Wednesday, 4 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: November

Bit of a busy month in November, so I didn't get much time for reading. Still, I've got a couple of reviews for this month.

This is the penultimate review post of the year. In case you're interested, the other posts from this year are here:January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October. But here are my reviews for November...

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)

In February, I read Rachel Joyce’s Perfect and enjoyed it. I picked up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in a charity shop in Cleveleys this summer, and I thought I’d give it a go this month. Joyce’s slightly earlier (and perhaps more famous) novel is the story of Harold Fry. At the very beginning of the book, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, a woman he worked with two decades earlier. Harold hasn’t seen Queenie in twenty years, but he discovers she is now in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold tries to write a reply to Queenie’s letter, but he struggles to find the right words. When he sets out for the postbox, he finds he can’t bring himself to post his attempt, and so… he carries on walking. Joyce’s captivating novel tells the story of Harold’s walk, but it also a lot more. It’s a novel about grief and love (and, like the many people Harold meets along his way, the reader might initially misunderstand the nature of the grief and love behind the story). It’s also a novel about a story that has been resolutely not told for twenty years. When that story emerges, it’s a bit of a sucker punch, and I will admit to sobbing openly at some chapters. But the book is also very funny – and human, hopeful, heart-warming, and hard to put down. Although the setting is a little ‘unlikely’, the characters are surprisingly believable and sympathetic. I really recommend this one.

The Boy Who Fell by Jo Spain (2019)

My mum and I have been working our way through Jo Spain’s novels, ever since I stumbled upon her first DCI Tom Reynolds novel last Christmas. To be honest, I’m wondering why I had to ‘stumble’ on it, as Spain is a really talented writer, and the more I read of her work the more I wonder why I hadn’t seen more people shouting about her work! Anyway, my mum lent me the fourth and fifth books in the series, but I’ve decided to save The Darkest Place for my annual December getaway. The Boy Who Fell is the fifth book in the series – and I sort of suspect it may be the final instalment. And I think it might be my favourite! On the verge of a life-changing promotion, Tom Reynolds is asked by a colleague to look into an apparently open-and-shut case involving her cousin. A young man named Luke Connolly has been pushed to his death from the window of an abandoned house (with a tragic history). The local police already have a suspect in custody, and they believe they have more than enough evidence to secure a prosecution. DCI Reynolds is reluctant to push things – especially since that would leave him open to accusations of trying to cover things up for a colleague – but there’s just enough room for doubt. There’s a neat puzzle, plenty of clues, and a well-paced investigation here. It’s also a surprisingly warm book, with some lovely moments involving the detective’s team.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

OUT NOW: Nothing (Hic Dragones, 2019)

Bleak landscapes, empty hearts, insignificant lives, dystopian futures, extinction, limbo, uncertainty, death. A beautiful void or a horrific state of being. The simple complexity of nothingness.

A new anthology of short stories, edited by Hannah Kate, that take place when everything has gone, in the empty spaces that are left, and with the people that cling to a last deceptive semblance of something—anything—in the face of the void. Embark on a journey to nowhere, with no one, meaning nothing.


'Four Blank Pages' by Daisy Black
'Nobody' by K. Bannerman
'Nothing but Darkness' by Patrick Lacey
'A Banquet of Stars' by Anthony Cowin
'The Empty People' by Amanda Steel
'Ashes' by C.V. Leedham
'State of You' by Jeanette Greaves
'Projection' by Ackley Lewis
'The Experiment' by Sally Davies
'Mrs Frankenstein's Void' by Valentine George
'The Forever Sea' by Melanie Stott
'The House Lights Dim' by Tim Major
'Trap Street' by Hannah Kate
'White Stone' by Rue Karney
'The March' by M. Raymond
'The Sum of our Memories' by Sara L. Uckelman
'Traps' by David Turnbull
'The Hole is Waiting' by Tony Rabig
'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Square' by Nancy Schumann
'Blisters' by Sarah Peploe

For more information, or to get a copy of the book, please visit the Hic Dragones website.

Friday, 29 November 2019

A Guest Post About Nothing: Kim Bannerman

On 29th November, we’re having a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of short stories I edited for Hic Dragones (writing as Hannah Kate). In the run-up to our not-quite-a-launch party, I’ve invited some of the authors whose work is included in the book to tell me a bit about their story.

Today’s guest is Kim Bannerman, author of ‘Nobody’, one of the stories in Nothing.

Nothing & Something (But Not Everything)

There is no greater tragedy than losing oneself in love.

Imagine, if you will, two sparks of light coming together in the universe. Maybe they’ll combine and grow together into a flame, but what if they don’t? What if one consumes the other, until all we see is the light of the stronger fire? Does the weaker spark simply vanish, eclipsed by their combination? Does it wither into nothing?

When two people meet, they might balance each other and make each other greater than before, but there’s a risk, too, that one life might eclipse the other. No one wants to wither into nothing.

And yet, the concept of nothing has a kind of power of its own.

‘Nothing’ gives ‘something’ form. Without nothing, there would be no way to measure the volume, the shape, the size, the texture of the items that stand in its opposition. There has never been a time when there was not nothing, because there must be things to recognize something for nothing to be, and we are here, providing the universe with our minds to contemplate both the notion of nothing and the notion of time. Our nature of being means that the concept of nothing exists.

There doesn’t necessarily have to be everything, though. You can hold a piece of something in your hand without holding the whole. So while nothing is critical to the existence of something, something doesn't necessarily need everything. We are more capable of visualizing the concept of all than the concept of none, and yet some does not require all in the same manner that all requires none to define its form and function.

Perhaps nothing can be visualized as the state of not-being. A difficult concept to comprehend, it’s true, as we’re all very comfortable in our state of being. But who were we before we were born? Do you possess memories of your interactions with the universe before you gained a corporeal form? If not, was this a state of non-being? Does a contemplation of our experiences before we had the senses to experience allow us insight into our brush with nothingness?

If nothing was here to experience something, then the idea of nothing would not exist. Ex nihilo nihil fit.

Perhaps love is like nothing, too. You can’t experience the feeling of losing love without once possessing love and giving love. The absence of love is only made possible by the existence of love.

And even when love changes us, the act of connection helps to define us, for better or worse.

Kim Bannerman lives on Vancouver Island, Canada, where she writes short stories, novels and screenplays. Her novels include the cosmic-horror-romance Love and Lovecraft (2018), the werewolf tale The Tattooed Wolf (2014), and the historical murder mystery Bucket of Blood (2011)). She’s also host of the weekly podcast, Northwest By Night.

The Belated Birthday Party for Nothing is on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It’s a free event, with readers from the authors and launch party discount on the books. For more information, or to book a ticket, please click here.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

A Guest Post About Nothing: Nancy Schumann

On 29th November, we’re having a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of short stories I edited for Hic Dragones (writing as Hannah Kate). In the run-up to our not-quite-a-launch party, I’ve invited some of the authors whose work is included in the book to tell me a bit about their story.

Today’s guest is Nancy Schumann, author of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Square’, one of the stories in Nothing.

How do get your ideas?

Every writer gets asked that question. It’s common that people want to know where the ideas for stories come from. The truth is that ideas are everywhere. Ideas are the easy part. Turning the idea into a story is what makes writers writers.

Publishers make things interesting by putting out calls for stories on occasion. So what you get is a short brief for a themed collection that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a tantalising challenge asking you to come with a story that fits under that theme (while also fitting a more or less specified format).

I love those, not the format specs, the themes. Hic Dragones have come up with a few great ones. None more so than this recent collection: Nothing.

What a marvellous title for a book. What a great title for a story. A word literally describing the absence of anything opens endless possibilities for what that story could contain. I read that title for the collection and immediately started thinking ‘nothing’ for days.

In my head ‘Nothing’ was the title of my story, but there wasn’t a story yet. There was just this beautiful word dancing around in my head waiting, trying to make contact. Because ideas are easy. Writing is not. So ‘Nothing’ existed as an idea long before it was a story.

Now, my story that is now in the anthology Nothing has a different title. It’s called ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Square’. One, and possible the only real reason, for that is that, well, Hic Dragones had chosen Nothing to be name of the book. Can’t very well steal that title for a story within that book then. And I really did want to have a story in this anthology both because of its beautiful title and because of the lovely people that are Hic Dragones.

So how did that nebulous idea turn into a story? Well, I went on a little holiday. I stayed in a very nice hotel. The bathroom of our room had an interesting design. It was a bit like stepping into a very stylish disco. The walls and floor had black tiles that sparkled is if there was a disco ball spinning from the ceiling. There was no disco ball, just to be clear on that point. The effect looked quite stunning to be fair. It was also kind of irritating. Wherever I looked in that bathroom things were sparkly. Also, the wall and floor tiles looked the same. I had to really concentrate on stepping out of the bath carefully to not fall over, to not feel dizzy.

You may have guessed from that pretty long paragraph about a hotel bathroom that those tiles did take their toll on me. All that pretty sparkliness kept me entertained for days. And on one of those days there was one particular sparkle on one particular tile. I expect it was nothing but the position of the light in relation to the position of myself, really, but that little sparkle kept sparkling right at me. As if it was trying to communicate. Of course it wasn’t. Not really. It couldn’t. It’s just a bit of silver in a black tile. It’s nothing.

Nothing. There it was. Right there, ‘Nothing’ turned into a story. Well, I didn’t know where the story would take me yet but I did know where it started. So I got out my trusty laptop and started to write about that little, sparkly spot in the bathroom. Much to the amusement and irritation of the friends I was with, who couldn’t help but observe that I’d started writing. Well, yes, I am a writer. It’s kind of what I do. I was furiously typing on, not letting the conversation interrupt me. I didn’t react when the furious typing was commented on. The conversation continued, as the next observation followed, that clearly an idea must have struck me just prior to my starting to write. At this point, I started to threaten dire consequences to my mood for the rest of the day should I not be left alone to finish my writing.

Well, my threat was never realised. We are still friends and the story was finished, albeit not all in one sitting in that hotel room. Once the idea found words, the story flowed onto the page without so much as making conscious contact with my mind. I just told it until it was finished. And then, then, I spent a really long time trying to come up with a name for it that was not ‘Nothing’. That, in the end, was probably the hardest part, all things considered. It was the last thing I finished before the submission deadline. It was the thing I definitely expected I’d be asked to change about the story if it was accepted. But there you are, the story did get accepted and the title wasn’t changed. It’s one of my favourite stories that I’ve written, because of its odd creation story and because I really like what became of it. I’m happy and proud to be a part of the finished anthology that now is Nothing. Happy belated book birthday!

In addition to academic texts on female vampires, Nancy Schumann enjoys writing fiction in both German and English. A number of poems have been published in a variety of books and magazines, such as the Frankfurter Bibliothek des zeitgenössischen Gedichts, annual German poetry collection from 2000 to present, and Gothic II and III. Short stories include ‘The Hostel’, published by Hic Dragones in the Impossible Spaces anthology, and Fanged Flowers (available for Kindle). Nancy also does translations between German and English.

The Belated Birthday Party for Nothing is on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It’s a free event, with readers from the authors and launch party discount on the books. For more information, or to book a ticket, please click here.

A Guest Post About Nothing: David Turnbull

On 29th November, we’re having a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of short stories I edited for Hic Dragones (writing as Hannah Kate). In the run-up to our not-quite-a-launch party, I’ve invited some of the authors whose work is included in the book to tell me a bit about their story.

Today’s guest is David Turnbull, author of ‘Traps’, one of the stories in Nothing.

Happy belated birthday to the editors and all the authors featured in Nothing.

My story in the anthology is called ‘Traps’. It’s about the traps the main characters set and the traps they get caught in. It takes place in the bleak, ash covered landscape of a post-apocalyptic world.

I have a penchant for post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, both reading it and writing it. I could cite dozens of influences, ranging from iconic works by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and more recent classics by Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy.

But I wanted to take this opportunity to sing praises of a reasonably well-known author who is not widely recognised as being one of the pioneers this type of fiction. Namely, Jack London.

As a fiction writer, London is best known for nature-driven adventure novels such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He is equally known as a political essayist and campaigning social commentator, particularly with The People of the Abyss, a 1902 exposé of poverty in London’s East End.

He is lesser known, however, for his forays into what would now be considered the science fiction genre. The two Jack London novels I want to mention here are very much precursors of how later writers would develop the post-apocalyptic and dystopian themes he explored.

The Scarlet Plague is a short novel first published in the London Magazine in 1912. It’s set in San Francisco in the year 2073 and takes place in the aftermath of a global pandemic which has depopulated the world. The main character is a former English Professor who survived the scarlet plague and is travelling through an overgrown and transformed landscape with his 2 grandsons. He attempts to recount what life was like in America before the coming of the plague, but this all seems extremely far-fetched to the boys who have grown up in a primitive society with limited language skills and no access to technology.

Released 4 years earlier, The Iron Heel, is also set in San Francisco.

A much longer novel than The Scarlet Plague, its structure is quite unique in that the main story takes the form of a manuscript introduced by a scholar living in a socialist Utopia in the year 2600. The manuscript itself has a female protagonist, Avis Everard. It depicts the struggles of herself and her husband in the underground resistance during the terrifying rise to power of a totalitarian right-wing dictatorship in the two decades from 1912 to 1932. Like his contemporary H.G. Wells had managed in novels such as The Shape of Things to Come, London in The Iron Heel eerily predicts events that would actually come to pass. The rise of Fascism, Japan’s conquest of South East Asia, and Indian independence to name but three.

