us with her inventive vocabulary and keen observation. Highly recommended.

A Pocketful of Chalk by Claire Booker is available from Arachne Press.

You can find more work by poet and reviewer Neil Leadbeater here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu by Maisie Chan reviewed by Yang Ming Renee

Two years ago I reviewed Maisie Chan’s delightful debut children’s novel, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, about an eleven-year-old Danny Chung who loved drawings and hated Maths. One morning, he received an unexpected guest in his house – his grandmother who he had never met before. Over Easter break, he got to know his grandmother more, and his initial animosity towards her grew into an appreciation for her presence. Since its publication, the heart-warming story has won the Jhalak Prize and the 2022 Branford Boase Award. Now, two years later, Chan follows up her success with her second children’s novel, Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu, published by Piccadilly Press. This time, Chan doesn’t disappoint.

The novel opens with a twelve-year-old girl, Lizzie Chu, who finds her maternal grandad, Jimmy, whom she affectionately addresses as Wai Gong, ‘on his knees jabbing a piece of wire through the cracks in the roadside drain like he was trying to hook a duck at a fairground’ during one of her shopping runs when an eco bus threatens to knock him down. Lizzie rushes to his aid and saves him in the nick of time. We can surmise something isn’t quite right with Wai Gong. He has been acting strangely lately. He is becoming more forgetful than usual and spends a lot of time talking to Guan Yin – the Chinese goddess of compassion, kindness and mercy.

On the other hand, Lizzie has been holding the fort at home since the death of Grandma Kam. She has big shoes to fill, and her plate is getting full with caring for Wai Gong, running errands, sorting out the household bills and cooking while juggling her schoolwork and being a normal twelve-year-old girl. The question is, is Wai Gong feeling sad because of Grandma Kam’s passing or is it something else? One day, Lizzie and Wai Gong discover that Grandma Kam has left a golden chain with a jade circular pendant and four tickets to Blackpool Tower Ballroom. A light bulb instantly lit up in Lizzie’s head, and she devises a madcap plan. She’s going to bring Wai Gong on a trip of his lifetime to Blackpool Tower Ballroom, ‘the Mecca of Ballroom Dancing’ where he always longs to go with Grandma Kam.

Targeted at young readers, the uplifting intergenerational story takes them on a rollercoaster ride, with unexpected twists and turns, which surprises them on every page. The journey to Blackpool Tower Ballroom has me sitting at the edge of my seat, and I can’t help but cheer for Lizzie. In contrast to Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, this novel has more awareness of inclusivity. In one of the chapters, Lizzie’s school teacher, Mrs Begum explains to the class:

We don’t call people names. We do not talk about other people’s family members. Luke, just because someone looks and acts different to what you’re used to, doesn’t mean that they are strange.’

We also are also introduced to an ensemble of diverse supporting characters that make Glasgow. Among them are Lizzie’s best friends – Chi, a self-centred but kindhearted and hard-core Comic Con fan, who is a mixed Welsh and Vietnamese and Tyler, a black British boy who has a gift of making clothes and has two fathers. Chan’s strength as an author lies in her knowledge of the Asian and British cultures, given her heritage. She cleverly weaves the classic Chinese folk tale Journey to the West into the narrative as a parallel to Lizzie and Wai Gong’s journey to Blackpool Tower Ballroom. She does it with sensitivity and meticulousness. She uses ‘Wai Gong’ for Lizzie’s grandad as Wai Gong is a commonly used term in Southern China to address maternal grandad and is widely used in Asia. Using the Chinese deity, Guan Yin as a motif adds depth to the novel and provides a good entry point in understanding Chinese culture. Chan further incorporates other British cultural references, such as the ever-popular Strictly Come Dancing and Comic Con event to show that one doesn’t have to lose sight of their heritage in another country.

Despite being a middle-grade novel, Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu doesn’t shy away from discussing weighty topics about death, loss, grief and illness. It sheds light on the role of young carers and their daily struggles. It acutely captures the carers’ initial denial of their loved one’s loss of cognitive functioning and their gradual acceptance of the condition.

This is a timely topic happening globally as the ageing population increases. The novel illustrates the dependency on a larger community during challenging times and why it is so important in a rapidly developing society. As the well-known African proverb says, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ But I believe in this story it takes a community to support one in need of help and to show that the human spirit is more resilient than what we can imagine.

Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is published by Piccadilly Press, which is part of Bonnier Books Ltd. The U.S version will be out on 28th March 2023. The children’s novel is now available in Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon UK.

You can find more of Yang Ming’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: British People in Hot Weather by Paul McGrane reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Born and raised in Ammanford, once the heartland of coal mining in West Wales, Paul McGrane is the co-founder of the Forest Poets poetry collective in Walthamstow, London. From 2006 to 2020 he was the Poetry Society’s Membership Manager. His first collection, Elastic Man, published by Indigo Dreams in 2018, won the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. British People in Hot Weather (Indigo Dreams Publishing) is his second collection.

I have to admit that the title of this collection puzzles me. Arresting it may be, but there are no mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun which is to say that no poem matches the title, the phrase does not appear in any of the poems and the time of year is invariably winter. All this proves that you cannot judge a book by its cover. McGrane, I conclude, is a man who likes to surprise his readers, and there is plenty to surprise us here.

The main theme of this collection is centred round personal relationships. These relationships are seen through the lens of childhood and adolescence, a school nativity scene, a distant father-son relationship, a well-meaning next door neighbour, weekends with grandparents and characters from a Verdi opera.

McGrane writes more about his father than his mother. Both his father and his grandfather were miners. His father was a coal hewer to begin with, moving on to become a colliery repairer below ground. In the early 80’s he was medically retired before the mines were closed down. McGrane is proud of his working lineage even though his relationship with his father was a difficult one. In ‘Social Distancing’ he writes: ‘he’d see but look straight through me. / To him I was something that / my mother should take care of / like cooking and cleaning and the washing up.’ In ‘Your father’s gone to stay with cousin Cyril for a while’ we catch a glimpse of the domestic situation at home:

Bad husband, he was very rarely in,
spending all his time in the pub or the garden
sweet-talking seedlings into flower

but when they’d share a room
ice hung from the ceiling
and every cough or sigh could spark an argument
I’d be out of there as soon as I was old enough to leave.

In ‘Thrift’ McGrane sketches a picture of his mother through the extended metaphor of the sea pink. Like the Royal Mint, who used thrift as an emblem on the threepenny-bit between 1937 and 1953, McGrane plays on the double meaning of the word.

‘Going viral’ is another loaded title in which McGrane explores our recent experience of trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic. Despite all the rules around handwashing, the germs in this poem keep spreading.

Two poems that really caught my attention in terms of wit and originality were ‘Unit 8 / Series 53 has died (and, oh, the difference to me)’ and ‘Search: Mark E Smith’. The former explores the question of whether robots have feelings and the latter the frustrations we have all faced at one stage or another when trying to identify a particular person who happens to have a very common name. (My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Jones so I can sympathise with the dilemma that this imposes when searching through family history).

Other subjects covered in this collection include ‘Dying Words of Patrick Moore’ which hints at the possibility of life on Mars and ‘Press Gang’ which compares and contrasts the fate of two people in different time frames: Brigstock Weaver, forced to loot ships by pirates in the 18th century and the teenager Jaden Moodie who got caught up in low-level crime and was murdered at the tender age of 14 by a rival gang member in East London in 2019.

British People in Hot Weather by Paul McGrane is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

You can find more work by poet and reviewer Neil Leadbeater here on Ink Pantry.

