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.