Given both these novels were written over a century ago it’s both surprising and frightening that their central themes are so close to our gloomy present-day reality. Both novels have stood the test of time and remain enjoyable and thought-provoking reads.

So, if you are looking to go back to the beginning and trace the lineage of both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I would recommend giving Jack London’s classic science fiction outings a read. Who knows? They may inspire you to either predict your own bleak version of the future or even destroy civilisation in some unique and original manner.

David Turnbull hails originally from Scotland, but now resides in London. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of anthologies, magazines and online sites, as well as being performed at live events such as Liars League, Solstice Shorts and Alt Fiction.

The Belated Birthday Party for Nothing is on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It’s a free event, with readers from the authors and launch party discount on the books. For more information, or to book a ticket, please click here.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

A Guest Post About Nothing: Tony Rabig

On 29th November, we’re having a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of short stories I edited for Hic Dragones (writing as Hannah Kate). In the run-up to our not-quite-a-launch party, I’ve invited some of the authors whose work is included in the book to tell me a bit about their story.

Today’s guest is Tony Rabig, author of ‘The Hole is Waiting’, one of the stories in Nothing.

It’s been a while since ‘The Hole is Waiting’ inched its way out of the keyboard. Did I write it with the Nothing anthology in mind? I don’t think so; as I recall, it was already in progress, either partially written or in the notion-bouncing-around-the-brain stage, when I ran across a mention, I think in James Everington’s blog (and if you haven’t read his stuff, you’re missing one of the good ones), that Nothing was in the works and open for submissions. Dark, they wanted. Bleak, they wanted. Sounded like my kind of book. So I submitted the story and another, also dark and bleak and simmering on the back burner around the same time as ‘Hole’, called ‘The Death Machine’, waited a while, got the emails back, was not at all surprised to see that ‘The Death Machine’ was rejected, and was gobsmacked to see that ‘The Hole is Waiting’ was accepted. I read the email twice before it really registered that, hey, wait a minute, this is an acceptance, not a rejection.

And for me, this was where things got a little interesting.

Why was I a) not surprised by the rejection and b) gobsmacked by the acceptance? Because I’d expected two rejections – that’s just the way things worked. On the infrequent occasions when I’d written something that I thought good enough to submit to a magazine or book publisher, it would invariably be rejected. Invariably. Failure wasn’t an option, it was a given.

Now, that wasn’t something that worried me much. I didn’t punch my wife or kick the cats or put away a fifth of bourbon every other hour. It was simply a fact of life and one that really wasn’t all that hard to live with; after all, I had a ‘real’ job that paid the bills. Writing was something done on the side, and when self-publishing for Kindle took off, I put some of the stories out there and some of them sold a few copies to, and were favorably reviewed by, people who were not friends or relatives (only strangers’ money counts in this game) and that was nice.

So there were some stories out there, as singles and in a collection, and a novel, and there were more stories and another novel in the works when I submitted those two stories to Nothing.

The acceptance came in, and I dried up. The other short stories I was working on suddenly seemed idiotic beyond belief, or too similar to stories already done, or both. The novel hit the one-third-mark wall and fell apart. Everything begun since that point (a few stories, a different novel) fizzled almost before I’d started.

So what was going on? Beats me. But only in the last month or two has anything I wrote begun to seem worth trying to complete. What I said in the author’s note for ‘Hole’, ‘… does not get enough writing done, but he’s working on it’ is still the case. I’m hoping that the year-long dry spell that followed acceptance is finally over and that a couple of the aborted projects filed away on the computer will see completion in the not-too-distant future, or that newer projects will work out. Of course that’s assuming they don’t start looking too stupid to me about halfway through.

As to any ideas, influences, or inspirations behind ‘The Hole is Waiting’ – well, I’m not sure I have a lot to say about that. I’ve just hit 70, and there’s a constant awareness of time passing, chances missed, and roads not taken; some of that is there in that story and in a number of others I’ve written. Considerations like that are never very far away at my age; they go with the territory. But then, I’ve always loved a good downer, so ‘The Hole is Waiting’ is the kind of story I’d have expected myself to write.

And I’ll probably write more downers if and when I get back up to speed. That year-long dry spell might actually provide some material. Why dry up like that? Some comic-book psychological quirk telling me that I can take myself out of the picture now? Is that just an individual thing, or does it work on a species level too? (We landed on the moon 50 years ago, so why aren’t there already manned colonies on Mars? And why are we seeing articles these days suggesting it would be better if the human race went extinct?) Maybe there’s a story there. Something dark. Something bleak. A good downer. Something I might actually finish in time to submit to Nothing 2. It could happen…

I’ll have to start playing around with that, or with some of the other stalled projects tucked away on the computer, and get myself back on track. After all, time is short and getting shorter, and the hole is always waiting.

Tony Rabig is a transplanted Chicagoan now living in southeast Kansas; he is a former bookstore clerk, former librarian, and an almost-but-not-quite retired computer programmer. When not programming, he annoys his family and tries to catch up on his reading; as noted above, he doesn’t get enough writing done, but he’s working on it. Other titles available: The Other Iron River, and Other Stories, Doorways: A Novel, ‘The Death Machine’ (a short story).

The Belated Birthday Party for Nothing is on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It’s a free event, with readers from the authors and launch party discount on the books. For more information, or to book a ticket, please click here.

A Guest Post About Nothing: Amanda Steel

On 29th November, we’re having a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of short stories I edited for Hic Dragones (writing as Hannah Kate). In the run-up to our not-quite-a-launch party, I’ve invited some of the authors whose work is included in the book to tell me a bit about their stories.

Today’s guest is Amanda Steel, author of ‘The Empty People’, one of the stories in Nothing.

It might have been the first time I wrote a story for a specific theme. Before writing ‘The Empty People’, I used to adapt stories I had already written to fit whatever the theme was for a submission call. That might be why I never had much success.

I remember thinking of ideas to suit the ‘nothing’ theme.

At the time, I was working in social media and liked a guy I worked with, despite getting mixed signals from him. I thought it would be great if I could just forget about the guy I worked with, because like most things (or people) you try to forget about, you end up thinking about them even more.

That’s how the idea for my story began. It was around the time I’d just self-published a novella called After the Zombies. I combined the two ideas of a zombie apocalypse and people having their individual memories removed. Of course, it all goes wrong and although they don’t become zombies, they are very much like zombies in the way they can no longer think for themselves.

Since writing this story, I’ve written several novels and short stories. I’ve self-published some, had a publisher take on one of them (my YA book First Charge), and I’ve had various poems and stories in anthologies and online publications. I even had a short horror story recorded on a podcast. That was a surreal experience, to hear my story read by professional voice artists. I also met someone who I didn’t want to forget about, and we’ve been together for almost three years now.

When I wrote ‘The Empty People’, it helped to meet Hannah Kate (on her radio show, Hannah’s Bookshelf) and get a sense for what she might want in the anthology. Writing for a specific publication is something I’ve continued to do and seems to be how I get most of my acceptances. ‘The Empty People’ was also my first taste of the editing process, which prepared me for having a full-length novel accepted by a publisher and working on that with an editor.

It’s strange to look back at my short story now. Not only has my writing changed and expanded since then, but when I was writing the story I couldn’t imagine ever standing up and reading it (or anything else) in public. I wouldn’t even have considered reading an extract in public. Now I’ve gone on to perform at several regular open mic events, try out new nights, and I’ve even done a reading in my hometown of Bradford. So it doesn’t seem too daunting.

If you’re wondering how ‘The Empty People’ ends… you’ll have to read the book. I can tell you that my characters don’t end up winning the lottery and riding to Disneyland on a unicorn.

Amanda Steel is a multi-genre author based in Manchester, UK. Her books include: First Charge, After the Zombies, Not Human, and Love, Dates and Other Nightmares. Amanda is the author of Lost and Found (under the pen name Aleesha Black). She co-hosts Reading in Bed, a monthly book review podcast. This is available on Bandcamp and Mixcloud. Her books are available on Amazon and various e-book platforms, including Apple, Kobo and Nook.

The Belated Birthday Party for Nothing is on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It’s a free event, with readers from the authors and launch party discount on the books. For more information, or to book a ticket, please click here.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Launch Party for Nothing Anthology (Hic Dragones)

Join Hic Dragones for a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of dark fiction edited by Hannah Kate, on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester.

Bleak landscapes, empty hearts, insignificant lives, dystopian futures, extinction, limbo, uncertainty, death. A beautiful void or a horrific state of being. The simple complexity of nothingness.

A new anthology of short stories that take place when everything has gone, in the empty spaces that are left, and with the people that cling to a last deceptive semblance of something—anything—in the face of the void. Embark on a journey to nowhere, with no one, meaning nothing.

Come and join us for a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of bleak and anxious fiction from Hic Dragones. There'll be readings from contributors, free drinks, discounts and some party surprises - there's really nothing left to do but party.

Readings from Hannah Kate, Valentine George, Amanda Steel, Melanie Stott, Jeanette Greaves, Sara L. Uckelman and Daisy Black, plus a special contribution from K Bannerman.

Friday 29th November, 7-9pm
International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester M1 5BY
Free event - booking required.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

3 Minute Santas - Festive Flash Fiction Wanted!

A call for seasonal submissions to be broadcast on the radio!

Can you tells a festive story in just 3 minutes? Hannah's Bookshelf presents 3 Minute Santas - back for its third twinkling year on North Manchester FM!

I’m looking for recordings of festive (not necessarily Christmas) stories for inclusion on my radio show on Saturday 14th December – but they can only be 3 minutes long! Stories are welcome from anywhere in the world, and in any genre. A selection of 3 Minute Santas will be broadcast on the show on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and on digital (for the rest of the world) – and don’t worry, there’s always ‘listen again’ feature if you’re in a different time zone!

3 Minute Santas isn’t a competition, but a call for submissions. It’s open to anyone, and the more the merrier! For details of how to submit a story, just click here. The deadline is midnight on Thursday 5th December.

And please do share this info with anyone you think might be interested!

Saturday, 2 November 2019

My Year in Books 2019: October

Once again, I didn't have much time for reading for pleasure this month. I think I managed one more title than last month, but still not a lot of books on the list. Hopefully, I'll get chance to read a bit more next month, as my to-read pile is getting scarily high!

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September

And here are my reviews of the books I read in October...

The Image of You by Adele Parks (2017)

For reasons I’m not going to go into here, I recently found myself alone somewhere late at night with nothing to do. As if by magic, I wandered past a Help for Heroes charity book sale with an honesty box and a couple of titles still left for sale. I paid my £2 and took the one that looked most readable. Admittedly, The Image of You very much looks like one of those domestic noirs I’ve been trying to avoid… but it was this or Andy McNab. The blurb promises a story about identical twins – Anna and Zoe – who have a close bond, but polar opposite personalities. When Anna (the trusting, romantic one) meets Nick on a dating site, Zoe (the outgoing, edgy one) decides he’s not to be trusted and plots to prove Nick is lying to her sister. To be honest, if you haven’t already started to guess the twist, you’ve not been paying attention. The Image of You is quite a long book for the genre – which feels longer if you’ve already guessed what’s happening. Anna is impossibly sweet and perfect; Zoe is hyper-sexual and unrestrained. Nick is a sort of Patrick Bateman-lite character who uses online dating to get casual sex. He falls for Anna on their first date and proposes within months; he falls for Zoe on their first meeting and ends up in bed with her that night. Of course, he never sees them both in the same place at the same time. Hmmm…

The Taken by Alice Clark-Platts (2016)

This next book marks a return to the stash of books I got from charity shops in Cleveleys earlier in the summer. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one – and I certainly didn’t know it was the second in a series. The Taken is a detective novel featuring D.I. Erica Martin – who I now know is Clark-Platts’s series character. Martin is called is when a celebrity preacher/faith healer called Tristan Snow is found dead in his B and B, his head stoved in with an unknown weapon. Snow is the charismatic leader of a church called Deucalion, and he was in Durham for a live show as part of a national tour. With him in the guesthouse are his wife Sera and daughter Violet, plus his sister-in-law Antonia and manager/business associate Fraser Mackenzie. But which of them might have a motive for bumping off the much-loved preacher? And why – given Snow’s fame – are they staying in such a downmarket establishment? From the blurb, I thought this one might be a bit OTT and far-fetched. It has its moments, but mostly it’s just a really compelling and entertaining story. I struggled a bit understanding the detective’s private life (having not read the first book in the series), but I loved the atmosphere created, particularly in the glimpses of the Riverview guesthouse and Snow’s suspicious church. I wouldn’t say The Taken is the most original mystery novel I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely well-written and a bit of a page-turner.

Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside by Jon Bounds and Danny Smith (2016)

I picked this book up at the RNLI Lifeboats shop on a daytrip to Blackpool in June. The blurb promises an ‘eccentric’ road trip, in which the two authors travel England and Wales in an attempt to visit all remaining piers in just two weeks, and a ‘nostalgic’ take on ‘Britishness’. It’s fair to say I went into this expecting one thing, but got something quite different. It’s also fair to say that’s no bad thing. Yes, to some extent, this is a travelogue about a journey around 55 piers (plus a couple of ‘bonus’ ones), but it’s also an exploration of class, masculinity and insecurity. If it engages with ‘Britishness’, it’s as a vague, intangible concept, and the ‘nostalgia’ is always delivered with a knowing bite. This is a road trip in the Hunter S. Thompson mould, with as much attention given to the constant booze consumption and unwashed clothes in the car as there is to the marine architecture outside it. But it’s a compelling tale (not quite non-fiction travelogue, not quite novel), with a thought-provoking sense of darkness and detachment that culminates in a just brilliant chapter at Pontins in Southport. At times, I felt that the exploration of class and masculinity could’ve gone further – some points hint at profundity but don’t quite dive down to its depths – but the book makes up for this with some wonderfully evocative and somewhat virtuoso descriptions. And, appropriately, Blackpool is a highlight (for the reader, if not for the writers).

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Ten Tales: Ghost Stories for North Manchester

A new show for North Manchester FM!

I am very pleased to announce my brand new show on North Manchester FM - Ten Tales: Ghost Stories for North Manchester. Every Wednesday at 10pm, I will be sharing a new and original piece of fiction, written by yours truly exclusively for North Manchester FM.

The nights are drawing in now, and there's a bit of a chill in the air. Perfect weather for old-school ghost stories on the wireless. Ten Tales very much belongs to the classic tradition of spooky stories for the season... but with a uniquely North Manchester flavour. From Crosslee to Crumpsall, Hollinwood to Harpurhey, these stories draw on settings and history from around the local area.

Essentially... imagine if M.R. James had visited Dam Head instead of the British Library...

Ten Tales: Ghost Stories for North Manchester begins on Wednesday 23rd October at 10pm. The first story is entitled The Threat of Blossom. It's set on the Crosslee estate in Blackley, where the cherry trees have blossomed early...

Episode List

The Threat of Blossom (Wed 23rd Oct)
Turkey Red (Wed 30th Oct)
Help the Poor Struggler (Wed 6th Nov)
The Singular Disappearance of the Old Man from Jumbo (Wed 13th Nov)
Corporation Pop (Wed 20th Nov)
The Occultation of Saturn (Wed 27th Nov)
The Lost Map of Doctor John Dee (Wed 4th Dec)
Tinker's Gardens (Wed 11th Dec)
At Booth Cottage (Wed 18th Dec)
Christmas in Gotherswick (Wed 25th Dec)

You can listen to Ten Tales: Ghost Stories for North Manchester every Wednesday at 10pm on 106.6FM (if you're in the North Manchester area) or online (if you're further afield). Episodes will also be available on the station's 'Listen Again' service for a limited time after broadcast.

Draw the curtains, make some cocoa, try to ignore that rapping, tapping at your chamber door, and tune in the wireless for a brand new story every Wednesday night... only on North Manchester FM 106.6.

Friday, 11 October 2019

My Year in Books 2019: September

I didn't seem to get much time to read in September. And I haven't been able to find the time to write this post until now, either. Not my strongest month on the old reading-for-pleasure front, but at least I've got something to show for it in the end!

My posts for the rest of the year are here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August

But here are the two novels I read in September...

The Dark Room by Minette Walters (1995)

Having really enjoyed all the Minette Walters books I’ve read so far, I thought I’d give The Dark Room a go. Jane Kingsley (known as Jinx) wakes up in hospital following a car accident. She is badly injured, and the staff tell her that she tried to kill herself by crashing her car. Jinx finds that hard to believe, but she can’t remember the accident itself. She also can’t remember any of the events leading up to it – she doesn’t even remember that her upcoming wedding has been called off, as her fiancé has jilted her for her best friend. Jinx’s rich, overbearing (and vaguely threatening) father has paid for her to stay in a private hospital, under the care of Dr Protheroe (who claims he’s not a psychiatrist). When the bodies of Jinx’s ex-fiancé and ex-friend turn up – murdered in a similar manner to Jinx’s late husband – the police start to wonder whether her amnesia is entirely genuine. The Dark Room has a lot of the hallmarks of Walters’s fiction that I’ve loved in the other books I’ve read – unreliable narration, snippets of newspapers articles and reports interspersing the narrative, careful character studies broken up by a pervasive nastiness (in this case, a subplot involving a series of brutal attacks on prostitutes) – but sadly there was something missing here, and I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as The Sculptress or The Scold’s Bridle (and definitely not as much as The Shape of Snakes, which is an incredible book).

The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie (2017)

My mum lent me this one, as she’d really enjoyed it. I know why she liked it – The Sewing Machine is the story of a series of people from different points in the twentieth century, whose lives are connected by a Singer sewing machine. The book is set (mostly) in Edinburgh, so it combines two things my mum loves – her hometown and her old hand-crank Singer. She thought I’d enjoy it because it has multiple narrators, and an interweaving of past and present (and she’s right… I do like those things in fiction). And I did enjoy the way the book switches between the different times and characters: from Jean, who works in the Clydebank Singer factory in the early part of the twentieth century, until her boyfriend is forced out of work following the 1911 strike, to Kathleen and Connie, a mother and daughter in the mid-century, who both rely on sewing to make ends meet, and then Fred, a young man in the early twenty-first century, who arrives in Edinburgh to clear our his late grandfather’s flat and discovers an old sewing machine (with a story to tell). It’s a charming story in many ways, and I love the central conceit. However, I found the book almost impossibly overwritten. The most mundane and everyday actions and objects are described with overly elaborate language and artificial gravitas that I found rather grating. Not a lot happens in The Sewing Machine – and this should have been part of the charm.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Pizza Shop Heroes (Phosphoros Theatre)

Friday 4th October 2019
HOME, Manchester (Orbit Festival)

This year’s Orbit Festival at HOME, Manchester runs from Wednesday 18th September to Saturday 5th October. The festival programme for 2019 seeks to ‘conquer the divide’, by bringing together artists and theatre-makers who explore prevailing societal divides and the ways these might be overcome. On Friday 4th October, I attended the press night of Pizza Shop Heroes by Phosphoros Theatre, which was on the Orbit festival programme this year. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…

Pizza Shop Heroes is an innovative piece of applied theatre based on the lived experiences of the performers, which was developed through a research process and development workshops. The experiences narrated by workshop participants (the performers of the show) were worked into a theatre script by Dawn Harrison (who also directs) with artistic direction from Kate Duffy.

The performers are Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi, all of whom came to the UK between 2013-15 as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. Phosphoros Theatre are committed to making work that offers an alternative perspective on the refugee experience, using the lived experiences of the company to inform their performances.

Pizza Shop Heroes begins in – unsurprisingly – a pizza shop. The four young men are working, taking calls and dealing with awkward customers. But this setting is only a very small part of the story and characterization here. The eponymous pizza shop is immediately brought to life with verge, energy and humour, but it is really a staging-post, a device to bring the four men (and their stories) together.

The performance starts with a set of rules – beginning with the usual warnings to switch off mobile phones and not talk during the performance. However, the rules develop into more of a comment on the type of storytelling we’re going to be watching. We’re encouraged not only to listen, but think about how we’re listening. We’re told to avoid earnest chin-in-hand gestures, for instance (something which caused a couple of audience members to shift slightly in their seats). The instructions develop further, laying out directives on how we should receive the stories we hear. Inconsistencies should not be taken as indications of falsehood, and we have no right to judge the credibility of the storytellers. This performance builds into a clear reminder that the young men on stage have told their stories numerous times before, to various officials (border guards, police, social workers, education officers) who have made assumptions and judgements about veracity based on the manner of telling, and to people offering assistance who have attempted to frame and shape the narrative into a more ‘acceptable’ form. This time, the men’s stories will be told how they want to tell them.

Tewodros (Teddy), Goitom, Emirjon and Syed travelled to the UK from Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. As the theatre piece unfolds, snippets and glimpses of their childhood experiences and the circumstances that led to their journey emerge. These are presented differently and in a somewhat fragmentary way – Emirjon remembers rabbit hunting in Albania, Goitom explains the fear of being forced into the army as a child – but the main focus on the piece is on the journeys the four took to escape conflict.

One of the really powerful things about Pizza Shop Heroes is the way the piece plays with difference and similarity. At times, each of the young men reveals something specific and unique about his experience or the circumstances from which he escaped, giving voice to the individuality of each refugee’s story. However, the piece brings these stories together into ensemble performances that merge the individual tales into a collective experience, stressing the echoes and parallels in the boys’ tales. Some elements of the story – the fear on arriving in an alien country, for example – transcend the particulars of individual lived experiences. Nevertheless, Pizza Shop Heroes is careful not to fall into universalizing – and when the boundaries become a little too blurred, there is some light-touch humour to reshape it (at one point, Goitom pauses mid-act and asks ‘Wait, whose memory is this?’)

Though the show addresses some very serious subject matter – from war and terrorism to grief, regret and fear – it is far from grim. The humour in Pizza Shop Heroes is very well-handled, as it punctuates the stories without undermining or trivializing them. There is a powerful humanizing effect in the use of wry jokes about cultural misunderstandings – one bit in particular, where Syed recounts the response he got to giving a teacher a bottle of Head and Shoulders as an Eid gift, brings the audience and performer together in a subtle but companionable appreciation of the dramatic irony.

The only criticism I have is that I’m not convinced by Kate Duffy’s on-stage facilitation and artistic direction. Sitting on the side-lines, encouraging the men to translate into English lines spoken in their first languages (which they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t), or taking on the part of one of the characters in a particular part of the story (like Emirjan’s uncle at the beginning of the rabbit-hunting memory), Duffy’s role feels a little too close to that of a workshop facilitator, which sometimes dilutes the immediacy of the young men’s narration, especially when she brings in her own personal experiences of working with Asylum Seeking Children.

Nevertheless, the narratives of Pizza Shop Heroes very much achieve Phosphoros Theatre’s stated aim of offering an ‘alternative perspective’. As well as offering memories of the past and commentary on the present, the piece moves towards a moving and compelling performance about the (potential) future, as the young men imagine fatherhood and the ways their own stories will shape the lives and ambitions of their children – including their desire to prevent their children being forced into adulthood before they’re ready. Humorous, emotive and ultimately filled with hope, the imagined future offers a strong and thought-provoking climax to the young men’s narratives.

Overall, Pizza Shop Heroes is a powerful, dynamic and highly engaging piece of theatre. I genuinely found myself disappointed when it came to an end, as it is more than successful in its aim of getting audiences to sit and listen to the stories the young men have chosen to tell. I would happily have listened to a lot more from them. Phosphoros Theatre are currently touring the piece around the UK, and if you have chance to catch one of the performances I’d definitely recommend you take it.

Pizza Shop Heroes is on at HOME, Manchester on the 4th-5th October, as part of the Orbit Festival, and then at other UK venues until December. To see more about the Orbit Festival 2019 programme, please visit the HOME website.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Review: The Thunder Girls (Blake and Squire)

Thursday 26th September 2019
The Lowry, Salford

On Thursday 26th September, I was at The Lowry in Salford for the press night of Blake and Squire’s The Thunder Girls on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on the station on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Written by Melanie Blake and directed by Joyce Branagh, The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry from 24th-28th September. I was at the press night on Thursday 26th September, which saw a rather enthusiastic crowd attend. Unusually – almost unheard of – for a debut play, The Thunder Girls sold out its entire run at The Lowry, and the press night was certainly full to capacity.

Based on Blake’s novel of the same name – which she adapted for the stage with Fiona Looney – The Thunder Girls tells the story of an 80s girl band who are brought back together 30 years after an acrimonious split. The play is (almost) entirely carried by the four actors playing the members of the band, with just one other character ‘appearing’ through phone calls made on speakerphone. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the play selling out its run was the cast – and more on that anon – but (and this was certainly true on press night), there was also a great deal of curiosity as to how Blake’s script would be informed by its writer’s experience of working in the music biz – and of orchestrating reunion gigs for 80s bands.

The play is billed as being about the ‘Reunion Dinner from Hell’. While this is certainly a fair description of Blake’s novel, it doesn’t quite seem accurate for the play. The play takes in the lush – if somewhat brash – mansion (created with some excellent attention to detail in Richard Foxton’s set design) belonging to Chrissie, the Thunder Girl who split the band all those years before, took the copyright and royalties and forged a successful solo career to the disgust of her former bandmates. Chrissie and the band’s former manager Rick have summoned Roxanne, Anita and Carly to the house – but there doesn’t appear to be any dinner on offer! Instead, the women work through their festering resentments with a hefty side order of Prosecco, which they down liberally throughout the show.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The first to arrive at the house – and the first person we see on stage – is Carly, played by Sandra Marvin. Carly was the youngest member of the Thunder Girls, but she was the songwriter behind their greatest hits, which she has been prevented from playing solo due to legal wranglings over rights with Chrissie. Carly is followed by Roxanne, played by Beverly Callard, who has fallen on harder times since the band split. Roxie is a heavy-drinking single mum, who is trying to make ends meet running a clothes shop. After some back-and-forth between Carly and Roxie, Chrissie (played by Carol Harrison) makes her entrance – but it’s not until the end of the first act that we meet the fourth Thunder Girl, Anita (played by Coleen Nolan), who has been missing since a disastrous Eurovision performance.

The Thunder Girls is really very well-cast. Blake has been hands-on with most aspects of the production, and she cast the show herself (with Angela Squire). There are some well-judged decisions made. Callard, Harrison and Marvin are all well-known from soap operas, meaning that they are well able to handle the high-drama, histrionics and stinging dialogue. (And this is the only play I’ve seen this year that’s listed a ‘Cat Fight Director’ (Kaitlin Howard) in its programme!) The casting of Nolan as Anita adds a nice extra layer of self-referential humour, as not only was Nolan (of course) in a famous 80s girl band, but it was Blake herself who brought about the band’s reunion tour in the 2000s. The final performer is Gary Webster, who is voice of Rick, playing Charlie to the Thunder Girls’ Angels but also, perhaps, one of the architects of their various misfortunes.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

Of the performances, Callard and Nolan were real standouts for me. Callard is really very funny as Roxie – she gets some fantastic lines, which are delivered with lovely northern relish – but she also imbues the character with a sweet vulnerability full of regrets and sadness. Nolan is great as Anita, revealing a strong sense of comic timing that hits the right notes. Marvin and Harrison are also very watchable, though they don’t quite get the opportunity to stretch their range. Marvin’s Carly is the band member who seems to be most content, but the points at which her smiley optimism cracks offer the more interesting performance. She also gets to deliver a hilarious retort to being asked if she’s had a boob job (‘Nah. It’s cake.’) Harrison begins the play as an unrepentant villain, but the second act introduces some more compassionate interactions with Roxie to soften her character.