Books from the Pantry: Athletes Who Rock by Motez Bishara reviewed by Kev Milsom

‘During the interviews, I would often return to fundamental questions that explored the rarefied air these people occupy. How does it feel to be unstoppable on the basketball court, baseball field or tennis arena?  And what is it like to be grooving on stage, to a point where you and your audience are travelling together on an unpredictable journey?’ Motez Bishara

As a lifelong devotee of cricket (For American readers who wonder what on Earth cricket is, imagine baseball on Valium), I distinctly recall watching a recent TV programme about the former English batsman, Mark Butcher. Expecting a fascinating hour of listening to Mark enthusing solely about his county and international cricket career, I was amazed as he picked up a guitar and proceeded to both play and sing Dylan’s classic, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ with high, professional expertise. I’m not quite sure if I was more shocked or impressed, but it certainly got me thinking about my own youth, where playing sports and creating music were my two most important goals; along with realising (in hindsight) these were the two moments in life when I became most focused and relaxed. I definitely wish that I had practised a heck of a lot more, so I could have hopefully kept up with Mark Butcher’s considerable skills as both an international batsman and more-than-adept guitarist/singer. Therefore, when I became aware of Motez Bishara’s new book, Athletes Who Rock, I was naturally drawn to the author’s creative concept. 

Across the two hundred and forty-one pages, Motez reveals his long standing fascination for those talented individuals who can excel both within a sporting environment and also achieve musical prowess.

Motez begins the book with an exploration of the psychological ‘flow state’ that strongly occurs within those who play sports and music to the highest levels. The late, Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934 – 2021) identified this flow as, ‘(A state of) being involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost’.

Flicking through each of the chapters, it’s a joy to observe that none of the individuals’ stories lack depth, energy and passion. For example, former professional surfer, Lindsay Perry, had a difficult time growing up; losing her mother and sister in a car accident and an aunt to murder when Lindsay was just eighteen. She says, ‘My therapy was the ocean and surfing…to not think about the things that I had just gone through’. Her career as a surfer went from strength to strength and, for years the sport allowed her to generate a healthy income. However, since the age of fourteen, Lindsay had also immersed herself into learning to play guitar and focusing on creating music. After retiring from surfing and modelling, she focused her considerable energy into music. When asked the inevitable question of ‘which gives the greatest thrill?’ her answer is honest. ‘A high is a high. Your adrenaline is your adrenaline. Now the adrenaline I get is being on stage in front of a full crowd. I can substitute missing out on surfing for that high I get from a crowd’. And what about the determination and drive that it took to be good at both sports and music? Again, her answer is honest. ‘When my mom passed away she was forty and not able to do a lot of things. I want to be the best at anything I can be so that I can create a legacy for her. She didn’t get to see any of those things. I didn’t even know she wanted to be a model. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to fulfil my mom’s dreams and start new ones’

Returning to where we came in, one chapter is devoted to Mark Butcher, whose national and international cricket career spanned from 1992 to 2009. We learn that, like Pat Nevin, music had always been an important foundation in life for Butcher, who received his first guitar at age thirteen. After buying a Jimi Hendrix cassette tape for £1 at a motorway service station. His mind blown by Hendrix, the ex-cricketer vividly recalls watching Queen and Clapton at Live Aid in 1985. Now intent on emulating the sounds he heard, Butcher saved up for a Telecaster knock-off guitar. Recounting a remarkable, yet bittersweet and uproarious, life, Butcher opens his heart to the author and leaves little to the reader’s imagination. A revealing aspect comes when he is asked about the links between both his sporting and musical worlds and what uniquely joins them.

 ‘Rhythm. When I was playing (cricket), if I was in a good place, I would have a song in my head – and that would be the only thing in my head. Because thought is the enemy of being able to play – or at least it was for me. Time and rhythm are both things that apply in equal measures in both pursuits’. Mark Butcher

Inside this book lies a ton of information and it would have been easy for the author, Motez Bishara, to create a lot of factual information that didn’t gel together. However, the author has clearly done his research and, luckily for readers, Motez has considerable skill at conveying the various depths of each athlete/musician into a very readable and fascinating form. Every question asked is designed to open up more information to the reader, allowing valuable personal insights into their lives. In return, it’s clear that all of the athletes/musicians respected the author, allowing a sense of relaxing communication, without holding anything back.

