Saturday 31 December 2016

Review by Annalise Garrett of "The End" ed. Ashley Stokes, featuring paintings by Nicolas Ruston, and stories by various contributors

It is inevitable that there will be a moment in our lives where we will think the end is near, whether the thought is triggered boarding a plane, watching a loved one die of old age or an accident, or even those close calls that make you question how you survived such an event. Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings is a project by Nicolas Ruston to explore how an art form can operate through different media, as described in the introduction of the book The End, edited by Ashley Stokes. The book consists of fifteen interpretations by writers who have chosen one painting each by Ruston. Each painting is ambiguous with few hints towards the genre of the short story that follows it. 

Every chapter captures the emotional response of its writer, inspired by a black and white etching by Ruston. ‘The End’ is first seen as a large, dominating white text situated in the centre of each painting, and is also the central theme for the fifteen narratives that follow each painting. Fifteen detailed, uncomfortable, thought-provoking narratives present a multitude of emotions. Some paintings are much clearer than others in that they present us with a familiar object, hinting what the story that follows will entail. Each painting is then crafted into words, as it were, to arouse feelings of anxiety, or nostalgia in the reader, or even perhaps to draw the reader into the writer’s paranoia and vision of ‘The End’.

There, of course, are chapters you connect with and are more drawn to than others – paintings and stories that speak to your unconscious mind, your own anxiety and experience with more power than others. There were times where I felt suffocated, uncomfortable when reading certain stories. The stories vary in style and content. The power behind chosen sentence structure and word choice changed my mood and at times I had to put the book down to walk away for a moment before returning to complete the story. Even now I am reminded of the stress I felt on one particular interpretation of a painting. Each story, each memory presented a new thought, a new location, a new passage to the end of something, whether it is life or opinion, whether it is the narrator’s life or someone they are observing. Something ends, even if it is the fictional story itself.

On finishing each story, my attention was drawn back to the beginning of the chapter – the image of ‘The End’. At times the first few lines of a story directly connected image to text, or sometimes it was the final sentence or idea, or even the story as a whole. Back and forth I flicked from painting to word, from chapter to chapter; I sometimes understood the connections, and sometimes I was so caught in the narrative I forgot the painting. There are recurrent themes – such as reference to someone dying, something or someone leaving, or even a habit abandoned. In this way, the reader is teased by the notion of the end throughout. I felt a constant anticipation to find out what will end, who will end and even why.

When each story ended I found myself back to comparing the painting to the words, or the memory, the narrative, the character or setting. Stokes is right in saying the book never ends and you will re-read it: I have read it twice and I want to read it again. When walking in the street or around the house I picture my surroundings like the painting, a black and white etching telling me a story, an end; I text my family and friends more often now than before. The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings made me think about my situation, my thoughts, and I hope others look at these painting by Ruston and their interpreters’ stories. 

About the reviewer
Annalise is a student in her third year at the University of Leicester, studying BA English. She is currently on an Erasmus year abroad at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Outside of her studies Annalise paints and writes as a hobby, hoping to use her degree to work towards a career within the art industry. 

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Review by Ariane Dean of "Trysting" by Emmanuelle Pagano

When looking back on any relationship, whether it be with a partner or a much-loved friend, there are small moments that may seem insignificant, or may seem hugely important, but that nevertheless stay with us long after that person has left our lives. Emmanuelle Pagano’s book, Trysting, is a love song to the small moments, whether they are good or bad. Not so much a collection of short stories, but gathered snippets from people’s lives, written first in French and entitled Nouons-nous, it has since been translated into English by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis. The book is published in English by And Other Stories, and in the original French by P.O.L.

Every passage is short, the longest being around a page and half, the shortest just one line. This approach gives one the feeling of dipping into someone’s memories, exploring their past, and examining the responses that they may not have given at the time. Each piece is beautifully crafted, and even the bad times are recounted in a steady, calm manner, providing reflection and peace to experiences of great emotion.  The little tales are deeply nostalgic, a glimpse inside the mind of a stranger.

What I adored about this book was that nearly all the passages were non-gender specific. The stories are told in first person, and while they reference pronouns for their partner, the speaker tells little about themselves, enabling the reader to easily input their own personality and experiences into the story. Sometimes it feels like a friend confessing something they had long kept bottled up, other times it is something you yourself had half forgotten. Each passage works in a new object, place, or time, and finds new meaning in simplicity.

Although the stories are unrelated, there is a strong sense of them being tied together, with an underlying theme of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The people in these stories seem very real – they are dealing with ordinary worries and loves. However, Pagano’s beautiful writing and the incredible translation makes them seem vastly more important. There are lines that stayed with me for a long time after I had finished reading, and sections that I read aloud to my partner that conveyed ideas far better than I ever could.

My final thoughts on Trysting are that it was unexpectedly comforting. I had expected after the first few stories to find them sad, a little heart-breaking. Dipping in and out and reading a few little stories every now and then, I discovered that the book makes one feel much less lonely in traversing the difficult points in human relationships. Emmanuelle Pagano’s calm, measured approach to the uneasy things that could be made dramatic far simpler, and I closed the book feeling surprisingly much better than when I went in.

About the reviewer

Ariane Dean is a third year student at the University of Leicester, studying English. She has written theatre and comedy reviews for Buxton Fringe Festival over the last three years, and is working on editing past NaNoWriMo attempts to try and make them readable.

Monday 12 December 2016

Review by Alyson Morris of "I Had It In Me" by Leonie Orton

Leonie Orton’s memoir, I Had It In Me, is an autobiographical account of a difficult upbringing, intertwined with quotations from plays by her famous brother, Joe Orton.

Authors of autobiographies rarely grip readers - unless there are intricate and emotional details of human thoughts, such as those brilliantly conceived by Colm Toibin, or augmented with shattering descriptions of poverty and human survival, such as those created by Frank McCourt. Delightfully, Leonie Orton’s exposés hit hard. They capture the emotional damage caused by a loveless mother-daughter relationship, and define her early life with such disturbing detail and force, that readers will undoubtedly wrap their arms around little Leonie and hold on tight.

As a fan of Joe Orton’s sardonic accounts of life, I can see where all that cynicism came from. Younger sister, Leonie Orton, describes their upbringing with candor, and dishes out multiple servings of pathos for the reader to vividly imagine being right in the thick of it. Their mother, Elsie, who is by far the most dominant and captivating character (in a disturbing sense), is a callous, selfish and downright cruel mother and wife. She may have dished out a morsel of love to her sons, but her wickedness towards her daughters and the bullying of her ‘weak’ husband, will afford no pity from readers. Yet Elsie is a compelling read, and is sadly missing from the second half of the book.

Throughout Leonie’s story you will become increasingly compassionate towards her. You will become exposed to her tragic young life at Fayrhurst Road and then Trenant Road council estates, and watch her struggles with education so that she ends up with little choice but to work in factories. Enjoyably, the author’s memories of this time are highlighted with quotes from Joe Orton’s plays such as Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw. These references demonstrate links between his characters and members of his family, and expose the damaging influences of Leonie’s childhood, which has ignited a cynicism and wit that she shares with her brother.

As the autobiography evolves, you hear how Leonie struggled but succeeded in forcing herself out of Elsie’s template, into education, and finally into love. The second half of the book, triggered by the tragic death of her brother, quickens in pace. It also lacks the references to play scripts and Elsie. Despite the unsavoury depictions of Elsie, her absence is felt. And Joe Orton’s accounts of human behaviour linked to Leonie’s life are also missed. One powerful message in this part of the story is that we grow with Leonie. She moves from higher education into better jobs, and finds love with John Foster. Sadly, the affair ends in another tragic death, this time at the expense of the NHS, rather than Joe’s murder being at the expense of his lover.

As the final section of the book emerges, the pace slows again as Leonie appears comfortable with the re-introduction of brother, Joe. The final chapter is real page-turner, like reading Leonie’s accounts of her mother. The last pages take you on a journey with Leonie while she searches for the missing pages from Joe’s London diary. These pages are said to expose the reasons for his death in 1967.

Leonie now runs the Orton Estate and is often interviewed about her brother. She should now be interviewed as an author. She did have it in her, and I hope that we hear from this author again. I also hope that she now has all the love she can get.

About the reviewer
Alyson Morris is the Course Director for English and Creative Writing at Coventry University. She teaches modules for writing picture books, theatre and radio scripts and travel articles. Alyson writes poetry and short fiction, is Executive Editor of the Coventry Words magazine, and is currently studying for a PhD in creative nonfiction at the University of Leicester.


Tuesday 22 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970” (exhibition at the V&A Museum, London, 10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017)

An entrance ticket for You Say You Want A Revolution?  includes the issuing of a headset and device that provide a soundtrack synced to the different rooms (and electronic wizardry means there is no need to press buttons). The soundtrack includes the spoken word, but it is mainly pop and rock music from the period. It is as much a part of the exhibition as the artefacts it complements. I think this is a good decision and preferable to having a section analysing music in a cold, detached way: it successfully communicates how music was pervasive during this time. For me, though, it failed to include some of the period’s strongest sounds, where is the edginess of MC5 and Captain Beefheart, and the challenging satire of The Mothers of Invention and The Fugs?

I thought the earlier parts of the exhibition were the most effective, because I suspect they draw more on the V&A’s own extensive holdings.  We are plunged back into a time when “Swinging London” was style central for the planet, and the fashions still look amazing. A small section on Twiggy, the working class “Queen of Mod,” shows her as the perfect model for styles soon adopted as street fashion, more brilliant and alive than anything Paris or Milan could muster. It was also the era of the peacock male, as celebrated in The Kinks song Dedicated Follower Of Fashion. Mick Jagger appeared on Ready, Steady, Go!, the greatest pop programme of the day, wearing a military tunic purchased at I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet (the original shop sign is in the exhibition), a boutique in Carnaby Street. By noon the next day all similar jackets had sold out. Before the internet and mobile phones, television on its own could create speedy trends.

When entering the rooms presenting war, social unrest and protest, the colours drain away and unsurprisingly the mood is sombre and disturbing. A mannequin has the uniform and shield of the feared CRS, the riot police de Gaulle, in 1968, ordered to suppress the student riots in Paris. They clubbed to the ground anyone in their way, not just students but tourists and journalists as well. Close by is footage of the equally ferocious American police clubbing demonstrators for black civil rights. These were violent times, and of course included the horrors of Vietnam. Later in the exhibition, we learn that towards the end of the decade B52s of the US airforce dropped bombs on North Vietnam in such vast quantities that the explosions were close in magnitude to nuclear weapons. I was uneasy about the cursory way the exhibition presented the war, but to be fair, with a wide-ranging agenda this is unavoidable, and of course it has to be there. The war cruelly informed the era, and reinforced a counterculture that both demonstrated against it and turned towards creating an “alternative society.”

