Friday 29 May 2020

Interview with George Szirtes

George Szirtes’s first book of poems, The Slant Door (1979) was joint-winner of the Faber Prize. He has published many since then, his collection, Reel, winning the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2004 for which he has been twice shortlisted since. His latest is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe 2016). His memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen, was published by MacLehose in February 2019. and won the East Anglian Book Prize for Memoir and Biography and was shortlisted for two other prizes. His many translations from Hungarian include László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, Sándor Márai’s Conversations in Bolzano and Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad. László Krasznahorkai won the Man Booker International in 2015 for which he shared the translator’s prize with Ottilie Mulzet. Married to artist Clarissa Upchurch, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the English Association.

Below, he talks about his recent memoir, The Photographer at Sixteen, with Jonathan Taylor.

Interview with Jonathan Taylor

JT: Please can you tell us a little about the writing and research process behind The Photographer at Sixteen? How did the memoir originate? How long did it take you? How did you decide it was finished?

GS: A little background as to the origins of the book. It began after a conversation in Budapest in the summer of 2015 at the time the Syrian refugees were encamped at the Keleti Pályaudvar (the East Railway Terminal). An English friend was passing through on his way to Georgia. The trains were delayed and we spent several hours in the great heat moving from café to café. The subject came round to our families. I told him the story of my mother and he told me to write a 200pp book within six months. I had occasionally played with the idea but, being more or less instructed to write it I resolved to do so. 

My mother had been dead precisely forty years. I had written a number of poems about her – particularly in The Photographer in Winter (1986) – but there was much more story than got into the poems. In any case poems are not stories and their way with material is quite different. I hadn’t written anything like it before and didn’t know where to start so I thought I’d start with what I knew at first hand. That could be supported by the series of taped conversations I had with my father following her death. I had already transcribed those. There was my brother too to consult. Having decided to start at the end I decided to tell the story backwards. The short introductory chapter titled 'The Diver' explains the attractions of that. There are various technical difficulties in writing a story backwards but at least I was going to be starting with something I could feel reasonably confident about.

The research was going to be mainly about the period before I was born. This included reading on the Hungarian Holocaust and, since my mother was born in Transylvania, on how it worked there. I read about Ravensbruck, visited Penig, my mother’s second concentration camp, and was given wonderful help by the archivists of the camp there. I was already reasonably informed on the course of events in Hungary from the late 19th century onwards but I backed that up with more specific reading.

The other material I had ready to hand were photographs. I already had a well-established interest in ideas about photography, and my mother was herself a photographer. In terms of broad research, the first part of the book is essentially personal memory, the second part closely based on my father’s account, the third a study of a few specific studio photographs of my mother and her family. 

The book was going to end with the earliest photograph of my mother. It was never going to be a straight biography. It was first and foremost an attempt to understand her in herself but, as I discovered, that could only be done by reconciling my memories and feelings about her with what her history seemed to say. 

JT: How difficult was the book to write?

GS: Going backwards was hard in a technical sense. Trying to write about her through the lens of the relationship was harder, especially as I myself would only be present in the first part. I didn’t quite know at the beginning where that would go. It evolved, I suppose. Having got to the point before I was born I had to stop and ask, now what? Same again at the end of the second section after which I had very little information to go on. The very end is a sort of dialogue between me and her imagined voice as she hears me thinking about the photographs of her as a child. Maybe it was the tact involved in working the relationship through that was the hardest thing and that was mainly a matter of negatives: no melodrama, no sentimentality, no resentment, no self-indulgence and, above all, no distortion. That is why the question of ‘invention’ became ever more important. If the plotting of a life involves moving between relatively stable historical points, the joining up of those points (why particularly those points? why join them this way rather than another?) becomes as much a matter of invention as of certainty. Controlling the invention and being clear about what is or what is not invention is difficult but it was important for what I hoped would be the truthfulness of the book.

JT: Perhaps unusually for a memoir, you include extracts from poems by yourself and others as part of the narrative. What do you think are the overlaps and differences between poetry and memoir?

GS: I think poems in general work differently from fiction. I say fiction because memoir is a form of story telling, in other words invention. Poems crystallise and discover events within events rather than trace the sequence and consequences of actions.  Few people read a poem to discover what happens in the last line. But there is – or should be – room in stories such as a memoir for the stopping of the momentum and a change in the quality of the voice. At any rate I hoped there would be.

JT: What do you feel you learnt about yourself, your mother and your relation with her by writing the memoir?

GS: I wonder sometimes what I learned from it. I think I became ever more aware that I was, in effect, inventing her and that what I was inventing would not in fact be her in herself or as she saw herself. There was an element of disillusion in that process, a constant suspicion of myself as her interpreter. What was I really understanding? Was it myself? I don’t mean me as a subject but me as some kind of operator of the spirit (a phrase I use about her in the book, I think.) At the end I was both relieved and troubled. I was not sure anyone would be interested enough to publish it and finding an agent and a publisher was a relief, as were the nice reviews. Maybe others understand the book better than I do.

JT: Did you have an intended reader in mind while writing?

GS: I never have an intended reader of anything unless a poem is specifically addressed to a specific person and even then it assumes unspecified others might read it. To see it in retrospect I now suppose its natural readers would be those who share some of the background or have some interest in it for other reasons – because they have something to do with refugees, war survivors, Central Europe (the book was for a while an Amazon no 1 bestseller in the Austrian-Hungarian section of its lists), Jews in general and perhaps mothers in general. But that is only in retrospect not in intention or execution.  Besides, the book is, in some respects, a very intimate document. There are no substantial descriptions of places, there is no substantial exploration of historical processes. It says the bare minimum about what may lie out of shot. 

The very phrase ‘out of shot’ tells you something. My ‘camera’ is rarely more than a few feet away from her. There is a poem in the original The Photographer in Winter sequence (in the 1986 book) where I as the narrator follow her onto a bus and watch her as a spy might. At the end of the poem I ask her to pose for me and tell her to freeze. I become a little like the David Hemmings photographer character in Antonioni’s Blow Up. I suspect that such a role-playing process is central to The Photographer at Sixteen. But that is another retrospective view.

You might also wonder about readers far closer to me: the family and friends of my parents. But I have very little family left. Most died in the war and those who survived – including friends - were mostly dead by the time I started writing.

JT: At one point you declare that ‘the trick is to invent the truth.’ What kind of model of ‘truthfulness’ do you think The Photographer at Sixteen embodies? 

GS: Inventing the truth is the phrase that came to me as I was writing and I realised as I wrote it that I was articulating something I had always felt. I wanted, and still want to believe that the principle of invention may be a work of truth born out of love but I am suspicious of my desire to believe that. We want to hear the word 'love.' We want to be reassured by it. We want to love and to give love. But love is an idea as well as a state of being. The problem is that while I am sure that there really is such a thing as love, I know that the moment you touch it as an idea it retreats or changes shape. My mother was desperate to be loved and to give love on her own terms. Her close family was the object of the kind of love she had to give. That love was intense, devoted, overwhelming, sometimes destructive. The invented truth had to allow for that and to come as close as possible to being a product of love. There remains the idea that the truth, as invented, might be a product of love. Let us at least propose that. That is the truth I was after.

JT: Do you think memoir is always belated, comes on the scene after the event, even too late? How does memoir relate to the present and future, as well as the past, for you?

GS: This memoir came long after, in fact forty years after, my mother’s death. Of course there were the poems but even they only started ten years after she died. I don’t know if I could have written the memoir earlier. I didn’t think to do so and maybe would not have, had not the visiting friend insisted that I should. 

