Tuesday 31 January 2017

Review by Terry Potter of "Goat Music" by Will Buckingham

This review is also published on The Letter Press Project here.

The stories and myths of the Classical World remain an enduring source of inspiration to contemporary authors who reinterpret, rewrite and recreate both the stories and moral lessons the originals are so rich in. Will Buckingham, novelist, philosopher and university Reader, has added to this body of work with his take on the tale of Marsyas, the Greek satyr who challenged the God Apollo to a music competition.

One of the attractions of revisiting the original sources lies in the way the stories are so open to interpretation - character, motivation and detail can be invented and reinvented time and again without compromising the integrity of the tale. On top of the written versions, the oral tradition can also add a layer of extra interest or complexity to the stories and these versions provide more material to draw on. In crude terms the original stories of Marsyas tell of how he found the double-flute or aulos made by the goddess Athena which she has cast aside in a rage when the other gods made fun of the face she made when she played the instrument. The satyr goes on to claim his musical prowess is greater than that of the great Apollo and challenges this infamously wrathful God to a competition. Marsyas loses and is flayed alive for his presumption.

These tales are often interpreted as a warning against hubris - how could even the most talented mortal being defeat a god? How could he be so deluded? Other commentators have focussed more on the fact that Marsyas is actually defeated by a rather underhand trick that unfairly benefits Apollo and emphasise the great skill and wisdom of the satyr - qualities unusual in their kind. A line of thinking that Buckingham has seized on in his retelling.

The story Buckingham tells us gives Marsyas and the gods he associates with a much more rounded - even modern - set of characteristics and back stories that make the individuals come alive. He's largely sympathetic to the satyr who, although by no means perfect, is ultimately the flawed hero of the book and a victim of a cold, vengeful, chilling Apollo who punishes the mistakes of mortals with no hint of mercy or proportion. Indeed the tale Buckingham tells us is essentially a humanist one - the gods are largely spiteful, arbitrary, self-centred and generally driven by shabby motives and the only sense of mercy or empathy is found in the mortal but chastened Midas - who has learned the hard way that the gods are not to be trusted.

This is indeed a story of incautious hubris but in Buckingham's hands its also a tale of the arbitrariness of power and exercising that power for the pleasure of the cruelty it can inflict. Power exercised in this fashion robs the victim of their identity and their dignity just as Apollo robs Marsyas of his skin.

I read this story at one sitting and that's a tribute to Buckingham's storytelling powers - this rips along at a fair old pace - and it's full of incident and pretty graphic detail. This is, of course, one of the other advantages of using these stories of the Classical world - they are ram packed with sex and violence and Buckingham embraces these elements with glee.

Whatever messages you take way from this reinvention of the Marsyas stories the one thing I can guarantee is that you'll be drawn into a vivid and visceral reading experience that you'll find hard to put down
About the reviewer
Terry Potter is a Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families at Newman University, Birmingham. He is also joint founder of The Letterpress Project, a not for profit initiative that promotes the importance of the printed book.

Saturday 21 January 2017

Review by Jayne Stanton of "Rough Translation" by Cathy Galvin

Reviewer’s disclosure: No prior knowledge of the poet or her work.  A biography on the pamphlet’s back cover, however, lists her credentials as a journalist and a promoter of short fiction (Galvin is founder and director of the Word Factory) as well as a poet.  There’s also praise for a first pamphlet, Black and Blue, a ‘masterclass in poetic risk-taking.’ 

First impressions: Beneath the title on the front cover is a poem – or what appears to be a poem.  From the opening lines, ‘We stake a claim, lay foundations / build and watch it fall’ to the final ‘Our homes are built to go’ there’s a return of wilderness once ‘tamed, contained’ and a leaving of the land by its inhabitants.  Most intriguing of all is:

‘Take away it all
and what is left is who we are.’

What a novel way of grabbing the reader’s attention and inviting further reading between the black end papers of this slim volume.  The Contents page places the title poem midway through the pamphlet but, on exploring further, the reader is re-introduced to the cover-featured lines: they form section 3 of the third poem, ‘Walls.’ 

Rough Translation is the poet’s attempt, over time (these poems were written over a three-year period) to capture, in words, the essence of her people – the Connollys of Mason Island, Connemara – their way of life, and the familial and cultural roots that continue to draw the poet back.  

Throughout these poems, there are strong links between the land and the sea.  In ‘Kate Connolly,’ limpets are fuel for the fire and shells are ‘treasure to be broken,’ the harshness of island life necessitating the gathering of sea bounty.  In ‘On the Tide’, those born on the land leave by the sea.  The poem has a strong, wave-like rhythm; there is tension between land, sea and air, between waiting to go and parting.  And in ‘Cork’, there’s a raft to ‘carry/ his dead weight / across an ocean…or / burn bright / one the one for / the whale-road.’ 

Kate Connelly, the poet’s namesake, has gnarled black hands and a parting kiss of ‘sea, iron…’ yet it is ‘all we don’t understand,’ and ‘all we thought we would never be’ that engenders ‘the eighth sin – / fear.’  She ‘Smell[s] of earth, warm milk from the cow’ too, and, in ‘Naming’, there’s vulnerability as she ‘Stepped in to/ the ocean.   Shed shawl, / shape.  Fed on fish’ while her menfolk bury at sea ‘the cold babies,’ the ‘infants / never named.’  She, and they, are seals that ‘slick the under-swell/ of deep beneath the light,’ reminiscent of the opening poem where child and mother are seals ‘Beneath and above / the swell of birth.’  

In this pronoun-rich collection, Kate Connelly is the only named individual – and the lynch pin, it seems.  In reading back and forth between poems, it seems that all lead back to hers.  Is the subject of the title poem, living in a Midlands tower block where ‘Lifts bring us back / to you’ one of ‘her children,’ ‘freed…to stray beyond’ her ‘folds of wool wrapped round’ or the mother herself?  Is it Kate who is laid to rest ‘in red Coventry clay’ in the poem ‘Coventry Kids’?  The phrase ‘her Connemara moorings’ is telling; it underlines the precarious futures of those who live on islands such as this, taking the reader back to those walls without a roof, those ‘homes…built to go’ (in Walls) and, in Starlings, ‘cottages impossible / to sell; others let to the wealthy.’  

Galvin’s roots run deeper than laid foundations, though, and their pull is evident in many of the poems.  One of the most poignant is Borrowing Soil: the peat top-soil that ‘doesn’t belong,’ is ‘borrowed’ – another impermanence – ‘This earth/ so far from home.’  Home, for the poet, is found in a ‘going back to sources,’ of spoken language:

‘These are the sources that I seek.  Have yer tidied pots?
Have yer sidey’t table? Yes Mummy.  Yes Daddy.  Their voices
deeper than any soil.’

These poems are mysterious and sensual; truth is hard-won – ‘rough’ or inexact rather than invented – and therein lies a magic, of sorts.  Rough Translation is a distillation of lives and their legacy, Galvin’s poems giving voice to those ‘tongues stilled.’  Words are hooks and pins as the reader searches for a way in.  The poems invite and richly reward re-reading.

About the reviewer
Jayne Stanton is a teacher, tutor and folk musician living in Leicestershire.  Her poems have appeared in numerous print and online magazines and anthologies.  She has written commissions for Harborough museum, University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing, and has recently completed a poem sequence about life in Leicester as part of a city residency.  Her pamphlet, Beyond the Tune, is published by Soundswrite Press (2014).  
Jayne blogs at jaynestantonpoetry.wordpress.com and tweets @stantonjayne

Saturday 14 January 2017

Natalie Beech, interviewed by Sonia Tailor

Natalie Beech is the Associate Playwright for Written Foundations Theatre Company, with her play Collegiate making its debut at The Bread & Roses Theatre last year. Her short plays have won competitions with Sheer Height Theatre Company and Unmasked Theatre Company, going on to be performed at Arcola Theatre, The Hawth Theatre and Story City Festival. She also works with local universities to run workshops and create issue-based drama, with short plays The Island and Currents recently performed at De Montfort University.

ST: How do you explore modern issues through the use of drama?

NB: I think it’s important to examine points of view that are not yours, in order to explore an issue properly. Audiences are intelligent and it’s important that you don’t insult that, or leave them feeling you are biased or haven’t considered something properly. I personally want to use drama because I think live performance and theatre commands people’s attention in a way almost nothing else does right now. If you’re watching a film, reading a book or an article, you can easily be distracted by your phone, social media etc. With drama, there’s a human being in front of you, emotionally responding to the impact of the issue you are exploring. There’s something very intimate and powerful about that.

ST: Why is it important for you to present the perpetrator’s viewpoint in your plays?

NB: I don’t think we really get anywhere in tackling issues if we don’t explore the perpetrator’s point of view, or try to understand why they commit an act or their mentality at that time. Plus - I think it is fascinating to go into the mind of someone who is very different to you, that’s the fun of writing!

ST: What techniques do you use to create strong voices?

NB: I often use the voice of people I have met or know, to help get speech patterns accurate and realistic. I am a firm believer that character is the most important aspect of drama, so making sure you know your characters inside out will mean that they become real people in your head, and write the story themselves.

ST: How do you maintain a balance between exposition and drama?

NB: Exposition can be used interestingly, particularly with monologues. Having your characters decide what they want to tell an audience about themselves and what they want to hide is great on stage, and allows audiences to come to some of their own conclusions about your characters and story. It’s fairly obvious, but I think I would just advise not to show all of your cards at once, slowly reveal things over the course of your story, and that will create drama in itself. 

ST: How do you effectively intertwine dialogue with monologues?

NB: Monologues can be quite hard going for an audience, so it works to break it up with dialogue and vary things a bit. I tend to use monologues when I want the audience to see the drama through the perspective of a character, and dialogue when I want them to see how something is in in reality. This dictates how I intertwine them and why I decide to use dialogue or monologue.

About the interviewer

Sonia Tailor is a political writer, studying an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She has organised vigils and demonstrations, and in 2007, she travelled to Jordan to make a documentary about Iraqi refugee children. For many years, Sonia was the Youth Page editor for Peace News (newspaper) and she currently runs a book blog on Instagram: @soniareads.

Monday 2 January 2017

Review by Siobhian R. Hodges of "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold

It doesn’t get much darker than a fourteen-year-old girl being raped and murdered, her body forever hidden in a sinkhole while she watches, from heaven, her family struggle to cope. Alice Sebold avoids the mystery of a ‘Whodunit’ plot, revealing the facts at the start to create an intimate story of Susie Salmon’s death and how it affects her family and friends, but with a supernatural slant.

As narrator, Susie talks openly about her killer (neighbour and loner, George Harvey) but is unable to tell her family. They are oblivious that the monster they are searching for is living next door. Although they have occasionally seen and heard Susie when they are missing her the most, ultimately, she is bound to heaven – a place Sebold describes as being a personal world unique to everyone, made up of the individual’s “simplest dreams”. For Susie, it is the high school she never grew old enough to attend with soccer goalposts in the distance, her favourite magazines as textbooks and swing sets with “bucket seats made out of hard black rubber”. There, she meets others with similar dreams whose heavens intertwine with hers, like Holly (who becomes her roommate) and Franny (a woman in her mid-forties who becomes their guide). Sebold paints a clear picture of Susie’s heaven and you cannot help wondering what your own personal one would look like. But as she switches between settings on Earth and in heaven, it becomes evident that the author has a keen eye for detail with world-building.

Even in her own personal heaven though, Susie will never have what she desires most – to grow up. She is a young girl who will never graduate, marry or have children. This is why she is often drawn to Earth, to watch her friends and younger sister (Lindsey) experience these milestones. It is difficult not to feel some of the sadness and frustration Susie feels. Likewise, as she narrates life going on without her, we get to know the people closest to her and sympathise with them as they battle the loss of their daughter/sister/friend/lover and try to cope in a way only a torn family would understand. Susie’s voice is strong and genuine throughout, written how a typical fourteen-year-old speaks – she is full of life, for someone who is dead.

There is a reason Sebold’s The Lovely Bones became an instant success upon its publication in 2002. The story is gritty, heart-warming and cleverly written. Although the author deals with the rawest of emotions, her omnipresent narrator spectating from the afterlife makes for an interesting read. The Lovely Bones is memorable to say the least and Sebold manages to capture the realism of love, grief and moving on.

About the reviewer

Siobhian Hodges is an MA graduate in Creative Writing and a part-time script editor for the Leicestershire-based film company ‘Gatling Gun Productions’. She is currently polishing her first novel and writes short stories and poetry in her free time.

Review by Miranda Taylor of "Matilda" by Roald Dahl

This is now my favourite book. I love Matilda, the main character. She is very cute and also very clever. In the story, she realises she has magical powers. She also loves reading. She is the cleverest person in the school. My favourite chapter is the one where Bruce Bogtrotter eats all the chocolate cake. I love the picture of him afterwards, when he is happy and fat from all the cake, and he has beaten the Trunchbull. I also like the end of the book, because the Trunchbull thinks she is being haunted by the ghost of Miss Honey’s daddy. She gets very scared and runs away. Then Miss Honey lives in her house and adopts Matilda, and they live happily ever after. 

About the reviewer

Miranda Taylor is eight years old. She likes My Little Pony and reading. She has a twin sister called Rosalind. 

Review by Leonie Sturman of "The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood

There is always a scramble in the bookstores and online when Atwood brings out another of her books; this one was no exception. With Brooker’s Black Mirror haunting anyone watching it on Netflix, The Heart Goes Last would fit right into a chilling episode. 

This is probably not the book to start on if Atwood is new to you – her classics being the likes of The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin. However, this new book is engaging and frightening in its close-to-the-bone commentary on our current society. So much so, I had to put the book down for a week as I did not want it to end. 

In a state of homelessness, against the backdrop of a country in economic turmoil, protagonists Charmaine and Stan sign up for Consilience – an experiment in society. Even the beginning hooked me. Atwood has the eerie ability to hit the nail on the head when it comes to writing about what matters now in the world. Stan and Charmaine could be anyone. Two wanting-to-work individuals caught out by the lack of jobs and money in their community. 

Consilience feels like a dream, a new slate. For two months, they live in a happy 1950s-esque society filled with stuffy TV shows and happy faces. The next two, they swap it for the prison, where their jobs change. During that time, their ‘Alternates’ live in their shoes in their house and then swap to the prison when Stan and Charmaine come out after two months. Seems perfect? As with a great deal of Atwood…far from it!

Very soon Consilience starts to echo the totalitarian values of Stalin’s Communism or perhaps close to our own modern society of cameras and CCTV.

Soon, you have fallen down the Atwood rabbit hole full of Elvis and Marilyn sex robots, mass surveillance, patriarchy, sexuality and exploitation of identity. And look out for that blue teddy bear! There is always something hypnotic about Atwood’s prose and the way she weaves her themes throughout until they burst out of the pages, along with the chilling realisation that this is not so far from the world we live today. 

About the reviewer

Leonie Sturman is an English teacher specialising in teaching A-Level Creative Writing, and a part-time writer. She sometimes delves into performing her work in the sleepy county of Suffolk, often exploring the darker aspects of femininity and society ills.