Tuesday 30 December 2014

Review by Morgen Bailey of Kate Atkinson's "Behind the Scenes at the Museum"

I first read this book in 2006 as part of a three-part college course analysing Kate’s first three books, this being the first. I remember struggling with it because of the number of characters (from memory, eleven maternal women) but I persevered because of the course. I was glad I did because I enjoyed it, helped by having drawn a family tree – which would have been useful to have in the printed version – and the memory of having visited York Castle museum as a schoolgirl.

This time I’m listening to the audiobook which can often be trickier to keep up with because of distractions (I’m usually walking the dog).

We follow Ruby’s progress through life and a child’s interpretation of the world and those (her family) around her including her uncaring mother who, when one of her daughters says, “I don’t like porridge,” replies “Well, I don’t like children so that’s too bad for you, isn’t it.”

Although I’m not a fan of history, it was interesting, and often poignant, listening to the sections about Ruby’s ancestors. That said, I would have preferred a larger portion dedicated to Ruby’s present day (especially where her wonderful imagination is told with charming humour) and less about the ancestors as they didn’t feel overly relevant at times.
With audiobooks, the narrator is a big part of the listening experience and some are better than others. This is the first I’ve heard with Diana Quick and while I enjoyed her most of the time, there were instances where her childish narration of Ruby grated but that was as much about the writing than the voice.

Although not my favourite of Kate’s, she’s still my favourite living author.

About the reviewer 
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a freelance writer, editor, tutor, blogger, and speaker. Like her, her blog, http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. Her debut novel, several short story collections, and writer’s block workbooks are available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords. 

Astonishing Rings of Brightness: Review by Roy Marshall of "Black Country" by Liz Berry

There are references  to ‘black’, ‘coal’, ‘dark’ ‘darkness’ and ‘dusk’ in most of the poems in this collection. But this is various and multifaceted darkness. In the opening poem, ‘Bird,’ in the moment of transformation into a bird, a moment of transcendence, the speaker’s voice becomes ‘no longer words but song      black upon black.’ It is fascinating that the song here is black rather than, for example, white or silver to contrast with the world from which it arises. This suggests that the poet is singing of and from the black; that she is so much a part of it as to be inseparable from the darkness of her Midlands homeland even as she rises up from it.

This is Berry’s mission statement – to sing and celebrate the darkness of her Black Country, in its many manifestations, a darkness that harbours the hard lives of the people from across the centuries that saw the heyday of industrial revolution and the subsequent demise of its industries.

In ‘Nailmaking’ a new black hammer awaits a girl who is newly-wed to a nail maker. But in other poems darkness also provides refuge, intimacy, sex and comfort.   Above all it is the backdrop to contrast against the white of clouds, bones, feathers, and to the pale of a silver birch. It is a darkness emblazoned with the searing colour of a blacksmith’s furnace, of crimson shoes and the oysters that ‘clem their lips upon pearls in the muck’ (‘The Sea of Talk’).

In poem after poem Berry’s imagery casts an ‘astonishing ring of brightness’ (‘The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls’), a brightness that is all the more astonishing for being set against the dark. Birds appear throughout. It is not unusual for birds to provide symbols of transcendence and escape. But, like the darkness, Berry’s birds are vehicles for multiple ideas and emotions. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ several aspects of this collection combine. The homing pigeon of the title is addressed with great tenderness in the dialect of Black Country by its keeper:

Little acrobat of the terraces,
we’m winged when we gaze at you
jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white- breathed payer of January

You don’t have to know the meaning of the dialect words to appreciate the richness of this language, and many of these words are guessable, but there are well placed footnotes at the bottom of the pages where they feature. Scots has long been celebrated and kept vital by contemporary poetry, and here Berry succeeds in breathing life into her own region’s dialect and revealing its quirkiness, individuality and beauty. It is an act of celebration, of reclamation and of preservation which feels like a gift to the reader rather than the bombastic statement of pride it may have become in the hands of a less sensitive and skillful writer.

Berry’s loving relationship with her landscape and language allows room for ambiguity and does not prevent her from detailing its derelict factories and closed pits where a ‘wingless Pegasus’ appeared (‘Black Country’) and ‘Old men / knelt to breathe the smoke of its mane, whisper in its ear, walked away in silence, fists clenched faces streaked with tears.’
In ‘The Red Shoes’ the moralistic ending of the classic tale is subverted. In Berry’s retelling the girl out dances the axe until ‘the sun laid the sky down, crimson at my feet.’ Similarly ‘Sow’ (perhaps a relative of Jo Shappcott’s  ‘Mad Cow’) subverts notations of received femininity to celebrate sexual appetite via a joyful and luxuriant wallow in dialect. Fat is still a feminist issue.

‘Christmas Eve’ reminded me of a Black Country version of the introduction to ‘Under Milk Wood’ for its descriptive power and  skilful lyricism.  Sleet is

blowing in drifts from the pit banks,
over the brown ribbon of the cut, over Beacon Hill,
through the lap-loved chimneys of the factories.
Sleet is tumbling into the lap of the plastercast Mary
by the manger at St Jude’ s, her face gorgeous and naïve
as the last Bilston carnival queen.

In this poem Berry, like Thomas, is tender and generous and benevolent in voicing the dream’s despair and mundane realities of her characters. She is also highly convincing in evoking the lives of the people who populate her poems, and it is no surprise to find that ‘Darling Blue Eyes’ was written using extracts from her grand-parents’ wartime letters.
In places, Berry’s romanticism and passionate interest in the past (not to mention the fluidity, control and richness of her writing) make these poems seem closer to Anne Bronte, Blake or Dante Rossetti than to the ironic approach of much contemporary poetry. Black Country contains poems of emotional and spiritual depth; there is a willingness to engage with ideas and emotions which seems to have much in common with poetics of the past.
But whilst envisioning and invigorating the past, many of Berry’s concerns are utterly and pressingly contemporary. The feminist themes and portrayal of economic depression are still depressingly relevant.

In ‘When I was a Boy,’ ‘Trucker’s Mate,’ ‘Fishwife’ and several other poems, Berry explores gender roles along with the sensual and sexual.  Again Berry’s explorations are multi-faceted, moving from the celebratory to the disturbing. In ‘The Silver Birch’ Berry manages to convey the mystery and newness of burgeoning sexuality. ‘Woodkeeper’ uses the imagery of a woodland setting and the names of various fungi to create an unbelievably rich and sensual love poem, crafted with exquisite control.

There is another surprise here – the use of biblical language, some of which is recognisable as the sort of language still current in English primary schools where bible stories are read to infants and hymns and carols are sung. In ‘The First Path’ foxes bark ‘alleliua.’ In ‘Owl’  the cattle are lowing. In ‘The Assumption’  ‘that daydream picture of Christ the Lamb’ appears. These images contrast starkly with the dark violence and Victorian gothic horror of poems like ‘The Black Delph Bride’ and ‘The Bone Orchard Wench.’

I must briefly mention of Berry’s humour. It is present in ‘Carmella,’ a celebration of ‘Our Lady of The Hairdressers,’ her staff and clientele, but is also present here and there in a turn colloquial phrase, and in the primary school teacher’s description of her classes activities in the wonderful ‘Miss Berry.’

Black Country is impressively coherent, passionate and accomplished. Berry is a Maestra (I had to look this word up- a less familiar word than ‘maestro’, since female conductors have only appeared relatively recently) at linking poems and exploring the many facets of her chosen subjects. I recently read an interview somewhere where Liz Berry speaks of her love of ‘wildness’ in poetry. These poems are wild in their ambition, diversity and surprise, but they are also meticulously crafted so that her flights and swoops are as controlled, balanced and bold as that ‘little acrobat’ the homing Birmingham Roller.

This is a book rooted in real places and real people. It is sung on the wing. It is classy, classic poetry.

About the reviewer 

Roy Marshall currently works in adult education. His poetry has been published by Crystal Clear (Gopagilla) and Shoestring Press (The Sun Bathers). He blogs at http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/about/

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Review by Roy Marshall of "I Am a Magenta Stick" by Antony Rowland

I Am a Magenta Stick, by Antony Rowland, published by Salt, 2012.

Like his first collection The Land of Green Ginger (Salt, 2008), many of these poems are rich in culinary and gastronomic language.

Rowland has a deep understanding of how food can be used to explore themes of national, regional and class identity. He also understands the central position that food holds in all our lives, and its importance as a normalizing factor, a potential  source of refuge and comfort, as in this stanza from ‘Arras’: ‘Chocolate gift before the fighting patrol: / it feels like you are holding the whole Front / with a lost bolt. Three weeks is the average death. / Instead, have a do at this cake on the grass.’

In the opening poem, ‘Berlin,’ a sign advertising Ice Cream peeps through Eisenmann’s Memorial and the speaker feels too uncomfortable with his own tourist status amongst such landmarks to settle for ‘café patter that holds the roll/ above unguilty pleasures, bullet pocks.’

Rowland is on a mission to use words that normally only reside in dictionaries. The appearance of ‘discombobulate’ in a description of unwrapping sandwiches is perhaps a mouthful too far, but it is an example of Rowland’s ambition to fully utilise language, and not just English but a whole range of European words. I would have liked this poem and several others in the collection to have had footnote translations.

This aside, the unease of a tourist surrounded by physical reminders of horrific historical events is evoked here, and again in the deft and affecting ‘Serchio Bathing Party’ which details a tour of the house in which Holocaust survivor Primo Levi committed suicide . The tour is contrasted against later experiences the same day including the delights of a plunge pool, a gelato hatch and the Po’s ‘Olympian serenity.’

Similarly, ‘The Fuhrerhauser’ is a journey through Soviet and Nazi landmarks including Birkenau. In clipped three line stanzas, observations of the banal mix with the horrific to evoke the incongruence at being tourist among remnants which stand testament to unfathomable inhumanity. This sequence is well placed at the end of the collection where it remains likes a monument in an empty landscape.

‘Bitter’ celebrates and mocks a variety of Real Ales. Some of the beers speak for themselves in a masterful blend of overblown advertising and bawdy language. Wordy mouthfuls beg to be relished aloud, my favourite being ‘Oban’s Fair Plugged wants frottage with a Cornish.’ There is another dimension in the remembrance of a less sophisticated drinking culture ‘where Tetley glasses used to sail the air / changing the channel to random violence.’  This is Rowland at his funniest and most poignant, switching quickly from humour to grim unsentimental realities in one fluid journey.

In ‘Sausage’ we disturbingly find ‘the sausages that glitter in the Somme moonlight,’ and  ‘Arras’ contains the sort of absurdly comical anecdote that is passed down through a family by word of mouth: ‘Someone shot the brigadier’s dog in no-man’s land: / no password.’ And: ‘Your keys to the door arrive in a trench / with two birthday cards in bits: birthdays / would gift the enemy information.

The sheer inventiveness of much of this book kept me engaged, entertained and rewarded.  If I were to be negative I would say I had too much on my plate with ‘Engrish’ (there are two poems with this title in the collection) which seemed over long.  Then there are several ‘Hotel’ poems, surreal ‘Tripadvisor’ style accounts which I found a bit too thematically and technically similar to all merit inclusion.

On the whole Rowland succeeds brilliantly in bringing a surprising mix of ingredients together in a celebration of language. This is a big book in more ways than one. Not everything here was to my taste, but there are enough exquisite and memorable dishes to make this the equivalent of a Michelin star experience.

This review was first published in the journal Critical Survey.

About the reviewer
Roy Marshall currently works in adult education. His poetry has been published by Crystal Clear (Gopagilla) and Shoestring Press (The Sun Bathers). He blogs at http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/about/

Review by Morgen Bailey of "Classic Crime Stories"


Discover a world of heroes and villains, suspense and intrigue. This riveting and comprehensive collection brings together some of the best crime writing of all time. Ruth Rendell and Frances Hegarty spearhead the modern genre, moving through the popular and rarely recorded Graham Greene, to Edgar Wallace and G.K. Chesterton and his master detective Father Brown. And that's not all.

You can find the following stories in this book: 'Loopy,' 'The Missing Romney,' 'Insufficient Evidence,' 'The Compleat Criminal,' 'The Case for the Defence,' 'Markheim,' 'The Blue Cross,' 'Bluebeard's Bathtub,' 'Nine Point of the Law,' 'Arsene Lupin in Prison.' This collection includes stories from Ruth Rendell, Frances Hegarty, E.W. Hornung, Graham Greene, Margery Allingham, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Leblanc, Edgar Wallace, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

This collection is available here.  

Review (of the audiobook – timings in brackets):
The collection starts with Ruth Rendell's 'Loopy' (37.34), a strange tale about a man, Colin, who takes his role of Little Red Riding Hood's wolf far too seriously. His relationship with his fiancée sours as he grows closer to his mother, who had made his costume, amid discussions of their living arrangements.

Next up is Edgar Wallace's 'The Missing Romney' (21.50), a stolen painting taken from a deserving arrogant aristocrats - those with bloated bank balances earned by dubious means - by the elusive Robin Hood-type serial thief Four Square Jane. She's investigated by Peter Dawes who admires her for being a criminal with a brain. It appears to be the perfect crime and when it's revealed, it shows how clever Jane, and therefore, Edgar is. My favourite of the collection.

The third story, 'Insufficient Evidence' by Frances Hegarty (18.39), is a sad tale about a woman who seeks retribution and gets it, but not to her or others' expectations. Another well-written piece.

The fourth (and narrator-heavy) story sees the return of Edgar Wallace and his 'The Compleat Criminal' (25.29). The main character is Felix O'Hara Golbeater, a solicitor who has come in contact with many criminals. He appears to commit the perfect crime under another identity but his plan starts to unravel. The crime may have been clever but the ending was predictable and I guessed it.

'The Case for the Defence' by Graham Greene (7.58) is another classic and well-described story, and the shortest of the collection. It features twins and I expected a clichéd ending but the one given was satisfying.

Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Markheim' (45.25) is a strange tale about the interaction of an antique dealer and a customer, named Markheim. It lost me a couple of times but will appeal to surreal lovers.

'The Blue Cross' by GK Chesterton (45.29), like the three stories before it, is narrator-heavy with character description at the start. The main two characters are the criminal Flambeau and his pursuer Detective Valentin. My favourite line was about coincidences and how a Williams killing a Williamson, a case of infanticide. A very clever tale, one of the best here..
Margery Allingham's 'Bluebeard's Bathtub' (25.18) – also known as 'Three is a Lucky Number' – is another clever story but Ronald Torbay meets his match.

The last but one story is EW Hornung’s ‘Nine Points of the Law’ (35.47), a cat and mouse-type story of Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders attempting to outwit Raffles. He appears to have done so but is everything as it seems?

Finally is Maurice Leblanc’s ‘Arsene Lupin In Prison’ (42.54). Another incredibly clever tale which seems impossible but there’s always a way.

Generally the writing is very strong, albeit outdated in some respects, and, like most compilations, some stories are better than others but enough will appeal to any reader, especially those who enjoy historical crime mysteries.

This review was first published on Morgen Bailey's blog here.

About the reviewer
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a freelance writer, editor, tutor, blogger, and speaker. Like her, her blog, http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. Her debut novel, several short story collections, and writer’s block workbooks are available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords.