Friday, 12 May 2023

Review by Laura Besley of "A Bad Decade for Good People" by Joe Bedford


A Bad Decade for Good People – Joe Bedford’s debut novel to be published by Parthian in June 2023 – opens with an act of violence: ‘If the policeman’s baton had found Laurie half an inch lower she would be blind in one eye.’ The short prologue introduces the idea of juxtaposition, which I believe runs throughout the novel, both on a collective and individual level, for example: the police who maim and also protect; yearning to be seen by those we love, yet hiding from them. And how can we reconcile who we are with who others think we are?

Throughout the novel, nature plays a prominent role, from the ‘moon-shaped line of damage illuminated above [Laurie’s] eye’ to the various descriptions of Brighton – where a large proportion of the story is set – such as: ‘[the] shore stretches out in one long continuous line, unnaturally straight and unbroken but for the stone groynes that reach out from the shingle.’ The strong sense of place is reinforced by particular facts about the city an outsider is unlikely to know, for example the ‘tradition of leaving unwanted domestic goods out on the street – regardless of how broken they are, how difficult to move or how degradingly stained.’

George, the main character and Laurie’s younger brother, moves to Brighton to be closer to his sister, who lives there with her girlfriend. It is the summer of 2016. The summer of political turmoil: Brexit, David Cameron resigning, Theresa May becoming Prime Minister. Later in the year, Barack Obama is succeeded by Donald Trump. ‘It was all bad news or fake news or a combination of both.’ Laurie and her friends are heavily involved in the local political scene and tensions run high as the ‘decade get[s] darker and darker with no respite.’

This is also the year George meets Antonio, a Spanish naval engineer living in England with the hope of solving a family mystery from the past. It is through this central relationship that the novel continues to explore the themes mentioned above, as well as further themes of identity and belonging, both on a personal level and a communal one. How do we navigate a world not of our making, a world we no longer recognise? 

In many ways, for many people, the 21st century has not been easy. Through Antonio’s quest, we are reminded that we are not the first generation dealing with political upheaval and national frictions. In an interview in TIME Magazine, Margaret Atwood states, ‘The moment when you give up hope, that is the moment when you cease to take any actions that might be positive to get out of the doom.’ On both a macro and micro level, A Bad Decade for Good People echoes Atwood’s sentiments. Exploring timeless themes as well as the tumult of current politics makes this book a must-read for our time.  

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine and a Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Leicester. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. She tweets @laurabesley

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Review by Asma Ali of "As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow" by Zoulfa Katouh

“Three shrivelled lemons and a plastic bag of pita bread that’s more dry than mouldy sit next to one another. That’s all this supermarket has to offer.”

Set amidst the Syrian revolution, Zoulfa Katouh’s YA novel plunges the reader straight into the bleak world of eighteen-year-old Salama. No food, bombed neighbourhoods and smashed dreams; Salama has lost everything. With her mother gone and father and brother imprisoned, she alone is left to look after her heavily pregnant sister-in-law, Layla, whilst volunteering at the hospital. Her days are filled with treating the wounded with little or no anaesthetic and she increasingly becomes torn between two choices: continue to stay and risk her life or take a chance at survival for herself, Layla and the unborn baby via a boat. But then she meets Kenan, the boy with vivid green eyes who firmly believes in fighting for his country, and the decision gets harder. 

Katouh’s writing is simple, expressive and engaging. She creates characters that stay with you long after the turning of the final page and their dilemmas throughout the novel lead readers to ponder on the complexities of human character. Her treatment of difficult themes such as guilt and refugee trauma is sensitive and well-researched. It also offers readers a brave insight into PTSD and it’s lived consequences.

Against the backdrop of pain and loss, the blossoming romance between Salama and Kenan brings an innocent and optimistic tone to the plot; their relationship is a simple reminder that life and love endures in spite of war. They also both turn to their faith for strength and guidance, which is another nod to authentic Muslim representation (one that I particularly enjoyed and found relatable as a Muslim reader) in a novel rich with culture. 

As long as the Lemon Trees Grow may be a devastating portrayal of life in Homs, but Zoulfa weaves a narrative of fierce hope and determination for a better life, which makes the book a truly beautiful read.  

About the reviewer
Asma Ali is a mum of four and current MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She has a healthy addiction to all things literary and coffee and can be found sharing her eclectic reading journey on Instagram @asma_scribendi 

Sunday, 7 May 2023

Review by Jo Dixon of "To 2040" by Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham’s latest collection, To 2040, follows close behind [To] The Last [Be] Human (2022), a tetralogy composed of four earlier collections, spanning 2002 to 2020. Both collections, published by Carcanet, immerse the reader in a world on the brink of collapse, but also a world that still holds wonder for its inhabitants. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction to [To] The Last [Be] Human suggests that the task of the poems in the tetralogy ‘are of record as well as of warning,’ a description that holds true for To 2040

Graham’s political / personal odes in this collection elevate the environmental crisis of the near future and the crisis of her own illness. Often, destruction and beauty co-exist within a few lines: 

         Breathe. Yes 
         the drought is everywhere out there
         but in the night

        the stems of stars mist-up
        just enough for u to recall
        when there was 
        humanity, humidity, & the stars

        dangle, sting. Ah there is
        no return 
        is there.

(‘Dusk in Drought’).

Even as the stars stir our hearts, we are stung by knowing that this is just a memory. Tellingly, there is no question mark here, our fate is sealed: ‘there is no return / is there.’ Yet this is not a collection of unrelenting gloom. The poems are invigorating in their formal inventiveness and precise use of language. The surprising lineation, extension of white space, erosion of words (you/u) and accretion of phrases have the effect of tuning us into Graham’s mind; we follow her thoughts as she wrestles with our wilful destruction of the earth, shot through with images of hope. The closing lines of the final poem, ‘Then the Rain,’ encourage us to ‘touch, touch it all,’ and in this last act of connectedness, Graham hints at a way back. 

About the reviewer
Jo Dixon’s collection, Purl, was published in 2020 by Shoestring Press. Her poetry and flash fiction appears in a range of journals and anthologies. She is Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, Leicester, and lives in Nottingham.

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "The Scent of Flowers at Night" by Leïla Slimani

Grab a sleeping bag – we’re off to Venice with Leïla Slimani to be locked into the Punta della Dogana museum for the night. In 2016 her novel Sweet Song won the Prix Goncourt, and this year she’s one of the Booker Prize judges. In The Scent of Flowers at Night she dwells on family, oppression, and ultimately happiness. These musings are woven round her exploration of the exhibits at night. Her reflections on self, solitude and the creative process make this short autobiographical work a particular delight for writers. The time frame seems fleeting though; her neat, lucid style leaves you wanting to spend another night with her, perhaps in a different museum.  

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes word-limited flash fiction, mostly drabbles - stories of exactly one hundred words. You can find her online @noodleBubble 

Monday, 24 April 2023

Review by Jane Simmons of "Kitchen Music" by Lesley Harrison

Lesley Harrison has published six collections of poetry, and now, in her first Carcanet collection, she turns her attention to the north and to the sea in poems which focus on northern lands and waters – to the Orkneys, and Iceland, their histories and stories, their flora and fauna, to northern seas, wild weather, whale-hunts.

In a foreword to the collection, Kirsty Gunn gives a powerful account of her own repeated and deepening encounters and engagements with these poems and tells the reader to expect "A book of poems, a book of voices. A book that is also a map, an almanac, a report – of histories, of stories, of lands and waters. A book of poems made and arranged in such a way as to create harbours and enclosures: the contained order of narrative brought to a wild scattering of events; a careful arrangement of whale bones on a gallery floor to tell the tale of that great singing creature now stilled to silence."

It is a book of poems which engage with other books, texts, poems – think Icelandic rune poems, sagas and folk-tales, the lives of Northumbrian saints, the personal diaries of sea-captains on whaling ships, glossaries of northern dialects. However, it is a book which also engages with music – with gaelic psalm, hymnals, and even the work of composer John Cage. There are poems which are songs – written in numbered parts, part songs – and the reader’s attention always being drawn to the musicality of even the smallest fragments of text. Sometimes, poems combine the two, books and music, to resemble the appearance and musicality of Anglo-Saxon verse – as illustrated in the opening poem:

Wou as in Wound 

WOU    as in wound
   HU    as in hunt
    AH    as in raft 
     LL   as in fall
      E    as in breech
WOU   as in bow
   HU    as in tump
    AH   as in slight
     LL   as in blink
      E    as in swell
WOU   as in fluke
   HU    as in tongue
    AH   as in ebb
     LL   as in oil
      E    as in jaw

WOU    as in run
   HU    as in calf
    AH   as in eye
     LL   as in blow
      E    as in breath 

WOU    as in sound
   HU     as in hull
    AH    as in wash
     LL    as in shelve
      E     as in dive

This is a collection to sit with.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher now PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for both the Mslexia Poetry Prize and The National Poetry Competition in 2022.

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The House of the Interpreter" by Lisa Kelly

What is it we are interpreting and from whose house? They are legitimate questions and all becomes clear as soon as we investigate the poetry of Lisa Kelly.

Kelly has right-sided deafness which does not define her, and is a glorious poet which does.  Her work illuminates that fact through the three parts of her collection, each named with a double meaning in mind relating to hearing: Chamber is part of the ear and also a room. Oval window is self-explanatory and also a small membrane in the ear. Canal relates to the ear canal and a stream or waterway, perhaps highlighting the journey she has taken as a poet.

The poem "The House of the Interpreter" is a visceral attack on the different approaches to communication for the Deaf: Oralism, the theory, practice, or advocacy of education for the Deaf chiefly or exclusively through lipreading, training in speech production, and training of residual hearing, as opposed to Manualism, the theory or practice of education for the Deaf employing and promoting the use of sign language as the primary means of communication. Kelly has taken one and rejected the other. This is partly explained in this piece and raises questions the vast majority of us cannot answer. Indeed should we answer on behalf of others? I think not. This is their world, their body, their truth.

I find the section Oval Window most fascinating as she relates mushrooms and fungi to deafness. In a talk she gave on YouTube she tells us about this and how fungi communicate. She talks of the world wide wood and her interest in the different ways that life forms communicate. This was very important to her during lockdown and in her studies she learnt how the misunderstood fungi could talk to us and still leave us so much to learn.

"If My Deaf Ear Were a Mushroom" is perfection and the final line - "it would be valued for signing the way to alternate reality" - sums up he words perfectly as she takes on myriad adventures full of vivid colour and images to highlight her world. The mystery of the mushroom she communicates with is epitomised in "Mushroom Stones" where we see normality and mysticism unravelled and almost explained. This a fascinating approach and opens up a bright new world for us to explore and to discover. But discover what? Kelly takes us down the rabbit hole and we have to decide for ourselves.

Later in Canal we explore her journey and we read of the misogynistic world she faces and how, in "A Diptych is not a Dick Pic," she has to confront it. Not a pretty sight in anybody’s world. The colours of "Metamorphoses: Colours, Marks and Signs" contrast perceptibly with her own world. "Blue Hydrangea" epitomises this with the struggle to turn the pink flower blue, the disappointment of having a girl rather than a boy.

This collection is as varied as it is powerful, as imaginative as it is self-possessed with a strength the reader can feel in the writing of a poet secure in their place in the world and confident enough to examine the failings and successes we all have. This is an incredible piece of work and must be read for its insightfulness and its beauty.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 67. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

Friday, 31 March 2023

Review by Laura Besley of "Postcard Stories" by Jan Carson

Collections of micro fiction are rare. Collections of micro fiction by novelists are rarer still. I recently read The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, and loved its surreal lyrical qualities through which the devastating reality of living in Northern Ireland was explored. A month or so later I was browsing the online catalogue of The Emma Press and saw Postcard Stories (2017), illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. The title is in reference to how the book came about: ‘Every day in 2015, Jan Carson wrote a story on the back of a postcard and mailed it to a friend.’ The book contains 52 stories, one for each week, in which ‘Carson presents a panoramic view of contemporary Belfast.’

In her book, Going Short, Nancy Stohlman writes: 'One of my favorite approaches to writing a flash fiction story is what I call the zoom lens – taking an ultra close-up shot of what’s potentially a much bigger story. It’s like narrowing the focus from a wide-angle landscape to a single flower. In flash fiction, the single flower can be the whole world.' This zoom-lens approach is often used by Carson in her stories. One example is in August’s opening story in which the main character leaves her father in Ikea because ‘he was too old to go on.’ The actual story takes place in a slither of time, but it also encompasses the difficulties which arise from having to watch the struggles of an ageing parent: ‘I could see he was glad of the rest, glad to have the expectation lifted from him.’ 

Carson’s stories don’t have titles. Instead readers are given the week in which they were written, where and to whom. The last story, written in St George’s Market, Belfast, opens with ‘every year during the month leading up to Christmas, Eleanor takes a stall at St George’s Market and sells disappointment in small, hand-made bottles.’ There is a myriad of different disappointments and ‘it is mostly locals who buy from her. The tourists tend to skip straight from the felt handbag stall on her left to the organic candles on her right.’ Tania Hershman writes that ‘the reader more willingly accepts oddities and suspends disbelief in the ‘truth’ of such worlds than with a longer piece’ (Short Circuit). Carson takes full advantage of this in many of her stories; for example, a child is born with a bird’s egg in his/her hand or in the backseat of a car is a horse and a tunnel. 

Over and over Jan Carson asserts her authority as a competent and compelling short fiction writer. Along with her astute insight, Postcard Stories is a wonderful collection of poignant and touching narratives.  

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine. She tweets @laurabesley.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "How to Pronounce Knife" by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife is a hard-hitting short story compilation. The author was born in the Lao refugee camp in Thailand before being raised in Toronto. The stories focus on Laos immigrants, with an overarching theme of people being in places where they don’t feel they belong. 

Often told from the viewpoint of a younger person, the book features a collection of disparate characters. These are small stories about vast issues. Each one lands like a slap across the face and leaves a sting that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading. 

Her debut work of fiction, I’m eagerly awaiting Thammavongsa's next!

About the reviewer
Lisa has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes word-limited flash fiction, mostly drabbles - stories of exactly one hundred words. You can find her online @noodleBubble 

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Review by Jane Simmons of "The Fourth Sister" by Laura Scott

The poems in Laura Scott’s new collection are populated by a richly assorted cast: lovers and sisters, but also parents and children, the living and the dead, birds and trees, painters, playwrights and their characters, Tolstoy, a godfather who married the wrong man and a godmother who was surely a spy.

The title alludes to Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters,’ and references to the writer, his life and work are woven through the collection in poems such as ‘The First Sister’ which balances the title of the collection, ‘The Fourth Sister’, and ‘To Be One of Them,’ written after seeing a production of the play which describes being drawn into it to become one of the sisters. 'Why Are You Silent?' is a poem made up of extracts from letters between the playwright and the actress Olga Knipper who became his wife. 

This last is a poem which the poet describes as ‘an anti-autobiography poem,’ a description which introduces the playfulness evident in the collection. Poems also play with ‘the tyranny of stories’ – the fourth sister is ‘the one who slips the story’s collar,’ while ‘Why Are You Silent?’ plays with dialogue, with ideas of volubility or the ‘sprawl of talk,’ its long lines changing  direction as they snake down the page. ‘Cover Photo’ – a late addition to the collection - was written to guarantee the use of picture which was Scott’s choice for cover.

I was struck by how questions are used in these poems, how they pose questions and set out to answer them. ‘The Fourth Sister,’ for example, begins with a series of questions and opens up a dialogue with the other ‘sister’ poems. However, Scott knows better than to overwork the technique: in ‘The Bored Cowboy,’ one of a sequence of poems on boredom which explores how it slows down time so that you feel the ‘thickness’ of ‘slow, clogged time,’ she begins with one of those questions:

          and what about the blackbird
          Singing his big strong song
          From the heart of the tree?

only this time she denies the reader an answer by the ‘-‘  at the end of the poem.

At the Carcanet book launch for ‘The Fourth Sister,’ Scott spoke of how she is fascinated by our inability to remember, of wanting the poem to free something and then encountering the resistance of the subject. This is how her poems come to be held between ‘telling and withholding’ – like the people in Chekhov’s plays – and how the reader is invited into the space of the poem to participate in the action and the dialogue.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher now PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for the Mslexia Poetry Prize 2022.