Posts in Writing Squad Reviews

A coming-of-age story set in a vanished world: Sally Ashton reviews "All the Pretty Horses"

Posted Monday 4 June 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

“Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing.”

All the pretty horsesA coming-of-age story set in a vanished world, with every new read All The Pretty Horses seduces me all over again. It rewards any reader who bears with the confusing initial thirty pages and eventually orientates themselves, riding alongside John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins as they set out on horseback, travelling from their hometown in Texas over the border into Mexico. McCarthy’s powers of description, long, achingly evocative sentences and effortlessly realistic dialogue draw you into an open landscape of possibility and adventure as you ride with them into the sunset. Or not quite – neither the illicit romance between John and Alejandra, his boss’s daughter, or the overall story, end particularly well.

"my own travels will never quench the nostalgia that the long-gone world of McCarthy’s Mexico inspires"

I love that this is a story about male loss of innocence, a love story told from sixteen-year-old John’s point of view. It is romanticism at its finest, and along with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, one of my biggest literary inspirations to start travelling. Sadly, my own travels will never quench the nostalgia that the long-gone world of McCarthy’s Mexico inspires. As the book explores loss of the past, its imagery and landscapes are so vivid that the otherworldly setting almost becomes your own. Almost, but not quiet; dangled in front of you, or rather behind, never to exist again.

In its protagonist, this book also manages to achieve a perfect balance between relatability and exoticism. The admiration I felt for John as a teenager is now also accompanied by sympathy as I read the book as an adult, commiserating in his loss and heartache.

All The Pretty Horses is a beautiful book. Everybody should read it, if only to suspend reality for a moment of unashamed escapism.


Sally Ashton

The reviewer, Sally Ashton, is an avid traveller, living and working abroad for more than ten years. This is something which has helped enormously in both the development of writing and language skills.

Her first novel, Controller, was published in 2014 and her translation of LS6 Mario Crespo’s Spanish novel about Leeds in 2016. Both are published by Liverpool based press Dead Ink Books.

LS6 CrespoSally translates into English from Spanish, French and German. She accepts general linguistic work and has comprehensive experience translating websites, general marketing copy and communication materials. She is experienced in International Development, Hospitality/Travel, Sports, Animal/Equine, Retail Creative and Academic.

In her spare time Sally likes to play sports, read and drink coffee.

"A Series of Unfortunate Events has been teaching me not to trust anybody since the year 2000"

Posted Monday 28 May 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

Series of unfortunate eventsFrancesca Pidgeon on how the truly bad people are not who you may at first think.

A Series of Unfortunate Events has been teaching me not to trust anybody since the year 2000. Those 13 books have been with me throughout my conscious life and each time I read them I find another reason to love the densely woven fabric of the timelessly grim universe. 

In the series, three newly orphaned children called Violet, Klaus and Sunny are relentlessly pursued by a murderous distant relative and failed actor called Count Olaf, who wants to gain control of the enormous fortune their parents left behind. A bumbling Banker called Mr Poe attempts to keep them safe but refuses to believe the children when Olaf inevitably appears in a new disguise each time they are relocated. 

"The series doesn’t shy away from bitter storylines. Most people that attempt to help the children end up devoured by leeches or meeting some equally disgusting death."

The series doesn’t shy away from bitter storylines. Most people that attempt to help the children end up devoured by leeches or meeting some equally disgusting death. The books are best described as neo-Victorian. The series embraces some adult concepts and it is never assumed that something is too complex or highbrow for children to understand.

Series endUnlike the majority of children’s fiction, Snicket does his best to debunk the fairytale dichotomies. As the series goes on, the characters (‘villains’ included) are revealed to be more multifaceted than they first appear and the lines between 'good' and ‘bad’, and ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ become increasingly blurred. They teach you to question what the ‘right' thing to do is and, when you find ‘good’ characters doing ‘bad’ things, whether or not that makes them ‘bad' people. And more than any other children’s story I've read, it makes you wonder whether there even was a ‘right’ thing to do.

"more than any other children’s story I've read, it makes you wonder whether there even was a ‘right’ thing to do"

Sometimes ‘bad’ people die. Sometimes ‘good’ people die. No-one is safe from the bad luck that befalls almost every character in the series and although the children tend to escape any harm meant to befall them, there’s no truly happy endings for anyone bar the occasional rich fat cat, (as in life). 

A Series of Unfortunate Events teaches you that institutions are often completely useless at doing the things they are designed for, that hospitals might try to perform dangerous brain surgeries on completely healthy patients, that schools might make you endlessly measure mundane objects and force you to listen to terrible violin concerts given by the headmaster. That through no fault of your own the system might fail you and you might be forced to go on the run for crimes you didn’t commit. This series deals with circumstances that are both really absurd and absurdly realistic.

"The only real evil denounced is of never questioning authority"

The only real evil denounced is of never questioning authority. The only truly irredeemable people are the ones that are sucked into a lazy mob mentality and don’t choose to look any closer at an unconvincing disguise that a child could see through.

Series endEven finding out that Lemony Snicket was in fact a pseudonym that Daniel Handler used when writing was a seminal moment in my young life. What was real? Who could I trust? Not doctors or teachers or even writers of morbid children’s fiction books apparently. 

Though this skepticism has plagued me, in many ways I am grateful that I had these books to teach me not to blindly believe what others haven't bothered to challenge.

"I am grateful that I had these books to teach me not to blindly believe what others haven't bothered to challenge."


A little bit about the reviewer, Francesca Pidgeon:

Francesca PidgeonFrancesca is primarily a musician and makes her living playing covers sets in bars. However, her real creative interests are sprawling and incohesive, tending to end up a part of her main creative output – her band Kumiko (see Kumiko  Francesca writes, records, orchestrates, produces and performs the music for this project, and also creates any artwork, videos or handmade CDs that they release.

Apparently this is not enough work for Francesca, so she also writes prose and irate non-fiction (though these rarely see the light of day), she composes for film, radio and TV and is co-writing a folk opera. She will soon be heading up the Manchester contingent of ‘Girls That Gig’ which is an organisation that focuses on supporting women in music.

Her other interests include learning French at a sickeningly slow pace and playing roller derby.

Francesca and the band played as part of A Little Bite Music at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 12.30 on the 4th May.

"The sun may well be shouting": Sexing the Cherry reviewed

Posted Tuesday 17 April 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

Sexing the CherrySexing the Cherry is one of the most extraordinary books I know. In revisiting it, I was struck by how much of it was still lodged beneath my skin. Ideas about life, language, time and gender that I thought were my own all lie here. Barely a page goes by without some revelation or immediately recognisable truth that has both never crossed your mind before, and yet somehow you have always known.

The plot (of which there isn’t much) follows a giantess and her adopted son, whose adventures begin in 17th Century London and stretch to the farthest flung corners of the imagination. To describe it as Magical Realism feels both accurate and somehow lacking. This is a magic book, and Winterson conjures through language. Words are slippery; what seemingly begins as metaphor can talk itself into actuality. Take a line like:

“We saw the sun rising over the water, and the light got louder and louder until we were shouting to make ourselves heard.”

"In another’s hand this is just poetry, but in this world the sun may well be shouting."

In another’s hand this is just poetry, but in this world the sun may well be shouting. Over the page words even take physical form:

“Words, rising up, form a thick cloud over the city, which every so often must be thoroughly cleansed of too much language. Men and women in balloons fly up from the main square and, armed with mops and scrubbing brushes, do battle with the canopy of words trapped under the sun.”

Winterson has also thoroughly cleansed her book of too much language: my paperback runs to a scant 144 pages, she writes with the punch and economy of a fairytale. Closer in some ways to poetry than prose, these are plain words well chosen, and it’s this matter-of-fact approach to the fantastical that makes it so extraordinary.

"she writes with the punch and economy of a fairytale"

Sexing the Cherry is not entirely flawless; there are a few sections in the latter half where story surrenders entirely to philosophy, and though Winterson’s tender portrayal of lesbian relationships is second to none, some of her righteous (and arguably vital) misandry has the unfortunate effect of presenting male homosexuality as shorthand for stupidity or corruption. That said, I can think of no other book so stuffed with magic, beauty and original thought. Disappear into it, and emerge ready for fresh adventures.


Chris BushChris is a Sheffield-born playwright, lyricist and theatre-maker. She has been a resident artist for Sheffield Theatres, the Oxford Playhouse and the National Theatre Studio, and a member of the Orange Tree Theatre’s Writers’ Collective.

Past work includes A Declaration from the People (National Theatre), What We  Wished For, A Dream, The Sheffield Mysteries (Sheffield Theatres), Larksong (New Vic Theatre), Cards on the Table (Royal Exchange, Manchester), ODD(Royal & Derngate: concert performance), Sleight & Hand(Summerhall/BBC Arts), TONY! The Blair Musical (York Theatre Royal/Tour), Poking the Bear (Theatre503), The Bureau of Lost Things (Theatre503/Rose Bruford) and Wolf(National Theatre Studio: reading). She specializes in musicals, large-scale community work and political theatre that isn’t rubbish.

Chris has won the National Young Playwrights’ Festival, a Brit Writers’ Award, the Perfect Pitch Award, two Spotlight Emerging Artists’ Awards and a Kevin Spacey Foundation Artist of Choice Award. She also teaches playwriting for the National Theatre, and is a visiting practitioner at the University of York.

Chris’ new musical The Assassination of Katie Hopkins opens at Theatr Clwyd on 20th April

Songlines: making you question your travel and your home

Posted Tuesday 27 February 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

Continuing our occasional series of book reviews by members of the Writing Squad, Charlotte Wetton talks about a travel book which made a big impact, and may do so on you as well.

If you like plots more than ideas, this might not be the Songlinesbook for you. The Songlines describes the author’s time in central Australia and his efforts to understand the Aborigines ‘songlines’ across their land, but it broadens into a hunt for a more universal truth about our species. Chatwin’s friend Salmon Rushdie described The Songlines as ‘an obsession too great for him’. Chatwin had previously written, but failed to publish, an academic book on nomads; and this book does read as one with a vast reservoir of thinking behind it.

But The Songlines is no dry opinion-piece. Its pacey prose and dialogue are enjoyably clear. The novelistic drive comes partly from the wonderful characters who appear from the first pages - the priests and policemen and activists who populate Alice, many connected to the Aboriginal land-rights movement. Scenes such as the kangaroo hunt – the traditional spear replaced by the front of a truck – are vividly memorable.

"Chatwin builds his case that nomads are ‘the crank-handle of history’ and that to be stationary is the cause of all melancholia"

Having lured you into this hot, dusty, peopled world, the book changes in the middle and there is a long section of extracts from Chatwin’s travel notebooks. Here are chance encounters on the road, potted life histories, quotations from philosophy, mythology, archaeology and ethnography. Through these snippets, Chatwin builds his case that nomads are ‘the crank-handle of history’ and that to be stationary is the cause of all melancholia. The narrative resumes, the notebooks inter-spaced with his time in Australia. He expands his quest for understanding to the human psyche, pondering the existence of ‘Dinofelis’ -  a big-cat preying on early humans, who could be responsible for the formation of our psyche around the terror of being hunted.

"this book expanded my mind. It made me question my own experience of travel and home"

I don’t know how much of this research may have been debunked in the thirty years since publication, but this book expanded my mind. It made me question my own experience of travel and home – what parts of mythology and anthropology spoke to my experience of the world? This is an intellectual read but it’s an enjoyable and fleshy one; people and places brought to life with Chatwin’s sparse style - such as the explosive haggle between an Aborigine artist and a white art-dealer. This is research through a life lived, a book that studies humans but that is ultimately concerned with humanity and human encounters.

Charlotte WettonCharlotte is a poet based in West Yorkshire. Her first pamphlet, I Refuse to Turn into a Hat-Stand won the Michael Marks Awards 2017, following a spoken word album, Body Politic. She has published in Poetry Wales, Staple, Stand etc.  She regularly performs across the North and will run workshops if the opportunity sounds fun. She is on Twitter as @CharPoetry

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