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.

Friday 27 November 2020

Review of Sheaf Poetry Festival (4) by Jon Wilkins

What a wonderful way to spend a weekend, indulging in the impressive poets featured in the Sheaf Poetry Festival held on YouTube and accessible to all via Zoom, Twitter @SheafPoetryFest, and on The performances from all poets will be available on YouTube. Search Sheaf Poetry.

Having earlier attended their Ecopoetry and Found Poetry workshop, I ended my Sheaf Poetry Festival experience by listening to a performance of poetry about climate change with Carrie Etter and Caleb Parkin. I was not disappointed. Using many of the techniques described in their workshops they proceeded to eviscerate climate change deniers with their powerful words and performances. Words can deliver change. The right words that is. Poetry can make a difference in raising awareness of matters of vital importance and we see this here.

Caleb Parkin read from work looking at gendered aspects of ecology. He talked about writing as if in drag. Taking on another persona to get your message across. And what a message.

Caleb thinks that who we have in charge is important in climate change. He read from poems welcoming change. 

Caleb felt that using schlocky pop culture in your writing means you can have fun writing your own works with ecological themes.

Inspired by Dylan Thomas he was able to combine the memory of Thomas and his work for a petrochemical giant. ‘By the Writing shed at Laugharne’:

          unliving water
          Neither fresh nor salty nor brackish
          Water which once had fierce appetites
          Now shredding like cellophane
          Popped like a dot of bubble wrap …

... giving us the sense of pollution of the ocean as we allow it to be damaged beyond repair. Simple writing, full of the horror of pollution and climate damage.

Carrie Etter read from her collection The Weather in Normal about her hometown in Illinois. She divided the book into three arcs about the loss of where she comes from. This started with the death of her parents, then the sale of the family house, and then the effect of climate change in Illinois. Throughout the collection, she shows a widening arc of loss. Not just her family, but the environment she loved and the loss of the ecology she had known. She is angry. She is disappointed. She is not sure if we can overcome the problems, but in her writing, she highlights them and brings the issue to new audiences. 

She performed a ten-minute prose poem from the collection and the images are etched in my mind. She is well worth a read and her readings tonight ended on a hopeful note as she described happy memories of her hometown. Beautifully written:

          … A song in the body
          The body in Illinois.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. 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. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here

Thursday 26 November 2020

Review of Sheaf Poetry Festival (3) by Jon Wilkins

It was a real pleasure to listen to the work of three poets; Tom Sastry, Phoebe Stuckes & Will Harris at the Sheaf Poetry Festival via Facebook.

Tom Sastry told us that reading his work was a pleasure for him. It was also a pleasure for us as he read a section from ‘a man’s house catches fire.’ He told us that 'the fire in the book is the worst thing in the world happening without being named …' He wrote about experiences that are unmentionable. His house is a furnace but he didn’t get burnt. We heard him tell us that suffering is isolation as he spoke about Covid. He had an interesting look at the situation in his poem 'Screening interview Bristol 2032' where he was asked 'Did you think it was enough to be kind?' and we have to ask ourselves: was it? 'The fire still raging and me not dead' perhaps sums up his outlook on life. A poignant look at contemporary Britain.

Phoebe Stuckes read some beautiful poems from her latest book Platinum Blonde as well as others from her catalogue. She conveys a cruel version of her life as in the poem which included the line 'My life is the joke and everyone is pointing.' Her narrator does not play the victim, she is too strong for that, but she does lay herself open to disappointment in relationships which she describes openly. The to and fro in her life is documented cleverly. In ‘Bad Girls Club’ she reminisces:

           How could you really know yourself
           If you’ve never had that fake hair extension
           Ripped from the back of your head.

So much is going on in those three lines about life and the social bubble she lived in. The sadness of love and loss is exemplified by the lines:

           Is it too late to tell you this is what love looks like
           Holding her name like a cough sweet …

It's a strange allusion but one we understand as the numbness pervades her mouth then heart.

In ‘Paris’ she tells us: 'All I think about is love and money, marrying for money and falling in love…' Then: 'I don’t want that kind of love or money. I want to be stinking drunk in a restaurant.' She knows what she wants and is tough enough to get it despite the tender nature of much of her work.