That said, there are few surprises in characterization here – in many ways, the appeal of The Thunder Girls lies in familiarity, rather than shock, and so the character arcs play out pretty much as we might expect. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. Even though I had a pretty good idea from the start where things were going, I still found myself genuinely caring about the four women and their friendship. Admittedly, there were a couple of fluffed lines here and there, but the cast made up for this with some well-judged ad libs at other points. At one point, a line about Steps provoked a rather dramatic reaction (and some visible corpsing from the cast), due Claire Richards being in the audience. To be honest, I think this was completely forgivable though, as the audience felt like we were all in on the joke.

Photo credit: Rob Martin and Blake & Squire

The Thunder Girls isn’t a musical, but it does include some music (written by Blake, with Lee Monteverde and Jack Wheeler). Each of the characters performs a solo song and, as you may well expect, there is a group number at the end. The solo numbers did feel a little bit superfluous, as they mostly just reiterated aspects of plot and character from the dialogue. The final number was a lot of fun, and certainly got the audience to their feet. However, the Thunder Girls’ big number (supposedly their signature tune) is a little anachronistic. Musically, it feels far more 1990s than 1980s, and I struggled to imagine it being a hit thirty years ago.

But overall, The Thunder Girls is a very enjoyable show, with some excellent (and very funny) dialogue, and a rare opportunity to watch older female characters taking centre-stage and talking about age, life experience and regrets in an engaging, humorous and honest way (except for Chrissie, who isn’t admitting her real age). If the show does tour, I can see it being a great success, and it’s a definite recommendation from me.

The Thunder Girls was on at The Lowry, Salford on 24th-28th September.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Review: Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester)

Thursday 12th September 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Thursday 12th September, I was at HOME, Manchester for the press night of Red Dust Road, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland and HOME. I’ll be reviewing the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Red Dust Road is Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Jackie Kay’s memoir of growing up as a child of mixed heritage adopted by white parents. Kay’s memoir explores question of identity, belonging and family, as it describes the writer’s decision to search for her birth parents, and the outcomes of that search. The source material for Gupta’s adaptation is written in fragmentary, non-linear and poetic prose – a challenging text to bring to life on stage. The resulting production meets some of these challenges well; however, it is a somewhat uneven piece that also falls flat in places.

The audience is introduced to Simon Kenny’s striking set design from the moment they arrive in the auditorium. Indeed, as I took my seat I overheard a number of conversations around me, as people discussed the significance of the set dressing visible on stage. An enormous frame hangs centre stage, its right-hand side metamorphosing into a dramatic tree branch. Before the play even began, audience members were pondering the symbolism here: a meeting of the organic and inorganic? the natural and the artificial? the distortion of a mirror, suggestive of conflicted identity?

At various points in the play, Kenny’s arresting set design (along with Dawn Walton's direction) is put to good use. It functions as a screen, for instance, subtitling the time and place of the vignettes we are watching, an important addition, as Gupta’s adaptation retains the episodic, non-linear structure of Kay’s narrative; it also, more creatively, functions as a stage-within-a-stage, with figures gathering in shadows behind the performers to illustrate and interject. On a couple of occasions, performers burst from this stage-within-a-stage and into the main performance area, giving a powerful sense of fluidity and energy to the staging.

However, while the frame device is used well, the rest of the minimal set design is rather overshadowed. Aside from the backdrop, little dressing is used, and I found myself wondering whether the main drama would have been better staged as a studio piece. Many of the scenes are intimate and ‘small’, with two or three characters sitting closely together on chairs, examining photo albums or sharing cups of tea. The familiarity of these pieces is rather dwarfed by the grandiose set design, which detracts from the more personal nature of some dialogue.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden and Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

In a similar vein, the adaptation itself has an uneven feel to it. While some of Kay’s more poetic narration is retained and dramatized – a scene in which Jackie’s adoptive mother and birth mother offer contrasting accounts of the day she was born is a particular strong point – some of the power of the memoir is lost in its translation to the stage. There is little sense of peril or suspense here: Jackie’s coming-out to her adoptive mother, for instance, receives a negative reaction but no further consequence or exploration. And Jackie’s arrival on the eponymous ‘Red Dust Road’ in Nigeria – which, surely, should have been a climactic scene – is almost glossed over as a transitional episode, with the dangerous twelve-hour journey described in Kay’s book collapsed into a short travel sequence.

There are some strong performances in Red Dust Road. A number of the cast play multiple parts and, on the whole, this is done very well and lends the play a sense of vitality and energy. Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden shine as Jackie’s adoptive Scottish parents, Helen and John. Simone Cornelius and Seroca Davis are compelling as AJ and Claire, the women who help Jackie to explore and celebrate her identity as a black woman (and Davis also gives a very good performance as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has her own part to play in Jackie’s journey). Irene Allan plays Jackie’s birth mother Elizabeth with a wonderful brittleness, undercut with a fragility and fear that is never quite articulated. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jackie and Elizabeth meet for the first time, each proffering a gift-boxed orchid to the other, and its poignant (and anti-climactic) restraint.

Seroca Davis and Simone Cornelius. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Despite this, the central performance – Sasha Frost as Jackie – feels somewhat underdone. That’s not to say that Frost isn’t rather charming in her hopeful and happy portrayal of the memoir’s narrator, but the part lacks any real sense of texture. Interestingly, despite the play moving about in time from the late 60s to the 2000s, Frost’s portrayal of Jackie is remarkably constant: her performance (and costume) doesn’t alter much, whether the character is meant to be 7 or 40 years old, as though we are watching an adult Jackie move amongst her own memories – an apt translation of the memoir style onto the stage. Less successful, however, is the emotional constancy of the performance. Frost’s Jackie is consistently hopeful throughout, even during some of the harsher moments in the story.

A scene of racist bullying is depicted, and others described, but the script omits some of the violence of Kay’s memoir. Most notably, Kay’s brutal description of a racist attack sustained at a tube station is excised, leaving us somewhat detached from the racial abuse that is, almost exclusively, told but not shown. This is not entirely a bad thing – the play, like Kay’s book, doesn’t dwell on struggle, but rather celebrates positive relationships. Nevertheless, the general lack of conflict lessens the force of Jackie’s quest. While there are some tears, these do not last long, and the adaptation is frequently in danger of downplaying some of the more painful elements of the Kay’s story. Again, something of the urgency and danger of Kay’s memoir of a search for identity is lost in a production that feels determined to remain optimistically and resolutely upbeat.

Overall, there is much to commend in this production, but it doesn’t quite hit the notes of its source material. Engaging performances make for a fun and compelling piece of theatre, but some of the potency of Kay’s memoir is lost in its translation to the stage.

Red Dust Road is on at HOME, Manchester from the 11th-21st September.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

3 Minute Scares is back for its fourth frightful year!

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants your scary stories for Halloween! She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their scariest 3-minute stories for her annual creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s Spookiest Wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being broadcast on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 26th October.

This year’s 3 Minute Scares competition will be judged by novelist Andy Remic and Emily Oldfield of HAUNT Manchester, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout Manchester, the real-life escape room game. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of around 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is. The deadline for entries is Thursday 17th October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Keri Moriarty, who impressed the judges with a stylish but unsettling tale. North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘Keri’s winning story was really well-written – she got so much atmosphere into such a short space of time. Each year, I’m impressed with the different ways writers handle the constraints of telling a story in just three minutes. There’s a lot of talent out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what people across our region submit for this year’s competition.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition, including information for people unable to submit a recording, can also be found on the website.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Review: No Man’s Land (London Classic Theatre)

Friday 5th September 2019
Oldham Coliseum Theatre

I haven’t posted any theatre reviews for over a month, but it’s time to get back into it. I attended the press night of London Classic Theatre’s revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Oldham Coliseum on Friday 5th September. You can hear the radio version of the review on North Manchester FM tomorrow, but here’s the blog version…

Moray Treadwell as Hirst in No Man's Land

London Classic Theatre’s new production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land began its national tour at Oldham Coliseum this month, opening on Friday 5th September.

No Man’s Land has been described both as Pinter’s most ‘enigmatic’ play, but also as the most ‘poetic’. With a deceptively simple set-up and a single set, No Man’s Land balances on a knife-edge of comedy and menace throughout. Set in the living room of a North-West London mansion, No Man’s Land opens with two men in their sixties returning after a night out and continuing their drinking session. Or rather, one of them is returning. The other is a guest – or is he? The mansion belongs to Hirst, a rich and successful writer and essayist. His companion is Spooner, a shabbier, down-at-heel man, who is also a writer. When Hirst overindulges and is forced to crawl to his bed, two younger men (Foster and Briggs) make their entrance, and it’s clear that things may not be quite as they seem.

Memories – or their absence – play an important role in No Man’s Land. It has been described as a play about being haunted by memories, but it also offers a searing (often humorous) exploration of the ‘game’ of memory. In the second act, Hirst mistakes Spooner for someone he knew at Oxford (or is the recognition accurate?) and begins to ‘remember’ that he once had an affair with his wife. At this, Spooner jumps into the roleplay, ‘remembering’ his own sordid tale to beat that of his companion. Are any of these memories real? Do the men really share a past? In a similar vein, Briggs expounds on the circumstances of his meeting Foster, but he insists that Foster will deny his account and say it happened differently. So, can we believe anything of Briggs’s account?

Pinter’s play is cryptic and illusory about the connections and relationships between the four men – in typical style, their names and backgrounds are not entirely stable – and the script moves (often rapidly) between fragmentary dialogue and lyrical (though sometimes almost arbitrary) monologue. It is a challenging piece for both performers and directors.

Fortunately, London Classic Theatre are more than up to the task and have created a production that both charms and unsettles the audience. Director Michael Cabot makes powerful use of space, moving the four performers around the stage in almost circular motion, with Hirst’s armchair set in the centre. The circling of the armchair immediately conjures a world that revolves around its central figure (their ‘host’, as Foster repeatedly dubs Hirst), but there is also a feeling of more predatory inclinations in the performers’ movements around the seated figure (mostly Hirst, sometimes Spooner, but never Briggs or Foster). A single door to the room is used for the stage entrances and exits, which has the disconcerting effect of both conjuring a world outside the room and closing it off from our view.

Cabot’s direction is enhanced by Andy Grange’s lighting design and Bek Palmer’s set. In the play’s second act, the lighting is used effectively to draw our attention to the binary oppositions of inside/outside and day/night, without us moving from Palmer’s simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic living room.

The four actors give great performances in the production. Moray Treadwell plays Hirst with convincingly inebriated authority. For much of the play, Hirst occupies the single armchair at the centre of the stage – with the other characters revolving around him – but Treadwell’s performance shifts Hirst’s seated position from imperious to vulnerable by turns. Nicholas Gasson’s Spooner is a blank – and I don’t mean that as a criticism – absorbing some of the nastier insults of the play with an unnerving impassiveness that constantly hints that Spooner knows more about what’s going on than he’s admitting.

Graham O'Mara as Briggs in No Man's Land

Graham O’Mara plays Briggs with an appropriate air of menace and threat; however, his performance stays on the right side of thuggishness. In the second act – with the costume and lighting change signalling, temporarily, that daylight might bring some new clarity, O’Mara brings out Briggs’s more reflective side. Briggs’s monologue about how to get to Bolsover Street is one of my favourite parts of Pinter’s script, and O’Mara delivers it very well here. For me, though, the standout performance was Joel Macey as Foster. At once threatening, fey, calm, bright and mean, Macey’s performance is uncomfortable and yet eminently watchable. He set the tone with his very first line, making the ostensibly innocent question (‘Who are you? What are you drinking?) both friendly and alarming in equal measure.

It’s inevitable that any revival of No Man’s Land will invite comparisons with previous productions. High-profile productions have seen the roles of Hirst and Spooner in the hands of ‘theatrical royalty’ (Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). And in 2001, Pinter’s own revival of the play cast Danny Dyer as Foster – perhaps not ‘theatrical royalty’, but certainly someone with an iconic style and persona. Wisely, the cast here put these illustrious predecessor performances right out of their minds – there is no hint of imitation and no invitation to comparison, and Treadwell, Gasson, O’Mara and Macey make Hirst, Spooner, Briggs and Foster their own, suggesting different dimensions and emphasizing different undertones in their performances.

While there are some great individual performances here, the cast also work well as an ensemble. No Man’s Land is a disconcerting play, but it is also a funny one. Much of the humour derives from the performers’ unspoken responses, and the cast here handle this well. The innuendo-driven homosexual subtext (‘Do you often hang about on Hampstead Heath?’) is treated adeptly, almost like an in-joke or shared understanding between the four men, but to which the audience is never fully admitted.

Overall, this is a skilful and impressive production of a challenging and enigmatic play. With strong performances and clever direction, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking revival – and I highly recommend it.

London Classic Theatre’s production of No Man’s Land was on at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on 5th-7th September. It is currently touring nationally.