Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Review by Robert Richardson of "The Light of Day" by Graham Swift

By producing a literary novel in which the main character and narrator, George Webb, is a private detective, Graham Swift with The Light of Day sets up a relationship to the genre of crime writing. He is, though, not aiming at satire or parody, but an exploration of knowing and understanding. Swift’s imagination and the sheer quality of his writing achieve what seems, at times, to be an extended prose poem. His technique is to drip-feed information to the reader, to provide an experience of gradually making sense after an initial ignorance, and narrative description is melded with his own brand of stream of consciousness recollection.

As with other Swift novels, a complex, elliptical structure hinges on a single day: the second anniversary of when Sarah Nash, one of George’s clients, murdered her husband. George, in love with Sarah and regularly visiting her in prison, has, at her request, agreed to put flowers on the grave. We accompany him as he does this. It is followed by a visit to Sarah and a journey back to his office that includes stopping at the street of Sarah’s former house, where the murder took place. Interspersed with this are chapters that incorporate a non-linear collage of memories consisting of his encounters with Sarah, and the day of the murder, when he was employed by her to follow, secretly, her husband, Bob, and his Croatian lover, Kristina, to Heathrow, from where Kristina will be returning to her own country. It is an agreed “concession” that Bob may accompany Kristina before the marriage resumes. George is to report back to Sarah that Kristina does indeed leave. This he confirms by phone, and we are told that Sarah is preparing to welcome Bob home by cooking their favourite meal. The “hook” is to find out what occurred for her to end up in prison, since the meal was unserved and instead she stabbed her husband to death.

George also thinks of other, older, memories: his ex-wife and their daughter; his parents and childhood; and events leading to his dismissal from the police. Through these accretions of memory, Swift skilfully portrays George’s life, to be offset against the extreme and catastrophic event and effects of the murder. The Swift trademark of the family secret also appears and involves George’s father. 

Swift’s presentation of George’s voice is pitch-perfect, sympathetically adopting the persona of a basically decent man, though not without faults. His police background gives him resilience, but he also has the insecurity, sometimes present in the lower middle class, of being aware that he lacks a satisfactory level of formal education. He adopts self-improvement that takes the form of learning gourmet cooking, and on his prison visits he takes writing for Sarah, who had worked as a college lecturer, to correct. This has a psychological resonance with regard to their relationship, which is all the more powerful for not being analysed. 

A detective is concerned with evidence, but Swift shows that this is a partial and inadequate summation of experience, and often we cannot account for the motivations of others beyond our own speculations. His perceptions have a downbeat numbness, but there is some hope in George’s commitment, bordering on devotion, to Sarah, which, given the little contact they had before the murder and her imprisonment, approaches the inexplicable and escapes explanations by the merely factual. 

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Friday, 10 May 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "Thirteen Months of Sunrise" by Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

Thirteen Months Of Sunrise is the debut short story collection of Sudanese author, journalist and activist Rania Mamoun. The ten stories take the reader on a journey through Sudan, from the Nile Basin to Khartoum. 

Mamoun’s writing evokes the gentle courage of her Sudanese characters, and an awareness of their strength, humour and the difficulties they encounter, in their day-to-day lives. Her beautiful, simplistic, yet at times mesmerising writing is threaded through with powerful emotions. In "Passing," the emotions of loss and regret are explored at the end of a life: “I fall silent, unable to respond. Or perhaps it’s the disappointment flowing through his words that leaves me mute.” The story is beautifully told, and explores the extremes of life and death: “My nieces and nephews race in and out, delighted with their new clothes, Eid sweets never leaving their mouths. They rush up to me, all abuzz.” This is a story that readers from all around the world will understand and form a bond with.

