Friday, 10 January 2020

Interview with Kelli Allen

Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals/anthologies in the US and internationally. She is currently a visiting professor of English Literature at Rutgers University/RUNIN, Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China. 

She is the recipient of the 2018 Magpie Award for Poetry. Her chapbook, Some Animals, won the 2016 Etchings Press Prize. Her chapbook, How We Disappear, won the 2016 Damfino Press award. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books (2012) and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her collection, Imagine Not Drowning, was released by C&R Press in January 2017. Allen’s new collection, Banjo’s Inside Coyote,  arrived from C&R Press March, 2019. You can read a review of it here.  

Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

JT: As well as a poet, you’re also a dancer. Do you find overlaps (or differences, for that matter) between the two art-forms? 

KA: There are many ways in which dance and poetry use the same intentions—both employ the notion of the Line to communicate forward momentum or a pause. Both require a variety of music or sound to enhance communication. Both ask the “reader” to invest time and focus in something wholly created to induce response. 

The Mayan poet, Humberto Ak'abal, once told me that I am “a mermaid on land.” He said this to me after following behind for some time while I walked around a lake, reciting bits of poems, circling my arms to the sound of the stanzas in the air, and occasionally, unconsciously, doing a soft pirouette on the path. 

I am fairly convinced that I can no longer completely separate dance from verse. 

JT: How autobiographical is your poetry? 

KA: The poetry is as much about my own life as the bird’s thirst is her own when she lands close to water. I write to give shape to what I feel swirling-up from my present and past, yes, but the language gives new meaning to anything I may have intended to be “true.” When we are children and begin to understand that “I” means This Self, and that self is one that others see and acknowledge, the world becomes both more exhilarating to inhabit and also more terrifying. For me, making poems is a way to enter those two spaces of wonder and terror with the Self watching from the passenger seat, or just letting her riding high the mast over one monster-populated sea or another. In this way, the poems are "true" because they are meant.

JT: Your poetry often confronts the most serious themes: love, sex, illness, death. Are there subjects particularly suited to poetry? Are there things poetry struggles to address?

KA: Love is the subject most elusive and most necessary in my writing. I have no firmer grasp now on what the word means than I did when I first began writing twenty years ago. I do not expect to learn enough in this lifetime to offer answers or elucidations that could pretend to be unchangeable, but the pursuit fuels the work. 

It has taken me many years to publicly embrace how much sexuality informs my writing. I am an extremely physical creature and take tremendous pleasure in what the body is capable of experiencing. I have made a decision in regards to my literary work that I will allow for no shame, guilt, or coyness when addressing my sexual desires, history, or expectations. Being open to exploration when uniting the body to language is perhaps my primary intention in my new poems and stories. This one brief life with the fleshy machine of a body is the most bizarre, fantastical gift we are granted. I hope to write more boldly, and certainly more graphically, about what sex has given me and why.

I have known death early and often. My brother’s death when I was a child, and my mother’s subsequent battles with and through mental illness until her suicide in 2012, meant that I was aware of the tenuousness of being alive from my youngest memories. I have no living siblings, grandparents, or parents and this orphaning has made me wide-eyed in a way that I am grateful for. My few close friends tease me frequently for my inability to be still, to just “chill and relax.” The reason for my near constant internal (and often external) motion is my heavy sense of impermanence and the not articulable sensation that everything, anything, could pop at any moment. To be clear, this is not any shade of anxiety. Rather, this on-my-ownness has fed and habituated a marrow-deep sense of excitement to be alive as enormously as possible. This need to be Awake and Present is also why I am nearly always completely sober and have felt so little need in my life for anything that dulls my senses. 

I have yet to meet a subject (other than accounting) for which I am not immediately drawn to bend, seduce, and spell-cast into a poem. All is ripe, and all is able. “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”

JT: Does teaching get in the way of your writing, or help it, or both? 

KA: I write this with no sense of sentimentality or grandiosity: Teaching is the greatest work of my adult life. Every interaction with a student is an exchange. I attempt to enter each lesson with passion and curiosity and in this desire I am able to remain open to what I may learn in the process of explanation and discussion. I believe strongly in the Socratic approach to the classroom: Pose questions and be prepared to change the mind of master and student at any moment. The reciprocity in debate feeds my writing when I find moments wherein I am able to put together images and scenes. There is no better way to examine and explore the human condition in all its compassion, frustration, frivolity, and depth than in the classroom day-after-day. My writing continues to benefit from teaching and, in turn, my writing benefits my teaching. 

