Thursday, 17 August 2017

A New Map of Love by Abi Oliver

Book review by Greenacre Writer Mumpuni Murniati

How would middle-aged men respond in the event of their partners’ passing? For women, the answer may be clearer: they carry on. Because the statistics say that women live longer. But if not? 

George Baxter is adjusting to life without his wife of twenty-six years, Winifred. His antiques business keeps him occupied and Monty, his beloved Basset Hound, keeps him company. Moments of loneliness hit him hard until Slyvia Newsome sweeps him off his feet. Is she his golden ticket to the second chance of love?

Set in a village in 1960s England, A New Map of Love portrays a ‘just widowed’ man learning the ropes of his new status. In a light-hearted tone, Abi Oliver is bringing forward a series of niggling issues men and women would quietly ask to themselve
s: how much does life change after twenty-six years of marriage and the death of a spouse? How many memories are retained? In a life without a long-term partner, how easy is it to adjust and move on?

Oliver is at her best describing people’s idiosyncrasies through their comedy of errors. Done in warm but hilarious depictions which often finds her protagonist being trapped in a number of ‘women situations’. Not only is the plot brimming with scenes of George’s mishaps with the opposite sex, but also his ‘exploration’ of women; the latter being a tick
for Apple Tree Yard (2014) without its messy aftermath.

Oliver's crafting of a scene can make a seemingly ordinary domestic scenario become imbued with an unusual seriousness. An undercurrent of disagreements needs not turn into a battle of viewpoints, whilst her depictions of George’s encounters with some of his quirky clients are seriously hilarious set in an already hilariously serious situation.

Lady Byngh’s pugnacious face presented itself at the open window from under a crushed-looking hat of a black straw. At the sight of George’s face, the two bloated Cairn terriers hurled themselves like cannonballs with teeth and moustaches against the black widow. An equally paunchy golden Labrador gazed desperately at him from the passenger seat through a haze of smoke. Clearly Lady Byngh was not intending to get out of the car today so he was not to be treated to the sight of her cigarette-scorched tweeds or oddly matched stockings.

Oliver’s choice of the setting may be personal but nonetheless it's an audacious one. The old-world feeling might recall to readers’ mind the Miss Marple’s novels set in the same sorts of villages, George visits. Or perhaps to Marguerite Steen's last years in Blewbury. Yet it is the enthralling details of the seasonal features in the book, the feisty women round George and their occasional frivolities that are a pleasure in the reading.

Any impression construed that Oliver’s debut is another novel about grief is unfounded and moreover misunderstands the complexity of moving on. More importantly, she puts forward the quest about rules of mourning for men: how long is long for them? How short is short? Above all, are there any rules at all?

Maybe, he calculated, once we have finished our coffee, I should just ask her, outright. No messing about. They were both mature, experienced people. She might like the masterful approach. The only thing was, he just wasn’t very masterful. As she chattered on to him he rehearsed the words in his head… Now then- how about we…? No – how about, Isn’t it time we went upstairs? Or perhaps the martinet approach – come along now! Or perhaps, Oh, darling, come with me, I must have you, now!

Does being a man make grieving easier? Before passing a verdict, read the book, there’s more to just being a widower in George Baxter.

Thank you to Macmillan for the review copy.

You can follow Abi on Twitter: @AbiWriterOliver

Thursday, 10 August 2017

A Conversation with Ruth Hogan

Photo courtesy of Ben Croker
Ruth Hogan was born in Bedford. Like many authors she has been an avid reader since childhood and went on to study English and Drama at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. She then took a job in Human Resources for a government department. 

Although Ruth enjoyed writing it was only when a car accident left her unable to work full-time that she began to write more seriously. 
It was all going well until 2012 when Ruth got Cancer – which she describes as ‘bloody inconvenient’. When chemo kept her up all night she passed the time writing and the result was her debut novel.

The Keeper of Lost Things was published in January 2017.

Once a celebrated author of short stories now in his twilight years, Anthony Peardew has spent half his life collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.

Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant Laura, the one person he can trust to fulfil his legacy and reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.

But the final wishes of the 'Keeper of Lost Things' have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters...

“Heartwarming and engaging from the start.a mysterious, ghostly, magical love story with some really wonderful characters and a brilliant premise” - The Bookbag

We wish to thank Ruth for taking part in our Conversation and wish her a huge success with her first novel and all the best in her future writing career.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

If you’d asked me when I was about six what I wanted to be, I would have said a vet. I had no talent for or interest in the sciences that were required, and no understanding of the years of study it would take. I just loved animals and wanted to make them better. As I grew older and wiser and developed an intense dislike for my chemistry teacher, I moved on to plan b. I’d always loved books, and my parents taught me to read before I started school. From my love of reading, came a love of writing and I decided that I would do something with English. I would be creative and mysterious, henna my hair, and wear strange and exotic outfits. And I did. For the whole three years that I was at Goldsmiths College studying English and Drama. Then I came home, married and got a ‘proper’ job. My career in local government took off and I was rapidly promoted. But then, in my early thirties, I had a car accident that left me with chronic back problems and unable to work full-time. But eventually I came to realise that the accident had given me the opportunity to resurrect the dream I’d had at university of ‘doing something with English’. I got a part-time job to pay the bills and I began to write. 

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

As a writer, I see my role as a story-teller. But I don’t just want to tell the stories, I want to draw the reader completely into the world where my characters live. One of the things I love most about it is finding fresh and original ways of saying things. English is such a rich language, but it is easy to become lazy and use the same tired descriptions and clich├ęs. I can while away hours poring over words in a dictionary!

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Portia in Keeper is a detestable little madam, but when I was writing about her reaction to her father’s Alzheimer’s, I did empathise with her fear and the way that she tries to cover it with anger.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I enjoy writing about people who are different or flawed in some way. I genuinely find it more interesting and challenging than writing about so-called ‘normal’ people. But it isn’t always easy. My portrayal of Sunshine (a character who happens to have Down’s Syndrome) in Keeper has been soundly criticised by a small minority of readers, who felt that her portrayal was ‘insensitive’ and ‘patronising’. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I developed Sunshine’s character on the back of considerable research and personal experience and so I’m very happy to stand by what I wrote.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I couldn’t possibly choose just one! I loved the Moomintrolls and the magical world they inhabited, Winnie the Pooh because he’s adorable in a morose kind of way, and I wanted to be Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I was also an avid fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, but could never decide whether I wanted to be Anne (she could be a bit wet) or George (I didn’t like her short hair).

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I’ve thought about this. A lot! My ideal writing room would be on the second floor of an isolated house right on the beach. My writing room would face the sea and have huge windows. It would also have a balcony where I could sit and write when it’s warm enough. I like to be alone when I’m writing – I’m very happy with my own company (and a dog or three!) and I love the sound and sight of the sea.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Morning's at Seven by Eric Malpass. It’s the book that made me want to be a writer.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

It’s a tough game. You can write a brilliant novel, but if it’s not seen by the right people at the right time it might never get published. As well as talent and determination you need a bit of luck. If you don’t love writing, if your story doesn’t wake you in the middle of the night demanding your attention and if you’re easily disheartened, it probably isn’t the career for you. Rejections can be very hard to take, and the chances are you’ll get them. In spades. The thing that kept me going was that I found it impossible not to write. It’s what makes me happy and you need that passion to get you through the bad times.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

My next novel is called The Particular Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, and will be published by Two Roads in spring 2018. It focuses on Masha, an intelligent, independent woman in her early forties whose life has been irremediably changed by a tragic event. Unable to share her grief, she finds solace in the local Victorian cemetery and in her town's lido, where she seeks refuge underwater, safe from the noise and the pain. But a chance encounter with two extraordinary women – the fabulous Kitty Muriel, a convent girl-turned-magician's wife-turned-seventy-something roller disco fanatic, and the mysterious Sally Red Shoes, a bag lady with a prodigious voice – opens up a new world of possibilities, and the chance to start living again.

