Saturday 31 October 2020

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "No Guiding Star" by John Mills

In Awakenings, the neurologist Oliver Sacks suggests that ‘if we are to achieve any understanding of what it is like to be Parkinsonian, of the actual nature of Parkinsonian existence (as opposed to the parameters of Parkinsonian motion), we must … meet [patients] … in a sympathetic and imaginative encounter …. They can tell us, and show us, what it is like being Parkinsonian – they can tell us, but nobody else can.’ This is precisely what John Mills succeeds in doing in his new pamphlet, No Guiding Star: he tells us, through poetry, ‘what it is like being Parkinsonian.’ In many of his poems, Mills, who has had Parkinson’s disease for some years, gives a voice to sufferers – and, in that sense at least, No Guiding Star is an important work. 

Mills captures from within what it feels like to experience Parkinsonian symptoms – the tremors, shakes, shuffles, and so on:

          and then it shook
          and then it staggered
          and then it fell …
          and then it slurred …
          and then it couldn’t write
          and then it couldn’t smile
          and then it cried
          and then it couldn’t.

The pronoun ‘it,’ used throughout this poem (‘And then’), is ambiguous: on the one hand, it refers to the illness itself; on the other, it also reflects the dehumanising objectification of the sufferer, through both his or her symptoms and others’ perceptions of those symptoms. Personified in another poem, the illness declares to the sufferer: ‘you are mine / to dispose of / as I wish’; and, to the well, the sufferer becomes an ‘it,’ a ‘thing’ to be ‘laughed at,’ to be stared at, to be ‘nod[ded] sagely’ over. As Mills makes clear in the poem ‘Conjugation,’ the sufferer’s symptomatic ‘fumbling is comical,’ so that ‘I laugh / You laugh,’ while ‘He cries.’

This is all part of what Mills calls ‘Parkinson’s progress’ – the gradual, degenerative aspect of the disease, as it progresses from one symptom ‘and then’ to the next, 'and then' to the next, and so on. ‘Conjugation,’ for example, moves from ‘the beginning,’ where ‘the verb was / Shake,’ through stares and ridicule, to the final verb ‘He cries.’ The disease is, in effect, a narrative, a story, not unlike Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, moving from symptom to symptom, episode to episode. Sacks claims that ‘we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale,’ in order to understand neurological illness – and, again, this is exactly what Mills achieves, in miniature form, in his poetry. 

If ‘And then’ tells the story of degenerative illness in linear form, other poems capture the stops and starts, the non-linearity of Parkinson’s, as it both ‘progresses’ and loops back on itself. In ‘Nothing on my mind,’ for instance, Mills plays with the order of repeated lines in each stanza to alter their implied meanings:

          Nothing concentrates the mind
          like a serious illness
          although it is all consuming
          I have come to terms with it. 

          Like a serious illness
          time creeps up on us all
          I have come to terms with it
          let it pass

         Time creeps up on us all
         although it is all consuming
         let it pass
         nothing concentrates the mind. 

Again, the pronouns here are significant: on the one hand, Mills is speaking for himself (‘I’), but on the other, ‘time creeps up on us all’ – we are all implicated in his personal experience, all of us subject to time and its degenerative force. There is a similar implication in the poem ‘What dreams may come,’ where ‘It is not the book / that trembles in the night / but the reader.’ The reader is both Mills and ‘us,’ we who experience the tremors, the symptoms, the illness through Mills’s vivid poetry, ‘meet[ing] them,’ as Sacks says, ‘in a sympathetic and imaginative encounter.’

What Sacks emphasises above all is that doctors – and, by extension, the wider public too – need to encounter the sufferer of neurological illness as an ‘individual,’ as a ‘“who” as well as a “what,” a real person.’ The Parkinsonian is not ‘only’ a Parkinsonian for Sacks, but also an individual, whose existence is not defined entirely by illness, who has a life beyond that illness. Mills’s pamphlet once again enacts Sacks’s theory, by featuring beautiful poems about pot-holing, blackberrying, and familial grief, alongside the poems about Parkinson’s disease. Mills’s pamphlet hence not only allows the reader to share and understand that disease ‘in a sympathetic and imaginative encounter,’ but also to share and understand the person beyond the disease. Whether or not some of the experiences of the person beyond, in pot-holing, for example, have things in common with the experience of Parkinsonism – whether or not they share certain imagery with the illness and its symptoms – is left to the reader to decide. 