JT: Who is your intended reader? What effect do you want to have on him or her?

KA: Anyone interested in what it means to occupy this world in tandem with elephants, ants, Venus fly traps, Tardigrades, willow trees, trapdoor spiders, birds of paradise, and fennec foxes—these are my intended readers. 

I want anyone who comes across my stories and poems to feel as though they have entered a conversation at just the right moment. I hope whomever finds my odd work is reminded of ravens and hares peeping through a thorny underbrush. I wish for my readers to put a hand on their own stomachs when they finish my poems and feel equal parts satiated and painfully hungry. I want my words to cause a blush that stays. 

JT: In your collection Banjo’s Inside Coyote, you write that ‘those birds we wept over / the first afternoon will swoop into the country / as though nothing here matters.’ Your poetry is full of natural imagery, and birds. What role do you feel nature plays in your poetry?

KA: When the sea lion lifts his fat tail to let a crab pass, shouldn’t we all pay attention?
The natural world is us. Thinking (or worse, behaving as though) we are somehow apart from the strands and puffs and goo that build and weave the world we inhabit is ludicrous. Even this sexual body is dependent upon the air it breathes, the water it needs after climax, the materials it desires to recline against … Our relationship to, and recognition of, every particle around the body is as vital as the terrible master in our brain cradle that dictates just how much praise and grief we allot to what surrounds us. My poetry will continue to give room to what thrives and dies and grows beyond and outside the solitude of this one human life. 

JT: What are you working on at the moment? What are your longer term aims for your poetry?

KA: Fiction! My new collection is a series of loosely-linked flash fictions. I should be honest, though, in that my fiction is still poetry of a sort. The language of each story leaps into lyric as it wishes, and sometimes gets distracted by sugar left too long in the woods or by a sweaty bicep glimpsed during morning walks. The new work is strange, of course, and more focused on the female body’s experience of being seen rather than seeing. The collection plays with Southeast Asian mythology, too, and there are several new tricksters afoot.

My long-term desires for my poetry are simple: In the next year, I hope to finish my fourth full-length and let it into the world to offer succor and salve. The new poems are more physical than my previous pieces and I am learning how to navigate pathways that push the vertical even further. My end-goal remains unchanged: to continue to make work that allows tender spaces to be more and less so: poems and stories that remind us that the point of being here is communion, not comfort. 

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. 

Friday, 3 January 2020

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Notes from a Swing State: Writing from Wales & America" by Zoe Brigley

‘The personal is political,’ a central tenet of the women’s movement of 1960s and 70s, is as true today as it was then, but rarely has it been expressed with such eloquence.

In the first of this collection of essays, Zo├ź Brigley describes finding solace in the bleak indifference of the Utah landscape after the second of four miscarriages endured in an ‘unsympathetic medical system.’ She refuses to be ‘silenced by shame.’ In a society where abortion is a political battleground she reflects ‘Somehow in writing this I have moved from the sadness I feel about the miscarriages to the right of people not to be pregnant.' She continues, ‘The way I see it though, it is all bound up because both are a source of anxiety for Western culture. What do they do with the woman who miscarries, or with the woman who chooses not to have a baby at all?’

Brigley gives illuminating insights into living in Trump’s America, in a swing state where she canvasses for the democrats. As an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, in an unfamiliar  classroom  she must routinely check out the exits and plan how it could be secured in the event of a violent attack. When a man drove his car into a crowd on campus, then started slashing people with a knife, she is at home watching on television as the car park she uses is being stormed by a SWAT team and familiar buildings are sealed off with tape. Afterwards  she must deal with the students’ trauma.

As the mother of two little boys she describes how children are drilled in what to do in case of an armed intruder. Outside her son’s  elementary school is a sign stating that no unauthorised firearms are allowed inside the building, and there is a camera at the door where parents can be buzzed in. She describes how there is ‘something peculiar about American Halloween’ where ghoulish fantasies are played out alongside real life violence. In Pittsburgh a man kills eleven people in a synagogue, while participants in ‘fright house’ theme parks and ‘haunted houses’ wear swastikas while they are entertained with ‘simulations of the most appalling violence.’ Brigley writes: ‘The fright house tells us that violence is an illusion, or an act, but the fright house lies. The fright house is America.'

But paradoxically this is a book of hope and courage. Zoe Brigley is ‘an activist, an educator, a creative writer and a survivor.’ She refuses to believe that violence is inevitable and works to challenge violence, hate crimes and discrimination against anyone who does not conform to a supposed ‘norm.’ She believes at the root of it all is a breakdown of communication, ‘an act of violent refusal' to recognise the humanity and to empathise with  an individual perceived as ‘different.’

She argues that writing, and the sharing of writing, is a way forward. She cites Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Good Bones,’ which ‘seeks hope in the face of bleakness’ and which went viral in the summer of 2016, as an example of the power of poetry in ‘dealing with the dark undercurrents of society that we find hard to face.’ She suggests that ‘human beings are born into uncertainty yet human culture does its best to ignore this very fact.’ But poetry ‘encourages us to embrace uncertainty,’ and to empathise with, and recognise in ourselves, frailty and vulnerability.

She draws on her own experience of an abusive relationship to help others, encouraging students to come to terms with violence through creative writing. While ‘confessional poetry has its place,’ she suggests, ‘dream language, symbols and surreal stories – as a means to talk about the difficult or troubling moments from one’s life’ can be liberating. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ’Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.’

The classroom, Brigley argues, ‘has the potential to be a life changing, transformative space for all those involved,’ and she reminds us that the #metoo movement started in a classroom setting. At a speech given at a United Nations campaign Herforshe event at the Ohio State University, March 3rd 2018, she  told the audience: ‘So this is where we have come so far, finding each other, finding empathy and a kind of collective voice, a kind of collective power.’ But, she went on, it is not enough just to empathise with ‘white celebrities,’ there must be more practical support to protect the most vulnerable in our society, such as the #timesup movement which offers financial aid to women on low incomes who seek  redress for workplace harassment or assault. For those already discriminated against, whether because of their gender, sexuality, race, or poverty, are the most likely to experience violence and the least likely to have the means to deal with it. But there is a sense of hope, ‘For we have the language now both words and images – through which to express what freedom might look like.'

As an immigrant to the United States some might tell her to ‘go home and sort her own country out.’ She is both a pioneering voice in the U.S. and a role model for young people in post industrial South Wales. She reflects on how she got here from there, considering teenage influences which include David Bowie, ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’ and Courbet. There are tender and tragic family stories, and many sassy women. A companion to these essays is her poetry collection Hand & Skull where many themes addressed in these essays are expressed beautifully with luminous imagery, ‘dream language, symbols and surreal stories.’

About the reviewer
Since gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University what seems like a lifetime ago, Sue Mackrell’s poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in locations and publications as diverse as Leicester public toilets (an Everybody’s Reading initiative!) to Agenda Poetry. She is enjoying seeing the world anew through her four grandchildren. 

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Hand & Skull" by Zoe Brigley

These are poems that leave a mark. They are

          the little grooves pressed from seams onto skin: hardly
          perceptible: lines crossing: pinking the flesh ...
(‘Poems with Seams’)

Zoe Brigley’s use of language is scalpel sharp in a collection which is wonderfully diverse in style and form. The delicacy and strength of Victoria Brookland’s ‘cut up’ images (‘I Too Am a Rare Pattern’) enhance and reflect the poems. There is anger and brutality but also beauty and tenderness. These are poems which cross boundaries. Hands are held out across time between women from myth, history and literature, and those today who are fighting for justice, humiliated by discrimination, silenced in courtrooms, and vilified in the press and social media. The lyrical horror of the opening poem draws on the Mabinogi, where honour codes and vengeance have disturbing contemporary resonances. An underlying theme of the collection is Celtic myth and the fragility of the veil between life and death:  

          Teens commit suicide in my home town: 25
          dead, no older than 19. They hang 
          from ceiling lights and branches. Nothing to do 

in a South Wales town where the ‘spat stone teeth of the foundries' are redundant 
          ...We ride the Mari Llwd, star-horse of the frost,
          her cranium stripped to yellow bone. Her head
          lurches on a stick from house to house:
(‘Letter to a Horse’s Head’) 

Violence against women is confronted and exposed. ‘Beatitudes for the Women’ draws on a language of abuse and legal discourse: ‘if you said yes once why not / sleep with one more’... a bus driver ‘hurrying you now to step / onboard lightly on the edge / of what is about to happen ...’ 'not long afterwards a man took/ photographs.’ The power of a photograph as a tool of violation is a recurring motif: ‘He opened the lens – and I did as I was told - / ....And he hung / me in pieces on his gallery wall’ (‘Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe’). ‘I said / Once there was this photograph of me / taken by a man / I loved ... It is the moment before / something terrible happens’ (‘Poem on the Edge’).

