Friday, 2 June 2023

Review by Robert Richardson of "Virtual Exhibition No. 12: Art Research Center/A.R.C. Group 55th Anniversary Exhibition," 22 May - 18 June 2023

For a visual arts group to be in existence for fifty-five years is itself an achievement, and this is celebrated by the Art Research Center/A.R.C. Group with a superb online exhibition, which also becomes ‘Virtual Exhibition No. 12’ on the website. In contrast, this website, founded by the Turkish artist Erdem Küçükköroğlu, began recently, in 2020, at the outset of the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, which hastened a greater movement towards online exhibitions.

The artworks of these nineteen A.R.C. members give a continuing vitality to Constructivism in the 21st century, and they are entirely suitable for viewing on screens. Constructivist art has never much depended on the relief qualities of paint, with a flat surface often being the aim (it is significant that many of the painters here use acrylic). This means when they are scanned and become digital, nothing much, in this respect, is lost, and, for the most part, an emphasis on bold compositions and colours means a screen becomes an excellent alternative canvas, with its light providing vibrancy.

Within the general adherence to Constructivism, this selection has a pleasing eclecticism: the dangers of being monolithic or didactic are avoided. As well as the adept curating of T. Michael Stephens, A.R.C. Founder and Constructivist artist and designer, and Erdem Küçükköroğlu, this is probably also helped by the other interests of the participants: in addition to 2D and 3D art, these include architecture, digital art, photography, poetry, collage, and sonic art. There is for sure a range of perceptual intelligence present in this exhibition. 

I am assuming the artists themselves nominated their descriptions on the virtual labels, and, in particular, find interesting that the German artist Anna-Maria Bogner chooses ‘Concrete Artist.’ This is of course a direct link back to the great Max Bill, the important school of design at Ulm, and the even more important Bauhaus. Although Constructivism originated in Russia, it was made truly international by the Bauhaus, not least because of its own diaspora, including Gropius and other leading figures moving to the United States. The A.R.C. group was founded in Kansas City, but the participants of this exhibition reflect this internationalism, coming from a number of counties: Argentina, Australia, Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands and USA.

A more common self-descriptor is ‘Systematic Painter (or Artist)’ and variants of ‘Structural.’ I am taking this to mean these artists are working with a system that is possibly adopted or of their own invention. One artist, Clifford Singer, is a mathematician, and I assume this informs his approach. What unifies is engagement with the basic Constructivist vocabulary of shape, line, colour and space. The creating of compositions in a systematic way is a sublimation of the individual in favour of the universal. Nevertheless devising (or choosing) a system and the aesthetic judgement on whether to accept or reject its outcomes means, paradoxically, that styles emerge. From encountering their art on social media, I now instantly recognise Judith Duquemin‘s own brand of using white space as an active compositional element, Joseph Buis’ scaffoldings of colour and T. Michael Stephens’  singular approach to working with constructions.

A more inclusive Constructivism overlaps with other Movements, particularly Minimalism, as with Rebecca B. Alston’s FDP RED #3 (2023). It consists of three squares: a small black one within a light red one, and both within the largest one, itself divided in halves of two darker shades of red. It is inevitable that Albers is referenced (and, for me, aspects of Enrico Castellani come to mind as well). The division of the largest square, offset against the other elements, creates a perceptual dimension all its own, and the fierce reds belie an accompanying meditative quality. Similarly, Jon B. Thogmartin’s Purple Dots & Yellow Circles (2022) is both Constructivist and Minimalist, with an emphatic rhythmic repetition.

There is of course much work that meets the Constructivism of lines, shapes and the geometric angles they make, and examples of exhibits that are “classically” Constructivist are Barbara Höller’s painting 19copy07 (2021) and William C. Bodenhamer’s assemblage Construct Aesthetics Inherent (n.d.).

The website is an effective pairing for this exhibition, and should be congratulated for creating an online environment with admirable clarity of navigation, presentation and labelling, and congratulations to Art Research Center/A.R.C. Group for showing a Constructivism that continues to look fresh. The dates of the artworks are recent, and this highlights the group is not a tedious custodian of Constructivist purity but contemporary artists adding their own perceptions and ideas.

The full list of artists is as follows: Rebecca B. Alston, Robert L. Blackman, Perrin Blackman, William C. Bodenhamer, Anna-Maria Bogner, Joseph Buis, Judith Cisneros, Paul Cremoux, Judith Duquemin, Herbert W. Franke, Barbara Höller, Gerda Kruimer, Roland E. Kuit, Jay Mandeville, Alexandra Roozen, Karin Schomaker, Clifford Singer, T. Michael Stephens, Jon B. Thogmartin. The link to the exhibition (ending 18 June) is hereThe link to the A.R.C. website is here.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist, writer and lecturer. His work published by Leeds Postcards in the 1980s was distributed throughout Britain, and is now in graphic art collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. It is also included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). In recent years he has put together an ongoing portfolio of abstract digital artworks, producing some as limited edition prints and others as NFTs. In 2022, a video artwork was selected for Digital Art Month Paris, and was viewed at various public spaces in the city. He is also the co-editor of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). His website is here.   

Thursday, 1 June 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "The Last Dance" by Mark Billingham

The Last Dance is the first book in a new series by Mark Billingham. The story introduces his new character DS Declan Miller: he’s returned to work, some think too early, after the death of his wife. His wife also worked for the force and was his dancing partner – hence the title. 

Declan likes a joke. His new partner at work, DS Sara Xiu, is unresponsive to his humour. This antagonism bonds them nicely as characters and ensures by the end of the book the pairing feels as comfortable as a favourite pair of slippers. 

I read this on Pigeonhole. They release a few chapters a day which meant I couldn’t binge it and consequently felt every cliff-hanger. It's a tense enjoyable read and I’ll very definitely be reading the next Detective Miller novel.

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams writes short stories usually of just 100 words. You can find her online @noodleBubble

Friday, 12 May 2023

Review by Laura Besley of "A Bad Decade for Good People" by Joe Bedford


A Bad Decade for Good People – Joe Bedford’s debut novel to be published by Parthian in June 2023 – opens with an act of violence: ‘If the policeman’s baton had found Laurie half an inch lower she would be blind in one eye.’ The short prologue introduces the idea of juxtaposition, which I believe runs throughout the novel, both on a collective and individual level, for example: the police who maim and also protect; yearning to be seen by those we love, yet hiding from them. And how can we reconcile who we are with who others think we are?

