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.