Thursday 21 December 2023

Review by Gary Day of "A Word with Bede" by Neil Curry

At first glance, the title suggests that the Venerable One is being taken on one side to receive advice or admonition in his shell-like. In fact it is an instance of the rich and indeed reverential language at play in this collection which is full of atmosphere, marvels and profundities. The word ‘Word’ simultaneously evokes casual conversation and the Logos itself. The pronoun ‘with’ suggests that Bede and Curry (a nomenclature that suggests a comedy duo) are on equal terms, true companions.

Among others receiving a mention in this meditation on past and present are St Ceolfrith, who looked after Bede from the age of seven, St Hilda of Whitby and Caedmon, regarded as the first English poet, his song a song of creation. Even the Vikings make a brief if bloody appearance, ‘like wolves they tore and slaughtered.’ The assonance nearly bringing those two verbs together is at variance with the frenzied dismemberment of the monks' bodies. This may seem a trivial, even pedantic point, but it touches on one of the main themes of the volume, ‘the fluidity of things,’ how everything is interlinked. This comes across strongly in ‘St Cuthbert’s Beads’ where fossils become beads on a rosary, the scientific and the spiritual meeting in a perfect circle. Another poem, ‘And with a Feather,’ is the most perfect expression of the unity at the heart of things. It is the verbal equivalent of the repeating patterns of Celtic art which have no beginning and no end.

These poems touch not just on history but something deeper, the time of solitude and silence which stretches from the desert to the edge of the expanding cosmos. Every page contains a verbal gem. It is a kind of holy book, not exactly an illuminated manuscript but a source of light nonetheless.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer and the author of several critical works including Literary Criticism: A New History and The Story of Drama. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls as Rain, published by Holland Press, is due out in February

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "No Small Thing" by Trevor Conway

Trevor Conway opens up his third collection with an engaging essay, expanding on the themes of the book, serving as an amuse-bouche for what lies within. In the world of post-pandemic literature, Conway realises that we have all been forced to look inwards, spending more time in the house, shut off from others. Naturally, what arises are the themes of home and family, and chiefly for Conway, the new arrival of a daughter. Imagine Bill Bryson’s At Home, exploring the dichotomy of the home and all its trappings, but told through the intimate prism of a small (and often sleep-deprived) family. 

One of the highlights of the collection is the personification of certain rooms in the house, given voice to comment on their nature, and the comings and goings of the people who use them. These poems are rich in humour and fancifulness: we find a hallway that feels neglected because it’s only used to get from one place to another; it is rarely the desired destination. Elsewhere, an attic ponders on its quietude, whereas the bathroom sees all manner of private horrors. 

Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture states that "a house is a machine for living in," and so we find ruminations on laundry, child-rearing, cooking, cleaning and other domestic demands. It is within this endless machination that Conway gives us his richest descriptions: minced beef cooked until "all its red head are dulled," "nappies full as the shell of a snail," the emptying of a wheelie bin "taken like fish in one gulp," or a television set that "jabbers like a senile uncle." There is beauty in mundanity here, and Conway excels as reimagining these tasks through language into things of affection and astonishment.

The daughter poems show us a sense of fragility: "Oh, Man" muses on how some men struggle with fatherhood. "Baby Steps" marvels at the child "coming to terms | with the new physics | of her body machinery," but fears what new dangers walking will bring. Hope for the future also arises, coupled with the uneasy undercurrent of knowing that no future is wholly secured, the shadow of the pandemic looming over the years ahead.

         Other images we have yet to see:
         a schoolbag tight like a barnacle to your back,
         the jagged, crayon scrawl of your name,
         your face womaned in make-up.

It is a testament to Conway’s effectiveness that this reviewer – childfree and with no desire to rear – found the tenderness and devotion inescapable. 

There is the occasional poem outside of the home, of airplane flights, of ruminations on Galway city and a new beginning in Catalonia. Yet it is the scenes that take place inside the familial four walls that come across as most personal. No Small Thing lives up to its title, showing the reader that the apparent microcosms of daily life are a huge part of our being and our identity, and that fatherhood has brought with in a new appreciation of these "houses shared like simmering saucepans | of routine, belief and ritual."

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is with the lakes (above/ground press, 2023), a series of twenty-five poems loosely connected by the theme of water. His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Review by Kim Wiltshire of "Best British Short Stories 2023" ed. Nicholas Royle

In this form since 2011, Best British Short Stories 2023 is the thirteenth volume and yet again delivers an anthology that includes a range of styles and subjects to suit any reader. This is the joy of the short story collection or anthology, there is always a completely different tale awaiting you a few pages on, a different world to explore and new characters to meet. 

This edition includes work from twenty different writers from across Britain, telling a range of stories from the lyrical (A K Blakemore’s ‘Bonsoir’) to the dark and weirdly dystopian (Gareth E Rees’ ‘The Slime Factory’) alongside the more character-based literary stories, ranging from the quite short, for example Lydia Gill’s ‘The Lowing’ at only four pages, through to the longer short story, such as the final one in the collection ‘Tinhead’ by Gabriel Flynn.

