Tuesday 20 December 2022

Review by James Nash of "Selected Poems" by Donald Davie, ed. Sinéad Morrissey

I like a knotty, argumentative poet.  And I like Donald Davie very much. He was a blind date.  I knew the name but had read, to my knowledge, none of his work. Barnsley born but for much of his life a peripatetic academic, there’s more than a bit of Yorkshire grit in these poems, the grit around which pearls are formed.

In a brilliant new selection by Sinéad Morrissey there are pieces from every decade of Davie’s writing life; poems where he foreswears sentimentality and romanticism and chews away at ideas and experiences like a favourite bone. What we have then in his writing is a synthesis of his internal dialogue that speaks directly to us. These are not imagery-filled, metaphor-heavy poems and they feel as if he has chipped them, mason-like, from stone to ‘chisel honey from the saxifrage.’

Poems which reference 18th-century poet William Cowper and Barnsley Cricket Club win me over instantly, and I warm to the poet and the man. I am astonished by how much he wrote and how close he was in age to the present me when he died in 1995. I think we are now dating.

This is an accessible exploration of Davie’s work.  And it makes me want to read more, so this taster selection clearly works. It is an important reminder of the great writer he was, and how relevant he still is, nearly thirty years after his death. Morrissey’s introduction is clear-eyed and intelligent, a perfect primer for a clear-eyed and intelligent poet who in his poem 'Wombwell on Strike' writes:

           I was born of this 
           tormented womb, the taut West Riding.

About the reviewer
James Nash is a poet and writer based in Leeds. Heart Stones, his third collection of sonnets, was published by Valley Press in 2021.

Thursday 15 December 2022

Review by Alan McCormick of "Without Warning and Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood" by Kit de Waal

Kit De Waal’s narration is clear-eyed and unsentimental, devoid of self-pity, with an extraordinary gift of recall and eye for detail borne from a harsh childhood, where survival was often found in the shadows, dreaming, observing, trying to make sense of the goings on in an often unpredictable, joyless home, attempting to understand her family’s place in the world. 

Kit’s Mom is from Wexford and her Dad from St. Kitts. Being both Irish and Caribbean in nineteen-sixties-and-seventies Britain meant enduring endemic prejudice and everyday acts of racism – being called ‘Little Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy’ by a teacher or ‘wog’ and ‘blackie’ by a spiteful classmate – singled out in turn for being either Irish or black or mixed-race.  Even Kit’s grandmothers, Nan and Black Nana, never accept the racial partner choices made by their children, and, worse, Kit’s parents seem to distrust and reject each other’s cultures, and barely connect or show affection to each other. 

Kit’s Dad, Arthur, is mostly controlled (controlling), off-handily critical and barely present, living through cricket (he’s good), and detective and cowboy films on television. He springs momentarily to life to corral his willing kids (desperate for a bit of fun) to help bake Christmas cakes to give as gifts or make Caribbean food at weekends whilst Mom, Sheila, is at work. He puts on a good face around relatives and friends from home, fondly reminiscing a romanticised past. There is little money around and what money there is, is rarely spent on enough food and clothing for Kit and her siblings. Whilst Sheila tries to save, Arthur would rather use his money to keep up appearances by buying a smart car, good shoes for himself, sending extravagant gifts back home and building a house for his fantastical return to St Kitts. 

Sheila is overwrought and overworked (doing many jobs, cleaning, child-minding, caring, and running the home). She’s exhausted and distracted, needy and swamping when showing unexpected moments of generosity or affection (the sudden purchase of art supplies is accompanied by her manic desperation for the kids to instantly use and enjoy them), her feelings dissipated in caring for vulnerable strangers outside the home. She does rise to meet a crisis, caring in response to Kit’s dramatic childhood accidents, but becomes increasingly frustrated as time passes, saving milk bottles to throw at the outhouse wall, escaping into a forlorn, nostalgic reverie of singalong sentimental songs. 

And then there’s Jehovah which means no Christmas or birthday presents! Kit and her siblings learn to endure, and (ultimately) reject the weekly services at Kingdom Hall with their boring, guilt-tripping sermons, by making up irreverent names for the congregation. But Mom is on a mission to spread the word and in one hilarious, acutely observed scene, she again tries to lay traps (the increased frequency of natural disasters) to try and entice and convert her wily Catholic mother, who is having none of it: ‘It’s a push-me-pull-you of a dance,’ Kit observes. ‘As old as time, the child who was never the favourite, the mother who couldn’t love enough. They lock in with their clumsy footsteps, out of step to the music, each one trying to lead, stepping on toes.’

Affection and joy may arrive in the home ‘without warning and only sometimes’ for Kit and her siblings but it can also come from outside – Dad’s cousin Uncle Mike is ‘loud, gruff, rough, fun’ and the kids love being around him in his chaotic bedsit. Kit and her siblings also learn to find their own fun, to stick together to survive.

Everyone in the family wants to escape and change their lives, and, whilst Dad and Mom are thwarted, Kit finds salvation, the possibility of a better life away from home, first with friends, and then in the company of characters from books. She devours the classics recommended to her, the watcher becoming a reader, and later the writer who will let us into her life and tell her story – a multi-layered story about race and class, of hope and survival. It’s a wonderful, wise, and life-enhancing book that will stay with me for a long time.

About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives in Wicklow. He’s a trustee with  InterAct Stroke Support who read fiction and poetry to stroke patients. Alan’s writing can be read in current issues of The Stinging Fly, Southword and Exacting Clam; and online at 3:AM Magazine, Fictive Dream, Dead Drunk Dublin, Mono, Words for the Wild and Époque Press. His story, 'Firestarter,' came second in this year’s RTÉ short story competition. For further information, see here

You can read more about Without Warning and Only Sometimes, by Kit de Waal, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 12 December 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Dead Drop" by F. C. Malby

I cannot recall ever reading a book with such a sensual, sense-ful, scent-ful opening. The tastes and sights and sounds enveloped me as a reader drawing me into Vienna and its streets, cafes and churches. I can smell espresso, then I can taste the Guglehupf. I feel the wind on my cheek and the bustle of people on their way to goodness knows where. It is enchantingly delightful. Malby should be asked by the Vienna tourist board to promote their city. And that is only after the first two chapters!

I haven’t even mentioned the dead body, found by our protagonist Leisl, on Stephansplatz underground steps, as if it were the most natural of things to discover. Well it was where she was told it would be. But who by? And what of the broach and the note she took from the body? Art thief by career, Liesl finds herself in a terrifying world of murder and deception in this well-researched, beautifully written thriller. She is a hero we root for, despite her criminal behaviour, as she goes on an adrenalin-running-high escapade as she seeks the truth. To Malby’s credit. I found myself in the streets and buildings of Vienna, described with the minimum of fuss, but described in such a way that I felt I was part of the city, part of the chase and totally enmeshed in the plot.

I hope this is the first in a series as there is room for so much more.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Dead Drop by F. C. Malby on Creative Writing at Leicester here