Thursday, 15 April 2021

Review by Jenny Robb of "The Weight of Snow" by Pauline Rowe



Pauline Rowe’s new pamphlet, The Weight of Snow, is layered with generations of grief. The accidental death of a ten-year-old girl years ago affects the narrator’s life, and those of her family. The poems cleverly interweave the narrator’s past life, loves and losses against the backdrop of this tragedy, outlined starkly in 'A Letter to Nanna Bereaved':

          He saw her swept away 
          by the trailings of a lorry.  
   
          The old man writes:
          Even now I see her pennies
          spinning in the road.

Yet in this elegiac pamphlet there is also hope and redemption. In contrast to the 'silver anniversary of grief' for a son never born, we are given 'Delivery Room'; joy in the face of the pain and danger of imminent birth, where the bereaved 'Nanna' appears:

          'Pray hard that I may find eternal peace
          and yet reach heaven, reach my lovely girl.
          Pray hard that God may grant me my release.'
         
         Then as the final pain came, she was gone
         and headlong crashing into sound and light
         my glorious boy arrived, my peaceful son.

There is also a parade of sharply drawn characters that bring working-class Widnes to life, as  in 'Barnes Road, 1967': Wendy, who 'kept PG Tips cards / and badges from Robinson jam,' and Billy the lodger who 'blocked the hall / with his deafness and Triumph bike.' But the permafrost of these poems is never far away. Even in the poem celebrating a fifty-year old friend’s marriage in Spain, there is unfulfilled yearning to follow those 'whose souls must sing in the sun.'

Pauline Rowe has created a beautiful and memorable tribute to the collective grief of a family marked by tragedy, a grief that many will recognise in different forms.


About the reviewer
Jenny Robb, from Liverpool, started writing poetry after retiring from a career in Mental Health services. She has been published in both online and print magazines and in poetry anthologies. She has recent publications in Dream Catcher, Prole, Orbis, Ink, Sweat and Tears and The Dawntreader. Her debut pamphlet will be published by Yaffle Press in 2021.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "Among These Animals" by Gaynor Jones



Among These Animals is a searing novella-in-flash, as brutal as it is beautiful. Jones handles this niche form with exquisite expertise, weaving each story seamlessly into the next with perfect fluidity. 

Set against the sweeping beauty of rural Wales, Jones’s compelling narrative is a visceral, powerful exploration of complex themes including sibling rivalry, parental love, familial loss, guilt and grief, all told through the eyes of Carys, the eldest daughter of farmers, Derfel and Aelwen.     

Carys is a daddy’s girl who thrives on the gentle guidance and acknowledgement of her reserved father, a man continuously surprised by the colossal weight of love he feels for his daughter. Cerys hero worships him, and he adores her. Her mother, Aelwen, often fades into the background. 

The familial relationships are established beautifully by Jones in the opening stories. In 'Heavy Is the Head That Wears the Crown,' Derfel tells Carys the story of how he met her mother but Carys struggles to see her mother’s worth: 'Carys tries to picture her mother as a princess from one of her books … She can’t. She can picture her father easily though, with a crown on his head and a staff in his arms. As she falls asleep, courtiers bow around him.'

We hear how the idyll is threatened, with the arrival of three younger brothers, 'Owain and the twins' in 'Pecking Order': 'Carys … has sworn a lot more in the years since her brothers arrived … When she was the only one, breakfast was all for her. Warm bubbled crumpets dripping with greasy butter … But that was before the stupid boys came along. Now, Carys has to sit last at the table … Carys has to be last in everything except cleaning and tidying.'

One day, a devastating event alters everything, tearing the family apart and shattering Carys and Derfel’s relationship forever. Jones delves into the themes of guilt and grief with poignancy and precision, taking the reader on a heart-breaking journey as the family try to come to terms with their loss.  

Throughout the novella, Jones showcases her inimitable style, either by pushing the boundaries of social acceptance, with stories such as the disturbing title story, 'Among These Animals,' or by showcasing her exceptional ability to leave the reader reeling with her emotional sledgehammers, often wielded in stories that are just a few paragraphs long.

Among These Animals is tremendous debut novella-in-flash, powerful and poignant. It will leave the reader stunned.


About the reviewer
Kathy Hoyle is an MA graduate from the University of Leicester. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in a variety of literary magazines such as Virtualzine, Silver Apples, Reflex Fiction and Lunate. She has been shortlisted for the Exeter Short Story Prize, the Fish Publishing Memoir Prize and the Ellipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Prize. She recently received a Special Commendation in the Blinkpot Awards and won Third Prize in the HISSAC Flash fiction Competition. She is currently working on both a novella-in-flash and a short story collection, powered by tea and biscuits.

You can read more about Gaynor Jones's Among These Animals on Creative Writing at Leicester here.


