Monday 21 February 2022

Review by Elle Morgan of "Against the Grain: The Poetics of Non-Normative Masculinity in Decadent French Literature" by Mathew Rickard

This book opened my eyes further than before, to gender-based issues experienced during the French Decadent movement, in the late 1800s. This is not an area I will pretend to know a lot about from a critical perspective, but I found that it introduced the topic in an engaging way. It is an insightful and urgent exploration of queerness, best read accompanied by a glass of white wine on a rainy Sunday. 

I came away from the book reflecting on how it addressed a gap in research I hadn’t known of. What could be an integral section of gender studies is posed as a new and daring answer to a question not often asked: is it really a man’s world? This is discussed using masculinity as a literary concept, as well as exploring how being literate has long raised important discussions regarding privilege. 

Originally written as a doctoral research thesis by a then-emerging scholar in the field of French Studies, the finished book is a wonderful appraisal of masculinity, sexuality, and the specific challenges gender-based discrimination poses. Readers will enjoy being introduced to new knowledge on the concept of the ‘dandy,’ as well as analyses of French literature from the nineteenth century. 

With a backdrop of advances in science, mass industrialisation and modernism, France at the turn of the century has always been a crucial site for understanding intersections of identity. This text is rich with these explorations, and it is an enjoyable read written by a pioneering scholar. It was the joint winner of a Peter Lang prize in 2019, and has been received well by many scholars in the field of Decadent Studies and beyond. It will certainly aid any scholar’s research in gender studies, and nineteenth century literature too.  

About the reviewer
Elle Morgan is primarily a writer but has held many jobs! Currently, Elle is studying a mix of practice-based Creative Writing and French Studies, and enjoys writing after lots of walking (but not in the current storms buffeting the UK). Elle’s website is here.

Friday 18 February 2022

Review by Lisa Williams of "The Lost Daughter" by Elena Ferrante

Have you seen the film yet? Treat your eyeballs, it’s fab – Olivia Coleman is just perfectly cast as the protagonist Professor Leda. The film follows the book very closely, but perhaps read the book first? I think it’s better to have your own pictures in your head as you read. 

Ferrante does characters so well. In this beauty, she explores motherhood, specifically the bond between mother and daughter. The book examines the impact on a woman’s life, career, hopes and expectations of these ties. It’s breathtaking, but then I am a mother that struggled with the impact of the life changes after the birth of my daughter 

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying there’s a missing child in the book. It reminds Leda of her own daughter going missing. I’m not sure who the lost daughter in the title is, though. There are a few mothers in the book who have daughters but are also daughters themselves. Ugh ... I’m always conscious of not dropping hideous spoilers. Will you please read it and then we’ll chat?

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a shopgirl and a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She is on Twitter @noodleBubble 

Thursday 17 February 2022

Review by Lisa Williams of "Outbreak" by Frank Gardner

You might want to pop a Kevlar vest on for this action-packed book from the BBC’s security correspondent. It’s a fast-paced read – short chapters moving between four different countries. We travel from the Arctic Circle to Porton Down and from Moscow to Lithuania.

This is the third book (I’ve not read the others) featuring the hero MI6 operative Luke Carlton. I feel this book stands alone as I only realised there were two others when I’d finished reading and there wasn’t a point when I felt I didn’t know what was going on or that I was missing something.

If you read for escapism it’s possibly not the right book at the moment.  The subject is clear from the title - the book opens with three scientists in a blizzard in the Arctic Circle searching for shelter. They find a cabin. Inside a man is slumped in the corner, his swollen body convulses. Blood, bile and mucus sprays into the air and so the contamination begins. Actually you might want to pop a little mask on as you read too ... 

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a shopgirl and a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She is on Twitter @noodleBubble 

Tuesday 15 February 2022

Review by Lisa Williams of "Cloud Cuckoo Land" by Anthony Doerr

“Part fairytale, part fool’s errand, part science fiction, part Utopian Satire ...” You might recognise the name? Doerr won the Pulitzer prize in 2015 for All the Light We Cannot See. That’s another book (Netflix Series next year) that stays with you for a long time after reading and the reason I picked this book up. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book about the power of a story. We are taken to the past, the future and the present with seemingly unconnected stories, different characters and places. At first it’s hard to fathom a link between them all but as the story progresses it becomes clearer. There’s no getting lost in the shifting settings as each chapter begins with a date and location for the unfolding action.

This is an exquisite read, one you’re torn between speeding up to get to the story’s conclusion and wanting to slow down so you can savour its delights forever. This is a book that when I reached the end I immediately wanted to start it again. 

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a shopgirl and a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She is on Twitter @noodleBubble 

Friday 11 February 2022

Review by Rosa Fernandez of "Overlap" by Valerie Bence

Overlap is a collection of twenty-one poems by Valerie Bence that contains many timely ideas, and the weaving together of all of them makes sense of this title. This was a book I very much enjoyed reading, and wherever Valerie is, I’m sending her a massive hug.

The journey of this book is from past into present, at first an appreciation of her two clearly much-loved grandmothers Winifred and Harriet; Winifred ‘laughed at everything’ and ‘taught me to wink’ marking her out as the cheekier. Harriet is more brooding and dutiful and ‘lived like prey’ and both suggested elements of my own mother (also a grandmother, and more of a Winifred) and my grandmother (more of a Harriet, I reckon, although she had her moments). The snippets of description of a 1960s childhood will resonate with many, the older women still carrying the drama of wartime with them. The poem ‘Not as posh as I thought we were’ I particularly enjoyed; I felt I could have been the wide-eyed confused child of that poem and it made me giggle.

The last four poems are a sucker punch, and really moved me; I know my mother would feel a solidarity with the sentiments within, having missed time with her own grandchildren. The line ‘I could hardly speak’ hit me hard, and so much of all our lives have been affected by the last two years that I am sure many readers would be similarly moved. The final poem ‘Press me in peat’ is the right poem to end on; while not necessarily a happy ending, it acts as summary from ‘melting glaciers’ to ‘like now’ where we return to the febrile present. I’m sure the grandchildren will be pleased to have this record, and I hope Nonna gets hugs again very soon. 

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

Thursday 10 February 2022

Review by Sharon Eckman of "Snapshots of the Apocalypse" by Katy Wimhurst

Katy Wimhurst’s new collection of short stories is a dark, witty look at a world at once recognisable and skewed. 

The title tells you pretty much where you’re headed, but although each story takes you in that dystopian direction, the beauty is in the detail. Wimhurst’s ideas are fabulously inventive . In the title story, a post-Apocalyptic London features rains named after former Prime Minsters – Thatcher, Blair, Rashford (if only) and ‘the worst was Johnson – deceptively lightweight but soaked you through and through.’

I particularly enjoyed ‘Haunted by Paradise,’ a sensual take on the expulsion from the Garden of Eden – this modern Eve grows an enchanted garden in her flat, stealing plants from the local park armed with a ‘surreptitious trowel and large bag.’

In ‘The Job Lottery,’ the female protagonist, who we only know as Miss Fisher, attends the malign EnCorp’s Job Lottery – billed as a Festival – to try and get herself a decent job. ‘EnCorp wishes you a Good Lottery – Seize the Moment!’ This story has echoes of Huxley’s Brave New World with its Prozac candyfloss, PsychoBliss Drops and – my favourite – the Public Penance Trampoline where you are sent to bounce up and down shouting your penance through a loudhailer for alleged crimes against the state.

All of Wimhurst’s protagonists are lost in some way, mostly living solitary, lonely lives, often with a failed relationship in the background. The stories contain a yearning for hope despite the dystopian scenarios, but, for me, some ended rather abruptly. I also found some of the parallels with our current concerns – refugees, the climate emergency - a little too on the nose, but Wimhurst creates believable characters in wild scenarios and her prose is full of drily funny one liners. Highly recommended.

About the reviewer
Sharon Eckman is an actor, singer and writer. Winner of the Time Out Travel Writer of the Year, she has been longlisted twice for the Fish Memoir Prize, shortlisted for Words & Women Prose competition and the Jerwood/Arvon Mentorship Scheme. Short fiction has appeared in Shooter Lit, Words & Women: 3, 100 Voices: An Anthology, 100 Voices for 100 Years and New Flash Fiction Review. She is currently working on a novel and has just completed her first short film. Her website is here

Friday 4 February 2022

Review by Sally Evans of "Following Teisa" by Judi Sutherland

A powerful and confident poem that follows the River Tees from source in the Pennine moors to post-industrial Teesmouth on the north east coast, this is a perfect subject for Judi Sutherland’s abilities, with its exposition of largely unknown terrain, its clarity, smooth diction and scholarship. An almost unknown 1778 poem by Anne Wilson, Teisa, a descriptive poem of the River Teese, along the same lines, is its partial inspiration, acknowledged by including the original decorative title page of Teisa. Its other inspiration is the river. 

The poet’s sympathy for the river, her curiosity about its landscape. towns and foibles, give the book an objectivity which some current poetry lacks. Here’s the Roll, a wave or bore:

              A yellow wall; 
        another river, riding bareback
        on the first; like the shovel of a great digger
        ploughing branches and boughs
        and the bodies of feckless yows
        before it.

She turns history and folk history into poetry:

  At Croft, Durham loops leisurely
  south into White Rose territory
  and on this bridge, a delegation waits
  to welcome each new Prince Bishop
  taking possession of his estates,
  presenting His Grace with the Conyers Falchion
  the great sword that slew the Sockburn worm
  who lurked within the river’s next smooth turn.

On the poem runs until it reaches the sea:

This poem is ninety miles long
  and this is where it ends: the river 
  empties itself into infinite sea
One day these droplets will coalesce,
  slip their airy moorings
  touch the Pennines, sail the Tees again.

Judi Sutherland’s language is not northern. This adds to the freshness of discovery of this little-known part of England for some readers. Pen and ink drawings by Holly Magdalene Scott complete the presentation. It’s not just my own memories of the Tees in the quiet 1950s that attracts me to this work; there is a sense of a sympathetic intelligence following the river with a completeness only previously offered by Anne Wilson, whom Judi Sutherland honourably acknowledges.

About the reviewer
Sally Evans, retired Editor of Poetry Scotland, is in the later stages of a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. The resultant book, Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets, is published by Red Squirrel Press.

You can read a review of Wildgoose on Everybody's Reviewing here

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Review by Kate Durban of "My Name is Mercy" by Martin Figura

Martin Figura’s new collection was created as a project at Salisbury NHS foundation trust. These powerful poems offer a unique insight and perspective into the life of a hospital, and its inhabitants, during the pandemic. They convey the impact of Covid-19 on patients, families and staff in telling detail, resonant metaphors and poetic eloquence. The poems give us a moving glimpse of personal perspectives with great honesty and poignancy.

The collection opens with a poem about the journey to work in "Morning," which describes the stark emptiness of streets against the menace of the hospital chimneys. This evocation of place amplifies the collection. There is a sense of different worlds: the pettiness of people fighting over toilet rolls against the daily sacrifice of those battling Covid, patients and staff alike.

The experience of the illness itself is devastatingly captured in "Mother’s Day": "each deep breath coughed, the retching blue lit trip," and the fear brought by hallucinations in "Fever." There is death, but recovery too, reflected in the return of appetite: "delicious want, a little mash and gravy."

We see the experience of the health workers caring for the sick. In "Protection," the hot claustrophobia of PPE is a tempest, which soaks uniforms and leaves "faces run with rain." In "Night Shift," someone’s reflection is like an astronaut adrift from the world, in a universe of flickering monitors, once again conveying a sense of other worldliness. There is the raw grief of an end-of-life nurse who cuts short her maternity leave to come back to work and copes with seven deaths in a day. Everywhere there seems to be profound sickness, isolation and grief.

And yet even at the heart of the conflict, hope shines through these poems. There is a great sense of optimism and strength in the theme of teamwork. The poem "Notes Left Behind for a Newbie" offers encouragement by a team bound together like a raft. The perspective of staff in a variety of roles is important because it reminds us that doctors and nurses are not the only people who work in hospitals. We hear about the chaplain who ministers where he can in "the emptying out of anger or bedpans." There is the voice of the unseen pathologist in the lab and there is the care for a member of staff who has succumbed to the infection - "one of us," who expresses gratitude for "this family, these friends, this work." We hear of kindnesses - the holding of hands and the talk of home and the joy of online connections. And at the end there is the hope of new life in the Christmas day birth of Ethan. 

Martin Figura’s collection is a mighty accomplishment and by reading it I have been educated, moved and inspired.

About the reviewer
Kate Durban is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester and a part-time Cancer Wellbeing Nurse at Peterborough City Hospital. She lives in rural Northamptonshire with her husband Philip and two dogs. 


Tuesday 1 February 2022

Review by Charles G. Lauder, Jr., of "Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World," by Will Buckingham

Will Buckingham’s book Hello, Stranger: How We Find Connection in a Disconnected World defies categorization. It flows so comfortably between moving memoir, travelogue, to philosophical tract, to historical and cultural texts, that all elements flow together to create a book much greater than its parts. Whether we are grieving with Buckingham over the passing of his partner Elee or tagging along to attend a small village party in north-west Bulgaria to celebrate connections across generations, or learning the playful risks of refusing seconds from a stranger who’s invited you into their home (lest you get whacked with a cudgel), or perhaps putting prejudicial assumptions aside to dine with a Muslim family who daily invite people off the street to dine with them in order for the strangers to learn more their culture, the point is not to be afraid to step into each other’s lives to make that much-needed connection. 

Paradoxically this might be thought easy enough in today’s world of the internet and social media platforms. Yet, as Buckingham, points out, with most of us living in cities nowadays and being quite close neighbours, the loneliness, the division, the disconnect is more prevalent than ever, and thanks to the pandemic, welcoming strangers has now become harder than ever. 

Buckingham’s fluid writing style—effortlessly moving from youthful memory to Ancient Greek anecdote to mythic tale to real-life political situation of refugees and asylum seekers trying to cross the Turkish border by train—demonstrates his life spent as a world-class traveller, a vagabond eager to experience all manner of culture and people. Reading Hello, Stranger continually reminded me of the saying that the more one experiences the world and its great variety, the smaller it seems. Buckingham never mentions the word ‘agape,’ the Greek word for ‘unconditional love,’ preferring instead ‘xenophilia,’ but still he shows the importance strangers hold in his heart, for it is a hug from a stranger on the street, a campaigner for a breast cancer research (the same disease that Buckingham’s partner died from), that helped him to grieve and inspired this book. Ironically, the book comes full circle, the last chapter finishing with him enjoying a plate of food at a Bulgarian village street party while quietly admiring ‘an old lady sitting on a chair on her own, holding a stick. But she doesn’t look lonely. She stares at the crowd and she beams in happiness.’

About the reviewer
Charles G. Lauder, Jr., is an American poet who has lived in Leicestershire, UK, for over twenty years. His latest collection is The Aesthetics of Breath (V. Press, 2019).