Its relation to the present and future is complex. I have not reread it since its publication though I have read a few short excerpts at events. In most respects it is now simply the past. Now I am left here thinking I could write more in prose: a book about my father, one about our time in Budapest watching a state of affairs fall apart in 1989, and one I have long meant to write about British professional wrestling (I don’t mean as a wrestling fan) which would be about masks and courage and comedy at a certain time in England. Whether I get to write any of those (I have started two of them but with no great sense of certainty) is a matter for the future. Those books, if written, will not be free of the presences moving around The Photographer at Sixteen.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

Review by Rob Jones of "The Coming-Down Time" by Robert Selby

Robert Selby’s collection of poems The Coming-Down Time is broad in its scope but artfully tethered. With themes of conflict, love and nostalgia running through all three of its sections, each part nonetheless leaves a different impression. The poems are sufficiently structured such that each variation from said structure, and indeed each rhyme, is heavy with significance.

The first section, charting the life and legacy of the narrator’s grandfather through a series of vignettes, quickly establishes a strong sense of place. The main character’s quietness and modesty is reflected in subdued, thoughtful lines and the more detailed description of the life and events which surround him. It’s warm and heartfelt, with a strong sense of narrative progression through the whole section.

The title of the second section, ‘Shadows on the Barley,’ reflects its more fleeting and impressionist nature, with stories and scenes conjured from places and objects. The tone and subject material broaden considerably; there are still specific references to war but there is more exploration of the trauma it creates. Several of the poems are deeply moving, even chilling, which can be jarring in relation to those which continue to celebrate warmth and homeliness. There is room for romance in a rural past, but it is clearly made up of so much more.

‘Chevening,’ the third section, is much more about the present. The past is still venerated as old buildings, memorials and traditions are described, and the characters and voices move through them with varying degrees of engagement. A romance is described in moments across the poems. The setting of present-day rural Kent is idyllic, tempered though that is with the very last poem’s imagery of propaganda and curation.

The Coming-Down Time, in its consideration and cadence, demands time in itself. Find a green space, sit down and read it aloud.

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.

Thursday 28 May 2020

Review by Karen Rust of "High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories" ed. Karen Stevens and Jonathan Taylor


Short story collections didn’t feature in my reading universe until recently, and it’s been a revelation to find them as entertaining as a novel, albeit in a different way. Take High Spirits – it kicks off with a fascinating introduction leading us through the labyrinth of links between alcohol and writing: from Dionysus to Chaucer, the tradition of drinking songs and poems and onto a legion list of writers who owe much to their favourite tipple. The description of short story writer Brendan Behan as ‘the drinker with writing problems’ proper tickled me. Having grown up in the 70s and 80s in an industrial town, alcohol has been a constant backdrop to the highs, lows and drama of my own life, so there’s much to identify with in the introduction along with literary connections I’d never considered before.

The eighteen stories that follow made me laugh, cry, cringe and reflect on alcohol’s power to alter us. The façade and fragility of relationships is often highlighted, but there is hope and comedy too. There are some writers here who I’ve heard of and read before such as Louis de Bernières, Jonathan Taylor and Hannah Stevens, but many who I’d not come across and that’s the joy of a collection like this. Jenn Ashworth fair took my breath away with her hyper-real portrayal of the messiness of grief in ‘Jackie Kennedy and the Widow,’ so now I have a new favourite author to check out.

Short stories are by their nature, er, short and intense and often leave you thinking about the characters and situation long after you’ve finished reading. It’s a different experience to reading a novel. Like the difference between downing a tray of shots versus drinking a pitcher of beer. Sometimes we need the free abandon of shots. I’d definitely recommend this book for established short story fans and newbies alike. Enjoy, and cheers!

About the reviewer
Karen Rust is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She's a Lead Writer for Writing East Midlands, a freelance biographer for StoryTerrace and has work published in various literary magazines including Mooky Chick, Ellipsiszine and Inkpantry. She's currently working on a YA novel for her dissertation and makes music with Yodaclub. This review was first published on her blog here

You can read another review, by Jon Wilkins, of High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories on Everybody's Reviewing here

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

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.