Humour, tension, apprehension among the passengers on a bus to Khartoum are all apparent in "Cities And Other Cities"; by the end of the journey, one passenger makes a discovery and forms an unusual if brief friendship. The simple beginning to this story has both a comic and profound meaning, and the reader too wants to take a seat on this bus: “At that point something evil awoke inside me: anger, hatred, the desire to kill. I slapped the fly as hard as I could, but it backfired and I hit myself square in the face. The fly slowly zig-zagged away before dropping from the air. I leant forward and took a long, hard look at it. I started to feel bad for the fly, especially as I’d also been caught in the crossfire. I thought it was dead, so scolded myself for killing it, and felt even worse.” By the end of the bus journey, the reader will have experienced the sights, sounds, and cultures of fellow travellers as the story arrives at its final destination.

The beautifully told "One-Room Sorrows" conveys, in a few words, the emotion of heartbreak and then, with a twist, a mother’s uncertainty. "Stray Steps" is a modern, real-life fairy-tale of wonder and hope in a world that at first glance appears desolate and cruel: “I don’t care what they do with my body, they don’t have much desire for it anyway.” At times, this story is almost too grim but then a spark of light - one of Mamoun's skills as a writer -  encourages the reader to continue to the end, and be rewarded for persevering.

The collection is at times difficult to read, as it requires the reader to pause and consider the meanings. But the reward for reading this collection of ten stories is in meeting new people living in a country that holds stories that need to be told. Above all, the stories demonstrate  how similar we all are. 

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw 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 inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by NewMag, and her story 'Cherry Scones' was published online by Ink Pantry. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.   

Friday, 12 April 2019

Review by Louise Brown of "Between the Lines" by Matthew Bright and Christopher Black

Between The Lines is an unusual and charming love story between a lonely Victorian gentleman and a sad young girl living two centuries later. Dashby is uninterested in the female suitors in his life, while Beth has become jaded by the modern world of dating and casual relationships. She types a bleak text after soulless sex with her ex, although she doesn’t intend to send it, and when she wakes the next day she discovers it has been sent to an unknown recipient. It then mysteriously arrives in the form of a letter to Dashby. He replies to her by letter and she receives it as an email. The ensuing texts, emails and letters become a sort of time travel with both characters traversing the ages and communicating with the other.

The stories intertwine cleverly, and they start to sit side by side on the same page as each narrator tells their story in step with the other. In the 21st century Beth has some terrible sex, and in Dashby’s tale he is being pursued by a keen female admirer who, after he spills hot tea on himself, then insists on trying to dry the stain by rubbing him with a cloth.

The authors repeat this mirroring technique in each story until they merge and coalesce into one  whole. This method of story-telling makes you think about how the real stuff of human existence, matters of the heart that is, never change over the centuries, and speak to the human condition of wanting to find a soul-mate and someone to love. I became immediately invested in both characters and was willing them to overcome the boundaries of time so that each character could have their fairy-tale ending. The writing is beautiful and the form skilful and innovative, and I recommend this original and inventive publication to any reader.  

About the reviewer
Louise Brown is studying for her MA at the University of Leicester. She started writing in the summer of 2018, believing that it is never too late to start something new, and will have her poem 'The Deep Blue' published in Acumen in May 2019. She is writing poetry, short stories and is also working on the first draft of her novel. She lives on a farm in Rutland, and is kept busy working as an employment solicitor, while also writing, reading and looking after her three children. 

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "Disappearing Home" by Deborah Morgan

Disappearing Home is a poignant and beautifully-written novel told from the point of view of Robyn, a ten-year-old girl growing up in 1970s Liverpool. Home is the second floor of a tenement block known as Tommy Whites. Her parents send Robyn into a shop, and they expect her to steal everything on the list. This is the opening chapter of the novel; Robyn is more troubled by the dirty bag with the leather handles, worn and frayed down to the white wire that cuts into her hands. She does not want to steal but knows refusal is not an option.  

Robyn is a girl caught between love and hate, fear and family secrets, taking a dangerous journey to find out who she is, confront her feelings of being an outsider and find answers to her questions. Robyn learns the realities of life through her experiences of her parents, school, a Saturday job, friends, a local disco, enemies, her Nan’s love and the increasing cruelty she experiences at home. 

The novel follows Robyn through life-changing events, moving up into senior school and realising that people are not always who they appear to be. She begins to understand that her increasingly violent home life is not normal and sets out to try and find out why.

The voice of Robyn provides a truth and reality to the novel; her voice  makes the reader laugh at times and then feel the pain and fear she and her mother encounter. The love of Robyn’s Nan is demonstrated beautifully when Nan shares her coat with Robyn: ‘When we have finished eating, both of us share the coat, one sleeve each. With the empty cake box, we shuffle over to the bin, laughing, rolled tightly together, like a Twix.’

Ultimately Robyn wants to wake-up not feeling scared – and that’s also what we, as readers, want for her too.

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 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 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.   

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. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories," ed. Karen Stevens and Jonathan Taylor

I have seen High Spirits advertised on social media for months and had always thought its sub title was A Round of Drinking SongsA bit bold I thought, but I do enjoy a good song. So without reading the blurb, I assumed there would be plenty to choose from! Then when I received my copy, I realised it was Drinking StoriesSucking up the disappointment I began to read them.

So Drinking Stories: would this be an uplifting, joyous approach to the theme of having a carousing time and the benefits of being let loose through alcohol? No. What I did learn is that, on a very basic level, drinking is not that good for your body, your mind or your soul. Just some of the outcomes in the short stories here include death through drinking too much, suicide, and a woman scarred when she is burnt, who loses an eye after excess consumption. There is an emboldened paedophile. There are catastrophes that follow people's divorce and the estrangement from their children. Another character is lost in an underground labyrinth, and presumed dead. We also see intoxication resulting in cheating on a dead husband with his brother, then infidelity with new neighbours. 

Though sometimes depressing, the stories are all very well written and surprising in every sense. If you did want to be uplifted, this is not the right book; if you want to read clever description and subtle depictions of relationships under pressure then this is the right book for you. We go deep into characters who, though under the spell of alcohol or alcoholics, are able to show life in a clear, even visceral way.

There is such variety. No two stories have the same theme: drink may be the cause of problems and is never the solution, but we see this in every which way. We see how children are affected. In "The Ballad of Barefoot Bob" by David Swann, it is not enough for young Bobby to have an alcoholic father; he also has to suffer his own mental torments. In "May Day" by Alison Moore, we see Gareth trying to do right by his daughter now living with his estranged wife and her new partner, battling the bottle and also his jealousy of the new man. He sinks into his own metaphorical and literal maze and we are left asking: does he survive or not? For me, the most evocative tale, "Bones" by Hannah Stevens, concerns Henry, who sees his drunken partner Bethan topple from his bedroom window to her death. It underlines the futility of drinking to oblivion.

This collection is a vibrant, thought-provoking set of stories. A collection that makes us think, makes us confront a way of life that is so self-destructive, yet so attractive until events take over and control is lost. You may not be singing along at the end of reading this book, but the stories will remain with you and are accessible in a way that that begs us to challenge and to discuss the outcomes. The editors have done a fine job in bringing these carefully crafted stories to us.

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.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Magic Toyshop" by Angela Carter

The memorable opening chapter of The Magic Toyshop introduces Melanie. a fifteen-year-old girl, acutely aware of her developing body and personhood. Carter defines with precision the physical, emotional and mental turmoil of a teenage girl on the brink of womanhood. Melanie’s vague thoughts of marriage take her into her parent’s bedroom in search of her mother’s wedding dress.   

The wedding dress is destroyed, ripped to shreds as Melanie climbs the apple tree up to her bedroom window. When tragedy strikes Melanie is haunted by guilt. Melanie and her two siblings leave the comfort of their grand country house and travel by train to London into the care of their Uncle Philip.  

To Melanie’s surprise, they are met on the platform by two young Irish men, Francie and Finn. They take a taxi journey to South London, past melancholy Victorian houses to a parade of shops. In between a boarded-up jeweller’s and a grocer’s shop is a dimly-lit cavern of a shop. In the window of the cavern, Melanie detects the nebulous outlines of stiff-limbed puppets dangling from their strings, and the flaring nostrils of a rocking horse. Above the door of the shop is a sign that reads 'Toys: Philip Flower Novelties' - and once Melanie steps through that door, her life changes forever.  

The house seems to exercise control over the family even when Uncle Philip is absent, through some creepy dysfunctional power. Aunt Margaret has no voice to speak her mind; she is psychologically and physically controlled by Uncle Philip.   

The Magic Toy Shop is an uncanny fairy tale for grown-ups, a voyage of discovery to womanhood, love in its many forms and the darker side of human nature. There is an unearthing of past events and emotions that ultimately leads to mutual acceptance and understanding and a realisation of the power of family.      

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, 8 January 2019

Review by Charis Buckingham of "928 Miles From Home" by Kim Slater

Kim Slater, author of the award-winning Smart, never fails to tackle difficult issues in her novels. Her third Young Adult novel, 928 Miles from Home, is another deeply resonant story that doesn’t shy away from subjects such as immigration, poverty, and bullying. 

Fourteen-year-old Calum Brooks dreams of being a screenplay writer but believes his background will impede his success. Trapped in the cycle of poverty and neglect, he absorbs and repeats the ignorant opinions of his bully friends and abuses those different from him. However, when his dad’s Polish girlfriend and son move in, Calum is forced to re-evaluate his mindset. He realises everyone has something to offer, and diversity is beneficial.

Told through Calum’s eyes, the story can at times seem frustrating, as the reader watches him struggle to overcome his prejudices. His angst, anger and, at times, helplessness is authentic, genuine, and hard-hitting. The grim reality of life on the estate is never disguised; this contributes to the gritty realism of the novel, but could prove too heavy for some younger readers. Slater’s approach is blunt and direct, and her messages of acceptance and tolerance come through loud and clear.

For anyone wanting a reflective and moving novel that delves unflinchingly into societal issues, it’s a must-read. 

About the reviewer
Charis Buckingham predominately writes Young Adult and historical fiction, and loves to sing and read. She lives in Leicester, having recently graduated from the University of Leicester with an MA in Creative Writing.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Favourite Reads of 2018

At the end of 2018, 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 2019!

Kirsten Arcadio

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire: "A powerful retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is one of the best novels I’ve read in ages. Intellectual, sharp, powerful, Shamsie’s style contains a kind of distance that cuts. This writing has the power to leave scars, and rightly so, for hers is an important story to tell. I found myself able to empathise with all the characters in turn, from the misguided nineteen-year-old from Wembley who gets corralled into joining ISIS, realising too late what a terrible mistake he’s made, to the plight of the privileged son of a British Muslim Home Secretary who falls in love with the terrorist’s twin sister. The story was tragic but believable, the characters well drawn, the terror and tragedy of their situations gripping. And not a word too many – everything quite deliberately crafted more reminiscent of poetry than prose. This is the kind of literature I love to read."

David Clark

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: "I've never been into graphic novels, but this was a revelation. I loved the way the images complemented and slyly commented on the funny, tragic, and insightful text."

Megan Corbett

Karen M. McManus, One of Us is Lying: "Like The Breakfast Club, but add murder and social media to create a genuinely unpredictable mystery that's so much better than The Breakfast Club."

Sharon Eckman

C. J. Sansom, Tombland: "The latest installment of C. J. Sansom's brilliant Shardlake series nearly didn't arrive, as he has been seriously ill - so for those who love these superbly-researched historical novels, it was a double joy. Tombland is so immersive and enthralling that I managed to get to and from Portugal without panicking about how much I hate flying. I also learned more about the Norfolk peasant rebellion of 1549 than I ever would have done at school." 

Kershia Field

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: "Beautifully vivid storytelling in a way that makes you feel both warm and deeply sad. I'd recommend it to anyone!"

Aimi Francis

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: "I think I’ve got a new favourite author."

Colin Gardiner

Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea: "Tells the story of four young people in World War II who flee the advance of Soviet troops across war-torn East Prussia. This novel is profoundly moving and fast-paced with believable characters. The forgotten stories of so many refugees fleeing the collapse of the Nazi Reich are revealed. This book will stay with you." 

Katharina Kalinowski

Henning Mankell, The Chronicler of the Winds (1995, translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally in 2006): "A beautifully poetic translation of human violence and warmth. Set in an unnamed African colony during civil war, the novel weaves an intricate web of unheard voices to tell the story of the street boy Nelio. In a moving tale of magical and painfully real elements, it appeals to the power of imagination and shows that being old has nothing to do with age. This was a very special book for me; one of those that permanently change how you view the world."  

Simon King

James Ellroy, Perfidia: "Crime fiction as history - Ellroy’s saw-toothed prose offers us Los Angeles in December 1941, a city high on bigotry, Benzedrine, and brutality."

Mary Ann Lund

Zaffar Kunial, Us: "Zaffar Kunial's first poetry collection reflects on his British and Kashmiri parentage, on language that joins and separates us, and on the experience of loss. His poetry inhabits NHS hospitals, Midlands post offices, and the outfields of cricket pitches; and we find George Herbert and John Donne there too. An exciting and humane new voice in British poetry."

Dan Powell 

Robert Shaw, The Flag: "Undeservedly out of print third novel from writer and actor Robert Shaw, The Flag wrestles with the politics of capitalism and, despite being published in 1965 and set in 1925, still speaks directly to our contemporary world."

Robert Richardson

Muriel Spark, The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories: "Published in 1958, Spark’s collection of short stories are broadcasting from a lost world, but her acute presentations of comedy, tragedy, sadness and absurdity continue to resonate."

Kate Sharp

Sarah Corbett, How To Be A Craftivist: "Inspiring, empowering, practical guide to challenging social injustice in a friendly, creative way." 

Sally Shaw

Nicholas Tromans, The Artist and the Asylum: "What are the secrets within the paintings of Richard Dadd?  This book will tell you."

Jacob Spivey

Vladimir Mayakovsky, A Cloud in Trousers: "I was unsurprisingly caught off-guard by the optimism and hope that exudes from this piece of Soviet-era Russian poetry."

David Swann

Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic: "A classics scholar gets stuck with his cantankerous Dad as a student on his Homer course, and then tries to go to Ithaca with him. My book of the year. Learned, wise, moving, and funny." 

Jonathan Taylor

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial: "Ironic, cynical, psychotic. A very domestic Book of Revelations."

Maria Taylor

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: "A delicately-written novel about the lives of disparate characters brought together by a mute called Mr. Singer. Very memorable."

Miranda Taylor (aged 10)

Rachel Renee Russell, Dork Diaries: Birthday Drama!: "This book has a lot of drama in it. The main character Nikki has lots of crazy ideas for a party, which are very funny."

Rosalind Taylor (aged 10)

Matt Haig, To Be A Cat: "I loved this because it was exciting when the boy turned into a cat. I enjoyed reading about all of the dangers he had to face as a cat."

Paul Taylor-McCartney

Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling: "Enlightening and entertaining journey into the mind of the great storyteller - essays, conference papers and articles on his approaches to building narrative and art’s role in shaping both author, reader and society. Essential reading for any aspiring or established creative writers."

Harry Whitehead

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad: "Virtuosic technical skill in these enormously entertaining and profound connected short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. What a book this is."

Lisa Williams

Tasha Kavanagh, Things We Have In Common: "Yet another 'girl goes missing' tale but told in a breathtakingly refreshing way." 

Lee Wright

Michael Winter, The Death of Donna Whalen: "A non-fiction novel from 2010, based on the records of a man’s trial for murder. Michael Winter turns normal lives into living nightmares in true Capote fashion. Raw language, ingenious structuring, pure storytelling."