I found the presentation on drugs and psychedelia to be the most disappointing section. There should have been more emphasis on cannabis use and the movement to legalise it. The highhanded, hypocritical judgements of those who happily used alcohol, a legal but arguably more destructive drug, are still resented to this day. LSD was legal in Britain until late 1966, and exhibition text states its role in expanding consciousness and a “revolution in the head,” but a video simulation of a 1960s light show (often a visual accompaniment to hallucinogens and psychedelic music) is quite simply lame. I suppose health and safety prevented an actual light show from taking place. The hippie drug culture should have been engaged with more thoroughly: there is for instance plenty of archive material on Timothy Leary that could have been used. Testimony on good and bad acid trips would have also been interesting. One positive aspect of this section is the relating of the psychedelic experience to eastern religions. While China under Mao adopted Marxism, hippies reversed the direction. There was a rejection of the hegemony of Western-centric systems of thought and the monotheistic religions with origins in the Middle East, and one of the most important reasons for this interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen was for some people these religions and philosophies matched insights gained from dropping acid.

San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love is referred to, but the exhibition underperforms by not giving enough space to it, the years immediately leading up to it and those that followed. San Francisco was by far the most important place for the counterculture. What happened there spread throughout the world, via the sensationalist mainstream media and the more enthusiastic underground press such as the International Times (IT) in London. Hippie ideals and alternatives were also communicated by the psychedelic music generated in San Francisco by bands such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and It’s a Beautiful Day, and the blues of Big Brother and The Holding Company and their singer, Janis Joplin. There were the Be-ins at Golden Gate Park, and the Diggers, modelling themselves on the movement of the same name in 17th century England. The San Francisco Diggers serviced hippiedom, and this included providing free food as both a necessity for those without money and a radical stand against consumerism. Where is the material giving prominence to these San Francisco phenomena?

The room dedicated to Woodstock is the most spectacular. Extracts from the film of the festival are shown on a big screen, and there are plenty of seats for watching the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. Artefacts from that weekend abound, including some of the notes left on a particular tree: a rallying point for those who had lost their friends in the huge crowd: no text messages in those days!  The enduring sound of the festival is Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner. His playing and use of feedback brought about a fierce musical reflection and condemnation of the violence of his country, both in Vietnam and at home.

The late 60s advanced the causes of feminism and gay rights, and also environmentalism, which is the subject of a strong final section. The hippie communes in America, some of which lasted into the 1970s, are mapped out. Taking responsibility for growing food and living generally in ways that cared for the planet, the communes were a practical response to an increasingly damaged environment. This was a concern of the counterculture that in a time of the climate change denying President Trump deserves a continuing emphasis.

This final section also mentions that Steve Jobs saw the closeness brought about by psychedelic drugs as a catalyst for the internet, and in 1995 Stuart Brand, who in the 60s founded the Whole Earth Catalog, stated that the derision the counterculture had for centralised authority became a philosophical foundation for the leaderless internet. These positions help to explain the quasi hippiedom of Silicon Valley.

I have taken issue with some aspects of this exhibition, but make no mistake there is wonderful material, and the lively exhibition design means that something of the late 60s zeitgeist is present, which is quite an achievement. There is often a pleasing dialogue between general information and specific objects: you can read about the interest in Indian music and see George Harrison’s sitar; you are informed about the origins of personal computing and then can look at the first computer mouse.

John Lennon sang this exhibition’s title, “You Say You Want A Revolution?”  and on display are the HAIR  PEACE; BED PEACE placards from John and Yoko’s 1969 Bed-Ins for Peace, their  “happening” in Amsterdam and use of fame to stage a protest. A few months later in Montreal, they recorded Give Peace A Chance. Let’s do that, shall we?

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of artists, and recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Review by Simon Cole of "Welcome to Leicester," ed. Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Lee, and "Born to Run," by Bruce Springsteen

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Holiday reading is important to me. It has to be a conscious choice as the pile of books by the bedside gets bigger, and the time available to read them gets smaller. So a half term break saw two choices make the cut. Springsteen's Born To Run, and Welcome to Leicester: Poems about the City.

Springsteen has produced a magnificent rollicking read, as he heads from sleeping on the beach surrounded by all of his few possessions to mega stardom. Along the way he hasn't lost his sense of humour, of irony and of who he has lost along the way. His descriptions of his battles with himself and his depression are vivid and moving. 

Having engaged with The Boss, I turned my mind back to Leicester, taking myself very quickly from Asbury Park, N.J. To Spinney Hill Park, LE5. Early on in the Welcome to Leicester anthology Paul Lee recalls Spinney Hill Park, in 'her green lap', he recollects how

delighting feet sloshed through
The dew-slick flood of grass

I was hooked. I loved the evocations of places I knew as a child, and know now. The cinnamon scents washing over the Caribbean Festival, the colours and tastes of the Belgrave, THAT view of Old John from the top of London Road and late night in Granby Street. That is a scene that every police officer who has ever worked the night time economy would recognise as Julia Wood describes 'The cash-machine drunks on the pavement.'

