Saturday 30 March 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "Disappearing Home" by Deborah Morgan

Disappearing Home is a poignant and beautifully-written novel told from the point of view of Robyn, a ten-year-old girl growing up in 1970s Liverpool. Home is the second floor of a tenement block known as Tommy Whites. Her parents send Robyn into a shop, and they expect her to steal everything on the list. This is the opening chapter of the novel; Robyn is more troubled by the dirty bag with the leather handles, worn and frayed down to the white wire that cuts into her hands. She does not want to steal but knows refusal is not an option.  

Robyn is a girl caught between love and hate, fear and family secrets, taking a dangerous journey to find out who she is, confront her feelings of being an outsider and find answers to her questions. Robyn learns the realities of life through her experiences of her parents, school, a Saturday job, friends, a local disco, enemies, her Nan’s love and the increasing cruelty she experiences at home. 

The novel follows Robyn through life-changing events, moving up into senior school and realising that people are not always who they appear to be. She begins to understand that her increasingly violent home life is not normal and sets out to try and find out why.

The voice of Robyn provides a truth and reality to the novel; her voice  makes the reader laugh at times and then feel the pain and fear she and her mother encounter. The love of Robyn’s Nan is demonstrated beautifully when Nan shares her coat with Robyn: ‘When we have finished eating, both of us share the coat, one sleeve each. With the empty cake box, we shuffle over to the bin, laughing, rolled tightly together, like a Twix.’

Ultimately Robyn wants to wake-up not feeling scared – and that’s also what we, as readers, want for her too.

About the reviewer
Sally 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. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog.   

Monday 25 March 2019

Review by Azra Limbada of "The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet" by Sam Meekings

The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet by Sam Meekings is a historical fiction novel that weaves in and out of both the imagined life of Peter Gachet, as well as providing a reflective commentary on the author’s journey of discovering and writing about the subject of Van Gogh’s famous painting. 

The novel focuses primarily on exploring the sadness captured in the painting, as well as attempting to trace its unique and elusive journey through the hands of investors and art collectors. Meekings skilfully portrays the inner turmoil of a man who felt out of place and out of time, and who consequently turned to the arts for comfort and escape. As the doctor explains at one point, he chose medicine since he ‘was not talented enough to be an artist,’ and this fascination with what art achieves, or tries to, is thoroughly examined throughout. 

For Meekings, the painting is of personal significance, explaining how a chance encounter with a small print of it left him feeling like there was ‘a tiny marble rolling around the inside of my skull.’ In many ways, the novel seeks to explore the connection between art and society in a philosophical fashion, traipsing a fine line between art as representational, and art as a means of individual communication between subject and viewer. As readers, we, too, explore the afterlives of Dr. Gachet, both as a door into a somewhat imagined past, as well as finding an individual human bond between him and ourselves. 

One slight drawback to the novel is the reminder the author continuously gives us of the fact that this is a piece of historical fiction and that there are plenty of incidents that cannot be written without some creative re-imagination. When approaching historical fiction, this is a given, and can take away from the sense of suspended belief a reader is accustomed to.  Often, it feels as though the author is trying to convince us that the application of this creative licence is okay but perhaps that is not necessary at all. We are already drawn into the world of Peter from the moment he faces his biggest hurdle, after he grievously injures himself at the start of the novel. Ultimately, as readers, we are happily prepared to let the author use whatever facts are at his disposal to re-create an otherwise compelling story, and one in which a young man tries ‘to be anything but a boy cursed with a mangled ankle and a relentless shyness.’

The Afterlives of Doctor Gachet artfully captures a glimpse into the life of a man whose lined face continues to stir emotions in its modern day viewers. You may not find the answer to whatever that elusive element is in this book, but you will understand better why it is so easy to relate to Doctor Gachet’s sadness, so clearly visible through the medium of colour and oil on canvas. 

About the reviewer Azra Limbada is an English PhD student, currently providing literacy intervention at an SEN school. She enjoys reading and writing women’s fiction in her spare time.

Review by Emma Lee of "Cloud River" by Charles Bennett

Charles Bennett's Cloud River explores the restorative values of spending time in the natural landscape. The title poem contains an invite: 

'Imagine stepping into, stepping onto,
a river in the sky: like a journey down a length of weather-music -
something being said without words.

Visible for a moment, then slowly blowing away,
a fusion of water and air, I make
a brief causeway across the blue.'

These are quiet moments of stillness, of being alone in nature but the focus and engagement is external. 

'Flatlander's Lullaby' makes effective use of consonance and assonance to give the poem an appropriately lyrical feel:

'Cruise my little skater across the pondback
              skim the dark water towards dawnlight.'

Later, a 'Fen Raft Spider' sits on the 

    'flimsy meniscus in a clockwork dance,
         until you read a beginning    
                         in the quiet deep. And then -

you open the page of water and do not stop
        until you have found out
                     what happens at the end.'

It's not the only poem to make a connection between nature and writing, exploring how close observation and the freedom of space allow creativity. These poems wear their craft lightly, drawing attention towards their images and messages so readers focus on what the poem is illustrating and conveying. Although all the poems are linked by theme, they vary in their rhythm, pacing and form so avoid the trap of similarity. Cloud River shows how quiet moments in the natural world open up a writer's mind to inspiration.

About the reviewer
Emma Lee’s recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015). The Significance of a Dress is forthcoming from Arachne. She co-edited Over Land, Over Sea (Five Leaves, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage Reviews and blogs at

Saturday 23 March 2019

Review by Sally Shaw of "Your Fault" by Andrew Cowan

It’s 1962 Your Earliest Memory - the opening chapter of Andrew Cowan’s novel Your Fault. The sun is shining and Peter’s older self settles on it being August and he is aged two and two thirds. The second person narrative draws the reader into a young Peter’s perspective, while allowing glimpses of an adult blueprint.

The novel spans a period of eleven years, Peter a year older with each chapter. The story depicts life lived on a Corporation housing estate on the edge of a New Town. And his earliest memory is also the point that Peter’s story both begins and ends. 

Peter’s mother has taken him and baby sister out; he does not want to go but is frightened of being abandoned: 'You bawl at your mother and wait for your future to reach you, a future you do not want but cannot prevent. This may be your inciting incident, the point at which your story begins. For now, let us suppose so. Here comes fury. Here comes a spanking.' Throughout the novel Peter strives to gain his mother’s affection, attention and approval, while his mother struggles with loneliness, being a wife, a mother and a young attractive woman drawn in by the attentions of male neighbours. 

His father is older than his mother and works at the Works; his affection, when he expresses it, is towards Peter’s sister. Peter gains insight into his father’s past and present, through items found in a box and a brown leatherette file. 

As the years pass, the reader witnesses major events in Peter’s life: going to school, Butlin’s, family upsets, childhood injuries, sibling rivalry, friendships, burgeoning sexual awareness. Beneath family life simmers unspoken truths, misunderstandings and hidden emotions, leaving Peter to work it all out.      

About the reviewer
Sally 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 also inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose piece, 'A School Photograph,' has been published online by NEWMAG. She worked as a nurse for thirty-three years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three pekin bantams and Bob the dog

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930" by Jonathan Taylor

I have long been an advocate of creative writers becoming more involved in the fusty old world of academic writing, so it was with great pleasure that I saw that Jonathan Taylor had written Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840–1930, published by Palgrave Macmillan, knowing from experience that this would be an extremely well written book that flowed and was attractive to the reader.

I was not disappointed. Taking three of the subjects closest to my heart, Taylor writes with well-researched prowess about Laughter, Literature and Violence through the gaze of philosophers, academics, writers, Ancient Greeks, Romans, poets, politicians, soldiers, churchmen, the list is almost endless.

In Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930 we see the convoluted relationship between laughter, violence, war, horror and death. This through an inventive line of enquiry via philosophy and politics, and then in a study of four texts, by Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Gosse, Wyndham Lewis and Katherine Mansfield - four amazingly diverse and complicated characters who are brought to life by Taylor. We learn that laughter and violence are forever interlinked, from the pratfall to the explosion of guffaws at a friend’s demise. We can’t help ourselves and Taylor carefully explains why. 

We investigate a founding comic text, The Pickwick Papers, and how Schadenfreude intrudes into the English language and changes comic writing for ever. Schadenfreude is such an intense feeling that we had to invent (or import) a word for it.

Taylor does not write above his audience. He looks them straight in the eye and invites them to take part in the conversation. He engages the reader and doesn’t try to point score or write to an intellectual elite. Not for him pretentious authority but an engaging narrative wordcraft that wants us, the reader, to be part of his discussion and discovery. This is the beauty of having a gifted creative writer producing an academic text. It is readable and accessible.

The book is painstakingly researched over five years with a plethora of footnotes asking us to read further into his enquiries. The depth and richness of his research reflects his love for the subject. This is a text for the academic to help him or her to interrogate and to investigate and a book for the interested party, who enjoys the subject. Both are well served. It is not too academic to put off the casual reader, yet it has enough gravitas to educate and intrigue.

The book ended and I wanted to know more. I wanted to plunge into this strange world where we laugh in the face of violence. Where sadness is disabused by jokes. Where all are equal, and equally absurd, especially the man who slips on the floor.

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 Waterstone's 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 1 March 2019

Review by Hilary Hares of "Family Matters: An Anthology of New Writing," edited by Fiona Linday

As Michael Attenborough, CBE, says in the Foreword to this slim volume, ‘our basic human right to communicate with one another lies at the centre of what humanizes and civilizes us.’ The Family Matters project in Leicester sought to facilitate this goal by promoting previously unpublished writers and stripping away barriers to communication.  

In a series of workshops, around twenty local participants were encouraged by studying the work of established writers, sharing writing tips and practising techniques to hone their skills. The result is a colourful mix of short stories and poems pulled together through the common link of family – a topic which means such different things to all of us. Here it has been tackled in a variety of ways – from what’s putting a daughter off her food to the trials and tribulations of a family of bricks!   

Collaborative efforts can sometimes result in an ill-matched hotch-potch but this one reads as a cohesive whole.  Despite the inexperience of these new voices, what strikes me is their confidence and enthusiasm to bring their chosen subject matter to life on the page. I am equally impressed by the colloquial tone which runs throughout. Nothing tries too hard but is delivered with a light touch which still pays meticulous attention to craft and detail. 

These writers have clearly been guided by skilful hands and the joy of communicating really shines through in every contribution. Here’s hoping this experience will give them the encouragement they need to expand and develop their talents even further. 

About the Reviewer
Hilary Hares lives in Farnham, Surrey, and spent nearly thirty years using the power of words to raise money for charity.  She has an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Manchester Metropolitan University and her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon, is sold in support of Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care.