Several poems convey a chilling sense of women’s lives constrained by a need for constant wariness, for vigilance: ‘You know the women through every manmade thing / that men have used to trap them’ (Sonnet for a Hole in the Glass’). ‘I try not to look when I pass, though / they gaze at me with praise or disdain’  (‘The Amish Roofers’). ‘The garden gate creaks and someone is / behind me, always behind, but / don’t give in...’ (‘Beatitude for the Meek’).

‘Forgetting Poem’ addresses the hugely difficult issue of forgetting, forgiving, of striving for a neat ending where there is none. There are no answers, only questions about how to deal with denial, dismissal, self justification, or a meaningless claim of remorse in a society which colludes with the abuse of women:

          A woman flew out to meet her rapist, a man 
          from another country, absent for years.
          How liberating, she said, to forgive
          and forget. But what if your rapist is not
          a handsome man in a collarless shirt, not
          close to tears, or poised to make it 
          up as best he can? What if mercy isn’t asked for
          and cannot be given?’ 

‘The Eye in the Wall’ portrays an abuser: ‘Like looking / through a hole in the wall, he thinks of her again, / wonders if it was wrong, assures himself it was / right.’ But in a neat parallel, in ‘Sonnet for a Hole in the Glass,’ also based on contemporary court cases of rape and abuse, women are encouraged to ‘Punch a hole / in the glass: cracks spidering: ice too thin to carry / the weight of men: one eye to the gap just / wide enough for you to read their names.’ 

In ‘Vesuviennes,’ the redacted text suggests how those who challenge the system are silenced and erased from history. These 19th century French feminists were ridiculed and caricatured for their refusal to conform to gender expectations and for their transgressive dress: ‘ugly, comical, funny-looking, masculine ... women with monocles, cigars, and beards ...  men in skirts.’ Elsewhere in the collection are enigmatic, sensual, troubling and playful references to clothes. There is a ‘whalebone crinoline,’ a ‘bridal gown,’ a ‘mourning dress,’ and also ‘tiny shirt buttons,‘ ‘stockings and suspenders,’ and Katherine Hepburn’s ‘high-waisted pants.’

Images of transformation and shape changing are central to many poems. There are eagles, swans, horses, and ‘Syrinx, / the reed-woman, transformed into / a mournful sound: Pitys turned to pine, / rocked by the North Wind, and Daphne / who was at her end a sweet laurel. / We are all who have pleased too well’ (‘Dryad’). ‘Poem for Emily Doe’ paraphrases testimony from a witness in a Californian rape case: ‘Three nurses / prise flora and fauna / from her hair.’ The standard name ‘Doe’ assigned to give anonymity here takes on unintended resonances. Links between woman and nature are an ancient trope which permeates this collection of poems. In ‘Post Colonial,’  ‘She couldn’t blame the place where / it happened. The mountain, a blind / animal, innocent as any massive herbivore.’ The Welsh landscape has itself been violated by the ‘English cannon of colonialism.’ It is a place of bitter family feuds, where death is inevitable,‘the lamb we found dying in spring / snow. I covered the newborn thing with my coat, but the mother / ewe tore it away / with her teeth' (‘Letter on a Sheep Skull’).

Some of the most profound and heart rending poems in this collection are those about motherhood:
          ... I owe the world 
          for this boy, who knows the threading 
          of leaf veins, thrills at frogs, every moist
          unfurling tongue that snaps on a whir...

‘Can I protect this emptiness?’ (‘He Has a John Clare Chin’). In ‘Swan’ there is pain at the impossibility of keeping forever a ‘fluffed head on my shoulder: tiny / toes cold against my leg.’ The poems of loss in this collection are deeply personal. They are deliberately made public; there are no gaps and silences here; these poems speak the unspoken: 

          Until I had children, no one told me 
          that not all of them survive, that some die
          along the way. 
(‘My Last Beatitude’)

And in ‘Letter from Nemi’:

           ... After eight weeks, there is some blood, and 
           clotted tissue, dark red and shiny like liver. You overdress 
           tastefully, patterned collusion brilliant against
           your shiny white dress.

