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