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 CafĂ© 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.