Book Review: Funny Weather

I’m hoping you have never heard of Olivia Laing because then you’ve got a treat in store. I hadn’t before I picked up this book, its title enticing me as I sought something to give me hope or to excite me during Covid-19 lockdown.

If you are already a fan (it turns out Laing is a well established writer and critic) you will likely have already read the essays collected in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (most were previously published as articles in the Guardian, frieze and New Statesman, as well as elsewhere). If, however, Laing’s name is at best only vaguely familiar, and if, like a beachcomber, you enjoy looking for curious objects to pick up, turn over and contemplate, this book during this period might well bring you delight.

A rich collection of mini biographies, interviews or reflections on artists in the broadest sense including musicians and writers, this book works as a tasting menu with many flavours and textures. Some offerings bring the comfort of familiarity, others extend your palette, sometimes out of your comfort zone, but always leaving you glad for the experience.

Reading Funny Weather was for me an example of ‘reparative reading’, an idea Laing returns to at several points in her collection, explaining it as being “fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison. This doesn’t mean being naive or undeceived, unaware of crisis or undamaged by oppression. What it does mean is being driven to find or invent something new and sustaining out of inimical environments.”

The inimical environments Laing is referring to are often the backgrounds of the various artists she writes about, the poverty or prejudice they experienced. It also refers to the political climate in which many of her essays were written – first the economic downturn, then the change in the political landscape, not just in the UK but also the US, as well as the fracturing of communities through Brexit campaigning and the referendum. It is almost disconcerting, the prescient relevance of her reflections, now we find ourselves experiencing another crisis, though this time not primarily financial or political, but instead a worldwide health emergency.

I read a digital review copy of the text for this book, so I’m not sure if the printed version will feature any illustrations. I really do hope each essay will be accompanied by an example (or more) of the art discussed; you’ll find yourself intrigued, even excited by Laing’s descriptions of the art she describes, and will want to see for yourself what provokes and draws out her thoughtful enthusiasm.

At a time when we’re experiencing an insular life, largely confined, hoping to feel connected to something larger and more satisfying than the swiping of news feeds, this collection of essays is a treat, opening doors to wonderful journeys exploring new places, people and ideas. In one essay, Laing quotes Ali Smith, “Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves.” Laing’s art – her words and generous reflections – enable us to do just that.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO Sutton Coldfield]

Several books by Olivia Laing are available through Birmingham Libraries, though not (at the time of posting this review), Funny Weather. If you wish to purchase a copy of Funny Weather through Amazon, please consider choosing FOLIO Sutton Coldfield as the charity to benefit from a small donation with your book purchase, by signing up for Amazon Smile (see here for details: http://foliosuttoncoldfield.org.uk/support-folio-with-amazon-smile/). Another way you can support FOLIO is to sign up to Easy Fundraising (https://www.easyfundraising.org.uk/causes/folio/) and then purchase the book through Waterstones, The Book Deposistory, HIVE or Abebooks.

Book Review: The Not Bad Animals

The Not Bad Animals
by Sophie Corrigan

A book that gives you thrills, makes you laugh, and contains just the right dose of grossness to make your toes curl with delight (at least if you’re 7 years old) is a pretty fine thing. Add in the fact it can sneakily offer opportunities to talk about empathy, discuss emotions and even explore fake news, and you’ve got quite a package.

Such is The Not Bad Animals by Sophie Corrigan, a richly illustrated panoply of animals who though they often get a bad rep from us humans turn out to be pretty amazing and helpful creatures when you delve a little deeper.

38 animals get to introduce themselves, first playing up to all the bad things said about them – whether that’s them being stinky or dangerous, sneaky or just plain icky. These pages may be a little bit frightening to start with, but they are quickly followed by pages of myth busting where each animal explains the truth about what they do, what they eat, how they communicate, and how they actually help us humans.

The fact checking is funny and illuminating, helping readers see creatures they might be frightened of (such as wasps or spiders) in a new light. The illustrations are dynamic, funny and very clever; a challenge for slightly older readers could be spotting what Corrigan does to make the animals which looked mean and nasty on one page all cute and cuddly on the next.

Humorous and substantial (the book is over 150 pages long, and also includes a glossary), it would delight many a 5-10 year old animal lover, at the same time as helping parents/teachers talk with children about prejudice, fears and setting the record straight.

Find out more about the author/illustrator:
http://sophiecorrigan.com/

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book Review: Japanese Cooking Recipes

Japanese Cooking Recipes
by Fumiko Kawakami

Stuck at home during the Covid19 lockdown Japanese Cooking Recipes has provided a lovely does of armchair cultural travel with its wide range of recipes, a wealth of cultural information and reference material about Japanese cuisine.

The layout, with numbered step by step photos, and text in both Japanese and English makes each recipe look like a menu, adding to the fun of reading when stuck at home and unable to visit a restaurant. Some of the photos are a little surprising – not the sort you’d see often in Western cookery books – with blood and guts shown on the chopping board.

The recipes require lots of authentic Japanese ingredients, not necessarily easily available outside large cities in normal non-pandemic times, so I haven’t been able to test any of the recipes, though there were lots I thought sounded delicious, and many techniques I wanted to try out, not least kneading noodles by stamping on the dough with my feet!

Overall this was an intriguing and enjoyable culinary tour and worthy of a place on a cook’s bookshelf for both reference and inspiration.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book Review: The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Chemistry for Kids

The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Chemistry for Kids: Homemade Science Experiments and Activities Inspired by Awesome Chemists, Past and Present
by Liz Lee Heinecke

The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Chemistry for Kids by Liz Lee Heinecke is a brilliant family book for bringing science to life at home, featuring 25 short, illustrated biographies of chemists throughout the ages with a do-in-your-kitchen experiment linked to each of their fields research.

As well as some famous chemists, such as Marie Curie, many less well known scientists are featured (ensuring something in this book even for those who are keen budding scientists). A good number of women and researchers from across the world are included; it’s great to see this diverse representation of scientists showing all children how any of them could go on to change the world with their own scientific discoveries.

The experiments are adapted so you can carry them out at home with minimal resources and relatively little adult supervision. The instructions are accompanied by (almost) step by step photos (with kids from a wide range of backgrounds doing the experiments), and there’s always a challenge, encouraging young scientists to extend the experiment in a new way. Experiments include making your own soda water, lighting up LEDs with lemons, distilling essential oils, making dyes and much more. This book could be enjoyed by kids as young as 5 (with input from their grownups) but could equally well be enjoyed by early teens left to their own devices in the kitchen.

A couple of tiny typos (the wrong date for the publication of the first draft of the periodic table by Mendeleev, and a misspelling of Marie Curie’s birth name) detract slightly from what is otherwise an excellent, informative, fun and engaging book. Definitely one to look out for.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book Review

Plant Lady Embroidery: 300 Botanical Embroidery Motifs & Designs to Stitch
by Applemints

I picked up Plant Lady Embroidery with a view to trying something new, and perhaps relaxing, whilst in lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak. As an embroidery novice I was lured into this world of pretty threads by the delightful and colourful plant and flower motifs (perhaps an unconscious reaction to not being able to be outside so much), photographs of which fill the first third or so of the book. The array of beautiful photos of completed designs are followed by some suggestions of where to use them (for example to embellish clothing, or to create brooches), before the crucial section for me – how to do the actual embroidery. For the most part this was extremely clear, though for one or two basic instructions I had to resort to YouTube to find alternative explanations where the static photos had left me a little puzzled.

That said, the templates at the back of the book, in conjunction with the matching photos were easy to follow and I then spent a happy 2 hours lost in embroidering my first flowers. I quickly learned that it will take some practice to get regular stitches, neat and delicate as in the photos, but what mattered more was that I didn’t notice the time passing, and I found myself in that elusive zone – in the flow – and right now, that’s something to treasure.

This book will bring a dose of charm into your life at a time when we all might welcome that. It works well for an absolute beginner (though there are also some designs featuring more complex scenes which I imagine would appeal to experienced embroiderers), and might be something for a teen looking to embellish clothes (the book design is fresh and smart, without a whiff of old worldiness) as well as anyone looking to find a bit of peace and relaxation. Just maybe people will be getting lots of embroidered gifts from me for Christmas this year…

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Flash Fiction Winner and highly commended entries

FOLIO Flash Fiction Competition 2020 Winner

I Kissed Paul McCartney by Sally Jenkins

“I kissed Paul McCartney.”
Chantelle pauses, mid-pierce, over the plastic lasagne. For a moment she thinks I’ve said something interesting. Then she remembers her client is a seventy-one-year-old dementia victim and plunges the fork in again.
“They played Sutton Coldfield just once. February 1963, Maney Hall.” I talk quickly, Chantelle has only twenty minutes. “I was fourteen and he was …” The artificial food twirls in the microwave. Chantelle strokes her phone. The word is simultaneously on the tip of my tongue and in the unreachable basement of my mind. “… not ugly.” The words aren’t right but the meaning’s there.
Chantelle shoves her phone into her overall pocket.
“Their first song wasn’t great.” The song title floats where I can’t reach it. “My friend Sheila was happy to drink orange juice and wait to be asked to dance but I got a pass-out and ran to the Horse and Jockey for a vodka and lemon. Underage didn’t matter then.”
Chantelle’s expression says she’s not listening and even if she was, she wouldn’t believe me.
“When I got back the Beatles were loading their blue Commer. I held the back door of the hall for them. ‘Thanks, love,’ Paul said. He went to kiss my cheek but I turned my head and we kissed on the lips.”
It’s nearly time for Chantelle to leave.
“John Lennon told him to hurry up because they had to get to Tamworth.”
“And pigs might fly.” The front door bangs behind my carer.

_______________________________________

FOLIO Flash Fiction Competition Highly Commended entries

Scout Jamboree by Derek Lever

‘Be Prepared’
I’m standing by the Jamboree Stone in Sutton Park waiting for Robert. My mind raced back to August 1957 when we first met – he from Tennessee and me from Bolton, Lancashire.
Robert and I spent as much time together as possible, stealing away from our respective activities and just enjoying each other’s company. This was strange really as we came from different continents, backgrounds and upbringings. Was it fate? Apart from being scouts, we had much in common – what this was I never bottomed out and I don’t know now.
We swapped badges and addresses, his 1909 Grey Hills Drive, Nashville and we have corresponded for 62 years. We have never met again, but this will change in a few minutes. I am excited but nervous. He is bringing Tracey, his partner whom I guess is his wife though he never much mentioned her. I have never been married but three lovers have been and gone, Tristram being the last. I have never felt able to disclose my love life.
Suddenly, I see him. My God, he’s wheelchair bound, being pushed by Tracey, a sprightly, fair-skinned, handsome much younger man than either of us.
It’s a shock to my whole being. Unlike the scout motto, I was not prepared. Robert’s face shows he isn’t either. Life for him must have been even harder than mine – a black American with a white male partner.
“We made it,” exclaimed Robert, holding arms outstretched.
“That we did,” I reply, fighting back tears.

_______________________________________

Hunting Deer in Sutton Park by Margaret Lever

1546
“Keep your head down Highness.
In truth we are down-wind of the herd and hidden, but they are cautious creatures and fleet of hoof.”
The small band of hunters moved stealthily through the coppice and heath, circling the Driffold where the deer had corralled. Among the men was the young son of the monarch. This was to be Prince Edward’s first visit to the Deer Park and it was to be his initiation at the kill. It was inconceivable he should return to London without a blooding and he had much to live up to fulfil his father’s expectations.
The young prince could scarcely breathe. The beauty of the deer touched his soul and, as he watched, he felt a deep joy. He sensed their deep, natural peace and he was overwhelmed with compassion for these graceful animals. He prayed that the kill would be swift and painless. To fail was to deny His Liege the pride of knowing his son and successor was a man of skill and courage.
He drew his bow resolutely and waited for the moment……
2020:
“Keep your head down, sweetheart. These muntjac deer are so timid that if we frighten them they won’t return today. Then you won’t get your shot.”
Charlie held close to his grandma’s side and watched as the two beautiful deer grazed just metres from his hiding place. He was careful not to take his eyes from them as he steadily raised his phone and waited for the moment………..

_______________________________________

Sutton Coldfield vs Birmingham by Mohammed Rizwan

It took inter-county searching to find the right colour.
I watch in gustatory satisfaction as the rapid drying spray paint coats the “The Royal Town of”. When they awake tomorrow morning, the pretentious Sutton Coldfielders will know Birmingham is bigger and better in every way.
I leap over the flower beds and move away from the roundabout to my car but the shiny new paint blinds me. I squint at the reflection of the headlights. A door opens before a car screeches to a halt. She is uncaringly loud as she marches through the flower beds, holding a coruscating bottle, which she swings onto the sign and rubs furiously. Black letters begin to appear.

I pound to the roundabout and grab her arms and separate them, shouting,
“Birmingham!”
“Aargh!” She screams. “Never! We’ll never be part of Birmingham!”

We both freeze when powerful lights hit us in the face; I imagine our silhouettes have blocked out the sign totally. PC Mallet emerges slowly, holding cuffs in both hands.
“I’ve had enough of this, Mr and Mrs Wyndham. I’m arresting you both for vandalism and breaching the peace.”
She cuffs us to each other and says, looking at them,
“I hope this reminds you of the good times in your marriage.”
As we trudge towards the car, I know that there were no good times. They were all faked because the man she truly loved, loves, lives here, in Sutton Coldfield, and a mere Brummie was never her equal.

Celebrating our local authors

On March 14th we were due to host a Local Authors Book Festival. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 situation we have postponed the festival, but we’d encourage you to still find out about the authors who had been due to attend including:

Stephen Roberts

Associate Professor Stephen Roberts is the author of more than twenty books. He has written and edited books about the Chartists for an academic audience and has recently moved into the field of ‘public history’ with a series of books aimed at local people with a thirst for knowledge about the history of Birmingham. He and Carl Chinn are old friends.