Throughout the novel, nature plays a prominent role, from the ‘moon-shaped line of damage illuminated above [Laurie’s] eye’ to the various descriptions of Brighton – where a large proportion of the story is set – such as: ‘[the] shore stretches out in one long continuous line, unnaturally straight and unbroken but for the stone groynes that reach out from the shingle.’ The strong sense of place is reinforced by particular facts about the city an outsider is unlikely to know, for example the ‘tradition of leaving unwanted domestic goods out on the street – regardless of how broken they are, how difficult to move or how degradingly stained.’

George, the main character and Laurie’s younger brother, moves to Brighton to be closer to his sister, who lives there with her girlfriend. It is the summer of 2016. The summer of political turmoil: Brexit, David Cameron resigning, Theresa May becoming Prime Minister. Later in the year, Barack Obama is succeeded by Donald Trump. ‘It was all bad news or fake news or a combination of both.’ Laurie and her friends are heavily involved in the local political scene and tensions run high as the ‘decade get[s] darker and darker with no respite.’

This is also the year George meets Antonio, a Spanish naval engineer living in England with the hope of solving a family mystery from the past. It is through this central relationship that the novel continues to explore the themes mentioned above, as well as further themes of identity and belonging, both on a personal level and a communal one. How do we navigate a world not of our making, a world we no longer recognise? 

In many ways, for many people, the 21st century has not been easy. Through Antonio’s quest, we are reminded that we are not the first generation dealing with political upheaval and national frictions. In an interview in TIME Magazine, Margaret Atwood states, ‘The moment when you give up hope, that is the moment when you cease to take any actions that might be positive to get out of the doom.’ On both a macro and micro level, A Bad Decade for Good People echoes Atwood’s sentiments. Exploring timeless themes as well as the tumult of current politics makes this book a must-read for our time.  

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine and a Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Leicester. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. She tweets @laurabesley

Tuesday, 9 May 2023

Review by Asma Ali of "As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow" by Zoulfa Katouh

“Three shrivelled lemons and a plastic bag of pita bread that’s more dry than mouldy sit next to one another. That’s all this supermarket has to offer.”

Set amidst the Syrian revolution, Zoulfa Katouh’s YA novel plunges the reader straight into the bleak world of eighteen-year-old Salama. No food, bombed neighbourhoods and smashed dreams; Salama has lost everything. With her mother gone and father and brother imprisoned, she alone is left to look after her heavily pregnant sister-in-law, Layla, whilst volunteering at the hospital. Her days are filled with treating the wounded with little or no anaesthetic and she increasingly becomes torn between two choices: continue to stay and risk her life or take a chance at survival for herself, Layla and the unborn baby via a boat. But then she meets Kenan, the boy with vivid green eyes who firmly believes in fighting for his country, and the decision gets harder. 

Katouh’s writing is simple, expressive and engaging. She creates characters that stay with you long after the turning of the final page and their dilemmas throughout the novel lead readers to ponder on the complexities of human character. Her treatment of difficult themes such as guilt and refugee trauma is sensitive and well-researched. It also offers readers a brave insight into PTSD and it’s lived consequences.

Against the backdrop of pain and loss, the blossoming romance between Salama and Kenan brings an innocent and optimistic tone to the plot; their relationship is a simple reminder that life and love endures in spite of war. They also both turn to their faith for strength and guidance, which is another nod to authentic Muslim representation (one that I particularly enjoyed and found relatable as a Muslim reader) in a novel rich with culture. 

As long as the Lemon Trees Grow may be a devastating portrayal of life in Homs, but Zoulfa weaves a narrative of fierce hope and determination for a better life, which makes the book a truly beautiful read.  

About the reviewer
Asma Ali is a mum of four and current MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She has a healthy addiction to all things literary and coffee and can be found sharing her eclectic reading journey on Instagram @asma_scribendi 

Sunday, 7 May 2023

Review by Jo Dixon of "To 2040" by Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham’s latest collection, To 2040, follows close behind [To] The Last [Be] Human (2022), a tetralogy composed of four earlier collections, spanning 2002 to 2020. Both collections, published by Carcanet, immerse the reader in a world on the brink of collapse, but also a world that still holds wonder for its inhabitants. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction to [To] The Last [Be] Human suggests that the task of the poems in the tetralogy ‘are of record as well as of warning,’ a description that holds true for To 2040

Graham’s political / personal odes in this collection elevate the environmental crisis of the near future and the crisis of her own illness. Often, destruction and beauty co-exist within a few lines: 

         Breathe. Yes 
         the drought is everywhere out there
         but in the night

        the stems of stars mist-up
        just enough for u to recall
        when there was 
        humanity, humidity, & the stars

        dangle, sting. Ah there is
        no return 
        is there.

(‘Dusk in Drought’).

Even as the stars stir our hearts, we are stung by knowing that this is just a memory. Tellingly, there is no question mark here, our fate is sealed: ‘there is no return / is there.’ Yet this is not a collection of unrelenting gloom. The poems are invigorating in their formal inventiveness and precise use of language. The surprising lineation, extension of white space, erosion of words (you/u) and accretion of phrases have the effect of tuning us into Graham’s mind; we follow her thoughts as she wrestles with our wilful destruction of the earth, shot through with images of hope. The closing lines of the final poem, ‘Then the Rain,’ encourage us to ‘touch, touch it all,’ and in this last act of connectedness, Graham hints at a way back. 

About the reviewer
Jo Dixon’s collection, Purl, was published in 2020 by Shoestring Press. Her poetry and flash fiction appears in a range of journals and anthologies. She is Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, Leicester, and lives in Nottingham.

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "The Scent of Flowers at Night" by Leïla Slimani

Grab a sleeping bag – we’re off to Venice with Leïla Slimani to be locked into the Punta della Dogana museum for the night. In 2016 her novel Sweet Song won the Prix Goncourt, and this year she’s one of the Booker Prize judges. In The Scent of Flowers at Night she dwells on family, oppression, and ultimately happiness. These musings are woven round her exploration of the exhibits at night. Her reflections on self, solitude and the creative process make this short autobiographical work a particular delight for writers. The time frame seems fleeting though; her neat, lucid style leaves you wanting to spend another night with her, perhaps in a different museum.  

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes word-limited flash fiction, mostly drabbles - stories of exactly one hundred words. You can find her online @noodleBubble 

Monday, 24 April 2023

Review by Jane Simmons of "Kitchen Music" by Lesley Harrison

Lesley Harrison has published six collections of poetry, and now, in her first Carcanet collection, she turns her attention to the north and to the sea in poems which focus on northern lands and waters – to the Orkneys, and Iceland, their histories and stories, their flora and fauna, to northern seas, wild weather, whale-hunts.

In a foreword to the collection, Kirsty Gunn gives a powerful account of her own repeated and deepening encounters and engagements with these poems and tells the reader to expect "A book of poems, a book of voices. A book that is also a map, an almanac, a report – of histories, of stories, of lands and waters. A book of poems made and arranged in such a way as to create harbours and enclosures: the contained order of narrative brought to a wild scattering of events; a careful arrangement of whale bones on a gallery floor to tell the tale of that great singing creature now stilled to silence."

It is a book of poems which engage with other books, texts, poems – think Icelandic rune poems, sagas and folk-tales, the lives of Northumbrian saints, the personal diaries of sea-captains on whaling ships, glossaries of northern dialects. However, it is a book which also engages with music – with gaelic psalm, hymnals, and even the work of composer John Cage. There are poems which are songs – written in numbered parts, part songs – and the reader’s attention always being drawn to the musicality of even the smallest fragments of text. Sometimes, poems combine the two, books and music, to resemble the appearance and musicality of Anglo-Saxon verse – as illustrated in the opening poem:

Wou as in Wound 

WOU    as in wound
   HU    as in hunt
    AH    as in raft 
     LL   as in fall
      E    as in breech
WOU   as in bow
   HU    as in tump
    AH   as in slight
     LL   as in blink
      E    as in swell
WOU   as in fluke
   HU    as in tongue
    AH   as in ebb
     LL   as in oil
      E    as in jaw

WOU    as in run
   HU    as in calf
    AH   as in eye
     LL   as in blow
      E    as in breath 

WOU    as in sound
   HU     as in hull
    AH    as in wash
     LL    as in shelve
      E     as in dive

This is a collection to sit with.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher now PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for both the Mslexia Poetry Prize and The National Poetry Competition in 2022.

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The House of the Interpreter" by Lisa Kelly

What is it we are interpreting and from whose house? They are legitimate questions and all becomes clear as soon as we investigate the poetry of Lisa Kelly.

Kelly has right-sided deafness which does not define her, and is a glorious poet which does.  Her work illuminates that fact through the three parts of her collection, each named with a double meaning in mind relating to hearing: Chamber is part of the ear and also a room. Oval window is self-explanatory and also a small membrane in the ear. Canal relates to the ear canal and a stream or waterway, perhaps highlighting the journey she has taken as a poet.

The poem "The House of the Interpreter" is a visceral attack on the different approaches to communication for the Deaf: Oralism, the theory, practice, or advocacy of education for the Deaf chiefly or exclusively through lipreading, training in speech production, and training of residual hearing, as opposed to Manualism, the theory or practice of education for the Deaf employing and promoting the use of sign language as the primary means of communication. Kelly has taken one and rejected the other. This is partly explained in this piece and raises questions the vast majority of us cannot answer. Indeed should we answer on behalf of others? I think not. This is their world, their body, their truth.

I find the section Oval Window most fascinating as she relates mushrooms and fungi to deafness. In a talk she gave on YouTube she tells us about this and how fungi communicate. She talks of the world wide wood and her interest in the different ways that life forms communicate. This was very important to her during lockdown and in her studies she learnt how the misunderstood fungi could talk to us and still leave us so much to learn.

"If My Deaf Ear Were a Mushroom" is perfection and the final line - "it would be valued for signing the way to alternate reality" - sums up he words perfectly as she takes on myriad adventures full of vivid colour and images to highlight her world. The mystery of the mushroom she communicates with is epitomised in "Mushroom Stones" where we see normality and mysticism unravelled and almost explained. This a fascinating approach and opens up a bright new world for us to explore and to discover. But discover what? Kelly takes us down the rabbit hole and we have to decide for ourselves.

Later in Canal we explore her journey and we read of the misogynistic world she faces and how, in "A Diptych is not a Dick Pic," she has to confront it. Not a pretty sight in anybody’s world. The colours of "Metamorphoses: Colours, Marks and Signs" contrast perceptibly with her own world. "Blue Hydrangea" epitomises this with the struggle to turn the pink flower blue, the disappointment of having a girl rather than a boy.

This collection is as varied as it is powerful, as imaginative as it is self-possessed with a strength the reader can feel in the writing of a poet secure in their place in the world and confident enough to examine the failings and successes we all have. This is an incredible piece of work and must be read for its insightfulness and its beauty.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 67. 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. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

Friday, 31 March 2023

Review by Laura Besley of "Postcard Stories" by Jan Carson

Collections of micro fiction are rare. Collections of micro fiction by novelists are rarer still. I recently read The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, and loved its surreal lyrical qualities through which the devastating reality of living in Northern Ireland was explored. A month or so later I was browsing the online catalogue of The Emma Press and saw Postcard Stories (2017), illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. The title is in reference to how the book came about: ‘Every day in 2015, Jan Carson wrote a story on the back of a postcard and mailed it to a friend.’ The book contains 52 stories, one for each week, in which ‘Carson presents a panoramic view of contemporary Belfast.’

In her book, Going Short, Nancy Stohlman writes: 'One of my favorite approaches to writing a flash fiction story is what I call the zoom lens – taking an ultra close-up shot of what’s potentially a much bigger story. It’s like narrowing the focus from a wide-angle landscape to a single flower. In flash fiction, the single flower can be the whole world.' This zoom-lens approach is often used by Carson in her stories. One example is in August’s opening story in which the main character leaves her father in Ikea because ‘he was too old to go on.’ The actual story takes place in a slither of time, but it also encompasses the difficulties which arise from having to watch the struggles of an ageing parent: ‘I could see he was glad of the rest, glad to have the expectation lifted from him.’ 

Carson’s stories don’t have titles. Instead readers are given the week in which they were written, where and to whom. The last story, written in St George’s Market, Belfast, opens with ‘every year during the month leading up to Christmas, Eleanor takes a stall at St George’s Market and sells disappointment in small, hand-made bottles.’ There is a myriad of different disappointments and ‘it is mostly locals who buy from her. The tourists tend to skip straight from the felt handbag stall on her left to the organic candles on her right.’ Tania Hershman writes that ‘the reader more willingly accepts oddities and suspends disbelief in the ‘truth’ of such worlds than with a longer piece’ (Short Circuit). Carson takes full advantage of this in many of her stories; for example, a child is born with a bird’s egg in his/her hand or in the backseat of a car is a horse and a tunnel. 

Over and over Jan Carson asserts her authority as a competent and compelling short fiction writer. Along with her astute insight, Postcard Stories is a wonderful collection of poignant and touching narratives.  

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine. She tweets @laurabesley.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "How to Pronounce Knife" by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife is a hard-hitting short story compilation. The author was born in the Lao refugee camp in Thailand before being raised in Toronto. The stories focus on Laos immigrants, with an overarching theme of people being in places where they don’t feel they belong. 

Often told from the viewpoint of a younger person, the book features a collection of disparate characters. These are small stories about vast issues. Each one lands like a slap across the face and leaves a sting that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading. 

Her debut work of fiction, I’m eagerly awaiting Thammavongsa's next!

About the reviewer
Lisa has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes word-limited flash fiction, mostly drabbles - stories of exactly one hundred words. You can find her online @noodleBubble 

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Review by Jane Simmons of "The Fourth Sister" by Laura Scott

The poems in Laura Scott’s new collection are populated by a richly assorted cast: lovers and sisters, but also parents and children, the living and the dead, birds and trees, painters, playwrights and their characters, Tolstoy, a godfather who married the wrong man and a godmother who was surely a spy.

The title alludes to Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters,’ and references to the writer, his life and work are woven through the collection in poems such as ‘The First Sister’ which balances the title of the collection, ‘The Fourth Sister’, and ‘To Be One of Them,’ written after seeing a production of the play which describes being drawn into it to become one of the sisters. 'Why Are You Silent?' is a poem made up of extracts from letters between the playwright and the actress Olga Knipper who became his wife. 

This last is a poem which the poet describes as ‘an anti-autobiography poem,’ a description which introduces the playfulness evident in the collection. Poems also play with ‘the tyranny of stories’ – the fourth sister is ‘the one who slips the story’s collar,’ while ‘Why Are You Silent?’ plays with dialogue, with ideas of volubility or the ‘sprawl of talk,’ its long lines changing  direction as they snake down the page. ‘Cover Photo’ – a late addition to the collection - was written to guarantee the use of picture which was Scott’s choice for cover.

I was struck by how questions are used in these poems, how they pose questions and set out to answer them. ‘The Fourth Sister,’ for example, begins with a series of questions and opens up a dialogue with the other ‘sister’ poems. However, Scott knows better than to overwork the technique: in ‘The Bored Cowboy,’ one of a sequence of poems on boredom which explores how it slows down time so that you feel the ‘thickness’ of ‘slow, clogged time,’ she begins with one of those questions:

          and what about the blackbird
          Singing his big strong song
          From the heart of the tree?

only this time she denies the reader an answer by the ‘-‘  at the end of the poem.

At the Carcanet book launch for ‘The Fourth Sister,’ Scott spoke of how she is fascinated by our inability to remember, of wanting the poem to free something and then encountering the resistance of the subject. This is how her poems come to be held between ‘telling and withholding’ – like the people in Chekhov’s plays – and how the reader is invited into the space of the poem to participate in the action and the dialogue.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher now PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for the Mslexia Poetry Prize 2022.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Review by Laura Besley of "Intimacies" by Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell’s story, ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad,’ won the BBC Short story prize in 2021. Two years earlier, ‘The Children’ was short-listed. Both are available to listen to on BBC Sounds and both are in Caldwell’s latest short story collection, Intimacies – a collection which, according to the back cover, ‘exquisitely charts the steps and missteps of young women trying to find their place in the world.’

In his introduction to the Oxford Book of Short Stories, V. S. Pritchett writes: ‘the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely.’ Caldwell’s winning story – told in second person present tense – is about a woman on a transatlantic flight with her 22-month old daughter and the connection she makes with the man sitting next to her. It explores, as the title of the collection suggests, an intimacy, a moment. Within the limited timeframe of the flight and the couple of hours that follow on from it, ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ focuses on the intensity that springs up between the main character and her fellow passenger, bringing in her thoughts on motherhood and her marriage. What do you choose to reveal about yourself? And how real can such a connection really be? 'There is an artist whose work you saw once in a Whitechapel gallery: she had stitched to a globe of the world metallic threads representing one single day’s flights, then somehow dissolved the globe, leaving just the sugar-spun mass of threads, and you think of it now, of how it made you think, how fine the threads that connect us from one person, or place, to another, and how precious, and how strong.'

‘The Children’ is, in some ways, more technically skilful. Within the story there are three separate strands woven together to form a single coherent narrative: a young mother, who finds a lump in her breast; a 19th-century writer called Caroline Norton is separated from her children and seeks to bring about a change in the law; and the children of asylum seekers being taken from their parents at the US border. It feels very modern in its form, with tweets, -and bang up-to-date politically, as well as timeless regarding its subject matter and the inclusion of poetry. 

My only reservation about Intimacies is its claim to be about young women in the modern world. Nine of the eleven stories are about motherhood, or near-motherhood, and to me it feels like the balance tips too far in that direction. Personally I am very interested in stories on modern motherhood, but I wonder if you weren’t, whether you might struggle to find what you are looking for within these stories. Having said that, there is no doubt that Caldwell, who is also a novelist and playwright, is extremely adept at writing in the short story form, and this is a heartfelt and beautiful collection. 

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine. She tweets @laurabesley.

Sunday, 12 March 2023

Review by Laura Besley of "The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories" by Brian Howell

Brian Howell’s latest collection of short stories, The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories (Salt, 2022), is wonderfully weird. What can be done in a short story, which is much harder to sustain over the length of an entire novel, is to explore feelings and situations that are off-kilter, at odds with the norm. These are narratives that push the boundaries of acceptance and conjure feelings of uneasiness, sometimes even repulsion, but that also challenge views on how people choose, or are forced, to live. 

Lucie McKnight Hardy writes: ‘Sensations brought about by the manifestation of the Uncanny – dread, unease, that inescapable sensation that something is not quite right – have been said to derive from that which is familiar (homely) becoming unfamiliar (unhomely)’ (Writing the Uncanny, pp.9-10). Some of Howell’s stories start out innocent enough, like the opening of ‘Green to Blue’ or ‘The Shore’ wherein a young girl asks the main character which book he is reading. Whereas others drop more quickly into a world that is not quite as it should be. The opening line of the titular story – ‘As Ishii started out on one of his daily walks past the local daycare centre, the screams of the children sounded out’ – could’ve been a man merely taking a stroll, but for a singular word: screams. This word can, of course, be read in various ways, but to me it was immediately unsettling. 

Howell makes great use of silence and space between the characters to heighten their sense of disjointedness which in turn enhances the sense of unease in the reader. One example is from ‘The Folding Man’: ‘[Pippa] seemed not to be looking so much at her mother as into a pocket of space between them’ until a ‘chasm opened up, a resentment that cannot be filled with cheery conversation, it seemed.’ Another is a one-sided conversation in ‘The Shore’ between an American man and a young Asian girl. 

In his essay ‘What My Gland Wants,’ Adam Marek states that ‘the short story reader has the ability to suspend their disbelief to a far greater degree’ (Short Circuit, p.147). This is true in many of the stories within Howell’s collection, not least ‘The Folding Man’ wherein the main character’s skin is peeled back to reveal his organs and ‘wonderfully, no blood spilled anywhere.’

Some argue that short fiction doesn’t need any description; it is only a distraction and readers are able to imagine characters for themselves. Tobias Hill, on the other hand, likens physical character description to ‘having the salt beside you when you are cooking. You don’t need a lot of it … But it is necessary to have just enough’ (Short Circuit, p.108). This singular description of Mandy in ‘Family Tree’ is not only concise, but also serves as foreshadowing for what will later unfold: ‘She seemed concerned over little else but the doll she dragged along in the dirt. I thought how much it resembled her, with its Belisha-beacon orange hair, its staring, unseeing eyes, its fixed, reprimanding expression.’ 

Bearing in mind these elements, I feel The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories, although not for everyone, is not only wonderfully weird, but also weirdly wonderful.  


About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine. She tweets @laurabesley.

You can read more about The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday, 11 March 2023

Review by Laurie Cusack of "T'ree Tins of Turpentine" by Tim O'Sullivan

O’Sullivan’s spare-bittersweet memoir has laugh-out-loud moments strewn all the way through it. The boozy opening anecdote is electrifying and helps set its visceral tone. Here is an underrepresented Irish diasporic working-class voice in full flow.

It is authentic and comes straight from the gut, which is a rare phenomenon indeed, methinks. Bravo.

Many of O’Sullivan’s recollections and experiences resonated more than once. The brutality meted out by school and family was the norm back then which haunts our PC world of today. Also, his faith and first holy communion are well realised  and struck a chord: I  felt the same reservations about the body of Christ and eating the wafer.

Moreover, his allusions to hooliganism, drugs and inner-city violence that were ever present in 1970s England are bang on. A scrap was never far away. 

Shoplifting in Lewis’s – what a joy!   

These remarkable warts-and-all remembrances of social deprivation are truly powerful, evocative, poignant and captivating. This is a brave text. Sometimes it’s easy to ignore the tiers of poverty that surround us, and that is why this rare text is an important empathetic reminder to us all about life, chance and circumstance: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ His incarcerations speak volumes about the revolving door and institutionalisation and how chance can change a life. 

The period detailing is also spot-on: long-lost pubs and clubs like the Black Lion, The Longstop, The Churchill, Breni Inns, The George and Sloopy’s are in my memory bank. O’Sullivan’s text vividly captures the decades seamlessly as his chaotic life unfolds – no holds barred, until redemption and change kick-in.

There is a local buzz about this Leicester folklore of a book − I keep bumping into people who have read it or who are planning to.

A local delight!

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. His collection of short stories, The Mad Road, will be published by Roman Books in 2023. His story 'The Bottle and the Trowel' is published in the anthology High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Review by Rosa Fernandez of "Kerf" by Gareth Farmer

Of the many things I enjoyed about Kerf, a collection of ten poems by Gareth Farmer published by the87press, the cover was definitely one of them: a selection of retro illustrations of woodworking tools that sets the tone for this extremely interesting work.

The delivery is anything but wooden, the language here is voluminous, and from the outset we are aware that dense meaning is one of the real themes of the book. We learn from the introductory ‘excursus’ what ‘kerf’ is, and how it relates to the author and the autobiographical poems within. It is almost onomatopoeic, a chafing that stands for the whole; these poems are where the pleasures and explorations in carpentry meet the hewing of life as an individual newly aware of a complex diagnosis of ASD.

Humour and rhythm are found throughout. I particularly liked the grafting of words together, the ‘buffetiquettes’ of ‘Cognitive Loading’ just one example, followed later by the wonderful (and true) observation that ‘It is never appropriate to fondle vol-au-vents.’ This poem also works another wonderfully simple poetic trick (which I won’t spoil by revealing here).   

The density of earlier poems falls away in ‘Sssssssstiiiiimye’ that I read as a literal transcription of a unique mind caught in a seemingly simple everyday exchange; followed then by ‘Persona Non Grata’ in which I appreciated the metaphorical crafting described in lines such as ‘Leave body overnight in a cool, dry situation. Remain calm’ (an instruction I can entirely imagine printed on my own metaphorical wrapper).

The final sequence of poems, entitled ‘What’s That: Instead Of Ego,’ is the apotheosis of Kerf, taking us through the process of a project in sections (from ‘inception’ to ‘finish’) and has a more languid flow while still full of Farmer’s alliterative whimsy in lines such as ‘Why the barbs of behavioural bonhomie?’ As stated in the ‘Finish,’ ‘It began as an elliptical idea’ and ended up as a finished and well-sanded piece. The jig, as they say, is up.  

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

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Review by Helen Schofield of "Saint Maybe" by Anne Tyler

There’s something about the gentleness in Anne Tyler’s portrayal of middle-class white Baltimore families that never plumps into cosiness. In Saint Maybe there is a helpful neighbour who is ‘one of those women who grow quilted in old age – her face a collection of pouches.’ And she has a hat like ‘a gray felt potty.’ This acute observation (and sly comment) makes Tyler’s books readable and re-readable – there’s more to notice every time.

Saint Maybe focuses on Ian Bedloe. Haunted by feelings of guilt and responsibility for his brother’s and sister-in-law’s deaths, he drops out of college to bring up their children. This is prompted when he drifts into the Church of the Second Chance. Their rules: first names, Good Works, no sugar – and atonement.

As Ian’s expected life trajectory drifts away, other things come in its place: the children he comes to love dearly, and his eccentric, ever-so-slightly-socially-inadequate church family. Reverend Emmet’s shirt, Ian notices, is ‘buttoned all the way to the neck in the fashion of those misfits who used to walk around high school with slide rules dangling from their belts.’ 

Saint Maybe doesn’t skirt the everyday sadness of life – family deaths, disabling illnesses and sheer day-to-day awkwardness. Some of the most moving sections are those from the children’s point of view. Thomas, Ian’s nephew, only has one faded photograph of his mother and projects the feelings he can’t remember on to it: ‘The frill at his mother’s neckline must have made pretzel sounds in his ear. Her bare arms must have stuck to his skin a little in the hot sunshine.’

But people muddle through, the children grow up and everyone turns out all right. This was the first Anne Tyler novel I read, and her mastery of the gentle battiness of everyday coping won me over – I’m a huge fan.

About the reviewer
After a varied career in finance, commercial property and, latterly, welfare benefits advice, Helen Schofield started an English BA at the University of Leicester, and is in her second year. She lives in Leicester with her husband, grown-up daughters (sometimes) and Minnie the Mardy Cat. She is a fair-weather gardener, and also loves playing music and sewing.

Monday, 6 March 2023

Review by Gift Yusuf of "Purple Hibiscus" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fifteen-year-old taciturn Kambili is raised by her strict-abusive-Catholic-fanatic father and her overbearingly meek and submissive mother. Her older brother, on the other hand, is the rebel of the family because of his ability to nonchalantly confront their father. 

We are carried on Kambili’s journey of longing and loss as a teenage girl who has a deep love for her father regardless of his inadequacies. However, she finds herself constantly seeking his approval even though, he seems to prefer her disrespectful brother because he is a boy. Later in the book she finds her longing in a man who is much older than she is, when she goes to visit her cousins on holiday. 

The book covers a range of social justice issues and the negative effects of colonial influence which is eye-opening and informative without being too exegetic. It shows that the father is also a victim—a victim of colonialism due to the presence of the Catholic missionaries in eastern Nigeria. He doesn't even realise it in many instances, such as when he makes his family speak only English, banning their native tongue, in the home. 

His religious fanaticism also leads to him isolating his family from other relatives and their native traditions because they are seen as "heathen," while he physically assaults his wife and children under false Biblical justification. 

Regardless of their father's shortcomings, we can tell that he has an unspoken love for his family by some of his subtle actions in the story—for instance, he always shares the first drink of his tea with his children. 

I was gripped from beginning to end while reading this book as it took me on a roller-coaster of emotions, particularly because it ended in such a shocking plot twist. Even with the father’s abusive nature, I found myself feeling pity for him towards the end of the novel as secrets were revealed, and it made me wonder if the mother’s "submissive" nature was disingenuous. 

About the reviewer
Gift Yusuf is a current MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She’s twenty years-old and graduated from Coventry University where she studied Law and had her first short story published in the Coventry Law journal. In her free time, she volunteers with kids and a Young Writers' organization as an Alpha reader. She also loves to read short stories and watch short films. Her favorite short film is The Neighbors' Window, an Oscar winning film which can be found on YouTube. 

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Review by Sushma Bragg of "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lionel Shriver

"Could I have done something differently?" "Could I have prevented my child from doing this?" "Did I not love him enough?" These are some of the fundamental questions that a parent asks themselves at some time or another on the parenting journey. In the case of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver uses the format of a unique correspondence of letters to her husband, Franklin, explaining and justifying her misgivings about Kevin from a very early age but which have fallen on deaf ears. Her frustrations come across clearly that Franklin does not take her concerns seriously. The outpourings of a mother’s anguish and guilt resonate with the reader, especially if the reader is a parent.

Eva is a woman trapped by her manipulative and psychopathic son, who claims to everyone else that he is misunderstood by his vindictive mother. She tries to raise awareness of the problems that were blatantly obvious to her and only her. 

Shriver explores the manipulative and unspoken war that is waged by Kevin, cleverly and covertly against his mother - to the extent that Eva sometimes begins to doubt herself. Shriver displays the cold-hearted character of a psychopath expertly in the character of Kevin right from birth to mid-teens.

We unfortunately hear of incidences of school shootings and we devote our heartfelt sympathies for the victims and their families. However, in this book, Shriver has flipped the coin. We are witnessing the anguish of a mother, who herself has lost her child too (and much more) but with the added unspeakable and intolerant burden of being the mother of a perpetrator who has caused the unbearable heartbreak to so many people. We see how one grieving mother brings a civil case against Eva on the grounds of "Parental Negligence." They blame Eva for creating this "Monster."

I think Shriver’s book is a compassionate and realistic account of the torment and guilt of a mother who holds herself responsible for the actions of her child. Could she have done more? Could she have prevented these atrocities that she knew deep down would inevitably unfold? It’s a superb novel, seeing these events from the perspective of the killer’s mother, who is  victim herself of her son’s actions - and probably the most important victim in Kevin’s eyes. Did he do what he did, solely to punish Eva? Was Eva his main Target? This is one of the most disturbing and shocking yet thought-provoking books I have read: "I thought at the time that I couldn't be horrified anymore, or wounded. I suppose that's a common conceit, that you've already been so damaged that damage itself, in its totality, makes you safe." 

About the reviewer
Sushma Bragg is a mature Creative Writing MA student at the University of Leicester. After a break of 35 years, she has returned to her love of all thing's literature. She writes professionally for a marketing company and is currently writing a composite novel based on her family.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Review by Madeleine Bell of "Bunny" by Mona Awad

“Bunny” is their communal pet-name. They move as one – a lemon-scented, cupcake-devouring Lovecraftian hivemind - four affluent young women at the prestigious New England college aptly named “Warren University.” They groom each-other’s hair, nuzzle one another’s faces in full view of the public. “Bunny, I love you,” one of them simpers, to which another replies, “I love you, Bunny.” They sit together in their writing workshops, snuggled up together on one side of a table, holding hands, petting each-other. 

On the other side of that table sits the only other student, our narrator Samantha. Attending Warren on a scholarship, she is excluded from this intriguing dynamic until an invitation appears in her school mailbox inviting her to an erotic writing workshop with the Bunnies. From here onwards, she descends into their world of miniature food, colourful cocktails, beheadings, sugar, exploding rabbits, pills, and axes. And all the while, the Bunnies are fascinated with the artistic concept of The Body. 

I read this in one sitting. With such a bizarre and enticing beginning, the novel runs the risk of losing momentum, but the plot developments kept me hooked. Samantha is influenced by those she associates with. In the company of her cynical best friend, Samantha calls the Bunnies ironic nicknames – Creepy Doll, Duchess, Vignette and Cupcake. Yet as she falls in with this group, the Bunnies become indistinguishable from one another, “I” becomes “we,” “me” becomes “us,” and all of them are “Bunny.” 

For those who enjoy the dark humour and satire of Ottessa Moshfegh’s unhinged My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Awad’s novel is sure to please. I cannot, in good conscience spoil this plot for you. It benefits from being explored blindly. The saccharine title and premise conceal an ugly, gutsy satire of privilege, high art and friendship. 

About the reviewer
Madeleine Bell is twenty-one years old. She's a Creative Writing MA student at the University of Leicester. She loves to read and write horror stories. In her spare time, she collects CDs, and takes pictures of the squirrels in Victoria Park. She can usually be found running or playing games of Dungeons & Dragons.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Review by Tim Grayson of "For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain" by Victoria Mackenzie

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain is a magnificent book. It brings fresh eyes and vitality to the lives of two real, medieval women of faith: Margery Kempe, and the anchoress Julian of Norwich. It is a work of fiction, but takes its inspirations from The Book of Margery Kempe (the first autobiography written in English by a man or woman) and Julian's Revelations of Divine Love (the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman).

Interestingly, these women did meet in real life, and the latter part of the book deftly imagines their conversation. At times, I found myself moved beyond words, as if the book was speaking to my soul. It may be classed as fiction, but the author has worked wonders here; it's almost as if she's assisted Margery and Julian in creating a new holy book. Outstanding.

About the reviewer
Tim Grayson is the founding editor of the Leicester Literary Review, poet-in-residence at Belvoir Castle and the head of media at Technology Record. He has written poetry for members of the British peerage, scripts for BBC Radio, and has created and produced several board games, including Tatakai - a game of covert warfare. In his spare time, Tim enjoys spending time with his family, training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and exploring sites of historical significance.

Friday, 24 February 2023

Review by Isabelle Kenyon of "The Love Genes" by Eleni Cay

In her novel The Love Genes, Eleni Cay presents a thought-provoking exploration of love, relationships, and mental illness in a futuristic society set in 2039 Sweden. Through the eyes of protagonist Katie, the reader is transported to a world that is both familiar and strange, where technology has advanced to the point of ubiquitous phone use, but where societal norms and attitudes towards mental illness are still very much a work in progress.

Cay's writing is vivid and evocative, painting a detailed picture of the setting and the characters. The opening scene, in which Katie takes a train from London to Sweden, sets the stage for the novel and provides insight into the fast-paced, technologically advanced society in which it is set. The reader is immediately drawn into the world of the novel and is able to relate to Katie's struggles as she adjusts to her new life in Sweden.

One of the novel's main themes is the relationship between Katie and her boyfriend Mark, and the couple's struggles with infertility and their desire for a child. Through their conversations and interactions, the reader is able to gain a deep understanding of their characters and the complexities of their relationship. The novel also explores the impact of medical conditions, such as Katie's Multiple Sclerosis, on relationships and the difficulties of managing pain and sleep.

The novel also delves into the darker side of relationships, as Katie starts dating someone called Erik, who turns out to be violent and dangerous. This storyline raises interesting moral questions about the nature of mental illness and the effectiveness of prison as a means of rehabilitation. The novel's exploration of these themes is both nuanced and thought-provoking, and it invites the reader to consider their own attitudes and beliefs about these issues.

Overall, The Love Genes is a thought-provoking and well-written novel that explores complex themes and characters in a futuristic society. It is a novel that will resonate with readers who are interested in exploring the nuances of relationships, mental illness, and societal norms. Highly recommended.

About the reviewer
Isabelle Kenyon is a writer of prose and poetry based in Manchester with her two guinea pigs. She is the Managing Director of Fly on the Wall Press and also runs PR and editing services under Kenyon Author Services. She tweets at @kenyon_isabelle

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Review by Lee Wright of "The Book of Niall" by Barry Jones

Niall Adams is a Hollywood actor who seemingly has it all. The career, the good looks, the gorgeous girl, the apartment in LA. 

In this sense, he isn’t too far removed from Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman. And like the narrator of American Psycho (1991), Niall Adams is finding out that success, and indeed reality, isn’t all that it used to be, as his grip on the real world is beginning to slip in frequent and alarming ways. 

Niall often feels like he is watching a television, that those around him aren’t real people. Is his entire life nothing more than a pre-written script? Will the director call cut in time to save Niall from himself? 

With surrealist echoes of David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) and Spike Jones’ Being John Malkovich (1999), author Barry Jones addresses the difficult conversation of the three Ds, (depression, depersonalisation, and derealisation) in a richly narrated and multi-layered debut graphic novel that occasionally dares to break the fourth wall, and which Jones achieved by teaching himself to draw (a demonstration of extraordinary effort). 

The Book of Niall is a novel which requires some investment. It is at times seductive and deep, and at other times boarding on heady surrealism that some readers might find too impenetrable, though it pays to stay with it. There are many unexpected happenings; turns that takes the story slyly in the direction of horror, then backflips into comedy, leaving the reader upside-down, forcing them to reassess everything they thought and felt about mental health, as Niall teeters on the delicate edge of infinite regression, witnessing himself crumble and reform over the endless cycle of days.  

Reading The Book of Niall is an uncompromising experience, but it does have an important urgency that deserves further thought, and a bigger conversation. 

About the reviewer
Lee Wright has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working towards a PhD which merges film summary with personal memoir. His short fiction has been published by Fairlight Books, and époque press. He is also writing a novel set in 1950s New Mexico. 

You can read more about The Book of Niall by Barry Jones on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday, 20 February 2023

Review by Sally Shaw of "Imagine Living" by Deborah Morgan


Imagine Living is the sequel to Deborah Morgan’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Disappearing Home. Imagine Living continues Robyn’s story of growing up in Liverpool, where life is difficult and at times dangerous. 

I’m drawn to the photograph on the cover. It’s a black and white photograph, taken by Rob Bremner, Liverpool, circa 1980. Rob is a British documentary photographer, who, in this photograph, has perfectly captured a whole era. In the forefront is a young woman, her overcoat too big, her handbag guarded on her knee as she writes in a notebook. I know the young woman is Robyn and I want to discover how she is doing. I also like the format of the book. It is slightly bigger than an A5 diary and it feels familiar to me. Being the same format as Disappearing Home it is welcoming and inviting. The layout of the pages and short chapters create comfortable reading, uncrowded and relaxed. 

The first chapter, I recognise Robyn’s voice: ‘If words could eat other words, then hope would be the word to eat despair. HOPE. A word that for years had protected me from myself: from thinking too much about everything lost, and everything I could still lose. The word slid across my lips, its sound full of light. I breathed in its warmth, soft as feathers under a pigeon sky.’ Deborah Morgan’s poetic words allow Robyn to express her strength and awareness that her life can get better, but at the same time she’s scared. I like the reference to pigeons, recalling the importance of Robyn sitting with Nan down the Pier Head, pigeons at their feet as they ate their cheese butties.

Robyn lives with her nan as her mum has moved to Edinburgh with her new boyfriend and Robyn has started work. I join Robyn on the bus into Liverpool, deep in thought, trying to make sense of herself. She’s two weeks into her government scheme at a bakery, Waterford’s. Along with this change her Nan is waiting to go into hospital and Robyn is worried. As I read, I recall being sixteen: Robyn’s voice and inner being has been written with the wonder and fear of a teenager in 1980s Britain. 

Robyn takes me on her journey. A voyage of growing, forming relationships, decoding personalities and life, while searching for the meaning of Home. Throughout this journey Robyn meets a band of characters: some offer help, provide insight and encouragement, others are dangerous. I found the characters to be believable and of their time. Deborah Morgan has the ability to create important characters like Norm and Claudia. Through meeting Norm, Robyn learns there is the possibility of a person other than Nan wanting to care for her while demanding nothing. Norm demonstrates the many dimensions of being human. He illustrates that life experiences provide choice. Norm carries a burden of loss, yet it hasn’t made him bitter. Claudia enables Robyn to see herself and understand her worth, while prompting her quest to find her real dad. 

Waterford’s bakery provides Robyn with an anchor during her roughest time. Maud, Stella and Dot work at the bakery. The carry-ons in the workplace provide an education for Robyn, on the differing pathways in life and men. These characters are written with humour and a real sense of place.  

My favourite bond was that between Robyn and Claudia, as I felt she was the one friend that Robyn longed to keep, and the moment she realised Claudia liked her was beautiful: '"‘Why don’t I try and get Phil to cover for me next week?" "Okay, yes I’d like that." "I’ll meet you at the station, say half ten?" I pick up the painting and the tape for Norm. "Okay, see you." Claudia was taking the day off to be with me!"'  

Imagine Living will take the reader on an odyssey. It explores the reality of what Home means, and how it is not always found purely in bricks and mortar. Morgan uncovers how friendships form between differing generations, gender and circumstance. Robyn discovers that loss doesn’t always mean the end. That the ability to reflect and consider the past, present, future and self will enable her to find what Home is and begin to live. I absolutely loved the novel, and I think Imagine Living would make a wonderful film.

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester.  She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson. She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology Tales from Garden Street (Comma Press Short Story Course book 2019). Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam. Twitter: @SallySh24367017

Saturday, 4 February 2023

Review by Nina Walker of "The This" by Adam Roberts

Social media is becoming an increasingly pervasive companion as the twenty-first century drags its mangled body onwards. The idea of engaging with the virtual world before you even get up to brush your teeth has become something of an unquestioned norm for many (myself included). It is these new abnormal norms that The This plays upon. The novel centres on ‘the this,’ a device in the roof of your mouth that allows you to tweet without lifting a finger. When I have presented this concept to friends, the response is always a slightly horrified and yet intrigued grimace. 

We are already too deeply entangled with social media and yet the allure and elegance of a hands-free interface! You have to admit it has some attraction about it. But from the first chapter we become aware that ‘the this’ aims for more than just an easier user experience. It wants to create an empathy gorge - a virtual space where you can live a million lives in the same way you might ravage a packet of Revels. ‘You are a farmer. You are a farmer. You are a farmer. You are a farmer, pressed into the army and spiked with a spear from behind on a battlefield whose name you do not know.’ We have become the product people pay to experience; our lives and traumas are just raisins in the trail mix of The This. Your life is no longer private or special. That treasured memory of your wife kissing you for the first time is now everyone’s treasured memory of your wife. 

What is so startling about Robert’s novel is not only its relevancy - it is, after all, science fiction - but how unbelievably alluring it is. To never be lonely again, to access the knowledge of your peers, and be truly useful: who could turn down an offer like that? 

Not me. 

That’s for sure. 

About the reviewer
Nina Walker is studying a Modern and Contemporary literature MA at the University of Leicester. She writes poetry on modernity, dogs, and pub men (among other things) which can be found on her blog here. Her most recent project is an extended prose piece on work culture called The Anatomy of Work. She also enjoys dystopian fiction, producing digital art and the work of e. e. cummings. She can’t swim or ride a bike so it's probably for the best that she stays inside and writes. 

You can also read one of Nina's poems on Creative Writing at Leicester here

You can read more about Adam Roberts's The This on Creative Writing at Leicester here