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.

Books from the Pantry: The Mask by Elisabeth Horan reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I think I was in an art lesson at school the first time I saw the work of Frida Kahlo. I’m not quite sure how old I was, but I remember the impact it had on me. I was intrigued and completely spell bound. I remember how the colours stood out, but also how they seemed to weave together to tell a story.

The Two Frida’s is an artwork which has stayed in my memory bank for years. That was until I read The Mask by Elisabeth Horan, and the image came flooding back to me. The Mask is the second collection of ekphrastic poetry by Horan in response to the artwork of Frida Kahlo.

What interests me the most about ekphrastic poetry is connection. How the reader connects with poetry through art, and how poetry can provide the reader with a different interpretation of the original work. Ekphrastic poetry also raises questions about the relationship between the reader and writer, and I was interested in whether my reactions or interpretations would be the same as Horan.

The Mask provides a mix of emotions, and Horan’s work has a touch of raw honesty and openness to it. Sometimes difficult to read, but worth the effort. The words, much like Kahlo’s colours, are intense, sometimes fierce, but each one adds value and strength to the story of both women.

There were a number of poems in this collection which stood out for me. Of course, The Two Frida’s, an inner struggle about duality with themes of desire and attraction, of who you are underneath, and who you want to be on the surface.

In Con Mi Cama (Ella y Yo), Horan describes the inter dependence and relationship between a cripple and her bed, with a dream like quality.

‘I know you are only a bed, amora / And I, but a cripple…/That’s what we have together~~~/

To touch and to love each other / Not to turn away / As the other burns.’

Nectar of the Gods and a Woman’s Throat is based on the self portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. A painting full of symbols and meaning. For me Horan’s words emphasise not just the pain Kahlo is presenting, but also strength and resilience of a woman searching for love and security.

The Mask, Vol 2 was perhaps the most impactful poem in this collection for me, and I feel this highlights Horan’s skill as a writer. Shocking the reader with the opening ‘I want the voices / to cease / shushing me’. The words reflect the darkness and uneasiness of the painting which inspired it.

Female strength and resilience feature heavily in this collection, but if you’re a fan of Kahlo, and are familiar with her work, I think you’ll enjoy reading this. Horan says the poems are a celebration and tribute to Kahlo, and I think this collection is a remarkable group of poems influenced by Kahlo’s art. The Mask by Elisabeth Horan is published by The Broken Spine.

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

Books From the Pantry: Pearl Blades and Painted Silks: The Language of Fans by Worcester Poet Laureate Leena Batchelor reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Prior to writing this review I was listening to a recording of Elgar’s ballet ‘The Sanguine Fan’. Written in 1917 for the benefit of wartime charities, the name derives from the fact that the theme of the piece was inspired by a scene depicting Pan and Echo that a local artist had drawn in sanguine on a fan. There are three things in common between this ‘coincidence’ and the book I am reviewing here: the connection with Worcester, the birth of an artistic creation inspired through the medium of a fan and the fact that the proceeds were to go to a wartime charity.

Leena Batchelor is a Worcester-based poet and spoken word artist, Worcestershire Poet Laureate 2020-21 and Poet-in-Residence for The Commandery, a museum dedicated to the Civil Wars. She is the author of three previous solo collections and uses poetry as a medium to raise funds for various charities, including mental health and the armed forces.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is far more than a collection of poetry. Batchelor, who has a particular interest in fans, has researched her topic assiduously. This has involved visiting specialist museums, consulting the Guild of Fan Makers and reading widely around her subject. The result is a fascinating combination of factual history and inspired poetry which is complemented by many beautifully reproduced colour photographs of fans and a useful glossary of fan types.

The collection begins with this quote from Madam de Staël (1766-1817):

“What grace does not a fan place at a woman’s disposal if she only knows how to use it properly! It waves, it flutters, it closes, it expands, it is raised or lowered according to circumstances. Oh! I will wager that in all the paraphernalia of the loveliest and best-dressed women in the world, there is no ornament with which she can produce so great an effect.”

In this collection, Batchelor is quick to point out that throughout history fans have not only been used as a means to send signals, express preferences or emotions, but also as liturgical objects for the depiction of hand-painted biblical allegories, as modesty screens used by both sexes in Roman baths, and as a feature found in heraldry. More surprisingly, they have also been incorporated into a form of T’ai Chi, been utilised for the setting down of a secret language called Nushu which was known only to women and as accessories that determined one’s rank in a French court.

The collection is divided into two parts; the first presents fans across ages and continents which is interspersed with some of Batchelor’s personal memories of dressing up amid her grandmother’s collection of fans, silk Chinese dresses and lace Victorian outfits, and the second presents the stories of the 1860s lady from debutante to dowager through the language of her fans.

The Chinese and Japanese were among the first innovators of fan use and the most common fan in early China was the screen fan used by modest girls when out in society. Batchelor reflects upon this in her poem ‘By Parchment Veiled’:

I wish to hide,
My visage is not one for you to look upon,
I am not free.
I offer you a painted scene,
For maiden modesty,
An embroidered reflection of my story –
The fishing heron awaiting its catch,
Beautiful ribbons of water beneath webbed feet.

I wish to hide,
My visage is one for you to wait upon.

The image of the heron makes it clear that a fan in a woman’s hand was not exactly a passive accessory.

In ‘Allegorical’ Batchelor’s lines bring together both God and Mammon:

According to the scripture, parables in pearl, painted upon
sheaves of vellum, holy writ was learned.
According to the market place, parables of games, printed en
masse for the mass of material gain.
Crying of churches losing ground, how to spread the word?
Crying of factories, how much have they earned?

I could not help but notice the judicious placing of this poem between ‘A Pauper’s Offering’ and ‘Dancer’ which inhabit two extreme ends of the spectrum between material poverty on the one hand, and riches on the other.

Flirtatious uses of the fan are summed up succinctly in ‘Elocution and Flirtation’:

The lover becomes a reed in the hands of the one who uses her fan with skill,
Pliable and playing her tune,
But only when playing society’s rules.

In the second part of the book, which is set in the second half of the 19th century, Batchelor’s “1860s lady” experiences her debutante ball in a poem entitled ‘White Rain’:

The start of the ball, my debutante night, presented to the queen in state.
Spied from the stairs, the ladies of the dance trilling, bidding
their wares for a dance’s calling card.
Showers of pearl and lace float upon clouds of tulle, debutante
and dandy guess at meaning,
hesitation and trepidation in society’s marriage market hall.
The wary captured in pearled starlight as a confetti of fans
shower hope and fear across the dance floor.

Far from the innocence suggested by the word ‘white’ in the title, this astute lady seems to be well enough aware of what is going on around her even though she knows she would be experiencing butterflies ‘if it weren’t for the stomacher laced tight.’

Stylistically, the 29 poems / prose poems that make up this collection display as much variety as the fans themselves. One of them incorporates visual elements while others make occasional use of internal or end rhymes and most of them make use of very varied line lengths.

Whether writing about Samurai warriors, a cabaret at the Moulin Rouge, or a Victorian drawing room, Batchelor’s wide-ranging take on the subject is sure to impress fan collectors, poetry lovers and those with an interest in the history of costume accessories everywhere.

Pearl Blades and Painted Silks: The Language of Fans by Leena Batchelor is available from Black Pear Press.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

You can find more of Neil Leadbeater’s reviews, interviews, and his own poetry here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: Tiny Universes by Zach Murphy reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I’ve always been intrigued by flash fiction. Short, micro pieces of writing which cleverly tell impactful stories often leaving you thinking about a bigger picture. Tiny Universes by Zach Murphy (published by Selcouth Station) does exactly this. It’s a wonderful collection, the style is poetic, the language beautiful yet direct. This collection definitely leaves the reader wanting more. Each story, as the title suggests, gives the reader a glimpse into a different life or world.

I get the impression that Murphy takes notice of everything, and inspiration must come from almost everything he encounters in his daily life. One of the joys about a varied collection like this is that every time you read it something different will jump out at you or make you think about something in a way you may not have considered before.

There were a number of pieces in this collection which jumped out at me, and looking back they all seem to encompass a strong sense of place or incident, with themes of hope and survival running through.

The collection opens with ‘Before My Very Brown Eyes’, a piece about identity and self-acceptance. It’s a positive piece, which left me encouraged to read more.

‘A Fair Amount of Ghosts’ is beautifully atmospheric and full of soul. I couldn’t decide if Murphy was telling us a ghost story or recalling memories. Either way, it conjured up a vivid picture in my mind. The description of the house and the lines, It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in, tells you all you need to know.

Demonstrating how impactful flash fiction can be, in just 29 words, ‘Ceilings’ left me with more questions than answers. A clever piece of writing.

I think my favourite piece in the collection is ‘The Garden’, told from the viewpoint you don’t often hear. It may be a short piece of writing, but it tells us such a bigger and important story. A bee in distress feeling the impact of environment change. Truly powerful.

I’m new to reading flash fiction. Murphy’s work is often micro short and punchy, others like ‘In Rotation’, are a bit longer. Each one made me think. Each one has it’s own story, and I liked that. Some I wanted more of. Some left me with questions, but maybe that’s the point.

My book cases are filled with poetry collections and novels. After reading Tiny Universes I would definitely consider making room on the shelves for flash fiction. I recommend you start your flash fiction journey with Tiny Universes by Zach Murphy.

Books From The Pantry: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock reviewed by Kev Milsom

Ink Pantry Editor: ‘Hey, I have a new book here that focuses upon female voices and…’

Me: ‘Hmmmm, I’m not sure that’s quite me. Who wrote it?’

Ed: Emily Bullock.

Me: ‘OMG, send it over, tout de suite!!!’

I’ve been so very fortunate to review Emily’s first two novels (The Longest Fight – 2015 – and Inside the Beautiful Inside – 2020 -) for Ink Pantry and both have astounded me with their elite levels of literary va-va voom. Yes, okay…I’m sure that Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster would find more suitable flowing vocabulary, but when it comes to the writing of Emily Bullock I’ll gladly stick with va-va voom. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of encountering Emily’s novels then I would urge you to seek them out and you’ll understand.

So, what’s the new book about? Well, Human Terrain is a collection of short stories that focus upon the lives and energies of various female individuals, allowing us to observe a small part of their life story, especially when it pertains to emotional bonds of love and loss. In total, we have twenty mini biographies, some lasting less than a page or two, while others stretch deeper and cover a lot of ground. Within this book we meet women who demonstrate strength of character, such as someone known only as ‘Pig Lady’; a woman who delivers food to a chip shop. At other times, the stories are all shades of sad, illuminating, poignant and powerful, such as ‘Back Issues’, where the main character is male and his wife, Barbara, is mentioned only in name, yet the loss of her influence within his life becomes a dominant factor as he slips helplessly into dementia.

Every snapshot within this amazing book is written with a perfect balance of tone, colour and detail, as if Emily is slowly composing an oil painting in deep layers, based on scattered pencil drawing plans and sketches, before the paintbrush even dares to touch the canvas. The characters range in age, from teenagers playing hooky from a London school trip to buy weed in Hyde Park, to Ivy, an elderly widow reflecting back upon her life as it draws to a close. From the opening sentence of Ivy’s tale, we are immediately gripped by her dilemma and can begin to easily visualise the elderly lady and her surroundings.

‘Ivy, who was now two years a widow, lay alone in bed. She gripped the front of her nightshirt; her skin thin and creased as the cotton. Maybe this would be the day. She’d waited long enough’.

Covering such a wide range of human emotions across twenty snapshot glimpses into people’s lives comes with obvious risks. How easy it would be to fall heavily into emotional torment and harrowing tales. Alternatively, to build too many bricks of humour into a fragile, emotional wall of observation, as we look on from a distance. Thankfully, Emily’s writing skills are blissfully adept and it’s clear that her understanding of human behaviour is likely forged from countless hours of similar observations. Yes, some of the tales are sad/poignant, yet at no point do they ever fail to reflect the grey shades of real life. Sometimes, there is no Hollywood, Walt Disney ending, accompanied by Dick Van Dyke in a blazer and singing/dancing penguins. Sometimes, life just plays out its scenarios and we have little choice but to play along with it. How we react, or adapt, is the key. Sure, many of Emily’s carefully constructed characters have lives and issues that we would choose not to adopt. Not one of them ever comes remotely close to being two-dimensional or dull. Spread over twenty separate stories, that’s quite a literary feat in itself. 

From the book’s outset, we know we’re in for a journey, as we take a cursory peek into the life of two women; a daughter who boxes for a living, and her mother who is there for her in between rounds of fights, to patch up her daughter’s wounds.

‘My job is to stop the blood, cool her off, wash her down. Who knows her better than her mum? I rub the yellow carwash sponge across her head, smooth my fingers over the braids, sweeping away water with the back of my hand’.  

Powerful writing, yet beautifully balanced and honed, like a knight’s favourite longsword, this is an outstanding book and well worth reading from cover to cover. One is eagerly awaiting Emily’s fourth novel.

Books From The Pantry: Marples Must Go! by Greg Freeman reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Greg Freeman is a former newspaper sub-editor, and now, news and reviews editor for the poetry website Write Out Loud. He co-comperes a monthly poetry open-mic night in Woking with Rodney Wood, and his debut poetry pamphlet Trainspotters was published by Indigo Dreams Press in 2015. Marples Must Go! is his first full-length collection.

The writing is on the wall. MARPLES MUST GO! So who was Marples before he was consigned to history? Being of the same era as Freeman, I remember the name well but, for the sake of the younger generation, I will add that Ernest Marples was a British Conservative politician who served as Postmaster General and then Minister of Transport in the late 50s and early 60s. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, but he was responsible for many things that we now take for granted such as the introduction of Premium Bonds, postcodes, the opening of the M1 motorway and the appointment of Richard Beeching whose drastic cuts abandoned more than 4,000 miles of railway track. Details of his later life were colourful resulting in him fleeing to Monaco at very short notice to avoid prosecution for tax fraud. Freeman delivers Marples’ life story in five stanzas touching upon every detail. Apart from anything else, it is a model of precision, honed no doubt after years spent in a career in journalism.

In this generous collection of 60 poems, Freeman draws inspiration from politics, popular culture, football and family. The earlier part of his collection is primarily about growing up in the post-war era and the swinging sixties. There are poems about iconic TV programmes such as Space Patrol and Juke Box Jury; popstars such as Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Chuck Berry and the Dave Clark Five and one about an influential, if somewhat unconventional, teacher whose readings from the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse gave Freeman his first introduction to the world of poetry.

Freeman has a journalist’s eye for detail. He knows instinctively what makes for a good story. Out of all the stories recast as poems, the title poem must be at the top of the list. Other ‘scoops’ include an account of Margaret Thatcher’s visit to a girl’s school in Leamington Spa which sparked a large student demonstration (Dust-Up in Leamington) and the discovery of a huge cannabis farm on disused private land near Berrylands station (Berrylands). Freeman’s description of the station which I used to pass through on my daily commute into and out of London is spot on:

An apology for a station
on the way to Hampton Court,
the place where the fast
slowed down for Surbiton.
It overlooked a sewage farm
we’d cycle past, a short cut.
Lower Marsh Lane
more or less summed it up.

This extract is a good example of how Freeman condenses his words to their essence, omitting anything that is unnecessary while getting to the heart of the subject.

His years spent in newspaper journalism are celebrated in poems such as ‘The Overmatter’, ‘Classifieds’ and ‘The Local Rag’ where the ageing aroma of old newspapers brings to mind:

Crashing typewriters bashing
out wedding details, film previews,
match reports. Telephones
shrill with complaints, demands,
rare tip-offs.

In ‘Goodbye Farringdon Road’ Freeman records the historic moment when the Guardian newspaper relocated its London offices from Clerkenwell to King’s Cross and refocused its priorities from print to the internet. There is a telling line in the final stanza:

Print’s long goodbye, but at what cost?

A series of poems on the subject of football betray more than a passing interest in the sport. In one of them, (The Battle of Hastings as Summarised by Roy Keane), Freeman deftly combines his love of football with history. This is something he is particularly good at. Other poems that simultaneously work on more than one level include ‘Fine and Dandy’ which is an interesting cocktail of comic characters, politicians and history, ‘Clacton’, a clever fusion of pop song titles, film titles, place-names, politicians and Brexit, and ‘Return of the Daleks’ which uses a TV series as a hook on which to hang a poem about Brexit. In a further poem on the theme of Brexit, Freeman reminds us how times have changed with these telling lines:

Back then you couldn’t speak your mind;
now you can shout it out loud.

Freeman admits that he is very much a poet of place and this is reflected in his poetry, whether he is writing about places in his native Surrey or places further afield such as Marbella, Barcelona, the Stockholm Archipelago, the Loire Valley or Bruges. These references help to ground the poems, establishing a backdrop to the stories that he unfolds.

Towards the end of the book, there is a sequence of poems about four bronze statues in Woking town centre by Woking-born sculptor Sean Henry. These poems represent a series of back-stories for the figures, as Freeman saw them. These four statues are ‘Woman (Being Looked At)’ at the entrance to the Peacocks shopping centre, ‘Standing Man’ in Jubilee Square, ‘The Wanderer’ outside Woking railway station and ‘Seated Man’ inside the station on a seat on platform one. Freeman’s tribute to these works has received a nod of approval from the sculptor who told him he had accurately captured some of the thoughts that went into the works as well as bringing in ideas of his own which he felt were somehow right. These verbal descriptions of a visual work of art represent a new exciting departure for Freeman.

Poems closer to the present moment bear references to the pandemic (there is one about clapping for the NHS), Nigel Farage scanning the channel for migrants, the anniversary of V.E. Day and a retrospective on the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.

These engaging poems are more than one man’s memory of significant moments in his life. They are my memories too and they will resonate with many other readers. They are the kind of poems that work well in performance as well as on the printed page. The collection captures with wit and compassion ‘our time’. Fully recommended.

Marples Must Go! by Greg Freeman is published by Dempsey & Windle (2021).

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

Books From The Pantry: We Could Not See The Stars by Elizabeth Wong: Reviewed by Yang Ming

The tracing of one’s ancestry has gained some form of public interest in recent times. People go to great lengths to find out their ancestry by doing DNA tests such as 23nme or trawling through history records. The quest to seek out our ancestry, and even all the way back, clearly shows us our innate desire to discover our sense of belonging in human civilisation. So reading We Could Not See The Stars, (published by John Murray Press/Hachette UK), a debut novel by London based author, Elizabeth Wong, feels timely.

Set in fictitious Malaysia, the story opens with Han, a young man who goes on a fishing expedition with his supercilious and arrogant cousin, Chong Meng, in their sleepy fishing village, Kampung Seng. They seem to run out of luck under the sweltering heat as ‘the salty sea heat stuck to the pores of their skin.’ One day, Han encounters a mysterious man by the name of Mr Ng who arrives at the village, asking about his deceased mother, Swee. Why is he looking for his mother all of a sudden? The thing is, Han barely knows his mother since she died when he was five years old. Han’s grandmother describes her as one who doesn’t speak of her past, ‘as if she was not fully present in the net. As if her thread was a stray one, woven loosely with the other lines, threatening to unravel as life tugged on it.’ Mr Ng’s appearance unsettles Han. But Chong Meng is impressed by this man’s stories of his travels and the tales of his golden tower. Han’s life changes when his mother’s spade – the only thing that is left of her – goes missing. Han thinks Mr Ng has something to do with the disappearance, and sets out on a quest to retrieve his most precious possession. It is later at the Capital that Han finds out, on a faraway island, across the Peninsula, and across the sea, the forest of Suriyang is cursed.

Those who wander in and return will lose their memories. An expert in Naga Tua island, Professor Toh believes the forest is hiding something that does not wish to be discovered. Is there something sinister lurking in the forest that is causing people to lose their memories? Will Han ever find out who his mother is?

The novel is a blend of speculative fiction and human drama. It is split into 8 parts with each detailing the characters’ perspectives and their connection with the enigmatic forest of Suriyang. Wong skilfully crafts her narrative by setting up pivotal plot points in each chapter, and it grips you as the story unfolds. Right from the start, we are introduced to a host of characters – each with various motivations. The problem with writing this sort of ensemble is that writers often fail to accomplish what the characters set out to do. But in this case, Wong manages to pull all the threads together towards the end of the story as the characters’ lives collide with each other.

Wong is also a keen observer. Her on-the-ground research at a fishing village in Malaysia certainly pays off. Her lucid prose exudes authenticity and playfulness. It’s also filled with intricate details about the Hei-Sans archipelago of nine hundred islands, and the people who inhabit these islands. When Han travels on a train to Hei-Sans archipelago, she whisks us away to Western Range, a new mountain that is ‘hardened to become the spine of the Peninsula’. She further describes the structure of the mountain, ‘as the spine was being pulled apart by tectonic forces, some cracks, like the Spirited Pass, had grown until there was more crack than rock, and together they had formed a continuous, thin crack splitting the Western Range along its entire width.’ Her attention to such details stems from her training as a geologist.

Ultimately, We Could Not See The Stars is a profound meditation on continuity, identity and belonging. What happens when we do not know the people who have gone before us? What does that make us? Swee poignantly finds out:

Their full names were inscribed on the walls of the docks, a reminder of the people who had passed through the place. These were home-world names – names that existed only in song, and sung the history of their families and clans. How else would a person know their place in the broad sweep of time? If one did not have a home-world name, no one would know who they were, nor their forefathers, nor ancestral homes. A person was nothing without their home-world name, a speck written out of history.’

Despite the multiple storylines, the novel celebrates a mother’s sacrificial love and the longing to leave behind what’s important for the next generation. That’s powerful, yet at the same time, makes us question our existence in human civilisation.

We Could Not See The Stars is published by John Murray (Hachette UK). The novel is now available in major bookstores, including Waterstones, Amazon UK, Booktopia Australia and Book Depository.

Books From The Pantry: Bleb by Sanjeev Sethi

Congratulations to Sanjeev Sethi. His new collection of ‘wee poetry’, Bleb, has been published by Hybriddreich from Scotland. Here is a glimpse into his new work..

Memento Mori

Campestral locales furnish
the song and dance routine
with a context. Ill-lighted
rooms caution me of you.
When their consciousness
darkles, I am snug as a bug.
Why does sadness complect
my cheeriness? Is alertness
a curse?

Imponderables

The happy wear no brassard, nor those
with the black dog baying at them. In-
ternalized emotions blaze inexperienced
deliveries. During the phase, it’s advisable
to be wary of moonshine. It hikes the fit.
Falsity obscured in papyrus will singe in
its conflagration. Every deletion has its
erasure dust. Weightlessness is illusory:
guilt is the grief.

Books From The Pantry: Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths by Maisie Chan reviewed by Yang Ming

For years, the East Asians have been ranked among the top in the International Maths Olympiad. It is no wonder that this continuing success eventually leads many to assume that East Asians are good at maths. Well, although there is some truth in that stereotypical statement, it is still not entirely true. There are many prolific East Asian artists who have found success in their artistic and literary pursuits. As much as most traditional East Asian parents believe that arts enrich a child’s well-being, it is not a lucrative profession. But what if there is a positive correlation between arts and maths? That’s what British East Asian author Maisie Chan wants to explore in her latest children novel, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths.

Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is a delightful read. It’s funny, well-paced and heart-warming. The author invites us into the world of Danny Chung, a precocious eleven-year-old boy who loves drawing more than anything else. He would even hide under the duvet to draw his comic strips that document his daily life. His parents run a Chinese takeaway, Lucky Dragon, which is located in ‘one of Birmingham’s remote suburbs’, Longdale High Street. The only problem is, Danny hates maths and he has a maths project to complete at the end of his Easter holidays (yikes!). He is in for a surprise when his parents clean his bedroom one Saturday morning to make room for a bunk bed. Thinking he can finally invite his best friend and comic wingman, Ravi, for a sleepover, Danny happily makes plans for it. But his excitement dissipates when his surprise turns out to be a little, wrinkly, ex-maths champion grandmother from China. Nai Nai can’t speak a word of English. To Danny, she sounds like a ‘mixture between a baby singing and a frog’. Just when things can’t get any worse, Danny is tasked to look after her during the holidays while his parents are busy tending their takeaway shop.

Hilarity ensues when Nai Nai embarrasses Danny at a local grocer with her seed spitting antics and her surprise appearance at Danny’s school with her delicious braised chicken feet. Soon, he realises that both of them have more in common than he thought.

Throughout the novel, we are also introduced to the other Chinese family, the Yees, who live within five miles of each other. Clarissa Yee, also known as Auntie Yee to Danny, is the epitome of an Asian tiger mum. She sends her daughter, Amelia Yee, to a private school, various enrichment classes, and elevates her prized daughter on the pedestal. And Amelia doesn’t disappoint. She is a model Chinese high achiever who excels in both her studies and music. But beneath this intelligent and obedient façade lies a rebellious streak that is waiting to break free from her mother’s iron fist. Adrian Yee, also known as Uncle Yee, is an avuncular figure that Danny can relate to.

Illustrator Anh Cao does a wonderful job with Danny’s comic strips, which fits perfectly into the narrative. Likewise, there are many light-hearted moments to savour. One of them is the unlikely friendship forged between Mrs Cruikshanks and Nai Nai, and their bingo adventures. Despite not knowing each other’s native languages, their shared love for bingo is one that transcends all language barriers and often had me in stitches.

Essentially, the themes of love, hope, intergenerational relationships and friendships are universal. This is exactly what we need during this precarious time. Chan develops her characters well with each of them having a strong distinctive voice. Nai Nai is such an endearing character that I eventually fell in love with at the end of the story.

But ultimately, what Chan does really well in this novel is her inclusion of the Chinese culture. When Danny’s parents remind their son about respecting his elders and looking after them, it highlights how much first generation Chinese immigrant parents have a need to reinforce these Asian values, for fear that their second generation British-East Asian children might forget about them. Likewise, when Clarissa and Danny’s mother compare their children’s academic achievements and extra-curriculum activities, it is a common sight, which most East Asian children experience during growing up. Such one-upmanship and boasting only illustrates the inferiority of one’s parenting style and the need to save face.

I believe Chan hopes to debunk the stereotypical statement that East Asians are good at maths, but instead, see each child as an individual – one who is special in their unique way, and skills. Despite being a children’s book, it surprisingly rekindles my memories of growing up in a Chinese family and helps me to reconnect with my heritage. Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is one of those children’s books that will make you laugh, cry, and tug your heartstrings.

Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is now available at Waterstones, The Rocketship Bookshop, Amazon UK and Book Depository.