Thursday 31 December 2020

Review by Karen Rust of "City of O" by C. M. Taylor

This is an engaging and fast-paced read that sets the scene immediately. A bomb hits the factory where country boy Juan’s parents work, orphaning him. As Juan surveys the rubble, a stout man in a bowler hat rises from the embers, points at him, and heads towards the city. Four other figures appear from the devastation, dressed as colourful harlequins. They head off in the opposite direction, never acknowledging Juan. 

Juan has three choices: to stay in the village, to head to the city, or to follow the harlequins. He chooses the city and is talent-spotted by the mysterious Alex to join the Boundless, a higher echelon of city society.  

C. M. Taylor builds his world with precise strokes, never telling more than is needed. The city is full of familiar places, from the Sydney Opera House to the Louvre and Kings College Chapel. The rich can pay to have a beach, or the Alps brought into the city on a whim. City society has a strict hierarchy with Extras and Intransigents at the bottom, The Boundless (the movers and shakers) in the middle, and Shapers (trendsetters) at the top. Juan is living the life, earning big as a trader with the clothes and flat you’d expect and a non-stop round of parties, drugs, and transitory hook ups, delivered in other worldly form. 

Chapters about Juan’s life in the city alternate with those about the travelling harlequins. Whilst the city chapters are dry satire, the harlequin tales are bawdy and surreal with references that link their path to Juan’s as they journey through the desert and eventually reach the city. 

City of O is pure escapism and great fun to read. An allegory for materialism versus meaning in life, it will make you laugh, flinch, and ponder. Highly recommended. 

About the reviewer
Karen Rust has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. Her work features in literary magazines including Mooky Chick, Ellipsiszine & Cabinet of Heed. She ghost-writes biographies for Story Terrace and runs creative writing workshops for young people through Writing East Midlands. She is currently working on a YA cli-fi thriller which she hopes to finish by Easter.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Review by Rachel J. Fenton of "Yes But What Is This? What Exactly?" by Ian McMillan

With its searching title, Yes But What Is This? What Exactly?, Ian McMillan’s Smith and Doorstop pamphlet asks what a lot of Brits did, indeed a lot of us everywhere did, about Brexit, capturing the regional and international mindset from the kick-off (yes, there’s football among these 16 poems, more on that in a minute). 

One of the strongest Brexit poems, 'Between Junction 35a and Junction 36,' begins: 'The truck pulled up on the hard shoulder / and a curtain at the back opened theatrically,' exposing the racist pantomime put on by some pro-Brexit politicians who would have the media believe migrant workers and refugees were to blame for the government’s throwing the UK into financial ruin. 

Financial crashes have historically been linked to the government’s funding of its military interests, and McMillan hints at this 'A Financial Crisis in Three Parts,' with the line 'They smile before / they start the waterboarding.' 

But there’s much more to this collection than money and Tories. There’s a sense that McMillan goes more personal with these poems than usual. Yes, there’s his hallmark funny observations, but there’s some real evidence of a man reflecting not only on how he arrived at the present time, but where he wants to go; something of a referendum of the heart takes place in just twenty-five pages. 

McMillan’s known as a Barnsley poet, but his concerns here, while grounded on home turf (another football reference), speak of more global issues that enable him to demonstrate his emotional intelligence as well as his wit, which, when it comes to gender isn’t always as on point as his geo-political politics, but it’s a small point given the empathy shown in this collection. 

His empathy for a player subjected to racial abuse during one of McMillan’s beloved football games replays in four stanzas, as if slow-motion, the moments leading up to the attack, grounding them in the poet’s living room. McMillan’s skill in ‘Lighter’ is that he makes the reader feel the action is happening in their living room. The only disappointment of this collection is that just when you think it’s all over, sadly it is. You’ll wish there were more poems. 

About the reviewer
Rachel J Fenton is a writer from South Yorkshire now living in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her poems have been published in English, The Rialto, Magma, and various anthologies, and her pamphlet Beerstorming with Charlotte Brontë in New York is forthcoming from Ethel Press in April 2021. 

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Review by Serge Larocque of "Horizontal Rain" by U. H. Dematagoda

Sartre meets Nietzsche, meets Irvine Welsh: U. H. Dematagoda’s Horizontal Rain stands as a contemporary testament to male angst. 

The novel hits hard with a crescendo of emotion as the main character’s girlfriend leaves him, and sets the stage for the cycle of rebirth and death that steers the narrative. Each passage of the story hits you like a hangover, and follows the main character from one binge to the next as he “searches for the sublime,” whatever or whoever that might be. In any case, it's a futile exercise that gracefully and elegantly embodies the spirit of the Absurd. The anxiety that Dematagoda expresses in this novel is that no reader is very far from being the main character of this story. Every human is the common denominator.

Throughout the novel, Dematagoda expertly describes the evolution of human emotions and physical repercussions of anxiety on the body. The author’s prowess with the writing of feelings is unmatched, and the narrative encourages readers to remember times when they felt what is experienced by the main character - stress, sexual tension, fear, addiction, confusion, arrogance, love, loss of control, and the list goes on. The torrent of the narrative is only broken by long bouts of academic philosophical interlocutions veiled as casual chats over pints at the pub.

Dematagoda weaves a story that is both gritty yet elegant. Existential and nihilistic themes are at the forefront of the narrative, and Dematagoda presents these academic notions in ways that are easily digestible by readers. Continental philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would be proud to see the contemporary application of their maxims or concepts in this novel. This story takes its place in the vanguard of Scottish Absurdism and carries the torch passed on by novelists such as Irvine Welsh. 

Horizontal Rain by U. H. Dematagoda expands on the Scottish grit-novel and adds a philosophical dimension to the shock value this literary style naturally carries. 

About the reviewer

Dr. Serge Larocque completed his Ph.D in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. After living in Europe for a few years, he returned to his native Ottawa, Ontario, where he finds time to write between work and violin lessons.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Review by Charlie Hill of "Gamble" by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

Towards the end of Gamble, the excellent second novel from Black Country writer Kerry Hadley-Pryce, the eponymous lead character brings to mind – inaccurately – the opening line of a poem by Louis Macneice. The line is: ‘Time was away and somewhere else’ and it is this sense of temporal respite that Gamble is fondly (desperately?) imagining he can conjure from an extra-marital dalliance.

He’s wrong of course. Because there’s no respite here, temporal or otherwise, at least not until the very last line of the book (and that is less than convincing). Instead, delivered in prose that is as unsentimental and spare as it is affecting, Gamble is subjected to a relentless psychic-beat down as he scrabbles to escape the consequences of past behaviours.

It's a gripping, urgent read. Its depiction of a man left out of his depth by fatherhood and ill-health, and the distance between who he is and what he’d like to be, reminded me a little of a novel called Kids Stuff by Henry Sutton. What Hadley-Pryce does particularly well – and this is where Gamble echoes her equally accomplished debut, The Black Country – is depict the compromises and delusions of an airless marriage. That and the menace of the setting, of course. Here this includes the Stourbridge canal: 'If you look at the canal, it’s like looking at some people, you can tell there is a darkness trembling just beneath the surface there, being suppressed. There is a sense of complication. There’s nothing benign about them. Gamble, for example, fears what he does not yet know, and his anxiety escapes in wefts. He has a fair amount of insight into himself, he’ll say. Yet he’ll admit that facing the truth of it isn’t easy. It is mostly the insight that’s the issue, actually, because when you suspect, when you think you know something – some darkness or other might be shifting about inside you – but you try to ignore it, or replace it, or overlay it with other thoughts, other actions, then you’re asking for trouble, aren’t you?’

About the reviewer
Charlie Hill is a writer from Birmingham. His latest book is a memoir, I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal, which is out now from Repeater Books. You can read a review of I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal on Everybody's Reviewing here

Friday 18 December 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat

          On the other side of the door was the same kind of sticker, with the NOTHING
          scratched out by hand and replaced with EVERYTHING, so that the altered sticker read
          EVERYTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR. Next to that was another black-and-
          white sticker that read YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT.
- Edwidge Danticat, Everything Inside

Everything Inside is a short story collection by prize-winning Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Each of the eight stories explores the idea of belonging and how, or if, it is possible to achieve this when no longer living in your homeland. 

Danticat is a master of the opening sentence. None is greater than this one, which in a single sentence of 24 words, sets up the entire first story, "Dosas": "Elsie was with Gaspard, her live-in renal-failure patient, when her ex-husband called to inform her that his girlfriend, Olivia, had been kidnapped in Port-au-Prince."

Each story – varying in length from 18 to 39 pages – is daring in subject matter, creating a sense of danger and ramping up the pace. And even when the situation is more every day, for example in "Sunrise, Sunset," which is about dementia and the challenges of motherhood, this supposedly normal situation within a normal family is pushed to the very outer limits of possibility. 

All the stories are about the idea of home and whether we can truly feel at home anywhere. In "Seven Stories," two childhood friends meet again as adults: “‘Home, sweet home,’ Callie said, trying to perhaps put [Kimberly] at ease.” Using this commonplace phrase to welcome her friend is underscored with the fact that this is Kimberley’s first time on Haiti, despite being of Haitian heritage, and everything feels strange and new. 

Every story in Everything Inside is deeply moving and only strengthened as being part of a collection which I would highly recommend.  

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.