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Ghost Signs Book Review (by Stu Hennigan)

Ghost Signs Book Review Header

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan’s debut publication, is a non-fiction book set in Leeds during the first UK lockdown of 2020, following the arrival of COVID-19.

Ordinarily a librarian, Hennigan volunteered to be a delivery driver for the local council, providing fresh food for families shielding or economically impacted by the lockdown. This took him to some of the most impoverished places in the entire country.

A desperately sad read, Ghost Signs is an eye-opening account of poverty in the 5th biggest economy in the world, whilst highlighting the crippling human cost of an absence of sensible domestic social policies.

It’s also a shocking indictment of the lack of vision from 12 years of successive Conservative governments.

It’s March 2020. And with much of the UK in lockdown due to rising COVID-19 infections, a Leeds City Council van trundles through the darkened streets of the pandemic-hit city.

One of the poorest places in the UK, 24% of Leeds’ neighbourhoods are in poverty. Furthermore, 29% of the city’s children under the age of 16 are living in absolute poverty*.

In response to the pandemic, the council has mobilised the Food Distribution Centre to ensure that the extremely vulnerable and their families have access to food, drink, and sanitary products. Over the course of the first three to four months of the initial lockdown, Hennigan chronicles his experiences within the local community, revealing the harsh impact of both the pandemic and years of austerity-led economic policies.

If social conditions were bad prior to COVID-19, it’s far worse now. On the doorstep, Hennigan witnesses emaciated 30-year-olds who haven’t eaten in days, socially anxious individuals fearful of answering the door, and victims of crippling drug addictions.

Days and weeks blur into one another, the same issues cropping up on the doorstep. Sallow-faced parents delighted to see a food package, their children celebrating the arrival of the delivery drivers. The volume of people unable to support themselves is stark, and tremendously upsetting.

One particular exchange with an eight-year-old girl stands out:

“Is that FOOD? she asks when she sees the bags
I nod.
ALL of it?
I nod again.
For US? She points to herself, eyes wide.
Yep, all for you.
YAYTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!...

… I’ve got tears streaming down my face on the way back to the van… …her reaction to the food is so sad that it’s unbearable. Months later, I still won’t be able to recall the event without welling up. It’s a moment I’ll remember as long as I live.”

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan (2022)

And this is just one man’s story in one city. 

Multiply this narrative to the numerous volunteers at Leeds’ Food Distribution Centre – then scale it up further to encompass the entirety of the UK – and it paints a truly desolate picture.

*Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.”

The Road to Armley Gaol

Ghost Signs has drawn favourable comparisons with George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. This isn’t a surprise – both texts are investigations into poverty in the North of England, and very effective at what they do.

However, there is one key difference. Whereas Orwell’s text feels more journalistic and theoretical, Ghost Signs is more a memoir of a frontline worker’s direct experiences. Orwell is an outsider looking in whilst Hennigan is a local person stepping up to serve his community in a time of need.

Starving children, elderly people in tears due to loneliness, and individuals with crippling depression fearful to leave their own homes… these are tangible stories about real people.

The authenticity of Hennigan’s writing style, and of course the dreadful conditions that people live in, are what makes this book so difficult to read in parts. But they’re also the reason that Ghost Signs needs to be a widely read book.

The Human Casualties of the Pandemic

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott published the seminal work, Failures of State. An excoriation of the inaction of government policy, the text examines policy-making during the pandemic, as well as the PR and Comms that came out of Number 10, Downing Street. It’s well worth a read.

But if Failures of State was the post-mortem of the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghost Signs is the funeral pyre. The former details policy failures, whilst the latter chronicles the human consequences of Whitehall’s prevarication and harmful years of austerity.

Still, there are moments of affirming humanity. Smalltalk on the doorstep and brief moments of brilliantly droll Northern humour in the face of adversity punctuate the misery. And the fact that a volunteer service like the one Hennigan took part in can be set up and actioned so quickly, speaks volumes about the ethical character of the nation.

Conclusion

Ghost Signs is less a book about the pandemic, and more a commentary on successive governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to tackle absolute poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s a glimpse into the palimpsest that is the UK’s socio-economic landscape. One where working people bear the brunt of adversity, whether it’s a pandemic or a bruising cost of living crisis, whilst the millstone of economic inequality weighs ever more heavy as the months and years go by.

Though a highly uncomfortable read, Ghost Signs is a very well written book. It’s an honest, hard-hitting contribution to public discourse and a stark wake-up call for the electorate.

4/5

Ghost Signs is available in paperback (affiliate link) at bookshop.org, or directly from the publisher at Bluemoose Books.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Edgware Road Book Review (by Yasmin Khan)

Edgware Road Book Review

Edgware Road, Yasmin Khan’s debut fiction novel, is a tale about the lives of three individuals, spanning the streets of London to the Asian subcontinent.

Khan’s prose is wonderful – a real pleasure to read – and yet the novel isn’t quite able to facilitate the scope and ambition of its plot and characters.

Still, despite its flaws, Edgware Road is a good novel and well worth your time.

One of the three protagonists, Khalid is a Pakistani immigrant working as a croupier at Hugh Hefner’s infamous London Playboy Club. Shuffling cards by night, Khalid has big plans for his partner and daughter – dreams of Caribbean islands, diamonds and flash cars. However, despite knowing that the house always wins, Khalid has a gambling problem, staking his family’s future happiness at the expense of the present.

Meanwhile Alia is searching for clues following the disappearance of her father. In an endeavour to discover the truth, Alia’s travels take her from exploring the streets of London to connecting with distant relatives in Pakistan. A daughter of a post-partition Pakistani family now living in England, her complex heritage forms a significant part of her narrative.

Elsewhere, politician Arthur Denby seeks to unveil a political conspiracy surrounding the mysterious BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International). Based on a real historical scandal of the ‘80s in Britain, Khan uses Denby’s perspective to explore the political underworld of lobbying, sweetheart deals, and financial fraud.

These three narrative threads are interwoven into a compelling structure with some solid characters, each perspective alternating between 1987 and 2003.

It’s a great way to write a novel, especially one with complex family drama and political intrigue, keeping the reader guessing whilst adding flourishes of detail to the emerging plot.

However...

Despite the pleasing prose, interesting characters, and smart structure, there are a few problems.

For a start, the novel feels far too short for the amount of plot and character development. 

At 300 pages, relating three perspectives across two separate periods of time, Khan can only dedicate roughly 50 pages per character, per time period to build character and write a satisfying plot.

And whilst this would be entirely possible with more economical prose, the magic behind Edgware Road is its brilliant writing style. It’s a real pleasure to read, which is why it’s frustrating that there isn’t more of it.

Of course, word count isn’t everything. A shorter book like The Sound Mirror uses similar techniques surrounding multiple perspectives in separate time periods with far greater success.

However, the key difference here is that there are a large number of narrative threads opened by Khan, including Khalid’s involvement with the BCCI, Alia’s relationship with her family in Pakistan, Denby’s troubled home life – just to name a handful. These plot moments, amongst others, do not feel fully explored.

Pacing is also an issue. The first third of the novel is well paced, but the rest, from the middle section through to the conclusion, feels rushed. Alia’s on-off relationship with her flatmate goes nowhere, and whilst Denby’s perspective is an interesting one, he often reads like an afterthought and never quite earns his place in the story.

What results is an ending that feels wholly unsatisfactory, with Edgware Road unable to give its characters the closure they deserve – and that’s a real shame.

Conclusion

Whilst Edgware Road is a flawed debut, it’s still worth a reader’s time, particularly for fans of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which explore similar themes of the immigrant experience in London.

Unfortunately, Edgware Road doesn’t reach the depth of those novels, but the prose is lovely, and the characters, whilst lacking the depth they deserve, are a delight. It’s just a tad frustrating that such potential has been squandered.

Still, keep an eye out for Yasmin Khan’s future books – she’s a talented writer.

3/5

Edgware Road is available in hardback at bookshop.org, with the paperback also available to pre-order.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying Book Review

How to Suck at Business Marah Archer Book Review

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is, if it isn’t nakedly apparent from the title, a satirical text on breathtakingly bad business management.

Written in the style of a self-help business book, it’s designed to impart pearls of wisdom and innovative insights from a sociopathic entrepreneur who has grown their corporate empire from nothing.

These types of books, often penned by self-styled ‘LinkedIn Gurus,’ are ripe for parody and yet How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying falls flat. Amusing in parts, the book unfortunately leans into predictable satire that never truly evolves beyond the first joke.

How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying
Overview

From business strategy and HR policies (a particular highlight), to marketing and project management, Archer’s text features some of the most egregious, irresponsible, and morally bereft business advice, packaged as wisdom. That in itself has the potential to be hilarious.

It’s a social commentary on American workers’ rights, damning the power that unscrupulous bosses have over their employees.

This should be a fairly straightforward target for some sharp satire. And yet somehow How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is to satire what a blunt instrument is to open-heart surgery, bludgeoning the same point over-and-over.

Even the title is problematic. The writer-character of the book is absolutely convinced he’s the world’s best boss, and yet How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying breaks immersion by implying that the ‘real’ author simply wants to vent at their experience of bad managers.

Still, it’s not an altogether bad book. There’s some solid social commentary and amusing remarks on business culture that, frustratingly, shows what this book could have been.

Like David Brent, but Without the Charm

Our main character, the self-proclaimed ‘world’s best boss’, reveals as much about his own life through his running commentary and actions, as the misery he piles upon his employees. He’s a seedy, tragically bad manager who has convinced himself that he’s an industry thought leader.

But he lacks any sort of charm to offset the lack of humanity. The boss of How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying is a straight-up terrible human being, without any vulnerabilities or complexities that would enable the reader to connect with him on any meaningful level. He’s insecure and hates his employees succeeding.

