Thursday 29 July 2021

Review by Cathi Rae of "Forty Names" by Parwana Fayyaz

The best writing, the very best writing takes you somewhere else, takes you to somewhere you have never been, perhaps somewhere you didn't even know existed.

This collection does just that, taking the reader into the lives of women in Afghanistan and the refugee diaspora, making those experiences real by the telling of family stories, the re-telling of family history. The poems focus on individual experience, so that even if this world is not yours there are commonalities and hooks to help us, the outsiders, connect with these narratives.

The title poem, 'Forty Names,' which won the Forward Poetry Prize for a single poem is the story of forty women who, having hidden in caves to avoid an army of occupation, jump off a cliff to avoid dishonour. As part of the piece, they are named, and women's names - both the names they are given and the names they live by - are central to many of these poems. In a culture where, traditionally, women are often invisible, this naming and the re-telling of their life stories and their struggles brings them into full focus. We can see them as clearly as if they were sitting with us.

There is a strong feel of story telling within the whole collection - from village myths to complex threads of family honour and dishonour and the tiny stories of domestic life. The style is both conversational - you can imagine these poems as conversations over tea - and beautifully crafted and observed, with tiny telling details which convey the refugee experience with the lightest of touch:

           Into exile, next to our little feet and hands,
           My mother carried her box of sewing needle,
           And her Butterfly sewing machine made in the USSR.

This is a collection that will deliver pleasure from multiple readings. Enjoy being taken to another world, another history.

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 about Cathi's collection, Your Cleaner Hates You and Other Poems, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday 24 July 2021

Review by Neil Fulwood of "Fox Fires" by Wyl Menmuir

Get past the title and YA-style cover design, both of which seem curiously at odds with the novel’s tone and literary aesthetic, get past a slightly awkward first chapter, and Menmuir’s sophomore outing develops into a fascinating study of the interrelationship between cityscape and mindscape through which glimpses of Iain Banks, Haruki Murakami and perhaps even an afterimage of Stefan Zweig can be discerned.

In an imaginative conceit every bit as good as that which powers China Mieville’s The City and the City, Fox Fires is set in a city-state called simply O, its borders recently opened to the outside world, where maps are forbidden and the streets unnamed (the better, apparently, to confuse would-be invaders, though how the absence of signs is a deterrent to enemy tanks or ground troops is left unexplained). Allegorically, this concept is fantastic and Menmuir is at his best when he weaves his claustrophobic world-building around it (O is subject to curfews, its citizens spy on each other, strange propagandist posters appear and disappear randomly).

When Fox Fires works, it works well - particularly in regard to its mysterious narrator - while its heroine is beautifully nuanced and as memorable a protagonist as you could want. The most effective scenes achieve the dream-like unreality of an art house movie (indeed, it would be interesting to see a director with a European sensitivity take it up as a project).

At 188 pages, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and with the exception of a few dialogue passages which suffer from being aphoristic rather than organic the writing is controlled, evocative and intelligent. I’d certainly recommend it as an intriguing work by a developing talent, though I did wonder if it was just a couple more drafts away from being truly great.

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

You can read more about Wyl Menmuir's Fox Fires, and listen to a special reading of the opening scene from the novel on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday 16 July 2021

Review by Vic Pickup of "Have a nice weekend I think you're interesting" by Lucy Holt

This pamphlet is eclectic and captivating. Described by Ella Frears as ‘sharp, surprising and very funny,’ its pointed couplets present a myriad of observations – from eyelash curlers and windsocks to Coronation Street – appealing to the reader to revisit these poems and see what else they can find in this box filled with random treasures. 

The poet writes in short phrases or sentences, with focused images or ideas which are often tenuously tied together. Holt avoids punctuation, using line breaks to give just enough clarity for ideas or images to be interpreted and threaded together by the reader. 

In ‘Blue light, morning,’ Holt concludes: ‘knowing things named for revenge / rarely bring it.’ It’s this kind of philosophy-in-passing which demands more than a moment’s consideration, and which allows these poems the space they need to resonate. 

One of my favourite couplets features in ‘Timperley’: ‘I have loved men from the coast who cannot swim / I am always seeking a challenge.’ The irony here is marvellous, the phrasing deadpan. Is it the challenge of teaching these men how to swim, or the question hovering over the character of someone who lives by the sea but is not sufficiently equipped to enter it? 

Black humour is also present in ‘COS woman’: 

          a windsock woman
          I am capacious and shakeable

          … serious like wearing lead clogs
          to breakfast

These two images stuck with me (I doubt I’ll again see a windsock without empathising with it). Holt is brilliant at capturing this dry wit on the page, but she’s also highly eloquent in her descriptions, which are every bit as precise, as in ‘Entertaining’: 

         on the drive home
         I push my palms to the sunroof
         feeling for weak points

The title poem’s interlinking couplets present a rather shocking image, which says a great deal about a relationship, self-worth and perhaps even abuse: 

          I am face blind apart from 
          you sometimes

          and at night you roll me
          across the wet grass

          to a gentle stop
          outside my mother’s porch

Ultimately, I loved Holt’s gift for concise imagery and her sharp wit which resonates throughout this pamphlet. I admire the control the poet displays, knowing how to piece seemingly conflicting ideas together and, in doing so, invite the reader to fill the gaps. 

What really won me over is that, above all, I found this pamphlet personal and relatable. See ‘Lessons in gifting’:

         What does it mean to be a woman today
         reading the slogan lingerie for women who don’t do lingerie
             wondering to what extent you do?

         I have owned the same pyjama bottoms for a decade
         there never was a shirt

The poet thinks of themselves as an oddity, with things not quite fitting. This is consolidated in ‘Birds as consolation,’ as Holt explores this sense of alienation further:

           I’m jealous of stupid birds who are sincere
          and can murmurate – yes – murmurate
          without knowing
          how embarrassing it is to lean in

Yes, there is awkwardness here, but there is also intelligence and truth – as in ‘There is no word for this in German’:

          In the third decade of the twenty-first century
          it is illegal to be bored
          of your most persistent self

          In the third decade of the twenty-first century
          you have stopped shopping for clothes
          there is a group chat for all mankind you are admin

This poet has to no reason to be jealous of birds for their direction or natural instincts – she possesses both in the careful, measured craft of her poems, which say so much about herself, the world, and indeed, our place within it all. 

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 /

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

Monday 12 July 2021

Review by Colin Gardiner of "New York 2140" by Kim Stanley Robinson


New York 2140 is the brilliant vision of a flooded metropolis struggling against capitalist greed and the ravages of climate change.

Kim Stanley Robinson weaves multiple storylines to capture the imagination. The characters are vivid and the narrative expertly paced, but the real lead character of the story is the city itself. Towering out of the flooded skyline, with its canals and submerged secrets, New York really shines in this luminous tale.

This is a great, almost-utopian novel that provides hope for these uncertain times.

About the reviewer
Colin Gardiner lives in Coventry. 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 July 2021

Review by Teika Marija Smits of "Dreaming in Quantum and Other Stories" by Lynda Clark


Short story collections can be difficult to review, particularly when – as in the case of Lynda Clark’s Dreaming in Quantum – the stories vary greatly in style, genre or tone. However, that said, these stories, whether they stray into the territories of science fiction, fantasy or folklore, are linked by a darkness and sense of humour which gives the collection a sharpness and style that would appeal to the fan of slipstream or literary fiction with a speculative twist. 

Stand-out stories for me are ‘Ghillie’s Mum’ (which was shortlisted for the 2019 BBC National Short Story Award), ‘Sídhe Wood’ and ‘Dreaming in Quantum.’ ‘Ghillie’s Mum’ paints a vivid and poignant story of a parent-child relationship that’s very relatable – I think every child of a certain age thinks their mum is weird and embarrassing, but in Ghillie’s case his mum really is very different from the other mums. ‘Sídhe Wood’ explores new motherhood in a deliciously dark and humorous manner, and ‘Dreaming in Quantum,’ in which Clark casts an insightful eye into the workings of academia, is a thrilling murder mystery. I can see this short story growing into a whole novel – there’s so much scope for exploring the concept of alternate dream worlds.

What I particularly like about Dreaming in Quantum is the way Clark gives such realism and depth to relationships – especially the bonds between siblings and friends. This is a stylish collection, full of warmth, wit and quirkiness; some of Clark’s stories put me in mind of Angela Readman’s writing (of which I’m a great fan). Clark is clearly skilled in the art of delivering high-quality prose, yet she never forgets the importance of story and how to satisfy the reader. She’s definitely a writer to watch. 

About the reviewer
Teika Marija Smits is a Nottinghamshire-based writer and freelance editor. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Russian Doll, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in March 2021. You can read a review of Russian Doll on Everybody's Reviewing here

You can read more about Lynda Clark's Dreaming in Quantum, and excerpt from it, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Review by Nora Nadjarian of "Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes-in-Flash" by Tom O'Brien, Ian O'Brien and Donna L. Greenwood

Homemade Weather (Retreat West Books, 2021) is an anthology of the three winning entries in Retreat West’s annual novelette-in-flash competition. A novelette-in-flash is essentially a mini-novella composed of linked flashes (or short-shorts), with each chapter or section being up to 1000 words.

Included in the anthology are the 1st prize winner Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien, What the Fox Brings in Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien and The Impossibility of Wings by Donna L Greenwood. 

These moving narratives create three completely different worlds in beautifully distilled prose. The main characters are vivid and credible, presented as they are with the detail and depth of emotion we would expect from much longer novels. Human relationships with all their complexities are explored in intriguing ways. 

In Homemade Weather we see the world through the eyes of Celia Finn. Her astute observations of the goings-on both in and out of the family home are superbly handled by Tom O’Brien. “When I check the sky for signs of violence, cycling home, I find it on the other side of the mountain, brewing ominous cloud,” says Celia. Her intriguing claim that she can “Sign parts of [her] life away to someone else” keeps the reader hooked till the last page.

What the Fox Brings in Its Jaw is a masterful exploration of a man’s life through a single defining moment and the tragedy that follows. We learn that “It had started, as always, with little things,” and, gradually, the life of the unnamed protagonist unfolds before us. A heart-breaking story told from multiple points of view, it uses flashback to merge the past with the present in dream-like sequences. 

The Impossibility of Wings brilliantly depicts the tensions and difficulties of a resentful mother/daughter relationship. The protagonist, the eldest of four children, is caught in “the sticky mess of family garbage” and longs to escape from the vicious circle she is caught in. When she finally gets on the coach to London where she will study at university, she “can feel [her] wings unfurling with every mile [they] drive away.” But it is only at the end of the novelette that we are reminded that there are two sides to the story and “there’s a thin line” between them.  

About the reviewer
Nora Nadjarian is a poet and writer from Cyprus. Her work has been included in various international anthologies, most recently in Europa 28: Writing by Women on the Future of Europe (Comma Press, 2020), the 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology (UK) and in SAND journal (2021).

You can read a review of Nora Nadjarian's short story collection, Selfie and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2018), on Everybody's Reviewing here

Monday 5 July 2021

Review by Vic Pickup of "Ugly Bird" by Lauren Hollingsworth-Smith

There are no ‘fillers’ in Ugly Bird – each poem exists as its own chapter, singing in a different voice, to a new tune. Together, this pamphlet is filled with wit, gorgeous imagery and stark honesty that’s raw, personal, universal.

Hollingsworth-Smith tackles a myriad of issues in this collection. In ‘Cappuccinos,’ she addresses the difficulties faced by a family attempting to deal with a suicide attempt:

          We don’t talk about the night I howled
          like someone had shoved a skewer through my earhole.
          Or about how Mum, unable to escape my crying,
          made me a cup of tea and threw it at the wall.

Using just the right measure of shock-invoking lines to impact the reader, in amongst the refrain: ‘We don’t talk about,’ she follows in the third stanza with:

          ... the packets of paracetamols, about how my sister
          slapped me and stuck her fingers down my throat.
          How I buckled like a breaking wave, retching

This is powerful writing, and one of many serious subjects addressed in the pamphlet. Vulnerability and female empowerment are her themes in ‘It’s Okay to Break’:

         So break down, fall apart, crumble.
         Let the shoots push through.
         Let the wolf leap out. 

In a similar vein, the poet gives her support to the underdog in ‘Ruben’s Grin’ with a brilliantly observed depiction of a school outcast, and how he finds escapism by sharing a world of his own creation. Hollingsworth-Smith handles subjects with carefully judged sensitivity and boldness, judging the impact upon a reader perfectly. Following a beautiful poem about ‘Painting People,’ she skips to ‘Meritocracy’ – a belter of a poem about the disturbing privileges afforded to those undeserving. Everything here matters.

That said, what I love most about this collection is how the poet weaves such poems together with others more sensitive, subtle and humorous, but all still profound in their own way. ‘Dunnock’ is an excellent example, with the discovery of the bird’s polyamorous nature making a mockery of the Victorian priests, who referred to the Dunnock as a model for working-class behaviour ‘because of its dull, quiet and conservative nature’: ‘He winks, that Jack the Lad, chirps out a friendly fuck you – / I am the dunnock and I like to screw.’

This poet even had me genuinely contemplating the world through the eyes of a toilet in ‘I’ve seen it all.’ (Trust me, you will too.)  

At such a young age, it’s remarkable that this poet can see the world with such introspection and empathy – and has the skill to express herself to great effect. Hollingsworth-Smith is clearly a bright star in the next generation of poets.

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 /

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