Friday 22 September 2023

Review by Lisa Williams of "Flatlands" by Sue Hubbard

Flatlands by Sue Hubbard retells Gallico’s The Snow Goose but to an adult audience. Two souls that don’t belong, Freda and Philip, are bonded by the welfare of an injured bird: wounds and the wounded feature heavily in this wartime story. We are still evacuated with Freda but the desolation of the Snow Goose’s stretching mudflats are shifted up the coast to a “place between somewhere and nowhere” on the shores of the Wash. Hubbard’s skilled scene setting places us in both the wilderness and the time perfectly.

On “a hot day, the sort of day for a picnic, not a war” we’re transported with Freda on a train full of sad, scared evacuees to a new home “far away from love.” We’re immersed immediately in the “melancholy of the place.” This landscape, we learn as the story unfolds, matches the aching loneliness felt by both Freda and Philip. Freda remembers paisley eiderdowns and parma violets – Hubbard treats all our senses as she juxtaposes home comforts against the relentlessly barren East coast landscape.

Throughout the book the feeling of threat and uncertainty that war brings looms large but the actual menace is revealed to be lurking within the farmhouse. It is in the very place that Freda is put for safety that the full horrors of war are first exposed. She finds sanctuary at Philip’s lighthouse and they form what Philip describes as “a strange little friendship.”

An elderly Freda is telling us the story as a documentary about Dunkirk is about to be shown at her care home. Those nursed on the The Snow Goose will know Dunkirk’s poignant part in the story. I’m paddling carefully here not to avoid mines, but spoilers. During the depths of Dunkirk’s horrors in Flatlands oddly it was the addition of a dog in the water that made me catch my breath. His fate lingers long after the page has been turned.

As I read a book I make a note of sentences that I like. There was a point early on in this book that I thought I might never finish reading it because I was writing so many down. It’s a slow-paced read but with some delightful lines.

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. Lisa also paints and makes jewellery selling online as noodleBubble.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Review by Katherine Gallagher of "Unmothered" by A. J. Akoto


This debut-collection from Black British poet A. J. Akoto is a book of deep feeling ‒ poetry that demands to be thought about, and read aloud. It is resonant, deep-voiced with pauses: poems that question, echo back; theatrically haunting and laced with reverberations that linger.

Akoto’s masterful and resolute poems about her unresolved arguments with her estranged mother bring to mind a line from Lavinia Greenlaw's "Prayer" "for those trapped in another’s gravity." Mother and daughter, the two are trapped, intertwined, without hope of escape. The poems, resilient, despair-biting, fiercely-knowing and uncompromising, speak with the demeaning ferocity of all the "unmothered" mother-daughter alienation that has gone before.

Images of myth, primarily Medea, tantalise and predominate, reminding the speaker of her fate. Kevin Threlfall's ominous cover design, Darkness Follows, sets the pattern, the paradox of this young woman "unmothered," "undaughtered" –  indeed, this is the way it goes:

          A return. Not of last year’s summer,
          but the sense of those simmering
          childhood hours spent reading 
          under the light of solitude.

          Cool relief of those hours free
          from the prickle
          of her shadow along the wall.
- "Return of Summer"

The protagonist imagines a wished-for escape but the "prickle / of her (mother’s) shadow along the wall" is mostly there, reinforced by a dread of "haunting" and "ghost-flames," to be reckoned with.

It is an approach-avoidance conflict writ large. In the poem, "Who is to be saved?" Akoto suggests "It’s a difficult decision, / but all the same, my mother / does what she does best: saves herself. / ... Years later, she comes back, / closing out light behind her. / A shadow crosses my heart / a spider-skitter-scattering / along the muscle of my being." One thinks of reconciliation but no, the poem continues, "She also needs my darkness. / ... When I landed in the dark, / I stayed there. Yet / she holds out her hand / and I’m hers again. Even when / she recoils at my mangling, / because some bones do not heal. / and some hurts set themselves wrong, / I’m still hers." So they hold each other "trapped."

This amazing book Unmothered continues along this pattern – with light and shade but mostly dark, an exhaustive white heat of reciprocal anger, love, recriminations and sadness. I can imagine it as a theatrical piece, perhaps as a monologue with musical backing, or a presentation of assorted moods and voices, again with music. Akoto has a powerful presence and has presented an extremely powerful range of poems where the reader is continually returning to the question: Who is to be saved?

About the reviewer
Katherine Gallagher is an Australian-born North London poet. Her sixth full collection, Acres of Light (Arc Publications, 2016) – 'a joyful rinsing of the senses,' Alison Brackenbury – follows her Carnival Edge: New & Selected Poems (also with Arc, 2010). Carol Rumens chose her 'The Year of the Tree' for The Guardian’s Poem of the Week. 

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "The Wind Stills to Listen" by Deirdre Cartmill

Deirdre Cartmill’s third full-length collection is an exploration of longing and fulfilment. The first half of the collection take the reader through the fallout from a miscarriage, from the initial thrill and excitement of expectancy to the resultant grief and trauma. "Signs of Life" sums up the devastation in a neat image of the line of a pregnancy test developing like a polaroid picture:

          like a photograph emerging from a negative
          and slowly filling with the possibility of life
          But when we hand you to the doctor
          and she scans you for the first time,
          you disappear like a film exposed to light

Suddenly, given the shock of the news, motherhood and loss are seen everywhere. The flowers of a petal "fold into a womb"; the would-be parents' relationship gets compared to "pages joined by a perforated edge | and how little it takes to tear them apart." The fragility of life is exposed.

Deprived of motherhood, the poems take up the theme of observation. In "Fishmarket Pas de Deux," the speaker does not take part in the absurd dance reencountered in the poem; instead they "partake by watching." The mothering instinct is transposed onto the image of a child scavenging for food in "Daily Bread," the image seeming to haunt as a ghost, demanding to be seen, filling a void perhaps where a child should be. And yet, again, the speaker will only "watch and wait, and do nothing." In the opening poem, "Between Crossing and Passing," we are told that ghosts will do "anything to sate that unmet need | to be seen, heard." Cartmill places the unfilled mother between mourning the past and grasping at the future. We are shown a traffic light turning green, and told that "everything seems possible now," yet elsewhere we find "a trail of pawprints" that "lead nowhere," and we are left to wonder what possible direction the narrator is left free to take.

However, in the suitably-named haikai sequence, "Crossing Points," we find a key image encompassing both connection and separation:

          Window reflections.
          Me superimposed on you.
          joined without touching.

Cartmill excels in creating significance in seemingly minor images, using the material world as symbols for the turmoil felt whilst trying to make sense of what life has delivered – or failed to deliver. By the time we reach "Intercession," there is supplication, where Cartmill read to "let the reflection of Christ | washed over my upturned face." Now, with a different form of superimposition, the collection moves into a sequence taking up the majority of the book, told through the figure of Mary Magdalene. We see a blossoming faith, the ontogenesis of a personal and intimate relationship with Christ.

Magdalene starts off much as Cartmill, an observer, "reaching out, unable to touch." Yet soon, we see her move past observation and into participation, as she finds "my home in him" and eventually is invited to even preach alongside Jesus, the two becoming the one voice, and again, we find yet further superimposition.

Cartmill uses the Christ story to bring consolation and fulfilment; just as some nuns are encouraged to move any sexual desire they make have onto the Christ figure, the reader can’t help but draw comparisons and parallels between this faith helping to ease the pain of miscarriage. And indeed, Cartmill does not shy away from the intimacy that people speculate Christ and Magdalene may have held: "I watch each muscle flex," "his hand is on my waist," "his breath lifts each hair on my neck." One may stop to wonder why such emphasis on the physicality of the relationship, yet such human elements help us buy in to the intensity of feeling here.

Whatever one’s own personal views on faith and theology, the reader will still be caught up in the story, one that is emboldening, feminist, and inspiring. What we are left with is a resolution that offers a different form of motherhood, as Cartmill expertly squares the circle of the narrative to show us a surrogate relationship found through belief:

          So I speak of all God has told us,
          of how God gave birth to us
          as we give birth to men
          who shun us, break us, rape us

          - yet we do not stop giving birth.

Once more, publisher Arlen House offers up an engaging and stimulating collection, and after ten years since Cartmill’s last volume, we find that she has only strengthen her resolve, compassion and storytelling craft.

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.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Review by Katherine Hetzel of "Jötunheim" by Constantine

Jötunheim is the sequel to The Cats of Charnwood. It's a time-travelling, dream-space jumping adventure which takes the Guardian cats Bailey and Scruff back 1200 years to a Charnwood not yet impacted by man’s need for stone, in a bid to find a new world for the Jotnar (giants) before humans can wipe them out.

Having travelled to the 9th century, Bailey and Scruff need the help of Leif, a human boy; Fala, a young giant; the cats of Osgathorpe; and a young Old One, in order to save the giants and prevent the pools of Kapol-Tok– doorways to other worlds – from being sealed or lost forever in the future.

As is often the way, time travel and world-hopping can be confusing, but interspersed as it is with Norse mythology and information about the geography of Charnwood, the reader is easily carried along with Scruff and Bailey to the end of their journey.

Written by a neurodiverse author with neurodiverse and reluctant readers in mind, the story is structured with lots of short chapters and section breaks to aid concentration, and often grounds the reader as to who is speaking or thinking so as not to lose track. In the early edition I read, there were punctuation errors, but if you can see beyond those the story being told is original and – as a Charnwood girl myself – is interesting in both the history and myths it presents. The book can be read alone, but reading The Cats of Charnwood first might help a reader to settle into the cats’ world more quickly. 

About the reviewer
Katherine Hetzel is an ex-microbiologist-and-egg-pickler turned children's author, writing fantasy adventure novels for middle grade readers. She's also a volunteer librarian two afternoons a week in a local primary school, and enjoys encouraging pupils of all ages to explore the world of books. To find out more, visit her website here

You can read more about Jötunheim on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday 9 September 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "The Night Jar" by Louise Peterkin

The cover art of Louise Peterkin’s The Night Jar sets the tone for a collection that is stylish and understated, yet beautifully theatrical. 

Be prepared for the poems to take you on a Carroll-esque transport of delights. Like Alice, you’ll experience a colourful cast, often led by women appearing to  inhabit the interstices of fantasy and reality. Yet somehow, no matter where the dramas are played out, they remain elegantly embedded in the relatable, ordinary script and emotional spectrum of our daily lives. Lives that include love, faith, relationship ennui, sexuality, freedom, joy, disappointment, longing, ambition, loss and escape from routine oppression. 

In a four-episode vignette we are introduced to the adventures of a recalcitrant nun in "Sister Agnieska Runs Away to the Circus." Here, the Big Top is described as a "yummy mirage" and early on the skilful use of tense and double entendre convey the poem's "fallen" theme: 

          … the twirling, the leaping and the curving
          for the love of God, the love 
          of the falling …

          … You know now balance 
          is an act of sheer faith.

"Snake" is both visceral and anthropomorphic. It articulates the ending of a relationship, carefully planned and executed:

          No one suspected I could be so snakey..
          ... I was long gone.
          My skin like hosiery on the floor

The motif is extended with "snakey" witticisms and a well-placed dramatic exclamation:

          I nudged to the East with panache …

          ... there were clues …

          sodden shirts twisting 
          round my arm like a bracelet
          the spiced tomb of the laundry basket.

The bird image in the final verse is both delicate and self-contained, with a Haiku resonance that only adds to the sensory experience: 

         How lithe I am I have wriggled free!
         I hiss like Peter Lorre. A small bird
         fizzes like seltzer inside me. 

Peterkin’s debut is a fine piece of work. Intelligent and exquisitely crafted, the poems are highly visual and immersive. Reading them will leave you satiated, yet still looking forward to the next production. 

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry whilst studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB), The Female Line (NIWRM) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members, she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib. She returned to writing again after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House). She has also been a reader at Purely Poetry - Open Mic Night, Belfast.

You can read more about The Night Jar by Louise Peterkin on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Sensitive to Temperature" by Serena Alagappan

Sensitive to Temperature is one of the latest releases from New Poets List, an imprint of The Poetry Business which fosters new poetry by writers between the ages of 17 and 24. Within, Alagappan finds correlations between our landscapes and ourselves, using the fragility of both the human body and human relationships to highlight environmental concerns. We see wind erosion as a stand-in for human contact ("will you make time for me? || the steep lee of those aeolian landforms") and a skyscape reimagined as part of the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems:

           expels birds like a throat swallows stones,
           like a stomach stills a swarm of butterflies.
           The sky wheezes with its wind, loses its
           breath, belches thunder, hearts beats shocks
           of electricity

The imagery and metaphors go beyond mere anthropomorphism, to suggest that really humanity and earth need to be thought of as one. In "Aurora," a laceration and the resulting blood flow is compared to a sunrise ("a gash in the sky"). "White Bows" transforms wind turbines into "waving hands ... white bows in cerulean hair." "The Body Keeps the Score" compels the reader to "Stick a fist in the || earth and find dust on your palms." Just as a landscape leaves an impression on the mind, and exploring it takes a physical toil on the body, humanity leaves indelible impressions on the earth too. All these juxtapositions and parallels help remind us that we are undivorcable from the world, that one is dependent on the other.

We are, however, reminded that life persists: "how after nuclear disaster, mushrooms grow on reactor walls" ("After the Mushroom at the End of the World"). The poem goes on to tell us of "a kind of love" that is "unequal between two parties," guiltily condemning us for being guilty perhaps of not loving the world enough. We also have the idea of a mushroom cloud like air waltzing with "open legs and a rising skirt." Alagapan peppers the poems with these delightful curios of contrast: how a grab machine full of prizes can be "like Christmas morning,"  the source of the River Thames as "a mountain crush into liquid matter" or a tornado "tastes cars then hurls them back," reminiscent of the sky belching thunder from earlier.

Elsewhere, we are met with Alagappan's reverence for the world: "Holy" lists instances of awe-inspiring natural occurrences, from the growth of a potato to a volcano, balancing the tricky dual reality of nature as destroyer as well as creator. We find intertextuality in the use of negative space in architecture ("Nostalgia Architects") and the space in an empty lunch box ("Tiffin"), but also in the in the space between humanity and God in "Red Moon," addressed in an ill-fitting metaphor of a hand across the eyes. The poem speaks of "your pain" and "when your heart | broke," odd abstracts that stand out against a collection that is usual exact and original in its language.

As with any eco-poems, or indeed any poems with a strong message, the danger is that the poetry with take second place behind the arguments. However, there is plenty on offer here to assure us that Alagappan is a thoughtful and skilled poet, never slipping into diatribe or grandstanding, and conjuring up original situations and contexts in which to explore her intentions.

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. 

Monday 4 September 2023

Review by Tracey Foster of "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan


          Red runs through
          like a weeping wound -
          a scab twice picked.
- Tracey Foster

There's a red thread that runs deeply through Flanagan's Booker Prize-winning novel. From the very first, we are faced with a stubborn blood blister under the nail that preoccupies the protagonist Dorrigo Evans as a small child and diverts his attention away from a critical act that will come back to haunt him as a middle-aged man. The blister can only be resolved by a red-hot kitchen knife that makes a hole in the nail, a blade with 'globules of fat' that will take on much more sinister appearance during Dorrigo's time as POW in Burma. This is a story of one man's life and death and the connections he makes in between.

          A world of dew
          and in every dew drop
          a world of struggle.
- Issa

Flanagan is an expert at fluctuating between different time frames and takes us from youth to old age and any point in between, weaving a tale that is multi-layered and interconnected. Characters talk to us through the third-person narration as we begin to join up the dots. His paramour, Amy, is first seen wearing a red camellia in her hair and this becomes such a potent symbol that in later life Dorrigo has a camellia bush cut down after he moves to a new house with his family.

          A bee
          staggers out
          of the peony.
- Basho

Flanagan has a personal connection to the torturous conditions the POWs suffered during the building of the Burma railway. His own father was a POW at this time and died on the day that he finished writing the novel. These gruesome, gut-wrenching tales can only come from one who has heard of this first hand. We can only hope that these stories bear witness to a dark period of humanity that we shall never see the likes of again.

          Only the monkeys 
          can laugh - in the heat
          of the jungle.
- Tracey Foster

The title of the novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, takes its cue from the Japanese poet Basho's book of the same name. This poet's journeys and poems became the first form of haibun writing, prose interspersed with haiku. Flanagan drops haiku into the text to break up the chapters and add another layer of emotion to the story. After savagely beating a POW to near death, a guard tells Dorrigo,

          A world of pain
          if the cherry blossoms,
          it blossoms.
- Basho

Guards who dispense relentless barbaric punishments on the POW are shown swapping haiku favourites in their quiet moments displaying a discordant relationship between humanity and nature. The haikus act as rest breaks to the violence, diverting and regrouping our emotions before the next chapter. Later on, another guard is asked to reflect on his life in old age and write a traditional death poem, left behind for his loved ones. As we hope and await absolution he recites

          Winter ice
          melts into clear water.
          Clear is my heart.

This novel is a harrowing tale of love, loss, torture, pain and release. As readers, we long for resolution, a glimpse of a happy ending but as Flanagan emphasises, life is just simply not like that. We take what we can and make the best of things. Maybe that is our strength, to endure and leave behind a tale to tell. This is one tale that Flanagan was born to tell. 

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster 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 Comma Press, 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.