Wednesday 30 August 2023

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Kyiv Trance" by Gus Gresham

Beautifully researched − Kyiv Trance is a stone-cold classic − Brilliant in its execution − Gresham's crime thriller is truly mesmerizing  −  Utterly unputdownable − Outstanding!

Blah, blah, blah … How many times have you read over-hyped blurb like this? Too many, I know, but this text is the real deal … honest to god, cross my heart and hope to die!

For starters Gresham’s subject matter couldn’t be more topical. Everyone wants to know about Kyiv now – our sympathies go out to Ukraine in all its adversity. Moreover, there is a hunger to be better informed about its people, culture and way of life. I think we all agree there’s no better way to satisfy that hunger than racing through a sizzling page turner!

Gresham’s atmospheric opening, for instance, draws the reader right into the subterranean bowel of Kyiv: "Richard was riding the improbably long escalators again. From deep down behind him, he could still hear accordion music and the husky voice of the old busker in the strains of a Slavic folksong. It wasn’t necessary to understand Ukrainian to know that the song was about tragedy and loss."

Throughout razor-sharp Kyiv Trance you glean an understanding of Ukraine’s unique Orange Revolution, which was bloodless-civil disobedience after the fraudulent elections of 2004/2005. Gresham, skilfully, sprinkles and captures the zeitgeist moments of a nation that was on the cusp of democratic change, during that tumultuous period. 

The impressive juxtaposition of a maniac on the loose, as this political turmoil is  unfolding, reads very well. Alongside this, Gresham’s haunted protagonist Richard Farr battles to make sense of it all after falling head over heels with beautiful Nadya. There is a lot going on within Kyiv Trance but as a reader you are never lost, as the seamless flashbacks and back story are handled deftly.

They also say good writing is about how you handle detail − keeping your ear to the ground is paramount − Kyiv Trance royally delivers on that score: "Bar Zavtra’s music system was playing Ella Fitzgerald. ‘How Deep is the Ocean?’ Her voice had to compete with the shopping-centre Muzak – some soulless atrocity that sounded like a panpipe rendition of Motorhead’s ‘The Ace of Spades.’"

I was reminded of Martin Cruz Smith’s dynamic thriller Gorky Park to some extent as I read Gresham’s text − both plots are set in the east and are meditations on political power whilst examining the social fabric close-up through the lens of the crime thriller genre. Both highlight how systems work and how people strive and survive within those systems. Kyiv Trance is a blast and brilliantly observed.

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack (PhD) studied Creative Writing at Leicester University. He writes from the gut − from the underground − about the underdog. His collection of short stories The Mad Road is out in September. He is now an actor-simulator, writer and community advocate.

You can read more about Kyiv Trance by Gus Gresham, as well as an excerpt from the novel, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Review by Kim Wiltshire of "Orfeo's Last Act" by Michelene Wandor

Orfeo’s Last Act is an ambitious dual-narrative novel, telling the tale of the Renaissance Jewish musician Salamone Rossi and the modern-day Professor of English Emilia Constantine. During an early music conference, Emilia finds the original last act of what is considered one of the first operas, Orfeo, in a trunk in an old manor house in East Anglia – left by Rossi when he was working there as a teacher over 400 years ago. The find reveals Rossi, and not Monteverdi, to be the original composer of this fifth act, and gives Emilia a dilemma in terms of what to do with this discovery. 

The novel is well researched with a firm understanding of the historical era; the writer clearly understands her music and there is a nice reimagining of how this final act might have been created. 

The novel’s structure itself is interesting, with the Renaissance strand on the left-hand page and the modern strand on the right-hand page; at first, I wasn’t sure how to read the book – all the first part then all the second part, or alternate strands. I suspect that it can be left up to the reader how they choose to read it. I chose to read the first part in its entirety, then the second part, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried reading alternate chapters, to know whether this gives a different sense of the intertwined stories. 

The story rattles along at a fair pace, and there is a huge cast of characters to get to know alongside a vivid sense of how life was for Jewish communities in Europe during the Renaissance, which comes across very clearly. Indeed, there is much research and scholarship that has gone into this novel, and clearly this is a really important era and subject for the author, as the back cover tells us that she has an early music group and plays the music of Rossi herself, which is a lovely addendum to the book. 

About the reviewer
Dr Kim Wiltshire is a playwright and writer whose research involves theatre / writing for social change and arts for health. She is currently a British Academy Innovation Fellow and is a Reader and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "The Last Spring of the World" by Maureen Boyle


Following on from her powerful 2017 debut, The Work of a Winter, Maureen Boyle continues her blossoming relationship with Irish publisher Arlen House. Included in the collection is the sequence ‘Strabane,’ originally published as a separate volume alongside photography by Malachi O’Doherty. Strabane is a small town in County Tyrone, near when Boyle grew up: through the prism of the town, we see a rich and innocent childhood, slowly infringed upon by the rising ‘Troubles’ across Northern Ireland.

In the opening poem, a sort of prelude for the entire collection, Boyle asks:

          How could there never be another spring?
          How could we live without the sense
          of the earth surging into labour

The entirety of the work on offer here is an attempt to answer these questions, of feeling the simplicity and ataraxia of springtime, balanced against infringing adulthood, political unrest, and ultimately, the knowledge of death. Early on in ‘Strabane,’ we are treated to pastoral scene of a weir and a salmon leap, caught up in its natural grandeur, when suddenly, unexpectedly, we are hit with the line 'and where two little brothers drowned.' Similarly, after more idylls of glamour and shopping trips, the first line of the next sequence begins 'And then something came to blow the past away.' It is on such knifepoints that innocence can be lost and which Boyle remarkably conveys.

The study of Strabane brings to mind Damian Smyth’s own studies of Downpatrick, a microcosm of the world used to explore life in general, although Boyle’s style is closer to the prosaic ease of Durcan: there is intimacy and familiarity here. The sequence ‘Namesake’ recounts the life of a close relative, and we read of a life as if it was someone sharing stories at a wake. Similarly, in ‘Luscus,’ we get the account of how the author lost an eye as a child, Boyle choosing to focus on the tenderness experienced from the ocularist afterwards, rather than the tragedy itself.

However considerate the chosen tone and filtering of memory may be, tragedy creeps in however, often in the form of death. ‘Bypass,’ another sequence (Boyle is evidently fond of the form, and in the sequences that stand out strongest in the collection), speculates that 'There must have been a day | when you held my hand for the last time.' Elsewhere, the question is posed: 'What is it like | to wake for the last time?' Boyle rightfully affords to herself these ruminations, but also realises that one must move onwards from remembrances to new milestones. Hence we have ‘First Time,’ a playful yet poignant account of an initial sexual experience:

          It felt like a mix of Christmas and a trip to the dentist.

          The thing itself was a surprise – the shy manoeuvrings,
          the shock of fitting into place

New outlooks come into being, and the tone is optimistic, hungry and excited: 'You must learn everything afresh'; 'Hope arrives with the lilacs.' And yet the lure and pull of the past, of childhood and her hometown, clings to the poetry, as if through words Boyle is measuring the distance between childhood and adulthood. ‘Enclosure’ tells of closed gates 'to keep the children in | and safe'; in ‘Crossing the Alps,’ we are warned that 'All this play' is just

         a way to prepare us
         for the real danger that lay
         always, just beyond our gates,
         our ages and our lives

These lines perhaps serve as a perverse irony, coming in the book just become ‘Luscus’ and the loss of an eye, an accident that happened at home. Yet Boyle manages to successfully juggle these mixed fronts of threat, of childhood, of mixed reflection and adult examination. The Last Spring of the World serves as another stand-out collection from Boyle, who is fast becoming a premier voice within Irish poetry, and indeed deserves to be recognised outside of that field as well.

About the Reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

Sunday 6 August 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "Scablands and Other Stories" by Jonathan Taylor

The Scablands are vast barren areas in the USA riddled with fissures. A scab is a person that breaks a picket line during industrial action. A scab is hard and unattractive. A scab covers an area that has been hurt, and needs time to heal. This book is not set in America.

Buckle in as we head on this lyrical journey to the Scablands: the stories vary in length, some barely a page, others develop in over thirty. The city setting has a park, shops and even a Lovers Walk. It sounds divine but we soon realise it’s a place "brimful of loneliness" packed with "affection-starved strangers." This is very much a book of "sorrowful voices." Don’t worry - you can buy a hug from a booth for £2 there if it gets a bit much.

There’s suicide, amputation, self harm and ever-unfulfilled wishes. The lonely converge here, but Taylor’s poetic use of language ensures reading is a joy not a chore. His use of humour helps too: a homeless guy talks about moving to somewhere more palatial, and "it might even have walls." There are flickering glimmers of hope for the characters: a university place or a lottery ticket may provide a way out, although the offer of a different life is not necessarily wanted. What isn’t said is important, the gaps the reader completes themselves, asfor example in the poignant line: "A girl eternally eleven."

To take a specific story without ruining the book for you - "Till Life" is a delightful puzzle of a story. It covers the working day of a shop-girl. Taylor piques our interest with titbits like a secret tea-cosy in a pocket. He prompts the reader to question what he’s telling us. We realise things aren’t straightforward when Mrs Parker is more than just a boss and manager. We unpick the peppered little clues, such as an accident, a hospital stay and the necessity of care, in order to reveal the actual story beneath. 

Many of the characters stay with you to the next story. At times, as the story finishes it actually feels like just the start of their story – particularly "A Sentimental Story." An earworm appears in three separate stories; a Dr’s name reappears later on. In my haste to review I’ve read the stories too quickly to decipher links. These characters deserve a less galloped read, which I have already begun.

The images created in these stories linger long after the book has been shut: an Andy Pandy Nightdress, a soldier digging in the mud, a girl on a till trying to pause her life and a biography completely crossed out in red pen. The stories in Scablands may be short, but Taylor’s superb word weaving skill ensures the tales last so much longer than their actual length. 

About the reviewer
Lisa Williams is a creative soul from Leicester. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Leicester University, and lately tends to write mostly short fiction. She likes the challenge of a word limit – usually one hundred words. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies. Lisa has a weekly story slot on local community radio. She helps out a bit at Friday Flash Fiction and Blink Ink Journal. A regular stall holder at Leicester's new Art Fair, Lisa also sells online as noodleBubble.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Review by Tracey Foster of "Punk: Rage and Revolution," Leicester Museums and Art Galleries

The current exhibition at Leicester museums and art galleries explores the brief but electrifying period that encompasses the explosion of the punk scene in the UK, with a particular focus on the key movers with connections to Leicester.

On the cusp of being a teenager in 1977, I can clearly remember the shockwaves that followed the death of Elvis Presley and the furore in the news around the end of Rock and Roll. My weekly dose of culture fix watching Top of the Pops showed how torn the nation was, balanced on a record needle between the worlds of disco, cheesy pop, prog rock and punk. The last was a gut reaction against the rest, a rebellion against the norm, the staid and static. Punk was born out of a resistance to the establishment who had screwed up the prospects for its youth, with high unemployment, nationwide strikes, violence in Northern Ireland and financial crashes. This period was epitomised by power strikes and the darkness that we were plunged into. Stuck at home, freezing by candlelight, the time was right for anarchy in the UK.

This exhibition cleverly plunges us back into those times using audio, video and many newspaper clippings. We are transported back to that period to understand the rage and rebellion that emerged from it. Many artefacts have survived from the period and are displayed in conjunction with dialogue that enhances the narrative and brings us the personal. Local voices have contributed to the displays and loaned their own histories to the sets, reliving the period and effect on the city at that time. 

For me, it took me back to my youth and gave clarity to it. Younger visitors may begin to see connections to today and understand the need to have a voice, to make yourself heard. A lack of technology and interconnectivity did not stop the word from spreading in the 70s. Fanzines and press releases made sure that youth culture connected and prospered. Leicester’s scene is fondly remembered and extolled: pubs like The Hind, Princess Charlotte and the Globe welcomed the punks and well-known bands from The Jam, The Clash, The Dammed played at Leicester venues. Creatives from Leicester went on to be involved in the punk fashion scene in London and become the recorders of the time, photographers, photojournalists and movie makers - highly influential names such as David Parkinson, Stephane Raynor, Helen Robinson and Roger K Burton to name a few. Their part in the movement and lasting influences are given credit and much-needed respect from the city that spawned them.

The one element that personally resonated with me was the highlighting of the female voice. Fearless and provocative, Punk set out to empower women in a time of masculine dominance. Girls deliberately set out to create a narrative around ‘what a woman was,’ a rebellion against the male gaze and objectification of the female form that dominated the media and removed our voice. They created band names to deliberately reclaim the gross disrespect for the female body, such as The Slits, Penetration and the Adverts. The Feminist movement started around the same time, but punks became the face of anarchy, a middle finger to the establishment and conformity.  

The 70s was also a period of race riots and the rise of the national front movement. This exhibition also seeks to make connections to the reggae music and collaborations that formed at that time, black and white finding themselves outcast from society and reacting to racism together. Bands like Aswad, UB40 and Steel Pulse found themselves speaking out about injustice and intolerance, and found unity with punks who identified with their message. Bands who covered work from The Clash to The Police led to a resurgence in the Ska movement and united disenfranchised youth further. 

This exhibition is exhaustive and timely, looking back at a period of unrest and  unrivalled creativity that might spark others to reflect upon our current predicament and react accordingly. We can only hope. Rosie Ann Boxall of Soft Touch Arts says: "What excites me most about the exhibition is the conversations that have taken place between the generations. Hopefully we've created an environment where people feel that they can talk to each other.

The exhibition is on at the New Walk Museum and the Soft Touch Arts Centre until 3rd September. A summer programme of events to celebrate this exhibition is planned across August including a Punk Festival Weekender at the O2 Academy. For more info about this exhibition and any other events please follow the link to the website for further videos, interviews, playlist and catalogue bookstore here.


About the reviewer
Tracey Foster was too young to be a punk but has set store by its reactive stance ever since and would like to think herself a rebel at heart. She started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by CommaPress, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council and she writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime found here.