Monday, 25 March 2019

Review by Azra Limbada of "The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet" by Sam Meekings

The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet by Sam Meekings is a historical fiction novel that weaves in and out of both the imagined life of Peter Gachet, as well as providing a reflective commentary on the author’s journey of discovering and writing about the subject of Van Gogh’s famous painting. 

The novel focuses primarily on exploring the sadness captured in the painting, as well as attempting to trace its unique and elusive journey through the hands of investors and art collectors. Meekings skilfully portrays the inner turmoil of a man who felt out of place and out of time, and who consequently turned to the arts for comfort and escape. As the doctor explains at one point, he chose medicine since he ‘was not talented enough to be an artist,’ and this fascination with what art achieves, or tries to, is thoroughly examined throughout. 

For Meekings, the painting is of personal significance, explaining how a chance encounter with a small print of it left him feeling like there was ‘a tiny marble rolling around the inside of my skull.’ In many ways, the novel seeks to explore the connection between art and society in a philosophical fashion, traipsing a fine line between art as representational, and art as a means of individual communication between subject and viewer. As readers, we, too, explore the afterlives of Dr. Gachet, both as a door into a somewhat imagined past, as well as finding an individual human bond between him and ourselves. 

One slight drawback to the novel is the reminder the author continuously gives us of the fact that this is a piece of historical fiction and that there are plenty of incidents that cannot be written without some creative re-imagination. When approaching historical fiction, this is a given, and can take away from the sense of suspended belief a reader is accustomed to.  Often, it feels as though the author is trying to convince us that the application of this creative licence is okay but perhaps that is not necessary at all. We are already drawn into the world of Peter from the moment he faces his biggest hurdle, after he grievously injures himself at the start of the novel. Ultimately, as readers, we are happily prepared to let the author use whatever facts are at his disposal to re-create an otherwise compelling story, and one in which a young man tries ‘to be anything but a boy cursed with a mangled ankle and a relentless shyness.’

The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet artfully captures a glimpse into the life of a man whose lined face continues to stir emotions in its modern day viewers. You may not find the answer to whatever that elusive element is in this book, but you will understand better why it is so easy to relate to Doctor Gachet’s sadness, so clearly visible through the medium of colour and oil on canvas. 

About the reviewer Azra Limbada is an English PhD student, currently providing literacy intervention at an SEN school. She enjoys reading and writing women’s fiction in her spare time.

Review by Emma Lee of "Cloud River" by Charles Bennett

Charles Bennett's Cloud River explores the restorative values of spending time in the natural landscape. The title poem contains an invite: 

'Imagine stepping into, stepping onto,
a river in the sky: like a journey down a length of weather-music -
something being said without words.

Visible for a moment, then slowly blowing away,
a fusion of water and air, I make
a brief causeway across the blue.'

These are quiet moments of stillness, of being alone in nature but the focus and engagement is external. 

'Flatlander's Lullaby' makes effective use of consonance and assonance to give the poem an appropriately lyrical feel:

'Cruise my little skater across the pondback
              skim the dark water towards dawnlight.'

Later, a 'Fen Raft Spider' sits on the 

    'flimsy meniscus in a clockwork dance,
         until you read a beginning    
                         in the quiet deep. And then -

you open the page of water and do not stop
        until you have found out
                     what happens at the end.'

It's not the only poem to make a connection between nature and writing, exploring how close observation and the freedom of space allow creativity. These poems wear their craft lightly, drawing attention towards their images and messages so readers focus on what the poem is illustrating and conveying. Although all the poems are linked by theme, they vary in their rhythm, pacing and form so avoid the trap of similarity. Cloud River shows how quiet moments in the natural world open up a writer's mind to inspiration.

About the reviewer
Emma Lee’s recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015). The Significance of a Dress is forthcoming from Arachne. She co-edited Over Land, Over Sea (Five Leaves, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage Reviews and blogs at

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "Your Fault" by Andrew Cowan

It’s 1962 Your Earliest Memory - the opening chapter of Andrew Cowan’s novel Your Fault. The sun is shining and Peter’s older self settles on it being August and he is aged two and two thirds. The second person narrative draws the reader into a young Peter’s perspective, while allowing glimpses of an adult blueprint.

The novel spans a period of eleven years, Peter a year older with each chapter. The story depicts life lived on a Corporation housing estate on the edge of a New Town. And his earliest memory is also the point that Peter’s story both begins and ends. 

Peter’s mother has taken him and baby sister out; he does not want to go but is frightened of being abandoned: 'You bawl at your mother and wait for your future to reach you, a future you do not want but cannot prevent. This may be your inciting incident, the point at which your story begins. For now, let us suppose so. Here comes fury. Here comes a spanking.' Throughout the novel Peter strives to gain his mother’s affection, attention and approval, while his mother struggles with loneliness, being a wife, a mother and a young attractive woman drawn in by the attentions of male neighbours. 

His father is older than his mother and works at the Works; his affection, when he expresses it, is towards Peter’s sister. Peter gains insight into his father’s past and present, through items found in a box and a brown leatherette file. 

As the years pass, the reader witnesses major events in Peter’s life: going to school, Butlin’s, family upsets, childhood injuries, sibling rivalry, friendships, burgeoning sexual awareness. Beneath family life simmers unspoken truths, misunderstandings and hidden emotions, leaving Peter to work it all out.      

About the reviewer
Sally is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history and she is also inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by NEWMAG. She worked as a nurse for thirty-three years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930" by Jonathan Taylor

I have long been an advocate of creative writers becoming more involved in the fusty old world of academic writing, so it was with great pleasure that I saw that Jonathan Taylor had written Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840–1930, published by Palgrave Macmillan, knowing from experience that this would be an extremely well written book that flowed and was attractive to the reader.

I was not disappointed. Taking three of the subjects closest to my heart, Taylor writes with well-researched prowess about Laughter, Literature and Violence through the gaze of philosophers, academics, writers, Ancient Greeks, Romans, poets, politicians, soldiers, churchmen, the list is almost endless.

In Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930 we see the convoluted relationship between laughter, violence, war, horror and death. This through an inventive line of enquiry via philosophy and politics, and then in a study of four texts, by Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Gosse, Wyndham Lewis and Katherine Mansfield - four amazingly diverse and complicated characters who are brought to life by Taylor. We learn that laughter and violence are forever interlinked, from the pratfall to the explosion of guffaws at a friend’s demise. We can’t help ourselves and Taylor carefully explains why. 

We investigate a founding comic text, The Pickwick Papers, and how Schadenfreude intrudes into the English language and changes comic writing for ever. Schadenfreude is such an intense feeling that we had to invent (or import) a word for it.

Taylor does not write above his audience. He looks them straight in the eye and invites them to take part in the conversation. He engages the reader and doesn’t try to point score or write to an intellectual elite. Not for him pretentious authority but an engaging narrative wordcraft that wants us, the reader, to be part of his discussion and discovery. This is the beauty of having a gifted creative writer producing an academic text. It is readable and accessible.

The book is painstakingly researched over five years with a plethora of footnotes asking us to read further into his enquiries. The depth and richness of his research reflects his love for the subject. This is a text for the academic to help him or her to interrogate and to investigate and a book for the interested party, who enjoys the subject. Both are well served. It is not too academic to put off the casual reader, yet it has enough gravitas to educate and intrigue.

The book ended and I wanted to know more. I wanted to plunge into this strange world where we laugh in the face of violence. Where sadness is disabused by jokes. Where all are equal, and equally absurd, especially the man who slips on the floor.

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.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Review by Hilary Hares of "Family Matters: An Anthology of New Writing," edited by Fiona Linday

As Michael Attenborough, CBE, says in the Foreword to this slim volume, ‘our basic human right to communicate with one another lies at the centre of what humanizes and civilizes us.’ The Family Matters project in Leicester sought to facilitate this goal by promoting previously unpublished writers and stripping away barriers to communication.  

In a series of workshops, around twenty local participants were encouraged by studying the work of established writers, sharing writing tips and practising techniques to hone their skills. The result is a colourful mix of short stories and poems pulled together through the common link of family – a topic which means such different things to all of us. Here it has been tackled in a variety of ways – from what’s putting a daughter off her food to the trials and tribulations of a family of bricks!   

Collaborative efforts can sometimes result in an ill-matched hotch-potch but this one reads as a cohesive whole.  Despite the inexperience of these new voices, what strikes me is their confidence and enthusiasm to bring their chosen subject matter to life on the page. I am equally impressed by the colloquial tone which runs throughout. Nothing tries too hard but is delivered with a light touch which still pays meticulous attention to craft and detail. 

These writers have clearly been guided by skilful hands and the joy of communicating really shines through in every contribution. Here’s hoping this experience will give them the encouragement they need to expand and develop their talents even further. 

About the Reviewer
Hilary Hares lives in Farnham, Surrey, and spent nearly thirty years using the power of words to raise money for charity.  She has an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Manchester Metropolitan University and her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon, is sold in support of Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Review by Louise Brown of "Maps of the Abandoned City" by Helen Ivory

Maps of The Abandoned City by Helen Ivory is a pamphlet of unforgettable poetry. For me, it was often reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: it communicates the same feeling of disorientation, where nothing is as it should be. This abandoned city Ivory shows us is disquieting, strange and eerie. Many lines leap out at you and grab you by the throat.

All of the poems are in different ways brilliant but some I had to keep going back to. The poem 'Streets of the Abandoned City' cleverly plays with our preconceptions, and then blows them apart. Here is a street full of emaciated birds rather than human beings:

The Street of the Birds is a vault of locked cages,
each inhabitant rendered to feather and bone.
Wind blusters through keyholes to parody song.

'The Square of the Clockmaker 'is another highlight. Here are clocks imbued with human qualities, and she does this with such skill, bestowing on the world of things and objects feelings and human needs:

When the last train left,
the tunnel rolled the train track
back into its mouth and slept

Clocks unhitched themselves
from the made-up world of timetables
and opened wide their arms.

And in the square of the clockmaker
a century of clocks
turned their faces to the sun.

The poem 'The Photograph Albums of the Abandoned City' contained some of my favourite couplets:

Light has leeched into the body
of the camera

so the bride wears a black dress,
a garland of shadows.

Overall, this is poetry of the best kind - entrancing and original. 

About the reviewer
Louise Brown lives in Rutland. She is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories, poetry and is also writing a first draft of her first novel. 

Friday, 8 February 2019

Review by Paul Taylor McCartney of "Remnant" by Lania Knight

Lania Knight’s contribution to the dystopian genre, Remnant, is a worthy one. It depicts an all-too familiar world recovering from eschatological meltdown. The action takes place within the ‘Compound,’ a post-industrial hive overseen by a dying queen, Maitris, who has already extended her natural life by hundreds of years by having her team surgically transfer her personality to young female clones, each one bred to ensure genetic continuity. The author presents a world ravaged by unchecked scientific exploitation and corporate ruthlessness; but the narrative is sequenced to show how hope and hopelessness (a theory first expounded by Ernest Bloch) can happily co-exist within the dystopian novel and even provide the reader with the driving compulsion to reach its conclusion, as is the case here. 

There are some interesting flourishes in terms of form and style. Knight has a keen ear for the musicality of language, almost at word level, providing a wealth of striking imagery on almost every page: ‘Old voices chanting and singing, crying, asking why they can’t go home. The water ping ping pings something … why it is so silent is why their bodies are so dumb.’ The inventiveness in the opening chapters can seem initially disorientating for any reader trying to piece together the various fragments of this new order, but this response soon settles down. In fact, ‘Brokerns,’ ‘TaNas,’ ‘Soldjens,’ ‘Synthfeeds’ and ‘ModDNA’ help to reveal an established trope in the genre: that as a fictive world is re-born, so too must language be refigured to help describe this new reality; Knight’s achievement here is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s in Oryx and Crake (2003), or Cormac McCarthy’s in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road (2009). 

Experiments in style are never enough without a novel being grounded in believable characters and our sympathies never stray too far from the young princess, Esme, whose principal task in life is to replace the current queen and rule with a very different vision and set of values. Her development from young girl to emboldened woman is one of the novel’s major achievements, allowing Knight to construct a new direction for this world - a new direction that is unexpected and a sign of her imagination as writer.  

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the discipline of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Review by Colin Gardiner of "Coal Black Mornings" by Brett Anderson

Brett Anderson, lead singer of the indie group, Suede, describes an eccentric childhood in an ‘oddball’ family's marginal existence in a Sussex housing estate. The portrayal of life in a commuter hinterland is sharply observed, from childhood land-fill explorations, family gossip and adolescent angst in the local comprehensive school. Anderson describes suburban boredom fraught with tension along with the possibility of escape through creativity, in affecting detail.

Anderson’s mother was a frustrated artist. She encouraged creativity within her young family, with a ‘make-do’ attitude, but, ultimately, was destined for domestic servitude to an overbearing, but sensitive father - a classical-music-obsessed taxi driver. 

The most effective sections of the book describe the complicated relationship between father and son. Anderson uses biography as a way of examining the relationship with his father, in order to strengthen the bond with his own young son. Anderson’s emotional collapse and subsequent spiritual paralysis at the death of his mother is devastating, and subconsciously affected his subsequent songwriting and creative persona.  

The tribal youth culture of the eighties is also sharply observed. Anderson describes an existence on the outside of the mainstream, not quite fitting in between the goths, headbangers and neo-mods. His adolescent awkwardness will be instantly familiar to any readers who came of age in the Thatcher years.

Life in an almost unimaginable pre-gentrification London is also portrayed, in a series of dope-hazed bed-sits, lager-soaked concert venues and cramped recording studios. His band was no overnight sensation, and the struggle of poorly attended gigs, inept songwriting and the search for musical identity in an indifferent business is revealed, in unflinching hilarious detail.  

Coal Black Mornings is an honest account set in the dying embers of youth culture in the United Kingdom. A highly recommended read, at turns heartbreaking, excruciatingly hilarious and always convincing.

About the reviewer
Colin Gardiner lives in Coventry. He is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He writes short stories and poetry.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a story created from forty-four beautifully written vignettes. Opening this book is like opening a window onto Mango Street and breathing in the Chicagoan-Hispanic air. From the window the reader can see and hear the characters that live on Mango Street as they appear, impact and influence Esperanza Cordera on her journey of discovery. 

Each vignette is a story with its own message. In "The Family of Little Feet," Esperanza tells of the time she and her friends learn to walk in high heel shoes and the effect of this on men who should know better. At first it appears like innocent fun, then the girls change, the atmosphere changes and danger lies in wait: "It’s Rachel who learns to walk the best all strutted in those magic high heels. She teaches us to cross and uncross our legs, and to run like a double-dutch rope, and how to walk down to the corner so that the shoes talk back to you with every step. Lucy, Rachel, me tee-tottering like so. Down to the corner where the men can’t take their eyes off us. We must be Christmas."
In "Edna's Ruthie," Esperanza takes the reader with her on a miniature journey away from childhood. She moves from acceptance of her not-so-grown-up friend Ruthie - "Ruthie, a tall skinny lady with red lipstick and blue babushka, one blue sock and one green because she forgot, is the only grown-up we know who likes to play" - to trying to fit in when she meets Sally, and finally to betrayal by Sally, leading to a traumatic experience.  

Each vignette is perfectly crafted.  Cisneros’s writing is accessible to all ages and levels of readers. The vignettes, when read together, tell the full story of Esperanza and how she makes sense of her experiences on Mango Street. These experiences are her guide to what she needs to do to become the person she wants to be, and this ultimately means she must leave Mango Street - in the knowledge it will always pull her back.  

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