Thursday, 19 September 2019

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Punch" by Kate North

The short story form has received a lot of renewed interest of late, with many attributing this to our shortening attention spans, the form’s capacity for allowing authors to take stylistic risks, or the fact we can more readily squeeze a short story in and around our increasingly hectic lives. Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging that publishers – including industry heavyweights and small independents alike - are investing in it like never before. 

Kate North’s collection Punch is a tour de force that presents a range of voices that offer us fascinating glimpses into the modern human condition when faced with some sort of personal or existential crisis. At the centre of many of the pieces are couples or individuals who’ve reached a particular moment that will force them to make a life-changing decision, or act decisively, at least. In one of the collection’s highlights, ‘Lick,’ thirty-year old Paul discovers a small, fleshy protrusion growing from the palm of his hand: ‘It had started out like a blister, a ball of fluid skinned over. Then it firmed up, becoming the size of a small thimble.' Paul’s attempts to conceal this creature from a girl he has begun dating are comical, believable and fantastical, all at once. In this story and others, there are definite echoes of Kafka, particularly in North’s pursuit of exposing the ‘otherness’ inside all of us, as well as the ordinary human’s appetite and capacity for transformation. 

Elsewhere, the author proves she has a keen ear for everyday dialogue, producing scenes that are often rooted in the vernacular, and are all the more authentic for their inclusion. The bullies in another standout story, ‘Punch,’ manage to evoke scenes from our own childhoods with their ceaseless attacks on the protagonist, calling her a ‘lezzer,’ ‘monger,’ ‘fat dyke sister,’ and her brother a ‘spaz.’ 

But for all of North’s playful command of language and stylistic flourishes, these are never made at the expense of character, and this leads each piece to a satisfying conclusion. There are two pieces that would have benefited from being explored a little more deeply, in my opinion: ‘Beaujolais Day’ and ‘Fifteen Arthur Crescent’ contain the type of brevity that left me wanting more as a reader. Or maybe that is the author’s point: the fact we drift in and out of each other’s lives for the briefest of moments, without the ability to truly get under the skin of others unknown to us or standing at the margins of our world.   

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing with the University of Leicester, working on a dystopian novel entitled The Recollector. He recently moved to Cornwall to complete his research, continue with his work in teacher education and is planning to open a ‘retreat’ next year to support the work of fellow writers and artists. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Interview with Ambrose Musiyiwa

Ambrose Musiyiwa edited and published Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction (CivicLeicester, 2019) and Leicester 2084 AD: New Poems about The City (CivicLeicester, 2018). He also co-edited Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). 

He is the author of The Gospel According to Bobba

His poems have been featured in anthologies that include Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015), Do Something (Factor Fiction, 2016), and Write to be Counted (The Book Mill, 2017). 

One of his poems, "The Man Who Ran Through The Tunnel," first published in Over Land, Over Sea, has been translated into many languages as part of Journeys in Translation

You can also read some of his work here and here

In the following interview, Ambrose talks about Bollocks to Brexit, the poetry anthology.

Q: How did Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction come about?

AM: Over the past three years, I have been following the debate around Brexit and have been conscious that the only voices that are being heard are those of politicians like Nigel Farage and billionaires like James Dyson, multimillionaires like Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin, and the people who sit in the Houses of Parliament. All other voices are being marginalised. The voice of the poet has been particularly mute. And yet poets up and down the country are writing about Brexit and are sharing what they are writing in workshops, in performance spaces, on social media, in publications of different kinds. So, to work with the voice of the poet, I put out a call for submissions for poems (40 lines or less) and short fiction (100 words or less) on the theme "Bollocks to Brexit" with a view to compiling an anthology.

I sent the call for submissions to as many poets, writers, writers’ associations and schools of writing in the United Kingdom as I could find. The call for submissions was also listed through local, regional and national writers' networks like Writing East Midlands, the National Poetry Society, and many more.

In terms of the volume, range and quality of submissions received, the response was phenomenal. I even received submissions from people in countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Canada who said they were following the news on Brexit and were concerned and worried about Britain's future. They felt compelled to write poems about this, and submitted the poems for possible inclusion in the anthology.

From over 300 items of poetry and short fiction that were received from over 100 writers, 95 of the items, from 77 poets, made it into the anthology.

Also in the anthology are a Preface from Nottingham-based poet, Neil Fulwood who gives an overview on protest poems from World War 1 till now. This is followed by an introduction from Dr Corinne Fowler, Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature at the University of Leicester, who looks at protest poems and the literature of resistance from sites like Peterloo, Manchester, Grenfell Tower, and Leicester. And there's an article by Joel Baccas looking at the word "bollocks" and its uses.

After these introductory remarks come the poems

Q: How has Bollocks to Brexit been received since its release?

AM: The anthology became an instant bestseller. When it came out, it spent a week on the Amazon Bestsellers in Poetry Anthologies list and is still going up and down the list.  On a number of occasions, Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction has been a No. 1 bestseller in the category for hours, sometimes for days, and sometimes for a week.

Q: In your view, how and why did this happen?

AM: I think this is because people want to hear what poets are saying on Brexit. They want to hear other voices other than those of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

People want to be inspired and re-animated about life, about the future and about the country. The anthology offers other voices to the ones we hear all the time; the new voices counter the latter, which have become tiresome because they are unimaginative, uninspiring and lacking in vision and hope.

The anthology offers hope. It says every voice matters and that Downing Street and Parliament should be working to repair the damage Brexit has caused to friendships, families, communities and the country.

Q: Initially, the anthology was going to be launched at the Bishop Street Methodist Church but something happened and you had to find an alternative venue?

AM: Yes. We'd made arrangements to hold the launch on Saturday, 29 June 2019, at the Bishop Street Methodist Church in Leicester. The church lets artists and community groups hire space for different activities and is an important space for the arts in Leicester. Over the past two years or so, we’ve held a number of literary events there. But with Bollocks to Brexit, a few days after we’d made a booking to hold the launch there, the church revoked the booking. The church said it "understand[s] the anger expressed in the title of the collection" and was revoking the booking because it wants to "strike a balance between being prophetic and a place of reconciliation".

We had no choice but to look for another venue. Dr Corinne Fowler, Co-director of the Centre for New Writing at the University of Leicester found us a venue at the university and we ran with it. 

Q: How did the launch go?

AM: The launch went well. Most of the people who read at the event live in and around Leicester. A good number also came from places further afield. One person who'd read about the event in the local paper also brought a poem of his own that he shared with all present. Most of the featured poets who attended read their poems and shared reflections on the poems and on Brexit. The readings and the reflections convince me it was right to bring out the anthology the way we did. One person who attended the launch said, "What an amazing evening and the people reading their poems. Everyone treating each other with respect. I loved it."

Bollocks to Brexit, the poetry anthology, headlined at AfterWORD! at Attenborough Arts Centre on Monday, 29 July 2019. That event went well, too. The readings and reflections that we heard at both events convince me that through events like these, we can broaden the space that is there in public discourse on Brexit. All we now have to do is organise more events around the anthology in more places around the UK between now and October. 

Q: What happens next?

AM: In Leicester, De Montfort University will also be hosting an event around the poetry anthology on 1 October as part of Everybody’s Reading, Leicester’s festival of all things to do with reading. And we are currently looking into the possibility of organising events around the anthology in a number of towns and cities around the UK over the coming few months. As part of these events, alongside readings from Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction, there will be space for other people to bring their own “Bollocks to Brexit” poems and present them at the events because these are part of the conversation that the anthology is about as well.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Review by Kirsten Arcadio of "Bollocks to Brexit" ed. Ambrose Musiyiwa

As an ardent pro-remainer, I joined The People’s Vote march in the spring of 2019. ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ was a phrase I yelled during the march, so when the opportunity came up to review an anthology of the same name, I jumped at it. From discussions of the language we use to describe our crisis to reflections of our predicament, this anthology of anti-Brexit poetry and short fiction is a joy to read. The collection is brimming over with pertinent questions: the question of our children’s legacy; the effect on our businesses; the loss of our European identity; our repulsion at the sudden rise of anti-immigration sentiments; the lies told to us by the Leave campaign, to name but a few.

I particularly enjoyed 'Peregrines' (Yvonne Reddick) with its feeling of transience and reminder that most of us hail from elsewhere and, like the author, I would love the freedom to stay on the move; 'Yes there will also by singing' (Deborah Harvey) is a beautiful poem that echoes Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Motto,’ a collection of verses he wrote after fleeing Nazi Germany. 'Reverse Brexit' (Rachel Hardisty Vincent) is a clever poem you can read top down or bottom up for two entirely different reflections on how a person could have voted in the referendum – very nicely done and it works as a quick an effective mirror on current society. 'Before and After' (Pam Thompson), about an Italian café through the pre and post referendum period, is almost too close to home (I own an Italian café). The two verses of this poem show the golden era of tolerance and multi-cultural European values before the vote and the quick reversal of that afterwards. I enjoyed the immediate image of Disney villain, Gru, that 'Bad bad man' (Andy Callen) brought to mind. This poem reminded me that, in a world where a PM plays the fool to win voters’ affection, we should examine our begrudging affection for cardboard cut-out villains. Maybe it’s time to look behind their larger-than-life characters to see what they are really up to?

Bollocks to Brexit is a wonderful collection of poetic reactions to our current state of affairs. The works outline, in succinct form, the predicament British society finds itself in at this peculiar crossroads in time. It delivers a great slap in the face for complacency in bite-sized but not easily digestible chunks - and is worth carrying around to delve into every time a reminder is needed of what’s at stake. 

About the reviewer
A Ph.D student of Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, Kirsten Arcadio is an entrepreneur who runs a business alongside her writing career. She has written and indie-published four novels:  Borderliners, Split SymmetryWorldCult, and Zeitgeist, each with a different speculative theme.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Review by Alan McCormick of "Some of us glow more than others" by Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman casts mysterious and magical spells in her latest collection of short stories and flash fiction. She somehow manages to be forensic yet lyrical, playful yet profound, disturbing yet compassionate. Her scope is daring, unique and revelatory, investigative and sharp; continuously, entertainingly experimenting with ideas and with words; searching for meanings in stories about religion, science and love (nearly always love); the alchemy of life examined in startling ways, robots and octopi, the human spirit tested but winning through. It’s a beautiful book.

Like all truly original ambitious books that I’ve loved and savoured, there are some parts I don’t get or respond to – I think of writers like Dostoyevsky and Joyce that I consumed too quickly in my teens, whose books were so wondrous that it felt okay to skim over certain passages. Here there are occasional very short stories that don’t quite touch me, their meaning too slight or obtuse, frustratingly out of reach. But when Hershman’s experimentation is wedded to character and emotion, as it nearly always is, reading becomes a thrilling experience. The rogue scientific nun, Emmylene in ‘God Glows,’ who happens on the essence of love through her tests on other nuns’ blood, is a character who will long stay in the memory. 

There are several near-future dystopian stories – the domestic servant disconsolately apart from her land replacing a discarded robot in ‘Something Like a Tree,’ tending the grandmother of the house, who is slowly dying, so 'when she tries to breathe there is a dark deep knocking from inside as if something wants to leave.' In ‘The Special Advisor,’ there is the chillingly mundane world of dumbed-down subservience at work – following orders in a shadowy totalitarian state, bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s observation about the ‘banality of evil’ – its central character employed to witness and advise on an array of inexplicable executions. Written in the second person to heighten the sense of existential dread, the witness/advisor is disturbed but doesn’t know what to do, a way out offered near the end by the predecessor in the post, who simply says ‘you don’t have to.’

If the flash shorts can sometimes seem oblique, they can also be spellbinding and moving. In ‘A Song for Falling’ a woman starts by composing songs for standing, and for sitting. After life engulfs her and the songs dry up, at last a single note appears, ‘a small small song ... for breathing, for taking the next breath ... a song for how to live now that you know what life can do to you.’  In another beautifully spare story, Carly, ‘a lonely child,’ ‘seems to have more of everything, more features than usual, diffused, extra, spare. And yet there is not enough of her. Not enough of her to make her way in the world.’

I found myself thinking of Barthelme, Borges and Lydia Davis in the wit, brevity and range of the stories, of Atwood in the disturbing science fictions, but Tania Hershman’s voice and vision is all her own. It’s a book I’ll enjoy giving to friends, for them to savour, to have their senses ignited, to be in thrall to.

About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives with his family on the Dorset coast. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for the charity, InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including Salt’s Best British Short Stories and Confingo. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. See more at

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Review by Victoria Pickup of "At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered" by Jeffrey Levine

At the start of this collection, Levine’s third book of poetry, Ilya Kaminsky’s foreword focuses upon writing which keeps its secrets, evading comprehension, in order to transcend language, to explore the spaces between words and their meanings. He asks, ‘What is clarity?’ Upon reading At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered, the question itself becomes elusive.

Let me indulge in a metaphor of my own to explain: I began reading Levine’s poetry like walking a river. Following it with my eyes, not really understanding the course or predicting the direction it would go. In order to appreciate the poetry, I realised I had to lie down in the water, to let it flow over me. In doing so, I captured phrases I found evocative, words strung together in abstract ways, the sounds they made, the images which they created, the moments of absolute clarity washing over me and then vanished, gone. This may sound awfully la-de-dah, but Levine seems to encourage the reader to let go of the instinctive need to fully comprehend in order to enjoy, to disassociate from obvious signage and accept the lack of direction; to be open to interpretation. 

At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered is a mystical, cosmic, effervescent collection of verse. There is much music and romance within its poetry, from the sounds in 'Low-Hanging Orb, Smudged Green' ('With ice-cold spoon, / snap the world open to the pulp'), and the musicality of 'soft water - soft as the light, white breath of horses' in 'Egg of the Universe' - to the words of love in 'He Delivers Unto Her His Blessings': 'There is much to celebrate. She invites moments of unaccountable happiness.' 

There are many beautiful, almost hypnotic lines and a central theme of light running throughout the writings, such as in 'Other Effects': 'No light I know as light, but winter sky on ice stealing the sky’s milky hue.' The collection is heavy with prose poems like this. Emotive, imaginative, like incantations, they create a dream-world, where the reader emerges not quite sure of what made sense or how it all fit together, but left within a kind of whirlwind made up of spools of film, with each image capturing another vivid image, all rushing past and evading capture. 

In 'Although Madame Did It on the Grill,' the poet writes: 'Raking coals, straddles amid licks of flame, sparks rose up / from the earth, arced across the sky turning overhead in bright pinwheels,' and later in the same poem, 'and all that night, throughout the world, a terrible noise of sheep bleating and of bells from the church towers, of wooden houses cracking, and the cries of men and the cries of women.' It’s artistic, vivid, nightmarish - like hopping out of a Monet and into Edvard Munch. 

Indeed, Levine is often inspired by works of art. His subjects are abstract, but beauty and meaning find their way through the language. In the final poem in the book, 'Getting It Right,' Levine concludes with a lasting, entrancing couplet: 'I move the camera and your life comes out of you in colors, / I move it again, it goes back in.' It’s a beautiful image, fully in focus. 

Returning to the initial question asked by Kaminsky: 'What is clarity?,' the richness and translucence of Levine’s writing makes me wonder: Does such ambiguity make poetry more accessible? If we are not busy trying to understand it, are we liberated – free to take the words, phrases or parts which resonate with our own minds - leaving the rest for another reader to find meaning? By throwing off obvious meaning, could this create a more impactful poetry? It’s a good question. And I’m sure the answer is here … somewhere.  

About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the Café Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Review by Lisa Williams of "Checkout" by Kathy Gee

Welcome to a shop with a tippy tappy till, where the shop-girl knows your name, where you work and what you drive. There is no incorrect item in the baggage area here. In this respect Checkout serves to preserve something we’re losing with the closure of so many small independent stores.

Checkout is described by the author as a duologue, combining elements of flash fiction, poetry and radio play. Each page gives us one hundred words from the nameless girl on the till. In the poet’s preface we learn she mentally nicknamed her Nona (the Roman goddess of the spinner of the thread of life). The brevity of drabble form perfectly suits the timing of a corner shop visit. Thanks to Gee’s sleek prose, we gain a familiarity with each customer with only a few words from our narrator. Each drabble introduces another customer and there’s a natural flow as each new voice enters, so much so you can almost hear the tinkle of the bell above the door. 

The twenty-six characters that join Nona at the counter are varied. City bankers join the homeless. A dog and a falcon also have a chance to tell their tale too. Many, we learn simply 'use a visit to punctuate their days.' As the customers tell their stories we leave the shop, go on trips to the hairdressers, join team meetings, we hear their dreams of death and divorce, their hopes and their histories. 

Nona’s story is a constant; we find out more with each new customer and grow increasingly attached. It’s a brief but beautifully poignant read and one that I’d love to hear performed.  

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is also a shopgirl (at a bakery) and, like Nona, frequently furnishes friends with quiche past its sell by date.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Review by Ruby Perry of "In Darkling Wood" by Emma Carroll

This story is about a young girl called Alice, whose brother has a fatal heart condition. But one night there is a call that can change everything. Alice has to stay with her aunty and discovers that the wood at the top of her garden is magical. She becomes friends with a girl called Flo from 1918 and together they seek the beauty of the wood’s fairies. As protests about cutting the woods begin, they have to work as a team and join up with other people to protect it. 

This is one of those books that express feelings through the story and connects to the reader’s feelings. It engrossed me and kept me reading. Emma Carroll writes very addictive books.

About the Reviewer

I am Ruby Perry and I am 10 nearly 11 years old. I have a passion for reading and writing and enjoy creating my own stories. I like to use my imagination when writing, and I read a variety of genres of books. A few of my favourite authors are: Emma Carroll (historical fiction), Lauren Child (mystery), J. K. Rowling (fantasy literature), David Walliams (comedy), 
Judy Blume (realist). I read every single day and one of my biggest wishes is to have my own library or run a book shop, but most of all I would like to write my own books. 

Monday, 17 June 2019

Review by Louise Brown of "Don't Think A Single Thought" by Diana Cambridge

Don’t Think A Single Thought by Diana Cambridge is a captivating book. The main character, Emma, has a successful husband, an apartment in the Hamptons and a flat in Manhattan, on the surface a charmed life, but from the first paragraph we know she is a troubled woman. She is a writer with limited success, struggling with self-doubt, and her life has an aimless quality at the outset of the novel. Her wealthy lifestyle contrasts with a troubled childhood in care and the author presents a complex character to the reader. Right from the start we are asking ourselves about a child, another pupil at her school, who fell over a cliff and died. Her death had a profound effect on Emma and the back story slowly reveals this.  Meanwhile she tells her publisher about her past, and the death of the child. Her zealous publisher, spotting a good "story," encourages her to incorporate it as fiction into the novel she is writing, entitled Manhattan Diary. This leads to dazzling success as a writer, and she enters the bestseller lists. Her success is short-lived with the second novel receiving dire reviews. One critic describes their response to her novel as “"ho cares?” and we watch her struggle with her apparently charmed life. 

The skilful writing puts us on guard about the main character. Throughout the book you learn that the main character's grasp on reality is tenuous and you feel you are watching the events of the novel through a hazy filter. There are several mysterious child deaths and throughout you know that Emma’s version of events is unreliable. As the novel progresses, different versions of the past are presented to us and it has a beguiling mysterious quality to it that keeps you hooked in right to the end. 

The main character is complex and the writing is so skilful you form a bond with her, needing to know what happened in her past, what will happen in her present and how will her life end up? The writing reminded me of Anita Brookner’s novels. The writing is crisp and spare, and throughout is a sense of foreboding. The main character stayed in my mind long after finishing the book, and I recommend it to any reader.

About the reviewer
Louise is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She works as a part-time Solicitor, and started writing at the age of fifty-three, ten months ago. She has had two poems published, one in the Acumen, and is currently working on her first novel. 

Friday, 14 June 2019

Review by Charis Buckingham of "Remembered" by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Remembered, Yvonne Battle-Felton’s debut novel, tells the compelling tale of Spring, a former slave, who is forced to confront her past as her son lies dying in a Philadelphia hospital. Set against the backdrop of overt discrimination and racial tensions of early-twentieth-century America, it gives voice to the “whole heap of stories [that] don’t get told." 

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, it’s not hard to see why. Spring’s voice reaches from the page and draws you into a tale of shocking brutality and realities of slavery that Battle-Felton doesn’t shy away from. One of the most striking things about this novel is its unflinching depiction of the depravities endemic within this period. It’s never unnecessarily graphic, but it makes for a difficult read in places – when discussing rape and the deliberate death of infants – and this is what makes it such a gripping narrative. A subject of this nature should not be easy or light-hearted, and the questions it poses about heritage, unspoken voices and motherhood are intensely thought-provoking. 

As a lover of historical fiction, I anticipated enjoying Remembered for that aspect alone. Meticulously researched, it did not disappoint. Yet more than that, it is a poignant sketch of human character and its resilience in the face of immense hardship, that is both fascinating and pertinent. Truth is at the heart of this novel and for that reason, 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.