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?


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.