You can find out more about Stephen’s local history books at www.birmingham-biographies.co.uk

Louise Malhi

Louise released her debut novel Forged Purity, a young adult dystopian novel last year, following ten years of writing. The book is set in a futuristic West Midlands, and was inspired by the advancements of technology and media spyware. You can find out more about her on her website: https://www.louiserachelmalhi.co.uk/

Madeleine Purslow

Madeleine Purslow is a Sutton Coldfield based author who will be joining us at our Local Authors Book Festival on the 14th of March. She writes Kit Lit – ‘Serious stories with cats at their very heart’.

Madeleine Purslow has also had stories and articles published in major magazine such as Yours.
https://www.facebook.com/maddiepurs/

Rachel McLean

Rachel McLean writes thrillers that make you think: books designed to get the heart racing and the brain ticking. As RE McLean, she also writes geeky mysteries, featuring the Multiverse Investigations Unit and Schrödinger the quantum cat.

She’s lived in Sutton Coldfield most of her life and has written books set in and around the area (as well as in other locations as diverse as Texas, Gretna Green and the Multiverse).

Thriller website: https://rachelmclean.com/
Mystery website: https://multiverse-investigations.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rachelmcleanwrites/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/rachelmcwrites
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rachelmcwrites/

Sally Jenkins
Sally is the author of two psychological thrillers set in north Birmingham: ‘The Promise’ and ‘Bedsit Three’. She loves to ponder how our secrets from the past can re-emerge with devastating consequences. When not thinking dark thoughts, she rings church bells in Boldmere and runs a book group in Sutton library.

Find out more on her website: https://sally-jenkins.com/

Jane O’Connor

Jane O’Connor is a writer and academic who lives in Sutton Coldfield. Her debut novel NEEDLEMOUSE was the runner up in the Tibor Jones Pageturner competition and was published by Ebury in 2019. She has had short stories published in national magazines including My Weekly. Jane has two young sons and works at Birmingham City University, and will be joining us at our Local Authors Book Festival on the 14th of March.
https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117363/needlemouse/9781529103281.html

You can follow Jane on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JaneOConnor100

Heide Goody

Heide Goody is part of a team with Iain Grant and together they have written more than fifteen comedy novels together. Their best-known work features Jeremy Clovenhoof who is Satan, made redundant from Hell and sent to live in Sutton Coldfield.

You can find out lots more on their website or social media pages:

http://www.pigeonparkpress.com/
https://www.facebook.com/Clovenhoof-Books-285544508177333/
https://www.facebook.com/groups/2098850213744767/
https://twitter.com/IainMGrant
https://twitter.com/HeideGoody

Patrick Hayes

Patrick Hayes (https://phayessite.wordpress.com/) is an award winning playwright and living and working in Birmingham. A former lecturer at the local FE college Patrick has written extensively on supernatural happenings in the Royal Borough in his books ‘Ghost Stories of Sutton Coldfield’ and ‘One Morning in May’ which tells the strange story of the Mary Ashford mystery. His latest book is entitled, ‘Tales yet to be Told,’ narrated by Father Michael and Dr Florence, two psychic investigators.

Deryk Whitfield

Deryk Whitfield is a local historian who will be joining us at our Local Authors Book Festival later this month. He has written two books, one on Rubery and the other on Wylde Green. You can find out more on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/derykwhitfield/

Simon Fairbanks

Simon has self-published two fantasy novels in his Nephos series, two short story collections, and a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Simon is co-chair of the Birmingham Writers’ Group.

You can find out more on his website: http://www.simonfairbanks.com/ or by following him on Twitter https://twitter.com/simon_fairbanks
Simon offers writing advice on his blog, including how to self-publish and market a book. He is also a committee member for the Birmingham Writers’ Group.

Martin Tracey

Martin Tracey is an author who likes to push the boundaries of reality. Sutton Coldfield features in three of his four novels….including placing the world’s first vampire as being buried in Sutton Park! Before writing novels he wrote songs and music remains a constant feature in his work.

Martin will be joining us at our Local Authors Book Festival on March 14, where you will be able to talk with him about his books, buy his books, and listen to panel discussions with other authors and more.

We’re really looking forward to Martin joining us on the day but in the meantime you can find out more about him on his website http://www.martintracey.co.uk/, on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Martin-Tracey-Author-162311767171904/, Twitter https://twitter.com/MartinTracey1 or Instagram https://www.instagram.com/martinofmolineux/.