Friday, 7 December 2018

Review by Lee Wright of "Some Kind of Ghost" by Mike Barlow

You don’t necessarily need to be a champion of poetry in order to appreciate this new collection by Mike Barlow. To a certain extent there are a lot of false hang-ups linked to poetry. Some readers can feel beaten before they have reached the second page. Where Mike Barlow is concerned, however, and this collection in particular, there is no “beating around the bush.” He is good at describing what he sees with minimum fuss. In his latest collection from New Walk Editions, Barlow slows everything down into basic language and everyday emotions. 

A former winner of The National Poetry Competition, Barlow's poems have staying power: 

Ella who finally left home at sixteen with nothing 
but a pocketful of change and the rag doll of her childhood. 
May she find the latchkey in her purse one day 
and courage enough to use it.

Poems that are about the most honest of moments:     

With my scars,
tattoos and broken teeth
I’d have been a son my mother feared for. 

For some, writing poetry is a form of therapy. Not so with Barlow. With these poems, it is as though we are all family members, gathered around a death bed, only this will be a New Orleans jazz funeral, with trumpets and dancing and multi-coloured parasols and handkerchiefs twirled in the air.  Barlow’s gifts are on full display here, as he cuts the body loose:

So I slow down, tip-toe the long hall to the scullery. 
And there’s Aunt Dora washing plums. I knock 
on the old plank door and hold my breath. 
She’d always ignore me when she knew 
I was making things up but this time she turns, 
hands me a bowl of glistening Victorias to stone. 

Barlow does a good job of showing us what others are thinking: 

Les, fitter who didn’t fit, chucked the factory job, his mates, 
the lies and moved away where he could be 
Lesley. Shaven legs, coiffed hair, skirt and blouse, 
the bare truth of lipstick and mascara. 
A shout for her, a shout for her.    

All the poems here (even the ones that shouldn’t work, like "There’s that scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy first realises the deaf and dumb Chief Bromden can hear and speak") have a deceptive ease about them. They can be at times sombre, yet they still leave you itching to read them again. 

It is true that all poems should make you think. And that is something which resurfaces again and again over the nineteen poems. On a deeper level, the pamphlet could be seen as a meditation on what life is like for the people left behind after the death of a loved one, squeezed between ordinary observations like in the poem "Encounter," which opens with a quote from a plaque on a bench in Drinishader, on the east coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides: "On this bench 22nd October 2008 Angus Forbes proposed to Athlone Findlay in the rain." What follows is a masterful poem about sweethearts, that was fuelled by a chance encounter while walking through a park. 

But what is the trick to good poetry? Barlow himself tells us the trick in one poem: "The trick? The trick’s to keep it simple." And by sticking to that rule, he has fashioned a collection that will leave any aspirant poet wishing that they too might be able to achieve similar with mere words.          

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

Review by Heidi J. Hewett of "The Plankton Collector" by Cath Barton

I had been meaning to read this novella, which won the New Welsh Writing Award in 2017, and I kept putting it off because it’s about grief - it would be late, just before bed, and that sounded depressing. But it turns out the book is anything but. From the very first sentence, it’s like being able to crawl into the lap of your grandmother or grandfather in a rocking chair. There’s a flow to the language which is like breathing in and out, or rocking gently in a boat, and then the characters are drawn with such subtly, honesty, and compassion. Even though the central event of the book is coming to terms with death, it was the David and Rose—the quiet disintegration and equally quiet rebuilding of a marriage—that had me riveted. This is a short, utterly original, very human, marvellous book.

About the reviewer
Heidi J. Hewett writes science fiction, mysteries, and romantic comedies. When she is not reading or writing, she plays the violin, inspired by Sherlock Holmes. She also enjoys tinkering with recipes and inflicting strange food combinations on her hapless family. She is a member of RWA.

Review by Lee Wright of "Sunny and the Ghosts" by Alison Moore

It is said that a good writer can turn their hand to any genre, and with her debut children’s book, Alison Moore has put that to the test. There has always been a child-like innocence to many of the protagonists in Moore’s adult novels. This time, however, she has come full-circle, making the protagonist a child in a child’s story. 

Sunny and the Ghosts tells the story of eight-year-old Sunny, whose parents buy an antique shop in Devon, and move into the flat above. 