There’s a missed opportunity here to introduce doubt, or sincerity, like The Office’s (UK) David Brent. Brent is a pretty ethically and morally dubious boss, but he’s entirely sincere in his buffoonery.

How to Suck at Business David Brent
Like this guy, but not.

The boss in this book is only comparable with David Brent insofar that he possesses the same dated and misguided views, but lacks any corresponding charm whatsoever. The result is that the running joke quickly begins to grate.

Satire at its best works with a wink and a smile, straddling an uncomfortable gap of truth and exaggeration. The problem is that How to Suck at Business Without Really Trying keeps winking over and over, whilst holding up a sign daubed with “this is satire”.

Conclusion

Anyone who has worked for terrible (or hostile) management will find some relatability in this book. It runs the full gamut of areas in a business, with our main character naturally professing to be an expert in almost all areas.

However, the humour is very on the nose, and once you’ve read a couple of chapters, you’ve pretty much read them all.

A mildly humorous read, but not the most original.

2/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May Book Review

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May Book Review

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

A reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a supernatural twist, Francesca May’s Wild and Wicked Things spins a compelling yarn about the bond between three women – Annie, Emmeline, and Bea. It’s a terrific tale of witches, blood magic, and small-town intrigue on the shores of the North Sea.

An atmospheric, slow burner that delights throughout, it’s clear that May has poured love and passion into building her characters, as well as the dark, moody setting of Crow Island. The result is a tangible and authentic world – a kind of richness that many authors dream of.

And whilst the aesthetic often recalls more Roaring Twenties America than its apparent UK setting, Wild and Wicked Things is a sensual and stylish Sapphic novel.

It’s an exceptional piece of writing.

Drawn to Crow Island to settle some routine legal affairs following the death of her father, Annie Mason walks the shore of her holiday cottage, drawn along the beach to the revelries of the manor next door.

Cross House, home of the notorious Emmeline Delacroix, is renowned for its raucous parties and flowing of Kazam (an alcohol that may-or-may-not be laced with magic). Warned of this, Annie is nonetheless magnetised, pulling her into a world of illicit magic and forbidden romance.

With the exception of brief diary entries from a mysterious individual, the novel functions as a twin narrative, flowing between both Annie and Emmeline’s perspectives. Given Wild and Wicked Things’ predilection for revealing its secrets in a gradual manner, this style works well – each character’s perspective proffers pieces of a narrative jigsaw in an attempt to uncover the true nature of the mysterious bond between Annie and Emmeline.

Wild and Wicked Things might be a slower-paced novel, but it never wastes the reader’s time. Each conversation reveals aspects of character, driving the plot forward, or helps further build this marvellous world. Take your time with it – it’s a rewarding piece of writing that has been crafted meticulously to be enjoyed.

Something Wicca this Way Comes…

Being a Gatsby-inspired novel, Wild and Wicked Things is glamorous and raucous. In fact, May’s novel leans fairly heavily into the Gatsby-like influences early on. 

For example, there’s a purple light across the bay instead of a green one; Emmeline resembles Jay Gatsby in numerous ways, and Annie’s modest house, set across the way from Emmeline’s, is similarly placed to Nick Carraway’s own humble abode. Fans of Gatsby will find these references comfortingly familiar.

Still, because it’s so culturally intertwined with Roaring Twenties America, it’s difficult to divorce Wild and Wicked Things from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel. Crow Island itself is a fictional place and therefore exists in its own spatial dimension. So whilst the setting feels authentic, it never feels especially British. 

This isn’t a bad thing at all, and it certainly doesn’t affect immersion – Wild and Wicked Things is a highly stylised novel that borrows ideas from The Great Gatsby and builds upon them in some really fascinating ways. 

Any surface-level influences eventually yield to reveal deeper, darker secrets. It’s when the parties are over and the lights are dimmed in the hallowed halls of Cross House that Wild and Wicked Things truly comes into its own, usurping readers’ expectations with a thrilling plot.

There’s also far more at stake than a linear plot about witches. Wild and Wicked Things is also a thoughtful, methodical examination of what it was to be LGBT in the early 20th century. 

Magic is often presented in the society of the novel as a frowned-upon practice, functioning as a smart metaphor for homosexuality. Indeed, Emmeline herself is often portrayed as a mysterious and malevolent force, her predation upon young women playing into age-old, harmful tropes that many will be familiar with.

It’s a social topic handled sensitively, with May’s novel challenging these tropes and social mores, engendering empathy in the reader thanks to fantastic, well-written characters.

To Bea or Not to Bea

It’s fairly clear when an author knows their characters, and May has evidently spent many a day and night with these individuals. These aren’t just characters on a page. From mannerisms and gestures to inflections in dialogue, they feel like real people, and that’s testament to the writing and world-building. 

Bea is insecure and desperate, but unlike Daisy, her counterpart in The Great Gatsby, it’s relatively easy to empathise with her.

Likewise, Emmeline is a complex woman, tortured by her past and haunted by her future. She’s strong but vulnerable, with a reputation as an Anne Lister-like sort; corrupting young women and ensnaring them into her cult of personality (if, of course, you believe the rumours). Naturally, the truth isn’t quite as clear-cut as that.

Annie, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an inquisitive but shy young woman. But unlike Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, she’s an active participant in Wild and Wicked Things, driving the narrative and shaping the lives of those around her. Beneath her innocent, seemingly passive, demeanour is an influential, forthright woman trying to find her true self. 

Meanwhile, Isobel & Nathan, two of Wild and Wicked Things’ supporting cast, are excellent additions, playing off against Emmeline’s dark, brooding demeanour.

Conclusion

This is one of the books to read in 2022. Especially if you enjoy witchy vibes and magic realism. But it also features some fantastic social commentary.

May has a wonderfully evocative style of descriptive writing that conjures vivid imagery at the mere turning of a page. The setting and aesthetics drip with detail, and the characters are fully-realised three-dimensional people. They have flaws, make terrible decisions, and it’s because of this, amongst other reasons, that they’re so much more believable. May takes all the time necessary to reveal their hopes and fears and the novel is far stronger for it.

In short, Wild and Wicked Things is a terrific novel that’s well worth your time.

5/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Must-Visit Bookshops in Leeds

Best Bookshops in Leeds
Best Bookshops in Leeds Cover

A History of Literature in Leeds

The bookshops in Leeds are diverse and extensive, reflecting the fact that Leeds itself is home to a range of famous writers including Barbara Taylor Bradford and Tony Harrison.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, even lived in Leeds for a time whilst he worked at Leeds University as a professor of English Language.

More recently, friend of the blog, Stu Hennigan is set to release his debut book, Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic, exploring social inequality in the UK.

Must-Visit Leeds Bookshops

OK Comics is the premier comic bookshop in Leeds. 

Nominated for a number of Eisen awards, it’s a veritable trove of comic and graphic novel goodness.

OK Comics Leeds Bookshop
Image by OK Comics

I first stumbled into OK Comics by accident during my first year at university and was taken aback by how impressive it is. The owner is really kind and welcoming, whether you’re new to comics and graphic novels or a seasoned veteran.

One awesome thing about Leeds’ OK Comics is their free regular order service. Even if you’re not a local, you can still get your hands on the latest issues of your favourite comic book series, with free delivery as standard. Pretty neat!

Next time you’re in Leeds, do pop by OK Comics. It’s a proper old-fashioned comic book store, cozy and inviting, and a memorable bookish spot.

OK Comics
19 Thornton’s Arcade,
Briggate, Leeds,
LS1 6LQ
0113 246 9366
shop@okcomics.co.uk
https://okcomics.co.uk/

Just a bus ride away from Leeds city centre lies The Little Bookshop in Chapel Allerton.

It’s a beautiful bookshop that focuses primarily on selling and promoting children’s literature.

In fact, The Little Bookshop is the only independent children’s bookshop in Leeds. Featuring regular author reading events, it’s perfect for families looking to find the next book they can read together.

The Little Bookshop
47 Harrogate Road
Chapel Allerton
Leeds
LS7 3PD
hello@thelittlebookshopleeds.co.uk
https://www.thelittlebookshopleeds.co.uk/

Open since September 2020, The Bookish Type is an independent queer bookshop, hidden away in Leeds’ Merrion Centre.

Image by Visit Leeds

Championing LGBTIQA+ authors, The Bookish Type’s mantra is to ensure that its readers feel seen in the books they read.

Stocking fiction, children’s books, YA, memoirs, poetry, short stories, zines, non-fiction, colouring books and graphic novels, The Bookish Type has a bit of everything!

They also some brilliant community outreach schemes such as a book club for older LGBTQIA+ people. A brilliant Leeds bookshop that’s conveniently located and well worth visiting.

The Bookish Type
58 Merrion Centre,
Leeds
LS2 8NG
07947 460692
thebookishtypeleeds@gmail.com
https://thebookishtype.co.uk/

4) Philip Howard Books

Philip Howard Books is a classic community bookshop in Leeds’s pleasant suburbs of Roundhay.

As self-styled guardians of knowledge, the staff at Philip Howard Books know their stuff!

Featuring a wide range of books, they also offer an ordering service over the phone and via email, whilst students, reading groups, and teachers can benefit from generous discounts.

Roundhay also has some great bars and pubs nearby.

Philip Howard Books
47 Street Lane
Roundhay
Leeds
LS8 1AP
0113 225 9797
philiphowardleeds@yahoo.co.uk

Village is an independent bookshop specialising in art, fashion, design, and photography from both local artists and those around the world.

The bookshop also includes a not-for-profit art gallery, showcasing talent from Leeds and beyond.

Holding book launches and art exhibitions, Village is a really neat little place in the centre of Leeds, if you’re into your art & photography.

Village
10-12 Thornton’s Arcade,
Leeds
LS1 6LQ
hello@villagebooks.co
https://villagebooks.co/

Arguably the most beautiful place on this list, The Grove Bookshop, based in Ilkley is one of the most popular independent bookshops in the UK.

It’s also the official bookseller of the annual Ilkley book festival!

A short train ride from Leeds, The Grove Bookshop has everything, ranging from brand-new bestsellers to quirky, less well-known titles.

Plus, if you’re looking for something particular, they can order it in for you in time for the next day! Efficient.

If you’re not local, you can browse their full stock online and either get your book delivered or stocked ahead of your visit. 

Grove Bookshops
10 The Grove,
Ilkley
LS29 9EG
01943 609 335
info@grovebookshop.com
https://www.grovebookshop.com/

Travelling Man is awesome.

A specialist bookstore that focuses on comics, graphic novels, and board games, it’s a palace of nerd culture.

Image by Travelling Man

Beginning as a small shop in Headingley, Travelling Man can now be found in Leeds City Centre proper, as with a small handful of additional stores around the UK.

Owners Simon & Nabil are knowledgeable about all things table-top gaming, and love to stock books and comics that explore the boundaries of what is possible, hence ‘Travelling Man’.

This is a must-visit indie bookshop.

Travelling Man
32 Central Rd,
Leeds
LS1 6DE
01132 450 822
leeds@travellingman.com
https://travellingman.com/

Truman Books Leeds
Image by Truman Books

Coffee, cake, literature.

These are three things you’re sure to find in the stunning Truman Books, based in Farsley, West Leeds.

One of the newer independent bookshops on this list, Truman Books opened its doors in early 2021 and has proven a hit success since.

It’s all about the community here. Truman Books wants you to stay, have a drink, and chat whilst browsing the shelves.

From storytime sessions for children to bookish chats with both emerging and established authors Truman offers something for everyone. It’s a beautiful place and well worth visiting.

Truman Books
95 Town St,
Farsley, Pudsey
LS28 5HX
0113 805 6019
info@trumanbooks.co.uk
https://trumanbooks.co.uk/

How many of these Leeds bookshops have you visited? Let me know some of your favourites in the comments below!

How to Read Like a Writer by Erin Pushman Book Review

How to Read Like a Writer by Erin Pushman Book Review

How to Read Like a Writer, by Dr Erin Pushman, is a 10-chapter exploration of the pillars of creative writing which discusses how, by reading like a writer, you can improve your own writing skills.

With some excellent tips imparted in an easy-to-digest manner, this is a solid primer for the budding writer on how to read in a more analytical way.

But the retail pricing of the book raises significant questions over what the commercial market for this book is.

How to Read Like a Writer
Overview

If you want to be a writer, you need to read more – according to conventional wisdom. You also need to ‘read like a writer’. But what exactly does this mean in practice? 

Fortunately Erin Pushman has assembled a plethora of examples in this short but concise handbook. 

It’s a practical text that discusses topics including ‘pace,’ ‘theme,’ and ‘setting’ in sufficient detail, before assigning the reader a handful of post-chapter writing activities. These chapters guide the reader with some excellent bite-size analyses of each area of writing whilst the activities are thought-provoking enough to help the reader retain the knowledge.

One issue How to Read Like a Writer has, however, is repetition. Pushman frequently uses the same passages from certain texts to illustrate that chapter’s particular lesson. For example, an identical extract from Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia appears at least four times across the whole book.

Whilst familiarity with a text makes it easier to comprehend the argument, it does make for incredibly tedious reading. Assuming a basic level of comprehension on the reader’s behalf, and using more varied examples, would have been far more effective.

Regardless, How to Read Like a Writer does a fantastic job of presenting an array of writing styles. This is not simply a how-to guide on writing a 300-page literary fiction novel. Pushman explores fiction (both genre and literary), poetry in its various forms, creative nonfiction, memoir, and so much more.

There’s a remarkable breadth of writing examples on show, and this has to be commended.

Commercial vs Academic Readership

There is one glaring issue with How to Read Like a Writer – and that’s that it isn’t immediately clear who the audience for this book actually is.

On the one hand, it’s published by Bloomsbury Academic, and certainly priced like an academic textbook with an RRP of £19.99 for the paperback and an eye-watering £59.99 for the hardback. Plus, with a bevy of post-chapter activities, the book appears to be designed for formal creative writing classes.

But here’s the thing – if you’re an established writer, you probably won’t need this book.

On the other hand, an aspiring writer who doesn’t have access to a university library is unlikely to drop a significant amount of money just to read this book. Especially when Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Stephen King’s On Writing are available on the shelf for the price of a regular paperback.

Comparisons with Reading Like a Writer

Purely because of the near-identical title, it’s inevitable that Pushman’s book will be compared with the veritable monolith of creative writing 101, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

What is apparent from the beginning is that Erin Pushman’s tone and writing style is far more approachable and open-minded to different kinds of writing. Whereas Prose’s book comes at writing from a purely literary stance (and frequently comes across as hostile towards genre fiction), Pushman embraces writing of all stripes.

That’s one of the great things about this book – it’s designed to elevate the writer, not tell them that they’ll never be James Joyce. It’s inviting, convivial, and encouraging for a budding writer – if you can afford it.

And herein lies the issue. This is a book commercially aimed at the more costly academic market, and yet the content is more aimed at creative writing beginners. Meanwhile, Prose’s book – an arguably more reliable academic text – can be picked up for under £10.

Conclusion

How to Read Like a Writer is a solid primer on teaching readers how to read like a writer. It breaks down the various aspects of writing into digestible chunks and includes some brilliant exercises to reinforce the lessons in each chapter.

But with the average reader priced out of the market and an academic writer not requiring a book to teach them how to read like a writer, who is How to Read Like a Writer actually aimed at? It’s not entirely apparent.

And yet, whilst it’s a little repetitive in parts, Pushman’s book is undoubtedly a useful point of reference for those looking to improve their writing craft.

3/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos Book Review

Bibi Blundermuss Book Review Header

Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos, a middle-grade fantasy novel from Andrew Durkin, is a wonderful adventure that presents a compelling and well-crafted world, whilst telling a wholesome narrative.

Featuring a diverse cast and some great worldbuilding, Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos is a must-read for children aged 10 to 13, though adults will also appreciate the whimsical world presented by Durkin too.

Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos
Overview

Like many children’s fiction novels before it, the titular Bibi Blundermuss’s parents are missing. This is a familiar trope, but it’s written in a way that still feels fresh. In the meantime, Bibi lives with her Grandma, but longs for a reunion with her absent mother & father.

After her cat, Eek, is swept away to a distant world across the cosmos, Bibi is determined not to lose anyone else from her life. Following him, she finds herself embroiled in a longstanding conflict between creatures such as Elk, Lions, Spirits, and Arbor Guardians. It’s a really unique tale that successfully captures the elusive magic of children’s storytelling – thought-provoking, fantastical, and authentic.

In fact, with talking animals, a truly inquisitive lead, and some great writing, Durkin’s novel draws favourable comparisons with CS Lewis’s tales in Narnia. 

And similarly to stories like Narnia, part of the appeal of Bibi Blunderbuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos is the clashing of the divide between our rational world and the fey-like world of the Woodskulls and Trolliclawians.

This binary opposition of the ordinary versus the fantastical captures that wonderful childlike feeling that perhaps, just maybe, you too could stumble into a forbidden realm one day. It’s wonderful.

The world is beautifully rich and detailed, with Durkin creating unique animal tribes and presenting a mythos that’s interesting without being overly convoluted or complex.

If there were one criticism, it’s that the book is arguably a little violent for the age range. Animals wound each other, quite severely. Opinions will likely vary on this, but it’s worth mentioning.

Conclusion

Overall, Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos is a very good book, and a must-read for young readers.

It’s a fantastic example of diverse fantasy done well, with Bibi’s parents being of South African and Icelandic descent. Both the Zulu and Icelandic languages are included throughout the novel too, which is a nice touch.

And barring an aggressive overuse of the word hylophobia and an uninspiring title, Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos is a very well written book. The language is clear, concise, and highly descriptive – it’s a writing style that captures the magic of reading for younger readers exceptionally well.

Strong recommendation.

4/5

Bibi Blundermuss and the Tree Across the Cosmos is published by Yellow Bike Press, and can be purchased at Amazon UK.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How to Write Better Book Reviews

Table of Contents

Writing a book review involves a very different style of writing to anything else you’ll produce for your blog. 

Therefore, in order to write brilliant book reviews, you need to consider the purpose of the review itself. 

Who is it aimed at and what should (or shouldn’t) be included? And how do you explain whether it’s a book worth reading whilst still avoiding spoilers?

These are just some of the key questions that you need to answer before you even start writing.

Who is a Book Review is not for

Regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, a book review is not for the author. It just isn’t. 

Your review is not feedback, nor should it be treated as such. An author knows how to write a book – they don’t need you to tell them how you’d have written it. Nor is it helpful to your own readers who simply want to know whether they should pick up the book in question.

That’s not to say that authors get nothing from reading book reviews! If your review is well-argued, and demonstrates your points clearly and persuasively, they’ll at least respect it.

Plus, a super positive review, where you’ve identified and praised everything the author set out to achieve, can truly make an author’s year!

But the main purpose of your writing is not to give the author feedback on their book. Especially if it’s a less-than-glowing review.

It’s also not for other bloggers. It might be hard to review a book that everyone in your niche loved, and you hated (or vice versa), but stay true to yourself. Whether you enjoyed or disliked a book, jot down some specific notes on why.

Provided that your perspective is well-supported through textual evidence and reasonably argued, nobody can really criticise you for honest commentary delivered in good faith.

It is important, however, that you understand the reasoning for your initial impressions, so try to steer clear of reading other bloggers’ reviews before forming your own thoughts. It’s an easy trap to fall into on platforms like Goodreads, where you’re encouraged to read reviews every time you visit the book’s page.

Finally, a review is not for you! Park your ego firmly at the door before writing and make sure you only communicate the points that the reader of your article needs to know. They’re not interested in how well you write – they want to know if the book in question is worth reading or not.

Who is a Book Review is for

Ultimately, a book review is for readers who are considering buying the book you’re reviewing, but want to know whether it’s worth it or not.

Keep this audience in mind when you’re planning, writing, and promoting your book review.

Obviously, you can add your own unique twists in terms of how you review – after all, you want your review to stand out from the others. Perhaps you have a really unique blog aesthetic or maybe you’re a blogger with greater experience in a particular genre.

But on the whole, your review needs to be focused on that potential reader.

What Should I Include in a Book Review?

General Review Tips

Firstly, always include a brief overview of the book. This can be the blurb, or your own description* based on your reading experience. This gives your potential reader an idea of what to expect, and whether it appeals (or not!)

It’s also worth including a section either at the top or the bottom that contains all the useful information on the book that your reader will want to see. 

For example, an image of the book (or a cover image), along with some basic publication details such as the publisher’s name with a hyperlink to their site (this can make a massive difference for indie publishing visibility), and the date of publication are good places to start. 

Some readers like to pick up sub-300 page books, so you may also wish to include a page count, whilst adding a link to the book’s Goodreads too makes it much easier for them to add the book to their TBR list.

Make sure you also include a couple of links to places where you can buy a copy of the book. It’s all about adding value to your own readers, making their lives easier, and this shortens the journey for those who are thinking about buying the book. 

Plus, if you’re part of an affiliate programme, you can get paid (albeit a little) for each purchase made after clicking through from your site. However, if you do use affiliate links, make sure you declare it somewhere on the page for transparency.

*Do not include a summary of the plot – that is not a review!

Writing your Book Review

It’s important that your thoughts are consistent throughout the review, so consider jotting down some notes before you put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or quill to parchment.

The way I tend to draft out my reviews is as follows;

  • Introductory remarks – I introduce the book/author/publisher, as well some general remarks on how I felt about the book.
  • Main body of review – I’ll include an overview of the book, as well as a breakdown of some general themes and how well these translate to the reader.
  • Conclusion – I summarise my thoughts in a clear and concise manner, and ultimately recommend the book, or steer my readers away from it.

Planning with this structure, or through your own style, is a great way to gather your thoughts and to plot out your review in a coherent way.

When it comes to writing the review, try to steer clear of simple value judgments such as ‘I liked X because Y’ – it doesn’t really tell the reader anything. You need to explain why the author succeeds at what they set out to achieve and, ultimately, whether the result is satisfactory or not.

Furthermore, if you loved the book, tell your reader why. If it’s five stars, try to impart the magic of the book upon your own reader with persuasive language and, most importantly, passion. Likewise, if you really disliked the book, be prepared to back your disdain up with clear, coherent, and fair criticism – never make it personal!

And always, always try to end on a positive note. 

No book is without any redeeming features, so even if you detest it – as I did The Thursday Murder Club – you’ll likely have something positive to say. It’s less about ending on a positive and more about avoiding ending your review on a negative – you’ll be surprised how simply altering this can affect the wider tone of your review!

One thing I’ve seen some reviewers do is provide a couple of links to other bloggers’ reviews that present alternative views to their own. This isn’t something I’ve done (yet), but it’s a great idea. It gives your readers additional perspectives without having to go looking for them.

How Should I Rate My Book Reviews?

There are a whole range of options for book review rating systems, including the Goodreads 1-5 star scale, the regular 1-10 rating, or even the more outlandish (but quite interesting) ‘CAWPILE’ score system.

Some reviewers forgo rating systems entirely, preferring readers to make their decision based on the words on the page rather than be influenced by the score.

5-Star Rating System

The 5-star rating system, as used by Goodreads, works as follows:

1⭐ Did not like it
2⭐ It was okay
3⭐ I liked it
4⭐ I really liked it
5⭐ It was amazing

Naturally, there are variations. Some choose to use the 3 stars to denote ‘okay.’

CAWPILE

This is where things get interesting.

Created by BookTuber, Book Roast, CAWPILE stands for:

Characters
Atmosphere
Writing Style
Plot
Intrigue
Logic / Relationships
Enjoyment

Essentially, you assign each attribute a score out of 10, add the numbers together, and then divide by the number of categories (7). The theory goes that by scoring each individual attribute of the book you’re reading, the final score will better represent how you felt about the book as a whole. 

I quite like this, in theory. It’s fun.

However, the obvious problem is that it falls apart at the seams if you’re reviewing non-fiction. It also arguably overcomplicates the process.

Still, it’s a creative way to decide whether you liked a book or not, and I know that a lot of YA book reviewers, in particular, enjoy it.

1-10 Rating System

Nothing new to add here – it’s fairly self-explanatory.

1/10 is chloroform in print, whilst 10/10 is the Second Coming in paperback form.

Avoid / Recommend / Essential

Folks who know me, know that I read a lot of Eurogamer in my spare time and that I really like their rating system for video games.

Essentially, they will give one of the following attributions:

Avoid: This is terrible and you should not buy it.
Recommended: This is a really good product, and you should strongly consider getting hold of a copy.
Essential: This is unmissable. Genre-defining. Get a copy right this second.

Applying this logic to books, anything that doesn’t fall into any of these three attributions will depend on whether the genre or style of writing appeals to you.

No Rating System

There is a strong argument that rating systems are redundant and oversimplify the reviewing process.

Some choose to simply write their reviews and let the words guide the reader, rather than conforming to a strictly numerical continuum.

On the other hand, distinctions do exist to be made, and omitting clear indicators could be considered to be vague and non-committal.

Regardless of how you choose to review your books, spend less time worrying about your ‘system’ and more on the writing of the review itself.

Conclusion

Ultimately, none of the rules in this article are absolute. Find your writing style and inform the reader whether the book in question is worth reading or not.

There are, however, ways you can improve book review writing skills which I’ve endeavoured to get across.

In my opinion, a well-written book review interacts with the text in an incisive and critical manner, identifying the purpose of the book and examining how successful it is in achieving that ultimate purpose.

If you’re able to do that, you’re well on the way to writing a fantastic book review!

Got any tips of your own? Post them in the comments below. I’d be interested in reading what you bring to your own book reviews!

Step Forward, Harry Salt by Ross Lowe Book Review

Step Forward, Harry Salt Book Review

Step Forward, Harry Salt is a bit bonkers.

And by this, I mean that there’s a character called Royds Spittoon and a horse drop-kicks a car.

Following the equally bonkers Seven Nights at the Flamingo HotelBearded Badger Books’ second published novel – and author Ross Lowe’s debut – sees the titular Harry Salt drawn into a Hot Fuzz-esque conspiracy amongst the hills of Derbyshire.

It’s sinister at times, tremendously daft, and a lot of fun.

Step Forward, Harry Salt
Overview

‘The Change’ is coming.

Millions of people voted for it but nobody really knows why – or what The Change even is for that matter. But the will of the people is to be enacted, whatever that will might be.

Caught up in the middle of this moment of national celebration/crisis (delete as appropriate) is Harry Salt.

He’s a regular guy – pretty nondescript and bumbling through life – though far from dull. He’s your Martin Freeman-esque everyman and therefore the ideal protagonist for a novel like Step Forward, Harry Salt; a book packed with zany hijinks, set against the backdrop of Britain floating in a Brexity soup.

It’s a parody, though not a particularly subtle one. The novel re-treads familar arguments from the Brexit referendum and dials them up to eleven, pouring scorn and ridicule upon the pro-Brexit argument. 

Sometimes hilarious, other times a little on-the-nose, one thing is certain – Step Forward, Harry Salt is a brilliant novel, packed to the rafters with witty observations, brilliant characters, and a marvellous mystery.

Parental Poignancy & Parody

Step Forward Harry Salt uses a past/present twinned narrative, pinging the reader back and forth between Harry’s years as a child – his memories with his Father in particular – and the present day.

These memories feature some of the best writing in the novel. It’s often highly poignant, other times disarming – even troubling perhaps – but these passages feel reminiscent and personal; transposing Harry’s memories onto the reader in a nostalgic manner.

Meanwhile, in the modern day, the Ministry of People where Harry works, presents an almost Pratchett-like parody of Orwell’s ministries in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Whilst highly secretive, The Ministry of People is less overtly sinister than Orwell’s depictions of government – rather more bureaucratic and somewhat odd.

This ability to traipse the line between being disconcerting and humorous is disarming as a reader – it’s alienating, making for an interesting read.

Conclusion

Lowe has a lovely style of writing. It’s simple, cheerful, and witty – the sort of writing you really appreciate reading after a book like Dune Messiah; a novel with so much word salad, you could launch a vegan restaurant.

But truly, Step Forward, Harry Salt is a pleasure to read. It’s also fascinating insofar that it defies genre. 

There are Sci-Fi elements, political satire, fantasy, speculative fiction, and magic realism. It’s extraordinary, because the novel holds these elements together in a really authentic way, never feeling mismatched.

And because of this, the novel will appeal to a wide range of readers. 

It’s off-beat, but in the best kind of way. Great stuff.

4/5

Step Forward, Harry Salt can be purchased directly from Bearded Badger Publishing.