Follow Ruth on Twitter: @ruthmariehogan

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Conversation with M Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee was born in a small mining town in northern England in 1974. His first novel The Radio was shortlisted for the Novel Prize 2012. This was followed by The Page (2015). Also in 2015 A Tiny Feeling of Fear was published.

This novel deals with mental health issues and was inspired by a very personal tragedy in Jonathan’s life. Jonathan aims to raise awareness on mental health issues and writes regularly on this subject for the Huffinton Post. Jonathan currently lives in South Yorkshire with his partner Nikky, raising their five children.

Jonathan's fourth novel Broken Branches is released on 27th July 2017.

Family curses don’t exist. Sure, some families seem to suffer more pain than others, but a curse? An actual curse? I don’t think so.

A family tragedy was the catalyst for Ian Perkins to return to the isolated cottage with his wife and young son. But now they are back, it seems yet more grief might befall the family.

There is still time to act, but that means Ian must face the uncomfortable truth about his past. And in doing so, he must uncover the truth behind the supposed family curse.

Broken Branches is a tale of family tragedy resulting in immense pain and suffering and Ian’s mental decline is very realistically expressed. His character elicits a great deal of empathy as he struggles to understand the curse that he believes has blighted his family for generations.

Review of Broken Branches can be read via Carol Sampson.

We thank Jonathan for participating in our conversation and wish him every success for the future.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I began writing properly back in 2009. When I say properly, that was the time I decided that I was going to sit down and actually try and write that novel that I had been saying I would write for the previous twenty years. The suicide of my brother was the trigger. My first novel, The Radio was shortlisted in the Novel Prize 2012 which was a national prize for unpublished authors. It was published in 2013 and since then I’ve had two more novels published, The Page and A Tiny Feeling of Fear. My new novel, Broken Branches is my fourth.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I struggle with the terms such as writer, author, novelist. I have always seen myself as a storyteller. I like to write books that tell a story, but I also like to trick the reader. What do I like most? Definitely being able to have the licence to create my own scenarios, worlds even. I like to be able to immerse myself fully in those worlds as a form of escape.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes, absolutely. Michael Sewell, the main protagonist in The Page, was written purposefully with the intent of creating a hateful lead character to see whether people would bother to read a story about a man who was awful in every way. There were reasons that he was that way, though.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I find character writing very easy. I have a very broad brush approach to how the character will be. You know, like strong or weak. Overbearing etc. From there on I mould them to fit the story using little exaggerated pieces of personality of people I have met or overheard.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Bobby Brewster sticks in my mind. These were short stories about a boy who magical things happened to. For example, in one story the characters on Bobby’s wallpaper came to life and began speaking. In another, a scratched record he played began to talk to him. I read all of the books and loved them.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Take me to the rolling fields of Nebraska in a cabin, surrounded by nothing whatsoever. Isolation. Solitude. Both work perfectly for me as they help my ideas to spill out. Oh, I’d need some speakers so I can turn the music up loud.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Stephen King’s Misery sticks in my mind as the one. Though Life of Pi is very very close behind.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?
There is a lot of advice I could give. Bits and pieces that I’ve picked up that could really help. I suppose the main one would be write what you feel. When you sit down to write don’t feel you have to write your novel in chronological order. If the scene you wrote previously was a sad scene and you don’t feel sad today then don’t continue it. Write a different part of the book. Then piece it all together at the end. I leave lots of manuscripts with chapters pending to write as I go through.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have just about finished ‘How was I supposed to know how it would be?’ which is a story about a man who considers faking his own disappearance to get away from the stresses of bringing up a young family. He yearns for the peaceful life of his elderly neighbour who seems to watch him from across the street daily. The only problem is that he doesn’t actually know what his neighbour’s life consists of, and what goes on behind closed doors.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @MJonathanLee

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Khan

Review by Vasundra Jackison

This is the second book in a series regarding the investigations of Inspector Chopra (retired) and his assistant, the baby elephant Ganesha. People waiting for this book will not be disappointed as the story is just as delightful and entertaining as the first. It is full of charm, drama, joy, sadness and lots of comedy moments. Chopra is a force for good and Ganesha is his adorable partner.

There is something universally endearing about the elephant calf. Chopra was not by nature a sentimental man, but there was no doubt that the bond between them meant as much to him as any human relationship.

Mumbai is a teeming city of 20 million people. The author describes the sights and smells so vividly that it is easy to picture. The people, culture and chaos seem to jump out of the book. The mouth-watering food is especially well described.

The Baby Ganesh Detective Agency has many cases to solve. The most important one is the theft of Queen Elizabeth’s crown which is on display in a museum under tight security. The jewel in the crown is the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the mountain of light.

The presence of the legendary diamond on Indian soil had caused quite a stir. Many felt it had been stolen by the British one hundred and fifty years earlier…..and had now found its way home.

Chopra feels the robbery is humiliating for India and is determined to solve the crime. The corrupt police have arrested the wrong man who is being detained and mistreated in the infamous Arthur Road jail. Chopra cannot rest until he gets him out.

The prisoners had the highest rate of HIV in the country and were routinely abused both by their fellow inmates and the hardened guards. Murder was commonplace, the suicide rate off the scale.

Chopra is honest to a fault and very gentle with his wife Poppy, who has issues that tug at our hearts. Nevertheless, she demonstrates that she can be a strong and feisty woman solving a crime herself involving spoilt young boys at the St. Xavier Catholic school for boys. But it is her kindness to Ganesha and a street boy called Irfan that endears us to her the most.

Poppy dotes on Ganesha, spoiling him with treats such as the never-ending supply of bars of Cadbury Dairy Milk that he was addicted to.

Poppy has opened a restaurant where her cantankerous mother Poornima Devi has been installed as the manager. There are hilarious scenes between her and the head chef Lucknowwallah who is a highly-strung artist.

Poornima Devi had an ability to inspire terror in everyone and a grasping memory, usually employed in recalling Chopra’s numerous faults.

Ganesha adores the street boy Irfan and greets him with an exuberant bugle and a sparkle in his eyes. They are firm friends and seem to understand each other’s joy and pain. When the boy is captured and forced to return to the slums, it is Ganesha who rescues him and returns him to Chopra and Poppy.

There are risks and challenges aplenty for Chopra in recovering the Koh-i-Noor and capturing the thieves. Corruption is rife with many officials in the police force in cahoots with the criminal gangs. But the author manages to get us through the difficulties by combining the dangers with humorous situations that have us laughing out loud.

The story is written in an easy to read style with a whimsical, almost magical touch. The characters are quirky with names that sound hysterically funny. Some of the plots are quite far-fetched. But inexplicably, everything blends in very smoothly, resulting in a wonderful ride for the reader.

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown is published by Mulholland Books – An imprint of Hodder and Stoughton

Follow Vaseem on Twitter: @VaseemKhanUK

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A Conversation with Jason Hewitt

Jason Hewitt is an author, playwright and actor. His first novel The Dynamite Room was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Writing and the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award. Devastation Road, now also published in the US and Canada, was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. His debut play Claustrophobia premiered at Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to the Hope Theatre in London.

He teaches on the Publishing degree at both Oxford Brookes University and Bath Spa University, and also regularly provides creative writing workshops at the British Library. Jason is also Treasurer for the Historical Writers' Association.

Devastation Road is a deeply compelling and poignant story that, like the novels of Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, dramatises the tragic lessons of war, the significance of belonging and of memory - without which we become lost, even to ourselves.

Spring, 1945: A man wakes in a field in a country he does not know. Injured and confused, he pulls himself to his feet and starts to walk, and so sets out on an extraordinary journey in search of his home, his past and himself.

His name is Owen. A war he has only a vague memory of joining is in its dying days, and as he tries to get back to England he becomes caught up in the flood of refugees pouring through Europe. Among them is a teenage boy, Janek, and together they form an unlikely alliance as they cross battle-worn Germany. When they meet a troubled young woman, tempers flare and scars are revealed as Owen gathers up the shattered pieces of his life. No one is as he remembers, not even himself - how can he truly return home when he hardly recalls what home is?

We wish Jason lots of success with Devastation Road and many thanks for joining us in conversation.

Tell us your journey as a writer.

I’ve been writing stories since I was a child and have always been obsessed with books. My first part time job was at Dillons the Bookstore in Oxford (before it become Waterstones), and when I finished my degree I ended up working there full time. It was supposed to be a temporary position before I got something “more lucrative” but I ended up staying for almost five years. When I eventually moved on it was to begin a career in publishing, something I ended up doing for over 15 years. In amongst all of this I wrote and wrote but wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then not long after my thirtieth birthday I lost my best friend to cancer. It made me realise that life can be short and you need to take it by the horns so I took redundancy and went to Bath Spa University to study an MA in Creative Writing. It took me four years to complete the novel I started to write there and I eventually got an agent, but the book didn’t sell. By this point I’d gone back to my publishing career with my tail between my legs. However, my agent told me to write another book and, refusing to give up, I did. It took another four years to write The Dynamite Room but, miraculously, it sold overnight in a pre-emptive bid. For apparently “overnight success” it had been a very long haul!

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you most like about it?

I’d like to say my role as a writer is to entertain but if that were the case my books would be a lot funnier. Both my published novels have been set during the Second World War and I hope that they help readers to understand the war and empathise with different viewpoints. Regardless of the time and setting though, like most authors, I hope that I’m writing stories that have universal appeal and tackle subjects that we can all relate to. The best moment for any writer is when a stranger contacts you to tell you that something you have written has touched them in some way. I keep these in a ‘feel-good’ folder for those gloomy days when I feel incapable of stringing a sentence together, let along a novel!

Have you ever created a character you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

All my characters have traits that I dislike, and that’s why I empathise with them. Characters, in my opinion, should all be flawed in some way because if readers are to relate to them they need to be human. Heiden in The Dynamite Room walks a thin line between being a monster and a hero. It is the war in many ways that has turned him bad. However, I was really pleased with how much readers felt sympathy for him. The jury is still out for Owen in Devastation Road. He has done something that some readers find hard to forgive, but this, I hope, is what makes his story all the more tragic.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

For me a diversity of characters creates interesting dynamics. When I came up with the story for The Dynamite Room, the first character that appeared in my head was my Nazi soldier, Heiden. I then tried to think of the most unlikely person for him to be pitted against. From that, eleven-year old Lydia was born. Similarly in Devastation Road, Owen is joined by three distinctively different characters on his journey across Europe – a fifteen-year old boy that speaks no English, and a young Polish girl with an infant. The drama largely comes from the dynamics formed by their uneasy alliance – none of them trusts the others and yet they find themselves becoming increasingly dependent on each other.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Now Winnie-the-Pooh because he speaks so much sense. Although as a child it was James from James and the Giant Peach and Bilbo Baggins.

If you could be transported instantly anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I write on location as much as I can. It helps with the details and is a short cut for the imagination. That said, my next novel is set in the Lake District, which is not very exotic. If I was smart about this I’d choose locations I want to go on holiday and then cram a story into them but it never seems to work like that. In the research for Devastation Road I walked much of the route Owen takes across Europe. It was great fun but ridiculously expensive. These days I’m staying in B&Bs in Cumbria and living on a diet of Kendal Mint Cake.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Shakespeare’s First Folio. Just to have come up with a Hamlet or King Lear would have made me pretty happy. Even a dud like Pericles. But to have created so many rich, timeless tales that have become the bedrock of so much of our storytelling! It’s impossible to underestimate Shakespeare’s influence on modern culture. If a selection of plays, however, is a cheat it would have to be Winnie-the-Pooh.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Every writer takes a different journey to publication. Every writer works differently. And every writer will offer you different pieces of advice. All I would say is find a way that works for you. You need to put the hours in (a lot of hours) and learn from your own successes and mistakes; and that takes persistence. Be prepared for the knock backs, because they will come. And, most importantly, take on criticism when it is valid. And learn. Learn. Learn.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The next novel is set in 1947 in the Lake District and involves a lot of sheep and possibly some supernatural phenomena (or possibly not).