Sunny’s father likes old things. He plays old songs when driving around because it “Makes the van feel happier.” His mother likes the butterflies which are preserved in frames, while Sunny helps around the shop, polishing the antique furniture - one of which, a blanket box, has a stowaway ghost inside (the first of six), named Herbert. 

Of course, Sunny’s parents don’t believe him, even when the Victorian piano begins playing by itself during the night. We swiftly meet Walter, Violet, the sisters Mary and Elise, and finally Peregrine. 

Moore keeps the story ticking over (quite literally in the episode with the antique cuckoo clocks), always conscious of her readership. Along the way, strange things happen, like an invasion of stray cats into the shop, “First it was ghosts,” says Sunny’s friend. “And now it’s cats.” 

Sunny also attempts a day trip to the seaside for the dead, all accompanied by the illustrations of Ross Collins, who adds a George Adamson style quality to the story.    
And Moore’s literary influences are sprinkled throughout this book. Herbert the ghost’s favourite novel is Wuthering Heights for instance. Macbeth and Hamlet are mentioned, so too A Christmas Carol. And one of Sunny’s new ghostly friends gets trapped in the stationery cupboard while looking for notepaper to fulfil her beyond the grave ambition of writing a book. An encounter which leads to one of the funniest lines:

“Can’t you walk through doors?” asked Sunny. 

“No,” said Violet. “Can you?” 

A further influence can be found in the creation of the infuriating Mr Ramsbottom (and what seven-year-old wouldn’t titter at that choice of name?) who comes across as a combination of Mr Gruber and Mr Curry from Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear series. 

This book also draws on Moore’s last two adult novels. Death and the Seaside and The Missing both explore that place where the real and fictional worlds meet. And since being propelled into the spotlight in 2012 when she made the Man Booker Prize shortlist, alongside well-known heavyweights like Will Self, Deborah Levy and eventual winner Hilary Mantel, Moore has developed an almost cult fan-base that’ll surely buy her work, whether children’s fiction or not.   

And even though this is Moore’s first foray into children’s literature, it certainly won’t be her last. A follow-up book, also to be published by Salt Publishing and titled Sunny and the Hotel Splendid is already in the works. A tidy stream of adult novels and children’s books looks set to continue from the prolific former Man Booker Prize short-listed author.      

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

Review by Hannah Stone of "prison recipes" by Jeremy Paden

How does one capture the pain, confusion, and brokenness of Argentina’s Dirty War?
Jeremy Paden’s prison recipes explores this dark time of turmoil. 

Throughout his chapbook, shocking images are portrayed in lines slashed to pieces, seeming to represent a broken state of mind while in captivity. His “how-to” poems often lead to unimagined places, transforming simple items into unfamiliar territory.

From the generous detail Paden provides, it’s clear that he spent a considerable amount of time researching the conditions of Argentine prisons. In “on the need to clean everything from your mess plate,” he shows the reader the frightening image of prisoners grinding and eating eggshells in order to get enough protein and minerals to survive:

        use like salt/your gums
        will still bleed/hair lose luster/bear
        the grit for your bones/the hardness
        of your teeth/your heart and nerves

This world of hard survival is unfamiliar to most readers, but Paden makes it accessible with clarity and detail in his writing. He creates an artful balance between clarity and ambiguity in his poems, leaving some parts open to imagination.

Paden also shows how violence affected those outside of the prisons. During this time in Argentina, countless families were torn apart by war. His poems often represent a yearning or searching for lost loved ones. In “poem 2 after juan gelman’s carta abierta a mi hijo,” Paden writes,

           I turn about on my bed/ I twist
           through these city streets/for waking
           & sleeping is now the same to me/
           where are you?

These haunting notes of longing give a human face to these prisoners. Paden’s close attention to the emotions and thoughts of his subjects makes his poetry effective and poignant. Throughout his chapbook, Paden is true to the struggle and pain of his subjects.

About the reviewer
Hannah Stone is an undergraduate student of Creative Writing in Cleveland, Tennessee. She enjoys poetry and fiction, and hopes to pursue an MFA upon completing her undergraduate program.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Table Manners" by Susmita Bhattacharya

Susmita Bhattacharya is a writer and creative writing tutor. She was born in Mumbai and graduated in applied art from B.D.Somani Sophia Polytechnic. Following her marriage she sailed around the world with my husband on oil tankers. Later they moved to Cardiff, where she did her Master's in The Practice and Teaching of Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Her first novel, The Normal State of Mind, was published by Parthian in 2015. This collection of short stories, Table Manners, is published by Dahlia Publishing.

This is a beautiful book, so beautifully written. I don’t really need to expand upon that , but I will. Every story is a subtle blend of place and setting. We identify with every situation as it is always so clear as to where each story comes from. Be it India, Venice, Wales, China or England, we know almost instantly where we are and start the process of empathy with the writer. We are sad when she is sad, homesick as she misses her birthplace, jealous of others as they have what we aspire to and we feel the pain of those who are dying. All the emotions are finely wrought and we feel them all.

All the sorrow that Bhattacharya writes about tugs at our heart. We really do feel what her protagonists feel and this is due to her concise compact writing that doesn’t waste an idea or a heartbeat. Life is brought to life, in the kitchen where we can smell and taste the food being prepared, in the streets of India where we feel the heat and see the poverty, in Wales where we can measure the racism line by line.

The women, the strong women in every story are unwavering. They see all and have an undiminished power about them no matter what their situation. They are key. Bhattacharya  allows us to see into her worlds and to experience what she feels in them. We share her pain, we share the loss of her youth, we believe in her strength as she fights against what is wrong with the world.

Every story makes us think, makes us confront our own prejudices and makes us aware that though we may feel we have everything that others, even if they lack money, status or power, have more. It may be that people in Cardiff are richer than those in Mumbai, but at least the rain drops are bigger in India.

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 Waterstones’ 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.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Review by Robert Richardson of "Anni Albers" Exhibition at Tate Modern, London, 11 October 2018 - 27 January 2019

Tate Modern’s Anni Albers exhibition ends in 2019, and in so doing helps mark the centenary of Walter Gropius’s founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar. There will be celebratory events throughout the world for the twentieth century’s most famous and influential design school, and in Germany two new Bauhaus museums will open.

Anni Albers became a Bauhaus student in 1922 and was head of its weaving workshop for the couple of years preceding the Bauhaus’s closure by the Nazis in 1933. For those interested in the Bauhaus, she has long been a member of its pantheon, but having this solo exhibition at one of the world’s leading art museums justifiably establishes her with a wider audience. Strictly speaking, re-establishes, as she was the first textile artist to have a solo show at MOMA, New York in 1949.  She died in 1994, and the Tate Modern exhibition is a survey of her entire career as a designer and artist.

After completing the Bauhaus preliminary course, Albers wanted to enrol in the glass workshop, but, as with almost all female students (Marianne Brandt being a notable exception), she was channelled into weaving, in what became known as the “Women’s Workshop.” The Bauhaus was generally liberal and progressive, but this denial of equal opportunities to female students has been the subject of strong criticism.

Albers became committed to turning the traditional craft of weaving into a Modernist artform. She was the epitome of a Bauhaus artist/designer: her work consistent with the Bauhaus’s ethos, practices and Constructivist aesthetic. The workshop approach meant an understanding of materials through experiment and imagination. The exhibition shows a sample (and historical photograph) of her diploma piece: a wall covering produced for a trade union auditorium. The black and white threads were interwoven with cellophane, giving a vibrant, shimmering effect. She attended Paul Klee’s colour theory classes (a page of her notes is exhibited) and her sensitivity to colour is present throughout the exhibition. A palette of greys, blacks, whites and yellows is quiet and subtle, but when she restricts herself to red threads, there is a blaze of fierce intensity.  

Born in 1899 as Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann, in 1925 she married Josef Albers, destined for fame as painter, colour theorist and teacher. He was a fellow student and later a junior Bauhaus Master. Together, soon after the Bauhaus was shut down, they crossed the Atlantic to rural North Carolina, where both took up teaching posts at the recently formed Black Mountain College, participating in a second legendary teaching institution for the arts. It was here, in the thirties and forties, that Anni Albers began a weaving workshop, using Bauhaus methods with her students, some of whose precise visual and written notes are displayed: meticulousness seems to be an example weavers set for us all.

Anni and Josef Albers made a number of visits to Central and South America, and the pre-Columbian weaving of Peru profoundly influenced her. This culture never had a written language, and weaving was a form of communication. I found this a fascinating section of the exhibition, and a work such as Red Meander (1954) has a wonderful, seemingly ancient, maze-like quality.

In the 1950s, after moving to Connecticut when Josef Albers was appointed a professor at Yale, she increasingly used her craft as a medium for fine art, calling these works ‘Pictorial Weavings.’ Are they equivalent to the best non-figurative Modernist paintings? On the evidence of this exhibition, I think the answer is a resounding yes. This was a personal project and there are entertaining pieces where rickety grids are subverted by threads that intervene like sparks. During this time, she also continued as a designer, and did not forget the Bauhaus position of using industrial processes to make good design available to more than the moneyed few. The exhibition shows her designs for the Knoll Textile Department, and they are still in production today. The Bauhaus idea of architecture as a unifier for all arts and crafts was adhered to when Gropius commissioned her to design textiles for the accommodation part of the Law School building he designed for Harvard. On display is a bed with an Anni Albers bedspread that helped a lucky student stay warm in an aesthetic and art-historical way.

In the early 1960s, weaving became too physically demanding for Albers, and she switched to printmaking. The exhibits include her use of an embossing technique to produce white on white prints: small reliefs that deserve recognition as well executed Minimalist artworks. 

The exhibition has clarity in its organisation and exhibition text, and a good balance between artworks and documentation: e.g. notebooks and photographs. It comprehensively shows Anni Albers’s work has an important place in a visual culture affirming the Bauhaus precept of design closing the gap between art and daily life.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer living in Leicestershire. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He recently had a solo exhibition of photographs at the Museu Municipal in Faro, Portugal, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Review by Colin Gardiner of "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is a masterful storyteller who perfected the idea of a twentieth-century American Gothic – where the dark and twisted thoughts of seemingly normal characters are revealed in gripping and shocking detail.

Her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle centres on the life of the remnants of the Blackwood family, who live in self-imposed seclusion in their grand home at the edge of a hostile village in rural Vermont.

Jackson expertly juxtaposes the "vulgar" behaviour of the villagers with the eccentric life of the Blackwood family, a seemingly happy but fragile existence, under threat from familial tension, small-town resentment and dark secrets.

This is a powerful novel of family tragedy, isolation and magic, told through the singular and unpredictable prism of the young protagonist’s consciousness. The central character, eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, has to be one of the most fascinating and multifaceted creations in modern literature. Jackson gives us insight into the macabre thoughts of this unique eighteen-year-old teenager, on the cusp of an unwanted adult-hood. Merricat is child-like, yet sharp as a knife. She is a daydreamer in touch with nature who harbours thoughts of violent retribution on those who seek to destroy her idyllic existence with her sister and uncle.

The novel is suffused with a beautiful dark magic – from the totemic objects buried or nailed around the house by Merricat – to the gothic trappings of the family home and its enchanted gardens. Jackson casts a spell on the reader in this bewitching anti-coming-of-age tale.

About the reviewer 
Colin Gardiner is following a part-time Masters degree in Creative Writing at the University of University. His interests include short story writing, screen writing and poetry. He lives and works in Coventry with his husband and two cats.

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Child That Books Built" by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford was born in 1964; he describes growing up in a golden age of reading, comparable to the heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. The Child That Books Built is a memoir out of the ordinary intertwining childhood and reading.  

In the memoir, the reader is taken on a literary journey through a forest, island, town, and "the hole." Each of these places forms a major theme or chapter. Throughout the journey, books are Spufford's constant guide and landscape. Books help him hide away from the harsh realities of a sibling’s illness. 

In a chapter about the forest, we glimpse of Spufford’s early childhood, living on the campus of Keele University. The reader is taken through the history of storytelling. The forest is symbolic of storytelling, a primal setting for fairy-tales like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood. Spufford takes the reader deep into the forest Where the Wild Things Are, as well as Alice, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.  The psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Bettelheim are also encountered.

Once through the forest, Spufford delights in the freedom his ability to read gives him. It was this delight that kept me reading, onto the island. Spufford read books that took him away from the reality he was living. The magical moment he connected his mind and language with the words he was reading was in The Hobbit. Woven through this chapter are insights into the lives of authors, including the fascinating early childhood of C. S. Lewis.

In the last two chapters, the books he reads help him make sense of his expanding world.  To Kill a Mocking Bird provides the vicarious experience of a town in uproar. He gains personal strength from the Little House books.  In the chapter on "The Hole," books navigate Spufford through boarding school, puberty and the transition to adult life.

This memoir reminded me of my own childhood reading: how reading added adventure and imagination to my playtime. I consider the key message of this book is that children need to read to develop their imaginations; and as they grow they need to keep reading to maintain a learning and questioning mind. This is a book well worth getting lost in the forest for.    

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing Student at the University of Leicester. She writes poetry, and is starting to write short stories. She was a nurse for 33 years.         

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Review by Katharina Maria Kalinowski of "Persona Non Grata," ed. Isabelle Kenyon

Against the backdrop of Brexit talks, global refugee crises, and an ongoing endangerment of the refuges of our collective home planet earth itself, Fly on the Wall Press have launched their new poetry anthology Persona Non Grata. Following the success of Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, editor Isabelle Kenyon’s second charitable book project brings together 45 poets who explore what it means to feel unwanted. Reasons for this not only include an institutional status of undesirability, but range from social exclusion because of “my deep routed melanin / Dark brown eyes and thick-tongued accent” to mental isolation because “one is of the wrong gender.” 

Arranged into seven thematic sections, each poem offers a glimpse at people who don’t fit in; people to whom the “star-strung door to HSBC” remains forever shut; people whose voices we fail to understand or have learnt to ignore. Issues of marginalisation and injustice are put in dialogue with invisibility at best and humiliation at worst. There’s the husband who “tells you to call / what he’s been wearing diapers”, old Ida who used to “dance on a moonlit beach / With a handsome man from Italy”, Abdul from Libya who is told to “Go home!”, Otto who sings “Latvian / folk songs till some / drunks give him / a good kicking”, the girl who is “tired, dead tired” of “sitting single in a bus seat meant for two.” They all have a story to share – but “it seems you were all deaf.” 

The motif of “home” is reoccurring in all these stories, and it does not just refer to the physical place “where my heart was formed”. Home is a narrative of togetherness, a sheltering body of one’s own, a secure job, a safe country, a family of some kind, a hot meal, a childhood memory of “learning to fly on swings.” Losing the comfort of such a refuge feels like losing one’s breath, especially when taken away by disaster and violence. With homes, lives are left behind in a “land that was once / called cradle but is now a mass grave.”

The poetic voices emerging from the taboo of silence are as varied as the backgrounds of the contributors themselves. They find the intimate thoughts of a poetic I, the perspectives of an outside observer to the outsider, boldly adapt a collective “We”, prose-poetic speech, or a sarcastic distance in order to claim that “There’s nothing wrong anywhere.” While many make use of the space their stories are denied in real life and experiment with free verses on the page, the occasional rhyming scheme is also welcome. This includes one of Kenyon’s poems herself, which chimes in with the grim humour of the last section by suggesting: “Let’s make Britain great white again.”  

Forming a moving mosaic of dissent, the poems begin to echo each other’s concerns and imagine political action. Poetry comes to us “in gun-shapes.” Anger is cultivated, grief segmented. Bodies are exposed, pain is tangible. Guilt creeps into the “comfort of living rooms.” When do we stop noticing? Who decides on a normative skin colour, gender, BMI; who decides who is welcome? Who decides who is not?

These poets use language to challenge the status quo and are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. As lyrical attentiveness is joined by activist ideas, words themselves become uninvited troublemakers, non gratae in an illusion of harmony. It remains up to us then, to accommodate every word and everybody, “uncover the other in ourselves” and learn, as the final poem invites us, to celebrate difference.

About the reviewer
Katharina Maria Kalinowski is a bilingual poet and EUmanities fellow at the Universities of Cologne, Kent, and Dublin. Her practice-based PhD project focuses on ecopoetry and translation. She has most recently published in Magma 72, Epizootics, and The Transnational: A Literary Magazine.