We hide the evidence, blot it out, make it tidy: ‘rain pulses shame.’ In the epigraph Claudia Dey suggests: ‘If we could perceive death as part of a pregnancy, we might just take women more seriously.’ For the men in this poem women are a distraction, a space to be filled: ‘Are women just a place / to put things?’ A woman has no right to refuse to be pregnant: ‘A woman died this week in Argentina, bled out inducing / miscarriage by tablet.’ This is a letter from the underworld, from Diana’s temple now beneath the lake. The moon goddess of birth and death, ‘a hunter / carrying arrows and a spear’ rides down oppressors. The poem ends with a haunting image: ‘a figure empty and white radiates in the blue storm light.’ In ‘Star / Sun / Snow’ children appear as natural phenomena, elemental beings: 

          1. Star
          You were the second...
         ... your
         head a pointed star trapped
         by my pelvic bone, but they trimmed, sliced,
         opened me up , and out you came screaming,
         slippery with my blood.

          2. Sun
          You were the third, big and radiant 
          in my stomach ...
          ... I couldn’t rest until the warm clutch
          of you was tucked beneath
          my breast.

          3. Snow
          You were the first, the one not 
          born, seen once onscreen shivering with excitement, or
          ...Now flakes, spin, 
          melt on the warm earth. If you had lived, we would
          have opened the door today, and I 
          would have said: Look, the snowflakes are
          trying to come in.

‘Name Poem’ is eloquent and heart searing: ‘Your name sings a feathery thing in the hand: / ...How impossible to sing your name! / This name of yours, delicate as a kiss on the eye,/ this name that sings a long drink of sleep.’ It is a beautiful elegy for a child who will never see snowflakes but whose spirit will always sing in the heart. 

An illuminating companion to this poetry collection is Zoe Brigley’s Notes from a Swing State – Writing from Wales and America (Parthian 2019) a collection of essays which give context and insight into the writing of these poems. 

About the reviewer
Since gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University what seems like a lifetime ago, Sue Mackrell’s poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in locations and publications as diverse as Leicester public toilets (an Everybody’s Reading initiative!) to Agenda Poetry. She is enjoying seeing the world anew through her four grandchildren. 

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Favourite Reads of 2019

At the end of 2019, we asked readers to nominate a favourite read of the year, and write a micro-review of their chosen book. The book could be from any time or genre - the only qualification was that it had to be a book the reader found particularly memorable, striking or enjoyable during the last twelve months. Here are the responses we received. Wishing everyone a great new year of reading in 2020!

Maggie Butt

Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley: "Rich, evocative nature writing, a compelling plot and a surprise ending - perfection."

Michaela Butter

Madeline Miller, Circe: "A brilliant feminist retelling that breathes life into the shadowy and maligned figure of the witch Circe."

Vaishnavee Chousalkar

Elie Wiesel, Night: "Absolutely heartbreaking, raw and vulnerable. It makes you live the horrors of the Holocaust and the Auschwitz camp through words."

Laurie Cusack

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star: "Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector breaks down walls in her novella The Hour of the Star and the reader tumbles through, amazed … I love her!" 

Andrew Dix

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina: "I'm a late (but enthusiastic) convert to the graphic novel, and I loved this one - if 'love' is the right word for a book that, in its meticulous images and words, is so poignant about grief and so harrowing about the violence lying beneath America's bland suburban surfaces."

Simon King

David R. Bunch, Moderan: "Corporate Man propelled into the far, far future and given a crash! bash! smash! uberviolent and madcap Futurist sheen - Marinetti would have loved it (though he wouldn't have grasped the joke)."

Mary Ann Lund

Raymond Antrobus, The Perseverance: "This debut poetry collection experiments with voices, signs, and broken sounds as Antrobus explores deafness and his Jamaican-British heritage; discussing 'Dear Hearing World' with my first-year students was a real highlight of my teaching year."

Kevan Manwaring

Richard Powers, The Overstory: "I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time."

Dan Powell

Hanne ├śrstavik, Love: "Beautifully translated and compelling account of a single winter evening, told through the seamlessly alternating voices of single-mum Vibeke and her son Jon as they move separately and inexorably toward the dead of night and a darkness that lies both without and within."