There are two omnipresences throughout that are brought to life. The unblinking oversight of a dead King, and the inspiring tale of the fox that was an underdog. 'We've won the bloody football', writes Steve Wylie, 'while policemen laugh', before expressing guilt that he isn't exactly sure who one of the heroes adorning the lampposts in the city actually is! The sense of sport bringing together all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds is writ large throughout. It does capture what it felt like to be in Leicester as the impossible happened, as people danced in the street, as tears were shed, as Nessun Dorma rang out, and as one in four of the population headed for Victoria Park to sing and shout and cheer themselves hoarse. I suppose that as I write this I appear to have 'something in my eye'. The poems capture that feeling very emotively.

Overlooking all is one man. Whilst I would love that man to be the chief constable it is, of course, Richard the Third. 'A pile of bones, Both regal and diminished', a Plantagenet, a resident of York, a talisman, a commentator, a source of inspiration. In Charles G Lauder Jr's 'The City' he is the King hailed by the City one day, before his 'usurper' is festooned the next. Together with the bespectacled 'Italian alchemist' Ranieri as his Caesar, the miraculous discovery of the King in the car park runs as a driving force for a renaissance of civic pride.

For me the biggest theme is of belonging. Poets describe a search for a place to be home, where they can be themselves. Farhana Shaikh writes 'To Leicester Where We Belong', and of her grandparents arriving with just a single suitcase to their name. Some of the language and places of the past used in many poems reminded me of my own grandmother, Leicester born and bred. She would recognise the sounds of the market, the stories of those that make things, the chance to look out from the City into the county beyond. The image of Hui-Ling, Chen's 'Night Swans on the Grand Union Canal' would have resonated with her.

So what's not to like? Inevitably some of the writing grabbed me, and some didn't. In a collection of almost 100 poems and 150 pages that is unsurprising. I felt that some of the footnotes were a bit utilitarian and unnecessary; part of the joy of reading new things is finding out what is being alluded to for yourself.

What I loved most was the swirl of images and names that look like the place that I live and work in every day; the Diwali wheel, Idi Amin, The Big Issue, Windrush, suffragettes, hope, DNA, DMU, Attenborough, Watermead Park, the Haiku hike around Aylestone Meadows and even some policing. I especially loved the stately dance of Maria Ronner's 'On A Bus', as cultures meet, and the niqab and woolly hatted anorak find out a way to get along.

So, as I sat far away watching waves roll endlessly into a foreign beach, I found myself back in landlocked Leicester. Perhaps Browning should have written 'O, to be in Leicester' as he reflected on his home thoughts from abroad.

As Rob Gee shouts 'I am from Leicester, and I can do anything.' I have even got my own pen and paper, well... laptop... out and have started scribbling down some poems of my own, me ducks!


1. Welcome to Leicester is available from Dahlia Publishing:
2. See also, Kershia Field’s review of Welcome to Leicester, and Eliot John’s review of the anthology,
4. See also Ambrose Musiyiwa's blog post on the anthology,

About the reviewer
Simon Cole QPM is Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police. 

Saturday 12 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “Abstract Expressionism” (exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017)

When Picasso and Braque invented Cubism, it was the result of a consciously discussed approach, and their paintings during that period seem interchangeable. Exhibition text at the beginning of the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism notes significant differences between the work of individual artists.  How much, then, is it a movement? Is it more than an imposition of art historians and critics? Well, all art movements do not have to be as tightly formulated as Cubism. The impulses, establishment and continuing recognition of Abstract Expressionism point to something definite, and, post 1945, famously shifted the art world’s centre of gravity from Paris to New York. It is also well named, being concerned with abstract responses to subjective sensibilities and perceptions  (differentiating it from the figurative Expressionism of earlier in the century).
Exhibition text also provides a useful handle for getting some kind of grip on understanding individual artists. It refers to two broad categories. There are those who are gestural, with Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell good examples of bold and at times ferocious mark making; and others, notably Rothko, who chose to express themselves through areas of colour (sometimes labelled “colour field” artists).
It is an achievement of this exhibition that Jackson Pollock does not blot out the other artists while at the same time retaining his position as one of the supreme artists of the twentieth century, The curators have pulled off the spectacular coup of Pollock’s two largest paintings — Blue Poles (loaned from Australia) and Mural (commissioned in 1943 by Peggy Guggenheim for her Manhattan townhouse)— being hung on opposite walls of the same room. Pollock’s “action painting” was a revolutionary, rhythmic way of composing paintings. As with other Abstract Expressionists, what might seem random was actually deliberate, while simultaneously in the moment. His dripped paint was a journey measured by the dimensions of the canvas, but with a vast complexity of deviations. As we look at this work we embark on a perceptual journey of our own, and it is constantly surprising and fascinating.
In such a comprehensive show, there are usually winners and losers. Barnett Newman, as much a proto-Minimalist as an Abstract Expressionist, seems slightly diminished. The singular restraint and elegance of his vision are not well served when offset against the more muscular and dynamic work in other rooms. In contrast, Clyfford Still gains from a powerful selection. He was based on the West Coast, rather than New York, and many of Still’s paintings are now confined to a museum in Denver dedicated to his work. Showing in London has meant his reputation, already high, has been notched up. This is justified: his distinctive style, at times looking like torn paper on a monumental scale, is a combination of energy and contemplation. One of the exhibited paintings was completed in 1944, making it clear he was there at the start of the movement.
The Royal Academy has a track record of important exhibitions, but those, like this one, that can be more loftily described as historic are rare at any institution. I visited the Royal Academy’s Post-Impressionism in 1980, and left knowing I had seen one of the greatest London art exhibitions of the second half of the twentieth century. Abstract Expressionism has a similar status for the first half of the twenty-first: it is a once in a generation event. The work encompasses intensity and the sublime, and demands the commitment and perceptions of each viewer. Such an experience creates its own lasting reward.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of artists, and recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Thursday 3 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “The Girl on the Train” (2016, film, directed by Tate Taylor)

Alfred Hitchcock in many of his psychological thrillers, a genre he made his own, was skilful in applying light and shade: the carefree or humorous is contrasted with the twisted and murderous. Unlike action movies in which murder is a throwaway item, Hitchcock, born and brought up a Catholic, gives its true weight as the ultimate crime both in terms of the law and an accompanying sense of it being a terrible reality.