Finally Will Harris read some of his work. He found it strange reading to his computer. In ‘My Name is Dai’ we see a man disintegrating after the death of his wife:

          Try a little tenderness, mmm nuh uh uh. That was when Susie saw
          the haze descend. Like an explosion in a quarry the inward collapse
          rippled out across his face, throwing clouds of dust into the sky.
          I’m sorry. A man shouldn’t cry. I haven’t cried since I was a boy.
          I haven’t ...

He read from ‘The white jumper’:

          We were sitting upstairs and in the whitest end-of-day light
          the walls white too it felt not just like we were above
          ground but that in spite of being in Covent
          Garden we were on a ridge above a
          forest looking down our feet in
          thicket dark our heads
          in thickest

This is a wonderful story, telling us of his search for his white jumper. The format changes throughout the narrative and his reading caught this perfectly. You need to have a look at the full work.

Indeed all three poets deserve more attention. As a taster this was a wonderful introduction to their work.

Festival Director Suzannah Evans and her Team Angelina D’Roza, Brian Lewis, Katie McLean, Ellen McLeod, Amy Smith, and Elle Turner have done an amazing job curating the performances and events over the weekend of November 20-22. This was a pay what you feel festival and easily accessible to everyone and anyone on YouTube! To access: follow the poetry on @SheafPoetryFest and visit where the performances will be available after the weekend has finished.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. 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. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here. 

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Review of Sheaf Poetry Festival (2) by Jon Wilkins

After yesterday’s wonderful introduction to the Sheaf Poetry Festival, I was lucky enough to take part in an "Ecopoetry and Found Poetry" workshop held by Carrie Etter and Caleb Parkin.

As I stated yesterday one thing about the pandemic is that it is opening up new windows onto the world of poetry, in this case through Zoom. The Sheaf Poetry Festival is led by Festival Director Suzannah Evans and her fantastically hardworking team of Angelina D’Roza, Brian Lewis, Katie McLean, Ellen McLeod, Amy Smith, and Elle Turner and held over the weekend of November 20-22, 2020.

Prior to the workshop, we were sent some downloadable documents about the threats of climate change and oil development to Alaska.

I will concentrate on Carrie Etter's workshop. Immediately she engaged with the audience and a conversation was started. She explained to me and 24 other participants what Eco Poetry and Found Poetry was.

Ecopoetry is any poetry with an ecological basis.

She spoke of Found Poetry and gave us a definition to work from by the Academy of American Poets (a great resource in itself). They thought Found Poetry was a refashioning of existing text, the literary equivalent of a collage, which is a beautiful thought.

Bringing these two concepts together, Carrie showed examples from the work of Wendy Mulford, Kathleen Jamie, and Peter Reading - all poets I will now engage with as their work seems to be innovative and extremely readable.

Carrie spoke of the four techniques to be used in Found Poetry: Erasure, Interspersal, Dramatic Monologue and Shape and described how they worked in the context of the poem.

Caleb brought up the question of plagiarism and told us we had to be careful but in most cases, we would be covered by free use. The exception was song lyrics as they could cost a fortune if used, but song titles were in the public domain.

Carrie spoke of changing the music of words which is a beautiful phrase and if you contemplate writing some Found Poetry, it is what you should keep in your head.

So we had the Alaskan documents in front of us and the writing began!

This was a pay what you feel festival and easily accessible to everyone and anyone. To access: follow them all on @SheafPoetryFest and visit where the performances will be available after the weekend has finished.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. 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. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Review of Sheaf Poetry Festival (1) by Jon Wilkins

One thing about the pandemic is that it is opening up new windows onto the world that I would never have thought of before. Visiting a poetry festival online for one. I took the opportunity of visiting the Sheaf Poetry Festival led by Festival Director Suzannah Evans and her Festival Team Angelina D’Roza, Brian Lewis, Katie McLean, Ellen McLeod, Amy Smith, and Elle Turner over the weekend of November 20-22. This was a pay what you feel festival and easily accessible to everyone and anyone. Oh, the beauty of Zoom and YouTube! Covid has certainly been a boon to both these platforms! To access: follow them all on @SheafPoetryFest and visit where the performances will be available after the weekend has finished. The website for Sheaf Poetry Festival is here.

Saturday I watched performances by three Carcanet Press poets, namely Isabel Galleymore, Mina Gorji & Kei Miller.

Mina Gorji is an emigrant from Iran and her poems echo her upbringing and her travel. She read short poems full of simple rhymes and rhythms with haunting echoes of where she had come from. The unusual “Tenacity of Dust” is short and sweet and to the point. She wrote of the migration of Pinkfoot Geese in Norfolk in “Writing into Winter”:

          Across the sky …
          V M V W M V I
          More foreign than Icelandic runes.
          The skein of geese is spelling out a secret song.

As she read those words I could see the geese fly. A beautiful description. She talked of the relationship between nature and the natural. To highlight this she talked of the Oak Gall Wasp another emigrant to our country brought here to use their gall to make ink. Something else I learnt today! "Smuggled in Aleppo Oak / An alien acorn.”

She moved to the UK when five and her poems reflect this idea of migration and immigration of spiders in fruit or dandelions to the New World. Her story is all connected to this feeling of being an alien in a foreign world.

I don’t suppose you could be more of an alien than as a resident poet in the Amazon, but that is what Isabel Galleymore did and the poems she read showcased this.

Her prose poem on spider monkeys told us “ … each limb an animal of its own.”

When discussing the moth trap she captured the atmosphere of the Jungle when she wore a blouse that acted as a second moth trap. She found the atmosphere of the jungle full of sex and death, She had mixed and matching feelings of past and present of home and in Brazil. Her language is sensual. “I can’t stop the air indulging in me.”

She knows that “ … the more I let myself be touched the less I will be bitten.” We see and feel the crawl of insects upon flesh in hair, on clothes.

We meet the scarlet macaws and the visitors give them names, humanising them and then watching them argue and flirt as if they really were human. They try to communicate but fail and then they cant bear to look into each other’s eyes when they leave, having failed to connect with the birds.

She has however connected with the reader and as with Miona Gorij I think you should read more of Isabel's work.

Kei Miller read several poems and his final one about homophobia in Jamaica is stunning. His protagonist had to leave his village when he was outed. He said, “When I left I went through the bushes because if I’d taken the road they’d have killed me.”

Miller had hoped he'd never hear that again. Unfortunately, it was not to be. A dark and eloquently tragic anti-paean to homophobic attitudes.

What a wonderful introduction to the Sheaf Poetry Festival.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-five. 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. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here. His website is here

Friday 20 November 2020

Review by Colin Gardiner of "Maskwork" by Gregory Leadbetter

I read somewhere that poetry is an echo-chamber for the mind. I can’t remember who wrote that, but that idea stuck with me, and when I read or write poems I am always searching for the wave.

The poems in Maskwork by Gregory Leadbetter reverberate around the mind like tuning forks, illuminating hidden corners of the subconscious.

The instinctive nature of concealing one’s true identity is deftly revealed in the clear and direct syntax of the title poem:

          To teach the mask I make
          to tell the truth, I wear it
          as my own: feel its weight tilt

Leadbetter’s imagery is lyrical and evocative, whilst still grounded in the everyday. 

His style of magic-realism uses the effects of altered perception and the redemptive magic of music to reveal moments of self discovery and awareness that resonate with the reader:

          And then I was there: the blind road
          emptied into a field, as if
          where I stepped a sudden breath 
          had blown the earth to a sphere of glass.

I was particularly moved by the poem ‘Personal Computing’ where Leadbetter conveys the harrowing effects of dementia of a loved one through the prism of childhood memories:

          The future has come and gone.
          I am still watching the flickering screen
          waiting for all we have lost to load.

I found echoes of pure beauty and mystery in this intriguing collection of accessible poetry. I hope more readers will catch the waves too.

About the reviewer
Colin Gardiner has recently completed his MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Coventry with his husband. He writes short stories and poems and has been published by The Ekphrastic Review, Ink Pantry, The Midnight Street Press and the Creative Writing at Leicester blog. More of his work can be read here

Thursday 19 November 2020

Review by James Holden of "Paris Bride" by John Schad

A woman, a bride even, or at least a ‘supposed bride,’ walks through the bustling streets of London on her way to see a doctor. Then, another day, this same woman walks into a bustling court room and, a short while later, walks out a bride no longer, neither supposed nor legally. The woman who walked in as Marie Schad walks out as Marie Wheeler, born again as the person she had once been.

At the same time, this Marie walks out of history. In Paris Bride, our author, John Schad, walks behind her, following her or finding her as she progresses through literary history – in the pages of works by Woolf, Kafka, Mallarmé and more. He finds her back in Paris, only a Paris that has become a ‘manuscript of a city,’ a modernist space in which identities are rewritten, so that our Marie becomes, amongst others, Marie, the wife of Ferdinand de Saussure, one of Mallarme’s four Maries, and a thinker of the words of Dr Marie Stopes. She is spotted by surrealists and wanders by Walter Benjamin. Here, for John Schad, to quote one of his major intellectual preoccupations, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, ‘there is nothing outside of the text.’ Or, rather, Schad works under the same assumption as that most Parisian of modernists, albeit one not mentioned in Paris Bride, Marcel Proust, which is to say he seems to believe that ‘real life, life finally uncovered … is literature.’ The real life of Marie Schad, née Wheeler, was, for John Schad, lived in literature, and can be uncovered, and perhaps even finally regained, amongst its pages.

Paris Bride asks throughout the question of legitimacy: the legitimacy of Johannes and Marie Schad’s marriage; the legitimacy of Johannes's ‘second’ marriage to the other Marie, and, by extension, the children that issued from it; and, more broadly, the legitimacy of literary criticism. Here, via Kafka, the university is shown to be a court. But more, Paris Bride puts university scholars in court, and watches as they prosecute themselves. John Schad says of himself that he is a ‘bad’ scholar. Not for him what Benjamin calls the ‘conventional scholarly attitude.’ Instead, Schad is, he declares, in possession of ‘useless papers … found somewhere toward the broken back of a broken drawer’ and is ‘guilty of misreading.’

And yet, to read Paris Bride and its author in this way is to misread them. This book asks not for ‘an impromptu or hasty reading’ but for something altogether more ‘exquisite.’ For what ‘Scholar Schad’ offers here, with consummate skill, is a legitimate and sophisticated marriage of scholarship and storytelling.

About the reviewer
James Holden is an independent academic and writer. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian, and a proud nerd. The author of In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained, his recent work has focused on the piano playing and aesthetics of the Romantics. His website is:

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Review by Louise Brown of "Lost & Found" by Vic Pickup


Lost & Found, a collection of poetry by Vic Pickup, takes us on a journey of loss, caused by war, dementia, Covid, wintertime and children becoming adults, along with other forms of endings that we must all traverse. The writing is stunning and reminds you what good poetry does. These poems summon up, in concise stanzas, the vistas of human experience and loss to which we can all relate. The collection is accessible and  haunting.

When a boy is shot in the trenches, the reality of death is summoned with the lines:

          and then flung sack heavy,
          a boy across your lap,
          red berries leaking hot,
          and sticky on your arms and fingers.

When a mother reflects on her growing child, she does so with imaginative force when she says: 'Her tea parties will soon be upgraded from teddy bears’ picnics / to speed dates with Darth Varder and Barbie –'

There is also the joyful evocation of nature in these lines describing the start of a day:

          The Dawntreader wades through a mist
          that sleeps on the towpath,
          pouring onto the canal between rushes,
          creeping up the banks in wisps.
          He regards the heron perched upon a diving twig,
          watching, waiting. A dipped beak
          and a glint of silver hangs limp.

I wanted to keep reading and rereading these poems. They are like food for the soul in these uncertain times, and I urge any reader to lose themselves in the beautiful poems created by this talented poet.

About the reviewer
Louise Brown has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester and has poems published in Acumen, and online with the Ink Pantry. She is currently completing her first draft novel, a legal thriller, and hopes to secure an agent to represent her.  She is also a mother to three, a part-time employment solicitor and lives on a farm with her husband in the Welland Valley, in Rutland.  

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Review by Peter Flack of "Paris Bride" by John Schad

A book review usually tells the reader what a book is about. In the case of Paris Bride, however, that would not be in the spirit of what the author has created. So this review will tell you what Paris Bride is not.

To begin with, it isn't a novel, although it undoubtedly is a fiction. Nor is it a biography or a memoir. How could it be? The main subject of the narrative, we are told, disappeared in 1925. That is, of course, assuming she ever existed at all. So what remains is a speculative memoir. The story of what Marie Wheeler / Schad's life might have been after she divorced and returned to Paris. The possible life of a possible person.

Without authentic documentation, John Schad constructs this history from other stories. From other Maries that found their way into poetry and literature.  From the efforts of artists and writers to identify what truth looks like. Consequently, as the readers, we embark on a tour of decades of modernist writings that were buffeted by wars, suppressed by the whims of dictators and then finally interrogated by know-it-all critics and linguists. Suddenly we find ourselves in the company of an array of authors and we watch as these gifted surrogates piece together elements of what Marie Schad could have been, what life is. It's a fascinating, almost mesmerising feat of invention. A virtuoso conjuring trick.

That it comes with all the accoutrements of a non-fiction book – bibliography, textual endnotes, a postcript and an afterword - only adds to the sense of wonderment at what has been fabricated.

In the end we have the words of the author himself. The theme of Paris Bride is negation: we need to seek the 'nothing' of things, to see things as they really are not.

On reflection, what we have is, perhaps, the annotated life story of modernism itself.

About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher and the chair of Leicester's Everybody's Reading Festival. He was co-founder of the 'Whatever it Takes' project set up to promote reading and literacy in Primary schools.

Monday 2 November 2020

Review by Sara Read of "The Prisoner's Wife" by Maggie Brookes

If this fascinating story was not based on a true account given to the author by a survivor of a Second World War workcamp, it would be scarcely believable. The tale is that of the intelligent and resourceful Izabela, a twenty-year-old Czech woman, who falls for an English prisoner and arranges, at great risk, a clandestine marriage for them. Instead of honeymoon, the couple barely have time to consummate their match before heading off on the run from the Nazis. 

Before leaving her mother’s farm, Lizzy disguises herself as a boy soldier, cropping her hair and taking some of her brother’s clothes. This decision ultimately saves her life, for when she is arrested with husband Bill, the Nazis accept without question that Izzy is a young soldier named Algernon Cousins, who is now mute through shellshock. Brookes ably conveys the terror that Izzy feels at every moment, expecting her secret to be uncovered at the mandatory delousing and showers, or when her period arrives. The consequence of this would be certain death. Yet, instead of being unmasked, the story shows how the men of Izzy and Bill’s hut rally round to protect her, forming a shield while she washes out her bloodied rags, and reminding her to feign shaving when the guards are around.  

One of the reasons the story is so compelling is the sophisticated narrative techniques Brookes employs. Izzy’s story is told through personal narration, which encourages the reader to invest in her character, inviting our sympathy. The chapters in which Izzy speaks are alternated with third person narration of the story from the point of view of husband Bill, or from the external narrator’s perspective. The way Izzy copes with her forced silence, her lice-infestations and extreme malnourishment, the latter leading to amenorrhoea within a couple of months, and yet somehow holds her own with the men she is incarcerated alongside is one of hope. Maggie Brookes’ meticulously researched narrative offers a real and vivid insight into life in a prisoner of war workcamp, where death is an almost mundane fact of life. What it reveals is the power of having a reason to go on, to find the strength to persevere when the odds are stacked so very highly against you.  

About the reviewer
Sara Read's debut novel, a work of historical fiction called The Gossips' Choice was published in 2020. She is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University, and her personal website is or tweet her @saralread.

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

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Review by Sarah James of "Dressing for the Afterlife" by Maria Taylor

Even just a few poems into Maria Taylor’s Dressing for the Afterlife, I realise there are many options for how to approach this collection, many themes and threads that I can trace through it.

The opening ‘Prologue’ gives us dressing for the afterlife as learning to 'breathe again,' having stepped into the moment where 'you ended a former existence / and zipped yourself into the unknown.'

The examples of possible outfits to wear hint at the poems to come, as does the opening poem ‘She Ran’ with its list of things run past, the poet having taken up running at the age of forty. This culminates, as summer turns to autumn, with:

          I couldn’t get as far as I wanted.
          The lights changed. My ribs, my flaming heart
          and my tired, tired body burned.

In many ways, the following similarly beautifully pared, moving (and also at times humorous) poems enact and extend this opening, taking the reader through personal past experiences. Some read like the poet’s own; others feature advice, adopted voices and celebrity lives. The book closes with a counterpart to the opening poem ‘Woman Running Alone.’

Afterlife here is not what happens after death but the afterlives within this life, especially women as they age. 

          In summer I was a night-blooming flower.
          By autumn I was a hangover. Winter made me
          a Wall-Street Crash.

I used the word ‘personal’ earlier but this collection is personal in a universal sense, borrowing others’ clothes (experiences) and drawing out wider similarities and significances. This poem, 'I Began the Twenty-Twenties as a Silent Film Goddess,' is a film star talking (in industry terms), but it’s the continuing experience too of many other women now.

For me, Dressing for the Afterlife is also about finding, or reinventing, an individual’s sense of ‘self’ against this and many other backgrounds.

          I trespassed.
          At night I found myself ice-skating
          into someone else’s life.

I can read this poem ('Awake in His Castle') in a Bluebeard sense, but I feel it also chimes at a real life level – in trying to establish and make sense of individual identity, power dynamics and dangers at play all around us.

Another reading of the collection, not unconnected to that above and completely fitting with running, is the sense of everything in continuous flow. Water is a recurring image. 

‘The Floating Woman’ is a memorial to Lauren Stephen, half-sister of Virginia Woolf. The poignant Ophelia-like imagery has death / suicide as a sense of ‘returning’ to water, and life as rivers poured over the narrator. Everything feels fluid, form-changing, transient. This also applies to language: 'how every word / turned into water.'

Meanwhile, in 'The Fields,' 'rain dissolves / a  landscape you thought familiar' and the poem observes 'your place in this world an ever-shifting thing.'

Flow is present too in life’s dance and our steps of learning: 'We dance to learn about a part of ourselves / books can’t teach; it’s what our parents expect' (‘Learning the Steps’). In this case, that includes the moves of old island lives and leaping like salmon (water and flow), 'trying to catch scent of home, / as music pours through speakers like flood.'

It’s also in the passing and nature of time:

         People vanish into thin air every single day,
         even ghosts fade in time ….
         You’re no different. Look, here’s your own reflection.

More than this though, it’s in the pace of the lines, the use of recurring motifs, choices of line-breaks and punctuation, including the end of ‘Mr. Alessi Cuts the Grass.’ Here, a noise like a neighbour pushing 'something larger than dreams / over concrete' expands into a whole poem that ends on the full-flow leaving open of all possibilities of 'but for a moment –'

That the final poem of the collection ends with a similar dash is even more significant in these terms, as well as inviting the reader to re-submerge themselves in the collection, re-reading for more possibilities.  

Other strong elements for me in Dressing for the Afterlife include romantic hopes and family love, and with them the sense of belonging, or not belonging (as present in some of the poems already quoted).

In ‘The Distance,’ the narrator’s family can’t get the hang of England, as lives are scattered into flats, people calling to each other from balconies instead of olive groves:

         Years later I throw open my windows to rain
         knowing my aunt’s echoes won’t travel the distance,
         I’m here, I say to water, can’t you shout any louder?

Meanwhile, in ‘Role Model,’ famous and seemingly glamorous potential role models are rejected for the woman next-door with 'a walk that says I know where I’m going.' 

And yes, all these loop back and together with the elements of water, dance steps, the essence of ‘self,’ the nature of life, society and time: 'Maybe time moves like a figure of eight, / surging forwards then back on itself' (‘Loop’).

That poetry can, maybe even has to, exist outside of time is evident hopefully in the scope of what I’ve already quoted. Imagination does too and this is inherent in many of Taylor’s poems here, including those that place deft light-hearted observations side by side with sharper emotional insights and lines.

In ‘Hypothetical,’ the 'conversational frolic' of a friend asking the narrator if they’d sleep with Daniel Craig is a wonderfully humorous poem. But it also speaks to the nature of the world we live in with its sometimes obsession with celebrity-status and lives turned into public drama.  ‘How to Survive a Disaster Movie’ is similarly deliciously light-toned yet profoundly chilling. 

These are some of the ways I have read this collection. The beauty of strong poems is that they leave space for the reader to find their own truths in them, having given the images, ideas and narratives to do this with. This sense of multiplicity of paths and routes – in life, identity and reading – is most explicit in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ another poem that is simultaneously funny and heart / dream-breaking.

Reading and re-reading Dressing for the Afterlife, I’m struck by new and different striking images, lines and resonances. Each time, now matter how deep these may cut, I come away with a sense too of exhilaration, much like the woman of the closing poem:

          The rhythm fills her with flight – 
                                            and her wings,
                                                   what wings she has –                             

About the reviewer
Sarah James/Leavesley is a poet, fiction writer, journalist, photographer and editor, who also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her latest project is an Arts Council England funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room. Website: