Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "Scratched Enamel Heart" by Amanda Huggins




Scratched Enamel Heart is a collection of twenty-four short stories by Amanda Huggins, recent winner of the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry collection for The Collective Noun for Birds (Maytree Press, 2020). 

‘Where the Sky Starts,’ the first story in the collection, opens with a beautifully descriptive sentence: 'If you stood on the pier with your back to the sea, looked beyond the beached fishing cobbles, past the cottages, away to the south of the steelworks, you would see a bright green ribbon of land.' This sets the tone for the entire collection, which is rich in description of setting, whether it be the 'golden domes gleam[ing] under a bright autumn sky' in Russia (‘Nothing like Letter to Brezhnev’) or 'the manicured profile of each tree mirrored in the still water until a single dappled fish broke the surface' in Japan (‘A Potential Husband’).  

Themes running throughout are love and loss, often teetering on a knife’s edge between the two. In ‘Part of Sami, Part of Malik,’ Malik cares for Sami like a son even though they 'hadn’t known each other back home,' but when Sami’s mother resurfaces 'Malik began to drown in the ocean of blood pounding in his ears.' In ‘Uncanny,’ Alan has his hopes raised by a waitress in a café, only to have them dashed again. The tension between the couple in ‘Listing’ is immediately apparent, their 'smiles brittle' as they eat 'overcooked sole and yesterday’s bread.'

Interspersed with the longer stories are flash fiction stories, tight and terse, capturing pivotal moments in the characters’ lives. In two of the flash fiction stories, ‘Strong, Not Rough’ and ‘Pretty,’ the main characters are young and Huggins has captured teenage angst and inadequacy to perfection.  

Scratched Enamel Heart is a beautiful collection that will take you on a journey through time, across land and sea, and deep into the hearts of her characters. 


About the reviewer
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. She tweets @laurabesley



You can read another review of Scratched Enamel Heart on Everybody's Reviewing here.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Interview with Thomas McColl



Thomas McColl lives in London, and currently works at the House of Commons, having previously worked in bookselling. He's had poems published in magazines such as Envoi, Iota, Prole, Atrium, Rising and Ink, Sweat and Tears, and in anthologies by Eyewear, Hearing Eye and Shoestring Press. His first collection of poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, was published in 2016 by Listen Softly London Press, and his second collection, Grenade Genie, is out now with Fly on the Wall Press. His website is https://thomasmccoll.wordpress.com/




Interviewed by Matt Nunn

MN: How have you arrived at this point? Is this your first collection?  What is your writing history, have you been around for a while, or have you suddenly caught the poetry bug and unleashed yourself upon the public?

TM: I seem to have arrived at this point via a circuitous route, having taken a few wrong turns along the way – but, one way or another, I guess it could be said I’ve been around a while. At any rate, I’m now 49 and living in London, and my first publication was when I was 17 and still living in Birmingham – a poem in the West Midlands Arts magazine, People to People, for which I was paid the princely sum (at the time) of £10 – and things went downhill from there for quite a few years. I kept writing – short stories as well as poems – but couldn’t get any placed in magazines. 

Then I began to concentrate solely on poetry and, by the mid to late 90s, was starting to get poems published in reputable magazines such as Rising, The Big Spoon, The Affectionate Punch and Purple Patch, and in 2000 I published a 20-page pamphlet called The Beast in the Bag with Poetry Monthly Press, which received favourable reviews in magazines like Iota, Fire and The Frogmore Papers

After that, there was another long period of drought – partly caused by me switching to writing novels and short stories and, though the novels never got placed, the short stories, over the past 10 years, have been published in many print and online magazines, such as Liars’ League, Bare Fiction and Smoke: A London Peculiar. I’ve also been more consistent with performing live – getting myself out there, in terms of reading both short stories and poetry, and getting featured at festivals such as Newham Word Festival, Wolverhampton Arts Festival, Winchester Fest and the Faversham Fringe – and I’ve now had two collections of poetry published, one in 2016 by Listen Softly London Press, called Being With Me Will Help You Learn, and now, in 2020, my second, called Grenade Genie, with Fly on the Wall Press. 

Being With Me Will Help You Learn was quite eclectic, a kind of greatest hits of my best poems from the past 20 years, whereas Grenade Genie is definitely a much more deliberate, focussed collection – which, I guess, leads quite nicely on to the next question …

MN: Whilst there is no narrative arc linking the poems together into a narrative whole, there is nonetheless a unifying feel to the collection; all the poems seem to belong together and in their own way collate into a whole. Did you plan the book as one collection from the start, or did you write the poems individually and found you eventually had a collection with a theme?

TM: I did write the poems individually, but I guess I was starting to write more and more poems which were definitely more political and trying to make sense of the world we’re in, and I soon discovered along the way that a fair number of the poems I’d been writing could form the basis of a broadly themed, cohesive collection. 

At any rate, over the past couple of years, there’d been this fairly firmed-up manuscript called Grenade Genie (even if the poems, and the order they were in, kept changing – and, at one point, the name of the collection changed as well). However, it was only pretty much just before I submitted to Fly on the Wall, that I came up with the subtitle, '25 Brief Studies of the Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted,' and split the manuscript into those corresponding four sections.

MN: There’s also very much a sense in the collection that it is about someone battling against the odds through a darkened city. Is that deliberate? And is it all written in the voice of a single person? If, so, who, or is it you, or at least a version of you? Or is it a collection of disparate voices, all trying to make sense of their times and surroundings?

TM: There is definitely some of me in all the poems, in terms of experience or viewpoint, or both. The one poem that’s completely autobiographical is ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988,’ whereas the other poems contain some of me in them but ultimately represent different voices, in varying situations. 

At the same time, I think it is true that all these disparate voices do represent someone: the voice of, as you say, ‘someone battling against the odds through a darkened city.’ One of the main themes, or main points made in Grenade Genie is that, ultimately, everyone and everything is expendable – but while this knowledge can generate either a sense of hopelessness or the nothing-to-lose strength to rail against it, one strength of poetry is that even if only the former gets expressed, the latter is automatically achieved. 

Basically, what I’m trying to say with this collection is that sometimes you just have to go for it and do something – make a stand – even if the situation really is hopeless. For instance, in the title poem, someone possessing genius but requiring the spark has little choice but to pull the pin on a live grenade in order to release the genie inside that will grant him his wish. The explosion kills him, and all his atoms (which form into lesser versions of himself) then get the credit instead of him. But, at the same time, by pulling the pin, he wipes out the establishment that’s blocking all progress. 

MN: Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988. Why did we bother, when nights were as abysmal as how you describe them in the poem? (I was there too, and they were!)

TM: You're right to say 'Why did we bother?' I mean, there really was 'F--k all else to do,' but even so ... 

However, it remains the case that what makes for a crap night out – or, indeed, what makes for any crap experience at all – can often make for a good poem, and while I think the poem ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988’ will resonate with anyone of a certain age from Birmingham, I think people from anywhere, and of any generation, will recognise the frustrations expressed in the poem of being a teen and finding, at 18, that being an adult, and being able to do adult things, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

As it happens, the nightclub that’s referenced, ‘Snobs,’ is still going strong, and when the Black Country-based online magazine, Arts Foundry, published my poem, and I tweeted about it, Snobs retweeted it to all their followers, which was cool.

MN: You name T.S. Eliot and 'The Wasteland' specifically in the poem 'The greatest poem of the 20th century,' and his presence certainly stalks the rest of the collection, but who else is in there, who are your other influences?

TM: Thank you, and while I didn’t have specific poets in mind as influences when I wrote this book, my first poetry influences were Stevie Smith and Roger McGough, and I think their influence is always in there, somewhere, in my writing.

At school, we studied the Penguin Education book, Worlds: Seven Modern Poets, and one of the poets was Adrian Mitchell who, out of the seven poets, I took to the most, as his poetry was straightforward, direct and easily understood, but at the same time sophisticated, rich with metaphor, satirical, funny and very profound – and it does feel as if he’s in there too, in my book, as he certainly had an effect on me. 
  
MN: And if 'The Wasteland' is the greatest poem of the 20th century, which is the second?

TM: ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg.

MN: When they come to tot such things up in December 2099, do you think it will be decided that indeed you did write the worst poem of the 21st century?!

TM: Well, in 2001 there was a poem I had published in a very obscure magazine which I hope will never be found, for if it ever is found, it will certainly be in the running.

MN: Do you still work in a bank?

TM: No. I swapped banking for bookselling in 2001 which, though it meant a cut in my salary of two-thirds, was one of the best things I’ve ever done. 

As mentioned in my poem, ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988’, I worked for Lloyds Bank in Birmingham (from 1988 to 1990). I then moved down to London to study History, got a 2:1, then drifted into banking again, as I’d worked part-time with Midland Bank throughout my studies, processing cheques, and, staying with them, by 2000 had risen up to be a Credit Control Relationship Manager for various German banks. However, my new girlfriend at this time, Firoza (who I’m still with), had become a bookseller at Books etc – and, knowing this was what I wanted to do instead, I joined Books etc as well, eventually becoming assistant manager at their Broadgate Circle branch. 

Anyway, I’d have stayed in bookselling, but once Amazon came along, Books etc’s days were numbered, so I had to go elsewhere and got a job at the Parliamentary Bookshop and, from there, ended up in the Palace of Westminster itself, working at the Vote Office. At the start of the current lockdown, I had to still go into work to assist with the remaining stages of the Coronavirus Bill’s passage through Parliament, but at the time of writing, I’m working from home.

MN: This is a book set very much in a city, or maybe more accurately 'The City.' You reference both London and Birmingham, and yet the feeling you get from reading the book is that actually the city you’re talking about is not either, but a state of mind. Is any city regardless just a state of mind anyway? And as a writer are you only ever merely re-interpreting this state of mind, rather than writing about the actual and physical?

TM: I think you’re right: the city – or at least any major city – is definitely a state of mind, and there’ll be so many similarities between London, Moscow, Tehran, Delhi, Beijing and Lagos, even if they all have very different cultures and systems, and in lots of ways, I do just want to represent that state of mind engendered by these places – that attitude and outlook. 

Having said that, I do enjoy referencing London, and I love London – even in my first week of living in the capital, I knew I’d never return to Birmingham – and because I’ve spent pretty much all my adult life in London, and was born there too, it’s London rather than Birmingham that’s always been referenced in any of my collections, and mainly in this one too – except for the one exception that is ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988,’ which I enjoyed writing, so maybe I should write about Birmingham more, as the UK’s second city in the 1970s/80s provides a rich seam for any poet, if truth be told.

MN: You mention living in both Birmingham and London, the two biggest cities in the country. Are you a writer specifically of the urban and the city? Have you ever lived anywhere else, and if so did it affect your writing? Also, do you think if you ever lived in the countryside, would you be able to write in the same style, or would you write in a different fashion about different topics?

TM: Yes, my writing is very urban – and one reason for that is the fact I’ve only ever lived in London and Birmingham (I was actually born in London, in Hammersmith, but my parents moved up to Birmingham when I was two, and I moved back down when I was twenty) – so I think, by this point in my life, if I lived in the countryside, I’d still be a writer specifically of the urban and the city. Of course, I’m saying that without having actually done it, and everyone is affected and influenced by their surroundings, so I wouldn’t be surprised if living in the countryside did have some effect. Who knows, maybe I’d turn into some rural, rustic writer overnight – the new Ted Hughes.

MN: Where next with your writing?

TM: I intend to promote this book well into next year – and, in view of the current crisis, I think that’ll be absolutely necessary. Before the lockdown happened, I’d had my first ‘tour’ lined up, including a headline slot at Whisky & Words in Birmingham, a book signing at the Book Corner bookshop as part of the Saltburn Folk Festival, and a one-hour performance slot at the Leamington Poetry Festival! Those dates stretched from May through to August, so maybe some will still happen, as planned – but, in any event, I’m in for the long haul, as I always have been, and I believe in this book, and I’m very lucky to have a publisher who believes in it too, and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to talk about it here on Everybody’s Reviewing. Thank you! 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Review by Tionee Joseph of "The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood



Margaret Atwood won me as a fan after I read the classic The Handmaid’s Tale. I also really enjoyed another one of her dystopias: Oryx and Crake which is very different to the aforementioned, but I was impressed by her world building, characters and execution of plot.  

Although The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t have the fastest moving plot, it was still enjoyable to read. I felt I was with Offred during her monotonous life, patiently waiting for change that unfolded in a way that fitted with the pace of the novel. The Testaments’s three plots are so separate and different in pace, they could have been three volumes of a series. On the other hand, broadening the scope of the novel could translate well to screen, as The Handmaid’s Tale did so successfully. The Testaments gives an insight into the lives of women raised in Gilead, women who knew of life pre-dystopia and women like us who are viewing Gilead from the outside and can see all of its hypocrisies.  

I appreciate Atwood perhaps trying to attract a wider audience and avoiding replicating The Handmaid’s Tale. But what made The Handmaid’s Tale so good, such as the tension between the central characters, is missing from The Testaments.

Atwood’s writing style is beautiful as ever; her use of language, imagery and metaphors are strong as usual. The best parts of the novel are when Aunt Lydia describes her transition from lawyer to Aunt and all the horrific treatment she faces and witnesses.

The Testaments’s strength lies in its message. The themes it deals with are still important and it shows the progress or lack thereof of women’s rights between the 1980s and now. This new generation of readers are conscious of the relevance and problematic consequences of a patriarchal dystopia.  
  

About the reviewer
Tionee Joseph is completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She has a blog where she writes about writing and gives lifestyle advice, which you can read here. Her articles on film, TV and adaptations have been published. She is currently working on her first thriller novel and writing her first album.

  

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Review by Matt Nunn of "Alcoholic Betty" by Elisabeth Horan



It would be easy to say that Elisabeth Horan is just another reincarnation of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and there’s truth in such a claim, but that would be doing this bold, new American poet an injustice, for she is more than just a carbon copy rising to say pale cover versions from the graves of the greats who have gone before her. She is influenced, yes, but she, as all the best poets do, has taken her inheritance and twisted, mangled and sculptured it into a definite new voice, her own. One that once encountered shan’t be easily forgotten.

Alcoholic Betty is an unflinching, yes another  hoary old cliché from the book of reviewing tropes, journey through a thick blackened world of miscellaneous liquids both spilled and imbibed, addiction and collapsing mental health, a long dark night of the soul replayed on a daily, grinding loop over many years.

At times it does feel your faculties and senses are wading through a thickening soup of terror, and if it ever feels tough, keep going, think how Horan herself must have felt living out these nightmares for real, and also head to the end, where glimmers of light and hope will bathe you, both in humane relief that Horan has made it through not unscathed presumably, but certainly unbroken, but also that she survived to write these poems, these hymns covered in every sickly liquid imaginable that by being here represent a hope and victory, not just for the act of writing, but for living through it all.

From what passes on these pages, and to quote the title of probably my favourite poem in the collection - though to be fair there are many candidates - it may be a stretch for the poet herself to be penning a poem entitled “I love Elisabeth Horan Volume 3” any time soon; still, after reading this book it may well be a poem I myself may scribble. It is certainly a sentiment I feel after this emotional and linguistic tour-de-force.


About the reviewer
Matt Nunn is the author of 5 poetry collections, the latest of which is St. Judes College reject (RedSox Press). He works as a freelance writing tutor, writing coach, editor and writer and teaches Creative Writing at Solihull College and has performed his work on TV, radio and a million different venues, to audiences big and small, enthusiastic and indifferent, for over 25 years. He’s still amazed at how he gets away with it all.



Friday, 15 May 2020

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "Scratched Enamel Heart" by Amanda Huggins



This beautiful collection from Amanda Huggins is a lyrical journey of delicate devastation. Each story is told in exquisite detail, sparking the senses so the reader really feels the ‘soft rabbit-skinned’ gloves in 'Violet Flint and the Softest Blue,' tastes the bitterness of the bourbon in 'A Brightness to It,'  and sees with startling clarity the stray dog, Hal, with his paw aloft silhouetted against the dawn sky in 'Red.'

Huggins effortlessly carries the reader from the North coast of England to the heat of India, from a farmhouse in small town USA to the bustling streets of London and yet, despite the many varied settings, the themes remain universal and instantly recognisable. Each story resonates with the reader because Huggins writes with such compelling precision about grief, hope, loss, yearning, fear and love in all its complexities.

The opening story, 'Where the Sky Starts,' has such pastoral beauty, so incongruous against the central themes of death and the cyclical drudgery of poverty. The gentle and yearning Rowe dreams of escape from the steelworks, herring fishing and the weight of responsibility.  Rowe’s final act of wilful resistance to an inevitable life, leaves the reader reeling with hope. 

'Red,' which was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize, follows. It's a searing story, saved from overwhelming the reader with its brutality, by its wonderfully redemptive ending: 'Mollie hated the dark, brooding weight of the house, the trees so dense they held a part of the night’s heart within them even when the sun shone.' Mollie’s sinister new stepfather Sherman Rook threatens Mollie and her mother in the most terrible of ways. Her only friend is Hal, the stray dog she befriends. Mollie learns that sometimes we must leave behind those we love most in order to save ourselves. 

The title story, 'Scratched Enamel Heart,' is utterly mesmerising. This utterly original and compelling story tells of a refugee, Maya, who holds onto her past with her grief bound tightly into the leather plaited bracelet she wears: 'She picked up the owl with the scratched enamel heart and thought of her father. Always wise, yet unable to hide his feelings even when it was dangerous. He wore his heart on his sleeve for the world to see. The cat was her mother: green-eyed, independent and fierce, and the dolphin was her baby sister, always down at the river, swimming, diving, laughing, forgetting to come home in time for supper.' 

The collection is interspersed with some taut and sinister flash fiction pieces, such as 'Tiger' and 'Pretty,' both of which pack just as powerful a punch as the longer stories, and  'Strong not Rough,' a tiny story which demonstrates the sheer weight and power of teenage longing, in just a few lines.  

I adored these short stories; each one can be read and re-read and still you will find something new each time. Prepare for your heart to be scratched and yet, thankfully, not quite broken, with this gorgeous collection. 


About the reviewer
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate from the University of Leicester. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in a variety of literary magazines such as Virtualzine, Silver Apples, Reflex Fiction and Another North.  She was shortlisted for the Exeter Short Story Prize, the Fish Memoir Prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Prize. She is currently working on her first novel. 

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Review by Aswin Prasanth of "On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea" by Maggie Harris



A lemon on a Welsh beach inspired Maggie Harris’s poetry collection On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea. The collection is divided into five sections based on the geographical locations that have defined her life: Wales, England, Guyana, Ireland and Elsewhere. The poems of each section are rhythmic and lyrical in nature. They can be viewed as reminiscences of these landscapes in general and her life in particular. The lemon is symbolic of her floating and drifting existence. She experiences fragmentation of her subjectivity and identity as a result of the shift in locations. The lemon, sailing endlessly, recollects the memories of her family and her journey through life. 

Though alienation, sorrow and a lack of belongingness loom large in the first section entitled “Wales,” there is amelioration with respect to tone in the coming sections. Despite the Welsh landscape’s ethereal beauty, Harris feels lost and abandoned as she lacks a feeling of home. A landscape is generally a blend of geography and psychogeography. To consolidate a landscape, we require both. Therefore, she feels alienated from the place: she is in a state of liminality. The “Guyana” section is perhaps the most euphoric and jovial compared to the rest. It is soothing and charming in tone as it deals with her childhood, family, education, love and home. The final sections are more transcendental and reflective in tone. They focus on the transient nature of life and the eternal nature of memory. Our existence and experience are defined by the spaces which we inhabit. 

Harris’s collection is an introspective and meditative account not just into her life but life in general with respect to the decisions one makes and the landscapes one traverses through. Decisions make destiny and destiny makes life.    


About the reviewer   
Aswin Prasanth is a research scholar in English at Amrita School of Arts and Sciences, India. He did his M.A, in English Language and Literature at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit and B.A, in English Copy Editing at Sacred Heart College. His areas of interest include Film Studies, Television Studies, Cultural Studies, Postmodern Literature, Absurd Theatre and Graphic Novels. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Review by Matt Nunn of "The Dogs of Humanity" by Colin Dardis



Dogs, as Jarvis Cocker once sang, are everywhere in this new collection by Northern Irish poet Colin Dardis. But these are no heart-warming tales of a new Lassie; rather they are toughened poems concerning snarling mutts and runts, mute dogs with stiletto teeth and those barking in a language of “Bark, Ruff, Arf, Au-Au, Bow-Wow, Yip” and mutts without the linguistics nor manners to devour mutton in a fashion less than savage on their “butchering lips.” But these are no wild, visceral howls at the moon; rather Dardis has taken a prevailing blackened air of isolation, mixed it many slithers of wry humour and crafted in tightly packed ruminations and poems of observation, a whole orchestra of barks, yelps and howls and with masterful, taut control conducted them with into legend.

And to prove he is a poetic Dr. Doolittle, in the second part of the book he opens up a menagerie as he adds to the mix elephants, blackbirds, sparrows, ducks and rabbits and puts them through the same rigorous poetic examinations as the dogs before them, to turn them into poems of equal gusto and skill.

All of which builds with great animalistic aplomb into the crescendo of the final line of the final poem in the collection, “The Humane Animal”: “We all are. We all are. We all are.” And you feel that no matter the plumage, or manky mutt coat worn, every animal here is Dardis himself, a deeply humane poet for these increasingly savage times.

In the opening line of “Unpublished,” one of the standout poems in this book, the poet asserts that “Life is a poor novelist,” a fantastic line that may well be true. What is, though, indisputably true is that Colin Dardis is a very fine poet and The Dogs of Humanity an equally fine collection.


About the reviewer
Matt Nunn is the author of five poetry collections, the latest of which is St.Judes College Reject (RedSox press). He works as a freelance writing tutor, writing coach, editor and writer and teaches Creative Writing at Solihull College and has performed his work on TV, radio and a million different venues, to audiences big and small, enthusiastic and indifferent, for over 25 years. He’s still amazed at how he gets away with it all.


Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Review by Tionee Joseph of "Girl, Woman, Other" by Bernardine Evaristo



The first thing one might notice when reading this novel is the breaking of conventional prose style. Its lack of full stops or speech marks and use of enjambment and repetition of single words follows a more poetic style. The structure of the novel is also unconventional; each character’s life is summarised from childhood to adulthood with some of them being loosely connected. 

Following the generations through this kind of structure lends itself well to the telling of family history, and lineage is an important theme of this novel. It reminded me of the television series Roots which begins with the African slave Kunta Kinte and follows the journeys of his sucesssive children, grandchildren and so forth into modern day Afro-America.  

I read The Lonely Londoners just before reading this but was disappointed by the lack of female voices in the narrative. I was glad that Girl, Woman, Other was addressing this gap in the diaspora. It was even more enjoyable for me as a British Caribbean woman to be able to relate to this novel. 

I haven’t read much around the novel’s creation as I wanted to read it without any preconceptions. I wonder how many of these characters are based on real people and which parts have been fictionalized. I felt like Evaristo was using the expanse of the story to address every trope and stereotype rather than creating authentic characters. Nevertheless, she successfully creates emotional nuance; I found a few of the stories really heartbreaking.

I’m glad that this sort of writing is receiving acclaim and I hope it facilitates more modern and diverse writers to have an impact on our canon. 


About the reviewer
Tionee Joseph is completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She has a blog where she writes about writing and gives lifestyle advice, which you can read here. Her articles on film, TV and adaptations have been published. She is currently working on her first thriller novel and writing her first album.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Fragmentary Lives: Three Novellas" by Philip Tew



It is a truism that all children should be grateful to their parents; it is not often we hear the reverse of that. Philip Tew should be pleased that his son advised him to refresh his manuscripts and add a third short story to the collection that has been published as Fragmentary Lives.

Here are three novellas, three very different aspects of a life, three versions of how life can twist and turn, bring us down or build us up. These are three stories well worth reading in isolation or more importantly together.

For me the middle story, “Swimming the Goldfish Bowl” is the stand out. It is a visceral description of a man's downfall. Luke has no idea that he is the victim in a tale of sex, abuse and kidnapping. He has no reason to conclude he is being used by a woman with her own agenda, no idea that his world can be so easily be brought crashing down. This seems to me to be the ideal building block of a full length crime or mystery thriller - a start to what could be an outstanding plot with so many outcomes possible. The denouement is both shocking and questioning, surely the perfect short story that has the reader pleading to know more.

The final novella "After the Revolution (Failed to Materialize)" is a visceral tale of a life lived, mistakes made and wrong turns taken. It is a withering account of the years of Thatcher and how the Hard Left failed in its attempt to gain power. Disillusionment is rife in this piece as we see how relationships can break down so easily despite the well-meaning of the participants. It is all so real, the accounts of partnerships foundering for so many reasons and of mistakes made in choices taken. This is a real-life account of how things don’t always work our for the best, yet an account that gives us a little hope as the writer comes full circle in his search for contentment. The beauty of “After the Revolution” is that we can meet protagonist Jim Dent again in Tew’s outstanding first novel Afterlives (reviewed here).

The first novella “Another Long Weekend” skirts around romance and infatuation as we see how relationships grow and fail. Friendship is at the centre of the story and how the writer takes advantages of friendships at all levels whilst being taken advantage of himself. It is the story of a life that we can all recognise and want to know more about. 

Life is fragmentary and these pieces can join together or be shaken apart. The novellas throw all the pieces up into the air and we wait as we turn each page to find where they have landed and what effect they will have on the protagonists. This is the final conceit of the three novellas. We are left engaged and don’t want the stories to end. We are being invited into Tew’s world and we want more as a result of this invitation.


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.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Review by Gary Day of "The Escapologist" by Jinny Fisher



To the extent that many of the poems in this collection aim to give a picture of Jinny Fisher’s physical world, real and remembered, they succeed. In ‘Sunday Lunch’ Mother ‘works oil into the surface’ of a ‘long table’  with her ‘bleached wooden brush’; in ‘Screen Memory’ a ‘shiny red hand-pump … spurts brook water for the kettle,’ while in ‘Antiphon’ a crowd ‘almost trample / two tiny wellington boots, painted with daisies, / half buried in the mud.’ Fisher, who has undergone a series of metamorphoses from classical violinist, to psychotherapist to poet, has an eye for detail. Her descriptions are precise. The reader is treated to a series of clearly defined images, but a number are inert. The scene is set but nothing happens.

This is not true of all of these poems. ‘Half-Sister’s Lunch’ neatly captures the tensions between the two women; sharing a plate of food and tearing bread dramatically portray their closeness and rivalry and there is genuine tension in the build up to the magnificent last line. Another work that should be singled out for praise is ‘Regeneration’ which simultaneously keeps in play the shock, the relief, and the new found freedom that comes from the end of what appears to be an abusive relationship. But that’s not all. A faint air of regret hangs about the poem. As someone who has studied psychoanalysis, Fisher is all too aware of the dangerous ambiguity of human emotion.  

One of the eye-catching qualities of the collection is the layout of Fisher’s poems. Some, like the title poem, are laid out in paragraphs, others like ‘The Scarf’ follow the shape of the object they describe. All of them, whether they are about home, family relations or even her violin have something to recommend them.   


About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. His research mainly lay in three areas, the  history of literary criticism, the workings of class in British literature and the persistence of sacrificial ritual in the development of drama. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has also edited two volumes on the history of British poetry as well as the three volume Wiley Encyclopaedia of British Literature 1660-1789. He hates management speak, has been involved in amateur theatre for over thirty years and is still trying to write poetry.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Review by Rob Jones of "One Scheme of Happiness" by Ali Thurm



The fictional town of Holdersea is easy to picture if you’ve ever been to a seaside resort which has grown suburbs. The old lighthouse and the phenomenon of longshore drift are both recurring motifs in One Scheme of Happiness, a novel rich with metaphor and imagery - a real writer’s read.

The narrator, Helen, a forty-something homebody who has been caring for her mother for twenty years, understandably finds herself lacking direction when her mother passes away. Having lived in one house in one town all her life, its features and people crowd around her, especially when her childhood “best friend” Vicky and her husband Sam, another friend from school days, move back to Holdersea with their two children. Vicky quickly reconnects with Helen, who in turn becomes infatuated with Sam.

The narration is one of the strengths of the novel, by turns poetic, unreliable and with moments of obvious dramatic irony. Seldom does it fall into the trap of being too conversationalist, especially considering the overall structure. Helen frequently reminisces about her childhood, showing rather than telling the reader about Vicky’s abusive, controlling tendencies and drip-feeding background to the plot and characters in the present. One thing she doesn’t explain much is what makes Sam attractive, but we’ve probably all struggled to put into words why we like someone at some point.

A hornet’s nest growing within a Tuscan holiday villa, swelling as the house itself is weakened, reflects the extramarital affair which begins in the warm Italian hills. Ann, a high-flying academic from a deprived background with whom Helen has actually kept in touch since school, tries to offer advice, but is ignored. Helen’s obsession increasingly unsettles the reader, culminating in her taking sudden and shocking measures.

The conclusion of the story is rather brief, although this does emphasise the impact of the twists, one of which seems something of a deus ex machina. The ending is open to interpretation and is therefore as satisfying as you want it to be. An intriguing and accomplished novel.


About the reviewer
Rob Jones studied English with Creative Writing options at the University of Leicester and completed an MA in Victorian Studies there. He lives in Sileby with his wife, sings with Leicester University Chamber Choir and dreams of working in heritage.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Review by Rosalind Taylor of "Demon Slayer" vol.11, by Koyoharu Gotouge



In this manga, the main character Tanjiro is fighting two powerful demons from the Upper Moon 6, called Daki and Gytaro. Uzui and his three helpers are helping Tanjiro defeat Gytaro, while Inosuke and Zenitsu try and defeat Daki. There are two main battles in this book.

The two demons have been eating the residents of the entertainment district for years. Daki has dressed herself as an upper-class Orian to disguise herself.

This book is extremely dramatic and exciting. My favourite character is Tanjiro’s sister Nezuko. She saves everyone from dying by burning off some poison. I love this book so much I have read it twelve times. A brilliant manga!


About the reviewer
Rosalind Taylor is eleven years old. She loves reading manga, especially Demon Slayer, and watching anime. She also loves drawing her own manga. She has a twin sister called Miranda.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Collision" by Claire Walker



The sea is everywhere in Claire Walker’s beautiful new pamphlet of poems, Collision, haunting its geography, its characters’ voices, language and dreams. Here, ‘brine rises to the surface … / it coats our skin, our hearts,’ and ‘it creeps like a vine / across the map of this town.’ Sailors wear sweaters threaded with ‘waves, … [and] salt hides / in the Arran twists.’ The sea ‘calls to them like a lover,’ and ‘at night, she nestles in their heads, / whispers in waves.’

And if the sea’s voice is female, so too are the other voices which Walker recovers from the sea’s histories, its romances, legends and shipwrecks. These all-too-often-overlooked voices do not tell macho sailors’ yarns, but rather the stories of women who ‘swam / against history, made the coast’ – of mothers, lovers, mermaids, ‘The Fishwife,’ and the groundbreaking nineteenth-century palaeontologist Mary Anning. 

In the short sequence of poems dedicated to her, Anning becomes both a powerful counter-voice to a male-dominated history of palaeontology (‘they … try and erase me’), and a displaced representation of the female poet. A kind of poet-scientist, Anning collects symbols from the sea (in her case, symbols of evolutionary history), and then marks them, writes on them: ‘my fingerprints are spelled out on flint / letters chiselled in the lines of my nameless bones.’ Walker’s description of Anning in the poem ‘She Sells Seashells’ might almost stand as an allegory of her own method:

          Now picture the girl. 
          I gather the coast; hidden art waits
          for my fingers to unfold rocks.

          I line my finds out on a table,
          little fancies I’ve cleaned
          to show the shape of all our pasts …

          Limestone presses messages
          on the seashore. 

As Anning knew well, though, these messages from the seashore are never straightforward: ‘most would laugh me off the [cliff] edge,’ she says, ‘claim a hoax.’ Messages, symbols, images from the sea are ambivalent, complex, over-determined, culturally and historically loaded, sometimes even laughable. 

Walker understands this, too – the way in which age-old sea imagery can overwhelm the real, drown it in signification, as it were. In ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,’ symbolic language has become just that – a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby ‘real’ seagulls seem to have been overtaken by their representation: ‘tired / of our assumptions’ they ‘are living up to their reputation.’ The symbolic has almost erased the real. Similarly, in ‘A Tattooist’s Mistake,’ sea imagery takes on a life of its own, overwhelming the human subject:

          You ask for a mermaid,
          so that is what I give you. 
          My needle draws her slender back, 
          arching to surf that nibbles her skin. 
          Hair red and long, floating
          like crimson seaweed out against water …

          After you leave, 
          you spend the night beachcombing – 
          she, supple in the twist of your arm. 
          You return at sunrise, hollow-eyed,
          ask me for starfish, seaglass, oysters;
          the entire spill of an ocean. 

The language of the sea – its imagery, cultural weight, symbols – cannot be contained; it ‘doesn’t pack neatly into crates,’ and ultimately overwhelms the tattooist, artist, poet, palaeontologist. Voices, selfhood, identities, whether male or female, are all too easily ‘lost to the fetch of a wave.’ Nonetheless, as Walker’s evocative poems demonstrate, the attempt to swim against the tide, ‘against history,’ in itself remains worthwhile. Even if the sea will always, in the end, overwhelm representation, drowning out all other voices, something beautiful might be salvaged in the attempt. As Walker puts it, ‘something in us admires the wreck.’


About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Review by Thilsana Gias of "A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees" by Yoshida Kenkō, trans. Meredith McKinney



A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees is a short selection of essays taken from Yoshida Kenkō's longer collection called Tsurezuregusa, or Essays in Idleness

Kenkō (c.1283 - c.1352) was a Japanese monk who wrote in the zuihitsu (follow the brush) stream-of-consciousness style, which was often used to create loosely connected personal essays reflecting on the ephemeral aspects of life.

Now, you might be wondering, "What could I possibly have in common with a medieval monk?"

Well, as we now live in times of self-isolation and social distancing, who better to relate to than the introspective Japanese monk?

Whilst monks are typically seen as recluses who are far removed from society in every aspect, what I have learnt from Kenkō is that the musings of monks are still very much about people, society and the connections we can forge through finding the same sparks of inspiration. Kenkō himself reflects on this by saying, "It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met." He then goes on to admire "scholars of former times"  whose "moving" works date to around 6th century - 4th century BC ... leaving us with a rather cosy picture of a monk happily settling down to discuss his favourite authors in the same way that you or I might. 

What's particularly interesting about this concept is that Kenkō reinforces the age-old idea that words transcend space and time. In fact, you almost get a sense that you're physically holding generations of human inspiration in your hands, when you listen to him speak about what people of former times found beautiful or captivating:

"Should we look at the spring blossoms only in full flower, or the moon only when cloudless and clear?"

"Could poems on the themes of 'Going to view the blossoms to find them already fallen' or 'Written when I was prevented from going to see the flowers' be deemed inferior to 'On seeing the blossoms'?"

"It is natural human feeling to yearn over the falling blossoms and the setting moon - yet some, it seems, are so insensitive that they will declare that since this branch and that have already shed their flowers, there is nothing worth seeing any longer." 

Kenkō's vivid imagery gives us moving glimpses of what humanity was and still is. He chooses to discuss the "spring blossoms" and "setting moon" -  things that are unchanging with time, making his essays read like conversation starters with us. He paints pictures of the smallest striking moments and decides to share them with none other than your good self. 

Now, it is easy to feel intimidated by such grand portrayals of nature and mankind. Those of you who were initially wondering "What could I possibly have in common with a medieval monk?" may now be thinking "How could I possibly relate to someone as cool as this monk?"

Fear not.

Kenkō very clearly says: "No-one could be less enviable than a monk. Sei Shōnagon wrote that people treat them like unfeeling lumps of wood, and this is perfectly true." I challenge you to find anything more relatable than that.


About the reviewer
Thilsana Gias is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester. Her favourite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. She is an English tutor and will train to teach Secondary School English soon. She's also hoping she'll finish re-working her dissertation into a publishable piece of writing.


Monday, 30 March 2020

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "The Almost Mothers" by Laura Besley



This stunning flash fiction debut takes us on a compelling journey, with Laura Besley skilfully weaving together a variety of narratives as far removed from the familiar womb-warmth of traditional tales of motherhood that one could possibly imagine.   

This is an exploration of motherhood, in all its complexities. Besley refuses to hold back, plunging the reader into the realisation that motherhood is often stark and terrifying, with her opening story, "Mothers Anonymous." We hear from Melissa: "'I’m Melissa,’ she says in a raspy voice like she smokes a pack a day… And I hate being a mother.'" And from there, Besley drags us through each tale by the heartstrings.  

In "Everything’s Fine," we see how being a new mum means discarding one’s own self, to emerge unrecognisable, even in your own mirror: "I see a face and step back, knocking over a bin when I realize it’s me. The new me. The she who doesn’t wear make-up, have time to wash or sometimes even brush her hair." 

Then, we have moments of wry humour in "Down To Earth," a humorous story about Earth mothers, told from an alien point of view. But quickly we find ourselves hurtling downward again, with the horrifying "Wish Upon a Star," a story that takes your breath away in just three, short paragraphs. 

Besley dips into dystopian futures, with two tense and terrifying stories, "In Hiding" and "The Unmothers," and she’s also not afraid to acknowledge the non-mothers, with her uncompromising story "That Face" and with the brief, but intensely powerful, "How to Grow Your Own Baby."

The Almost Mothers is a wonderful collection of short fiction which has real depth and poignancy. Besley captures motherhood beautifully in this raw and uncompromising debut. I look forward reading much more of her work in the future.   


About the reviewer
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate from The University of Leicester. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in a variety of literary magazines such as Virtualzine, Silver Apples, Reflex Fiction and Another North.  She was shortlisted for The Exeter Short Story Prize, The Fish Memoir Prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Prize. She is currently working on her first novel. 

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Review by Gus Gresham of "Poppy Flowers at the Front" by Jon Wilkins



This is a poignant, compelling story of love and desolation amid the sterling work of ambulance women during the 1914-18 World War.

As any good reader or writer knows, it is the detail that convinces and transports us to the virtual landscape of a story. Like all great novels set in the First World War (All Quiet On The Western Front; A Farewell To Arms …), Jon Wilkins’s excellent novel, Poppy Flowers At The Front, airlifts us directly into the sights and smells and sounds and mud and blood and horror and senseless waste of the trenches.

We are in safe hands, though (we hope), with the engaging narrator Poppy Loveday, who guides us through her story as surely as her ambulance negotiates the muddy rutted tracks between the field hospital and the Front, with shells exploding around her. She is diligent in her selfless efforts, but is consumed daily by the suffering of "young boys in pain, a pain they did not deserve. Boys who screamed in terror, far from home and their mothers."

Yet, amid it all, there is light-hearted relief, humour and sensitivity, especially in the jaunts to Paris, rural France and rural England. And on a visit home, there is a beautifully understated exchange as Poppy’s father quizzes her about how hard life really is on the Western Front: "'Now tell me all about France, the truth mind…' So, I did and he was very quiet and very shocked."

The main counterpoint to the horrors of trench-warfare is embodied in a wonderfully handled and sensitive love story. The reader turns the pages in anticipation of something dreadful happening to the heroine or her lover at any time … and … (no spoilers!). Recommended.


About the reviewer
Gus Gresham is an avid reader and writer. He has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and has worked variously as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, interpersonal and communication skills facilitator, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines Brittle Star and Under The Radar, and his recently published novel, EARTHRISE, is available on Amazon. You can read a review of it here

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "Jim Neat: The Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck" by Mary J. Oliver



Mary J. Oliver describes this work as a "long narrative poem."  Whilst the book certainly does contain sections of vivid, powerful poetry, it’s also a hybrid of hospital reports, diary entries, letters and historical photographs, making it a truly fascinating and original composition.

As a child, Mary hears a whisper of a conversation between her parents, an accusation, revealing a secret her father kept to himself and refused to speak of, ever: "You’re in another world, it’s that woman you married in Canada. And her baby. Isn’t it? Still dreaming about them, after all this time."

Mary’s father is absent, often physically, as he struggles with depression and addiction, and always emotionally. As an adult, Mary has a need to understand her father better, maybe find the half-sister she thinks still lives somewhere on the other side of the world and once and for all get answers as to why her father was never really present in her life. 

Mary remembers that Jim was close to his sister Queenie, and tracks down her daughter, Sally, sparking a journey of discovery. Through Sally, Mary finds boxes of old letters and documents, revealing links to Canada, where Jim spent his early life. She carefully collates hospital reports, letters and diary entries, to build an absolutely fascinating picture of her father. Interspersed throughout the narrative are Mary’s own thoughts, expressed through poetry and short sections of creative non-fiction, as she fills in gaps and processes her feelings. 

This sometimes humorous, yet more often heart-breaking story reveals how Mary came to understand her father and the extraordinary life he led before he met her mother. Unlike anything I’ve read before, I was pulled in by the stunning prose, the gorgeous poetry written by both Jim and Mary, and the powerful themes of loss, duplicity, addiction, love and family secrets. An exceptional book.  


About the reviewer
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate of Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. Her flash fiction and short stories have appeared in various online zines. She has been shortlisted for The Exeter Short Story Award, The Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. She will write for chocolate. 









Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Review by Amber Culbert of SoundCafe Leicester



SoundCafe is a Leicester based non-profit organisation founded in 2014. They run weekly workshops on Wednesday afternoons and offer a safe creative space for people suffering in poverty who may be homeless, isolated and vulnerable.

Their main aims are to:

  • Create a safe space for people to explore their creativity.
  • Provide a sense of belonging.
  • Help people to find and have their voices heard.
  • To build and sustain good relationships.


I am a second year creative writing student at DMU and as part of a placement for one of my modules, I have been attending arts events around the city over the past few months. One of the most memorable events I attended was SoundCafe on 22nd January.

Upon arriving I naturally gravitated towards the poetry table (there were several different tables set up, each for different activities such as poetry, arts and crafts, music etc.). One thing that struck me immediately was the sense of community and friendship between the visitors, most of whom I had never met before. Every few minutes someone would approach me and introduce themselves and ask me about myself in a way that felt so genuine like they really cared about what I had to say. 

SoundCafe is set up for people who are vulnerable and in need but these people seemed in such high spirits and were so happy to be there, it was really lovely to see. Throughout the duration of the session, guests were invited to come up to the front and perform, whether it was a song on karaoke, a piece of music or a poem; they all had such enthusiasm it was infectious.

Attending the session was quite a moving experience and I was able to see just how much these workshops meant to people. You could feel the hurt and pain in some of the guests and it was clear that art, particularly writing, drawing and singing, can be a much-needed emotional outlet for people who are struggling. SoundCafe is doing some very important work in our community and I want to thank them for making me feel so welcome!


About the reviewer
Amber Culbert is a second year creative writing student at De Montfort University. She enjoys writing poetry and short fiction and has always loved reading, especially work by Stephen King and Kate Tempest. She is passionate about helping others and encouraging other emerging writers to share their work.