Category Archives: Literature

Review The Lion , the B*tch and the Wardrobe, Wales Millennium Centre by Rhys Payne

Images Credit Jorge Lizalde
4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

When applying to join Get the Chance I talked about how as someone who has taken part in a plethora of community productions across Wales in both on and off-stage roles I have a deeper understanding of how the mechanics of putting on a show works. Usually, as a reviewer, we are focused on whatever happens on or around the stage for the three-ish hours of a select performance but I am going to start this week’s review a little bit differently by talking about something that happened before the auditorium even opened for “The Lion, the B*tch and the Wardrobe. As me and the famous Aunty Chris sat eating waiting for the doors of the venue to open, we discovered that Bar One at Wales Millennium Centre was selling a unique “B*tch Juice” cocktail to help celebrate the press evening of the show we were moments from seeing. At around £6 (which was under what I expected to pay for a cocktail at the Millennium Center) the vodka, cranberry and lemonade drink was incredibly refreshing and wonderfully delicious! In fact, I’m going to try experimenting at home to try and get the recipe as close to the one I had as possible as it was simply that nice!

This time last year I was invited to attend a performance of XXXmas Carol where I talked about my not-so-secret love of Polly Amorous from meeting her in nightclub settings and being absolutely astonished by how much of an incredible performer she was on the stage! When it was announced that Polly and the gang were returning for ‘The Lion, the B*tch and the Wardrobe’ the surprise of Polly’s acting prowess was gone. I walked into this show (sort of unfairly) with the knowledge of the previous show and how amazing the sober songbird of Splott was but despite all this she still managed to surpass the already high bar she had previously set! Not only had she built on her already fantastic stage presence but her vocal abilities seem to have only grown tenfold since the last time.

The show opens with Polly and her personal piano player Felix Sürbe as they take the audience of a whistle-stop tour of iconic Christmas anthems! The later sections of these mash-ups were where Polly really found her footing and managed to introduce her brand of hilarious humour and amazing vocals! Polly not only plays an integral part of the camp retelling of the CS Lewis story itself but also acts as a narrator of the show helping to transition from storytelling to an array of performers to scenes flawlessly. She is able to maintain the humour embedded into the show while also driving the plot without appearing like she is pushing things along which is not an easy thing to do. Whenever I watch Polly perform I always ask if she can give us a rendition of defying gravity from Wicked as this is a musical I love and is one of my favourite songs she does in her set. This is why I was totally overwhelmed when she not only busted out of a performance of this iconic song but did so while suspended in the air on a zip wire. Seeing her dangle in the air while singing about flying not only made sense narratively but the humour in her being left on stage had the audience howling!

In last year’s performance, we were introduced to the incredibly sensual Erik McGill who wowed the audience with his gravity-defying trapeze skills. This year he was given a much bigger responsibility of playing the loveable (yet extremely horny) Mr Bumnus. From the moment we first met this unique character to the more emotional moments throughout Eric is able to portray this goat/Human hybrid creature wonderfully while taking the audience on an emotional rollercoaster throughout. His first performance was a beautiful routine which involved Erik scaling up a floating lamp post and showcasing the most mesmerising poses and positions while keeping a lustful gaze at Polly the entire time.  He manages to control his body in such a smooth and fluid way meaning that the transitions from poses is just as entertaining as the tricks themselves. Early in the show, we see a hilarious scene where Mr Bumnus was Polly to spank him in return for secrets that would help the host on her quest. Erik does a fantastic job of taking this sexual (by nature) scene and injecting the perfect amount of comedy making it suitable for the stage. My favourite moment of this character however was just after an emotional moment with Mr Bumnus is violently punished for betraying the queen and Polly needs to find a way to bring him back to life. This leads to Polly discovering a paddle and using it to deliver a thunderous spank that not only jolts him back to life but straight into an incredible trapeze act. While Asha Jane delivered a wonderful performance of “It’s Raining Men”, Erik soared through the air on his trapeze with every time he leapt from the trapeze I physically jumped out of my seat! The range of flips and tricks he was able to perform while dangling so dangerously high in the air had my heart racing on the floor so I can’t imagine what he would have been feeling up there!

I was a little disappointed however that Rahim El Habachi had a much more drawn-back involvement in this year’s show not only because he is a friend of mine but also because his unique brand of belly dancing is always a crowd favourite! Last year he was able to showcase his dance skills, live singing and showcase original spoken word pieces and while he could showcase some of his talents, he did not have as many opportunities as last year! This performance was much more focused on his acting talents as he took on the role of a sexy reindeer and the mighty Ass-lan where he was able to throw his voice in such a way to create a powerful, bombing sound this character has become associated with. Throughout the show, Foo Foo LaBelle was able to showcase her incredible burlesque-infused performances including a police-inspired number where a lucky audience member was selected to go on stage and receive a sensual lap dance live in front of everyone. The performer was able to totally command the stage while also allowing for a reasonable amount of chaos and comedy with the audience member involved which is always a gamble in shows! I also thoroughly enjoyed the rendition of “Feeling Good” by Asha which ended with a vibrant explosion of streamers with every performing storming the stage to help mark the end of act one!

Overall, creating a queer retelling of a story originally created by a devoted Christian is not only an extremely powerful and political statement but also the fantastical elements of Narnia lend themselves beautifully to the series of unique performances. Polly managed to anchor the explosion of sensual eroticism (of whips, chains, spanking etc) with a mind-blowing performance and wonderful vocals (from Polly included) which is no easy feat! I would rate this show 4.5 stars out of 5!

