Thursday, 4 March 2021

Review by James Holden of "Les couleurs primaires" by Mélissa Verreault

Camille lives a colourful life. She works for a paint manufacturer, where it’s her job to invent names for the 2,000 unique shades they produce each year. And yet, for all this colour, Camille’s life is colourless. She says her brain is blank and her hours at work empty. It is to fill this emptiness that she sets out on a quest to discover whether or not someone has ever loved her but not had the courage to tell her. It’s a quest that takes her to old friends and haunts, and ultimately to a decision about her life.

This is the outline of Mélissa Verreault’s charming short novel Les couleurs primaires. It is published by Les Éditions Didier as part of their range aimed at French language learners, ‘Mondes en VF.’ The texts in this range are all pitched at a certain language level as defined by the CEFR. Verreault’s novel is defined as being A2 level, which means that it’s intended for learners at an ‘Elementary’ standard. I should say here, though, that this does not make the text suitable for beginners.

Language acquisition is a slow process. Professor Stephen Krashan’s has outlined in his theories just how important reading is to that process, and has emphasised the fundamental need for what he calls ‘compelling comprehensible input.’ The texts in the Mondes en VF range all work towards that aim – they are designed ‘pour le plaisir de lire en français.’ Verreault’s novel certainly provides compelling content for language learners. The inclusion of definitions in the footnotes make it an even more useful tool in the learning process (the definitions are themselves given in French). Additionally, and like all the texts in the range, Les couleurs primaires comes with a range of free supporting materials, including vocab sheets and exercises. Better still, it comes with a free audio version which can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

As a language learning tool, this novel is great. The story drives the reader onwards. I was concerned enough with Camille’s quest not to feel put off by the extra effort of reading in my target language. Whilst the text is pitched at A2 standard there are definitely some trickier passages and structures. The reader will encounter the passé composé, the imparfait, the futur proche, the future simple and the conditionnel and will need to be able to differentiate between them. There are also a number of idioms. Verreault herself is from Quebec, so the reader should be aware that some of these idioms might not be heard in Paris – however, this is explained in the footnotes.

The text’s short length and its necessarily uncomplicated French means that its plot also lacks complication at times. The story is charming, and the reader feels for Camille during her quest. However, there were moments when I wanted to know more. For instance, the revelation that Camille’s school friend Karine had loved her when they were younger was passed over in a rather cursory fashion. So, too, was the revelation and then refutation of Camille’s unwitting role in a suicide.

Nevertheless, I was thoroughly charmed by this short novel, and was happy enough after finishing it to read it again immediately, this time with the audio book playing. I felt a great sense of motivation from having finished this text in my target language. I also felt motivated by Camille’s commitment at the end of her adventure to live colourfully. As she says: ‘J’ai envie de vivre en couleurs.’

About the reviewer
James Holden is an independent academic and writer. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian, and a proud nerd. The author of In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained, his recent research has focused on the piano playing and aesthetics of the Romantics. He is currently working on improving his French. His website is here.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Review by Gus Gresham of "Drowning: A Memoir" by Andy Palmer


This is a well-crafted real-life tale that packs a punch with its no-nonsense language. It’s funny, sad, moving, and shocking in places. But what will draw in, disarm and beguile a reader most of all is the courage and honesty of the writing.
The book is subtitled A Memoir, but it definitely reads like a novel. With its unflinching scrutiny of human failings and the depths to which addiction can drag a person, it put the reviewer in mind of the extraordinary Melvin Burgess’s Junk.

As the central character of his own story, Andy is a flawed anti-hero who is desperate to be understood and loved, but who frequently hits the self-destruct button. Even during the experimentation of his adolescent years, the seeds of desperation are sprouting. In one passage, he is abusing his medicinal inhaler, taking snort after snort because it produces a kind of high. When the inhaler is exhausted, “I grabbed a can of deodorant, wrapped a towel around the top and sprayed it into my mouth breathing in the fumes. It worked …”

We feel his pain and shame as he rips off his grandad and raids the neighbours’ medicine cabinet. Anything to get a fix. And as he leaves school and gets paid work, he begins to consume truly frightening amounts of alcohol. The writing cleverly distorts the narrator’s motives: is he getting wasted for its own sake or doing it as a means of self-annihilation? “Nothing can beat oblivion. I wanted all my feelings to go. I wanted to be numb.” There was a scene in the Mike Figgis film Leaving Las Vegas (1995) in which Elisabeth Shue’s character says something like, “So you’re drinking as a way of killing yourself?” And Nicolas Cage’s character says something like, “Or killing myself is a way to drink.”

In Drowning, however, it’s not just booze. And amid the spare language, room is carved out for arresting imagery. There are fine passages describing tripping on acid or coming up on MDMA: “My stomach turned into a jellyfish and floated off.”

Andy Palmer’s prose is very real and immediate. And disturbing. You have to keep reading because your head is whirling with questions like, What’s going to happen? How can it possibly end?

A fantastic reminder, too, that indie publishing has some priceless gems to offer.

About the reviewer
Gus Gresham is an avid reader and writer. He has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and has worked variously as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, interpersonal and communication skills facilitator, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines Brittle Star and Under The Radar, and his recently published novel, EARTHRISE, is available on Amazon. You can read a review of it here

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness"


These outsider stories are full of characters that could live on the fringe and margins of any society. Vital stories! A cracking read for the Greek taverna and Cafe Neon that awaits us. They stimulate and generate insight. Manna from heaven. Bravo! Alexandros Plasatis’s superlative new collection of Greek-cum-Egyptian-related tales are packed with crafted sentences that are balanced, punchy, acerbic, staccato and engineered with quirky detail. 

One gets a buzz when something as good as this blows its way in from left field. In Plasatis’s pugnacious ‘The Legend of Zaramarouq,’ for instance, two local hard men lock horns in a Kavala taverna: blood, sawdust, cigarettes and beer fly in this epic brawl that resonates with mythical undertones: ‘Pavlo moved. He jumped up from his barstool and ran towards the giants. He didn’t know what  he would do once he got there, he just ran, and, when he got close enough, he took a leap and smashed a shoulder against Zaho’s body.’ 

Also, expletives detonate within Plasatis’s prose like an air bomb repeater fired into the hush of night. Such language helps build a rich vernacular tone that fuses the text with verve and believability, often surprising and shocking the reader at the same time: 'Knowing that the young waiter was watching him, he would catch Pavlo’s face and pull a face: “Un-fucking-believable” – then get on with the story.'

Harbour life is often brutal and seedy in Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness, and Plasatis portrays this in a compelling matter-of-fact fashion. Plaudits. I was reminded of Charles Bukowski, Lucia Berlin and Denis Johnson’s narratives, as I carved through  Plasatis’s pared-back incendiary tales. Life can be scruffy, dark, funny and invariably, tough within their prose. Renowned texts of such ilk have a ‘terrible beauty’ about them – blue-collar-kitchen-sink-dirty- realist-in-your-face truths that knock you for six! In every rollicking story, Plasatis manages to capture these sensibilities. And by the end of this dark harbour stroll, you, too, will be gagging for retsina, ouzo and tsipouro. Down the hatch. Yamas! One for the road, then?

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. He is currently working on his first collection of short stories. His story 'The Bottle and the Trowel' is published in the anthology High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories. You can read more about his work here

You can read more about Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness, as well as an excerpt from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday, 1 March 2021

Review by Neil Fulwood of "The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster" by Sarah Wimbush


When a pamphlet wins a major competition adjudicated by such luminaries as Imtiaz Dharker and Ian McMillan - and when a number of the poems within that pamphlet have been placed in or won the Mslexia, Red Shed, Live Cannon International and Bread & Roses Poetry Competitions (and others: the acknowledgements page does some heavy lifting) - it’s a safe guess that the reader is in for some good poetry.

The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster isn’t just good; it’s as good as it gets. As a second salvo following the Seren pamphlet Bloodlines (2019), which explored the poet’s Traveller heritage, it doubles down on that work’s statement of intent, that establishes Wimbush as a major new talent, a distinctive voice, in British poetry. 

Broadly, The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster explores geography, class, recent history (key poems take the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a backdrop), heritage and landscapes, both internal and external. There is arguably more going on in its 35 pages than many a full-length collection achieves. I could easily write a couple of thousand words by way of review, studded with any number of eminently quotable excerpts, but for reasons of brevity, ‘The Lost’ serves as an exemplar of the pamphlet’s aesthetic. A social history linking people to jobs and places, it unspools through two pages, moving from nostalgia 

          Elsie’s grand-kiddies scrubbed up nice
          on Saturdays at Greyfriars Baths,
          changing them in poolside cubicles,
          all their worldly goods in one wire basket

to the starker realities of those times:

          the seven lads who never came back
          while the filthy rich lorded it in NCB’s Coal House
          and Plant

to the socio-economic changes that bring the poem up to date:

          ... the factories turned call centres,
          the schoolyards, the ginnels, the smokeless chimneys
          and beneath them, beneath all that, those lost men,
          and all that blackness still down there.

This is muscular poetry, wrought with precision and loaded with experience. Mordant humour runs through it. Wimbush has a keen eye for human foibles, and heart and talent big enough to transform them into art.

About the reviewer
Neil Fulwood was born in Nottingham, where he still lives and works. He is the author of two poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere, with a third forthcoming in June 2021.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Interview with Anietie Isong


Dr Anietie Isong has worked as a corporate writer for some of the biggest brands in the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His first novel, Radio Sunrise, won the 2018 McKitterick Prize. The novel was previously shortlisted for the Kingston University Big Read, and longlisted for the 9mobile Prize for Literature. His individual short stories have won several prizes including the Commonwealth Short Story Award. His collection of short stories, Someone Like Me, published in 2020, won the first annual Headlight Review Chapbook Prize for Prose Fiction, administered by Kennesaw State University, Georgia. Isong has spoken at the Birmingham Literature Festival, Marlborough Literature Festival, Henley Literary Festival, among other literary festivals. He holds a PhD in New Media and Writing from De Montfort University Leicester, an MA in Communication from the University of Leicester, and a BA in Communication Arts from the University of Ibadan.

You can read a review of Anietie's novel, Radio Sunrise, on Everybody's Reviewing here.

In February 2021, Anietie gave a guest lecture and reading at the University of Leicester. Below, he is interviewed by first and second-year undergraduate Creative Writing students at the University of Leicester about writing, research, novels and his short story 'While We Were Sinners,' which you can read on the Mechanics Institute Review here

Interview with University of Leicester Creative Writing students

Q: Which methods of characterisation methods work best in your opinion, or which one do you like best? 

AI: I think I employ speech the most. I started writing for radio before focussing on fiction. Back then, when writing radio plays, I had to make my dialogues as convincing as possible. I couldn't describe scenes - except through the characters' words. I believe this background in radio has played a key role in my current writing style.       

Q: Did writing about a familiar setting in the story 'While We Were Sinners' make the overall process easier, or did rooting it somewhat in your own experience make fictionalisation more difficult?  

AI: Indeed, writing about a familiar setting made the process easy for me. Almost all my works are set in places I have lived or at least visited. I lived in Lagos which is why part of Radio Sunrise was set there. I envy authors who can write about places they have never visited. I like to observe people in their natural settings so I can write about them properly. In addition, my works are usually set in contemporary times that I have experienced. This is why I have never attempted to write historical fiction. 

Q: How do you go about in creating characters? Do you draw inspiration from people you know? 

AI: My inspiration is drawn from my surroundings. I like observing people. I watch out for many details - their walks, clothings, looks. The majority of the characters in Radio Sunrise were inspired by the people I had met at some point in Lagos or in the Niger Delta. Even my own parents inspired me! I grew up in a deeply conservative Christian home, that's why there's always a religious slant in most of my works.    

Q: Do you know how a story will end from the very beginning or do you change your mind during your writing? 

AI: To be honest, I don't. Most times, I start my stories not knowing how it will end. Even if I know the ending, there's always a possibility that it will be changed. Sometimes, when I start writing, I know the ending but not the beginning - this is the case with my forthcoming novel. 

Q: You said that it is easier for you to write about Nigeria because you already know a lot about this country, but do you still have to do some research to enhance your work, or would it be possible for you to write without? 

AI: For Radio Sunrise, yes, I still needed to do some research, but it wasn't much. In the novel, I focused on writing about the places and topics I knew - like journalism, the Niger Delta, Lagos. I worked in a radio station, so it was easy for me to write about Ifiok and the other characters on the book. Nigeria is such a vast country. I couldn't possibly write about the northern part of the country without doing a lot of research, since I have never lived there. For my forthcoming novel, I did quite a lot of research, and since the story is related to healthcare, I also spoke to a number of medical practitioners. 

Q: How did you decide on the title of the short story ‘While We Were Sinners’? 

AI: There is a verse in the Bible that my mother always recited: 'While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.' I simply took the title from there! 

Q: If you were to continue the story 'While We Were Sinners,' do you have an idea of what might happen to  Solomon? 

AI: To be honest, I have not thought about this. Maybe Solomon could be sent to prison for a long time. 

Q: How did you decide to write about Solomon and his questionable career choices? What was your inspiration? 

AI: Many years ago, I read in the Birmingham Mail about a man in the city who fell on hard times, and how he turned to fraud to make ends meet. I began to imagine the man's background, and how he had found himself in the situation. That's how I decided to write the story of Solomon. Of course, not every penniless person would consider questionable career choices, but it's something I wanted to explore in the story. 

Q: How does short story writing differ to novel writing, do you think? 

AI: I love writing short stories. I wrote and published a number of short stories before deciding to write a novel. I think writing a novel requires much discipline because you are telling a longer story over a period of time. I prefer brevity. My novel is a slim volume. Most of my short stories are actually quite short. 'While We Were Sinners' is one of my longest stories. 

Q: What motivates you to write? When you have off days and don't feel as motivated, or aren't happy with your work, how do you deal with this? What do you do to fight writer's block? 

AI: I try not to force myself to write. There are times I could go months without writing a word of fiction because of a lack of motivation. But I don't let it bother me. When really motivated, I could write for hours every day. 

Q:How easy do you find it to innovate? Do you always feel in touch with your imagination, or do you feel reality makes it difficult? 

AI: I read/watch the news often so I can know what's going on around the world. While my fictions are usually based on my imagination, I try to blend it with reality. 

Friday, 19 February 2021

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Like Fado and Other Stories" by Graham Mort

Graham Mort’s latest short story collection, Like Fado, is a wonderfully engaging read. The thirteen stories are standalones, but they share thematic and textual traits that bind them into a single whole. 

'Fado' is a dance that can be traced back to Portugal of the nineteenth century, but also derives from the Latin term ‘fatum’ – fate, death or a final utterance. Both definitions apply to the stories here. At times, the prose moves with the musicality and rhythms of a dance but there is also a mournful, almost elegiac mood to each piece as the protagonists do their best to overcome various sorts of existential crises.

The photographer in the title story, 'Like Fado,' wanders the Lisbon streets, keen to put his wife’s extra-marital affair out of his mind. He is drawn to the tiny details of everyday life – that is, until he is asked by a local girl to take a picture of her mother’s final hours. 'The old woman,' Mort writes, 'was beautiful in the way that only the very old and the very young can be, her skin exquisitely creased, her irises and pupils dark, merging to the point of invisibility.' In many ways, Mort behaves like his photographer, dipping in and out of the lives of the characters he’s created. His astute eye falls on singular moments in time, then magnifies each one, with denouements masterfully executed. There are no weak entries in this incredible collection, but for this reviewer standouts include the aforementioned 'Like Fado,' 'Shoo,' 'Olivia' and 'Whitehorn' - novella-like in its scope, and a profoundly moving portrait of guilt arising from a childhood mishap. 

I was new to Mort’s work before reading this collection, and this has certainly left me wanting to read more. 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is a doctoral researcher with Leicester University, following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall. You can read more about him here.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "Something Happens, Sometimes Here: Contemporary Lincolnshire Poetry," ed. Rory Waterman


          Suddenly, the shattered hedges, ancient culverts, 
          our huge ruined villages, give way as 
          dimpled fields tilt to the Fen 
          and the treeless otherworld begins.  
- Rory Waterman

A seductive title that draws the reader in, even before s/he’s had chance to crack the spine - whose interest can’t fail to be piqued by the claim that Something Happens, Sometimes Here? This is a short collection of poetry by a selection of writers who were either been born, lived or worked in the Lincolnshire Fenlands, and who have been inspired to turn to words to express the effect this watery landscape has had on them. Anyone familiar with the region will understand how the landscape gets under the skin, as it did with these poets' predecessor Tennyson, who liked to evoke the ‘silent woody places’  of his youth. This is a land of dykes and sluices that fight a constant war with water, keeping the sea at bay with an army of workmen who brought their own tales and superstitions. Alison Brackenbury sums this up with her poem simply titled 'Ditches': 

          Still they lie deep, though I have gone, 
          The great dykes with their glinting load, 
          brown winter floods, fields’ wasteful run, 
          planted too soon. Are there machines 
          which rear and dip from the firm road, 
          scoop glistening banks, clear rotted leaves?

          Yet still, I know, there is a day –
          A stone-blocked pipe, a tumble tree-
         When a man slides down with a spade,
         Beats back dead nettles, elder’s switch,
         sunk from sky as under sea, 
         dig, sweats and clears the gurgling ditch. 
The workmen, once locally called ‘Fen Tigers,’ are a presence in the book as they dig and clear the ditches, sweating and telling us tales as they work at the mercy of the elements and the attack of rats and the fatal Weil’s disease. This marshy land evokes memories of a time past and proves, as Robert Macfarlane claims in his book The Old Ways, that we recall a land most keenly once we have left it: ‘there are landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after we have withdrawn in actuality.’ Some poems are an ode to a way of life which is gradually being lost, as with Rory Waterman’s simply titled: '53 9’33.17”N, 0 25’33.18”W,' a grid reference to a place long abandoned and left to be reclaimed by mother nature, and in Alison Brackenbury’s 'The House':

          Hard through the dream’s cold spring I raised
          My house again. My bones and heart ache
          In every joist. 

Waterman wanted to collate a range of voices in this book and saw it as a response to Ian Park’s Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry. Setting out to showcase the poetry that was inspired by land ‘where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet,’ the fenlands are England’s second biggest county, but often a land overlooked.

The more recent ‘bastard countryside’ of mud, litter and graffiti is nicely summed up in his poem 'Pulling over to Inspect a Pillbox with a North American Tourist.' This rings true of the wasteland the Fens have become today - a home to scrapyards and dog kennels, food processing plants and used tyre collections, concrete pillar boxes and rusting Nissan huts. Nonetheless, this landscape still has the ability to inspire poetry. I can recommend this collection to anyone who has ever driven over this vast flat land on the way to somewhere else, and been curious to discover just who is it that chooses to live here? 


About the reviewer
As a teacher of Art and Design for over thirty years, Tracey Foster has channelled her imagination into getting the best creative output out of others. She is now hoping to restore her create mojo and has enrolled on the Creative Writing MA course at Leicester University. Last year, she completed the Comma Press short story course with Rebecca Burns and collectively published Tales from Garden Street. She is due to have first poem published by the Poetry Bus magazine and is currently working on a poetry collection.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Review by Rosalind Adam of "Blood and Water" by Rebecca Lowe

It was Rebecca Lowe’s use of imagery in her poem ‘Snowman’ that first attracted me to this collection. I knew I had to read more of her work and I was not disappointed. 

Blood and Water is a collection of thirty-eight poems that took me on a dizzying journey through the love, pain and anguish of a lifetime. In ‘First Kick’ I felt the unborn baby whose move was no more than ‘a whisper of assent.’ In ‘Signature’ I watched the young girl still ‘a sketch half drawn’ and I empathised with the poet’s desire to keep her ‘in serene suspension between child and woman.’ Lowe explores the pains of adulthood with reality that ‘cuts deeper than the sharpest blade.’ In ‘Holy Ground’ I was hanging on ‘a tangle of strings,’ daring to look up into ‘the face of the Puppeteer glowering down,’ while in ‘Ego’ I became transfixed by the gift of a balloon ‘filled with my own breath,’ a balloon that becomes ‘warped and puckered’ evoking the emotions of a ‘gentle, creeping death.’

Lowe talks of the terrors of the climate emergency in her award-winning poem ‘Tick tick tick,’ and in ‘Last Will and Testament’ she declares a bequest to all poets. She bequeaths her skin ‘to try on, whenever you tire of being yourself’ but it comes with a warning to be gentle because ‘it is not as thick as you think.’ Rebecca Lowe will not need a thick skin to read this review because I am highly recommending her collection, Blood and Water

About the reviewer
Rosalind Adam’s poetry has been published online and in anthologies. In 2018 she won the G. S. Fraser poetry prize for ‘Fresh Canvas’ and, in the same year, was awarded a distinction for her MA in Creative Writing at The University of Leicester. She is the author of The Children’s Book of Richard III and blogs at

You can read more about Rebecca Lowe's collection, as well as sample poems from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday, 12 February 2021

Review by Laura Sygrove of "WITCH" by Rebecca Tamás

           when the witch first met the devil the devil was 
           a beautiful man and a beautiful woman 
           the devil had long eyelashes and a body that was hard and soft 
           at the same time so that you wanted to hold him 
           and also be held by her …

WITCH is an exploration of feminine power and masculine beauty, of the complexity of human beings (and non-human beings). Tamás’s poetry is gender-fluid, poignant, risqué, and raw. She writes with a duality akin to Anne Sexton; with the tenacity and vigour of a woman force-fed with falsehoods, reborn in vomit. The Witch is liberated of mind, body and spirit. The Witch is full of fire, full of life. The Witch is in all of us, if we dare to delve deep enough. 

WITCH gathers modern musings on the natural world and the occult, amidst an air of apathy and cultural malaise (as in 'WITCH GOVERNMENT' and 'WITCH EARTH'), tackling subjects of inequality ('WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES'), alienation, damnation ('WITCH TRIALS'), morality, and acceptance ('WITCH AFTER'). Tamás conjures spells and hexes for political change, for agency, for mysticism and reality. She speaks directly to women, with their 'soft bodies and hard placards,' and to men who embrace and embody this dichotomy. 

WITCH is profane, carnal, lyrical, and lilting. Tamás conjures hypnotic rhythms which slice through the rigidity of regulated verse, and bares all to the reader – 'legs open to the sky.' Tamás details the Witch’s intimate relations with the Devil-made-flesh, her romance with 'petrol station boy,' and her immaterial exchanges with God. Similarly the Witch undergoes a series of interrogations by an omniscient figure. What do we learn from these interactions? That we have little time on this earth and that there is no 'just' way to live.

A daring debut, Tamás’ poetry-turned-spell book is a call to arms, and to expression without restraint. This crude and wonderful collection consults history and myth for guidance, encouraging love and light in its discussion of tragedy and loss. WITCH is ephemeral and everlasting; it lives on even after we turn its final pages. Unabashed and unafraid, Tamás burns the Witch, bathes in her divine light, relinquishes control, and refuses to be silent:

the wind rubs away their voices
they sneak them back.

About the reviewer
Aspiring screenwriter/writer for video games/graphic novelist, Laura Sygrove is ambitious and indecisive. She graduated from the University of Warwick with a degree in Film and Literature, and is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.