The end result is a fascinating glimpse into the world of both those involved with professional sport and the world of musical creation.

First published by Joyzine.

Books from the Pantry: The Former Boy Wonder by Robert Graham

It’s a rainy August in Manchester and music writer Peter Duffy’s life is falling apart. He’s knocking on fifty, his career is flatlining, his marriage is failing, and his teenage son barely speaks to him. 

And then a friend from university days invites him to a party at the manor house where he met his first love, the dazzling Sanchia Page. All the old gang are going to be there, and although it’s a long shot, maybe she will, too, which wouldn’t be helpful. Or would it? 

Robert Graham writes exclusively for Ink Pantry on the theme of setting in The Former Boy Wonder (Lendal Press):

In The Former Boy Wonder, I set out to use setting to characterise and to create emotional tone.

In the narrative strand that happens when he’s young, Peter Duffy, the novel’s protagonist, meets and falls for another student, Sanchia Page. The allure of the novel depends greatly on my portrayal of her. I wanted her to have a mystique, to be attractive to the readers, bewitching and magical, and aimed to make her a full-blown romantic heroine. Part of the way I characterised her was through setting. Before I introduce her, the setting includes only positive details. As Peter makes his way to the party where they will meet, I mention the pale, warm sun. Autumn mist hangs over the road. Two lanterns mark the bottom of the drive that leads up to Loston Manor, the mansion where the party will take place, and he arrives in the last of the evening sun. The necklaces of coloured bulbs that hang across Loston’s façade have a warm halo which glows in the evening light. Across the façade of the house, “necklaces of red, green and yellow bulbs hung on cables, and the warm halo of each glows in the early evening light”. On the way to his first sight of Sanchia, he walks by “a miasma of colour – red anemones, purple chrysanthemums, pink asters – passing rose beds to come and stand “beneath a fig tree in its sweet, coconut scent”.

Another setting I used to characterise Sanchia was her room in a student house-share. The books on her shelves (The Scarlet Letter, Vanity Fair, Dubliners, Bleak House, black-spined Russian classics, and grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics) and the contents of her desk (more books, sheets of paper filled with writing, notebooks, a pot of pens and pencils) indicate that she is a serious reader and a committed student. Reproductions on postcards of paintings by Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Bonnard, Magritte and Chagall and photographic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Doris Lessing and Mahler add to this, developing his impression that she is more cultured than he. Her record collection, which also sits on the floor, leaning against a wall – like her books, not on shelves, not conventional – includes jazz (Dave Brubeck’s Take Five) and classical (Bach’s Goldberg Variations). No pop, no rock, no rock’n’roll. She isn’t just a literary person, she knows about art, she knows about music. To Peter, her taste is unusual, which is exciting, but also eye-opening. Although he’s an Art student and a reader, she is more well-rounded than he, and, he thinks, much more sophisticated. Exotic, serious, well read, cultured, sophisticated – and all conveyed to the reader through the use of setting.

Settings loom large in The Former Boy Wonder and some of the time I used them to create emotional tone. The love affair between Peter and Sanchia ends in Morecambe and to create the emotional tone I included only negative details of the setting. A few hours before they break up, they eat in a cheap Italian restaurant, and the setting is designed to create a particular emotional tone. Their waiter wears a greying white shirt and a greasy black tie, the cook, an Iron Maiden T-shirt, a skull ring, and boots with chrome studs. I mention the sweating cheese of the pizzas the down at heel waiter sets before them. The emotional tone of this Morecambe chapter doesn’t come from me telling the reader that it’s a bleak, melancholy, miserable place. No. The tone, I hope, is made real for the reader because it is suggested by the specific details and the vocabulary I chose.

For me, setting is almost as important as character or plot, and if The Former Boy Wonder affects readers in any way, I believe that that’s achieved by using the houses, streets, and rooms the cast of the novel live in to characterise them and to create emotional tone.

With special thanks to Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall Press.