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The Battle That was Lost Book Review (by Michael S. Jackson)

The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Review
The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Details

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.

The Battle That Was Lost is the latest book in Michael S. Jackson’s Ringlander series. 

A 50ish page novella, this entry details a battle that has significant ramifications for the narrative of Jackson’s full-length fantasy novel, Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

On the surface of it, how interesting could a novella about a battle be? Swords presumably clash, armour is rent, and people die. Par for the course. And let’s be honest – the most memorable parts of fantasy fiction tend to be the character moments and world-building.

Fear not, dear reader. The Battle That Was Lost strikes a good balance between character and world-building elements. The frenetic fighting is punctuated with flashbacks that help steady the pace of the writing, giving the story both time and space to breathe.

This is another impressive outing from Jackson, and well worth your time if you’re into fantasy fiction.

Discontent is brewing in the world of Rengas.

The occupying Bohr faction faces a rebellion in the form of the native Tsiorc, led by Tactician Laeb. And whilst this civil war plays out in more detail in Jackson’s full-length novel, The Battle That Was Lost instead focuses on the smaller, but nonetheless important frontier of Drakemyre.

Thugs for hire, Qor and Staegrim – the latter a proud bastard – prowl the outskirts of the battle, moving between the lines of troops in pursuit of their target for assassination.

The banter between the two is a winning formula; it’s authentic and genuinely amusing. 

They share an unconventional relationship; friendly, but wildly antagonistic. Each exchange is tense, yet amusing – it’s a compelling paradox that keeps the reader involved in the narrative, and it’s this relationship that forms the heart of The Battle That Was Lost.

But there’s plenty more at stake here than the result of a single pitched battle. After all, this is a world of political intrigue, supernatural forces, and tactical minds. This confrontation between the Tsiorc rebels and the Bohr could determine the future of the continent.

The Art of the Novella

The publishing industry is not short of fantasy novels.

People are constantly on the lookout for the next The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and because of this, fantasy novels tend to be fairly lengthy in an attempt to replicate the epic scope of the genre’s more iconic titles – whether they justify the length or not. 

The novella is therefore a brilliant medium for readers to enjoy the genre. It’s a challenging style that forces an author to be clinical with their prose, including only the best of their writing.

Indie Publisher Interview

I recently spoke about short-form writing with Andy Leach of subscription-based publisher Seventy2One.

And in a world where some fantasy authors simply want to write 7-book epics, it’s refreshing to see a writer embrace the short form for a change.

Jackson’s a good writer too, and this novella is no exception. It’s witty, amusingly crude in parts, and tells a good story in a concise manner.

It’s an accessible means of introducing new readers to a larger world, allowing them to dip into a mythos without the need to commit their time and patience to a larger novel. Plus, The Battle That Was Lost also includes the first three chapters of Ringlander, Jackson’s full-length novel, to give the reader a taste of what’s to come. 

From the author’s point of view, it’s great marketing for their larger novels. From the reader’s point of view, they get a shorter, more concise snapshot of what to expect from the author’s larger books, as well as their writing style.

Flashbacks to the Future

Flashbacks have a sketchy reputation in fiction, both on-screen and in books. And for good reason.

Too often, they interrupt the pacing of narratives, risking the alienation of a viewer or reader who is thrust into a time or space they don’t immediately recognise. If the flashback doesn’t add to the present narrative, either plot-wise or thematically, it can be jarring.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case in The Battle that was Lost. Jackson uses the technique in a really smart way, with each flashback foreshadowing future events whilst creating a sub-narrative of its own. These are equally compelling as the battle, helping to switch up the full-tilt pace of the titular battle.

The flashbacks make this novella far stronger, and also serve as a window into the events of Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

Book Review

Read the full Tales from Absurdia book review of Ringlander: The Path and the Way

Conclusion

The Battle That Was Lost is another solid entry into Jackson’s expanding world. It’s an approachable novella that reconnects readers already familiar with the world of Ringlander, whilst serving as a solid entry point for new readers.

It’s witty, features some brilliant battle sequences, and fleshes out the existing lore in a really satisfying way. The inclusion of maps is also a brilliant addition – every fantasy author should do this. It’s a great way to situate the events of the book, whilst still encouraging the reader to use their imagination.

Sure, it won’t change the minds of readers who don’t enjoy fantasy, but for those who do, The Battle That Was Lost – plus its full-fat sibling Ringlander – offers readers a compelling world, a strong narrative, and a bevy of unique characters.

4/5

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

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.

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.

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.

Winterset Hollow by Jonathan Edward Durham Book Review

Winterset Hollow Book Review Blog Banner

Winterset Hollow is a novel about a novel called Winterset Hollow.

Sound confusing? Don’t worry – it isn’t. 

Jonathan Edward Durham’s debut novel is, however, a fascinating blend of genres.

Dark fantasy meets metafiction, whilst whimsical children’s fiction meets slasher. The result of this rather outlandish experiment is a remarkable piece of fiction that sticks long in the memory.

Winterset Hollow
Overview

It’s Barley Day on Addington Isle – an isolated private island where reclusive author Edward Addington, the author once resided. Winterset Hollow, a popular in-text fictional novel, was once written by Addington and has since acquired a cult following.

Adored in particular by Eamon, our protagonist, and a plucky group of teenagers (as is customary), they plan a trip to the island to celebrate the novel, and commemorate its mercurial author.

But like all good horror tales, the euphoria of our emboldened cast of impressionable youths is short-lived, with things going south rapidly, and rather spectacularly.

Barley Day is, after all, a day of feasting, hunting, and extravagant celebrations. But this time, the anthropomorphised animals of Addington’s tale – Flaxwell Frog, Bing Bear, Finn Fox, and Runny Rabbit (amongst others) – are out for revenge, revolting against their own author, and its readership.

It’s as if Beatrix Potter’s merry cast of creatures developed a predilection for torture and violence. Disturbing, but admittedly a lot of fun.

A Horror Classic with Literary Merit

Despite its slasher elements, Winterset Hollow remains literary in its pretensions. It’s well written, explores metafictional ideas of authorhood, and challenges the morality & ethics of our own contemporary society.

The novel also utilises some fascinating meta-elements, not least by including a novel of the same name within the text. 

It’s clever, without being complex or gimmicky, and serves as a prism through which we, as readers, judge our own actions. The inversion of animals hunting humans being the most obvious social and ethical commentary.

Whereas the humans in the novel range from plot meat bags to endearing and relatable, Durham’s creature-characters are all a genuine thrill and the true highlight of the novel. 

Donny Darko Winterset Hollow Meme
The visual equivalent of reading Winterset Hollow

Lovingly detailed, Durham breathes genuine life into the full horror of Addington’s complex menagerie.

Consider the names Runny Rabbit and Bing Bear, for example. They conjure an image of a Saturday morning children’s cartoon; plush, friendly, and easy-going creatures. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth – these animals are cunning, gruesome, and violent.

And yet, they’re also extraordinarily charismatic, with motives that extend beyond a mere love of killing. Some, in fact, resent it entirely. Their behaviours, masochistic in practice, are underpinned by complex, albeit jilted, moral justifications.

This makes for a fascinating and thoughtful read.

Conclusion

Winterset Hollow is a truly unique novel. Blending the twee with the macabre, Durham has produced a delightfully dark fantasy that thrills.

The setting of Addington Manor is dripping with detail; it’s halls sinister and lonely. This level of rich detail is lightning in a bottle for any author, and Durham excels at it.

The characters are fantastic, for the most part, with Addington’s creatures shining the brightest. Eamon serves as a serviceable protagonist, whilst his companions aren’t quite so memorable. On the other hand, Finn Fox is a real standout. Creepy, unpredictable, and highly unnerving, he’s a persistent foil to the protagonists.

There are some minor pacing issues, mind. What begins as a slow burner, quickly pivots into an action frenzy and never really slows down. Revelations are made that perhaps deserved more time and consideration, but instead struggle to properly surface amidst the gluttony of action.

Some readers won’t mind this, however – especially because the novel is tremendously fun, and the writing remains of a very high quality.

A lot of love and attention has gone into Winterset Hollow, and it shows. It’s a fantastic debut effort, and I’d strongly encourage my readers to add this to their TBR lists – especially with it being available on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited programme.

4/5

Winterset Hollow is available at Amazon in both paperback and eBook.

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