          There are no guiding stars
          no landmarks
          just blackness and a tunnel
          you wear like a straitjacket. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is director of Everybody's Reviewing. His books include the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007). His website is

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Review by Vic Pickup of "What Girls Do in the Dark" by Rosie Garland

Rosie Garland’s writing is wildly imaginative; in breaking the rules of possibility, her poems are liberating and powerful. 

The space theme in What Girls do in the Dark is striking, and how the poet weaves its darkness and beauty within the mystery and humanity of her poems, masterful. The opening poem, ‘Letter of Rejection from a Black Hole’ sets the scene for the rest of her book, as she tells us: 

          You have the right to glow. 
          It’s not your duty 
          to light up anyone else’s day. 

Garland entrances and empowers her reader in much of the poetry which follows, such as in ‘Eloping with a comet’: 

          Breathless with forbidden flight, I grasp his tail, 
          hang on. Drunk on escape velocity, I boot night in the ribs, 
          ride the sky till it runs out of I told you so’s.

It’s not all space dust and sparkle; there is turmoil here, too. Darkness comes in the theme of persecution and the fragility of life, which the poet explores in varying forms. In ‘The last pangolin,’ a precious and endangered creature is stripped of its scales: 

          Only when          
          the final petal is torn away, 
          do they discover 
          there is no 
          choke, no 
          living thing, 
          no answer.

‘The correct hanging of game birds’ is also barbaric and sinister - a descriptive account of ownership and pain: ‘Permit yourself the luxury of appreciation. This bird / is yours, now … Pluck right away and you experience the thrill of / naked flesh.’

The persecution of women is a focus too - as in ‘Saint Catherine’: ‘They will kill you / for being cleverer, / worse than laughing at their dicks. / You know all of that but / won’t stop. Can’t. You didn’t read the Library of Alexandria / to bat your eyelashes and keep schtum.’ The poem concludes: ‘the truth of it: woman answers back, ends up dead.’ That said, it is the great wonder and strength in Garland’s explorations of womanhood which overpowers this darkness.  

In ‘They are an oddness,’ the poet describes a female sea creature, who is taken home by her male owner and placed in a goldfish bowl which she quickly outgrows, followed by the sink and the bath. ‘You eat, and grow. Your tentacles climb / the tiles around the tub. You pool the floor with slime … You wrap your tongue around him, squeeze till he gasps.’ This glorious and disturbing image is fantastical, and in keeping with the otherworldliness echoed throughout Garland’s work.

We venture beyond the earth in many of the poems of this collection: In ‘The dark at the end of the tunnel,’ ‘A woman walks upon the ocean floor. / Her skirt balloons around her legs / with the slow grace of a manta ray … Her stride is a keel, her chin a prow. She cleaves the thickness.’ This is one of many poems where our subject morphs into something other: ‘She no longer employs the agony of air in, air out.’ Our subject inhabits places beyond our reach, beyond her physical being, quite often disappearing, as in the final poem ‘Bowing out.’ 

In What Girls Do in the Dark we contemplate vast expanses in space and time, beyond us. There is fear but with this mystical ability to shape-shift and explore beyond what’s possible there is power and hope - summarised beautifully in ‘Biography of a comet in the body of a dog’: 

          Every time 
          I toss hope away it brings it back, drops it 
          at my feet, tongue drooling a glittering rope.

And there is also power and hope in the final sentence of ‘Personal aphelion’: ‘Permit darkness, find light.’ Garland even manages to approach grief with positivity and beauty in ‘Now that you are not-you,’ my favourite poem of the collection (I’m not exaggerating to say it moved me to tears). The infinite wonder of a spirit and the letting go of death is so beautifully explored: ‘like fireflies stopped in a jar, / and dying is the slow unscrewing of the lid.’ 

This is a collection full of opposites; vulnerable strength, persecuted freedom, imagined realities, but ultimately any darkness is dwarfed by the incredible, shimmering and unfathomable beauty of space, and our insignificance and importance within it. 

About the reviewer
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid's Arrow competitions, and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth contest. Her debut pamphlet Lost & Found is published by Hedgehog Press.  

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Lost Girl" by J. R. Summer

This is a mesmerising book. The cliché unputdownable is very apt here, but it is no cliché. I could not put his book down until I’d finished it. It intoxicates the reader as it delves into the trauma that is Bi-Polar Disorder. The condition is wrought clear to the reader as the Lost Girl of the title, Rebecca, suffers and self-harms her way through the story whilst high on recreational drugs and drink or low on her prescription drugs. Her case is extreme yes, but so relatable. Suffering under an abusive father and an alcoholic mother when her sister was taken away from her home, she has faced crisis after personal crisis, from childhood through to the current time.

She is able to hide the reality of the crisis that her life is from everyone, even her caring sister. Her whole life is a lie and we recognise this as the writing is so clever.

Her life now is tinged with violence and aggression. She metes it out but also welcomes it and she falls under the spell of an unsuitable married man where sex seems like everything, though she wants more. She follows him to Tokyo and her life spirals out of control as he rejects her, and she pursues a course with terrifying consequences.

Told in first person we really do feel her pain and live through the descriptions of the disaster that is her personal life.

My only problem is the ending, too abrupt and with too many things unresolved, though in a way that is also perfect as we can decide what happens to Rebecca after her final act of defiance.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 65. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for 20 years and coached girls & women’s basketball for over 30 years. He regularly teaches at Creative Writing workshops in and around Leicester. He takes notes for students with special needs at Leicester University. For his Creative Writing MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He is also writing a crime series set in the Great War and the early Twenties. The first part, Poppy Flowers at the Front was published by Brigand Press, London in March 2020. You can read a review of it here

Monday 12 October 2020

Review by Matthew Bright of "The Fear Talking" by Chris Westoby

A prologue to this review: I come from the same small town as the author; his older brother (who appears in The Fear Talking) was my friend through primary school; I got on the same bus, followed the same tortuously long route to the same college, studied the same subjects with the same tutors. Even the music overlaps to a startling degree. Reading this memoir was chock full of moments of incredibly specific recognition, from the pathways and hideaways around Barton and the Humber to the unnerving shock of being addressed with your name by the college principal you'd never met. But not only those—as a reader whose own adolescence and early adulthood suffered more than its share of anxiety there were so many other moments that resounded, seemed familiar: the constant imagining of worst-case outcomes; the excuses planned out weeks ahead; the endless, endless calculations. All of which is a long-winded way to say that reading The Fear Talking was a profoundly moving and uniquely personal experience for me, but what follows is—as best I can—a review for everyone else.

The Fear Talking begins when the memoirist, Chris Westoby, is sixteen years old. September brings with it the start of a new routine: an hour-long journey in a dusty, packed bus across country to Leggott College. But at the same time Chris is suffering from building, debilitating anxiety and the routine swiftly becomes something else: a nervous, nauseated journey to college only to return by the next bus if he's lucky, or on less good days he will let the bus go by and he'll while away the hours tramping around the fields surrounding Barton until he can safely go home and claim it's an 'early day, remember?' He obsesses constantly about digestion—worries in every situation that he might be about to experience a bout of vomiting or diarrhoea, plans every situation by his distance from a bathroom; this builds into a fixation on germs and cleanliness and a quasi-religious fixation with being 'punished.' His inability to articulate how pervasive the anxiety is complicates his relationships with those around him—his parents, his girlfriend, his friends.

