Friday 24 November 2023

Review by Gus Gresham of "The Mad Road" by Laurie Cusack

As reviewer Alexandros Plasatis says on the back cover, "The Mad Road is a hooligan of a book.” It’s easy to see why as you dive headlong into these riveting, gutsy tales. If you like your fiction cosy and fluffy and all wrapped up with a pink bow, stay clear!

In the opening story, "The Bottle and the Trowel," a man walks out along a soggy rotten board on a scaffold, falls to his near-doom and ends up on life support. "You’ve got to hear this, Gerry!" his friend says at the bedside as he begins to narrate the harrowing circumstances that plague their lives. And this story could be a metaphor for the whole collection. Reading these stories feels like walking along a dodgy scaffold, hoping that the next step you take won’t send you plummeting to the ground where unknown horrors await.

"A Doc Marten boot met the crack of Desmond O’Hara’s arse" is the opening line to "Ghost Estate" in which our anti-hero faces retribution for his exploitative dealings during the years of the Celtic Tiger economy. What will become of him? 

Whether the stories are set in Ireland itself or amid London Irish communities, Cusack serves up a smorgasbord of characters who are as contrary as the day is long. In The Mad Road, we get an up-close-and-intimate perspective on these fallible lives. Lovable smooth-tongued travellers; a young man new to London whose rites of passage bring him face to face with the menacing Zen-like character known as "The Bear"; a woman on the edge making a passionate stand against social injustice; a father who will give anything to get his girl through dancing school.

What will become of any of them? As Oscar Wilde once said, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." So if you like your fiction gritty, turbulent and off-the-leash, this is the book for you. It has heart, it has soul, it has guts. It will mess with your head.

One thing’s for sure, I’ll probably never be able to look at a building site or a coin-operated laundrette in quite the same way again.

About the Reviewer
Gus Gresham has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing (NTU) and has worked variously as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, medical-scenario simulator and facilitator, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines including Brittle Star and Under the Radar, and his most recent novel, Kyiv Trance – a dark, twisty love story and crime thriller – is available on Amazon. You can read more about Kyiv Trance on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 16 November 2023

Review by Lee Wright of "The Mirror and the Road" by William Boyd and Alistair Owen

Alistair Owen’s extensive conversations with William Boyd that took place over a two-year period are not just for smitten Boyd fans. Whether you’re an aspirant writer or a seasoned writer, whatever your chosen field – fiction, non-fiction, novel, short story, or screenplay – The Mirror and the Road makes for a fascinating interrogation into the mind of one of Britain’s best writers. The book is structured chronologically, covering Boyd’s seventeen novels, five short story collections, twelve film screenplays, five television screenplays, and three stage plays. Boyd talks about the vim and vigour of writing, about his unpublished, semi-autobiographical novels, of how his first, A Good Man in Africa, came to be written in three months flat. But what this collection of interviews does best is to show us the process and the torments that come with being a writer, digging deep into the craft and the ingredients that has produced a staggering body of work. It is a 330-page writing masterclass, full of advice about what works for Boyd, his methods and modus operandi, how his plots evolve, how he chooses what he wants to write next, the research stage before writing, the importance of finding the right title for a project, the unimportance of writing sympathetic characters and the deliberate echoes of his many literary influences – Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anton Chekhov – underlining the importance of reading. And Boyd isn’t afraid to borrow from genre fiction to power his narrative, as he did in the case of his 1993 novel, The Blue Afternoon

The book explores Boyd’s preoccupations, seeing how they interact and interconnect and how he brings these different fixations together in his novels and short stories: “Short stories are like a laboratory for me,” Boyd says. He also stresses the importance of trusting the imagination: “I’ve often written about places I’ve never been to,” he says, writing about Los Angeles before he ever went there. “I wanted to see if I could inhabit the place vicariously through my imagination.” 

It sent me back to my time studying for an MA in Creative Writing and the recommended reading list we were given. Other than David Morley’s Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, no other book on the list offered the kind of embarrassment of riches (with regards to fiction writing) that comes with these interviews. It should be on the shelf of every university library to be discovered and show what can be done with narrative and how a writer can get there.      

About the reviewer
Lee Wright has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film. His fiction and poetry have been published with Fairlight Books, époque press and Burning House Press.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "Revelation Freshly Erupting" by Nelly Sachs

Reading and reviewing the collected works (nine in total) of a poet originally writing in another language on Holocaust themes is challenging. This is compounded with the titanic credentials of a prolific Jewish poet (published 1947-1971), Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner. 

We owe a debt of gratitude therefore to Andrew Shanks for his unique, approximate translations from Sachs’ native German. Additionally, his powerful introductory essay allows us to glimpse, briefly, the countless hours of dedication to his art since he first discovered Sachs in 1983-4 when working as a post-grad in Marburg, Germany,

What makes his approach to this important body of work unique? Shanks describes himself as "not a brilliant" linguist, who "sets out to" produce versions that, to my ear, work as poems in English. He quotes Edward FitzGerald’s famous formula: "Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle." More than that, as a "Christian philosophic theologian," Shanks brings important knowledge and an intuitive, spiritual understanding.

This combination complements and reveals for us the subtle, existential character of poetry that uses much in the way of classical and religious / biblical motifs and the natural world to try and make sense of the worst excesses of human depravity. 

"O die Schornsteine" ("O, The Chimneys"), the opening poem of "Habitations of Death," 1947, seems to provide an exemplar for much of what is to come. Here, some of the motifs we have come to associate with Holocaust imagery are articulated only lightly - for example, "meandering dust." They have been carefully woven in to support the heaviness of the metaphysical questions they raise: "Who contrived you? Who built ...?"  

The killings are viewed through the lens of Job’s conviction that he will see God when his skin and flesh are destroyed, which proposes to the reader an unintended, beneficial consequence of the barbarism. Thus, the objectives for murder on the grounds of religion are not only subtly ridiculed, but reduced to futility and nothingness as death has the ultimate potential to overcome and be a cause for celebration.

          "And after my skin has been thus destroyed, then without my flesh I shall see God."
          - Job 9:26

         O the chimneys
         On the artfully contrived 
         Habitations of death, as Israel’s flesh
         Floated in smoke through the air
         A star, there, received it …

         ... O the chimneys!
         Meandering dust – Jeremiah’s and Jobs’s – released –
         Who contrived you, who built, stone on stone,
         For fugitive souls, this path of smoke?

That the persecuted should not become persecutors ("Star Black-Out," 1949) is another example of the lightness of touch that is characteristic. Here, the poem uses the term "Footsteps" and contextual sound as a leitmotif throughout. Although we can readily make the association with (Jack) boots and marching, direct reference only happens in the last verse. Where the previous poem used a biblical quotation, Sachs now employs several classical allusions starting with Echo:

         where in which of Echo’s grottoes
         are you stored,
         you rhythmic harbingers 
         of looming death?

... and ending with a poignant Pythagorean reference that beautifully ties off the whole aural theme of the poem:

         Footsteps of the killers 
         Over footsteps of the killed,
         what black-horror moon impelled
         the ticking circuit of those booted seconds?

         Where’s that leather squeak
         within the music of the spheres

Overall, the poetry uses a reductive, yet restrained, learned and gently sophisticated approach to deal with the horrific acts and consequences. This includes the preceding ideologies that initiated them. The diminution that results impresses upon us the sublimity and determination of the poems to reveal truth and beauty and thereby hope, no matter what. 

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry whilst studying English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB) 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.