You can find out more about the production and book tickets here

“I believe if people can imagine stories where Wales has a greener future, then it can become a reality” An interview with Bethan James.

credit: Donna Ford

In our latest Writer interview Director of Get The Chance, Guy O’Donnell chats to Bethan James. They discuss her development as a writer, her career to date, being shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Short Story Award and a future free workshop ‘Storytelling for Beginners: Retelling Welsh Myths for a Greener Future’

Hi Bethan, you and I have known each other for some time as you were one of the original Young Critics supported by Get The Chance, since then you creative career has blossomed, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?

 I grew up in South Wales, and getting involved in The Young Critics scheme nearly a decade ago ignited my creative industries career journey. This enabled me to see world-class productions like Belarus Free Theatre at the Sherman for free, and get my work published in stellar places like Wales Arts Review. That experience launched me into freelance work at National Theatre Wales, then a Marketing & PR role at Oxford Playhouse theatre.

My love of writing led to a comms job at a Welsh publisher, then a career as a Senior Book Publicity Manager in London, but the written word has always been my calling. This month, I was shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Trust Short Story Award. I moved back to Wales recently, and I’ve just submitted my debut historical mystery novel to my literary agent. Fingers crossed for a tidy book deal!

Fast forward to October 2022, and I’m halfway through an Arts Council Wales ‘Create’ grant for a storytelling project. My project includes time to write, mentoring with amazing storyteller of over 25 years Fiona Collins, and training at Ty Newydd Writers’ Centre.

Fiona Collins

A dream come true. It culminates in delivering accessible and free virtual storytelling workshops on theme of climate change and Welsh myths. More on this later in the Q&A, and I hope your readers can join us for a free workshop on the 1st November.

So, what got you interested in the arts?

I remember when I was about 7 years old, the National Museum of Wales did a competition for children to choose a painting in their collection and write a piece of art criticism about it. Larkspurs by Henri Fantin-Latour drew me to it – a still life with a vase of flowers.

My review was basic. A few lines about pretty pastel colours and how it made me happy. But it got published in the competition booklet. That made me feel listened to, and I realised that I had a voice in the artworld despite being a child.

I’m also lucky that my parents read me bedtime stories and took me to the library every week. That seeded my love of storytelling for life. I was about 18 years old before I visited a bookshop for the first time and bought a book, which people in the publishing industry find odd!

The other gamechanger was a scheme called ‘A Night Less Ordinary’ when I was a university student at Southampton University, a world away from the little Welsh village I grew up in. That enabled me to see a play every week for free. My passion for theatre was cemented. Prior to that, I’d only really been exposed to panto (which I love by the way, but I appreciated my eyes being opened to new and classic works).

Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?

Great question.  One of the best – and strangest – tips I’ve ever had for getting ideas when you’re stuck is to find water, because water makes you feel inspired. Wash dishes, brush teeth, have a shower, or walk by a river, and ideas will probably flow!

On a more practical level, I recommend the book The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron to everyone. It takes you on a 10 week journey of creative discovery and inspiration. Some aspects are a bit spiritual for me, but her advice such as doing a few minutes freewriting to start your day – a subconscious brain dump where you don’t edit yourself – is invaluable.

The way stories often appear to me is as lines of dialogue popping into my head at random moments. I start writing to try and work who’s saying those lines? Where are they? What happening? It’s like getting a line of script, and then you’re a director and the TV episode or film starts taking shape. Eventually, I can sit back and the scene plays out in my mind’s eye.

I just have to type quickly enough to catch everything I can see before me, and what’s being said.

Always carry a notebook with you to jot down the quirky things you overhear, or sights that catch your eye, or strange encounters. Keep it by your bedside too for scrawling down your dreams after you wake. You’ll never remember afterwards otherwise!

Things like ‘story cubes’ dice with pictures can help writer’s block, or using Tarot cards as visual prompts.

The other top tip is to read a lot in the genre you’re writing in. You’d be surprised how many writers I know say they’re too busy writing to read, but how can you fill up that well of ideas otherwise? For example, writing my Victorian crime novel, I binged on Sherlock Holmes stories to immerse myself in the atmosphere, voice, details of the era.

 I love this quote from Sylvia Plath: ‘everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’

Can you describe your writing day? Do you have a process or a minimum word count?

I’m definitely not a ‘get up at 6am with the sunrise’ writer! Because of my thyroid disorders, I get brain fog first thing. On a day I’ve carved out for writing, I take my time to get going. I’ll clear my email inbox, check social media, and have a some porridge, do a little walk outside, and try to be at my desk by 9.30am. Earl Grey tea fuels me.

Throughout the day, I write in 25-minute sprints followed by 5 minute breaks (known as the Pomodoro method). The game-changer for me was discovering a free productivity app called Forest. For every stint of focused work, you can plant a beautiful virtual tree. Once you’ve planted enough, the app plants a real-life tree for you to help the environment. Rewarding myself for sitting down at that blank page works for me.

Unusually, I have a “no wordcount” rule on my writing days. I never track or count words on a project – only time. But the reason is, writer’s often get demoralised by not hitting a wordcount target, whereas maybe that 8-hour wordless day was the most important one all month, because they sat back, stared out the window, and solved a huge plot hole. Mindset over wordcount any day: one you carry across projects, the other ends when the story does.

I’ll have another little walk at lunchtime, then work intensively until late. I’m a night owl so my best time to write is evening from 8pm to midnight. I enter the state between wake and sleep and the ideas flow.

I end the day filling in my bullet journal – a tip from author VE Schwab. You think of things you want to do that month: maybe yoga, novel writing, and cutting down on caffeine. Then you colour in a journal square for each day you achieved it. Whether you did 1 hour of writing or 10, you colour it in and feel a sense of achievement.

VE Schawb

 Why and where do you write?

 The simple answer is I write because I can’t not write. Creative expression is up there with food, water, and oxygen as an essential.

 There’s a brilliant Seamus Heaney quote on poetry: ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ I suppose writing short stories and novels is the same for me: an act self-reflection and understanding myself better.

It also helps me make sense of others and the world around me. Writing can be an act of empathy and connection, or a form of escapism and freedom. Sometimes my underlying health issues makes me tired, but when I’m in the flow of writing, I enter the realm of imagination and can forget all about that.

As for where I write, I find it hard to focus in noisy cafes or on a train. My ideal setting is a desk in my bedroom surrounded by snacks, with peace and quiet for hours, and a window with a view of nature. How often I achieve that is another matter!

Bethan’s ideal writing space

It was harder when I lived in a house share in London and worked exhausting 12 hour days in a busy book PR job. It’s easier now I’m back in Wales and working on my Arts Council Wales storytelling project.

You’re currently working with storyteller Fiona Collins, on a project called ‘Storytelling for Beginners: Retelling Welsh Myths for a Greener Future.’  The natural world is a strong theme in the tradition of Welsh Myths how does your new project re-interpret these for contemporary society?

 Yes, Welsh myths are rich with nature imagery and themes. My initial approach to re-interpreting these was to work with my mentor Fiona, and explore different tales that resonated with the climate crisis and ecological issues. Then we’d pick one to make the focus our Zoom workshop.

For example, in the Third Branch of the Mabinogion, magic lays waste the kingdom of Dyfed and all agriculture, domesticated animals, and humans vanish. The only four people left behind must find ways to survive and restore the land.

But the story that most resonated with me is The Tale of Taliesin, because it features the powerful woman and sorceress Ceridwen. She uses ingredients from nature like herbs in a spell to help her son gain knowledge and become accepted by others. In the story, he’s described as deformed and crippled, so it’s also a gateway to address current issues like eco-ableism.

The narrative has an incredible chase scene when Ceridwen transforms into different animals like a hare, otter and bird of prey. It brings nature to life and creates a strong connection with the environment and local species in listeners. This was important to me, as according to a Welsh Government July 2021 report, only 15% of the population believe climate change affects them. But issues such as extinction and habitat destruction are happening right under our noses in Wales.

Our workshop begins with a short present day re-telling of Ceridwen’s tale, where she’s a scientist instead of a sorceress. She mixes medicines in her lab instead of potions in her cauldron. Then participants can plant their own stories by taking part in creative activities with a green twist, to help them grow as a storyteller.

I believe if people can imagine stories where Wales has a greener future, then it can become a reality. Myths speak to us with powerful truths, and can be tools for planting the seeds of change, and for challenging narratives. The Welsh Government’s net zero goal by 2050 won’t succeed if people don’t believe in hopeful possibilities and get behind it.

A great resource about eco-lit and rewilding stories is https://dragonfly.eco/

The workshops are offered with access support including, “live captions and bilingual Welsh/ English workshop slides. You also state If you require sign language interpretation, or other access requirements, please let us know in advance. We will do our best to accommodate.”  Is access provision important to your delivery as a creative writer?

I live with chronic illnesses, and seek to support new writers and aspiring storytellers who are disabled / chronically ill/ neurodiverse/ or D(d)eaf. I understand first-hand how many barriers are out there. Now Covid lockdowns are over, it’s frustrating to see creative workshops and events becoming 100% in person only again, with no virtual offering or hybrid models.

Disabled people are underrepresented in publishing. The U.K.’s Publishers Association’s 2021 diversity survey found that 13% of respondents identified as having a disability. Few stories are told by disabled voices. I’m keen make sure my workshop is as accessible as possible to this community, so everyone feels welcome and can participate.

This also links to the ecological theme of the session. Disabled people are among the groups most affected by climate injustice. According to a World Health Organisation 2021 report, climate change is “the biggest health threat facing humanity”.

Likewise, I’m keen to make sure Welsh speakers have bilingual workshop slides and can access the activities in their preferred language. Although the workshop is in English, Fiona who co-delivers it, is a Welsh speaker who will do a reading in Welsh during the session. Afterwards, participants also receive a bilingual storytelling and climate change PDF resource pack.

How do we take part in the workshops and is there a cost?

 The workshop is totally free thanks to funding from Arts Council Wales and National Lottery Good Causes. We’d love you to join us on Tuesday 1st November via Zoom from 6.30-8.30pm!

It will be a 2-hour breath of creative fresh air, and we welcome anybody who wants to have a go at telling a story and exploring Welsh myths.

Just email storytellingwales@gmail.com to secure your free place and receive a Zoom link.

There are a range of organisations supporting Welsh and Wales-based writers. I wonder if you feel the current support network and career opportunities feel ‘healthy’ to you? Do you think its possible to sustain a career as a writer in Wales and if not what would help?

I’ve recently moved back to Wales after five years away in London, so I’m still trying to find my feet with exactly what support is out there for Welsh writers!

I’d struggle to support myself as a writer right now if not for my Arts Council Wales Create grant, which I’m extremely grateful for. They have a host of funding opportunities. I also recommend writers check out the Literature Wales website resources section.

As for storytelling in Wales, Beyond the Border organisation are doing great work, and their Mycelium Hub opens up opportunities for freelancers across the country.

That said, with risings bills and living costs, it can feel like a pipedream for many writers to sustain a career. The Society of Authors’ calculated that the average full-time professional author only has an income of around £10,500 a year. Most have to do a part-time job, or things like teaching or freelance editing/copywriting, to make ends meet.

I believe a key step to transform the lives of writers in Wales is introducing a Universal Basic Income for artists, like the trial scheme that just launched in Ireland. A total of 2,000 musicians, painters and writers in Ireland are set to receive a weekly basic income of €325 ($330) per week under a new 3-year pilot by Ireland’s government. Imagine how much more incredible work writers in Wales could produce if they weren’t exhausted from juggling two or three jobs to make ends meet?

 If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?

Obviously I’m biased and would love to see storytellers, creative writers, and the literary world fully funded and thriving! But I see the arts as a bit like an ecosystem, or a garden. When the plants, trees, flowers, soil and so on are all nurtured, it blooms. If you only focus on one flower bed, the garden won’t flourish. That’s partly why I feel the above creative industries’ pilot scheme in Ireland is so exciting – imagine how much collaboration and support between disciplines will grow there now? Not to mention how much the health and wealth of the nation as a whole will bloom when you invest in the arts.

 What excites you about the arts in Wales?

I’m particularly fascinated by the work going on in the Welsh cultural sector to tackle the climate crisis. For example, Arts Council Wales have funded a series of fellowships for artists, and are commissioning a ‘Strategy for Climate Justice and the Arts’ with Natural Resources Wales. I’m part of the Wales Climate & Culture Working Group, which has opened my eyes to the many incredible freelancers and organisations pushing tirelessly to make an impact in this area. It fills me with optimism for the future.

I also find the increase in social prescribing and utilising arts projects for well-being in the community a marvel. I was speaking to a Welsh storyteller the other day, who told me about her care home workshops and events with people living with Alzheimers. A promising development in the arts, and it opens up even more opportunities for freelancers.

What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?

Yesterday, I attended the book launch for The Rhys Davies Short Story Award anthology published by Parthian Books. It was a buzzy night of Q&As and readings. I’m always intrigued to hear what inspires and moves writers. I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy. It was wonderful to be shortlisted for this, and Laura Morris is a worthy winner – her story Cree, inspired by her job as a school teacher, is astounding. Grab a copy if you can.

Thanks for your time Bethan

 The free online workshop ‘Storytelling for Beginners: Retelling Welsh Myths for a Greener Future’ takes place on Tuesday 1st November at 6.30-8.30pm UK time. Email storytellingwales@gmail.com to secure your free place and receive a Zoom link.

“We have lots of fascinating, unique, and distinctive collections here, I am excited to share them with new audiences” An interview with Judith Dray and Mandie Garrigan, Library Services, Royal Welsh College of Music

Top Judith Dray, Head of Library Services, RWCMD, below Mandie Garrigan, Libraries Assistant, RWCMD. Judith Dray Photograph © Edmond Choo Photography

In this interview, Director of Get the Chance, Guy O’Donnell chats to Judith Dray, Head of Library Services, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Mandie Garrigan, Libraries Assistant, RWCMD. We discuss their roles at the College, access to the library, the Drama Association of Wales Collection and their latest recommendations!

What got you interested in the library service?

MG: I have a background in the performing arts and managing bookshops in Hay-on-Wye but more importantly my jobs have been customer serviced based which is required for this role. The library service here is a little different, it allows me to interact with our staff and students, but I’ve also been working with our archives and special collections (mostly the College Archives and The Foyle Opera, Rara Collection).

Working in the library also involves helping on projects, creating working systems and generally having a go at anything! I started managing the DAW (Drama Association of Wales) collection when I covered for a maternity post 5 years ago. I manage all the memberships, orders, invoicing and have catalogued the sets in the past.

JD: Like Mandie, I have a background in performing arts. I also have lots of experience working in higher education, both working with research collections and supporting learning. I originally came to the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) as an archivist in 2018 and then was seconded to Head of Library Services during the pandemic and became permanent in 2022. The role marries together my background in the performing arts with my passions for libraries and higher education. We have lots of fascinating, unique, and distinctive collections here: I’ve loved finding out about them and I’m excited to share them with new audiences.

The RWCMD library houses the Drama Association of Wales (DAW) collection. This is the largest lending collection of scripts in English in the UK and is available for hire to individuals and groups. Can you tell me more about the collection and how it’s used?

JD: The Drama Association of Wales formerly housed the largest lending collection of scripts in English in the UK. In 2014, the play text collection transferred to the RWCMD Library and is available for hire to individuals and groups. Mandie is the person who works most closely with the collection and the people and groups who borrow from it.

MG: The collection inherited some members when it came here, so when it arrived a membership scheme was set up where groups or individuals pay to become members. This allows them to have access to the collection and borrow plays. We have some University of the Third Age members, amateur drama groups, play reading groups and individuals who enjoy our plays. Over the last few years, Covid has changed the way people meet and groups are only just getting back together, so the service is now running again. We would like to develop the service over the next few years, and it is currently under review.

Michael Sheen patron of Drama Association of Wales and International Chair of Drama, RWCMD said of the collection “This drama collection is of hugely significant cultural value. It’s imperative that it’s saved for the nation. It seems fitting that it’s been rescued by the Royal Welsh College, and found its rightful home at the National Conservatoire of Wales.”

Michael Sheen, © Kiran Ridley Photography

Can the public access the RWCMD Library?

JD: We welcome community members to the RWCMD Library. It’s free to browse and members of the public can join in order to borrow items. There’s more information about joining online here and we welcome enquiries by email (library@rwcmd.ac.uk).

MG: Yes, anyone can join as Judith says, and you can now browse a portion of the DAW collection online. I think around 2,800 of the DAW plays have been catalogued now, mainly the sets.

With increased pressure on public funding many Library services have been cut or are under threat, why are libraries important to you and wider society?

JD: As an academic library, we are not facing the same existential threats as many public libraries have faced in recent times, but it is a worrying trend. Libraries are not just about lending books. At their best, libraries can foster communities; they can provide safe spaces; and they can promote equality and inclusion by giving free access to resources, computers, and equipment.

What was the last really great book that you read that you would like to share with our readers?

JD: Earlier this year I read Whole Notes: Life Lessons through Music by Ed Ayres. I’ve been recommending it to everyone and bought a copy for the RWCMD Library. It is about music, healing, the lived experiences of a transgender musician, teaching, learning and so much more. It also includes Spotify playlists which enable the reader to share in some of Ed’s experiences which I thought was a lovely touch.

MG: Not my last but I am reading Breath: A New Science of a Lost Art by James Nester which is also available in our library. I’m only on the first few chapters but it’s one of those books that can challenge your perception on something we all do. I enjoy books that question the way we think about our bodies and mental health. I am also very keen browser of our art and design books, one of my favourites being Stages of decay by Julia Solis, a book depicting various theatres/performing areas in dilapidated conditions which are strangely beautiful.

Review: The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, by Sian Thomas

Three stars.

I have struggled to get stuck into Welcome to Nightvale books in the past, and I worried that this would be the case when I bought this book, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. I have put down and picked up the original Welcome to Nightvale podcast a few times and consider myself committed to it again, currently. I’m caught up on the material, but find it admirable that the novels usually are able to stand on their own two feet, though they certainly hit harder when the homework has been done.

I feel Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s writing is something to be listened to, rather than read, sometimes. Though I don’t think this is any fault of theirs – I’m just used to it being done this way, in that particular medium, from years of a bimonthly updated podcast appearing in my feed. This isn’t to say the writing is weak, but there is a particular voice to it that seems lulling, perhaps. Not slow, but steady. This did cause some difficulties for me while I was reading – waning interest, feeling, somehow, incredibly tired after a bout of reading. But this doesn’t mean that the book is bad. Quite the opposite, I think the book is quite impressive, especially as its from the perspective of a secondary Welcome to Nightvale character.

The book follows the life of the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home, a well known character from the original podcast, exploring her life, history, and purpose, as well as how she came to be the recognisable character in the podcast that she is. It’s a fun read, with a lot of high stakes action and adventure, and a long sense of history behind it. I prefer not to spoil books in my reviews, but I find that this story was a nice piece of a puzzle I didn’t know that I was originally missing. I enjoyed the way that the novel almost felt larger than life and older than time – full of travel and the slow march of time in the face of a person’s goals.

I found it to be an enjoyable read. The chapters being fairly short complemented the steady flow of the writing style, to save from any encroaching boredom and to create intrigue with sharp endings. I would, however, only really recommend it to anyone who has some knowledge of the main show at least, as I believe the final few chapters feel a lot more complete that way, and end quite neatly if you fully understand what is happening around the central character. That being said, the story can stand on its own, and if you’re not too bothered about understanding the “lore” then dive right in! Enjoy a pirate story on a winding path to your heart’s content. 

Sian Thomas.

Review John Waters, False Negative Barbican by James Ellis 

John Waters, filmmaker and writer presents his comic monologue covering his career, movies, fashion and art in the Barbican Hall on Friday, 10 June 2022. Photo by Mark Allan
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Dubbed “The Pope of bad taste”, anyone who has ever seen a John Waters film (I’m talking about the early stuff) will never forget it, try as they might! With this notorious reputation, John aged of 76 finally written his first novel: Liarmouth. I get the feeling he has done his live show just to do a shameless plug, the queue after the performance was a long as the Barbican is a maze. No doubt he would never take offence to any of my words.

His film work is a revelation, a huge point of reference for the LGBT community, even with the tidal wave of problematic themes and subplots. The giddy air at the Barbican greeted John with huge burst of loving applause, arriving in a bold, yet fashionable floral, black and white smock (something I adored). Of course, he had his famous, pencil moustache to boot. It’s the insights, the references, the name dropping and the snarling comebacks that made this live experience an overwhelming gush of camp. The spirt of drag artist Divine, John’s most infamous collaboration was ever present on this night. Divine, who may have been one of the funniest and brilliant people ever to be on film, also proved his chops with more acclaimed work of John’s with Polyester and the original incarnation of Hairspray. 

I knew this would be funny and it was. I found myself scoffing as many times as I was amused, the compulsion of big, hearty laughs caught me off guard. More recent remarks about Covid, vaccines and even Johnny Depp (he worked with John on Cry Baby) stood out as highlights. The amazing thing about this man is he makes you love trash, through a mirror of irony and self confidence. No one really makes me feel like John, his openness and mockery of things he adores are proof that comedy can be funny and not always mean at the same time. You just can’t cancel him, try as they might. A frenzied Q & A proved how much adoring fans can’t get enough of him, John declaring on a few occasions “One at a time!” due to his poor hearing. 

He declared that Liarmouth is the most outrageous piece he has done since Pink Flamingoes of 1972. That is saying a lot, but the book is now top of my list of must read books. Only I don’t think I’m quite ready for it…            

Liarmouth, published by Corsair is now available online and all good retailers. 

Review: Conversations With People Who Hate Me by Dylan Marron, By Sian Thomas

Four stars

I remember when this podcast went live, boosted somewhere into my online feed because I had been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, even as I felt it slipping from my grasp of enjoyment (it’s back now).

“Conversations With People Who Hate Me” is a podcast initially beginning with Dylan Marron, the creator, reaching out to people who have left him mean comments on his online work. They discuss the comment, among other things, and while not strictly having to come to some ample, satisfactory conclusion, usually both parties leave the table feeling different to how they sat down at it. It would later evolve into Dylan moderating a conversation between two people – one whose work or art piece or the like received a mean comment, and the person who left it.

I thought this was an interesting idea when it first came out back in 2017, mostly because I’d seen nothing like it outside of thinking back to when you’d get taught as a kid to “be nice”, or “not get angry” that kind of thing, that parents kind of do: “Remember to share!” when they’re, I don’t know, in the kitchen, and not watching you not share. “Just talk!” felt like impractical advice, I wasn’t sure how it would help, if it even could. But I remember listening to a few episodes before I fell off of podcasts entirely, (not for any particular reason, I think it would mostly down to this itch in my brain that told me if I’m listening to people speak then I have to listen and I found myself unable to do anything else if I had a podcast on, and I must not have been getting enough A-Level revision done as a result) listening to the back and fore of a conversation that would definitely frustrate me, but I found Dylan was navigating well. It wasn’t something I could have done. I’m not certain it is now, five years on.

The book was quite a lot about how the podcast came to be, and what was learned during its creation process. Which is fine, truthfully, I wasn’t sure it would be about anything else since the book and the podcast shared the same name. There is a tale woven within it about what the internet is and what it could be – how it effects us and the kinds of things, good and bad, it can lead us to doing or feeling. I enjoyed seeing the depth of something I had liked and then lost hold of years ago, re-entering my vision in a way that contextualised and solved what probably caused me to drop it in the first place. I don’t think I was ready to have the kinds of conversations Dylan was having then, and while I’m not convinced I am now, either, one thing I found dazzlingly soothing was the understanding of the “Everything Storm”. The “Everything Storm” is kind of how it sounds: everything is happening all the time, all at once, and if you can’t keep up, someone on the internet definitely thinks you suck. I never realised this was what was causing my own version of an internet fatigue, but on reading Dylan’s detailing of his own (even as it was attributed to discussions he was having and manifesting as different emotions and actions for him), I was like, oh man, this is it. This is what pushed me to the private twitter with all of my ten highly vetted followers, what made me rest my phone face down. It was nice to put a name to that weird feeling of guilt when something happens and all I can think when I look at it was, “Oh no. Not now. Please.”

This was definitely a feature of the book I really enjoyed, the detailing of the arcs of a conversation, serving you pieces you can recognise and take away with you, the smallest of navigation tips to assure your nerves if you ever take on the kind of conversations Dylan does.

The book is delightfully written, reading like a winding story while instilling a genuine lesson. I don’t often read non-fiction, but when I do I find I prefer it to feel almost personal. I enjoyed this deep dive into the very back of Dylan Marron’s mind: what lead to the podcast and the further book, and all the nuances of creation that came both before, and during, this chapter of his life. I can see why it would have been difficult to write, after learning it was supposed to release in mid 2020, not the first half of 2022. The deliberation of what may come of these “pieces” – the consequences to all of Dylan’s actions, in a way -was purposeful and honest. Which is refreshing to see in world tearing itself apart wondering who the main character of the day is, and how exactly then can get got.

I think Dylan Marron is the kind of person you either quietly follow through the years, even if you’re not aware that you are (which is the category I fall into: I heard of him through his work on Welcome to Night Vale, and found myself coming back to his page every so often to see what, if anything, had changed), or, one day, you happen upon him by accident entirely. For a long time he was just “that voice on that show I used to listen to”, but I realise now Dylan is much more and has been doing much, much more than that. I get the feeling that this is something of a memoir rather than a self-help-essay-type of book like Good Vibes Good Life by Vex King, which I really, really like. It feels real and honest; genuine and undoubtfully true. It has a similar kind of vibe to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic – a snippet of a wide, three-dimensional life, and how it made an unfathomably large ripple across the rest of that person’s days.

It was a fantastic read. I don’t know that I would recommend it to everyone, but I think it’s one of those books where if you look into it yourself and think yeah, I can get behind this, then do.

Sian Thomas

Review: The Damning Stone by TJ Klune by Sian Thomas

Five stars

The most recent instalment of TJ Klune’s Tales From Verania series hit this week. I had it on pre-order once I’d realised how quickly this book had snuck up on me. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect; I knew there would be more on my reading of the last book in the series, Fairytales from Verania, and I knew that the point of view was set to shift from Sam (who the main series has as it’s point of view) to Prince Justin (a character greatly involved in the main story – in the main cast, but a side character of the main cast). This was something I initially felt a little unsure of – although this is something TJ Klune has done before in his Green Creek series, something about a series so firmly set in one characters eyes for four (and a bit) books, the jump felt a little out of left field, and I was left wondering if it would feel too different to cohesively flow. But, luckily, the writing is as seamless as ever; the dialogue continues to be a fun twist of modern and sharp, playfully funny, and honestly genuine.

The story itself is full of twists and turns; a seed of doubt blossoming and the aftermath of the “main” series concluding neatly, which I liked to see. I went into this book quite blind as, I’ve found, TJ Klune does an excellent job at saving the cliff-hanger for the next book to the very, very last moment, so I had nothing bracing me for the story of this book. Which made it great fun as it unfolded before my eyes. I read it in about two days, absolutely enamoured by the way the cast dynamics were shifting, and the story that was before me. I don’t want to write about any spoilers (especially since the book only came out this week, so that wouldn’t be fair, and I think it’s better to go in with the rest of the series strapped to your back, rather than jumping into this one and being blindsided entirely).

I feel as though once you start a TJ Klune series, there is a comfortable air of “sameness” that begins to gather around you. This cast of characters was familiar to me, to a point where I could start to guess their reactions to events in the story – I usually don’t enjoy this, but with a series of books I find it just different enough for me to forgive. I’ve spent countless hours reading these stories and getting familiar with the characters to the point where I am entrenched in the world, and I feel better every day for having decided to read this series. TJ Klune’s writing, while always excellent, is beginning to feel homely and safe, which I genuinely appreciate in a world of shock-death-endings or abrupt cancellations. So, when the tense “final battle” of this book began (and tense it was!) I found that I wasn’t nervous – I didn’t have a coil of disappointment ready to spring in my gut, because it simply wasn’t there. TJ’s storytelling is a great skill of his, but I find his openness with his audience something far more remarkable.

The Tales From Verania series is an excellent (albeit, not a child-friendly one) story of love and hardship, friendship and connection. This book pushes that even further, now with the invitation to further lands in the fictional world which will, I’m sure, draw more characters into the wide circle of the main cast. And I am excited to meet every single one that shows its face.

Sian Thomas

Review Spring’s Green Shadow by Cecily Mackworth Publisher: Honno Welsh Women’s Press Review By Barbara Michaels

 ISBN 1912905493,9781912905492,

 price £10.23 paperback, £7.59 Kindle (Amazon)

One of the latest additions to the Welsh Women’s Classics series published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press, Spring’s Green Shadow is a novel based on a true story – that of the author herself.  Cecily Mackworth, born in the early years of the twentieth century, (1911) was a journalist, author, and poet born and brought up in Wales who later lived in Paris during a period of political turbulence.

First published in 1952, set in both Wales and Paris, this new edition of Mackworth’s novel has a lengthy introduction by historian and biographer Angela John, an honorary professor of Swansea University.

And thereby lies the rub, for worthy and meticulous in detail as is John’s introduction, it also to some extent gives the game away.  In many respects, Cecily Mackworth’s own story can be seen as similar to that of the novel’s fictional heroine, Laura Gethryn. However, any sense of deja vue is justified giving as it does the raison d’ȇtre of the novel.

As the story opens the reader is introduced to Laura, the intellectually inclined and high-spirited daughter of a father left broken and emasculated by the first World War and a mother, made demanding and bad tempered by events.  The early years of Laura’s life are spent living with her parents in Monmouthshire where her father’s family have been landowners for many generations. Continually berated by her parents for not conforming to the dictates of the time regarding a woman’s role in life and a daughter’s duty – i.e.to make a good marriage – Laura’s frustration erupts into action when she comes under the influence of the working-class intellectual Mr Howells. Rebelling against her mother’s refusal to allow her to pursue her education, Laura escapes to begin a new life with the Howells family

The focus on woman’s emancipation gives a contemporary feel to this novel, despite it being evocative of a bygone era.  Mackworth’s brilliant descriptive powers give a vivid and at times uncomfortable portrayal of life as it was back in the early part of the twentieth century for an ambitious woman writer determined to bring some unpleasant truths to the notice of the powers that be.

 While it has to be said that this part of her book is to a degree biographical, giving as it does a close resemblance to Mackworth’s own experiences as a woman who was herself involved in at times dangerous confrontations regarding a number of controversial issues., it is none the worse for doing so.

Not only is Spring’s Green Shadow an interesting read in its own right as a novel, it has the additional benefit of historical worth, documenting as it does the mores of an era in which long-held beliefs both at home and abroad were questioned as the winds of change blew over Europe.

Review: De Cineribus From the Ashes by Thomas Vaccaro by Sian Thomas

Four stars

Thomas Vaccaro’s De Cineribus: From the Ashes was a book I honestly wasn’t sure I’d like. I like Thomas’s YouTube videos a lot (their channel name being Unicorn of War), as I am certainly a sucker for a good video essay to absorb over a plate of food (my favourites being their RWBY reviews and rewrites, and their Taylor Swift song discussions), but I’d realised with YouTuber books they were often – well, bad. Or at least, would quickly fade from the limelight or fall from grace in a record speed. I was worried, at first, that this book would be similar; a money grab, rather than a labour of love.

I was wrong, and pleasantly so.

One of Thomas Vaccaro’s strengths, I think, is their ability to think far ahead with their plots. Admittedly, I found their channel because I was actively looking for content about RWBY that would prove its awful writing, terrible production, and overall bad reception, and what I found was someone who was lovingly taken the broken, beaten show, and making it into something of their own. RWBY is its own show, yes, but I admired Thomas Vaccaro’s way of reshaping the information we (RWBY’s audience) have, and turning the plot into something both actually palatable and genuinely fun. This was a quality I was sure would shine through in their book, even while I still quietly worried about the production quality of it. Despite that, at the very least, I knew the story was in perfectly capable hands.

And it was.

De Cineribus mainly follows Felix, a young adult about to enter the college scene, heading off to a college for those with magic powers. He finds friends, enemies, suffers his wins and his definite losses. A few other perspectives are followed throughout the story but this, I realised, does not take from Felix’s perspective as sometimes multiple POV stories can do. Rather I found the jumps in perspective enlightening, and definitely enriching of the wider plot as new characters would pose new questions to me (what’s happening here? How does it relate back and affect Felix? How much do they know? Whose side are they on?).

As I said, I admire Vaccaro’s dedication to writing and storytelling. It’s most definitely a skill of theirs, and clearly shows through the books. First of all, the book is just over 500 pages long, so you can tell that’s dedication to a story for one! But mainly it comes in the depth and complexity of their characters (and there’s a good number of them!) but while the cast of characters is big, it is not overwhelming. There are not so many that I can’t keep track, or I can’t remember whose skill is what, or who matters to who. This is something I was incredibly relieved to find out as often college/magical fantasy stories often have casts as far as the eye can see. This is something RWBY is completely guilty of, and I found myself noticing Vaccaro’s particular points about RWBY being contested in their own work. Characters in De Cineribus are fleshed out, have their own skills and limits, motivations, and broad personalities. I liked being able to not expect what a character would be like based on their skills. Healers who aren’t friendly, teachers who are cranky, teachers who are jovial, etc. I liked, especially, that while Felix was for the most part sweet and caring and loyal, he also had a very clear dark underbelly to his character; one that was angry, determined to the point of obsessive, and sometimes a bit scary. It was nice to see a main character with real faults, and real regrets when those faults caught a hold of him too strongly.

The writing is strong and done with precision (although I’ll admit I found a few typos – but to err is human. And even so, I can’t even remember where they were or what they were!), Vaccaro’s skill and dedication really shine through the way the dialogue is youthful but not cringey, and the way their descriptions are alluring but not droning. The prose itself was enjoyable, turns of phrase appearing that I wouldn’t have expected, I think I was most fond of “bust a gut” to describe laughter, since this isn’t an image I usually come across, and it definitely elevated the youth of the characters and the depth of their emotions.

The book is, as I said, just over 500 pages – so, not a quick read, but a fun, entangling one.I trust Thomas to make a strong series based on their passion and unwavering dedication. Since this is called book one, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the story may go. Especially since the books ends in a very apt spot for a sequel to take over.I admire their dedication to their craft and in particular, to their audience.

I appreciate aspects I’ve otherwise never seen in literature such as their comprehensive list of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book, and good sized chapters – long enough to engage, short enough that I don’t get bored.

I was initially worried about boring fantasy tropes showing their head throughout this text, as most fantasy books fall victim to at least a few. And while I’m sure a few did seep in there, I was pleasantly surprised when things didn’t turn out that way and I actually couldn’t guess where the story would go as it progressed, which was definitely a breath of fresh air for me.

Overall, the book was a fun, immersive read. Especially for fans of things such as Harry Potter but have outgrown it or do not wish to support its author. It’s a fun, youthful take on the “wizard school” idea, one ripe for a new generation and a new presence in literature. 

Sian Thomas

Review: It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover by Sian Thomas

Four stars

It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover is one of those books I heard about over and over and over again and kept skirting the edges of to get away from. With her skyrocket into popularity, I found myself jumping through hoops to avoid her work, for no other reason than: I had a weird feeling I’d like it, and because I know she has so many books published, I simply didn’t have the time or money to fall into her work and out the other side, changed.

Then I got paid.

It Ends With Us was the kind of book floating all over booktok, appearing and disappearing in book group posts I would skim read; it was popular, easy to read, and seemingly either incredibly well-liked, or vehemently hated. I wanted to know why. Even when I was actively avoiding it, I wanted to know what it was that was happening to people that their reviews were becoming so mixed.

I thought, when I was reading it, that it would be down to its “chicklit” factor. The book itself being pink, and Hoover being notably a romance writer, I thought people were detesting it because it was a gooey, lovey dovey easy read, and not an absolute draining challenge of some such classic literature you’d find on a university reading list that I’m sure I would hate after half of the first page. I found myself believing this at one point, questioning if something that had so clearly rocketed into pop culture, wouldn’t it be too easy for me?

And then I decided I didn’t care. I’d been paid. My New Year’s Resolution was to read twenty books this here and here was a book I was interested in; I had to take the opportunity before it skirted me, the same way I had been skirting It Ends With Us. I bought it one day after work, snatching it from the shelf before I had a chance to think about it too long, rushing myself through the till before I had the chance to turn around and put it back.

Besides, if I didn’t like it, there is a cute phone-box-library right by my house, and I’m sure someone, somewhere, would like it more than me.

I kept it. I’m keeping it forever, tucked nicely into the pink section of my bookshelf. Because I liked it. As I, ironically, knew that I would.

It Ends With Us is a fun book at first. A real page turner as one relationship blossoms right before the reader’s eyes and the other notable relationship come sneaking out of the shadows, piece by piece. I admit, I’m no high class literature snob (except for when I want to be), so when the blurb said something much more wordy than simply “Man A meets Man B and which one will it be at the end?” I had two main thoughts: I’m too good for this and this is going to be a great read for me. I got over myself quick when I found I was six chapters in the same day I’d started reading, and had the feeling that by that time tomorrow, the book would be finished.

I had heard a lot of different opinions on Colleen Hoover’s writing style, and I had initially been worried that I wouldn’t like it. But admittedly, the writing style is easy and quick. Not plain, exactly, but simple. Easy to follow and, as I found out, easy to get lost in. The book is fast paced with short to mid length chapters (which I certainly appreciate, I always felt like short chapters feel more like the book is moving, rather than longer ones), and with its page-turner ability, I found the book was over far sooner than I’d expected.

The story progresses as (no spoilers): Lily meets Ryle and they hit it off. It’s great, until. And also in the mix is an old friend of Lily’s she was once in love with.I know it sounds very chicklit-y. It is. But that’s honestly what made it fun for me. I’m excited for the sequel to be released and seeing what happened to the cast of characters next.

There are a few things I have noticed in my last few reads, and this one, that have pulled me from my escapism of reading and placed me squarely back in real life. I’m not sure if it’s a trope in and of itself, but I’ve noticed a prevalent “rich best friend” character appearing; funding or enabling the main characters lifestyle, existing for exuberant gifts, there for not much more of a purpose than “be rich” and “be convenient”, which is a shame. I get the feeling that it’s easy, that Rich Best Friend nullifies a lot of typical people-problems, but I find this also voids a certain aspect of relatability to the cast of characters. But honestly, that was the only flaw I saw in the book – everything else about it was compelling and emotional, intriguing and fun!

Sian Thomas