Nikesh Shukla: Unwelcome Welcome

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
August 15 2017

Bristol-based novelist and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla recently contributed to and edited the much-talked about book of essays and personal stories of 21 people of colour in the UK, The Good Immigrant. He leads a discussion with two of the contributors, Coco Khan and Miss L, which was informal and spirited. The book contains essays from many of the current leading lights of young culture and informed debate, including Riz Ahmed and Reni Eddo-Lodge. It was a sell-out talk, cheerfully and humorously chaired by Daniel Hahn, a writer and translator who was both shortlisted for and a judge for the Man Booker International Prize. In between some good-humoured jokes, he chaired an important and much-needed discussion in this Brexity climate of hostility towards immigrants.

Nikesh’s initial trigger for creating this collection was being invited to speak on a diversity panel on many occasions over a period of years, without seeing much progress in the acceptance and promotion of writers of colour within the publishing world in between. He yearned for the kind of book in the UK that we are seeing coming out of the USA discussing issues pertinent to people of colour in a racist society. He personally knew several great writers like Riz Ahmed that he could commission, and managed to raise funds easily through a Crowdfunding project, sidestepping the usual publishing routes with all its problems. The indignation at this sorry state of affairs comes through, rightly, without apology. And to the equally infuriating idea that now Blackness is ‘in’ and ‘cool’, he exasperatedly exclaimed, “It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives!” Miss L is an actress of Asian origin and read her story ‘The Wife of a Terrorist”, about the disappointment of being typecast and held back by well meaning white tutors and audition judges. Coco Khan read us a hilarious and disturbing account of dating on the sly while living in a mainly Asian area of East London, and, as she put it bluntly, atttempting to get laid at her mainly white university just like everyone else, but running into problems being “Brown around Town”. Her own blog has helped to normalise and give a voice to young Muslim women navigating overlapping and sometimes conflicting subcultures within the U.K., and is now writing for the Guardian as well as other publications.

Nikesh said the book had two jobs; realising the power for people of colour in seeing themselves as visible, and for white people to fully humanise people of colour by realising the ‘universal experience’. Nikesh read his story ‘Namaste’, with its infuriation at cultural appropriation and the lack of respect for the origins of whatever trend happens to be fashionable and lucrative this season. The questions were from curious and concerned white people of various ages, who brought the discussion briefly to the burden of representation, getting past tokenism and what needed to be done in order to move forward. As expected, it comes down to the gatekeepers of power. In this case, who decides what gets commissioned, many of whom are benevolent but rather sheltered in their experience. Who perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly stand in the way because of their own preconceptions about people who don’t look or behave exactly like them. But there was no time to break this down further, which was a shame. We need details and strategy in this area to be able to fuel the kinds of ideas and momentum to move forward more swiftly.

It might just be a measure of my age, being at least 15 years older than the panel, but it did seem like many of the themes of the conversation among British people of colour were the same themes being discussed almost a generation ago, in the days when the theories of cultural theorist Stuart Hall were in the forefront. The difference, I think, this time, is perhaps the range of voices and the keen interest taken by the mainly white audience of all ages. In this, the book has served its purpose. At minimum, a solid platform has been created for people to have their voices heard, to express their frustration and disappointment at the systematic, structural racism that still unfortunately exists in this country. Are enough gatekeepers of power and the white consumers of culture listening and willing to move forward now? We will be all the richer for a true diversity of voices in a multicultural Britain where noone is made to feel like an unwelcome outsider, and there will no longer be any need for Nikesh to be wheeled out unwillingly to sit on another ‘diversity panel’. Because it will be completely normal to be accepted as fully British, whatever colour or religion you happen to be.

Reviewed by: Lisa Williams


​Nalo Hopkinson, Ken MacLeod, Ada Palmer & Charles Stross: Rockets to Utopia?

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Edinburgh Book Festival
August 18 2017

A panel of award-winning science and speculative fiction writers from both Scotland and the Americas blended their diverse perspectives for a fascinating conversation around speculative fictions imagining hopeful futures. Ada Palmer is a historian from Chicago who’s just published Seven Surrenders, the second in her Terra Ignota series. Jamaican-Canadian Nalo Hopkinson is the author of novels Sister Mine and many others. Representing Scotland were science fiction writers Ken MacLeod, author of many books including the Corporation Wars series and Leeds-born Edinburgh writer Charles Stross whose latest book is the Delirium Brief.

The Bosco Theatre is a circus style tent which is a new addition to the Book Festival, allowing its expansion into George Street. It can be noisy and a little distracting, as the tent flapped noisily in the breeze and allowed the sounds of Friday night revellers to intrude on the conversation. However the quality of the debate and the well-regulated and careful chairing by Pippa Goldschmidt made it a great experience. The first question to the panel from the chair was what each of them considered a utopia to be. Charles suggested that rather than a utopia being prescriptive, it was ‘simply’ an inverse of the golden mean; basically a system that minimized harm to others. Nalo referenced Thomas Moore’s Utopia, written in 1516 in Latin, and said she was suspicious about any utopia that included slavery in any form. That utopia was always an evolving process, which must include thought about how citizens can and should get along with each other. Ken used California as an example of a place that could be a utopia for some and a dystopia for others, with its over reliance on automation keeping us from our full destiny as useful and well-rounded humans. Amy agreed on the fact it was subjective, that it is necessarily a moving target because it has to feel better than our present reality to be regarded as a utopia.

The discussion moved on to how inclusive a utopia should be. It is generally regarded amongst science fiction authors and readers now that artificial intelligences should be afforded the same respect as human beings. Should this be anyone or anything the reader recognises as fully human? Or should we not anthropomorphize things or animals but just extend the boundary of what we should pay full respect? Did the authors feel a pressure or expectation of them as authors in this particular genre to explore and create visions of utopias? Nalo said she had her own personal expectations of herself in her writing. However, it was sometimes problematic. Using her novel Midnight Robber as an example, she suggested that the plot has to steer the characters into struggle and strife in order to fulfil the conventions and expectations of an exciting story. One strategy is for stories to take part outside the main culture, like in Star Wars, so that the utopia becomes as a reference point for any dystopia. Ken comes from a well known political background and his novels often reflect themes of exploring possibilities of communist and anarcho-capitalist ideas. He feels that there is a strong pressure to create the possibilities of utopia in people’s minds, seeing as it’s currently easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, drawing chuckles and agreement from the audience. He turned down involvement in a recent project for a graphic novel set in Scotland, as the rest of the contributors were fixated on imagining a ruined, flooded, dystopian Scotland, and he felt that he didn’t want to plant this in the imagination of young readers.

They broke down the distinction of utopia as either and adjective or a noun and took the examples of Orwell’s 1984 and the immensely popular Hunger Games series for young adults. Ken pressed the need to look carefully at the message of hope in the book, as although the Hunger Games is set in an extreme dystopia, the heroes successfully fight and win against it. They suggest the future of speculative fiction lies in looking at other cultures to bring fresh ideas and rework old mythologies, and that this kind of fiction often has to capture a particular point in time to be effective. Nalo discussed the impact of Japanese science fiction after the devastation and US occupation after the Second World War, featuring the iconic Astroboy, the original hero of science fiction. Intensely political, with utopian ideals prevailing despite a devastated landscape, but using veiled language to describe their oppressors. It was a unique generation involving international teamwork that gave it such a powerful focus. His name was even mentioned during a 2007 UN Peace conference, as people proclaimed ‘Let’s make a future that would not make Astroboy cry!’

The discussion moved to whether the role of science was essential in a utopia. Ken’s ideal being more of low tech ecotopia, where technology is necessarily limited, and work shared. However, in order to be credible for modern readers, it has to have a base level of necessary machinery to cut out the most difficult and energy-consuming labour. As they quoted historian Mary Beard, machinery for food production is indispensable, given our swelling world population, but brings up a very important question of who does the most disliked labour? Isn’t this the base of most of our inequalities and power struggles in all our societies? And what happens if a machine becomes your peer? Ken referenced William Morris as offering us a Marxist depiction of a utopia of a new England after a revolution. Nalo told us about her story Soul Case being influenced by the reality of the Quilombo, a Maroon (runaway slave) society in Brazil that managed to create not just an autonomous but a fully welcoming and inclusive society.

Ada points out the way that we draw on and feel nostalgic for certain periods in history is important, reminding us that the future is going to care about our present as it looks back in time, and decide why there should be a level of respect for ideas and arrangements of people in society. Nalo made the point that we should think about technology in a more expansive way to include song, which I thought was a fascinating idea. The elaborate systems of oral history that has been so important across the world in keeping traditions and history alive, is a technology in itself. As she suggested, if all the libraries burnt down, griots would be able to use the powerful medium and system of song to pass down history through the generations, placing its importance on a level with what we in the West refer to as ‘technology’.

Science fiction is a huge role to play in not just affecting politics but also inspiring scientists and social scientists, and a great way to discuss the ideas inherent in the concept of intersectionality. The audience members all looked liked they’d just left a meeting of Mensa, also asking further incisive and brilliant questions, and I was hugely inspired to start to delve in to the world of science fiction, joining the rest of the well informed, enthusiastic fans in the audience. I feel that I have been missing out for too long.

Reviewed by Lisa Williams

The Last Poets @ the EIBF

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Bosco Theatre

Despite there having being a major war fought in the United States of America over the issue of slavery in the 1860s, over the next century or so, the Southern States in particular disenfranchised the free negro, using apartheid as a principle & divisory socio-politcal instrument. Cue Rosa Parks sitting on a bus, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers &… The Last Poets. Springing from the vibewells of Harlem, several incarnations of the same ethos began to move & motivate the American mind. ‘Niggers are scared of Revolution,‘ they sang on their seminal first album, a call to arms which ultimately ended up in the Pax Obama. Considered as progenitors of hip-hop, they half-chant invective observations over a wild percussive sound, & work really well as socio-political sound-artists.

The queue for the Last Poets

The Last Poets @ the EIBF consisted of a chit-chat with their pseudo-biographer, Christine Otten, a Dutch novelist who’d attached herself to both the mythomeme & the physical personages of The Last Poets, & created a novel about their story, rather than a conventional biography. This was published at first in Dutch, in 2004,  it was only last year that it came out in English translation. ‘She’s a white, Dutch girl,’ said the Last Poets to inquisitive voices asking who the hell was this lady with an accent exploring the rock pools of their lives, ‘but she’s… OUR white, Dutch girl.’ During the talk, one could really feel that Otten’s presence was appreciated in the tight-knit world of the Last Poets, that she’d done a good job penetrating the egos, bringing out the humanity & telling ‘a decent story.’

The Last Poets – Baba Donn Babatune, Umar Bin Hassan & Abiodun Oyewole – are drifting back into the public consciousness, with a voice still resonant today – especially in the middle of all this Trump nonsense. After playing a gig in Edinburgh the previous night, the Last Poets are finally pouring their wisdom & love into the Scottish diaspora, & enjoying the experience immensely, comparing black subjugation to the English oppression of the Scots. So much so, that the talk spilled on for far longer than it should, but trying to get these guys off stage was hard work; neither they nor us wanted the moment to end, but when it inevitably did so, everyone just felt that little bit better leading & living their lives.

Reviewer : Damo

Hanif Kureishi

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
22nd August 2017

Events featuring the bigger ‘names’ in the literary world take place in the BGMT, but they begin outside. For example, half an hour before Paul Auster was due on stage, last Friday, the queue was already half way round Charlotte Square. I decided to test how much of a draw Hanif Kureishi was by turning up fifty minutes early to the benches alongside the theatre, where the queue starts to form. There were already five people camped out there, reading books, doing crosswords, thumbing tablets. Actually, the head of a queue is a pleasant place to chill out, and you get first pick of a front row seat when it’s time to file in, so I stayed put.

Inside, the event followed the usual format. A chair, an author who reads out a passage from his new book, an interview where the author is encouraged to hold forth, and fifteen minutes of questions from the audience. We’re three quarters the way through the Book Festival and I must confess I’m wanting something new, I’m feeling that the format is getting jaded. So what’s new today?

Oh the joys of live subtitles! When Hanif was talking about sex, he said ‘complaining’ and the subtitles read ‘caning’. Oo-er Missus! Well, at least that’s new. Hanif kept sniffing, that’s a first for authors this year too. And he has just binged on watching seven series of The Sopranos – “American TV has really picked up!” – so he and I have that in common.

But let’s be serious here. The event was steered by Steven Gale, an accomplished interviewer at festivals, and Hanif Kureishi is an interesting author and a fluent talker with a straight face and a dry wit. His new book, The Nothing, is the story of an aged film director who is now confined to his flat – to his bed, in fact – and suspects his younger wife of infidelity. In a way, it is Kureishi’s own speculation about growing old, being stiller, and observing rather than doing. He sees Waldo, the protagonist, rather like a Beckett character – a head in a jar, and also as a character driven by sex, by thinking about it even if he can’t do it any more.

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Still, I keep coming back to the non-literary aspects of this event, the human side of the author; the tales of how he was defrauded of all his money by his accountant, and how, despite that, his accountant remained a likeable man; how much Hanif liked David Bowie; the kind of activities that made it possible for him to interact with his sons as adults; the story of how, when he was a teenager, two older girls half-jokingly offered to sleep with him; how, though there is “more to say and less time to say it,” he now writes for pleasure.

Somewhere in the evening was this lovely sound-bite: “The imagination is the most dangerous place on earth.” And this “It’s a mercy to be free of the engine of ambition.” And others that someone from the Festival was tweeting as they turned up – meat and drink to promotion via social media!

Hanif Kureishi’s earlier work is on my syllabus for the next academic year, in a module on ‘Post-Colonial Literature’. I had been wondering what, if anything, I would pick up from this event as an insight into that particular taxonomy. Surprisingly, absolutely nothing. He seems so British. But why not, given his background? The Nothing strikes one as being a novel about London, never mind the heritage of any of the characters. But then London as a city could be said to exist in a post-colonial state, the former hub of a now-imploded empire… For this reason, I’m including a YouTube clip of an interview where Hanif talks about, inter alia, his experience of the racist atmosphere he met as a youngster. This was something totally absent from today’s event.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

Preview : Redemptions

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Saturday 26 August 2017 7.30-9pm.
Pilrig St Paul’s Church, corner of Pilrig Street and Leith Walk.

£6 advance @ or £8 at door

This Saturday Pilrig St Paul’s Church plays host to an one-off fusion of poetry and song from a charismatic professor of British poetry just jetted in from from Japan, a laser-witted New Yorker polymath who created the Antifolk movement, a dyspraxic Scottish poet who recently found out he’s Canadian and the legendary lead singer of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie and The Filthy Tongues.“We hail from disparate backgrounds,” says poet Roy Møller, “but we have at least two things in common: we have all rocked and rolled our way round the city of Edinburgh and we share a belief in the power of art to afford us some accommodation with the past. Our words are a map to move us forward. REDEMPTIONS is heartfelt, dark and hopeful.”

The performers are:

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Paul Hullah

Paul Hullah, currently tenured Professor of British Poetry at Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo, is author of twenty books including seven volumes of poetry, most recently Homing (2011), Scenes: Words, Pictures, Music (2014), with Martin Metcalfe, and Climbable (2016).


Lach is the writer/performer and star of BBC Radio 4’s The Lach Chronicles. author of The Thin Book of Poems, composer of six albums and founder of the international music and art movement known as Antifolk.

Roy Møller, a member of Jesus, Baby!, a group put together by Michael Pedersen and fronted by Davy Henderson, published his first poetry collection in December, 2014 and, along with Paul Hullah, Møller is a contributor to Neu! Reekie! #UntitledTwo.

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Roy Møller

Martin Metcalfe is a musician and artist who held his fifth solo show, Outsider Trading in Edinburgh in November, 2016. Frontman of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, he then formed Angelfish with Shirley Manson. Currently he leads The Filthy Tongues, whose debut album Jacob’s Ladder, was released last year to enormous critical acclaim.

Martin Metcalfe
Martin Metfcalfe



Paul Auster – New York Storyteller

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
18th August 2017

Cliché: ‘A giant of American Literature’. Justified: “he can out-Roth, out-Updike and out-Franzen the greatest” (Financial Times). I wrote earlier this week of selecting a flagship event for the Festival; well, unless I missed something else, this one would take a lot of beating. The sponsorship of the University of Edinburgh managed to net an appearance by an author for whom one can soon run out of superlatives. The problem of how to describe him doesn’t stop there. His first novel, The New York Trilogy…

Now hold on a minute! The New York Trilogy is a collection of three, separately-published novellas, only later gathered into a single volume. Start again. His first novella, City Of Glass…

Stop right there! What about Squeeze Play? That was published three years before City Of Glass. True, but under a different name. What is more, on being given a copy of both the trilogy and his latest book 4321 to sign by a fan this evening, he remarked very clearly “Ah, my first one and my latest one.”

And there we have (already) a wonderful set of contradictions, when it comes to Auster’s world. His real world and his fictional. The trilogy uses the genre of the detective novel not to unravel a mystery the way Hammett or Chandler or Paretsky might, but to raise questions about identity and reality, existentialism and the absurd, meaning and meaninglessness. 4321, not only his latest but his largest work, presents four parallel stories where the same protagonist (possibly) lives four separate lives (possibly) in the turbulent 1960s. City of Glass contains sparse, economic sentences such as “Quinn had been prepared for this and knew how to answer”. In 4321, however, Auster has mastered the perfect, long sentence, many of which last a whole paragraph, some of which seem to go on for pages; “I started writing a different kind of sentence,” Paul said. “It had a kind of propulsion, a paratactic urgency. I wanted to create a different tone.”

This event was sub-titled ‘New York Storyteller’. Every time Jackie McGlone, chairing the event, mentioned an aspect of his writing, or hinted at a question, Auster would take the topic, either squarely and obliquely, and run away somewhere with it. Often relevantly, often interestingly, always away. And always taking the listener along. A New York storyteller is precisely what Paul Auster is.

He read a long passage from 4321, in which he described Ferguson the protagonist (which one – does it matter at this stage? Not until we read the book in its entirety, and then it will become relevant, or so we hope) dealing with the certainty (to him) that the world and what was happening to it – the Vietnam War, International reaction, US politics, New York politics, campus politics, personal opinion and experience – was made up of concentric layers. The passage itself was fascinating, not only for its introduction of this mental impression, but the facts it was conveying, the people, the names, the organisations and their initials and acronyms, jocks and radicals, politicians and protesters, counter-protesters and cops, and every so often, almost without breaking the flow, Paul would insert a note of explanation for the Scottish audience, a footnote, a snippet of commentary. And it felt like part of the continuing storytelling. He also gave us the opening paragraph, which contains a piece of humour which depends on the reader knowing about the Ellis Island immigration process in 1900, and a little bit of Yiddish on top of that. In a way it’s an old story, but I won’t spoil its retelling for you. I will say that in order to appreciate a little piece of incidental humour, Google the Empress of China’s maiden voyage.

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Jackie McGlone steered Paul onto the subject of politics and the current situation in the USA. Could anyone have come up with a fictional character like Donald Trump? Yes, Alfred Jarry, who created Ubu Roi in 1896, only without all the orange. Comparing the situation in America today with that of the 1960s, Paul referred back further than that, to the founding and expansion of the United States:

“We haven’t gotten anywhere, we’re just exactly where we were half a century ago. Nothing has changed. And then, you know, you start to question the very fundamental building blocks of the country. This great country of America is built on two crimes, two enormous sins – the extermination of the Indians and slavery of black people. And we’ve never really faced up to these things, never confronted them, and I think it has poisoned us, and now it’s coming out more and more and more again, another wave of racism and nationalism of the ugliest sort.”

“I can’t keep quiet. It’s too dangerous. It’s too serious to stand back and watch the country melt… A lot of the American system will be eroded by the time Trump leaves office. We need to keep beating the drum.” Paul admitted to being pessimistic, citing the way that Donald Trump had used Goebbels’ ‘Big Lie’ principle to slander Barack Obama, and by the time of the election he could utter any falsehood and would be trusted by the people who had come to heed him.

But of course, tempting though it is to harp on about the political situation in the United States, and though to do so caresses the confirmation bias of Brits who, like myself, do not like the political flavour of things there, this was supposed to be a literary event, we are supposed to remember what Paul said about his books, his low-tech methods of writing, his seven day working week, and our excitement at such a major work’s publication after an apparent gap of seven years. The solid ovation and the queue of people wanting books signed attested to that. The combination of the Festival, the University of Edinburgh, and the author delivered.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

Penny Pepper

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Garden Theatre
18th August 2017

It must be daunting to face an audience, even a small one at one of the Festival’s smaller venues, but to have to do so on one’s own because the person who was due to share the stage has had to pull out takes a lot of nerve. It would have been fascinating to have seen and heard iO Tillett Wright, but – let’s face it – Penny Pepper is now a veteran of appearing in public, having emerged from behind the pen name of Kata Colbert many years ago to become both a poet-performer and an advocate for people with disabilities, and if anyone could carry it off she could. I think this does challenge the Festival programming; a joint Wright/Pepper event would have been in interesting mini-colloquium, but either one of them could easily fill an hour with something unique.

Penny was primed and prompted by poet Ryan van Winkle (and yes, that is his real name), whose enthusiasm did occasionally cause him to talk over her more than a host should, but I’m guessing that was his delight in being there. It’s picky of me to mention it, I know, and by-and-large he did all that a host should do at one of these presentations.

With the rain beating on the roof of the Garden Theatre, Penny read from her new book of memoirs, First In The World Somewhere. She has been an avid diarist for most of her life, and each section of the book, she told us, is introduced by a few lines from her journal. Such is the style in which she has written this – narrative, almost prose-poetry in places, the first passage she read out interrupted by curses and racist comments from her stepfather – that it was impossible to say where the journal extract ended and the creative memoir started.

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Although Penny has happy memories of her father (still alive when she was a child) teaching her to read before she went to school, ‘home’ eventually became, in her words “a prison, Hell.” She did not want to live “the designated life of the cripple,” and so, full of Sex-Pistols-fuelled rebellion, decided to move from her rural home to an independent life in London. This took extraordinary self-belief because, as she told us, even the language of independence for the disabled did not exist back in the 1980s. One way of taking hold of her own life was to show off in her choice of clothing. Breaking out of stereotyping was also a way that a disabled person could express “a universal experience,” talk about love, sex, fun, even write to the Pope (yes, she did that – it’s a long story and I hope you hear it straight from the poet’s mouth some time).

The late seventies and early eighties was the height of the era of the fanzine. That’s a concept that the blogging generation would be hard put to get its head round, but this medium of do-it-yourself, audience-participation samizdat was where ‘Kata Colbert’ first emerged. A letter of hers was ‘Star Letter’ in Jamming magazine, and she issued a poetry cassette under the title of ‘My Heart Is Like A Singing Bird’ – she owned up to us that titled was borrowed from Christina Rossetti.

Ryan van Winkle quoted her as saying that “‘crip sex’ is still a taboo,” to which she replied “The taboo is a social construct… the body perfect is a construct… My bottom line is be human, it’s a human issue.” She also rejects, as a construct, the ‘charity model’ of disability, with its implication of gratefulness on the part of the recipient. She talked about having addressed the House of Lords and served on all kinds of diversity panels, notwithstanding her objection to the construct and the expectation that largesse was something to be handed down to the grateful. She talked about her good friend the actor Liz Carr, about Margaret Thatcher, about St Francis of Assisi (she was delighted with the idea that the birds he preached to might have been the carrion-eaters on the city dump when he became disillusioned with the people of Assisi), about her best friend Tamsin, about boyfriends, about Bill Grundy interviewing the Sex Pistols, and lots more.

If I have one… well… not a complaint but a regret, it’s that because the event was to promote her memoirs we didn’t get to hear her poetry. But there’ll be plenty of other opportunities to do that. Check your local What’s On! I had a chance to chat to Penny afterwards, and that was fascinating because she is utterly charming and much more approachable than some Festival celebs, but our chat is not what this review is about. Many thanks to Penny, to Ryan, and to the EIBF for allowing us to spend an hour with her.

Afterthought: do you realise that Penny Pepper has no Wikipedia entry? Get that sorted, someone.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson