Try Reading Blog

"The world is a strange and terrifying place": James Varney reviews "Dressing" by Michael DeForge

Posted Tuesday 4 December 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

"I first encountered Michael DeForge in issue #7 of his comic series, Lose, and it was revolting. Flesh may as well be jelly in his illustrations; bodies flow from one shape to another, and his longer stories feature grotesque and beautiful physical transformations, or slow but inevitable bodily degradation.

Dressing coverDressing is a short story collection. The stories are all comics but aside from including images and text they range in style and form wildly. More than once, I have handed the collection to someone and seen them amazed to know the whole thing is the work of a single person. Deforge will return to writing and illustration styles he has used before but has the ability to adapt his style for the story he is telling. This means we find abstract lines and colours accompanied by sentences of prose, in All of My Friends, Up High, in a Jumbo Jet, in the same collection as the simple, expressive figures and visual storytelling in the panel-comic Mars is my Last Hope.

The startling thing about Michael DeForge’s writing and creations is that in amongst stories of mermaid-based dot coms, flirting fish, leaping millions of miles in one bound, he retains the ability to recreate the tangible, skin-tearing awkwardness of human interactions. Someone’s face may melt away into a shapeless lump, but the tension in the story comes from their parents cutting off communication, their milk mysteriously curdling. Bodies are frequently an inconvenient detail of DeForge’s work – he deviates persistently from presenting naturalistic human characters. And the result is stories where changing emotional states are as important as morphing physical ones.

Christmas DressingIn Dressing, DeForge writes about anxiety, relationships, depression and alienation with the sense of a hand held out to you, which rather than taking your hand, strokes your elbow. The comics in Dressing end suddenly – you turn a page and there is a new story, the last panel you read becomes the final panel and suddenly is transformed. You’re forced to make sense of it. And that latent finality is something I see in the small mysteries of life, moments that are suddenly retroactively given significance: the last time you hung out with a partner before they dumped you, the morning you woke up before discovering someone had died.

My favourite by far is My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat, a scrappy and brutal comic in eight panels, ‘Drawn on a flight between Oakland and Las Vegas 08/10/2014’. It feels like an idea thrown down with force and exemplifies what I love most about DeForge’s work. DeForge’s characters are abject. They are at the mercy of both their own unreliable flesh, and the cruel rules of social interaction. The world is a strange and terrifying place, and so is your own body."

About the reviewer

James VarneyJames Varney is a writer and theatre maker based in Manchester. He has written for Le Monde, The Real Story, Exeunt and The Stage. He is currently developing Prince Gorge, a long-form poem and gig in which Prince George of Cambridge grows up to become a Queer cult leader. He maintains a blog of cultural criticism at and tweets @mrjvarney.

Event Boundary, a dramatic monologue written by James, was performed as part of My Uncle Who Works For Nintendo, a night of new writing inspired by playground rumours, urban myths and creepypastas at The Peer Hat in Manchester, Wed 25 October.

James is one of the featured writers in The Last Christmas, a collaboration between Writing Squad writers and Composers from the No Dice Collective, at the Anthony Burgess centre, Manchester on 7 December

"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days": Sharon Bolton visits Ramsbottom Library

Posted Monday 3 December 2018 by Ian Anstice in Author blogs, Events, Opinion

Sharon Bolton at RamsbottomIt was great to see a big author like Sharon Bolton come to a library like Ramsbottom for several reasons.  For one, the library is not huge unlike many that would normally see Sharon. Another is that the library is absolutely gorgeous, in a picturesque Lancashire town very reminiscent of the area described in her book “The Craftsman”. And, finally, of course, this was the culmination of the Great North West Read, a regional promotion that was instrumental in having such an author in the region in the first place.

But what was she like?

Well, the intelligence shines off her for a start. This is someone who would be fascinating no matter what she was talking about and this talk, which she must have delivered several times at least before, was no exception.

It started off spooky. Her parents lived in a church. They had quiet neighbours, people joked. But it got the young Sharon thinking that the best place to bury someone you have murdered would be in a graveyard. After all, there’s so many there already, another one may not be noticed.

Sacrifice BoltonHer first book to sell was “Sacrifice” and she was thrilled to get it not just in bookshops in this country but also internationally. It’s a thriller with a slightly supernatural twist. But not too supernatural, for she is a Gothic writer and thing with those is that, however it may appear, there’s no magic involved. Sharon sees magic as, vaguely, like cheating. It’s just human wickedness. But that should be scary enough.

“From the very first page I want my readers to be scared. If they're reading in bed, I want them to want check underneath them." she days.  You don't need gratuitous violence or ghosts to scare people, just hints and a good story will do it.

She then goes through her other books. Her next one was “Blood Harvest” which was rewritten from her very first big story idea which she never did get published, just with all the supernatural stuff taken out. There was a short trailer about the book which did, indeed, look very spooky.

Sharon used to live near where the Jack the Ripper murders took place so, Sharon being Sharon, this got her thinking. So she wrote a book partly inspired by the grisly Victorian events and produced “Now You See Me”. She did a ton of research for the book, including finding out that the lore around Jack is largely made up by detectives who worked on the case wanting to sell books. But one thing is clear: Jack was either very clever or very lucky, because he killed people in busy areas where it would have been easy for someone to have spotted him.

Bolton Now You See MeThe book started a series featuring a young female police constable – also a feature of The Craftsman – called Lacy Flint, trying to hunt down a killer while keeping her own dark past a secret. . Sharon thinks it's one of her best and may bring her back.

The author was born in Lancashire and lived there for her first eighteen years, being raised amongst all the local traditions of ghosts and the Pendle Witches. But the latter were real people.  Twelve men and women were executed for "murder by witchcraft", Mainly women. Sharon, being rational, discounts the magic aspect but also the criminal bit, saying at the very worst they were low level confidence tricksters.

What makes society turn on weakest, she asks. “"We don't hang people for witchcraft any more but there are still witch hunts".

So she knew she wanted to write about the area but, damn it, Jeanette Winterson got there first and, what is more, her book “Daylight Gate” was excellent. Sharon even read an extract of it approvingly, where it says "The North is a dark place ... Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.". She is constantly amused that Lancashire people don't feel indignant by that description, they feel proud.

"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days, she says. And looking at that intelligence in her eyes, and from what I know of the intense sexism of the times, I’d say she’s probably right."

So now to Craftsman, where Florence is a senior police officer looking for closure over a murder decades before and wondering if she caught the right man. Foolishly, too, she has brought the son with her. "It's a book about me or a woman like me"

And then suddenly it was question time, which Sharon insisted on. She likes questions.

She says her characters are not always “nice”. They have dark sides and that Lacey evolves immensely over the series. Sharon is more interested in baddies

Why is Sharon no longer called SJ? Because men have got over not being comfortable reading women authors.  When she started, it was thought being female would put off men. Not any more. Especially as being there is social media, everyone knows she’s a woman anyway. Moreover, there are quite a few “SJ” authors so it was getting confusing. So ... Sharon.

Sharon Bolton witch huntWhy did she choose the Falklands as a setting for one of her books? She always thought islands are perfect for thrillers. But every Island in the UK has already been taken so she chose the Falklands, which are like the UK but decades ago. Also, she likes islands. And Pendle felt very island-like in the book.

Why has she not written about Salem? She’s interested but there’s more than enough material in England and Salem has been written about enough.  Also, the same thing happened there than in Pendle. Driven like in America often by mercenary reasons.

But I suspect that Sharon is not driven by mercenary reasons, although she notes that as a professional writer she does not have the luxury of simply not writing. I suspect she writes because she has to write. And they can’t be kept in but burst out of her. Like a demon. A very rational, scientifically explainable one.

A video of the visit can be seen here.

Burning with energy: Burnley Library

Posted Monday 12 November 2018 by Ian Anstice in Opinion, Training

I had the sheer pleasure last week of talking to David Ridehalgh of Burnley Library about the Burnley Literary Festival and other things like disembodied flying witches, of which more later ...

Burnley Literary Festival

Unusually for a small town with such a wide ethnic mix, Burnley has a thriving literary festival which has been going on for three years. If you drive into the town at the moment, as I did, you’ll see signs for the festival, which is fantastic. The local radio station is also up for publicising it and so everyone in the town is at least aware of it, giving it a reach normally beyond that of a library service. And this shows in attendance. Events get 30 or 40 people coming to them, which is brilliant, with such visitors often not being library users to begin with.

Burnley FestAnd there’s a need to attract non-library users. There are real pockets of poverty and poor literacy in the town. Those two so often go together. A lot of people just don’t go to cultural events, especially if they have to travel, and so the festival brings the events to the people, as things should be. The events are free as a way of reducing barriers – experience shows that locals are often put off by charged events – and are open to all. The library works closely with local schools and has regular class visits, with the idea being that “if you work together, you can achieve more”.

Stemming from an idea from Burnley Council, the library service jumped at the festival as a way of boosting library usage, and have been keen partners from the start. There is funding from Arts Council England and also from the local Stocks Massey bequest. This means that the library events are free, with Lancashire offering the building and staffing as its contribution in kind. As is common with free events, there is some non-attendance but a good 80% do come to the library when they say they will. Oh, and what a building, it’s gorgeous, with an impressive pillared façade leading into wood-lined rooms with an awful lot of stained glass.

"... there’s a need to attract non-library users. There are real pockets of poverty and poor literacy in the town. Those two so often go together."

David sees the point of the festival, and other events put on, as ways of providing – and this is important – high quality events to local people. This encourages them to come back as well as attracting people from outside of the area. The events also need to be fairly individual and not mirroring something happening just miles away. Moreover, the library has learnt to taylor events for the local audience. What works elsewhere does not necessarily work locally.

An example of this is the Light Parade. The Library is involved in doing craft workshops beforehand, creating lit props like umbrellas shaped as jellyfish and encouraging the lanterns to be created locally rather than shipping them in. And, wow, what a result. 1500 attended the last parade.

"1500 attended the last parade"

Cater the event to your audience. The same does not work everywhere. Learn My Way works well here., not so much in more affluent areas.  Unemployed needs email address. Vital for universal credit.

Witching videoAnd now, finally, for the flying witches. David has a background in graphic design and this shows. There have been some lovely displays, with the one that (literally) stood out for me being a witch flying in the area as a result of a projector (only £70 apparently - see in "the technical bit" below) shining on a gauze cloth. It was the most impressive display I’ve seen in a library and is an idea that’should be adopted more.

So, Burnley Library is working hard to be an important part of the local community. All of the local community. And it does that by working with partners and the public to put on individual and high quality events.

"Burnley Library is working hard to be an important part of the local community. All of the local community. And it does that by working with partners and the public to put on individual and high quality events"

The technical bit

The projector usef is an Excelvan 3D DVB-T Theatre projector. It is an LED projector – the picture quality is better – and is capable of projecting 3D movies/images and can also be used for Virtual Reality. It was available on eBay for around £70-£80 but they can be pricey from places like PC World. They also allow for HDMI input too which means you don’t have to use a PC/Laptop. I have attached a video of what it looks like this year.

The website where the 'illusions' were purchased from is here - There are some absolutely amazing scenes on there and they can all be purchased via download reasonably.  YouTube have a good collection of videos and effects and there are quite a few cheap DVDs or Blu-Rays that have holiday scenes on… it appears to be a growing market. Netflix also do have a few 'atmospheric' shows called moving wallpapers, there are tropical, underwater and winter scenes that do work really well when projected. The Christmas one is especially good and I think I may be using it this year.

The Great North West Read!

Posted Tuesday 6 November 2018 by Ian Anstice in Latest Libraries News

The Great North West Read encourages everyone to read and discuss the same book during the month of November. 22 library services throughout the North West, from Cumbria to Chester, including all of Greater Manchester and Merseyside are involved.

This year, we are delighted to have the atmospheric, page-turning and utterly brilliant "The Craftsman" as the book to discuss.

Sharon Bolton herself will be coming to the North West to talk about the book during the month so check out this list of events to make sure you get the chance to see her.

Sharon Bolton"Libraries in the north west played a huge part in my love of stories as I was growing up, and I couldn't be more pleased that The Craftsman has been selected as the first Great North West Read."  Sharon Bolton

If this has got you thinking about what other books there may be out there with a northwest link then, excellent, we have just the books for you. Have a look at our Great North West reads webpage for suggestions (download it here). And if all the talk of witchcraft in the book has got you thinking then try these Great Magical Reads (or download it).

"The Craftsman" would be great book to discuss in groups. Your local library service may be able to assist with a special "The Craftsman" reading group collection, or in reserving books, or you can obtain your copies. Either way, this reading group guide will help with background information, trivia, suggested questions and pictures.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

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