You can follow Jason on Twitter here: @jasonhewitt123

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Protest: Stories of Resistance edited by Ra Page

When does a riot become a revolution? When does a demonstration of dissent tip over into a moment of unstoppable political change?

Comma Press release their new anthology celebrating the often overlooked history of British protest; bringing together authors, academics, and witnesses to create fictional stories true to history.

Brexit, Trump, Black Lives Matter – political causes are once more stirring people across the UK to stand up and fight for what they believe in. But British people have been taking to the streets, the picket lines and the battlegrounds for centuries. In this timely and evocative collection, twenty authors have assembled to re-imagine key moments of British protest, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003. It may not be a history taught in classrooms, but Britain has a great tradition of protesting; indeed, often only real political progress has come from people power movements. Some have succeeded, like the pubcrawl protesters of Smethwick which helped put an end to colour bars and enforce new equal rights laws; others have fought battles that have still to be won fully, like the Night Cleaners of the early 70s, fighting for their rights to fair and safe working conditions.

'When right-wing populism is seemingly sweeping the west this whistle-stop tour demonstrates the power of people and provides a glimmer of hope and inspiration.' - Big Issue North

Protest: Stories of Resistance asks 20 leading authors to bring crucial moments of British protest to life, through specially commissioned stories written in close consultation with experts on each protest - historians, sociologists and in some cases activists - who have also provided historical afterwords to each of the stories. Together, they provide fictional and non- fictional insights into defining moments in Britain's 'other' history, its people's history.

Alexei Sayle, Courttia Newland, David Constantine, Holly Pester, Juliet Jacques, Kit de Waal, Maggie Gee, Stuart Evers, Laura Hird, Sandra Alland, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Matthew Holness, Martyn Bedford, Joanna Quinn, Jacob Ross, Joanna Walsh, Kate Clanchy, Sara Maitland, and Francesca Rhydderch.

Greenacre Writers are very pleased to welcome two of the contributors to answer some questions. Kit de Waal who has written a short story in response to the visit to Smethwick in 1965 by Malcolm X. And Avtar Singh Jouhl, who accompanied Malcolm X, wrote the Afterword. Avtar is now 77, so we're extremely honoured to include his answers in this blog that is promoting a very important and much needed collection of stories and afterwords.

Kit de Waal writes about forgotten and overlooked places where the best stories are found. Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, a heart-breaking story of love and identity, is a Times and international bestseller, and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the British Book Awards Debut. Her prize-winning flash fiction and short stories appear in various anthologies. In 2016, she founded the Kit de Waal Scholarship at Birkbeck University.

She has written about the Smethwick Race Protests, 1965. Her short story is entitled: 'Exterior Paint'.

Questions for Kit de Waal:

Did you know about Smethwick 1965 pre Protest?

Before I wrote the story I had no idea that Malcolm X visited Smethwick, which is very strange as my family lived about twenty minutes away at the time and I would have been about five years old. My father was very interested in politics and probably would have talked about it but I obviously had more important things, like dolls, on my mind at the time.

How easy or difficult was it to come up with a fictional story for the collection? What thought processes did you go through? And how much collaboration was necessary?

I spoke to Avtar Jouhl who was one of the organisers of the visit, spending a couple of hours with him and recording what he said. I was very interested in what he said about the colour bar in local pubs and that was really the start of the story for me. My father was a West Indian at the time who went out with a white woman so obviously some of that history is very familiar to me.

Did you undertake any research for the article? Was it difficult to find resources and if so why do you think this was? 

I read articles on line and as I said I spoke to Avtar Jouhl. I also visited the area to get a look at the housing and the exact geography. There are also quite a few clips about the visit on You Tube and the BBC website.

What is at the heart of the short story?

The heart of the story is equality, I suppose, and that the exterior paint that we all have on the outside doesn’t matter. There are more important layers underneath. Malcolm X gave one man the courage to stand up for that.

By writing about Smethwick 1965, you've contributed to that time. Can fiction help to make history more accessible?

Of course, yes. I read very little non-fiction but lots of fiction set in the recent past. Fiction helps us to inhabit, imagine, live another life, walk a mile or a year in someone’s shoes. We might not read The History of the Suffragettes but we might read one woman’s story set at that time.

Avtar Singh Jouhl was Kit's expert and wrote the Afterword to her story. He was general secretary of the Indian Workers' Association at the time Malcolm X visited Smethwick. Jouhl was one of the men accompanying Malcolm X on 12 February 1965. United States black activist Malcolm X visited the region just nine days before his assassination. He told the press:

I have come here because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly. I have heard they are being treated as the Jews under Hitler. I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.

Questions for Avtar Singh Jouhl:

What made you choose to live in Smethwick?

I chose Smethwick in 1958 because my elder brother was living in Smethwick. He owned a house on Oxford Road, Smethwick.

Did you undertake any research for the article? Was it difficult to find resources and if so why do you think this was? 

I wrote my afterward retrieving information from Indian Workers Association Great Britain (IWAGB) record archive deposited at Birmingham City Council reference liberary and my personal records.

How did you feel reading Kit's story?

Fiction written on real story.

Do you feel it was true to your testimony?


Did the story capture the essence of the time?


Protest: Stories of Resistance is published by Comma Press. We'd like to thank them for the review copy.

Follow Comma Press on Twitter: @

Follow Kit de Waal on Twitter: @KitdeWaal

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Hen Party by Emily Benet

Book review by Greenacre Writer Lindsay Bamfield

Fiona has a dream and she’s won it - her dream hen party.  She is to be whisked off, with her four bridesmaids, to sunny Mallorca to laze on sunny beaches, be pampered at a day spa and indulge in cocktails on a luxurious yacht as her prize on a reality show. Bliss.

Kate has a dream too. Hers is to make a documentary about the pollution of plastic in our oceans. Plastic People would aim to make viewers more responsible about our endless use of disposable plastic and the dangers it can cause to the environment and its wildlife.

The TV job she is offered isn’t quite what she hoped for but it could be a step in the right direction so she agrees to replace the injured director of The Hen Party, a low budget reality TV show.  Maybe she can include an environmental angle. After all, where better to highlight marine pollution than on Mallorca’s fabulous beaches?

Dreams soon turn into nightmares when plans go awry, ideals clash, secrets and jealousies simmer causing arguments to break out. Can Kate keep the hens under control to preserve the show or is she the one responsible for its looming failure? 

Despite the mantra, she did not feel the least bit calm. Her stomach was in knots. The girls would not be giving her a warm welcome this morning. If they offered her a cup of tea, she could be sure it was only because they’d laced it with poison. There wouldn’t be one ally among them. Not the bride-to-be. Not her four chosen hens. Not even the crew.
Kate altered her mantra.
‘Shit, shit, shit, shit…’

In a novel that bounces along with Emily Benet’s irrepressible verve, we become acquainted with the characters against the backdrop of gorgeous Mallorca away from the crowds. She paints each character’s strengths and weaknesses, changing our perceptions of each as the narrative unfolds. My sympathies changed course several times as I was drawn into the story through the different characters’ viewpoints and the backstories informing them. The plot twists mirror the characterisations with never a boring moment.  

Laugh out loud comedy mixes with tension, romance, a dose of travelogue and environmental issues, making this a great holiday read that you won’t want to put down and will give you a little more insight than you bargained for. 

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyBenet