Thursday, 19 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Interview with Ambrose Musiyiwa

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

He is the author of The Gospel According to Bobba

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

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

You can also read some of his work here and here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After these introductory remarks come the poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How did the launch go?

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

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

Q: What happens next?

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

Monday, 5 August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Review by Lisa Williams of "Checkout" by Kathy Gee

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

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

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

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

About the Reviewer

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

Monday, 17 June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 June 2019

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

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

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

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

About the reviewer
Charis Buckingham predominately writes Young Adult and historical fiction, and loves to sing and read. She lives in Leicester, having recently graduated from the University of Leicester with an MA in Creative Writing.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Midnight Laughter" by Paul McDonald

Midnight Laughter: an interesting title, not in this collection of seventeen stories, of flash and short fiction. As I read through the stories I recorded my one word response as I finished the last word:


So we now have a poem that we can call Midnight Laughter

Why would a man shrink until he is the size of a dot and then be swallowed by his wife? Isn’t it spiteful to get a mouse to chew through the heel of a loud woman so as to humiliate her, and then to feel so guilty you wake up and vomit at causing her shame? A man with a mistress has a heart attack as he lies next to the wife that he loves. Does this serve him right? Or is it perfect irony as it is the mistress who is the hypochondriac? There's a smiling peaceful bus passenger who resolves to hurt an old woman who dared to question his morals: she was proved right in the end, but at what a cost? Every story leaves the reader asking a question and then re-reading. How? Why? What the devil?

This is the perfect collection for someone who wants to read and think, to get something out of the time they put in to reading: weird and wonderful, seductive and strange. This collection makes you question, makes you think, makes you ask, “What mysterious place did McDonald get these ideas from?”

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Review by Lee Wright of "Fighters, Losers" by Declan Ryan

In one of the most important scenes from 1976’s Rocky, Sylvester Stallone stands in the centre of the ring the night before his fight against Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. As he looks up at the giant poster of himself, wearing red shorts with a white stripe, the boxing promoter walks down the aisle of seats towards him:
'The poster’s wrong,' says Rocky. 
'What do you mean?' asks the promoter. 
'I’m going to be wearing white pants with a red strip.' 
The promoter looks up at the poster, smiles and takes a puff on his cigar.
'Doesn’t really matter, does it?'    

It sounds stupid to compare a gritty 70’s Hollywood drama with a newly published poetry pamphlet - Fighters, Losers, by Declan Ryan -  but both are about the same thing: boxing. In each you can feel the delicious anger of what it means to be both a fighter and a loser in the same breath.

Every punch Ryan throws in this spit bucket of poetry hits the reader square on the jaw. Written in a reportage style, he takes on some of the key fights in the history of boxing, such as the 1986 WBC Heavyweight title fight between champion Trevor Berbick and Mike Tyson. 

Ryan counts down Tyson’s age in years, months and days, like the minutes in a round. Tyson is said to be trying to punch Berbick’s nose bone into his brain. But the poem, 'The Young God of The Catskills I,' is not so much about Tyson as it is about the doomed Trevor Berbick: the boy from Port Antonio who became a world champion, who lost only eleven from his sixty-one professional fights, and who died at the hands of his twenty-year-old nephew, bludgeoned and left to die alone in a churchyard.  

This collection also concerns the fight of race. On a February night in Miami Beach, Sonny (The Big Bear) Liston fought underdog, Cassius (Muhammed Ali) Clay. With Malcolm X at ringside and the spectre of the Black Muslims on his shoulder, Clay danced around Liston, who is rumoured to have been drinking heavily the night before. Here, Ryan uses facts to beautifully capture the electricity of the time:

At the weigh-in, Clay’s pulse 
was 120 beats per minute. 
The doctor said ‘he’s scared to death.' 

And about Liston: 

One commentator’s written ‘Liston used to be a hoodlum; 
now he is our cop;
he is the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.'
Ryan does not pull any punches when examining racial and religious attitudes. There is even the echo of the late William Melvin Kelly about the language and something slightly absurdist about a man who hurts others for money while sporting a tattoo of Christ the Redeemer on his back. But the nine poems that make up Fighters, Losers are not only for those who follow the world of boxing. They are a combination of descriptive, moving and, at times, darkly humorous narratives of men whose only real strategy was to survive.      

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.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Review by Lisa Smalley of “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

I discovered Pat Barker through her early novels Union Street and Blow Your House Down. Never before had I been confronted with such candid descriptions of the brutality one human being can enact upon another. The themes of trauma and survival in her narratives were compelling and, as such, made her the perfect author for the retelling of the Iliad from the female perspective. In the female tradition, Barker writes back and uncovers the story behind the celebrated men of Homer’s original poem: the girls.

Briseis, the queen of Lyrnessus, is our protagonist in this retelling of the Trojan War. She bears witness to the slaughter of her family at the hands of Achilles and his men, before the sack and destruction of the city. The women are then herded into the streets from their hiding place. Some are raped, children are murdered until finally they are taken to the Greek camp to be awarded as slaves and concubines to the same men who destroyed their homes and murdered their families.

True to her roots, Barker is meticulous in her description and paints with jarring detail the rising fear of the women hiding together while the Greeks invade their homes. As ‘the smells of sweaty bodies, of milk, baby shit and menstrual blood, … become almost unbearable,’ it is clear that the narrative is positioned at the heart of the female experience: their fears, their bodies and the atrocities they must endure.

Briseis is central to the events of the Iliad, yet only her beauty is mentioned fleetingly in the epic poem. Barker subverts Homer’s glorious war and shifts focus to its victims. Briseis’ numbness in the face of her trauma is beautifully expressed in the narrative, while the treatment and powerlessness of women is thoroughly explored with disturbing effect. 

It isn’t pretty, but stories of the horror and survival of war rarely are. The Silence of the Girls is a fitting tribute to the women who suffered and lived on in silent acceptance, as so many still do today.

About the Reviewer

Lisa Smalley is a copywriter, blogger, and mother of two lovely monsters. She is currently studying an MA in English Studies at the University of Leicester.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Review by Esme Smalley of the “Harry Potter” series by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter books are the best I have read. The excitement in these books made me feel warm inside and makes me want to be a witch every time I read them. The spells and animagi are really fun, and I think they are good books an 8 to 9 year-old could read. I love how they use personification, for example, ‘Harry felt a great leap of excitement’ (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).  I like the peculiar words like ‘Mandrake’ and ‘wolfsbane.’  

Professor Albus Dumbledore is the nicest teacher you could ever meet and is one of my favourite characters. There are lots of great characters like Severus Snape (who used to be a death eater), Draco Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange.

My favourite book in the Harry Potter series is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because finding out the answers to the mysteries is really fun, especially the whole Shrieking Shack part. I got scared in The Chamber of Secrets when Mrs. Norris (Filche’s cat) gets petrified and there was writing on the wall written in blood.

All the books in the series are so good. I have recommended these books to lots of my school friends and they have become fans of Harry Potter too.


About the Reviewer
Esme is nine years old going on twenty and enjoys reading, writing and playing with her little sister.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Afterlives" by Philip Tew

Isn’t literature a wonderful thing?

In April this year, I saw a post on the University of Leicester Creative Writing Facebook page from former student Phil Tew advertising the fact that he had just published a novel.

Phil Tew. Was that the Phil Tew I taught with in 1978 in our first teaching jobs? I messaged him, it was, friendship renewed.

When teaching, Phil always spoke about writing his novel and it was always clear he had the talent to do so. Afterlives is the proof of this: a novel about writing a novel.

That's what it is on the surface, but it is so much more. Part memoir, part road trip, part fiction, it tells of how Jim Dent plans to write about his dead friends and highlights his friendships with well-known Leicester authors, Sue Townsend, Graham Joyce and Chris Challis. We read of the collapse of a marriage, the fears for a life in academia and the pressures that brings, so relevant today in the factionalised market economy of UK Higher Education. We see the effects of Margaret Thatcher on society and how we are now tragically picking up the pieces of those days and their effects on the vulnerable.

There are nods to Ginsberg, Basil Bunting and Steve Knapper as Tew writes about who he knew and what he experienced. The mix of fact and fiction is mesmerising as Tew writes in a flow of consciousness, all against a searing backcloth of the world as it was and the world as it is now. I loved this as it is of my time and I recognised so much of Leicester in those halcyon days of student life and first jobs.

Afterlives is a poignant description of a life passed. Was it a life wasted or is there more to come? We have to make our own judgement on that score. But this is a relevant, evocative portrait of a Leicester past and a London present.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Review by Lisa Smalley of “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

As we celebrate the 200th birthday of poet and author, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), it seems fitting to review one of his most famous poems. Song of Myself (1892 version) was originally found in Leaves of Grass (1855) and delivers an enduring message of equality and a reminder that humanity's past, present, and future are rooted in the earth.

I can't imagine a more appropriate poem to rediscover at a time when we stand on the cusp of a changing world. The sentiment of the poem is evocative of tribe and inclusion, "as every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Where walls and borders of all kinds are constantly debated on the global platform this poem calls across the ages, setting aside the "Creeds and schools" which limit individual potential. Indeed, Whitman quickly discards the constraints of iambic pentameter to allow his words room to breathe in free form.

Experience, both good and bad is the lesson here to achieve true self-awareness. Life, after all, is "stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine," but it’s all good stuff according to Whitman and he encourages us to absorb as much as we can, to live truly and fully.

The message of freedom and equality is as important today as when it was first written. As climate change pushes our world ever closer to ecological devastation, laws to control women's bodies are made and far-right violence increases in the wake of Brexit, more than ever do we need to feel a connection and empathy with one another through even the smallest "spear of summer grass." The simplicity of Whitman's message to "resist anything better than my own diversity, Breathe the air but leave plenty after me," helps to make sense of it all. We will all die, but first, we must live and play our small part in the bigger picture of life. Regardless of gender, colour or religion, our role on this planet and its role in our creation is all part of the "perpetual journey" of existence.

Song of Myself is a moving and beautiful message of hope. I urge everyone to read and enjoy it in celebration of Walt Whitman's life and work.

About the Reviewer
Lisa Smalley is a copywriter, blogger, and mother of two lovely monsters. She is currently studying an MA in English Studies at the University of Leicester.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Review by Ava Smalley of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" by J. K. Rowling

In the book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, a giant named Rubeus Hagrid tells Harry that he is a wizard and he has a place at a school called Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I was so excited to read the first Harry Potter book that I almost dropped it! After I read it for the first time, I felt really happy and excited to read the next one.​

My favourite part was chapter seventeen: "The Man With Two Faces." Harry looks into The Mirror of Erised and sees himself placing the Philosopher's Stone into his pocket. I felt like I knew something that Voldemort didn't and I didn't want to put the book down because I wanted to know what would happen next. After I knew what would happen next, I wanted to read on to the end.​

My least favourite part was when Voldemort hit Harry and knocked him out. It made me feel frightened of what would happen next.​

I would recommend this book because once you start reading, you can't stop because it's that fascinating. ​


About the Author

Ava is eight years old and enjoys reading, writing, singing, and dancing. But not all at the same time.

Review by Victoria Pickup of "The Dragon Lady" by Louisa Treger

Opening with the shooting of the mysterious Dragon Lady in 1950s Rhodesia, as seen through the bewildered eyes of a young girl, the reader’s curiosity is immediately piqued - and Louisa Treger does not disappoint. 

The story unravels the life of Lady Virginia (Genie) Courtauld; her personal dramas and progression from an insecure social climber to a woman of fortitude and power, whose compassion and quest for equality both captivate and appal in equal measure. Indeed, she evokes the same reaction as her namesake, the snake tattoo coiled about her leg: ‘A savage thing … its head rearing up, jaws open, ready to strike. People whispered that it went from her ankle right the way up her thigh.’  

The story spans several decades and locations, focusing upon periods of dramatic social and cultural change, from the Italian Riviera in the early 20th century, through two World Wars and eventually settling in a politically and racially heated Rhodesia. The journey is vivid, rich and exciting. The author paints each scene with great detail, including descriptions both horrific and exotic in Genie’s Rhodesia, working to build atmosphere, all of which results in parts of the book being utterly transportive and immersive. The exquisite decadence of Genie and her second husband Stephen’s home, La Rochelle, is captured beautifully, with its elaborate furnishings and tropical garden, itself steeped in beauty and melancholia. 

The way Treger builds her characters is equally detailed and complex with constant reveals and shifts in perspective. Unfolding each individual and relationship like a bouquet of delicate flowers, the unfurling of petals teases and entices the reader, with each character becoming more raw and more real as the story unwinds. One of the highlights of the book is Treger’s portrayal of Genie’s delightful lemur Jongy, who is beautifully brought to life, and the depth of feeling that exists between monkey and master becomes crucial to both characterisation and plot.

It is particularly fascinating how Treger portrays the famed individuals in her story: Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson feature during Genie and Stephen’s time at Eltham Palace in London. Herself a controversial figure whose role as the foreign divorcee bore parallels with Genie, this book touches on a lesser explored avenue amongst the publicity received by Mrs Simpson. We also meet a young Robert Mugabe, a strong but silent minor character with a powerful presence, albeit aided by what we know of his impact on the future of Zimbabwe.   

It comes as no surprise to find that this novel has its roots firmly set in fact. The reality versus the fictional element of this story takes us on a jolting ride, as we soak in the glamour and fantastical description, then find ourselves brought back to reality with an uncomfortable bump – particularly when the lens is focused upon the conflicts arising between the white farming community and Africa’s repressed natives. 

Treger delicately entwines these truths with the vines of her imagination, explorative and stretching out to bring to life the very real tale of this extraordinary couple, and their life in Africa. Highly evocative and ultimately haunting, The Dragon Lady is a story of fascinating people and places in the most testing of times and situations. The shift of change underfoot and the knowledge the reader has in their pocket of what is to come lend a sinister edge to this heart-rending and captivating story. 

About the reviewer

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

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Review by Robert Richardson of "The Light of Day" by Graham Swift

By producing a literary novel in which the main character and narrator, George Webb, is a private detective, Graham Swift with The Light of Day sets up a relationship to the genre of crime writing. He is, though, not aiming at satire or parody, but an exploration of knowing and understanding. Swift’s imagination and the sheer quality of his writing achieve what seems, at times, to be an extended prose poem. His technique is to drip-feed information to the reader, to provide an experience of gradually making sense after an initial ignorance, and narrative description is melded with his own brand of stream of consciousness recollection.

As with other Swift novels, a complex, elliptical structure hinges on a single day: the second anniversary of when Sarah Nash, one of George’s clients, murdered her husband. George, in love with Sarah and regularly visiting her in prison, has, at her request, agreed to put flowers on the grave. We accompany him as he does this. It is followed by a visit to Sarah and a journey back to his office that includes stopping at the street of Sarah’s former house, where the murder took place. Interspersed with this are chapters that incorporate a non-linear collage of memories consisting of his encounters with Sarah, and the day of the murder, when he was employed by her to follow, secretly, her husband, Bob, and his Croatian lover, Kristina, to Heathrow, from where Kristina will be returning to her own country. It is an agreed “concession” that Bob may accompany Kristina before the marriage resumes. George is to report back to Sarah that Kristina does indeed leave. This he confirms by phone, and we are told that Sarah is preparing to welcome Bob home by cooking their favourite meal. The “hook” is to find out what occurred for her to end up in prison, since the meal was unserved and instead she stabbed her husband to death.

George also thinks of other, older, memories: his ex-wife and their daughter; his parents and childhood; and events leading to his dismissal from the police. Through these accretions of memory, Swift skilfully portrays George’s life, to be offset against the extreme and catastrophic event and effects of the murder. The Swift trademark of the family secret also appears and involves George’s father. 

Swift’s presentation of George’s voice is pitch-perfect, sympathetically adopting the persona of a basically decent man, though not without faults. His police background gives him resilience, but he also has the insecurity, sometimes present in the lower middle class, of being aware that he lacks a satisfactory level of formal education. He adopts self-improvement that takes the form of learning gourmet cooking, and on his prison visits he takes writing for Sarah, who had worked as a college lecturer, to correct. This has a psychological resonance with regard to their relationship, which is all the more powerful for not being analysed. 

A detective is concerned with evidence, but Swift shows that this is a partial and inadequate summation of experience, and often we cannot account for the motivations of others beyond our own speculations. His perceptions have a downbeat numbness, but there is some hope in George’s commitment, bordering on devotion, to Sarah, which, given the little contact they had before the murder and her imprisonment, approaches the inexplicable and escapes explanations by the merely factual. 

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Friday, 10 May 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "Thirteen Months of Sunrise" by Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

Thirteen Months Of Sunrise is the debut short story collection of Sudanese author, journalist and activist Rania Mamoun. The ten stories take the reader on a journey through Sudan, from the Nile Basin to Khartoum. 

Mamoun’s writing evokes the gentle courage of her Sudanese characters, and an awareness of their strength, humour and the difficulties they encounter, in their day-to-day lives. Her beautiful, simplistic, yet at times mesmerising writing is threaded through with powerful emotions. In "Passing," the emotions of loss and regret are explored at the end of a life: “I fall silent, unable to respond. Or perhaps it’s the disappointment flowing through his words that leaves me mute.” The story is beautifully told, and explores the extremes of life and death: “My nieces and nephews race in and out, delighted with their new clothes, Eid sweets never leaving their mouths. They rush up to me, all abuzz.” This is a story that readers from all around the world will understand and form a bond with.

Humour, tension, apprehension among the passengers on a bus to Khartoum are all apparent in "Cities And Other Cities"; by the end of the journey, one passenger makes a discovery and forms an unusual if brief friendship. The simple beginning to this story has both a comic and profound meaning, and the reader too wants to take a seat on this bus: “At that point something evil awoke inside me: anger, hatred, the desire to kill. I slapped the fly as hard as I could, but it backfired and I hit myself square in the face. The fly slowly zig-zagged away before dropping from the air. I leant forward and took a long, hard look at it. I started to feel bad for the fly, especially as I’d also been caught in the crossfire. I thought it was dead, so scolded myself for killing it, and felt even worse.” By the end of the bus journey, the reader will have experienced the sights, sounds, and cultures of fellow travellers as the story arrives at its final destination.

The beautifully told "One-Room Sorrows" conveys, in a few words, the emotion of heartbreak and then, with a twist, a mother’s uncertainty. "Stray Steps" is a modern, real-life fairy-tale of wonder and hope in a world that at first glance appears desolate and cruel: “I don’t care what they do with my body, they don’t have much desire for it anyway.” At times, this story is almost too grim but then a spark of light - one of Mamoun's skills as a writer -  encourages the reader to continue to the end, and be rewarded for persevering.

The collection is at times difficult to read, as it requires the reader to pause and consider the meanings. But the reward for reading this collection of ten stories is in meeting new people living in a country that holds stories that need to be told. Above all, the stories demonstrate  how similar we all are. 

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, and she is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by NewMag, and her story 'Cherry Scones' was published online by Ink Pantry. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.   

Friday, 12 April 2019

Review by Louise Brown of "Between the Lines" by Matthew Bright and Christopher Black

Between The Lines is an unusual and charming love story between a lonely Victorian gentleman and a sad young girl living two centuries later. Dashby is uninterested in the female suitors in his life, while Beth has become jaded by the modern world of dating and casual relationships. She types a bleak text after soulless sex with her ex, although she doesn’t intend to send it, and when she wakes the next day she discovers it has been sent to an unknown recipient. It then mysteriously arrives in the form of a letter to Dashby. He replies to her by letter and she receives it as an email. The ensuing texts, emails and letters become a sort of time travel with both characters traversing the ages and communicating with the other.

The stories intertwine cleverly, and they start to sit side by side on the same page as each narrator tells their story in step with the other. In the 21st century Beth has some terrible sex, and in Dashby’s tale he is being pursued by a keen female admirer who, after he spills hot tea on himself, then insists on trying to dry the stain by rubbing him with a cloth.

The authors repeat this mirroring technique in each story until they merge and coalesce into one  whole. This method of story-telling makes you think about how the real stuff of human existence, matters of the heart that is, never change over the centuries, and speak to the human condition of wanting to find a soul-mate and someone to love. I became immediately invested in both characters and was willing them to overcome the boundaries of time so that each character could have their fairy-tale ending. The writing is beautiful and the form skilful and innovative, and I recommend this original and inventive publication to any reader.  

About the reviewer
Louise Brown is studying for her MA at the University of Leicester. She started writing in the summer of 2018, believing that it is never too late to start something new, and will have her poem 'The Deep Blue' published in Acumen in May 2019. She is writing poetry, short stories and is also working on the first draft of her novel. She lives on a farm in Rutland, and is kept busy working as an employment solicitor, while also writing, reading and looking after her three children.