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Review by Mahveen Syed of "A River Called Time" by Courttia Newland



Courttia Newland, well known for his scriptwriting of the BBC show Small Axe, takes a leap into the popular territory of speculative fiction with his latest and long-awaited novel. His previous works, including his debut novel, The Scholar, depict real-life situations and experiences of the West Indian community in both the UK and US. Despite this previous focus on realism, A River Called Time does not disappoint. This alternate reality where colonialism and slavery do not take place, allowing African traditions and religious practices to flourish throughout the globe, is captivating, complex and wholly original. 

The layers of Newland’s novel ensure it does not become predictable, the pace built through the selective glimpses we receive of his alternate London, renamed Dinium, and The Ark. Dinium is not wholly other to our world; the richest borough remains in the West End and Barnsley and Charlton Football Club continue to be rivals. 

The journey of Markriss’ character introduces us to this world, even as he is introduced to it himself. His journey into the Ark, from Outer City to Inner City, only scratches the surface, astral energy wielded to create parallels that are unforeseeable. Newland’s cautious protagonist highlights the fluidity and instability of this world, where control is unavoidable and poverty inescapable. 

Enjoyable and filled with vitality, this novel draws you in steadily and inexplicably, paving the way for Newland’s upcoming speculative fiction short story collection, Cosmogramma. A River Called Time ensures we have an investment in this alternate world where we see what could have been.


About the reviewer
Mahveen Syed is a second year English student at the University of Leicester. Her passions include reading, writing and travelling. Having lived in the UAE, she has been exposed to different cultures and lifestyles, using these unique experiences to inspire her creative writing. 

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Review by Colin Gardiner of "The City & The City" by China Miéville

 


The City and The City begins as a routine police investigation into the murder of a young student. Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad is drawn into a strange and unsettling conspiracy that compels him to navigate a perilous journey across physical and psychological borders. 

The novel is set between the East European twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Both places are inexorably separated by an invisible but harshly defined boundary. Infringement is policed by a mysterious and uncanny force and citizens live in constant fear of ‘breach.’

The setting is urban but with a hallucinatory blur, where indoctrination and paranoia form the perfect setting for dramatic tension. The characters are sharply defined with subtle and concise details.

Miéville expertly weaves the genre of police procedure and magic realism into a stunning meditation on city life and the imagined borders we create to avoid irrevocable realities. 


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. 


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Review by Neil Fulwood of "Plague Songs" by Martin Rowson

 


As a political cartoonist, Rowson has a distinct, immediately recognisable style. His images are exaggerated, grotesque, overblown but swimming with cruelly accurate detail: Brueghel meets Spitting Image, only funnier. 

His poetry is not dissimilar. The longest piece in Plague Songs unspools across seven pages. The majority clock in at two or three. Most poets publish individual collections of around 50-60 pages; Plague Songs runs to over 260. 

Rowson’s subject is COVID-19 by way of the first lockdown, government ineptitude, media inanity and the abject surrealism of being alive (but only just) during 2020. As he explains in the foreword, he wrote a poem more or less daily between mid May and late November, railing at anything from Matt Hancock to Death himself (several poems mourn the passing of a long-time friend), and in compiling them for Plague Songs an editorial decision was made to leave them in their original, often first, draft. Hence, the rough and ready, raw, sometimes self-indulgent, unmediated aesthetic that defines the collection. 

They are also frequently offensive. When Rowson has a target in sight, be it a senior cabinet minister or the virus itself, everything is fair game and no quarter is asked or given. Nothing is off limits. The scatological becomes merely another poetic device. The language is saltier than that of a bad-tempered sailor with Tourette’s. Plague Songs is not for the faint-hearted or the easily offended.

What it most emphatically is, however, is the most honest literary response to 2020 that has yet to hit the bookshelves. It’s often said that we don’t get the heroes we want but the heroes we need. In Martin Rowson, we have that hero. Just don’t expect a cape or PG-rated content.


About the reviewer
Neil Fulwood was born in Nottingham, where he still lives and works. He is the author of two poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere, with a third forthcoming in June 2021.

You can read more about Can't Take Me Anywhere on Creative Writing at Leicester here.


Saturday, 3 April 2021

Review by Julian Edge of "Muscle and Mouth" by Louise Finnigan



Muscle and Mouth, by Louise Finnigan, is one of a series of short-story books from Manchester’s Fly on the Wall Press. Jade, the narrator, speaks out of a life transition familiar to generations of working-class adolescents.  

You have discovered you are good at those things school wants from you. You realise that opportunities are opening up for a more exciting life than you, or your family, or your friends have been used to. Then comes recognition of the price demanded: you are expected to switch allegiance, to free yourself from the inferior habits and values of those from among whom you will be allowed to ascend. You feel the anger, the nascent determination to demonstrate that you can clear all the hurdles set in front of you and still you will not betray old loyalties. You struggle with the lingering acknowledgment that there will be loss and that, although you could turn back, you will not.  

The steel core of the story and the key to its intense sense of authenticity lie in Finnigan’s command of the various discourses that she deploys. Domestic exchanges between daughter and mother, constrained interactions with an evaluating teacher, ironic banter with peer-group members who Jade is about to record and offer up as data in her A-Level assignment, data which she then dispassionately analyses with appropriate use of academic terminology and reference to the sociolinguistic literature. All of these are convincingly enclosed in a narrative scarred by eye-wincing violence and illuminated by a poetic sensitivity that takes in the superficial ‘wafting smells of chip-pan and spliff’ as well as the deep sense of an underappreciated land ‘dark with energy’ that ‘throbs through us when we shout or laugh or fuck.’ 

I feel not only spoken to, but also spoken for. With admiration and thanks.


About the reviewer
Julian Edge has a background in English language teacher education and in Person-Centred Counselling. He has published a number of professional and academic books and two novels, Satisfaction in Times of Anger (2017) and Blindsided (2020). He hopes to see his third novel, Loving Country, appear this year.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Review by Vic Pickup of "The Streets, Like Flowers, Come Alive in the Rain" by Steve Denehan




'Where has Steve Denehan been all my life?' is what I said when I finished The Streets, Like Flowers, Come Alive in the Rain (much to my husband’s disdain).  

Like all good literary love affairs, he had me at 'hello,' with his description of a minor traffic incident in 'A Rainy Night on Wexford Street, Dublin.' I was instantly struck by the freshness of his observation, stark and simple:

          I sit in a Dublin café amongst other stragglers
          it is cold
          it is rainy
          condensation beads on the windowpane
          droplets snake down and puddle on the tabletop

Writing in first-person present tense, the poet overlays each minute action as it occurs, bringing his reader into the scene on the page. 

Steve (I’ve decided we’re on first-name terms) finds meaning in his surroundings: strangers, children, colleagues, family, everyday interactions - he is a magnifier of the things that go unnoticed. There is often a brief moment captured and bottled in his poetry; always accessible, always approaching the small and big stuff of life with good humour. 

Indeed, there were moments of laugh-out-loud in this collection, as in 'Little Girl in a Hotel Bar,' who, after a three-page build up 'took a breath / closed her eyes / started to play / and frankly / she wasn’t that great.' His writing often links comedy with epiphany, and in doing so, is constantly surprising. 

I also admire the simplicity of his approach to punctuation. The poet’s clever use of line breaks to punctuate a story shows how it should be read without the clutter of commas and speech marks, thus staying true to his style.

Steve draws you in close, which is part of his appeal. At times you feel you could be sat in a café or having a yarn in a pub and all you can do is listen close and not miss a word. This is the case in 'A phone call from Morgan Freeman on Christmas Eve' which, at seven pages, keeps you hanging on in there, supping your imaginary pint (or latte), wanting to hear how the story goes. 

Many of the poems are anecdotal. Some could be tightened, but in doing so we’d lose our dialogue, our conversation with the narrator. The story isn’t just about the poems, it’s about the poet’s likeability and the relationship he forms with his reader by bringing his own style and character to the poems. 

Even seemingly idle thoughts have a lesson for us, as in 'Wouldn’t it Be Nice':

          The Beach Boys thought
          It would be nice
          If they were older
          then they wouldn’t have to wait so long 
          …
          we all know what’s gone before
          we surely know what’s coming
          and still 
          we waste
          the space
          between

There’s wisdom in many of Steve’s poems; a beautiful example is in 'U-turn':

          good is temporary
          bad is temporary
          everything in between is temporary
          every silver lining has a cloud
          and summer hides in every snowflake

Alongside such philosophies, the poet will charm the socks off you with tenderness, as in 'Tenacious D, February 10th 2020' where, along with his daughter, he takes the memory of his father who is 'at home / fading, gently.' This focus on family, love and fragility and is a common theme in this collection, but still, not what you expect at a Tenacious D concert (no offence, Jack Black). 

This collection is the ideal companion as we unwind out of Covid – there is sincerity, humour and integrity in the poet’s search for meaning in the everyday. This is a book about recognition; Steve’s perfected the knack of making it easy for the reader to fall in love. 

I’ll leave you with a stanza from 'Thousand-Thread-Count-Sheets' which resonated deeply:

          for those of us that remain
          the billions
          millions
          hundreds
          dozens
          we will need to find our fears
          grab them
          shake and roar at them
          until they are broken, twitching things
          then find each other
          and give all we have left


About the reviewer
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid’s Arrow Competitions, and shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth prize on YouTube. Lost & Found is Vic’s debut pamphlet, published by Hedgehog Poetry Press and featuring Pushcart-nominated poem ‘Social Distancing.’ @vicpickup / www.vicpickup.com

You can read a review of Lost & Found on Everybody's Reviewing here.