The blurbs on the inside of the cover focus on The Fear Talking as a memoir of anxiety and its benefit to readers who wish to understand living with anxiety as the author has. In that regard The Fear Talking does a superlative job; it strikes the tricky balance of using repetition (the cycle of envisioning worst-case scenarios; the obsessive planning of timings to avoid disaster; the counting of tablets; the protective rituals)  to create an immersive sense of what it feels like to live this way. Footnotes run throughout as a bubbling ever-present sub-narrative that insert a litany of worries into mundane moments. On a purely practical-writer level, it's an astonishing feat to maintain this without it becoming frustrating to read; instead it conveys a deep sense of exactly how exhausting it is. Much of the tension of The Fear itself derives from the author's inability to articulate his feelings to those around him, but as a memoir it does an inarguably vivid job of putting it into words. As a window into the experience of anxiety for those who have never experienced it in this way, it's illuminating; as a reflection for those who may be experiencing it without yet having words to explain it, it's invaluable.

Beyond this, though, The Fear Talking is also an adept picture of adolescence;  if the idea of a mental health memoir isn't something that might ordinarily catch your interest, Westoby is also telling a vivid coming-of-age story. It's richly detailed, well-observed and often very funny. He has a light touch in creating the 'characters' that thread throughout—especially in capturing both the crassness and subtleties of teenage boys and their friendships—and in building the small-but-significant defeats and victories that mark the path. Tensions rise between the author and both his girlfriend and his parents, the latter in particular skilfully handled. His sometimes-strained relationship with Emma is rife with complex contradictions—she is both support and catalyst for anxiety—and Westoby certainly cuts himself no slack. A note at the end thanks his parents for supporting him in writing a book that could 'only hurt to read,' but their inability to understand while still trying to help is sympathetic and moving. For a story that is so much about being scared, this is writing at its most fearless.

About the reviewer
Matthew Bright is a writer, editor and designer who's never sure what order to put those in. His fiction has appeared in Tor, Nightmare, Lightspeed, among others, and collected in his Lambda Literary Award finalist collection Stories To Sing In The Dark (Lethe Press, 2019). He is the editor of a number of anthologies and by day works as a book designer. With Christopher Black, he's co-author of the experimental novella Between the Lines, which was reviewed here. You can find him at @mbrightwriter on twitter, or

Monday 5 October 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "Seventy Percent Water" by Jeanette Sheppard


In the title story of her debut flash fiction collection, Seventy Percent Water, Jeanette Sheppard describes how a woman’s body transforms from the usual seventy percent water to a hundred percent after a relationship ends. ‘In the sea she reformed and swam away from the storm.’ 

Sheppard has a natural flair for the obscure. In 'Trumpets,' a woman who wanted her arms to be more ‘finely tuned’ ends up with trumpets for arms. On the surface this is a piece dealing with the practical repercussions of having arms that no longer bend and are made of cold metal, but in reality it’s about the deterioration of her relationship. ‘This morning, as he left for work, I saw him glance at my brass arms and swallow a sigh.’ 

Although there is a wide variety of stories, it is in her stories about old age and all the frustrations and fears that come with that – for both the older person, and those caring for them – that Sheppard truly shines. 

In 'Mirror in the Bird Bath,' the main character puts her mirror in the bird bath because ‘the new one at physio said you had to adapt to your circumstances’ and ‘she had dementia, she knew that, but it didn’t make her a fool’; rage ignites in 'Kindling' at the main character’s brother who takes no responsibility for the care of their mother; in 'Domestic Fairy Tale,' the main character’s ‘mother lays in her hospital bed, reading over and over the two sheets of A4 … attached to the cupboard doors explaining where she is,’ as her care plan is discussed, just out of earshot; 'The Last Time I visited My Mum' hits hard when the mother produces a photo, saying ‘Look, it’s my daughter!’ 

Seventy Percent Water is an accomplished debut flash fiction collection with rich imagery and beautiful language. 

About the reviewer

Laura Besley is a full-time mum to two young boys and squeezes her writing time into the bookends of her day. She has recently been listed by TSS Publishing as one of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fiction writers with her story ‘On Repeat’ (Reflex Fiction). Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020 and her collection of micro fiction, 100neHundred, will be published in May 2021. She tweets @laurabesley