Robert Richardson

Don DeLillo, White Noise: "A family’s life in America towards the end of the twentieth century, as viewed through DeLillo’s satirical lens: the noise might be white but the comedy is decidedly dark."

Sally Shaw

Ian McEwan, The Daydreamer: "This book returned me to the wonderful world that is childhood."

Ashley Lloyd Smith

Emily Maguire, Taming the Beast: "The most disturbing book about sex, violence and jealousy you are ever likely to read, especially if it is the first gift from a new lover ..."

Jayne Stanton

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: "An odyssey of hope, empowerment, love and redemption; a story for our time."

Jonathan Taylor

Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps: "No-one does misers like Bennett - and in this claustrophobic and beautifully-observed novel, compulsive miserliness is screwed up to a terrifying degree, a kind of death drive. I can't imagine any reader penny pinching again."

Maria Taylor

George Seferis, Complete Poems: "This is a beautiful collection of poetry which captures moments of pain, exile and transcendence."

Miranda Taylor, aged 11

Yusei Matsui, Assassination Classroom: "In this manga, the children have to kill the teacher because he's already blown up the Moon, and is going to blow up the Earth next graduation. It is very funny and violent."

Rosalind Taylor, aged 11

Koyoharu Gotouge, Demon Slayer: "I really like this manga because Nezuko, one of the main characters, is very cute. I'm glad she doesn't get killed like lots of other people in the story."

Ernst von Weyhausen

Kamal Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered: "A genuinely intelligent examination of the modern problems of an ancient land that has ramifications for far beyond Lebanon."

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Life in Translation" by Anthony Ferner

Who’d have thought that translating foreign texts into English could lead to so many different bedrooms.

This seems to be a story about one man wooing and winding his way around the workplace, discovering uncomfortable sexual relationships with Gabi, Julia, Sonja, Trudy and Rachel - all in the first 81 pages! - as he moves from continent to continent, workplace to workplace. He seems to lead a shallow life, never quite managing to stick to anything, be it translating El Sexto, a Peruvian prison novel, or staying in a satisfactory grown-up relationship. He finds neither one thing nor the other; there is very little in his life, unless he counts shallow, meaningless sex as a success.

That this novel is well-written is beyond dispute and, though uncomfortable to read at times, I could still not put it down, even though I wanted to. I didn’t like the character portrayed and found him needy and patronising, especially towards women, but I had to find out more. I wanted to know if he would eventually achieve a successful relationship that didn’t just rely upon sex, and I certainly wanted to know whether he finally succeeded in translating El Sexto into the English language in a way that overcame all the linguistic problems it carried with it.

It is ironic that the character spends his working life trying to tease out the exact meaning of the smallest of words so as not to mislead the reader when he is such an abject failure at reading his own lifelines and methods. Perhaps it is too simplistic to place the two themes side by side and say that his translating life is a metaphor for his sex life - never quite getting there, despite chasing around the world to find that elusive ideal. I won’t tell you what he finds. You’ll need to read it and when you think it is all too much, buckle up and knuckle down, it is well worth the effort.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstone's bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Review by Lee Wright of "Freedom of Movement" by Reuben Lane

London, 2018 and uncertainty is everywhere. As Theresa May announces her Brexit plan, Reuben Lane walks the streets, from Clapham Common to Brixton, living an apprehensive existence. Freedom of Movement is a curious self-published book, part micro-memoir, part everyday diary. It would probably find a home somewhere between Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and Will Self’s Walking to Hollywood

Able to be read in a single sitting, it begins in the National Theatre foyer, as a security guard’s walkie talkie crackles, vacuum cleaners hum and people argue over the proper way to dispose of ice-cream cartons. The author moves all across the capital, an undertone of trauma following him from a canteen in Russell Square, to the streets around Millwall football stadium. There are inner battles being fought alongside everyday observations, like a Romanian plasterer arguing on his mobile phone while the author eats a deluxe vegetable burger at a McDonalds. At times the prose dips into (poet) Charles Boyle territory: “My cotton tote bag that I have stuffed with some dirty underwear; a couple of carrots, a root of ginger; a towel; a paperback.” 

And there are even entries into flights of fancy, such as when Donald Trump sits on the edge of his hotel bed, masturbating at the sight of Stormy Daniels on his television screen.  
“He pumps his pumpkin-hued penis.” 