The Girl on the Train aspires to be a contemporary film in the Hitchcock mould, but it is all shade and does not have the variety of moods Hitchcock achieved. Nevertheless, it is a competent piece of filmmaking. The director, Tate Taylor, presents quite an intricate structure, playing with lengthy flashbacks (supported by titles indicating the position in time of a sequence of scenes), while the plot maintains its coherence. When revealed, the murderer (and no spoilers here) is shown to have the authentic narcissism of the psychopath. If all this sounds somewhat hackneyed, there is enough individuality in some of the characters, and their backstories, to avoid the stereotypical.
As with Hitchcock, the soundtrack is used to ratchet up tension. It also has an eerie quality, and this creates a dream-like atmosphere, although it is the underbelly of the American Dream, making it, of course, a nightmare. A wealthy suburban neighbourhood includes male characters with a disturbing desire to manipulate and control women, emotionally and sexually, but, thankfully, the females can be assertive with their own deceits.

Hitchcock directed stars such as Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. It was a strategy that added an existing glamour to the mix. The Girl On The Train lacks this. In its place, though, are some solid performances. Emily Blunt is wonderful as Rachel, a very fragile and damaged person who conjures up some determination and strength.

I saw the film at my local cinema, and it was packed out. It is easy to see why The Girl on the Train is a word of mouth hit: it delivers a superior rendition of the thriller, and the nastiness lurking beneath respectability provides the enjoyment of an easy moral high ground. It is destined, I think, to be shown time and time again on satellite movie channels. The Girl on the Train is a good film, but I’m not sure that I would want to see it twice, whereas Hitchcock’s very best films keep calling me back. 

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London), and he has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Plucking the Stinger" by Stephanie Rogers

So many scribes write about black-dog and blue-fog periods of their lives. Only a few manage to nail-it with the right words, though. Words need careful preparation, skill and authenticity to truly penetrate. Stephanie Rogers’s poems have all these in abundance. Her poems snag and prompt emotional recalibrations within the reader. I marvelled at the flashy-baited imagery that she deploys within this collection. Her deft poems strike a light at life when you’re in a dark place with the doldrums. The poems express this with acute honesty. Her writing is charged with brevity. She also articulates humour particularly well and juxtaposes it with morbidity, loss, despair and tragedy with great aplomb. This technique creates powerful undercurrents within her prose. There is great contrast within this collection. Wit is powerfully embedded within the text. A dark humorous tone resonates through this collection, which lifts it from the ordinary. The poems conjure the pain and beauty of relationships in a wry and sardonic way. 

Her style suggested to me a kind of collective unconscious at work. The pain of the everyday is mapped out, as well as the thoughts that buzz around our heads that we seldom act upon, but all think about, day to day. The unsaid-said-unsaid of life: Stephanie Rogers digs on this territory with gusto. 

“Another Way the Body Dies” explores this notion: “Part of me thinks I’ve shot someone,” the opening line from the first stanza, rings out with menace. How do you follow that? But she does with this magnificent observation further in the stanza: “My eyes always find what’s rotting around the room”, which I suggest is her deep despair expressed in whimsical fashion. Stasis is never far away in these poems. But this poem in particular mines a depressed state – someone confined to bed like the mafia hitting the mattresses in times of feud: “Back then I slept with a bullet under my tongue”, the final line of the last stanza, reads like a paean to Tom Waits, dirty-realist in its sensibility. That last line oozes a kind of guarded-despair.

Despite this emotional punch, it’s worth noting that all the poems pay close attention to form and have been sequentially worked upon. The aesthetics balance neatly from such fine attention. The lay out pleases the eye, as well as the mind.

Another poem that stands out is “Phone Call”, which is nakedly honest concerning the reactions to bereavement.  We all can identify with it. News of a death is the poem’s subject matter, and it’s both poignant and honest. The narrative is spare and plain which increases its emotional resonance. The narrative is cathartic, writing heals and reading consoles.
It’s obvious that Stephanie Rogers has been deep-mining the self during the construction of these well-crafted poems. I admire the honesty, daring and the raw-punch within her writing. They remind me of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which is an absolute corker! Enough said.

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack is scraping at the underbelly of Irish Diaspora through a collection of short stories for his Creating Writing PhD at Leicester University. His writing influences include: John McGahern, Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Claire Keegan and Colin Barrett.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Review by Kershia Field of "Welcome to Leicester," ed. Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa

[This is the second of two reviews we're running on this new anthology. You can read the first here.]

When I left Leicester after living there for three years I was utterly convinced that nobody would love it as much as I do. The new Welcome to Leicester anthology has proved me wrong. It captures the remarkable and the completely normal about the city so beautifully that I realise now that Leicester stays with each and every person who passes through it.

I thought I knew everything there is to know about Leicester, its history and its culture. Once again this collection corrected me. Reading it is a wonderful, educational experience that only makes me feel closer to the city, rooting me in its fascinating past with poems like Andrew Button's “Ratae Corieltauvorum” and “Ruins steeped in history” by Norbert Gora.

Having only left Leicester a few months ago, I’m still very much homesick for the city. This collection allowed me to fall in love again and again with each page and by the end, it’s as though I’ve been back and visited the city itself. Each poem feels like a personal connection, like it was written just for me. I can hear the Leicester market place, I am part of the hustle and bustle of shoppers in the Highcross, I can smell fireworks after the Diwali celebrations, and if I close my eyes I am walking along Julia Wood’s perfect depiction of Granby Street.

Not being a football fan myself and knowing nothing about the game, I wasn’t particularly bothered by Leicester winning the Premier League this year. What I did love, though, was that the city came alive. People came from all over to our city to celebrate the success of underdogs. It resonated with thousands and that’s something that definitely shines through in “The Art of Winning” by Jayne Stanton and also “On Leicester winning the premiership” by Rob Gee.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite from the collection and I suppose that makes sense. It’s impossible to pick one part of Leicester that I love the most. Perhaps the best thing about the collection is the sense that everyone who has taken part feels proud of the city and it’s not hard to see why. Leicester belongs to everyone from all walks of life: it’s home, it’s beautiful and now everyone can have a small piece of it to keep.

About the reviewer
Kershia Field is a twenty-one-year-old poet currently working on her first poetry collection based on Mental Health and the stigma surrounding it. She has her own blog at


Tuesday 25 October 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "Silvija" by Sandra Riley

After the diminishing / dirt body kicked against kitchen wall /

Kept alive / what mercy has lessened / quietened as we speak

Of light / spoiled / cry-babying / a bunkum transubstantiated

Our cunning remains within. (“FARTHER / FATHER”)

Ottawa poet (by way of Saskatchewan) Sandra Ridley’s fourth trade poetry title is Silvija (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016). Following her collections Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009), Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011), and The Counting House (BookThug, 2013), Silvija is a book-length suite broken into “five feverish elegies,” composed as a “linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.” Ridley’s poetry has long managed to be remarkably precise in detail while concurrently evasive, and yet, the poems that make up Silvija can be seen as incredibly revealing, writing:

You are no less dangerous than you were as you drag

Your bones / field stones / we never once wept upon

The firmament / eight children left with the lone wife

Who would not carry the quiet / the final cardiac pall

Paled thirty years / crescent moons / scars strapped

Below the heart. (“FARTHER / FATHER”)

The poems in Silvija still manage to maintain her particular flavour of evasiveness. Ridley’s Silvija takes its title from the name of her dedicatee, a “Silvija Barons,” coupled with dictionary definitions of “Silva” and “Silvan, Silvana, Silvanæ” that open the collection, suggesting a compounded definition involving a wooded area, a creature from a wooded area and the writing produced about a wooded area. Still, Silvija includes elements that are possibly more revealing than her previous collections, exploring and attempting meaning out of a poetry of violence, trauma and healing, and furthering her capacity for the book-length exploration. And, as much as her elegies hold together as a single, extended unit, two sections were actually composed as part of other projects, such as the section “CLASP,” composed as a response to Gatineau artist Michèle Provost’s multiform art installation, “Playlist,” or an early version of “VIGIL / VESTIGE” commissioned as “an engagement with Petro Isztin’s photo installation, ‘Study of Structure and Form.’”

While the effect of Ridley’s short phrases staccato and accumulate into a complex tapestry that refuses anything straightforward, the emotional content is raw, savage and brutally stark. There are epistolary elements to Silvija, writing a narrator speaking intimately and directly to an unnamed and shifting “you,” and the poems reveal a furious content of trauma and grief, pushing to comprehend and, ultimately, heal as best as possible. As she described, quickly, her first three collections in an interview at Jacket2: "the downwind effects of nuclear radiation in Fallout, medical incarceration, and the archaic and experimental treatments for tuberculosis and mental illness in Post-Apothecary, the trauma(s) of a relationship gone wrong in The Counting House,Silvija writes out the trauma of loss, whether through physical and emotional abuse or death, composing four sequences – “FARTHER / FATHER,” “CLASP,” “VIGIL / VESTIGE” and “DIRGE” – that are surrounded by fragments of the fifth and final section, “IN PRAISE OF THE HEALER.” Via this simple thread, she holds the book together through a kind of mantra, or Greek Chorus, allowing that for whatever elese has occurred, healing, and even resolution, is possible (and the “healer” requires acknowledgment): “You give my hands the weight of your body. // Rest in me. // What I mean is this is where I choose to die.” What becomes so compelling is the understanding that it is through the very act of writing that allows the entire healing process, as she writes: “If you can’t speak / write in a fissured / alter-language / Of nerve-matter.” Indeed.

You and I—confined to our scrying room. Every falter of the limbs and every muscle of the face exposed to view. You are what I am. You cause as much sorrow. In what worse way could we vent this rage than by beating this head against these walls?

Sing for me. You seized the words out of my mouth—who suffers the most? You keep it all in. Noise—no noise. You upset me, baby. And you can’t do that.

We’re never left alone. Consider what the means are—we can’t lose what we haven’t ever had. You asked for it. You won’t get mercy. You are no more a whisper. (“CLASP”)

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Friday 21 October 2016

Review by Erik Raschke of "Two Syllable Men" by John McCaffrey

After exploring white middle-aged dystopia with his first novel, The Book of Ash, McCaffrey’s new collection or novel or linked-shorts, Two Syllable Men, has brought us to a more staid environment, where everyday men are confused and dazed by the simple complexities of modern life. They are the button-down dorks, lost to NPR or sports-radio, who absently and unwittingly tail-gate in their minivans or rusting Saturns. They are former Ross Perot supporters and now angst-ridden libertarians who might quietly, secretly smile at Trump’s bluster, but would never vote for the man. They are the lost white man we read so much leading up to the election, but unlike Trump supporters, they are the kind of white men who are neither loud nor aggressive and thus have become more or less invisible. They privately struggle and scramble against the feminization of their lives. They are not afraid of sports. They coddle instead of cling to the specter of male-hood.

Each chapter in Two Syllable Men is named after a different male, each full of doubts, but specifically in their own way. There is Byron, who while hesitating before kissing a girl, thinks about his ex: “His wife, before they split up, often criticized him for being too passive, accusing him of being a counterpuncher in life, someone who reacted rather than initiated. He remembered their first date, when he asked if he could kiss her, and she surprised him with an angry response, explaining that a man never asked to kiss a woman, he just did it.”

In the case of Graham, after many desperate dating attempts, he meets a basketball player, Talia: “She was also an English Major. When I asked her favourite author she didn’t hesitate: ‘Somerset Maugham.’ She spoke for an hour straight about his work. I found her passion erotic and suggested we go somewhere more private to talk. She must have sensed my real purpose because she told me she had a rule never to have sex with a man until he watched her play basketball.” 

There’s Herman who “had gout and his doctor recommended hot yoga as a cure.” The story is an exercise in mental contortionism and perseverance as the yoga instructor, Carlos, dishes worthless platitudes like, “You can’t get anywhere in life without starting somewhere,” that leave Herman breathlessly exasperated and women yoga-attendees swooning.

The diffraction of short story collections can often be a struggle if the context and subjects vary. The thread in MacCaffrey’s stories hold, as it winds from one male to another. Although characters' personalities sometimes blur, their collective anxiety comes to a repeated crescendo as if these two syllable men were some consciously connected tribe dancing to a prayer ritual of what social therapists refer to as “precarious manhood.” McCaffrey’s characters are forever in conflict with the impending loss of manhood and it is within that struggle we find a very prescient humanity.

About the reviewer
Erik Raschke is an American author living in Amsterdam for the past seven years. His last novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2009 and translated into Italian and nominated for the Printz award. He received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and his short stories have been published in, among others, Guernica, Chelsea, Per Contra, Ararat, Reading Room, Tijdschrift Ei,, Promethean, 5-trope. His essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Hazlitt, Buzzfeed, The Denver Post, Het Parool, De Volkskrant and many others. You can see more of his work at

Thursday 20 October 2016

Review by Lerah Mae Barcenilla of "Lost and Found: Stories of Home by Leicestershire Writers," ed. Farhana Shaikh, Beth-Ann Sher and Richard Sheehan

From tales set in Swedish refugee camps, houses filled with history, travelling circuses and even in space, Lost and Found: Stories of Home by Leicestershire Writers (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) captures the diversity of voices that whisper and shout from every corner of Leicester, as they weave the threads to create a tapestry stitched with the meanings of ‘home’.

There are tales that question the essence of home, how homes may differ from one to another, yet despite it all ‘we all go home eventually’ (as in the story 'Zenith') – no matter where that may be. There are powerful stories that tug at our heartstrings, the heartache that gets lodged in our throats, ‘the searing pain of loss’. And it’s there, in the hollowness of words, the gradual healing of cracks as one finds a new home (in the story 'Not Home').

There are tales of maybes, what ifs and of possibilities ('Adrian'). Tales laced with memory. Of something fond, but fuelled by trauma amidst vivid descriptions of football stadiums – beauty in its ‘terrible simplicity’ ('Home Game'). Tales that explore the search for a lost home and its connection with our very identity: ‘I know I’ve become a stranger to them, and to myself’ ('Back Home'). While there is something raw and vulnerable, the honest helplessness in the words ‘I can’t find the way home,’ but also the strange wistfulness in finding home in music ('Zöe K.'). We see a battle between familiarity and unfamiliarity, between staying and moving on. Tales of memory and forgetting; of separation, exploration and travel. Of uncertainty, reassurance and acceptance, ‘This is home now. Just be’ ('Moving the Furniture'). Yet behind the nostalgia and hope lurk something morbid, an unexpected dark turn of events (as in 'Colour').

Then there are stories that hit too close to home. Stories reminiscing about the curiosity that comes with the first year of university, and the melancholy that the final year brings. The uncertainty and fear that haunts the future, that prowls what comes after ('Home From Home'). And lastly, there are tales painted with the inevitable passing of time, and a homesickness for something lost. The story where one forgets and another remembers, and I’m not quite sure what’s worse (as in 'Shelter').

But, perhaps, it’s just like as Hermann Hesse wrote: 'every path leads home'. In this collection of short stories, we are given the privilege to peer into the lives of others, to glimpse, even for a moment, what ‘home’ means to them. And, maybe, in doing so, we’ll discover what ‘home’ means to us.

About the reviewer
Born in Manila, Philippines, Lerah Mae Barcenilla is currently a third year English undergraduate at the University of Leicester. Her writing has been published in The Student Wordsmith, The Purple Breakfast Review, PETRie Inventory and Culturefly. In her spare time, you can find her highly-caffeinated self idly scribbling on a notebook trying to write her two-somethings every day or taking photographs of cherry blossoms. You can find more of her writing and photography at

Tuesday 18 October 2016

"Iraqi culture and arts in Leicester: Everybody’s Reading Festival" by Malka Al-Haddad

Written by Malka Al-Haddad, this article was first published in Alhadath International Agency, and was translated from Arabic by Malka Al-Haddad and Alexandros Plasatis

Iraqi culture and arts in Leicester: Everybody’s Reading Festival  

Malka Al-Haddad

The 7th Everybody’s Reading Festival took place across many cultural centres in the city of Leicester, from 1-9 October 2016. There was an Iraqi representation at the festival from its opening day, as postcards with poems, including the Children of War by the Iraqi Malka Al-Haddad, had been given out by poets at Leicester Railway Station. That was part of the event “Journeys: pop up poem library”, which ran throughout the festival. On every postcard there was a poem taken by the book Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge, an anthology of poems edited by K. Bell, E. Lee and S. Logan, and published by Five Leaves.
The Railway Station was chosen as the setting for this event, as organisers wanted to inspire the commuters with a different journey, that of immigrants and refugees, suffering on their journey across counties, the sea and the forests, putting their lives in danger to reach safety and live a peaceful life, fleeing from wars and sectarian conflict that forced them on risky and daring trips.
The event was a success and the postcards run out long before the end of the festival.  

During the festival’s seventh day, the African Caribbean Centre hosted the launch of an anthology of poetry entitled Welcome to Leicester, edited by Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa, and published by Dahlia Press. The subject of this book is to show how this city welcomes all people and especially refugees and immigrants. About 50 poets from Britain have contributed to this anthology, which features two poems by Malka Al-Haddad who represented the Union of Iraqi Writers. Malka’s poems describe the aspects of the lives of immigrants and refugees: their suffering in their homeland, and their grief when finding themselves in the new country mixed with love and hope to make this new country their homeland, as the old country was shattered, destroyed by war, discrimination and conflict.   

On the ninth day of this festival, there was a strong presence of Iraqi culture in an event called “Walls”, organised by the People’s Art Collective and hosted by New Walk Museum and Art Gallery – one of the first public museums in the UK, opened in 1849. Malka Al-Haddad was involved in three parts of this event.

Firstly, in a documentary film about Iraq, Noble Najaf, which was screened in The Lord Mayor’s Room. Directed by the French filmmaker Morgan Railane, produced by Al Hikmat Foundation in Iraq, it was translated from French to Arabic by Dr Mohamed Alkaraishi. The film focused on the city of Najaf, Cultural Capital of Islam for 2012, and the holiest city of Shia Islam as well as the centre of Shia political power in Iraq. The film unveils historical, political, religious and cultural aspects of Najaf City. It shows how the city was rebuilt and restructured after being bombed during the American invasion in 2003 and how the Mehdi Army fought the Americans in order to get them out of Iraq and gain independence, and how, later, the city sent ambassadors to European countries for cultural exchanges and introducing Najaf as the capital of Islamic culture and the holy centre of the Shia faith, where the Libraries still hold ancient manuscripts. It showed how the clerics hold high and powerful positions in Iraq and how all people in the city follow and obey them, how they influence the decision-making of the Iraqi government, and even how they guide ordinary people in aspects of their everyday life. Finally, the film shows Najaf’s arts and culture and how NGO charities attempted to develop women’s rights.
After the film, Malka Al-Haddad – who appears throughout the film, back when she was the director of Najaf’s Women’s Centre for Culture and Art – explained to the audience how Najaf is at risk from potential future Isis actions and the goal of Isis is to destroy this city and destroy the Islamic culture because the faith of this city is different from the beliefs of Isis.

In another part of the museum there was another event, with poets, musicians, and storytellers, and Malka read her poems and presented some of her artwork.

It was an honour for the Iraqi poet Malka Al-Haddad to represent her culture in such a prestigious place in this city, the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

Despite the pain and sadness in Iraq, the voice of the Iraqi people, through culture and the arts, managed to be heard in this European multicultural city. Iraqi culture was the smile of hope for Iraqi people who live in exile and, for Malka Al-Haddad, the experience of taking part in Everybody’s Reading Festival was like listening to Ishtar guitar.           

About the writer
Malka Al-Haddad is an Iraqi poet, academic and defender of Human Rights. Registered with Front Line Defenders, she has lived in Britain since 2012. She is member of the Union of Iraqi Writers, Director of the Women’s Centre of Culture & Arts in Iraq, and was one of first delegates to the US for the Iraqi & American reconciliation project. Currently, she is an activist with Leicester City of Sanctuary and Leicester Civil Rights Movement.

About the co-translator
Alexandros Plasatis is an ethnographer and writes fiction in English, his second language. Some of his stories have been published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, Unthology, Crystal Voices, blÆkk, and (forthcoming) Total Cant. He has a PhD in Creative Writing and is working on the creative writing project Write Here: Sanctuary with Cities of Sanctuary and Writing East Midlands, aiming to find and develop new creative talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community in Leicester.