Book Review: The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik

Book - The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie MunnikThis is a quiet, beautiful novel which stretches across time, rooted, to begin with, in an open, wild Scottish landscape on the North East coast. It follows the lives of three women. First there is Jane, newly married and learning to survive small-town life alone, with her husband away, fighting in the Second World War. She seeks refuge in walks along the shore, but is unable to escape the harsh brutality of war, or to defend herself against the local gossips, forced to do everything she can to protect the man she loves.    Continue reading

Hay festival 2019 – The Novels That Shaped Our World

BBC Novels that shaped our world

Hay Festival event, photo by Chris Athanasiou

Last week at the Hay Festival I attended the BBC launch event of their new project – Novels That Shaped Our World. It marks the 300th anniversary of the English language novel, and involves a panel of six people (Mariella Frostrup, Zawe Ashton, Syima Aslam, Kit de Waal, Stig Abell and Alexander McCall Smith) selecting 100 novels for this impressive list. I thought this meant selecting novels that have shaped the world, but at the event, they made it clear that it is much more personal than that, and the idea is to spark discussion and debate…

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Book Review: On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell

On Poetry - a book by Glyn MaxwellOn Poetry is not just another book about poetry, it’s in a whole category of its own. It’s short, and concise, but also full of irony, subtlety and humour. It has a simple structure and purpose, to break poetry down to its basic elements and encourage you to pick them up for yourself, beginning with ‘white’ – a chapter which considers the essential element of white space on the page – the one thing that, Maxwell argues, divides poetry from prose. After reading this chapter, I had to put the book down to process it for a while, and then I read the whole chapter again. It’s that kind of book.   Continue reading

Poems from Cardiff, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and The Borders

Poetry from Cardiff, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and The Borders

These four slim poetry anthologies are beautifully produced, each containing a selection of poems centred around a specific area of Wales, collated by Seren’s editor, Amy Wack. Many poems are taken from recent collections, but there are also several new poems, and each pamphlet has a distinct feel to it. To begin with, in Poems from Pembrokeshire there is a sense of time standing still in a landscape rooted to the past.

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Poetry Review: Sincerity by Carol Ann Duffy

Poetry Collection - Sincerity by Carol Ann DuffySincerity is Carol Ann Duffy’s final collection as Poet Laureate, and it is extremely varied, flitting between the personal and the political, with very little to hold the poems together except this notion of ‘sincerity’. It is full of poems which are honest and sincere, whether recounting private experience or teasing out the unwanted truths of political events, playing against the idea of ‘fake news’ and revealing the reality beneath the gloss.   Continue reading

Book Review: Dignity by Alys Conran

Book - Dignity by Alys ConranI was mesmerised by Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon, and her second novel, Dignity, is no less stunning. It follows the stories of three women – Magda, Evelyn, and Susheela – travelling across time and continents, from North Wales to India, as their lives begin to unravel in all sorts of ways, anchored always to thoughts of Home. This is a novel which does not shy away from portraying the conflict and hypocrisy of Britain’s colonial past.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: The Healing Next Time by Roy McFarlane

Poetry Collection by Roy McFarlane - The Healing Next TimeLast year I read Claudia Rankine’s powerful collection Citizen: An American Lyric, which tackles the thorny issue of racism in modern America. Roy McFarlane has produced a UK equivalent in his second collection The Healing Next Time, which begins with a narrative sequence covering the years 1999 to 2006, interrogating what it means to live as a black man in Britain, merging the personal and the public in an exploration of family, politics, love and hate.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: Us by Zaffar Kunial

Poetry - Us by Zaffar KunialI heard Zaffar Kunial read his World War One poem ‘Poppy’ on Radio 4 as part of the centenary commemorations last year. It includes a haunting refrain ‘no, this is not enough’ repeated throughout, until, in the end, this phrase becomes the poem itself, a powerful acknowledgement that nothing we can write or say will ever capture the horror of war. This focus on the power of language, contrasted with a sense of inadequacy or uncertainty, runs throughout Kunial’s debut collection, Us.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Faerie Tree by Jane Cable

The Faerie Tree by Jane CableThe Faerie Tree is a deceptive novel. The cover made me think of witches and spirits, but the blurb caught my interest and, in reality, it turned out to be mysterious in a far more disturbing way than I could have imagined, playing, not with spirits, but with memory, so that even as a reader you’re not quite sure what’s going on. The novel begins with an encounter in 2006, as Izzie spots a homeless man who looks somewhat familiar, and the past slowly begins to unravel.    Continue reading

Poetry Review: Cyclone by Robert Peake

Cyclone - poetry collection by Robert PeakePoetry has always drawn analogies between human emotion and the weather. Cyclone by Robert Peake creates a storm of words that circle around the unabating grief of a father for his lost child. The collection begins with subtle hints that all is not well, even within nature itself. ‘The Man with the Kindest Face’ begins a series of poems interspersed throughout the collection which suggest an attempt at human connection that, somehow, never quite works. This man appears to be a shadow of something good just beyond reach, haunting the poet’s world: “He might not have a face at all / or change it like a set of masks”.   Continue reading

Book Review: Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Book - Paris Echo by Sebastian FaulksParis Echo, the latest novel by Sebastian Faulks, explores our complex relationship with history, glimpsed through the lives of two very different characters in modern-day Paris. Hannah and Tariq end up in Paris for different reasons, but they are both searching for something, and they are both haunted by the ghosts of the past. We see the city through the eyes of two outsiders, with all its quirks and contradictions.    Continue reading

Book Review: SNAP by Belinda Bauer

Book - Snap by Belinda BauerA Guest Review by Mary Le Bon

SNAP is a haunting but very satisfying crime novel. I found it hard to put down, despite the fact that I didn’t allow myself to read it at bedtime. It is the story of three young children, left in a car on the hard shoulder while their pregnant mother goes to phone for help, and what happens when she doesn’t return. She leaves her eleven-year-old son (Jack) in charge, and he takes this responsibility so seriously that he is still in charge three years later, struggling to provide food for his younger siblings and trying to keep the house looking neat and tidy on the outside so that no one will guess the chaos within.    Continue reading

Book Review: Arcadia by Iain Pears

Book: Arcadia by Iain PearsArcadia is full of stories overlapping stories until you don’t quite know which story is real. It begins with Anterworld, a fictional universe imagined into being by Professor Lytten, an old friend of the late Tolkein. It soon transpires, however, that there is much more going on than the telling of a story. Anterworld is a very simple world in which the storyteller is revered and celebrated, where knowledge is precious and everything refers back to ‘The Story’ – a set of written texts which scholars study and memorise, in order to understand them and preserve them for future generations.    Continue reading

Book Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Book - Unsheltered by Barbara KingsolverUnsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is an uncomfortable read at times. It is a book which prises apart the building blocks of modern life – financial security, capitalism, family life – all based around the metaphor of a house that is falling down (both in the present and the past). It is exactly what you’d expect of Barbara Kingsolver, but it is also surprising and ambitious in scope, told through the voices of two characters living in Vineland, with over a century between them.    Continue reading

Poetry Review: Ocean Vuong and Claudia Rankine

Poetry collections by Claudia Rankine and Ocean Vuong

I found both Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric to be equally intense and unsettling, though written in completely different styles. As part of my MA in Creative Writing, I get to study a variety of poetry collections which don’t seem, on the surface, to have much in common. But through our seminar discussions we often find links and patterns, connections and contrasts that you wouldn’t see unless you spent so much time honing in on the craft of writing, searching for the logic behind the art.

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Book Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver is a beautiful and complex story inspired by the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. It begins in a very ordinary way, told from the perspective of Miryem, a young Jewish girl whose father is a moneylender. He is so bad at lending money that he never presses for repayment, and consequently the whole family live in poverty. The winters are lasting longer and growing colder, the villagers are fearful of the Staryk who haunt their woods, and Miryem’s mother is becoming sick. One day Miryem decides to go out and demand payment herself, on her father’s behalf, little knowing where this simple act of courage will lead her.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

The Turn of Midnight by Minette WaltersThe Turn of Midnight is an epic tale based around the precarious struggle for control in the wake of the Black Death in 1348. It follows on directly from the end of The Last Hours, in which Lady Anne of Develish had quarantined her people to protect them from the disease. It seems that, outside of Develish, very few have survived, and those who are left soon begin to realise that the world around them has changed beyond all recognition.    Continue reading