There are tales of DIY mishaps in West Dulwich and morally polluted thoughts like artistic cannibalism. An old man calls a black girl “bitch,” while she shouts back, “Old man, you should be ashamed of yourself.” At times, the book reads like an overheard conversation you wish you hadn’t heard. Yet there are still glimpses that this could have been a fidgety mini-epic, perhaps with a little more time. If this book leaves you with the sense that Reuben Lane’s story is unfinished, perhaps that’s because it is.                                

About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester.

Review by Elizabeth Morgan of "The Last Children of Tokyo" by Yoko Tawada

Generations after a fictional (and very vague) environmental catastrophe, Japan struggles. The elderly often outlive their grandchildren in the world of this novel, a feat of magical realism and ecocriticism. Young people have fallen sick, due to the older generation’s negligence of the natural world. In this post-Fukushima society, reflections of intergenerational suffering are astute. Guilt for his generation’s selfish actions towards the planet are present always, in the elderly protagonist. 

This is also an exquisite feat of psychological exploration that ties the past to the future. In banning the naming of foreign cities, the author not only nods to Orwell, but leads us to remember isolationist Japan during Edo times. Tawada’s imagination leaves us with painful questions. Why is the prose describing irremediable catastrophe of nuclear meltdown so arresting - and yet, the creeping effects of pollution and global warming more subtly written? Present, too, is the fear of surveillance - quite popular with dystopian authors, as the elderly protagonist writes: "He was already well into it when he realised he’d included the names of far too many foreign countries. Place names spread throughout the novel like blood vessels, dividing into ever smaller branches, then setting down roots, making it impossible to eliminate them from the text. He’d had to get rid of the manuscript for his own protection, and since burning it was too painful, he had buried it." 

Mumei, the protagonist, is introduced to us in his silk pyjamas, waking up one morning. This is a Kafkaesque opening (reminiscent of the awakening in "The Metamorphosis"), bleak; yet the author still makes room for aesthetically gentle prose. Typically Japanese literature contemplates beauty, even in the remains of horror.  We are left understanding that we must rage on for all that is withheld by the government, never relaxing our search for protecting those simple pleasures we rely upon for happiness. 

About the reviewer
Elizabeth Morgan is a twentysomething who enjoys reading Japanese literature.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Review by Miranda Taylor of "Tokyo Ghoul" by Sui Ishida

Humans are meant to be at the top of the food chain but instead, in this manga, ghouls feed on humans to survive. They can easily blend in with human society. Ken Kaneki sees a girl named Rize-san who he ends up asking on a date not knowing that she’s only interested in eating his body. As Ken is almost about to be eaten, steel beams fall on Rize. He needs an emergency organ transplant because Rize is dead. Then he has to learn how to live his life as a ghoul … 

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys manga and violence. There are fourteen main books in the series but also there is another series called Tokyo Ghoul: Re. These books are illustrated and written by Sui Ishida. 

About the reviewer
Miranda Taylor is eleven years old. She enjoys reading manga and drawing her own pictures too. 

Friday, 13 December 2019

Review by Maizey Batchelor, aged 14, of “Straight Outta Crongton” by Alex Wheatle

This book had me hooked right from the start. It’s very relatable for teenagers: 

He hasn’t got anything to bring apart from his drunk-up bruk-ass self,” says Mo, the main character of this book. I really love the way Alex uses slang and colloquial language. 

Mo is a fifteen-year-old girl who lives with her mother and her mum’s horrible boyfriend Lloyd.  She tries her best to stay out of their way, since Lloyd has been to prison for all the wrong reasons. She prefers to hang out with her two G’s Elaine and Naomi or spend her time wishing she was Sam’s girlfriend. 

One day, Lloyd beats up Mo and she runs away to stay with Elaine. But Lloyd is not finished. He hurts one of Mo’s friends and Mo needs to make it right. Who does Lloyd hurt? Will Mo ever get revenge on Lloyd.  And Will she ever be reunited with her mum?

Alex Wheatle has written lots of other great books such as Liccle bit, Home Girl and Crongton Knights. He really captures the minds of teenagers and his books are far more enjoyable than any others I’ve read previously. Straight Outta Crongton is full of both drama and romance and I give it a five-star rating!

About the Reviewer 
Maizey is fourteen and loves drama, dance and performing. She has recently re-discovered books after a long break from reading. This is her first ever book review!