Friday 30 June 2023

Review by F. Bamforth of "The Valley of Lost Secrets" by Lesley Parr

In this book, the main character Jimmy is sent away from his home in London to rural Wales along with his little brother Ronnie and his classmates. Jimmy struggles to settle down with his new foster family and adapt to his new life outside of London. Whilst in Wales, he makes a discovery which helps to change how he feels about his new home. 

This is a fantastic book, telling the story of an evacuee missing his home. It is an excellent read for anyone wanting an adventure story with a good ending. 

About the reviewer
F. Bamforth is 15. She loves books and building lego sets. 

Wednesday 28 June 2023

A Book That Changed Me, by Joe Bedford: "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh

There are numerous ways to read Brideshead Revisited: as a sycophantic paean to the British aristocracy, as a statement of the author’s new-found Catholic faith, or as a floridly sentimental romantic drama. For Evelyn Waugh, it was perhaps all of these things, but it was also something else. In the central relationship between painter Charles Ryder and professional dandy Sebastian Flyte, Waugh gave expression to a type of male love that is in some ways increasingly difficult to articulate. It is a love that Waugh knew himself, and that in reading I immediately recognised and appreciated.

The love between Charles and Sebastian might seem familiar. It is the love between the archetypal ‘ordinary man’ and his ‘extraordinary’ counterpart: the love most famously typified by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. In expression, that love can encompass admiration, desire, infatuation, jealousy. In Brideshead Revisited, it exists along the line between wanting to be somebody and wanting to possess them, a tension which I have experienced since I was a teenager. Like Charles, I have found myself drawn in complex ways towards the few extraordinary men I’ve known. I have admired their joie de vivre, desired their proximity, envied their beauty. Sometimes, the temptation to peer into and be part of their lives has been irresistible. It is a draw towards interesting and attractive people who are able to show us a life from which we might otherwise be excluded. It’s a rabbit hole; sometimes, a fatal one. But it’s a rabbit hole from which Charles Ryder ultimately escapes.

Brideshead taught me about the sadness of the extraordinary man, as did Gatsby. Even in its rampant sentimentality, we see the inherent sadness at the core of glamour, as in the centre of a diamond where it is coldest and hardest. I have known Sebastians and watched them succumb to their own extraordinary nature. In Charles Ryder, the ordinary man, I find a painful acceptance of my difference. While Charles is an adult, able to reflect both fondly and sadly on his desires, Sebastian remains a young man frozen in his hopeless, exceptional position. Brideshead Revisited achieves this distinction without letting go of the idealism that drew Charles to Sebastian, and this is where sentimentality meets reality. Similarly, while my own beautiful and broken men slip into rabbit holes of their own, my love for them and the memory of my love continues. 

About the reviewer
Joe Bedford is an author from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, and have won several awards including the Leicester Writes Prize 2022. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People was released by Parthian Books in June 2023. His website is here. He is on Twitter @joebedford_uk. You can read a review of A Bad Decade for Good People on Everybody's Reviewing here.  

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Review by Rosalind Taylor of "Heaven Official's Blessing" by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Heaven Official's Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu is a series of historical Chinese fantasy novels about the once-prosperous crown prince of Xianle, Xie Lian. He is banished from the heavens and becomes a "scrap-collecting God," only to ascend to the heavens again to a  laughing-stock. The novels also follow Xie Lian's most devoted believer, Hua Cheng, also known as "The Crimson Rain Sought Flower," who is the most feared of the Four Ghost Calamities. Set 800 years after the fall of the kingdom of Xianle, the now-unlucky Xie Lian meets up with the mysterious Hua Cheng at a "ghost marriage."

I really like these novels and especially the main characters Xie Lian and Hua Cheng. I really enjoy that Mo Xiang Tong Xiu uses Hua Cheng to show respect to Xie Lian even though no one else does. Xie Lian is shown as a character who cares for both the heavens and normal people whoever they are, and yet never gets anything in return for it, apart from the love and care of Hua Cheng: "If your dream is to save the common people, then my dream is only you." Hua Cheng waits 800 years just to speak to Xie Lian, and I find the novels really heart-warming in their representation of love. 

Some of my favourite scenes include "The Gamblers Den" story arc, which follows Xie Lian meeting Hua Cheng in the Ghost City. It shows how much Hua Cheng cares and that he would make any sacrifice for Xie Lian. Another favourite scene is one in which Hua Cheng gives Xie Lian 3,000 lanterns in the "Battle of the Lanterns" arc, again which demonstrates to the reader how fond Hua Cheng is of Xie Lian. I really like Xie Lian and Hua Cheng interacting across the story and how they communicate with each other.

About the reviewer
Rosalind Taylor is fifteen years-old and likes cats and webcomics. 

Monday 26 June 2023

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Connective Tissue" by Jane Fraser

The short story form has received a lot of renewed interest of late, with many attributing this to our shortening attention spans, the form’s capacity for allowing authors to take stylistic risks, or the fact we can more readily squeeze a short story in and around our increasingly hectic lives. Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging that publishers – including industry heavyweights and small independents alike - are investing in it like never before. 

Jane Fraser’s Connective Tissue is a moving, thoughtful and considered collection that deftly explores what it means to be connected to others, or rather, how our disconnectedness from a shared reality can lead to a greater understanding of self. At the centre of many of the stories, are individuals who are dealing with the aftermath of some personal loss, change to their circumstances or who long to assign some greater value or meaning to their lives.

In one of the collection’s highlights, ‘After a certain age you can either have good shoes or good feet,’ a widow speaks directly to her departed husband, and hence keeps the memory of him alive: ‘You place your hand on my arm. It feels icy just as I expected a spirit would.’ The couple take to the garden lawn as if it were a dancefloor, the narrator enjoying a moment of unbridled happiness, amid so much grief. Other standout stories include ‘Connective Tissue,’ ‘Anti-clockwise on the Circle Line,’ ‘Crow’ and ‘Plenty of time, Jane,’ all of which feature strong women dealing with extreme changes in their personal fortunes. Yet it is in ‘Words,’ where Fraser’s mastery of the form is most apparent: the playful first-person narrative turns more confessional and intimate, bristling with incidental and sensory detail: ‘And that’s when I saw her, looking at me from the mirror … I sat on the edge of the bed and stretched out my hands, fingertip to fingertip with the girl in the glass.’

At times, these stories seemed so tantalisingly short I wanted Fraser to develop them further; they have the type of brevity that left me wanting more as a reader. Or maybe that is the author’s point: people drift in and out of one another’s lives, and this experience is shared both by the reader and Fraser’s cast of well-drawn and recognisable characters, each of her creations edging forward into the light to impart some nugget of advice. Fraser’s skill is considerable in that she not only persuades the reader to listen with interest, but more closely.    

About the reviewer
Dr. Paul Taylor-McCartney is an author, researcher and lecturer, with interests in dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Writing in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall. You can find out more about him and his work by visiting his website here

You can read more about Connective Tissue by Jane Fraser on Creative Writing at Leicester here.  

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Take Care of Your Hooves Darling" by Laura McKee

McKee’s short collection, published by Against the Grain Poetry Press, is a volume concerned with transformations. In "sheepish," we find a woman who awakes to find wool and horns on her person, perhaps as it her inner self-consciousness has become a Kafkaesque outer manifestation (indeed, there is an allusion to a "dry clicking beetle" in the poem). Elsewhere, a son plays dress-up, first looking like Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) with a t-shirt for a turban, then as Dolly Parton, imitating her stage presence at Glastonbury, "flirting with each last word." The words "love thyne self" scratched into a metal rail leads a rumination on alloys, and how "cold steel may contain | traces of gold."

The pantoum "dead frogs" continues this theme: a dead frog is "revived with electrical charges" like Frankenstein, whereas a bereaved mother imagines her lost baby similarly "arisen," the dead transformed back into life through the power of desire. All this transformation naturally comes alongside ideas and ideals of escapism. In "good morning," the speaker imagines slipping down into a sewer in order to reach a river,

          until I
          get to the sea
          and no-one
          will have to pretend
          to listen to me

There is the suggestion of being the outsider here, of a person who feels the weariness that comes with conformity and expectation. The theme of escapism expands: we see it in Van Gogh’s suicide, vividly reformed as the blood from the gunshot wound becoming a "splatter || of red on gold | in the foreground." Another speaker wonders if they are supernatural after doctors find of a trace of "occult blood" (blood that can’t be seen by the naked eye) in a stool, the name suggesting new possibilities.

McKee’s ultimate escape and transformation, however, is to be found in romantic and intimate love. In a changing room, the panduriform form is desired - "I notice she is a violin" – whereas in the British Museum, the appreciation of a portrait is distracted by their partner’s hand between their thighs. Elsewhere, we have the desire for skin "liberally scattered with moles" to be licked, and teeth to be sunk into a flank. McKee is unabashedly forthright, not only in her desires but also her insecurities, and it is this honesty that is one of the driving forces behind her poems.

The entire collection is deceptively simple: you could skim your way through the book in about twenty minutes. However, such a rush would be to ignore and dismiss the depths and varied connections that are on offer throughout the work. Rather than giving us the whole picture, McKee has laid down a jigsaw for us to piece together, which results in a complex portrait of poet as woman, as lover, as individual, as rebel.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is Apocrypha: Collected Early Poems (Cyberwit, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. 

You can read more about Take Care of Your Hooves Darling, by Laura McKee on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 15 June 2023

Review by Charles G. Lauder, Jr., of "Latch" by Rebecca Goss


A latch opens the way, allows you to move from one room to the next, as if entering a new stage of life, and in Rebecca Goss’s latest poetry collection, Latch, is all about movement, movement that leads to reflection, recollection, transformation. These poems were written following Goss’s return, with her family, to the Suffolk countryside where she grew up. Watching her daughter blossom and experience rural life makes Goss recall her own childhood, when she sought independence and freedom, while also witnessing her mother’s struggles. For the most part these eras avoid overlapping in the same poem but move in parallel: every journey backwards is reflected by a step forwards. Goss recognizes it’s her daughter’s turn to step out, yet she also knows freedom means separation and danger, though you’re full of ‘heat and blood and questions.’ As she writes in the collection’s opening poem, ‘The Hounds,’ ‘It’s as if something | calamitous is coming’:

Should I slide the thin pane,
push my upper body

into emerging light,
let them scent out my sex,

tell them
we are all afraid.

In ‘State of Being Young,’ a young girl with ‘two pairs of jeans, / rammed in a paper bag’ makes an attempt to break away, but only gets so far before her mother fetches her (‘car stuffed with siblings’):

           … Passenger door
          pushed open in surrender,
          the gesture saying
          don’t leave us now, not yet.

Yet, Goss accepts her child must do the same:

          The click of a car seat unbuckling.
         You have made your decision
         to leave this space,
         because inside the car with your mother
         you won’t see
         Brimstone butterflies,
         the seasoned ponds
         the coppiced limes’
         determined stretch towards light.

Throughout, cars are key to transformation, more than just retrieving and releasing: from their car Goss and her daughter witness (or not) a deer and three fawn as well as a pheasant; Goss uses her car to steal and bring home a childhood stream; and her father carries off a dying cat. In the very moving ‘That Afternoon, on Her Bicycle,’ Goss’s grandmother at a young age discovers her father dead in his car. Laying aside her bicycle, she drives him back home in reverse gear to a waiting birthday party.

Perhaps it’s knowing when is the time to strike out and to keep on striking, to never stop. In one of the most passionate poems in the book, ‘When It Feels Hot, That Rage Against Me,’ Goss recalls a night walking home with friends from the pub, ‘the lane knowing | how to hold us, its chorus of night creatures.’ Though time has moved on, Goss doesn’t want to extinguish that spark but to pull her friends ‘from their tumble-dried sheets’ and

         become a multitude storming under stars, sky crackling
                           at the sight of us, all the promises re-rising
                  in our throats, needing each other like fire.

A very emotionally powerful moment of action in what is mainly a ‘quiet’ but moving collection.

About the reviewer
Charles G. Lauder, Jr., is an American poet who has lived in the UK for over twenty years. He’s published two pamphlets, Bleeds (2012) and Camouflaged Beasts (2017), and a debut collection, The Aesthetics of Breath, which was published by V.Press in 2019. His website is here

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Review by Harry Owen of "Wildfire" by David Mohan

Where does one begin with the ‘wildfire’ running through this excellent collection? With an attempt at definition, perhaps.

The obvious one is of any raging, destructive conflagration that consumes vast areas of woodland, brush and veld, devastating wildlife and threatening human habitations. Even in a world increasingly familiar with the devastation caused by anthropogenic climate change it still shocks to read the first lines of the title poem, ‘Wildfire’:

           The world is kindling for a dropped match … 

           the fire spreads like dawn
           igniting brush, forest, grass, it cuts
           black footprints, a poacher’s report
           in backwoods, on the street.

Different forms of wildfire emerge, from the strange incendiary mixture of ‘Greek fire’ used in ancient warfare, to the mysterious will-o’-the-wisp and luminescent ‘foxfire’ of the imagination, something half actual, half mythic, wherein

          wildfire will sleep between dreams
          of lake water and reservoirs
          riled and vicious and ready to terminate
          this touch paper planet.

The ecopoetic spirit of Wildfire – expressed in the recurrent motif of burning – is clearly evident, as in ‘The Field Fire Almanac’ where 

           you might find a thousand 
           charred spiders, larvae,
           crickets, beetles, slugs,
           two centipedes: a mass grave 
           just the potash of dust.

Other forms of burning, psychological and emotional, smoulder in poems that explore close human relationships of one kind or another – friend, lover, spouse – experienced in times of despair or loss (‘Black Dog Tattoo’; ‘Gorse Fire’; ‘Black Light’). In the yearning poem ‘Votives,’ for instance, we learn, without being told directly who is being addressed, that 'I wanted // more than this for you, I swear, / a bonfire, flames, a burning ship.'

And in honour of Oscar Wilde, a fellow Dublin native, David Mohan pays his moving tribute to the great man after visiting the hotel room in Paris (‘Hôtel d’Alsace’) where he died, sick and destitute, in 1900. 

For all the recurrence of ‘black’ and ‘fire,’ I very much enjoyed these finely crafted and emotionally powerful poems, genuine amusement appearing in the wonderfully dark humour of ‘Vacuum’:


            I like retraction, reversal
            of the Hoover’s stomach—
            disembowelled it reveals
            what’s left to settle in a room.

            I find pockets of lint,
            cough-balls of fluff,
            a static vest
            of vacuous fabric;

            what’s through with happening;
            the fall of dust become edit—
            yarn bulbs of stuff,
            a bolus strung out to a mess.

            Unravelled, I relish strewing it,
            returning it to the carpet,
            to mattresses, polished surfaces,
            like a mourner emptying ash.

About the reviewer
Harry Owen is the author of nine poetry collections, the latest being Thicket: shades from the Eastern Cape (2022), and editor of three anthologies. Before emigrating to South Africa, he had been appointed the first Poet Laureate for Cheshire in 2003. He lives now near Stellenbosch in the Western Cape winelands. His website is here and his blog is here.

Saturday 10 June 2023

Interview with Lisa Blower

Lisa Blower is an award-winning writer, academic and workshop facilitator. Hailed by Kit De Waal as the "natural heir to Arnold Bennett," Lisa is a champion of working-class literature and regional voices, often paying homage to The Potteries where she grew up. She's the author of two novels, Sitting Ducks (Fair Acre Press, 2016) - shortlisted for the Arnold Bennett Prize, the Rubery Award, and longlisted for the Guardian's Not the Booker - and Pondweed (Myriad Editions, 2020). Her critically acclaimed short story collection, It's Gone Dark over Bill's Mother's (Myriad Editions, 2019) won The Arnold Bennett Prize (2020), and was longlisted for The Edge Hill Short Story Prize (2020). 

She is currently working on her third novel, The Mongrels, and a follow-up short story collection, Renovations. Lisa’s academic work is focused upon her interest in working-class fictions, the short form, regional voices and autogeographical selves. 

Interviewed by Kathy Hoyle

KH: Hi Lisa. Your beautiful novel Pondweed charts the journey of two pensioners, Ginny and Selwyn, who tow a "stolen" caravan from the midlands to Wales. On the surface, it’s wonderfully quirky and funny but along the way both characters delve into their past, and come to terms with complex familial relationships, trauma and the importance of their own relationship. Tell us about where this idea came from, and did you feel you were taking a risk having two pensioners as main characters?

LB: So, there’s a story to this: my great granny Gladys was standing at the bus stop in Wem and gets chatting to an elderly gentleman. As they talk, they suddenly realise who the other is. Turns out that they were each other’s childhood sweethearts and she had thought Charlie lost to WW1. Gladys had married. So had he. Both were widowed. She was 84. He was 85. 

Charlie was of ill health and told Gladys that he was looking for some help around the house. She agreed to be his housekeeper having grown up in servitude and had pretty much cleaned ever since. He suggested she move in with him so that it would be more convenient and for companionship, but because they "didn’t want folk talking," they got married.   

I have always loved this story. There’s a sense of fate to it, happenstance, all those things we talk about when we talk about love (to quote Carver) and so I decided to reimagine it. Largely because I think there’s a lack of love stories in later life, but also because I wanted to write a story about "what if things were otherwise?" and that always means revisiting a past to understand a present. 

I was also, at the time of writing, commuting from Shrewsbury to Bangor University where I worked as a Lecturer, so was travelling the A5, A543, A55, and always following caravans. I’d occasionally see an exhibition caravan, all branded up, off to an event, and that got me thinking. What if they stole one and set off on this very journey, a road less travelled, their destination themselves rather than a place? I started thinking about Death of a Salesman and was also teaching The Great Gatsby at the time because it’s a profound study of class all tied up with the American Dream – characters travelling between places but never satisfied within them and always wanting and waiting for something else – and I started to think about Selwyn as a salesman but a salesman of "something" that exists on the margins; that we wouldn’t necessarily think about, but there was a driver behind why he did it. The product was cemented when I was in a garden centre with my daughter – she was only five at the time and she loved going to this one garden centre to look at the fish. That’s where I overheard someone selling a garden pond to a couple and I was fascinated. Pondweed was born.  

KH: Your short story collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s is a wonderful homage to working-class life in the Midlands. The stories are eclectic and yet somehow seem linked  simply because of this authentic sense of place and narrative voice. Have you always written in this way, or did it take you a while to feel comfortable and confident about writing with an authentic regional "voice"?

LB: The first thing to say is that I never set out to be a regional or working-class writer. I just wrote the stories I wanted to tell because I felt like I wasn’t reading them, and because I felt that I could give a voice to those stories that wouldn’t otherwise get told. I grew up with what I call a chattering of matriarchs – gossiping on doorsteps, up at Bingo, at the school gates – always telling stories but never about themselves. Alan Bennett says that he wrote Talking Heads to reflect the lives that were generally happening elsewhere, and I suppose that’s what I’ve always been interested in. Mainly because I know them: I heard them, I watched them, I was immersed within them. And for a long time, I heard my stories in a Potteries accent. Those chattering matriarchs and always mid-conversation. What I love about the short form is that you can do that with a story – you can start it mid-way through a conversation – you don’t have to reveal what happened before and you certainly don’t need to give it resolution and because these chattering matriarchs never finished a story, never gave themselves up to matters of self-enquiry, it felt all the more authentic to "walk away" at the end, and leave readers thinking about the story that wasn’t said but was there all the same; like they felt their story wasn’t worth the telling.  

KH: And following on from that, there’s such an authentic and vivid feel to the dialogue in your work. Have publishers always been accepting of the colloquial dialect you use, and is this something you consciously strive to include?

LB: It’s back to the fact that I hear the voices before anything else. It’s not always in regional dialect. Sometimes it absolutely is and is absolutely necessary, but not always. What I didn’t want to do was write every story with that same regional tone because that wouldn’t authentically reflect a place. There are multiple voices to any place because people move in and out and bring their voices with them. As for publishers, some have been exceptionally positive, others less so. Sometimes, the industry strives to seek out more regional voices to represent inclusivity and diversity and marginalisation, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we should be and especially not when it comes to the various English dialects. It’s rather homogenised. Irish and Scottish dialects have always been part of the publishing fabric, but northern accents, in particular, come with a preconceived criteria and that’s what I’m always trying to chip away at: just because there’s an accent does not mean the character must be shameless, a shyster, a sponger off the state, the lowest of the low. Yes, my upbringing was very working-class, and yes I had a Potteries accent that was ridiculed when we relocated to Shropshire, and yes, because I have had the opportunity of education and employment that has made me socially transcend my roots (in a way), I have rather lost my accent – unless drunk or angry or talking with that side of my family and then it’s right there again and I’m awful proud of it. What I try and do when writing dialogue is write a complete scene of it and then I add narrative and then I edit it down to the key exchanges so what is said says more.  

KH: You’re an advocate for working-class writing and a champion of working-class writers. Could you tell us why this is so important to you? Is it more than just a call for a levelling up on the publishing playing field?

LB: Absolutely. As I say, I never consciously set out to be a working-class writing or to write working-class fiction, however you might wish to label it. I just wrote what I wanted to and lots of my stories started semi-autobiographically so I could draw from that sense of authenticity and rawness that exists within an experience. It was only when my stories won national competitions that I started to get asked questions like, "So, you’re a working-class writer then?" and I remember thinking: what does that even mean? I did revisit the canon – mainly because I was interested to know where their voices ended and mine began – and then I did start to wonder where those other voices were in publishing now. I don’t mind admitting that it was a bit of a shock when publishers rejected my work with the words that they did – Sitting Ducks had an arduous journey because of the voice and its class subject and the word "pummelled" was used a lot. Then I met Kit de Waal and Kerry Hudson and we were all trying to do the same thing, were all frustrated with what wasn’t happening, and then Kit put out the call for Common People and all these other writers appeared on my radar. It’s been wonderful. But we need to do more. A lot more. Because what is happening is not enough, just tokens and gestures. 

KH: How would you, personally, define working-class writing? 

LB: I wouldn’t. It’s all writing.

But I do get that some writers are actively trying to reclaim the "label" as some writers will think it does the writing a disservice when it immediately confines the point of view. Granted, Sitting Ducks came from a place of defiance and belligerence because I was slightly fed up in being pigeonholed, so wrote about everything that infuriated me about the deindustrialisation of Stoke-On-Trent whilst watching other cities get rewired with major investment. And granted, academics - like myself - can provide a checklist of what working-class writing features – in terms of narrative characteristics – and talk endlessly about its perspective(s) and vantage point(s) and how this influences voice – as publishers will perhaps offer up a different criteria in order to "sell" books. But what we write about ultimately is people because of place.  

KH: You write both novels and short fiction. Do you work on both simultaneously, and do you have a preference?  What are you working on at the moment?

LB: I have just turned in my third novel The Mongrels which is a bit of a departure from my other works in that I’ve "gone rural." I’m now working on a DYCP-funded project of personal essays entitled Class Half Full, which is me working through some of these very questions(!) – a dialogue with the self maybe - as a way  to understand why my early Potteries childhood has gone onto to inform my writing in the way that it has and whether it is a matter of reclaiming the label (and especially when the UK has undergone such duress and division) or explaining why it should have no label. I’m also keen to reignite the humour and to show that being working-class was not all dank and drab and poverty-stricken. I’ve not really dabbled in non-fiction before, and I’m being mentored through it by Niall Griffiths who has always claimed that he had duty to write in the voice he was born with. If anything, it’s a pause in my writing to reflect upon what I’ve done and why I did it. And obviously, short stories because that’s the beating heart of my writing self. 

KH: What advice would you give to working-class writers who may be reluctant or unsure about writing in their own "authentic" narrative voice? 

LB: Just do it. Join us. The water is tepid, but we need more of us to raise the temperature!

KH: Finally, which other working-class writers do you admire or draw inspiration from?

LB: Alan Sillitoe and Nell Dunn. I adore them both. I based Totty Minton in Sitting Ducks on Arthur Seaton and read Up the Junction every time I need to rethink the cacophony of voice I’m trying to get across. Barry Hines turned my world upside down in secondary school and for all the right reasons. Kit de Waal is a highly competent writer and activist, and her support has meant the world; her flash fiction is dynamite. Kerry Hudson is wonderfully provocative and authentic and masterful with dialogue, and the extremely underrated James Kelman. Why Ken Loach has never adapted his books I will never know! 

About the interviewer
Kathy Hoyle is a working-class writer of short fiction. Her stories have appeared in various literary magazines including Northern Gravy, Lunate, Ellipsiszine, Fictive Dream and The ForgeShe is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She lives in a sleepy Warwickshire village and when she's not writing, she enjoys singing Dolly Parton songs to her long-suffering labradoodle, Eddie. 

Friday 9 June 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Murmurations" by Clare Dwyer

The poems in Murmurations are culled from a notebook that Dwyer kept during the pandemic, written across each wave of the Coronavirus pandemic as they hit England. Forced to shield during each lockdown, cut off from the the normalities of children, grandchildren and life beyond her house, Dwyer turned to other areas of focus to dwell upon. There are three main themes at play throughout the collection: the comfort immediately found in her own garden; the wonders of space; and the sense of family, keenly missed throughout each wave. These three themes in themselves may not seem like natural bedfellows, but Dwyer balances her attention skilfully across them.

It is perhaps in the poems of the garden and of nature that Murmurations succeeds the most: not like the keen botanical slant of Michael Longley or Jean Bleakney perhaps, but more the sheer awe and childlike fascination closer to that of Mary Oliver. In the opening poem, 'Solace of a Small Bird: Wren,' the observer marks the passage of the day by the comings and goings of the bird:

           I count each one and smile,
           it is enough,
           despite these tremors
           which shake the world

This sets the mood for the book: to find solace, comfort and even entertainment in what we already have at our possession, when shut off from the rest of the world. Tickseed, acorns, birds, fern, crane flies and more are all part of Dwyer's line-up, with delight found in each.

Dwyer also takes us outside of Earth, to imagine scenes set in the allure of deep space, with reflection on meteor showers and the Hubble telescope. 'Last Letter from Mars' gives voice to the Mars Rover, close to the end of its mission: 'I am tired, my battery is low, | A storm is coming.' Here is a hint of death, and with so much of it ubiquitous on Earth, even Mars can't escape a death of sorts. Elsewhere, Dwyer conjures up the image of 'this small blue planet | caught safe within the Heliosphere' ('Star Map'), and one can't help but think that in the middle of a persistent pandemic, the use of the word 'safe' can only be ironic.

The opening of the poem 'mineshelf' neatly manages to weave the subjects of family and space together, giving a new twist to a common image seen in space exploration:

          That moment, when the module
          separates from the mothership,
          embarks on its own journey
          is akin to that moment
          when a child
          has self-recognition

Dwyer has moments of such Brautigan-esque inventiveness dotted through the book: people who 'fossilise at an early age,' the fall of post through a letterbox like 'a rapid flutter ... of sparrows,' crows picking moss off a roof to line their nests with, and using their feathers as payment. At times, however, there is an over-reliance on abstractions: the vision of meteors filled the observer with 'awe and delight,' a person and their dog return home from a walk 'curiously satisfied'; there is the insomniac's plea for sleep to 'catch my soul.'

None of these abstractions let the reader into what the speaker is really feeling, which is a shame, as Dwyer does display the ability to evoke empathy and affinity elsewhere. 'To the Other Side of Truro' charts the local landscape seen on a journey to visit family, beholding a sequence of natural marvels; and yet, when the destination is reached, granddaughters run outside in greeting 'and still, | we cannot hold each other.' The absence of a daughter is felt as 'a hard knot of loss | behind by breastbone.' Seasons change, yet Dwyer feels as if she is 'caught in amber,' absurdly preserved through the inertia of lockdowns.

 All of this takes the reader back to their own sense of longing and isolation felt through lockdown, being cut off from loved ones, and the key poem of the collection, 'The Wood-wide Web.' There is little direct address to the pandemic within Murmurations; in fact, the first mention of the C-word, 'Covid,' isn't until over thirty poems deep. But here, we see the tying together of family, togetherness distance and the impact of the pandemic in one clever extended metaphor:

           Across the woodland
           deep underground
           mycelium in intricate webs
           gossip to the trees,
           who is sick,
           who is threatened.
           The trees take care
           of their vulnerable.

Within the realm of post-pandemic literature, there is this awareness of the need for others, but there is also anger. In 'Reading Home,' there is mention of 'countless deaths | and the fall of Troy.' It doesn't take a great leap of imagination and reinvention to see 'Troy' as 'Tory.' 'A Murder of Crows' (again, the hint of death found in the collective noun) gleefully wishes for the downfall of Boris Johnson. The sense of anger though is subtle, not overwrought, and Dwyer does well not to let it distract from her main themes.

In 'Skeins,' a shrewdly constructed poem of overlapping sentences, we find the clash of escapism (the comforts of nature and family, the gazing into space) with reality: people in body-bags, overworked nurses, grief. It's a good exhibition piece for the whole of the book. Dwyer may not always push and stretch language as much as other poets, but she is comfortable in letting the subject matter speak for itself, to be that mirror held up to the world, which we all need while still reeling from the impact of Covid. And despite the lingering sense of death, there is much warmth in these poems.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is Apocrypha: Collected Early Poems (Cyberwit, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. 

You can read more about Murmurations by Clare Dwyer on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 8 June 2023

Review by Joe Bedford of "We Were Very Merry" by Susan Furber

When I interviewed novelist Susan Furber on her debut The Essence of an Hour, she described to me her central character’s obsession with ‘living a life worthy of fiction’ (you can read the full interview here). It is an impulse I recognise, not just in the way that as readers we are challenged by the disordered tedium of everyday life, but as human beings desperate for the pattern and meaning of narrative. In Furber’s sequel We Were Very Merry, drama grows from those same deep-seated roots. As her world – the world of American expatriates in postwar Europe – is rebuilt from the rubble, so do the characters who populate it rebuild their altered selves from the pieces of our shared literary heritage. Their struggles are those found in Fitzgerald, Hemingway, McCullers – aspiration and apathy, compulsion and paralysis, nostalgia and regret. The way that they love and hate, as well as the way they stomp carelessly through a shattered world, reminds me of the ‘literariness’ of a performed life. 

To live in a ‘literary’ way is to combine the personal journey of free thought and adventure with the public performance of describing those thoughts, poeticising that adventure. For Lillie Carrigan, the protagonist of both The Essence of an Hour and We Were Very Merry, the literary performance of her life is by turns curated and chaotic. The continued grappling between the person she was bred to be and the new person she is creating is done in public and draws in all those around her. Just as with the history of world events that is being rewritten around her, Lillie is caught in the process of rewriting the events that have brought her to this stage of life, to this particular personhood. 

Furber’s achievement with We Were Very Merry lies precisely in placing Lillie’s literary nature under the eye of scrutiny. Lillie Carrigan is, like Holden Caulfield, situated in such a way that even while we, as readers, hang above her in judgement, we do so in a way that penetrates the most complex and disordered nuances of her experience, those that are not just of fiction and its ordered narratives but of life itself. And in doing so, we are encouraged, as with so much of the great literature to which Furber pays homage, to understand, appreciate and practise grace.

About the reviewer
Joe Bedford is an author from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely and are available to read here. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People was released by Parthian Books in June 2023. You can read a review of it on Everybody's Reviewing here

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Review by Louise Brown of "Eastmouth and Other Stories" by Alison Moore


Alison Moore’s Eastmouth and Other Stories is a beguiling read. Her ability to build the world she transports you to, together with her themes of domestic confinement and calamity are gripping. 

In “Eastmouth,” the entrapment of the main character in the gloomy confines of a boyfriends’ claustrophobic family and seaside town is told in such an understated way that the sense of claustrophobia is heightened. A local tells her "You are the Webster girl," and while she denies this, she sees a crowd of locals advancing towards her, who are described as "an army in beige and lilac."

The atmosphere of the characters being trapped or even killed by the places they inhabit grows in each story, and nature colludes too. In “Winter Closing,” the story opens with a sentence that foreshadows the calamity contained in an old house inhabited by Derek. She tells us, "The garden path, on which there was black ice this morning, has been salted to prevent the fracturing of wrists, the breaking of hips, the shattering of pelvises." The malevolence of the house, and the path that leads to it, is placed in the forefront of our minds.

In “Seabound,” a doomed love affair is entrenched in a forlorn house and surrounding landscape. The main character, May, lives in the clifftop house, and is trapped in a hopeless shrine to a teenage lover. As her life passes, the sea is described as "clawing its way towards the foundations of that clifftop house." Despite the risk of it falling into the sea, May ignores her daughters’ exhortations to leave the doomed house. The sea is also somehow calling to her, and in her dreams, she tells us that, "Vast and cold, the sea climbed her bare legs. It was rough but she stood her ground. Sometimes, when she woke from these dreams, the sea was so loud it could have been right there in her room."  Only when her dead lover, "a man made of water," and "the seaman," visits her in her dreams, does she answer the call of the sea and she is finally released by one final act of homage to her beloved.

Moore’s powerful depiction of buildings, nature, and the doomed choices of her characters, results in a potent weft of inevitability, calamity, and tragedy, with writing and characters that stay with you long after you have put away her compelling vignettes. 

About the reviewer
Louise has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She is an Employment Judge and is also working on her first novel.

You can read more about Eastmouth and Other Stories on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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