Wednesday 20 September 2017

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "StarMark" by Katherine Hetzel

As a creative writer myself, and one already drafting a cycle of children’s stories, I came to this novel with a keen interest in seeing how an established author manages to appeal to both adults and younger readers alike. In StarMark, Katherine Hetzel manages this difficult tightrope walk with apparent ease. The fantasy world of Koltam is brimming with original myths and legends that appear to have their roots in Pagan and Celtic lore, but have a distinct character all their own. 

The central appeal of the novel though lies in the author’s careful crafting of a simple, yet engaging tale of one girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood, and all that implies.  Irvana is both brave and determined, highly likeable and appeals to all readers. She’s an excellent role-model for younger girls, particularly, in that she proves both fallible and willing to learn from her mistakes, whilst never appearing vulnerable. 

Hetzel’s profound skill is in presenting Irvana and those around her with a series of perils and encounters that develop the characters, but also encourage you to devour this short tome in one or two sittings. The dialogue is snappy and well-observed, as are the passages of description, which never detract from the immediacy of the action; the cast of antagonists are even given their own space to develop a connection with the reader, and this helps younger minds consider the grey shades of morality, not just its contrasting tones. I look forward to reading more by Hetzel, and seeing her expand this specific universe still further, taking her developing fan base with her. 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the discipline of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University, His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Review by Lee Wright of "Death and the Seaside" by Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s novels feature no demons or monsters. Yet behind every closed door she makes you hear unsettling noises. Those noises are made by people. And hell is other people.    

A closeness to the real, day-to-day, small desperate lives filled with nothing moments. Characters who take unfulfilled, uncomfortable breaths. Her first two novels, The Lighthouse and He Wants, are close to the Southern Gothic tune of Carson McCullers. Like the girl from Georgia, Moore takes alienated individuals, and plunges them into unnatural societies, where they are experimented on by the shadier side of humanity. 

Her main protagonist in The Lighthouse, Futh, bares resemblance to McCullers’ deaf-mute, John Singer in McCullers’ stand out work of fiction, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Both men are isolated from within and longing for something they cannot get back. Both await lonely ends. Moore has made sure that the quarrelling tick has bitten and embedded itself in each character she invents. 

For her most recently published novel, Death and the Seaside, we discover the story of the milk skinned, failed writer that is Bonnie Falls (with Moore, there is always something in a name). Hers is a life left unfinished in every sense. Abandoned degree, missed chances, and underwhelming, overbearing parents. A would-be writer whose time is taken up by a disparaging cleaning job at a pharmaceutical building. Until the day she becomes involved with her scrutinising landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Then, Bonnie’s timid existence begins to collapse like a sandcastle beneath the tide. 

All of Moore’s novels are short and they linger like a vivid nightmare. At times, Death and the Seaside can appear like an interrogation of other novels (Irving’s The World According to Garp, Camus’ The Outsider, and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea among others are given a direct mention). 

And the ocean, or at least the appeal of it, is a recurring theme throughout Moore’s work (John Irving has his bears). In The Lighthouse, Futh crosses it. Lewis Sullivan in He Wants longs for it. And Bonnie Falls visits it.   

By the time Bonnie drives away from the encroaching sea, we are left with the slow burning pay off, questions are answered and our protagonist’s future far from certain.

In a time when most novels rely on formula, and great authors such as John Fowles, Raymond Carver and Carson McCullers are rarely talked about (outside of the wider read), Alison Moore, like DBC Pierre (Breakfast with the Borgias), represents a breed of writer who succeeds in painting a portrait of the inept and naïve side of human nature. Do not get too close to this kind of author, for they leave permanent scars. 

And long may they reign.  

About the reviewer 
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.

Review by Robert Richardson of “Seurat To Riley: The Art Of Perception” at Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire. 8 July – 1 October 2017

Degas famously stated ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’ Seurat, his contemporary, responding to colour theories of his day took more direct action. His Pointillism juxtaposed individual brush strokes of contrasting colours to create shimmering effects. In addition to paintings by Seurat, the opening room of this excellent Compton Verney exhibition has a painting by that icon of 1960s art, Bridget Riley. This sets the agenda for her pervasive presence. Although the organisation of the artworks is mostly chronological, this is occasionally broken, but always with an intelligent thematic purpose in mind.

The exhibition proposes other precursors of 60s Op Art: the mathematical compositions of M.C. Escher and dynamic responses to machine movement by the Vorticist Helen Saunders. Perhaps more significant is Josef Albers. Better known for his investigations of colour, he is also represented here with compositions based on shapes and lines, their angles and varying thicknesses producing optical illusions of depth. As a leading member of the Bauhaus, it should not be a surprise that Albers approached optics with a combination of rationality and experiment.

When I visited this exhibition, I also attended a talk by Dr Frances Follin, who co-curated it with Compton Verney’s Penny Sexton. She presented some of her fascinating research on the reception of Riley’s work in the 1960s. One of the hot debates at the time was the position of mathematics and science in relation to Op Art. There were apparently scientists eager to escape the intrusion of art into their activities, thinking its populism might swamp their more serious intentions. Riley was going in the other direction, basing her art on an aesthetic of perception and an intuition that did not have mathematics or science as its basis (no matter how much it might be possible for others to interpret it in those terms). 

Riley’s technical realisations, through drawing, painting and printing media, are superb and part of her integrity as a leading artist. Her earliest works in black and white are stunning. To stand in front of Fail (1963) and Over (1966) is to experience the wobbling of visual perception and, even more incredibly, colours not physically present can nevertheless emerge. Her work is an invitation for the viewer to experience change and transformation. As with other Op Art work, this can bring about disorientation, but reality becoming unfixed is also exhilarating.

Fall by Bridget Riley

Follin’s talk expanded on the exhibition text that cited Op Art as part of a post-1945 movement towards greater participation in the making of art. Contemporaneous with 1960s “Happenings” Op Art led back to two dimensions that involved active perceptions of the viewer. It might be argued that visual art had always done this, but it had never before achieved it in such a heightened and powerful way. 

Although Riley predominates, there are plenty of wonderful artworks by other artists, notably Victor Vasarely, equal in importance to Riley, and someone more accepting of the mathematical. The paintings of British artist Peter Sedgley were a revelation to me. They are both majestic and subtle. He deliberately presents us with an out of focus effect, and our eyes conditioned to focus are nudged into perceptual movement.  He also uses colour, which of course Riley, after her classic black and white Op Art, also has as central to her practice.

The Venezuelan artists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jésus Rafael Soto combined Kinetic Art with Op Art, and our own bodies are the kinetic element: giving the artworks Op Art movements by walking along them. A 2008 sculpture by Liliane Lyjn actually does spin round, and in doing so lines that are part of it move vertically without moving: it is perceptual illusion. The title is Clear Red Koan, with Koan being that Zen puzzle which creates doubt and paradox as a way towards truth.

Op Art still looks fresh and also continues to have an influence on some of today’s artists, as shown in the final rooms, with impressive work by Jim Lambie and the more established Daniel Buren. The exhibition ends with Lothar Götz taking over the walls of an entire room. With Salon Diagonale (Compton Verney), he has responded with shapes and colours to the architecture of the room and the Capability Brown parkland visible from its windows.  

This exhibition has received considerable press coverage and rave reviews, and rightly so. Anecdotally, at the end of the 90s I visited an exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool: a survey of British twentieth century art. From that selection, I thought Bridget Riley was one of the standout artists. It was a suitable judgment, because Riley and Op Art are not just about perception, but affirmation too.

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 has recently exhibited online with the Paris/Barcelona based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. 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). His website is