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?


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.

Books From The Pantry: My Father’s Face by Chandra Gurung reviewed by Kev Milsom

The way my mother’s countenance glitters
When from a land far-off
I return home

from ‘Mother’ by Chandra Gurung

Chandra Gurung is a poet from the remote village of Gorkha in Nepal who grew up in India, where his father was stationed in the Indian army. 

His childhood was happy, yet he states, ‘the bad things were the geographical distances between my family members, especially with my mother. That made me experience solitude and loneliness as a child, and I was often deprived of many social connections.’ 

As a sensitive and shy boy, he preferred to remain alone; turning to his pen, words and books for comfort. He says, ‘to this day, these early emotions are still some of the strongest urges in my writing.’

With such a background, Chandra writes mainly when he is travelling and alone. He writes, ‘It is not that I write poems about just anything that comes to my mind, but I write only on those topics and themes that are of most interest to me, such as social and political issues and the predicament of human life. These are the subjects of many of my poems, as are the present deficiencies of humanity.’

Many of these subjects are contained within a 2020 publication of 47 of Chandra’s poems entitled ‘My Father’s Face’; written in Nepalese and translated into English by Mahesh Paudyal. 

From his poignant words, it’s clear that Chandra’s love of his native Nepal and the people he has met within his life are of paramount importance to the poet. 

Some, such as ‘Lovely Moon’ can be imagined as written by the poet simply seated and observing the world revolving around him.

The Moon,
Appears atop a hill
And stealthily descends
Slips into the well
Lands on a riverbank
Perhaps, it is looking for its love
Inside the night’s bosom

At other times, Chandra focuses upon his deeper social and political thoughts, as eloquently expressed in the poem, ‘Patriotism’.

He picked
The Sun and the Moon from my sky
And wrapped them in a piece of cloth
Dyed it in my blood
Washed it in my sweat
And said:
This is your national flag

He packed my faith
And my trust into a bundle
And placing the same in front of a statue
This is your national deity
This is your national religion

Reading through the collection of poetry, the main aspect that leaps out towards the reader is the beautiful simplicity and directness of the words that Chandra employs on every line. 

Here is a man of simple truths and thoughts. 

Here writes a poet who observes this material world and seeks enlightenment from everything he senses.

Chandra writes about the world as if he is portraying it through the lens of a camera. Nothing within the book is overly complex, nor does it need to be. Multiple adjectives are not required in order to express the notion of a tree, a landscape or a person. 

This is perfectly expressed within the poem, ‘An Old Lamp Post’.

Beginning simply, we are the observers of a typical street scene, as witnessed through the ‘eyes’ of the lamp post.

An old lamp post
Stands quietly in the corner
And witnesses –
The kids playing on the road
The fatigued porters conversing at the square
The chitchat of the housewives on the adjoining veranda
And the friends meeting at the tea stall’

A scene adeptly expressed, as if we were right there in the street – maybe leaning on the lamp post and simply observing. 

However as the poem nears its end, the energy of Chandra’s words have altered to a more sinister and darker level, following the introduction of some rioters who have pelted the old lamp post with rocks, which now stands alone.

It is unattended like a home abandoned in famine
Like a village devastated by an earthquake
No new bulb has been hung
No new paint has been applied
And my nation stands in the darkness of time
As does this old lamp post

Chandra has the simplistic talent of expressing his soul via language open and available to all; regardless of where they exist within this world. His words are like paint upon an enlightening easel, such as this poem called ‘Land of the Old Boatman’, beginning with a wonderful, descriptive tone and ending with an onomatopoeic flourish.

Dil Bahadur Majhi, an old boatman
Rows his days on the surface of the Narayani
Enjoys in the village of its water
Roves along its aquatic streets
Devoid of colour
Devoid of taste
Devoid of form
Lives a life like that of water

Like in the chest of the old boatman
This country aches in hearts
Countless in number

You may wish to get your own copy of Chandra’s book here.

Books From The Pantry Special Inky Feature: Feverfew by Anna Saunders: interview and review by Claire Faulkner

The last year has been tough for many people. Whilst I have struggled to write, I have been able to take advantage of a lot of online readings and performances. Has the pandemic changed your creativity or the way you access poetry at all?

That is a great question and yes on both accounts! Whilst it was a shock in 2020 to have to cancel our ‘real ‘ festival due to the pandemic, we have literally transformed the way we work and how we offer a feast of poetry to our audiences. We now run Zoom poetry events several times a month – a mixture of workshops, literary lounges, open mics – and our audience, and guest poets are truly international. We have been able to book exciting names such as- American poet Kim Addonizio and Ankh Spice from New Zealand, Rob Kenter from Canada to name just a few. Our audiences are global too. Plus we have been able to offer free creative opportunities to those who are shielding throughout the UK.

I have been busier than ever but have found time to write – I try to spend one day a week on my work or at least a few hours.

I think the pandemic has fuelled my work in some ways, the need to emote, and be creative has been even stronger for me in these times. And that is saying something – as writing is already an addiction!

You have just released your latest collection, Feverfew. What can you tell us about it?

Feverfew is my 6th book, just out with Indigo Dreams and it is very much a book for our times. It explores, ‘all that haunts sleep’ ( from the poem ‘What I learnt From the Owl’)– isolation, a fear for the future of our planet, political corruption and cronyism, plus more personal themes such as desire, heartache, grief. Feverfew has been described as ‘medicine for whatever may ail you’ by Helen Ivory, and in it I offer both the herb of the title, and poetry itself, as an elixir and antidote. It has been described as passionate, vivid, creaturely, and full of magic, and it is celebratory of life whilst recognising that we can suffer challenging and adversities on the world stage and in our own lives.

Myth and legend appear in the collection. What draws you to these stories?

The richness and poetic nature of myth and legend and their deep truths can offer a perfect setting for writers’ themes. I often reinvent these timeless stories to address contemporary concerns – for example in ‘Prometheus Speaks’ – wherein I use the story of the man damned by the gods for stealing fire as a vehicle for a poem about heartache:

In spring, like Prometheus
I stole fire and enflamed my lover’s dark bed.
I carried it – a blazing creature
sprouting wings, gauzy feathers,
twitching as fast as a maniac’s tongue.

I also draw on the myth of Phaeton who drove the sun into the earth, and Icarus, who flew too close to the sun to talk about the aggressive way we treat the planet. This is from the poem ‘Phaethon’s Carriage Burns Up the World’:

Icarus didn’t listen either
wasted the wings his father crafted
and when he hit the sun, the feathered sky wept.

I find our ancient stories fascinating and full of lyricism, and I love working with them – and using them to generate very contemporary epiphanies.

Gloucestershire poet, Anna Saunders. Picture by Clint Randall (Pixel PR Photography)

You’re involved with the Cheltenham Poetry Festival. What can you tell us about it?

I have been running the festival since 2011, which kicked off with a sell-out performance by iconic punk poet John Cooper Clarke at Cheltenham Town Hall. It has since gone from strength to strength with audiences growing rapidly.

In the last ten years we have offered events featuring our greatest living poets, spoken word artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers and film makers.

The festival also offers an extensive outreach for those who suffer economic, physical and other barriers to cultural inclusion.

You can read more about the festival here

What advice would you give to new writers?

I would suggest reading as much as possible, and not just writers you love. We can learn from poets we don’t quite understand, or who are very different to us. Also write daily. I recently attended a workshop with the American writer Carloyn Forche who said even if you can only find 30 mins a day, take that time – it will keep your creative fire burning.

What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations for your readers?

I read a lot of poetry so by the time this is published I may well have other writers to rave about. But currently I would highly recommend the incredible Arrival at Elsewhere (Against the Grain – ed Carl Griffins) – a book length pandemic poem which is really a foray into the psyche in many ways. It explores how the self is coping, adapting during a time of pandemic. I am also loving A Commonplace (Smith Doorstop) by Jonathan Davidson which includes his own beautiful work and, in an act of writerly generosity, he includes other poems by writers he admires, plus Michael Brown’s Where Grown Men Go (Salt)– it’s really haunting and reminds me of Rilke. Impermanence (May Tree Press) by Colin Bancroft is another recent, much relished read – a very finely worked book.

Can you share any information about what you’re currently working on, or working towards?.

I am currently working on what will be my seventh collection – All the Fallen Gold, the title alludes to all that we have lost, but still cherish – perhaps people, places, ways of life. It will be in some ways an elegy, but in others a poetry party celebrating all that we still have. A few unusual people and creatures have reared their heads– Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, Jung, the artist Samuel Palmer, the infamous arsonist Thomas Sweatt, Van Gogh, Sean Penn, a man who murders a puppeteer, Rapunzel (who is struggling with lockdown), AE Houseman, the painter Degas .. my head is a busy house!

Feverfew by Anna Saunders reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I struggled with creativity in 2020. For a few months I didn’t read or write anything. It wasn’t just writers’ block, it was something else. Something more. Like the rest of the world, I was confused, a little bit lost and completely out of sorts. So it’s apt that a poetry collection called Feverfew, written by Anna Saunders, has helped me get back into my stride. Growing up I was taught that feverfew was a useful plant to have in the garden. It’s a cure all. Connected to the moon, with myths and legends of its own, feverfew can help you with almost anything.

Is Saunders trying to heal through verse? ‘Surely these white stars will heal?’, the title poem ‘Feverfew’ asks. The answer from me is yes. Sharing experiences and emotions through poetry can sometimes be as powerful as taking any medication.

As a poetry collection, Feverfew feels relevant. Saunders writes deep. She has a strong and clear voice, and I found this collection more focused than some of her previous work. Part confessional, part story telling but always straight from the heart. The poems feel intensely personal yet invite the reader in to take part in their discovery and ultimately witness their conclusion. I found the verse in Feverfew exceptional. Themes of myth, magic, healing, and new beginnings run through the pages with ease.

It was difficult to choose a favourite poem from Feverfew. I had many marked out.

I found the poems mentioning nature and the environment quite beautiful. I enjoyed reading ‘For so long I have been wanting to write about my mother’s garden’. It gives a sense of time and place. Full of colours and textures, I can picture the foxgloves and goldfinches and recognise the relationship between mother and daughter.

‘What I Learnt from the Owl’ is powerful and exact. Reading it, I wasn’t sure if I was watching the owl, or becoming it:

‘…how to be outcast and avenger / spectre and seraphim, winged god and ghoul / bladed angel dropping from the sky./ What I learnt from the owl…’

‘…how to drop from heights, / heart-shaped face falling to earth/ as if love itself were plummeting’

Saunders makes the reader question everything. Her poetry invites you in and I like this about her work.

Saunders also has a gift of being able to retell myth in a new voice. ‘Leda, by the River’ and ‘Sisyphus in the Psychiatrist’s chair’ are both great examples of this. The poems are thoughtful and clever. I will never tire of reading these kinds of works by her.

I really liked ‘Hades Justifies His Off-Roader’ which could reflect societies’ materialistic greed and the environmental damage caused by it. Saunders makes Hades recognisable, full of energy and traits we have all witnessed in people we may know:

‘Hades drives his huge cart, head held high. / He says he needs this tank / because down there/ the lanes are sticky as treacle.’

‘…Hades defends the emissions which plume / and unfurl like a scribble at the end / of a Death Warrant…’

I enjoyed reading Feverfew. I found it to be a strong collection with a mix of verse which has renewed my love for reading and I can’t wait to read what Anna Saunders writes next.

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

Books From The Pantry: Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis by various authors: reviewed by Kev Milsom

As a teen, I wore a T-shirt quoting Chief Seattle. ‘The Earth is
our mother,’ it said. ‘Man did not weave the web of life; he is
merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to
himself.’ Looking back, I can see how I turned away from the
depth and clarity of that insight. I listened to other stories of
my time – stories so commonplace that I did not even see them
as stories.

Professor Jem Bendell, from his essay, ‘Extinction Rebellion’.

Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis (Harper Collins) is a collection of one hundred essays, written in response to the growing fears of climate change, global warming and concerns about how life for every inhabitant of our beautiful planet Earth may change quickly within future years, unless strong change and transformation is undertaken by the leaders of our world. 

The key elements throughout each essay are awareness, education and genuine concerns for the future of – not just this current generation existing in 2021 – but for generations to come.

Each essay is thoughtfully forged and crafted, with the intention of spreading this awareness to every reader; to open our eyes, hearts and minds to the harrowing dangers which face our world. 

Many of the essays originate from people within the public eye, or those with experienced opinions concerning various aspects of destructive climate change. 

Others are powerful in their simplistic expression, such as Ollie Barnes, aged twelve – someone at an age likely to experience the potential worst elements of climate change throughout his life.

To the people who think that there’s no point in trying, to the
people who think that because we have done this we deserve
to suffer the consequences. There’s no point in giving up! In
the past we have decided to turn away from Mother Nature’s
screams but not today! We will not let the earth we live on be
destroyed so easily, we will try hard to save it from the very
threat we created and see the world for its glory and its beauty.
Don’t be the person who is standing back watching other
people as they do the work.
Join the fight to save our world. If you don’t then everything
that we love about the world will slowly disappear.

Ollie Barnes, from his essay, ‘Everything’.

Other essays within this mind-opening publication originate from very respected, academic sources, such as Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, a German oceanographer and climatologist and also Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Sometimes I have this dream.
I’m going for a hike and discover a remote farmhouse on
Children are calling for help from the upper windows. So I
call the fire brigade. But they don’t come, because some mad
person keeps telling them that it is a false alarm.
The situation is getting more and more desperate, but I
can’t convince the firemen to get going.
I cannot wake up from this nightmare.

Stefan Rahmstorf, from his essay, ‘False Alarm’.

While common expressive tones throughout each of the one hundred, separate voices within this book are strongly focused upon educative awareness, it’s also noticeable that these tones are also capable of expressing understandable elements of frustration and anger beneath the surface of the words employed, such as an essay from award-winning author, Matthew Todd, entitled ‘Sorry’.

What is it they say – ‘Sorry is the hardest word’?
Well, I’m sorry.
I am…
I’m sorry that I put my trust in the media that is more
obsessed with fashion and football, and reality TV, with where
the Dow Jones is, with game shows, with baking, with putting
a positive spin on 71 degree heat in February with a ‘Wow,
what a great opportunity for ice cream sellers’.
I’m sorry that when I first heard about what was happening,
I looked away…I heard someone
say on the radio news, on a Monday morning, that ‘Scientists
are concerned that the world is heating up due to a build-up of
so-called greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of fossil
fuels that may warm the earth to potentially dangerous levels,’
and I thought, That’s scary!
And then they added, ‘But there
is disagreement from other scientists who say, ‘There’s no
need to worry, it won’t happen for hundreds of years and will
most likely benefit the planet and make the UK as warm as the
Costa Del Sol.’

While these expressive, creative tones are naturally concentrated upon the frustrations that so many feel about a lacklustre response from the Earth’s nations, the words that flow from each author are also written to draw us into the full nature of what is being expressed, rather than any attempt to create separation or conflict. The commonly-used phrase (especially from the lips of politicians), ‘we are all in this together’ has perhaps never been more relevant when focusing upon the current world problem of climate change.  

As an observer, I found myself nodding along with every part of this book, because – in the strictest terms of common sense and logical reasoning – it’s just really difficult not to.

These series of enlightening essays are written not only from emotive, caring hearts, but from cognitive, intelligent minds. 

Each essay promotes open thought, and discussion; ultimately leaving the reader with a genuine sense of wondering when the leaders of our gorgeous home planet might do to tackle contemporary issues of climate change, thus addressing the fears of so many from within a global population of over seven billion people; their children, grandchildren and beyond.

They (the young) are our best hope and listening to them always makes
me feel powerful once again. Plugging into that energy will
recharge even the most tired of batteries.
Read this book and pass it on. Hand on your passion for the
planet to the next person and never, ever give in. Convert your
rage to action and your grief to love. I think the planet feels us
as we do this.
Perhaps it will even help us.

Emma Thompson, from the introduction to Letters to the Earth.

Books From The Pantry: A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland-St. John: Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Native American author, concert performer, lyricist, artist and filmmaker, Sharmagne Leland-St. John, is the Editor-in-Chief of the 19-year old literary and cultural arts journal Quill & Parchment and the founder of fogdog poetry in Arlington, WA. Widely anthologised, her recent publications include Contingencies (2008) and La Kalima (2010). She has also edited Cradle Songs: An Anthology of Poems on Motherhood (2012) which won the 2013 International Book Award Honouring Excellence in Mainstream and Independent Publishing.

A raga is a melodic framework for improvisation akin to a melodic mode in Indian classical music. Like scales in Western music, a raga helps to define the mood for a piece of music but it does so in much more detail. Traditionally, each raga came to be associated with a particular emotion, often with a time of day and season. In A Raga for George Harrison, the season is very much autumnal because several of the poems have an elegiac atmosphere about them.

Reading these poems we take a walk through the artistic, cultural and political history of our times. In a general way this is particularly apparent in ‘Hey, It Was the Sixties!’ but in a more specific way it is apparent in the series of poems written in memory of writers, musicians and artists and individuals who were caught up in the fight for social justice. Of the former her subjects include George Harrison, the musician, singer, songwriter, and music and film producer who achieved international fame as the lead guitarist of the Beatles; model and film actress Claudia Jennings; singer-songwriter Janis Joplin; author Virginia Woolf; the poets Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg and the record producer Paul Allen Rothchild. Of the latter, her subjects are the poet activist Garcia Lorca who spoke out against the brutal regime of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco; Hector Pieterson, the South African schoolboy who was shot and killed during the Soweto uprising when police opened fire on students protesting about the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans and Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a Native-American activist who was murdered in 1975.

Delving beneath the surface, many of these poems have connections. Both Janis Joplin and Claudia Jennings struggled valiantly with their addictions and died tragically at a young age. Paul Allen Rothchild produced Janis Joplin’s final album, ‘Pearl’. Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf took their own lives. Hector Pieterson and Anna Mae-Pictou-Aquash were young people who were caught up in the fight for social justice and also died at a tragically young age. For Leland-St. John, there is an emotional connection as well. She knew some of these people personally and all of them, in one way or another, left an impression upon her as they have on us. Collectively, they defined the age in which they lived and died.

Here are the opening lines to ‘Pearl’, Leland-St. John’s eulogy to Janis Joplin:

They came to mourn
They came to cry
They came to wonder
How someone so young
Could ever die

Several of the poems in this collection are enhanced by Leland-St. John’s use of exotic language. In ‘La Kalima’ she writes of ‘silk saris whispering raginis / pitched to sultry winds’ and in ‘Daughter’ of ‘bushel baskets / brimming with love’ and ‘pots of kohl / and pomegranates,/ towers of silk and / lumps of myrrh.’ The collection in itself amounts to a travelogue of exotic places taking in countries as far apart as Switzerland, Japan, India, Egypt and Peru.

Colour comes as no surprise, given Leland-St. John’s deep engagement with ekphrastic poetry and appreciation of art in general. The poems in this collection are dotted with ‘blue fire escapes,’ ‘ochre meadows,’ ‘apricot blossoms,’ and nasturtiums that are ‘the muted colour of Devonshire cream’.

Culinary delights come to the fore in a number of poems as Leland-St. John draws together all the senses into a heady cocktail of delight. In ‘Nasturtiums’ she writes:

I always used to cook with flowers
when my life was simpler
and my thumb greener.
Squash blossoms dipped
in a rich cornmeal batter were a staple
at my dinner table.

Ever since I was a small child I have been attracted by the vivid colours of nasturtium flowers growing in kitchen gardens and have always thought it amazing that beauty as bold as this should thrive so well in poor soil. This is why Leland-St John’s poem ‘Nasturtiums’ has such a special resonance for me. I like the way she describes this ‘Indian cress….with their asymmetrical / celadon leaves’ and how their flowers ‘tantalise, tease / with their piquant promise’.

Time and again, Leland-St. John reminds us of the potency of all the senses in evoking memory and uses this to great effect as the starting point for several of her poems.

Variety is key to this collection. In addition to the eulogies that open this volume, Leland St-John writes lyrically on subjects such as love and loss, and also with considerable humour in the sensually charged ‘I Said Coffee’ and ‘Things I’ll Do Now That He’s Gone’ which is a poem that finds strength out of heartbreak for a lost love through the medium of humour:

I’ll have an affair with Bob Dylan
I’ll lose 10 more pounds
and become famous for something truly inane
It could happen you know

Reading these poems has made me very conscious of the way in which Leland-St. John captures the emotional mood of each piece early on and proceeds to build upon it in the body of her text. This is particularly apparent in ‘There Were Dry Red Days,’ ‘Daughter’ and ‘Michael,’ a poem written for the producer Michael Butler who brought ‘Hair’ from the Shakespeare Free Theatre to Broadway. Lost love is recalled in ‘All He’s Left Me’ and the poignant poem ‘Tiny Warrior’ speaks of the loss of her infant son, Nikolai, ‘Who never saw the spring’. Later in the book, spring returns in ‘Apple Blossoms’ where Leland St-John evokes a wonderful sense of innocence conveyed through the employment of short lines and a simple rhyme scheme.

Part of the appeal of these accessible poems is that they come straight from the heart with an emotional pull that is strong enough to engage the reader without being mawkish or in the least bit sentimental. The conversational tone makes for a dialogue that is both compassionate and compelling. It is also very positive in its affirmation of life: ‘World I love you! Life I love you!’

Sharmagne Leland-St. John: A Raga for George Harrison, (Allahabad, India), Thompson Press India Limited. 2020. Available via Amazon.

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

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: Fear Manifesto by Claire Bassi with Photography by Avarni

Claire Bassi’s Fear Manifesto is a lockdown project that she did with her daughter Avarni. Claire’s flash fiction and Avarni’s photography are the perfect combination. The themes are hauntology and memoir.

Snippets of Claire’s first book, Park Symposium, is also available from Amazon.

Check out more of Claire’s work here on Ink Pantry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily’s author page at Myriad books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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