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