Tuesday 22 June 2021

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Judder Men" by Ben Bransfield

It could be argued all poems reveal an obsession with time. The form itself demands something else of the writer: a sort of shorthand or sketching ability over the usual compulsion to provide readers with a full, intimate study of a particular setting, character or situation. Poems have to be compact, immediately engaging - the voice, everything. It is not that good verse does not require a great deal of time to craft, but even the heavily revised and redrafted can be read aloud in a few minutes, which makes them of the moment: of the present. Many of the poems in Bransfield’s collection deal with the power of the mind to recreate times past, as the author mines his own memories in search of people, settings, even crimes, and, in the process, this allows him to deliberate on how verse itself has the power to capture a memory, before it disappears or changes entirely. 

In fact, many of the poems in Judder Men can be likened to framed photographs, or portraits, that reveal intimate portraits of each subject. In the opener, 'Go Kart,' Bransfield writes ‘To go faster we had to share, to bolt together’ and one gets the impression the poet is talking as much about the shared experience of writer and reader, as he is describing the propulsion of a child’s go-kart. Likewise, in 'Uncle David,' 'Nan and Grandad’s,' 'Joe' and 'Elizabeth Crescent,' the reader is presented with everyday scenes that are immediately recognisable as those belonging to working-class life, the poet detailing the joy of incidental moments that make up much of lived experience: ‘Corned beef. Silverskin onion juice sluiced from the jar into mash,’ or family members crowding around a ‘mounted gas fire’ beneath a ‘galaxy of artex.’ As humorous as some of these portraits are, they are never nostalgic. In many ways, they act as warnings for us all to savour the simple pleasures that can be gained from being around other people, as if time itself was ‘wax [which] wept its way down our still burning candles.’ 

That said, Bransfield is equally at home exploring the borderland between the real and the imagined and these poems provide some of the collection’s standout moments. In 'The Twangers,' the poet re-visits a myth his father once told him, of menacing ‘judder men’ who live in the ‘tight brass coils’ on the backs of doors to stop them hitting walls. These nightmarish creatures are summoned by a ‘quivering call’ and emerge from ‘the fluid of the eye’ to torment the young boy. In poems like this, as well as many others across the collection, Bransfield’s eye favours the short, piercing image that conveys a specific moment or feeling – in this case peril, or dread. Elsewhere, 'A Rag Man' takes a single phrase and spins it out into its multiple forms, giving the whole poem a trance-like musicality, especially if read aloud: ‘it is vain: aim an’ spit / the man spears in a visit / ears in the van: a pain mist ears in the van: a stain map.’ By contrast, in 'Lamphrey' – one of several poems that seems to give more than a nod to the likes of Hughes and Heaney – Bransfield likens himself to the mysterious creature in order to reflect on the impotence of human experience: ‘it is not acceptable to sludge along the river’s bed / like a severed penis or an unfried length of black pudding,’ even daring himself to ‘deflate down the plug-hole / boneless, nothing more than muscle memory.’ It is this very ability to lose himself and us, between past and present, day and night, the everyday and the fantastical, that gives this whole collection its own peculiar beauty and makes Bransfield’s achievement both timely and timeless.  

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is a doctoral researcher with Leicester University, following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing. His research interests include dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A Literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall.

Monday 21 June 2021

Review by rob mclennan of "wifthing" by Pattie McCarthy


           not getting any closer to the offing
           margery kempe gives birth in a hairshirt
           a wifthing par excellence   a female patience
           figure in her fourteenth confinement
           a comfortably finds a delusion that suits
           her status & lets no one come near or else she might
           shatter herself into a shardy mess
           in lieu of an education   margery
           kempe learns her prayers by heart & by rote
           & maybe she mums them while chained
           up in a stockroom in her postpartum
           your daughterthing is sound
           asleep your little
           girl is sound

It is interesting to see the finished, full version of Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s wifthing after spending time previously examining two of the collection’s component parts as simultaneously-produced chapbooks: margerykempething (2017) and qweyne wifthing (2017). What had been seen as separate structures is now built into a larger, uninterrupted, single-length work: a suite of twenty-five individual poems each titled “margerykempething” that leads into a suite of twenty-five individual poems each titled “qweyne wifthing,” before leading into a suite of thirty individual poems each titled “goodwifthing.” Presented as a single, book-length suite made up of short poems instead of as three distinct, discrete suites, how does one thread bleed into the other? 

Throughout wifthing, McCarthy blends contemporary perspectives with Medieval experiences in the terrain of women through mothering, daughtering and the dreaded, dissolute “thing-ness” of how female work, thought, action and birth have been devalued generally and, very specifically, cited as little more than the property of men. She writes a dialogue of previously unspoken, unrecorded and unheralded women and their experiences, writing to recover the absences and dismissals of history. “you get what you get & you don’t get upset,” she writes, in an early “margerykempething”: “margery kempe gives birth in a hairshirt / queen victoria in a shift nightdress / gives birth nine times & then her daughterthing / gives birth in same            a braid with & against / the wisp              patience is not her pigeon.” Or, as the poem that immediately follows opens: “there were two types of daughterthings     the ones / who purposely stepped on ginkgo ovules / & the ones who picked their ways around them.” She writes on female agency, from childhood to marriage; she writes on female desire, sexuality, motherhood and the complications that can arise postpartum. 

Engaged with deep and ongoing research, McCarthy explores the lives of Medieval women, writing the two sides of the long view: “you are the shape of my midlife crisis / margery kempe             where is your body / the cairn to mark you,” she writes, early on in the collection. As she cited in the chapbook edition, “margerykempething” took its title from the Book of Margery Kempe, the manuscript of which sits in the British Library. It is an edition that sits as a single copy, giving Margery Kempe the title of “first English autobiographer.” When a digital version of “medieval mystic” Kempe’s manuscript was released online in 2014, Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian: "Kempe lived in Norfolk from around 1373 to 1440. After she had given birth to 14 children, she made a vow to live chastely with her husband, and embarked on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany. Her devotion was expressed through loud cries and roars, which often irritated bystanders, but she became famous as a mystic, and claimed to have conversations with God ... Biggs said the memoir, which has just been digitised by the British Library, was 'perhaps the first autobiography written in English,' and is also 'a remarkable record of the religious life of a woman during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries.'"

McCarthy herself cites the 2000 Longman edition as her source for quotations, but the 1985 Penguin edition, her “undergrad copy,” as her “sentimental source,” writing out the details of Kempe in a line both straight and slant. The second suite, “qweyne wifthing,” centres itself not on a singular specific text or individual, but on multiple, citing David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Linda Simon’s Of Virtue Rare: Margaret Beaufort, Matriarch of the House of Tudor

McCarthy has worked into and through the terrain of Medieval mystics, women, their labour, tales of mothering, birth and other related topics throughout the whole of her published work-to-date, all of which have appeared with Berkeley publisher Apogee Press: bk of (h)rs (2002), Verso (2004), Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (2010), Marybones (2013) and Quiet Book (2016). As she spoke of her interest in Medieval subjects as part of an interview for Touch the Donkey: "I’ve been in love with the medieval for most of my life. This definitely has something to do with attending Catholic school—the art! The syntax of Catholicism, too, led me to studying the medieval. I think that most people are irrationally attracted to certain historical periods. The way medieval literature & art employ narrative—fragmented or episodic narrative, specifically—also the sense of simultaneity, layers of time in the work—it makes sense to me. On a more personal note, the lives of the saints were like fairytales for me. I mean, when I was a little Catholic schoolgirl we learned about all the girl-saints, about Mary—& those stories stuck to me. My school taught us a great deal about medieval women mystics, about Joan of Arc, about anchoresses in their cells, & it was very ‘cult of the virgin’ when it came to Mary (at least as far as I remember). Even as a child I think I understood that those stories all had to do with power, with women’s bodies, with literacy. I think the nuns taught us about the mystics to counteract 'woman is a temple built over a sewer' & 'woman is defective & misbegotten' & the rest of the church fathers (which I also remember well, clearly). When I walk into The Cloisters or the MusĂ©e de Cluny or the medieval galleries at any art museum, I want to sit down & think & be quiet. I feel that way in medieval churches as well—it’s what left of religion for me."

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent poetry titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) and Life sentence (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), with a further poetry title, the book of smaller, forthcoming from University of Calgary Press in April 2022. An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics and Touch the Donkey. He is editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. In spring 2020, he won ‘best pandemic beard’ from Coach House Books via Twitter, of which he is extremely proud (and mentions constantly). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

This review was first published on rob's blog here.

You can read more about Pattie McCarthy's wifthing on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Friday 18 June 2021

Review by Maryam Benrezzouk of "Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich

If you want to read a book that makes you feel like you are watching an emotive film, then Idaho is the book for you.

Emily Ruskovich has a natural affinity for words. They are like vines, growing around the pages and entwining with her story, so they cease to be black letters on a white page, instead becoming a blurred window onto her motion picture. She doesn’t just describe things, she adds a voice to them, increasing the volume when she needs to and beaming radio silence when the moment shouts for it. And what a loud silence it is. Behind everything is the soft piano music, gently playing to the rhythm of the characters’ lives as they go forward and backward in time.

It is all very well for me to talk about the poetic nature of Ruskovich’s writing, but I expect the burning question you have is: what is this book about? And I shall tell you, but not all in one breath, because I want to do the book justice.

It’s about a family, both past and present, shattered by horrific events and a degenerative disease. It is breathtaking, yet slow paced. It rises and rises in pitch as the book goes on, crashing loudly and beautifully at its highest peak, and then softly trundling down a rocky mountain towards the end. Ruskovich uses her writing talent to create a sequence of images of beautiful Idaho, her characters and their arcs.

It is a slow read, but there is so much to take in, and it leaps about between timelines, so it is sometimes hard to keep up. I was also left frustrated at the end because there were questions there that I felt weren’t answered sufficiently. I sat back and thought about that, however. The book was written in such a way as to reflect real life themes, emotions and human growth and change, and in real life there aren’t always answers - there are only humans dealing with questions, and growing with them, until they become part of what defines us.

Emily Ruskovich ensnared me with her rich poetic prose. She traverses the rocky terrains of treacherous topics and manages to make something vibrantly and painfully beautiful.


About the reviewer
Originally born in London, Maryam Benrezzouk then moved with her family to Leicester, after spending a good chunk of her life growing up in a hot country in the Middle East. She enjoys writing short stories and novels, spinning drama with a touch of fantasy. She runs two blogs on which she frequently publishes her writings, and also writes short stories for a children's magazine.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Review by Rosa Fernandez of "How Not to Multitask" by Jo Weston

Aware when I received How Not to Multitask that it would refer to the author Jo Weston’s experiences with her cancer diagnosis, I was prepared to be moved. I approached her pamphlet wondering how best to interpret the title (one I enjoy very much, given that I’m not a multi-tasker by nature) and how that would reflect on the fourteen poems within, poems I am pleased to say I very much enjoyed reading.

The opening poem, ‘Neighbourhood Watch,’ is a great introductory piece as it paints vivid sensations in a few brief words and yet ends on an unsettling pair of closing lines, acting as a cliff-hanger for what is to follow: a range of poems that for the most part brings the familiar to life simply but carefully, realising sometimes huge swathes of emotion in clever little turns. 

‘Chronic’ and ‘Results’ really captured the fear, acceptance, and stiflingly still yet charged moments of treatment. I felt they conveyed that sense of the inexplicable, the trying to find a way to explain the unexplainable. ‘Rain slid down the leaves / of the remaining trees’ is a simple and yet (in context) extremely moving metaphorical image. 

‘Gran’ is a very straightforward poem, but still very enjoyable and one I think would resonate with many readers; for its proliferation of adjectives my least favourite would be ‘Moving meditation,’ although it does describe a keen wet dog beautifully. 

How Not to Multitask is a pamphlet full of feeling; for me, the title suggests that sometimes the only task is to recover, and to appreciate tiny precious moments of existence (like listening to the strangers on the bus) undistracted. The optimism of the closing poem ‘Too young for this’ really brings the collection ‘home’ and neatly completes a brave and heartfelt selection.

About the reviewer
Rosa Fernandez is a slam-winning poet and sometime proofreader. She also enjoys wearing silly hats. 

Sunday 13 June 2021

Review by Vic Pickup of "White Eye of the Needle" by Chris Campbell

White Eye of the Needle is a self-proclaimed book of poems about ‘love, life and lockdown.’ Partly written whilst honeymooning in Madagascar, the romantic elements of this collection really wooed me. 

Chris Campbell opens with observations of his wife as she poses in ‘Yellow Dress.’ Lines such as ‘Curves soft as lemon’ and ‘I sweat, still, burning this to memory’ are full of longing, intended to be savoured. 

This worship poetry is continued in ‘You Shine’ (the clue was in the title!):

           Sparkling in our holiday nest.
           Fan fluttering in your hand, breeze lifting hair

           Held back by fingertips. We kiss and rest
           Basking in Milan’s glittering glare.

Mrs Campbell must be glowing as the muse of these gorgeous moments, beautifully captured.

The poet bestows the same adoration on a simple tapas dish in ‘Yellow Dress’: ‘Olives sunbathe in their oil, / Swelter side by side.’ This image entices the reader, activating the senses as the sun paints this holiday world with a glossy varnish. 

That said, the poet’s descriptions of Nottingham are romanticised too, in ‘Synchronised buskers.’ This poem shows love for a city in lockdown, appreciating the many aspects of its character which he has come to miss.

          Ambulances like Ubers—we’re in safe hands;
          As traffic breaks, sunshine reveals the beauty of the canal.

There’s plenty to love in this beautifully presented pamphlet, enhanced by illustrator Sandra Evans, whose drawings are idyllic and precise. As the poet writes in the aptly-named poem ‘Illustration,’ each of her works is an image ‘to savour / like dessert.’

This memoir of a sacred time is true to its cover—uplifting, full of lovely images and sunshine.


By Sandra Evans

About the reviewer
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the CafĂ© 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.

Tuesday 8 June 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems" by Simon Armitage

Sometimes we assimilate into the region that we are born into and sometimes it has a habit of permeating through us, long after we have left it. ‘Scratch my skin, I’ve got cinders in blood stream’: as a writer who is drawn to the north of my youth, I can fully empathise with Simon Armitage and his fifty-year relationship with a place that has been an inspiration and an echo that has woven through many of his poems. Watching the world from his bedroom window as a small child, his back to the moor, these ‘moonstruck observations’  were the seeds of inspiration that would come into sharp focus as an adult: ‘At night, the horizon brimmed with a darkness like outer space, crowding the corner of my eye, thickening and deepening at the back of my mind.’ 

This collection of fifty poems, entitled Magnetic Field, covers the span of his craft and contains some early unpublished pieces and some new poems written especially for this publication. Here, the landscape is revealed; even before the words can rush our ears, the land itself is offered as a visual prompt. The book jacket insides are decorated with a bird’s eye view of the topography that inspired the writer’s musing, a landscape that he calls ‘transcendent and transgressive.’ A graphic nib punctuates every dot of the moor and grassy knoll of the surrounding heathland, setting the tone before we delve into the punchy style of his prose. The River Colne, the canal and the inter-Pennine train line all cut through the granite outcrops that flank the small town, suggest a route out, a getaway to another life and possibilities that must have tempted the young aspiring poet. We are given specific markers on the map to place the poems within the land, honing our view right down to his dad’s greenhouse nestled behind a row of terrace houses:

          When you disturbed them
          The seeds of rose-bay willow-herbs lifted
          Like air bubbles into the beam of light.
          Then you’d emerge, a hoard of tomatoes
          Swelling the lap of your luminous shirt. 

The obsession with his childhood home, that he calls ‘a cathedral of the ordinary,’ is again and again a starting point for his recollections. We are taken on a sepia journey to his distant past and misdemeanours. His poem 'Privet,' based on a punishment of arduous pruning, dished out by his father to atone for some offence, ends with his young body lying prostrate on the bush, ‘floating there, cushioned and buoyed by a million matchwood fingertips.’ His parents are a tender refrain that punctuate the text, a working-class embrace that can’t be contained within a valley. He fondly recalls his mother,

          at the twin-tub, 
          manhandling shirts, 
          hauling drowning sailors 
          from sea to deck.

With good humour, Samuel Laycock, ‘the other Marsden poet’ is recalled and used for textual intervention. He deliberately adopted the Lancashire dialect of the cotton workers in his pieces and is commonly known as the bard of the loom, the workshop and the mill. Similarly, Armitage lets his own voice flow through his poems too, and the voices of his parents lovingly nag in in dialect: ‘An imperial spanner and a saw so blunt, we could ride it bare-arsed to London.’ 

The passing of time and the passing of lives are felt keenly in the prose. We shift back to his thirteen-year-old self, leaving the house by the back door and returning as a man years later who asks, ‘How did it get so late?’ The past is ever present, the memories are keen, we watch, participate and feel each heartbeat counting the time. This ache of absence is tenderly felt, as the trivial becomes poignant on passing. Two poems about his dad face each other on the page, 'The Spelling' and 'Fisherwood,' and try to face up to the loss of those we love: ‘There’s no reply. I am too late. But every son carries a key / On a string, noosed around his neck.’ 

In one poem, Armitage is hauling a dusty Harmonium from Marsden church with his dad, whose smoker’s fingers and ‘dottled thumbs’ help lift the heavy load:

          Him being him he has to say
          That the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave
          Will bear the load of his own dead weight.
          And me being me I mouth in reply
          Some shallow or sorry phrase or word
          Too starved of breath to make itself heard. 

From skimming stones across Black Moss to the tractor tyre let loose to roll freely from the moors through the main street, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. With this homage to a northern life, I found affection for the child who’d spied his mother, crossing the street with a shopping bag, ‘nursing four ugly potatoes caked in mud,’ to the man under whose eyelids ‘northern lights and solar flares shimmer and rage.’  This is a loving tribute to a place that made him.

About the reviewer
As a teacher of Art and Design for over thirty years, Tracey has channelled her imagination into getting the best creative output out of others. She is now hoping to restore her creative mojo and has enrolled on the Creative Writing MA course at Leicester University. Last year, she completed the Comma Press short story course with Rebecca Burns and collectively published Tales from Garden Street. She is due to have first poem published by the Poetry Bus magazine and is currently working on a poetry collection.

A Book That Changed Me, by Neil Fulwood: “Collected Poems,” by Sylvia Plath

It was the mid-80s. I was thirteen. My Nan was housebound. Every couple of weeks I’d go to Bulwell library and take out some books for her. I remember borrowing a scattering of classics and regency romances, but her tastes predominantly ran to poetry. As can be imagined by anyone who knows the area, Bulwell library - back then far smaller than in its current incarnation - didn’t exactly offer the broadest selection of verse. Nor did I, at that age, have the broadest frame of reference. My literary horizons were bounded by the Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley thrillers on Dad’s bookshelf, plus the odd well-thumbed James Herbert paperback doing the rounds at school.

I knew Nan preferred what I’d heard referred to as the Romantics, so it was a pretty safe bet that if a collection or anthology had a woodland or river scene on the cover - or a reproduction of an oil painting with some dude in a silk shirt looking all moody with a quill pen - it would be the right kind of thing. Failing that, flick through a few pages and check that most of it rhymed. Even with these safeguards in place, though, it didn’t take long to exhaust their stock of Nan-friendly poetry. Which is how I came to take a punt on Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

Nan approached the book with some scepticism. She opened it at random, read one poem (I later found out it was “Daddy”) and asked me to return it. I did, but not before reading a fair few poems. I didn’t understand many of them, but the images, the immediacy, and particularly the white-hot fury of the final works struck a spark in my mind. Poetry can do this? I thought. I want in! When I finally returned the volume, I immediately checked it out again on my own library card. And renewed it over and over until the librarian started eyeing me suspiciously. I asked my folks for a copy for my next birthday. It was probably for the best that neither of them perused it before they got stuck in with the wrapping paper.

It’s because of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems that I read poetry, let alone write it. My third collection is out in July, and it’s all because I choose a book at random in Bulwell library when I was thirteen.

About the reviewer 
Neil Fulwood lives and works in Nottingham. He has published two full poetry collections with Shoestring Press, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere; his third, Service Cancelled, will be released on 29th July 2021.

You can read more about Neil's work and his collection Can't Take Me Anywhere on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 7 June 2021

Review by Jonathan Wilkins of "Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets" by Sally Evans


A beautifully crafted book so lyrical 
true to what is our
          Relationships and jealousies.
An untold 
rivalry between two 
who could just as easily work 
as one. 
A talent
Perhaps not.
Love and loss 
a lost love?
Or rather 
                              a love always drifting 
just out of
Contentment sadness 
loneliness challenges 
a talent unseen 
hidden or lost 
a world 
open to all
but closed to so
An un
288 pages of wondrous poetry
and passion.
Melodic in its
A lilting account
of two
                              soul mates in
A talent to deceive.
A talent to yearn for. 
A life so giving.
You have 
                              to read

About the reviewer
Jonathan Wilkins is a Creative Writing PhD Student at Aberystwyth University, Wales, reading mostly Golden Age Crime fiction. His website is here

Sunday 6 June 2021

Review by Cathi Rae of "Russian Doll" by Teika Marija Smits


I am reading and re-reading this assured and perfectly crafted debut collection by happy coincidence in a room which contains three sets of Russian Dolls. The best Russian Dolls are made with such skill that it is almost impossible to see the join as you open up each figure to find a smaller perfect copy. The very best Russian Dolls lose nothing in detail even as the dolls become tinier. The pleasures are in the craft, the artistry, and the discovery of the very smallest and still beautiful final doll.

This collection provides the same joy – perfectly made poems, exquisite details, and the satisfaction of finding more and more to read, to consider, to discover.

Written in two sections, the first, 'Daughter Doll / Doll-Daughter,' focuses on childhood and relationships with parents. Some of these poems are 'small' – the sensual joy of mint choc-chip ice cream - while some take on the big stuff – suicide of an old school friend, the death of a father, grieving - but all are crafted so elegantly, so absolutely 'right.' Smits can use even the most structured rhyme scheme, as in 'The Pulmonary Embolism,' with a touch so skilled that in other hands could feel cumbersome - but here there is no loss of real pain and emotion.

The second section, 'Mother Doll / Doll-Mother,' is searingly honest about parenting and being a mother with such careful observation that the poems speak to anyone who has cared for small children. The title poem, 'Russian Doll,' contains this: '... As I thin and am worn smooth by little hands that dismantle me daily…” – one of the most perfect descriptions I have read of motherhood. But there is celebration too and a realistic sense of the day-to-day work. I’m in awe of another poet who can find poetry in the quiet hell of sitting pool-side during the weekly swimming lesson.

About the reviewer
Cathi Rae is a spoken word artist and somewhat to her own surprise a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

You can read more about Russian Doll, as well as a sample from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Friday 4 June 2021

A Book That Changed Me, by Brian Wharton: "To Sir, With Love," by E. R. Braithwaite

A book that changed my life is To Sir, With Love, a semi-autobiographical novel written by E.R. Braithwaite and first published in 1959. The book centres on a young Guyanese engineer who takes a job at a tough East London secondary school whilst awaiting a post in his chosen career. He is appointed to teach a group of difficult 14–15-year-olds about the realities of life, as well as some lessons on good manners and personal hygiene.

I first came across the book as a 15-year-old when my own school seemed to mirror that in the book, albeit twenty years later when nothing had really changed for pupils in the secondary modern system. While I was at school we were subjected to an experiment where we kept the same form teacher for three years. Mr D was a good teacher who taught me English and provided us with Drama classes, a path that I was to follow later in life. However, unlike the teacher in the novel, he was unable to maintain discipline and so often lessons would descend into chaos. We did, though, manage to read some good texts including Kes, Animal Farm, The Long, the Short and the Tall, as well as this one.

To Sir, With Love concerns itself with many themes, including racism, class, and education. When I first read the book, I was aware of the conflict facing the black teacher in an almost entirely white community, but I also recognised in it my own problematic education. I re-read the book several times in my teens and, having seen the film which was made in 1967 starring Lulu, it gave me a romantic and nostalgic view of my own schooldays. The book and film still resonate with me today.

About the reviewer

Brian Wharton writes drama, short stories and reviews.

Thursday 3 June 2021

A Book That Changed Me, by Harry Whitehead: "Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience," by Gitta Sereny

For her ninetieth birthday, we took my granny to visit Auschwitz. I guess that’s as far as I’ll ever invoke humour about such a subject, but the poor thing was also promised a visit to Venice. So we set off on what proved an epic driving tour. Berkshire to Krakow to Venice and home. On the journey, I read Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce to try to comprehend the camps. I struggled for years after to get a handle on what I learned about humanity’s dark potential. Two things kept coming back to me: first, the freezing silence of Auschwitz Birkenau, the ‘extermination camp,’ until a fish leapt and plopped in the small lake that held the ashes of a million people; its banality seemed an abomination. Second, there was a town close by. What of its population? What of conscience? 

And so I came to Sereny’s celebrated work. Into That Darkness relates her series of interviews with Franz Stangl, commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. Stangl was captured in the 1960s and given a long prison term. Granted access by Stangl and his wife, Sereny interrogates his conscience, but gently and with empathy, always seeing beyond the monster to the man. The book interviews the few survivors of Treblinka as well, many of whom speak of Stangl as just a functionary, not cruel per se. Yet here was someone who oversaw the murder of more than a million people. And, indeed, he proves a disturbingly ordinary individual, though one incapable of recognizing the enormity of his guilt. Over and over, Stangl describes his conscience as being clear, within the boundaries of the world in which he existed. He was protecting his own family; it would have meant their death to have resisted; there was no escape from the closed Nazi society. 

On and on it went, until at last, one day, he ran out of words. And Sereny, too, said nothing now, no longer offering him any help. Finally, Stangl spoke the phrase, ‘My guilt.’ He uttered a few more hesitant lines – ‘… only now, in these talks …’ Then, he said, ‘My guilt is that I am still here. That is my guilt.’

Nineteen hours later, Stangl died of a heart attack. 

Into That Darkness made me believe in the absolute justice of truth.

About the reviewer

Harry Whitehead is a novelist and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Before becoming an academic, he worked for many years in film and TV commercials production. 

Wednesday 2 June 2021

A Book That Changed Me, by Rosa Fernandez: "If on a winter's night a traveller," by Italo Calvino

I first read If on a winter’s night a traveller in the summer break between the second and third years of my English degree as a way of getting ahead on my reading list. It was a hot summer and I curled up in a sunny window for hours while I devoured this absolute gem of magic realism. It was the first book I had ever read to be written in the second person. It completely absorbs the reader in the act of reading, narrating itself as page after page of starts of novels make up a puzzle only solved by reading on. Attention is drawn to the act of reading, and writing, and to all the things that we expect novels to do. Even the ending is a remark on what we ‘expect’ from a story, and it helps that there are also plenty of jokes.

This novel is like no other book I had read before or since and completely blew apart my idea of what a novel could do. It also, in a very real way, actually changed my life a few years later. At a job interview at a magazine, I was asked a final question by one of my two interviewers: who is your hero? I took a minute and answered that it was Italo Calvino, because he was responsible for this enigmatic novel. I left after the interview and they called me later to tell me the job was mine. Only a month in and the man who had asked me the question told me that it was that answer that got me the job, because most people say cliched things like ‘my mum’ or ‘my dad’. I should have said ‘my mum,’ of course, but then she would probably have said ‘Dickens.’

About the reviewer

Rosa Fernandez is a slam-winning poet and sometime proofreader. She also enjoys wearing silly hats. 

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Review by Jonathan Wilkins of "Reading the Cozy Mystery: Critical Essays on an Underappreciated Subgenre" ed. Phyllis M. Betz


For most of us, our introduction to the crime fiction genre was through the 'cozy mystery.' At last we have a critical approach to that almost-ignored genre. It's been ignored because it has not been taken seriously in the past and the advent of Nordic Noir and now Domestic Noir seems to have pushed it further back. It's now time for the cozy crime to fight back and show its value to the literary world.

Phyllis M. Betz has done a great job in gathering together a varied troupe of writers who investigate the genre and reinforce its value. In her introduction, she rails against those who ask experts on this form when they will turn their attention to serious work. This constant downplaying of the literary merit of popular fiction and cozy crime in particular grates on this writer. Who are these arbiters of so called 'taste' who wish to deify one genre at the expense of another, and what indeed is their legitimacy in doing so? As Betz asks, if the cozy mystery is so limited, why is it so popular?

Sarah Rowland asks the same question in her essay. After invoking Jungian literary theory, she comes to the conclusion that it is the purest form of literature that we have, drawing elements from across crime fiction, even hard-boiled fiction. She champions the cozy as 'bringing comedy, rebirth and renewal into the lives of readers.' 

The lack of blood and violence in the cozy mystery is to be applauded, because it leaves the reader to investigate with the detective a 'clean' crime. Jennifer S. Palmer tells us 'there is an investigation by the protagonists in which clues emerge to titillate the reader and help them to predict the denouement in which the murderer is identified.' That is the key. We are invited to enjoy the machinations of the detective. The story is meant to be fun: we will discover the criminal, they will be punished, and all will be well in our world.

We are introduced to varied cast of crime fighters in the anthology with brief descriptions of most that will hopefully entice the casual reader into further investigation. They include Agatha Raisin, Phryne Fisher, Jane Marple (of course), Daisy Dalrymple, Aurora Teagarden, as well as two perhaps lesser-known detectives that I introduced in my essay in the anthology, Solange Fontaine and Clara Baroness of Linz. Each individual and the works they adorn are investigated in detail by the contributors and the essays shed new light of many aspects of their work, as well as their backgrounds and the setting of the stories. The essays beg other questions too, and encourage us to read further in the genre and discover just what the attractions are.

So far I have concentrated on the female heroes of the genre, but who could forget Columbo, perhaps the archetypal male cozy mystery detective. Stephen Cloutier, in his contribution, writes at length on Columbo. He thinks Columbo is working in an area more associated with hard-boiled fiction but that he maintains the essence of the cozy detective. We know the killer from the start but the stories' format forces viewers to 'focus on Columbo’s interactions with the rich and powerful and to tease out the show's social commentary.' Thus Cloutier feels this show encapsulates the cozy genre by recognizing the lead detective as central to the story.

Finally, there's a little bit of controversy as Sally Beresford-Sheridan suggests that the famous hard-boiled detective Nero Wolfe is indeed a member of the cozy crime family. I think that is an idea that you the reader had best interrogate; suffice to say, by challenging us with this theory, Beresford-Sheridan reinforces it with the thought that 'when defining strictures for detective fiction … parameters most likely will, and should, be broken in order to continually make the genre new and exciting for its readers.'

Writers change, writing styles change and the reader will always change. It is the constant change and reinvention of practice that intrigues us, the readers, but as long as we have the basic framework surrounding what we know as cozy crime, we will have what we want, and we will be happy. Betz has succeeded in making us happy with this fine collection of thoughts and ideas. This is an excellent starting point for academics as well as the casual reader who wants to learn more. Cozy perfection.

About the reviewer
Jonathan Wilkins is a Creative Writing PhD Student at Aberystwyth University, Wales, reading mostly Golden Age Crime fiction.