The collection is thoughtfully curated by Royle, a task which is always difficult, but when you’re presenting ‘the best’ stories then the journey the editor takes the reader on has to ensure there are no bumps or potholes in the road, although a sharp turn now and then can be quite exhilarating. Royle does a grand job as editor here, juxtaposing the stories that lean towards magic realism with the more down to earth, life-lived-as-it-is type of story. It has been carefully thought through for the reader, which in turn showcases the talent of all the writers in the best possible way. Yes, I had my favourites, but they will be completely different to your favourites, which in turn will be different again to the next person’s. There are clear themes that run through the collection: concerns about the world we live in, and where it is heading, alongside the loneliness of life for so many. Some stories make you laugh out loud, other make you think, and one did bring a tear to my eye. 

Royle’s introduction is also a journey through the short story alphabet with many good tips for those writers starting out in the genre. I’ve always enjoyed reading these yearly collections, and this (lucky?) thirteenth is no different - I hope they continue for many years more.

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 a British Academy Innovation Fellow and is a Reader and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. 

Friday 15 December 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "Sea-Fever: Selected Poems" by John Masefield, ed. Philip Errington


Born in Ledbury, Herefordshire in 1878, the scope and diversity of John Masefield’s life experience at home, at sea and abroad is nothing short of diverse. This resulted in a rich seam of lifelong inspiration that fed his early aim to be a writer "come what might."  

Speaking about the poem "The Piper of Arll" written in 1895 by Duncan Campbell Scott, Masefield is reputed to have written to Scott some years later saying: "I had never (till that time) cared very much for poetry, but your poem impressed me deeply, and set me on fire. Since then poetry has been the one deep influence in my life, and to my love of poetry I owe all my friends, and the position I now hold."

Prolific writer he did become, not just as a poet - holding Laureateship from 1930 until 1967 - but also as a novelist whose work included two classic children’s novels: The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.

From "Salt Water Ballads" (1899 -1911), comes "Sea Fever," whose opening is arguably one the most quoted and instantly recognisable lines of 20th century English poetry: "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky." The easily digested quatrain structure of just three verses contains a wealth of accessible imagery that speaks eloquently to the romance, mystery and calling of the sea. This is further enhanced with alliteration and rhyme that lend a melody and cadence redolent of the waves themselves: 

           ... and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking
          and a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking

           … and all I ask if a windy day with the white clouds flying
           and the flung spray and the blown spume and the sea-gulls crying

           … to the gull’s way and whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife

Having sailed in 1894 he experienced illness that cut short his life at sea, and returning home for a period, left again for America. Failing to report for duty on a subsequent ship posting in New York resulted in a spell of vagrancy and he finally returned to England in 1897 having his first published poem in 1899. 

Despite the adversities, Masefield repeatedly re-visited his experience of the sea and travel. His combined sensory appreciation of other lands resulted in a muse that was rich in texture. This is evident in another well-known work, "Cargoes" (1903), with its multi-sensory, image-rich depictions of the ships, their passages and cargo in stanzas 1 and 2:

          … ivory, 
          And apes and peacocks, 
          Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine

          … diamonds
          Emeralds, amethysts,
          Topazes, and cinnamon and gold moidores

This is compared with an English counterpart in the third and final stanza:

          Dirty, British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
          Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
          With a cargo of Tyne coal,
          Road-rails, pig-lead
          Firewood, ironware and cheap tin trays

Selected Poems is an especially enjoyable body of work. It articulates colour and exoticism combined with contrast. This provides an expressive and profound response to not just the conservative "green and pleasant land," but importantly, highlights the grey and grinding industrial oppression on the senses.

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 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. Her poem "Ritual" has recently been accepted for publication by literary journal The Honest Ulsterman

Sunday 3 December 2023

Review by Gus Gresham of "Umbilical" by Teika Marija Smits

While savouring this stunning collection of stories, I kept asking myself (as an avid reader and writer) ‘What’s the most effective way of getting a reader’s attention?’ Because Umbilical does grab the attention and does not let go. It’s stylish, intriguing, beautifully written. There are characters and concepts that fascinate, beguile, bewilder. But there is something else going on here …

Teika Marija Smits is not writing sci-fi, fantasy, horror or speculative fiction for its own sake; she is employing elements of these in ways that are on-point. Whether a story has social justice at its core, the human condition, relationships, or the dangers of unfettered medical and tech development, the ideas are handled with subtlety and skill. 

She trusts her own intuitions, too – like the narrator of the title story who hears “those ancient, knowing whisperings arising from my womb”. Smits knows that the ‘darker’ parts of ourselves that we so often dismiss are the places where treasures may be found.

Because it would be difficult to summarise any of the stories (without committing spoiler-crime), I can only tantalise and tease:

In ‘Death of the Grapevine,’ we meet a computer engineer whose job it is to troubleshoot an in-house AI system and carry out a bizarre and strangely sad form of maintenance. In ‘His Birth,’ amid the sensitive and powerful rendering of the bond between a mother and child, we meet a creature known as a lamphine. In ‘Girls’ Night Out,’ the first-person plural pronoun ‘we’ takes on a whole other mysterious and resonant meaning. In ‘Our Lady of Flies,’ loss, misunderstanding and a failing relationship are deftly explored. In other stories, such as ‘Star Making at Sellafield,’ we encounter tenderness and hope.

As for the earlier question (What’s the most effective way of getting a reader’s attention?) Teika Marija Smits’s answer is to explore issues from quirky angles, thereby offering unique, enthralling perspectives.

A thoroughly engaging and enjoyable collection.

About the reviewer
Gus Gresham has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing (NTU) and has worked as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, medical-scenario simulator/facilitator, civil funeral celebrant, 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 Umbilical by Teika Marija Smits on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday 2 December 2023

Interview with Roppotucha Greenberg


Roppotucha Greenberg is the author of a flash and micro-fiction collection Zglevians on the Move (TwistiT Press, 2019) and four silly-but-wise doodle books for humans, Creatures Give Advice (2019), Creatures Give Advice Again and it’s warmer now (2019), Creatures Set Forth (2020) and Cooking with Humans (2022).

Roppotucha has lived in Russia, Israel and now Ireland. She speaks three languages fluently and has tried to learn six more. Arachne Press has previously published Roppotucha’s stories in the Solstice Shorts Festival anthologies, Noon and Time and Tide. She shares regular micro-fiction on X/Twitter: find her @roppotucha.

Below, she talks to Laura Besley about her new novella, Getting by in Tligolian

Interviewed by Laura Besley

LB: Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Getting by in Tligolian – it’s a fantastic novella! 

RG: Thank you so much! 

LB: Often, while I’m reading – whether it be a novel, novella or one of the various forms of short fiction – I find myself wondering what sparked the story. Was there a moment or a character or an image or something entirely different that led you to write Getting by in Tligolian

RG: It was the image of that city: those huge glass enclosures, the traffic, and the narrow streets with tired looking shops, and the river. The giant as well. His presence was almost instantly apparent in my imagination. 

LB: There are various strands to this novella, one of which being ‘language.’ In the story ‘Appendix,’ the main character states: ‘I tried to learn Tligolian so many times and forgot it just as many.’ Did you purposefully use language, or the lack of language, to disorientate her and set her up as ‘an outsider’?

RG: I think she would be an outsider regardless of the language. Apart from the physical fact of immigration, her chronic naiveté both protects her and isolates her from the world. Through learning Tligolian, which is not necessary for communication in Tligol, she attempts to ground herself in the world. Language learning makes things seem simple, especially in the beginning when one talks of girls eating apples and your mother being a teacher and things like that. Of course, this does not work, because language turns into layers of forgetting, while its difficult tenses wrap around her and make her confusion grow. 

LB: The main character describes Tligol, the fictional city in which the novella is set, as ‘so beautiful, I convinced myself that I was in charge of the perfect expression of its beauty.’ Do you feel the city functions as a character within the novella and if so, how did you go about conjuring that feeling? 

RG: Thank you for citing this line. In a way, Jenny spends the whole book chasing the city, trying to express its beauty, learn its language, find its giant, take the trains to all its time layers. The city is a character. Like other places in real life, it is alive and wonderful, but it also evades easy capture. One comes near, but only just near enough, and being in the midst of the thing you want to capture complicates matters. 

LB: Another aspect of the novella is ‘time.’ Did you layer in that complexity through multiple versions and/or edits, or was that aspect of the novella clear in your mind from the outset?

RG: That was something that became apparent very soon, in one of the early drafts. Time-travelling trains are an inherent part of the city.  Though other aspects of the city became apparent earlier – the way its spaces are not quite stable, for example, or the way living people get recorded as ‘reflections.’ 

LB: All of the chapters are short, some only a few lines. Was this a conscious choice? What is the effect of this on the reader? And what benefits do you feel you gain as a writer by learning to write/writing concisely? 

RG: Yes, this was a conscious choice, but it was motivated by the needs of the story. For me, the novella in flash works so well for fragmented narratives and stories that work with negative space - in the sense that the narrative gaps are a part of the story. Without giving away too much, I feel that the form of the text works well with its ending.  

LB: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!  

RG: Thank you for being such a generous and attentive reader. I am very grateful. 

About the interviewer
Laura Besley is the author of 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She has been widely published in online journals, print journals and anthologies, including Best Small Fictions (2021). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, twice nominated for Best Micro Fiction and she has been listed by TSS Publishing as one of the top 50 British and Irish Flash Fiction writers. She is an editor with Flash Fiction Magazine and a Creative Writing MA student at the University of Leicester. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea.