Thursday 29 February 2024

Review by Peter Raynard of "The Remaining Men" by Martin Figura

The word that kept coming to mind when reading The Remaining Men was generosity. Figura writes about many lives: his own, of course, which would make for an interesting film, not just because of the death of his mother by his father, and its impact on him and his siblings, but also the soldiers, workers, and NHS staff, who are contrasted with our leading Prime Ministers, and their many follies.

There can’t be many poets who were once soldiers, and there is a certain irony in Figura being a post-war child who joins the army; there’s always a conflict somewhere (Suez, Falklands, Iraq, etc.). Figura shows how the army is often the only avenue for working-class men and women to ‘see the world’ and are often ignored in the history books.

          After School came the coastal erosion of self
          as to what is on offer. His grandfather’s
          medal ribbons all lined up straight by the pull

          of the weight

He also writes about the impact on one’s identity of leaving a birthplace, travelling abroad, living elsewhere in the UK, but being still marked by the place you were born:

          Ask where I’m from, and I’ll say Liverpool
          in my woolly Northern accent, knowing we’d left
          for a better life when I was only two

          We were only ever visiting after that
          and I have no right to feel so proud

Personal and political history runs through the collection in a linear narrative form but is wide ranging in the characters it portrays. All of this is complemented by a series of black and white pictures. Figura is also a photographer and has a book This Man’s Army about his young life in the service.

The Remaining Men will make you cry, make you angry, and make you laugh in all the right places. ‘The Mower’ is a standout gem in this respect (think Burt Lancaster’s The Swimmer as an enraged man ripping through neighbours’ gardens on his motorised lawnmower). The generosity of this collection is most poignant in the poem ‘My Name is Mercy’ about an NHS nurse, 

          If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
          today is the nineteenth of January, 
          it is difficult, I understand.

Figura understands the importance of these people very well, and how unvalued they are by politicians who are supposed to lead us, and for that we must thank his generosity and their service.

About the reviewer
Peter Raynard is a poet, who writes prose and edits Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives. His latest collection is Manland (Nine Arches Press, 2022). He has a poetry pamphlet, after William Hogarth, and academic essay on the poetry of Fred Voss and Martin Hayes, forthcoming in 2024.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Review by Beth Gaylard of "God's Country" by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

‘Landscape is a cauldron for Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s intensely creepy and evocative writing’ (Georgina Bruce, Black Static). This blurb on the front cover of God’s Country should act as a warning, not just about the nature of the book, but the character of the setting – her own setting, the Black Country. Of the book, she says: ‘I think it contains part of my own DNA …  It’s the paths I have walked.’ Of the landscape, she writes ‘there was more than just a smell about this place, there was a proper feel of it that she hadn’t expected. There was a stillness of air inside there that seemed to hold something primitive.’

If you are expecting that this ‘cauldron,’ a rural farm, will produce a novel resembling a wholesome soup or a nourishing stew, think again, because before you know it you are drawn (through the protagonist, Alison) into a family nightmare that you desperately, fervently want to end well, if only it can. Alison has just undergone a traumatic event which she cannot share, for the moment at least, and the whole book is told from her unsettled point of view. Her physical pain and discomfort – she is beset by a migraine all the way through the book, almost a character in its own right, and the weirdness of the migraine experience mirrors the disjointed personalities of other characters that she meets.

The family is not hers but her boyfriend Guy’s, and they are making their way to the Black Country farm where he grew up with his twin brother Ivan, who has finally died after a long illness. Their father, known only as Flood, is the God of God’s Country, an implacably cruel man who has somehow managed to destroy all his family as well as the farm. As soon as they reach their destination it is obvious that Guy hasn’t told Alison all the secrets it holds. 

The narrative unfolds in a convoluted version of the conditional tense which addresses the reader directly, allowing an omniscient point of view and implying that some kind of interview with Alison will take place at a point in the future, after the end of the story. This stylistic device works surprisingly well, allowing the reader to see beyond the end of the story and enabling the unknown narrator to address the reader directly and at a distance: ‘She’ll say she wants to tell you this story, and in the act of telling it, she knows she’ll probably leave some gaps, but in the act of you reading it, you’ll give it shape.’

God’s Country is an important contribution to those strands of literature that bring landscape to life, but it is also compelling and unpredictable, as it unfolds past secrets which continue to affect a family in thrall to its most powerful member. One of the best reads this year.

About the reviewer
Beth Gaylard is a PhD student of Creative Writing, currently in her write-up period. Her topic is solastalgia in rural England. She has a self-published speculative fiction novel, Firebrands, on Kindle. She lives in Leicestershire.

You can read more about God's Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 26 February 2024

Review by Gus Gresham of "Pictures of Yukio" by Brian Howell

While reading this chapbook short story, I had a sense of moving towards something mystical, poetic and subtly menacing. Three Japanese university students become enamoured of the work of Mishima Yukio, a writer who was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature five times in the 1960s. 

In the modern day setting of the story, Yukio’s shadowy face appears on the wall of a university building, its clarity subject to changes in daylight and sunlight. Pictures of Yukio is driven as much by the pictures of Yukio on the wall as it is by pictures / vignettes of the three student friends, Yutaka, Kimie and Osamu.

According to some sources, Mishima Yukio was a controversial figure, espousing right-wing views that mourned the loss of Imperial Japanese culture, and his writing was a flamboyant fusion of Japanese and Western styles. By contrast, stylistically, Howell’s prose is clear, spare and understated, but Mishima’s life and motivations are echoed in Howell’s story. There are parallel themes, including the theme of “manifesto.” The manifesto of the friends is also a call to arms for returning to the past, but this modern manifesto focuses around the idea of rejecting the globalised Western-driven trend of digital connectivity and the ills of social media that are in ascendancy in modern societies the world over.

Our narrator, Yutaka, offers an early prefiguring: “once you start texting, it becomes complicated. Misunderstandings pile on misunderstandings that can only really be sorted out in the real world of face-to-face communication.” And there are undertones of casual menace in the everyday: “I had noticed a samurai sword specialist shop adjacent to the love hotel.”

Given that Mishima Yukio was an alumnus of the university where the three friends study – and that Yukio delivered an impassioned political speech followed by ritual suicide – a reader is at once beguiled and fascinated, and wonders where this absorbing story will ultimately lead.

Pictures of Yukio is haunting and beautifully written. It lives on in the memory after reading. It made me want to know more about the inspirations behind it, and more about the author. Brian Howell lives outside Tokyo and teaches in Japan. He is also an established writer of short stories and novels. I have no hesitation recommending this forthcoming chapbook story and I’ll certainly be checking out more of Howell’s work.


About the Reviewer 
Gus Gresham has an MA in Creative Writing (NTU) and has worked as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, environmental activist, 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.

Friday 23 February 2024

Review by Martyn Crucefix of "Modern Fog" by Chris Emery

Chris Emery’s new collection presents, and intends to see beyond, the Modern Fog of its title. Here are walking poems, encounters with creatures, and images of modern life’s scruffy ‘dreck.’ ‘The Bay’ can be read as a condensed version of Larkin’s ‘Here,’ the walker arriving at a bay, dotted with ruined buildings. This image of transience, in effect a memento mori, is softened a little with Emery’s insistence that the homesteads ‘still hold their ounce of love.’ 

In ‘Day Fox,’ the animal’s ‘living amber’ is seen against the green of grass, but its later death is also clear: ‘his pelt was tar black and slicked back.’ Emery goes beyond the fact of death as, in the corpse’s wasting away, ‘the world / relaxed into him with all its fiery prayers.’ To declare this an image of an afterlife is to lack subtlety, yet Emery is surely probing Eliot’s idea that ‘In order to arrive at what you are not / You must go through the way in which you are not’ (‘East Coker’). 

Emery’s images of our modern world – like an NCP car park, the final destination perhaps of the couple in ‘Newbies’ driving along ‘old roads, lobbed estates’ – function as foils to the ‘churchgoing’ side of his work. ‘The Wall Paintings’ – a visit to St. Andrew’s, Wickhampton – opens not with cycle clips, but with the equally evocative ‘thunk of a latch and then your eyes adjust.’ 

The final poem, ‘The Legacy,’ records the removal of an empty wasps’ nest. In the transformative effect of genuine poetry, the nest becomes a human life, ‘gorgeously dented,’ from which the creatures that made it have departed ‘to drone in apple acres / elsewhere darkening / with sweet ruin now.’ Whether we believe in such a place is, with writing as good as this, hardly the point, appealing as it does, through powerful imagery to a human longing for continuation in the face of what we think we know of death. 

About the reviewer
Martyn Crucefix's Between a Drowning Man is published by Salt in 2023; his translations of Peter Huchel (Shearsman) won the 2020 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. A Rilke Selected Poems, Change Your Life, is due from Pushkin Press, Spring 2024. You can find his blog here.  

You can read more about Modern Fog by Chris Emery on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday 16 February 2024

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Hollow Daughter" by Katherine Hetzel


Readers already familiar with Hetzel’s previous output as author of children’s fantasy fiction, including the epic The Chronicles of Issraya series of books, will find much to enjoy in this collection of short stories that are aimed at adult readers but also draw their inspiration from the fantastical. 

The title of the collection, Hollow Daughter, is not only the story that opens proceedings, but also provides a unifying theme for the eclectic array of flash fiction and longer pieces that follow, chiefly, girls and women who face extraordinary situations that either serve to empower them or leave them at the mercy of more powerful forces. 

The collection contains a dizzying array of characters, settings and narrative styles, many of which offer the reader a mere glimpse of an alternative universe. Hetzel’s trademark economy of form is able to relay both an entire society and a turning point in a character’s much larger story. There are the familiar shades of Atwood’s Gilead in the title story, "Hollow Daughter," whereby a parent seeks the help of Mother Alish when her daughter fails to menstruate. "'We need your help, Mother.'” The Mother indicated the daughter. 'If her situation continues, there will be accusations laid against her, that she’s preventing her own fruitfulness.'" Hetzel leads the reader to many a satisfying cliff-hanger, shown to devastating effect in the title story, but also elsewhere in the affecting "The Pink Feather Boa Incident," "The Memory of Amelia Maybelove" and "Red Moon Rising." The last of these, along with the stunning "Miss Aveline’s Summerhouse," are so convincing and well-executed they hint at a potential future direction for Hetzel to pursue – the full-length ghost story.

I thoroughly recommend this collection. Hetzel’s stories surprise and delight in equal measure but are sure to leave readers reflecting on the nature of female identity and power, in its myriad forms. I look forward to seeing where Hetzel takes her readers next as she develops her skills as a writer of quality adult fantasy fiction. Any number of universes, as presented in this dazzling collection, would prove ripe for exploration. 

About the reviewer
Dr. Paul Taylor-McCartney is a writer, researcher and lecturer living in Cornwall. His interests include dystopian studies, children’s literature and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in print and electronic form, including: Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice & Writing in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Dyst: Literary Journal, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Crank and Bandit Fiction. His debut children’s novel, Sisters of the Pentacle, was recently published by Hermitage Press.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "This Is Not a Science Fiction Textbook," ed. Mark Bould and Steven Shaviro

Well you could have fooled me! It is a textbook and then some. This is the perfect resource for a sci-fi fan. Excuse the trendy reduction. But it is also a wonderful introduction to the science fiction world for those not au fait with the genre. The book is an education. 

The book is divided into three sections: Theory, History, Key Concepts, followed by a fantastic bibliography and a list of further reading which deliver a smorgasbord of sci-fi delights that should be on any fan's reading bucket list.

We can read highly researched and insightful articles on everything we need to know and on things we didn’t know we needed to know. Each page offers a fresh insight. What I love about the format is that with every essay we have a selection of films or books that the writer recommends. These suggestions unsurprisingly open up a whole world of different worlds - worlds we could have never imagined if we didn’t delve deeper into science fiction. If you follow the authors' advice you will see that the sci-fi genre is not something to be scoffed at, but an insightful world of imagination and invention. 

Science-fiction writers have given us so much over the years, promoting ideas that seem to have come true, despite sometimes being ridiculed when they were written. Ahead of their time, these writers were inventive, perceptive, challengers of the status quo and magicians of the written word.

I personally have not always really enjoyed science fiction writing, but I really did enjoy the articles written here and especially loved the hints as to what I should read next. This is advice I will now be taking. As a textbook this has really taught me a great deal in an easy-to-read format that encourages further reading of the genre - and what could be better than that?

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 68. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

Saturday 3 February 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Sublimity" by Mary Gilonne

I have to say when Jonathan Taylor said a collection of poems on Norfolk was available, I jumped at the chance of reviewing it as I love all parts Norfolk and was fascinated in seeing how Mary Gilonne would interpret a place I hold dear to my heart.

Throughout the pages of Sublimity, I could smell the sea, feel the sand between my toes, taste the fish and chips, hear the gulls crying out to each other and see the multi-coloured beach huts at Wells-Next-The-Sea. All of this was brought to life through the wonderful word pictures and images Gilonne paints for us all.

The collection was so easy to read and the poems transported me back to places I have visited. Each poem afforded a glimpse and nudged forgotten memories of Cley, of Stiffkey, of the freezing North Sea, Blakeney and Mundesley. Painting pictures with words is such a skill and Gilonne has mastered this art.

The variety of different poetic forms in the collection is a joy. We are left guessing continuously as to what style Gilonne will use next to interpret her own vision of Norfolk and, as such, she challenges the reader to discover different routes to pastures new and old.

Throughout, Mary Gilonne captures the essence of what makes Norfolk different. This is a site of strange place names and mysterious habits, of arts and crafts, hobbies and employment: everything that makes an English county unique.

As regards the few places in the verse that I haven’t visited, I am now intrigued to do so. If Gilonne can conjure up the past for me in places I do know, how wonderful must be the like of Scolt Head, Bloodgate or Welney? The very names seem to tease and invite. I can’t wait and I will be taking her words with me. What could be better in a windy February, a warm coat, scarf, a thermos of coffee, cake and reading Sublimity sitting by the beach at East Runton. Bliss!

I really enjoyed these poems. They brought crystal clear reminders of times past that were special, that are special, to me. 

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 68. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

Friday 2 February 2024

Review by Cathi Rae of "Makeover" by Laurie Bolger

Laurie Bolger is an award-winning poet, performer and founder of The Creative Writing Breakfast Club. It seems that the poet Laurie Bolger and I have things in common – Irish working-class roots, an interest in writing and thinking about fashion ... and we both found and read grown-up sex books at an impressionable age.

Makeover is a collection of the domestic, the small, the lives of ordinary working-class women, the stories of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters and friends, all described with film-still precision. Her descriptive language is beautiful. She’s able to conjure up that moment, that childhood in ways that evoke a time and place even if you weren’t there and her pen portraits make me feel as if I know these women:

          Aunt Teasy    all horoscopes and nails
                      cursing and coughing
          like she emptying great bags of gravel
          straight onto the coffee table 

Bolger finds beauty in the smallest things, city flowers, the go-faster powers of a frilly swim suit, and the unspoken, when women hold onto lives, make spaces for themselves and challenge society’s expectations of what a good woman is.

This is a confection of a collection – easy to read in one delicious gulp and then return to again and again, always finding a new image, a justifiable blast of anger and defiance. It’s also the only collection I’ve ever read where Sylvanian Families get a name check.

About the reviewer
Cathi Rae is in the final year of an M4C funded creative / practice-led PhD. A new pamphlet collection, Just this side of sea-worthy, will be available from Two Pigeons Press in March 2024.

You can read more about Makeover by Laurie Bolger on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Thursday 1 February 2024

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Erkeley Shadows" by Michael W. Thomas

The novel begins at the end of one character's story, but at the start of another’s, albeit unknown to him. Will, a police officer lives in a place, Saskatoon in Canada, where familiarity acts as a blindfold to change: "Through the window he could see the last stragglers being exited from the City Library. He smiled. There was Grace Popescul holding open the door as she’d done forever. The lady had a way with her, no doubt of it. When he was twelve he’d tried bribing everyone in his grade to return his overdue books. At last Dad had driven him downtown, frog-marched him into the lobby, nodded at Grace and gone to wait in the car. He’d been left with her wrath and what felt like the whole province’s population looking on. Man, she didn’t look a day older than when she’d torn those strips off him. But of course she was older and so was he and so it would go on. Except for this Cumberland Avenue guy." Thomas’s writing creates atmosphere and hints at the turmoil within Will that draws the reader into the story.

In this novel, the guy found dead intrudes into Will’s life - firstly, by the strange calm of the death scene that conveys an undercurrent of evil. This nudges its way into Will’s mind and when he observes the evidence bag from the guy's apartment left on the front desk of the station, he takes it. Inside the bag is a folder in which Jonathan has recorded the reality of his existence. Will initially thinks reading it will pass the weekend while his wife and children are away for Halloween.  

As Will begins to read the folder he’s taken to England and Jonathan's teenage years of the 1960s. He is introduced to a boy being bullied by a gang whose leader’s name is Wiznuk, who only retreats when Jonathan’s friends, Bevvo and Gordy, are around. "Inevitably, when my departure for Canada became known, Wiznuk and his apes came after me with redoubled zeal." The words of Jonathan become embedded in Will’s thoughts and start to lead him to re-consider events of his own childhood.

Will is amazed by the number of  pages Jonathan dedicated to that last summer in England and an area of land known as the Erkeley. "The Erkeley ran all around the school, almost, but was bounded on one side by a residential lane leading up to the main road. It must have been as impressive as Cannock Chase once, all ridged and hollowed." It becomes clear that the reason for there being so many pages about the Erkeley is that, as part of Jonathan's farewell, his mates arrange a last adventure there. "On the last Tuesday of term, Gordy waxed romantic: 'Hey, let’s come back here tonight, man. Mooch round the Erkeley after hours. Souvenir for you, Jon, golden memory: hanging loose, Erkeley-wise.'" During their exploration of the Erkeley the boys meet Old Tafler who was known as the Lord of Erkeley due to his having inhabited the land for years. Old Tafler is witness to a horrific event that last Tuesday evening, one that Jonathan hopes he can escape as he leaves for a new life in Canada with parents who barely register his existence, let alone sense all is not well.

Jonathan becomes a university professor. Outwardly to colleagues and friends he’s a good person. His true self hides deep in his mind, co-ordinating ways to right his wrong. "Often I felt like two people. One went into the world and did the living for the other, who was stuck in an endless moment of knowing." Jonathan’s life spirals out of control, as he is pursued by those on the Erkeley who become his "dark chaperones." They steal his present memory and dole out punishments.

The more Will reads and re-reads, he is drawn back to events of his own childhood, when his potential to harm his brother Mark is almost realised. Will becomes engulfed in the possibility of sorting Mark out. I find Thomas’s writing requires me at times to pause and uncover the different layers, before reading on. The title of the novel became clear as I witnessed the devastation caused by Jonathan’s decline into The Erkeley Shadows

About the reviewer
Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson. She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology Tales from Garden Street (Comma Press, 2019). Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam. Twitter @SallySh24367017

You can read more about The Erkeley Shadows by Michael W. Thomas on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Review by Laura Besley of "Jokes for the Gunmen" by Mazen Maarouf

Jokes for the Gunmen is a short story collection by award-winning Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator and journalist, Mazen Maarouf. It was translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. 

All the stories in the collection explore jokes and joking as either a means of exchange or a coping mechanism for the atrocities of living in a country at war. In the eponymous opening story, the father figure must make up jokes for the gunmen in order to avoid their wrath. ‘Of course, in front of a bunch of gunmen you have to be a good storyteller in order to win your freedom. Your story has to be convincing, enjoyable and very short, and it has to make people laugh.’ As a consequence, the withdrawn father and unruly son become closer as they both focus on the task of thinking up a new joke every day. 

In the story ‘Jokes’ there is another young boy trying to make up jokes. ‘I don’t have ready-made jokes in my head and I don’t remember any details of the few jokes I’ve heard. So I’m trying to sketch out the scenario for a joke in my head.’ On the flipside, the main character in ‘The Angel of Death’ doesn’t ‘have a sense of humour … and [doesn’t] understand why people smile.’ Throughout the story, everyone around him is trying to make him smile or laugh or giggle, but he is resolute. In fact, he gets angry when a man laughs at something he said ‘since [he] hadn’t intended to make a joke.’ In the story ‘Gramophone’ the father loses both his arms when a vacuum bomb strikes the building he was in, but jokes that it doesn’t matter; the gramophone is broken, so he doesn’t need his arms anyway. 

The sense of loss, both physical and emotional, runs throughout the collection. People lose limbs, eyes, loved ones; people are ‘pale, silent and thin’ and ‘hollowed out.’ Another theme rooted within the stories is violence, both inside and outside the home, and good use is made of the liminal line drawn between fantasy and reality.

In many ways this collection is a tough read; the depictions of war-torn families are heartbreaking. However, despite the losses these characters have to bear and somehow overcome, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Jokes for the Gunmen is a phenomenal collection.  


About the reviewer
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). Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. She tweets @laurabesley

Saturday 27 January 2024

Review by Thilsana Gias of "Dust Child" by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai


Dust Child is a breathtaking novel which powerfully weaves together the stories of people affected by the Vietnam War. 

The narrative itself is non-linear and told through multiple perspectives, allowing readers to simultaneously piece together the broken lives of the characters whilst untangling the complexity of what it means to have family in a time of conflict.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai particularly focuses on the struggles on Amerasian children, the women who bore them and the soldiers that left them behind. As readers, we find ourselves constantly challenging our own perceptions of duty, loyalty and honour as characters condemn each other's acts of survival whilst seeking forgiveness for their own wrongdoings.

Something significantly striking about this novel is the way that the writer allows characters to create a comforting, domestic bubble to protect themselves, only for it be abruptly punctured time and time again by trauma: "'Don't cook anything red!' he screamed as he washed up in the bathroom. She stared at the soup, made from ripe tomatoes she'd sautéed with finely chopped shrimps. Perhaps the colour resembled blood - blood that he'd seen or blood that he'd caused to spill."

Despite exploring such abject darkness, the novel is a multi-sensory delight for those who seek comfort in tropical settings. With references to sprawling markets, fresh rambutan, and expansive rice fields, you are rewarded with the richness of Vietnamese culture without crude romanticisation or the stench of death overpowering beautiful moments in the narrative. 

Something that is also distinctly Vietnamese about the narrative is the dialogue - the author often has entire sentences in Vietnamese or transliterated English showing how characters are able to break and build bonds with each other despite cultural and linguistic barriers.

The vibrancy and colour in this novel is also drawn from the respect that the characters have for storytelling. Stories become a source of power, betrayal, comfort and healing, even if untrue. What is most compelling about Dust Child, however, is the way that stories give a voice to the displaced, discriminated against and deployed. Clearly, the author's personal experiences with uniting American veterans and their children in Vietnam is what gives the novel a distinctly human touch.

About the reviewer
Thilsana Gias is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester and a secondary school English Teacher based in Luton. She doesn't have much time for reading these days but is making a conscious effort to read something other than Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde and An Inspector Calls.

Monday 22 January 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Undisclosed" by Ruth O'Callaghan

This is a beautifully written series of poems, broken up into four parts. Each section invites the reader into a world of love, loss, the past and a search for freedom. We meet a variety of characters, ideas, images and reflections on life. There are myriad displays of different formats, each teasing us into O’Callaghan’s world - a world full of colour and provocations.

O'Callaghan's poetry seeks answers to questions that are at times unanswerable in a real sense, a rhetorical device that plays with the readers' emotions, taunting them to find a path to the world that O’Callaghan describes. Is it real or a fantasy? You have to decide for yourself. You are given all the tools you need in the form of delightfully constructed lines of verse: it is up to you, the reader, to decipher them and make of them what you will.

The poet is not trying to trick us, far from it. But she does challenge us. She challenges us to read between her lines and make a truth out of her words. This is a delightful process for the reader as we enter worlds full of colour and imagination, images that shock and suggest that her world, our world is not as straightforward as it seems.

Read this with an open mind and an open heart. The poems are alluring and engaging, encouraging us to read on and on until alas, we come to the end of the book. The only good thing about finishing it is that we can re-read and find something new in the poems as we confront them again. This is what makes the collection so accessible, so inspirational, we are always seeing something new, something different in each and every poem.

The poems are wonderful as every reading gives a new interpretation, a new way inside the poet's mind, into the poet's world and isn’t that everything that being a poet is?

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 68. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

Sunday 21 January 2024

Review by Laura Besley of "Chasing the Dragon" by Kathy Hoyle

Kathy Hoyle’s debut novella-in-flash, Chasing the Dragon, is an ambitious and compelling example of the form. The novella-in-flash is an emergent new genre operating largely outside mainstream publishing. It combines the concision of flash fiction standalone stories with the space in which to develop a novella-length narrative. In order to make the stories self-contained and unique, Hoyle has made good use of flash fiction techniques, such as stories written in the form of lists, letters and reports. This creates the variety and change of pace for the reader often found in novellas-in-flash while simultaneously ensuring each story adds to the overall arc.    

Despite its brevity – Hoyle’s novella-in-flash is sixty-five pages in total – Chasing the Dragon spans across generations, continents and cultures. It is told through multiple points of view and the main thread of the story is of Americans in wartime Vietnam, the difficulties they experience there and subsequently back home after their return to the United States. There is a single story written from the point of view of Bihn, a young Vietnamese boy. To create a deeper and richer understanding of these characters and their worlds, there are also stories set in an earlier time where we learn of the characters’ childhoods and childhood traumas.   

Hoyle is extremely adept at voice. The first story, which relays a Vietnamese proverb, opens with the sentence, ‘In Vietnamese legend, Lac Long Quan, the most noble king of all dragon-kind, lived near the water of the Dong Sea,’ and continues to be told in long lyrical sentences. The following story, from the perspective of Thomas Jefferson Scott or ‘[j]ust plain old JT,’ consists of much shorter sentences and a strong dialect: ‘Jacob don’t talk of it none. He don’t like guns none either. He says he’s a pacifist. That he don’t like hurtin no one nor nothin.’ The report and letter stories are both written in a more formal register befitting their forms and the list makes excellent use of repetition; each line starts with ‘He will’ or You will’ and a singular, heartbreaking, ‘They will.’ 

Through its seventeen stories – bookended with the Vietnamese proverb: Children of Dragons, Grandchildren of GodsChasing the Dragon sheds light on a largely overlooked consequence of war, as summed up by Willy telling his mama in the eponymous story: ‘Ain’t nobody won nothing.’ Kathy Hoyle’s novella-in-flash evokes a kaleidoscope of emotions, ranging from horror and outrage to compassion and awe. Each individual story is a fantastic rendering of flash fiction, but it is in its entirety that Chasing the Dragon really demonstrates Hoyle's range and ability for both the form as well as the depiction of characters and the worlds they inhabit. This is a truly stunning debut.  

About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea.

You can read more about Chasing the Dragon by Kathy Hoyle on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Review by Gary Day of "Balloons and Stripey Trousers" by Rennie Parker


Anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment would do well to keep a copy of Balloons and Stripey Trousers in their desk draw. It could very well save their sanity. Despite being an almost autobiographical cri de couer, this volume proclaims, to all who feel their souls withering in the arid air of office culture, ‘you are not alone.’

The theme of quiet desperation is apparent from the outset with the speaker proclaiming, in ‘a warning to the curious,’ that she ‘is growing smaller and smaller as your version of me grows larger.’ Another trait that is apparent in the opening poem is the frequent nod to other writers, in this case Wordsworth and Lawrence, both of whom were appalled, in their different ways, by the plight of the self in industrial society. Judging from these poems, its condition has only got worse. At work people are expected to submit to ‘the tickbox of their little existence’ and at home they break down with terrible consequences as hinted at in ‘brand new management despair expression.’  

Parker knows that art is not going to save us but it has its little victories. Several poems show supervisors and interview panels patronising, belittling and disparaging the speaker. Her gender and class are both factors in this treatment though neither are foregrounded. The tables are turned in the poem ‘the international collective of artists say no’ where retiring managers are told, with barely suppressed glee, that they do not meet the criteria to take up painting or poetry and that ‘their rejection’ along with their ‘P45 is in the post.’

The various literary and pictorial allusions give the poems a pleasing depth and resonance. The writing itself is witty, vivid and bright. A pleasure to read.   

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.

You can read more about Balloons and Stripey Trousers by Rennie Parker on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday 19 January 2024

Review by Mike Gregory of "Our Friends in Berlin" and "London, Burning" by Anthony Quinn

Our Friends in Berlin (2018) is an intriguing, pacy, at times beautifully written espionage novel set amongst spies, fifth columnists, fellow travellers and innocent (or not-so-innocent) bystanders in London during World War 2. It covers, therefore, similar territory in many ways to Agatha Christie’s N or M? (1941) and Kate Atkinson's Transcription which, weirdly, came out the same year as Our Friends in Berlin. It's not quite as accomplished, clever or surprising as Atkinson's beguiling, bewitching spy saga, nor is it as delightfully daft as the Christie, but it’s very good.    

The descriptions of war-torn London borrow some of the weariness of early T. S. Eliot but as if crumpled into a plot by Eric Ambler. The frequent switches in third-person point of view keep things fresh. You find yourself, strangely, quite liking the undercover Gestapo agent, Hoste.  Plot reveals, when they come, are not always as surprising as Quinn perhaps intended, but they satisfy nonetheless. It's only in the last quarter where the writer sacrifices subtlety and wit to the dubious demands of action.  


London, Burning (2021) was even better, I thought. Set in the late 1970s, Quinn’s urban thriller trails the lives of a journalist, a theatre impresario, an academic and a young DC as they navigate a London crumbling under public service strikes, IRA bombing campaigns, the emergence of punk rock and police corruption. The young academic at one point is giving a tutorial on the role of coincidence in the fiction of Henry James; it's a clear signal of how Quinn wants the reader to treat the tragi-comic, often violent intersections of these disparate lives.  

As the story unfolds, we move from 1977 to the eve of Thatcher's 1979 election victory. Unlike other writers anchoring their stories to specific moments in socio-cultural history, Quinn never seems to put a foot wrong. (He certainly knows his Mott the Hoople, Clash, Kate Bush and disco). He even nails the precise smell of 1970s telephone boxes.  

About the reviewer
Mike Gregory is a 59 year-old who never quite recovered from a teenage addiction to the novels of Graham Greene. He spent a quarter of a century teaching English but has also been, at various times, a support worker, petrol station attendant, cinema projectionist, librarian, barkeep, civil servant and private tutor. Any job, basically, in which one might surreptitiously read.   

Thursday 18 January 2024

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Love Leans over the Table" by Rosie Jackson

True to its title, this collection of poems is about love. But not the Hallmark card kind, this is the love of mothers separated from their children, the pain of loss, the anguish of an anchorite: "Love is not the right word. Love is too cushiony / for a woman who sleeps on stone, kneels on stone, / prays with the steadfastness of granite." But there is tenderness, transcendence, "let’s call it light."

Rosie Jackson is kind to her young self, reading Nietzsche, "striding over black oak sleepers thinking of trains that carried kids from our pit village." "Be good sweet maid and let who will be clever," her father "urged" her in his copperplate writing. The same words, written by Charles Kingsley for his daughter, were inscribed in my own autograph book by a primary school teacher. They were very different times, and self-reflection is a theme which runs deep through this collection, the shot-gun wedding where her father "sobbed like a widow," a woman who "looked / like Jean Shrimpton." "In another generation, we’d be together." She has compassion for herself; despite everything, "It astonishes you so much of your life has worked."

In "The Night I Grew Old," she recalls how she knew, somehow, "a new life had arrived inside me, / its invisible heft so huge…" "By the time / dawn bleached that shabby room, the child I was / had already started to turn into that woman on the wall – The Lady of Shalott – her pre-Raphaelite hair trailing / into a boat which would carry her downstream, / her luscious mouth a terror of uprootedness."

The ekphrastic nature of many of these poems offers new perspectives on personal experience. In "Don’t Think these Doors will ever close, after Maternity by Dorothea Tanning" she writes "Loss of sleep has slipped you onto sand," but "You’re shocked by your heart / and its unspeakable love, love that stretches a heart beyond its limits." And then there is the visceral rawness of separation, the unanswerable question, "if / it would have been better not to give him life / so scratched and badly started. Better to have / sent him back before his cells rooted too deeply, / back to that pre-formed unsuffering place of stars."

Acutely sensitive to other stories of loss, in "Blue" Rosie Jackson describes her shock of recognition when she learns that "Little Green" is about Joni Mitchell’s child given up for adoption, "Now my loss sits in the next chair." She writes of Frigga, the Norse goddess mourning Balder, "what mother would not grieve for her lost child?" And she writes of mothers who lost daughters who became anchorites, dead to the world.

Her empathy reaches across time. She understands the ravages fourteen births must have taken on Margery Kempe’s mind and body, "And if she sobs before / Julian of Norwich it’s because she feels herself believed." She writes of violence - historical, "Is not the Bible full of women’s bruises?" - and contemporary, Nasrin Sotoudeh flogged for "A Piece of Cloth," "the Quran wedged beneath his armpit." 

There are poems of darkness, enclosure, "One Little Room, An Every Where," and the longing for light, for colour. Rosie Jackson writes of a physical and emotional response to the power of art, "The Hunger of Colour," where "paint spills beyond the frame / in sheer exuberance / so I want my life / to eat my death / like Harmony in Red by Matisse."   

She charts life changes through paintings; of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights she writes "I lived here once," "And here’s my mother, half horse, half hollow / egg," "But now I go in search of El Greco’s lengthened bodies straining - / like Christ in that other garden – between this world and the next." Her poems are peopled with poets, artists, spiritual leaders, anchorites, Muslim saints and Sufi mystics. Their voices are heard in blank verse, couplets and tercets, the fragmented expression of trauma and the solid block of "Imaginary Prisons." There is metamorphosis and the metaphysical, medieval texts and "unfathomable language."  

Many poems occupy liminal space, like St Bede, "half here half not, caught / in this blue land between dust and light." There is "The pleasure and power of speaking other" of "Trying to write beyond words." And there is "The shock of mortality [which] changes things." "So now, this first spring without you, the earth struck by war again, / I’m learning to hear the beauty of stitchwort, / kindness, birdsong." 

Rosie Jackson writes of a beloved tutor and friend, cruelly lost to a stroke, "She described this world as a palimpsest, layer upon layer / of meaning waiting to be peeled away." The same can  be said of this wonderful collection of poems.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell has an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University and lectured in Creative writing there. Now retired from teaching and facilitating workshops, her work has been published in a range of English and Welsh print anthologies, and online, including in several editions of Agenda, Ekphrastic Review, Whirlagust, Bloody Amazing, The Dawntreader and Prole. In summer 2023 she won the Archaeology Festival Haiku competition – they were the most lucrative 17 syllables of her writing career!

Sunday 14 January 2024

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "These Envoys of Beauty" by Anna Vaught

These Envoys of Beauty is a stunning memoir in which Anna Vaught’s prose sparkles with detailed observations of the natural world, contrasting sharply with a deep-rooted emotional response to childhood trauma. "When I was very young, and would run out or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world."

Structured as twelve separate essays, this memoir is journey of learning and discovery for both the writer and the reader. Vaught shares her vast knowledge of the natural world throughout, and by structuring the work in this way, the memoir becomes all the more manageable for the reader, especially when we must also traverse the deep, emotional revelations in each section. In the pause between each essay, we are able to breathe, process and decompress before beginning again, entering into the next deeply absorbing experience. And have no doubt, each essay is a completely immersive experience, exhilarating yet emotionally arduous in equal measure, a vivid sensory delight, juxtaposed with the trauma discussed. Vaught protects her reader wisely: much is implied throughout,  and though Vaught writes with vital honesty, she is never brutal. 

In her opening essay, Vaught declares, "My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence," and each essay delves further into a child’s journey through a world of shadows and unspoken truths, a world of fear and shame, where a girl is made to feel as though she is nothing but a "sufferance."  But this is also the story of a child who is curious, and despite her harsh reality, she finds beauty in the natural world around her, in the landscapes and seascapes, in dens and hollows, caves and cliffsides, in the trees and flowers, the roaring weirs and crashing waves. The child deftly slips between reality and imagination, between nature and dreams. 

This memoir embraces the wildness of nature and its cyclical patterns, and the writer truly finds comfort in the both the darkness and the light that nature provides: "One of my favourite things to this day is the nimbostratus, whose effect you feel and see: imagine the sun on your skin and light illuminating the sand. Then darkness and everything changes colour. This sudden shift is a moment of ecstasy for me in its drama. I also like sudden, powerful belts of rain, never more so than when I am by the sea. Standing in the water while being pelted – assuming you are not too cold – brings me to myself."

Despite the terrible echoes of Vaught’s past running through this memoir, there is also hope and a certain defiance in the writing which I found hugely admirable: "Epilobium angustifolium. My maternal grandmother called it fireweed, and my father said you could not kill it – which was exactly what I liked about it. It thrived."

In this examination of her "self" and her childhood memories, Vaught brings great comfort and hope to others with her resilience. I cried often when reading the essays, but I smiled too, at the beauty of them, at the hope within them. I wanted to champion the curious little girl Vaught once was, stroke her hair and lay in a meadow with her as the clouds scud above us and tell her that, one day, she will be okay. But I sense that Vaught is already one step ahead of me. In writing these essays, Vaught has reclaimed both her "self" and her power, and with her ongoing connection to the natural world, she has fashioned a protective shield. I love how Vaught has defiantly built new associations with natural world, casting off many of her childhood fears and associations, as she moves through adulthood, creating newer, safer memories: "But here was determination, and I wonder if it is strongest in those who are repeatedly told they should not survive or deserve to, who are told it would have been better if they had not been born."

I found These Envoys of Beauty such a beautiful and deeply moving memoir. It is one which will stay with me for a very long time. 

About the reviewer
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 Forge. She 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. 

You can read more about These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Saturday 13 January 2024

Review by Richard Byrt of "The Truth at the End of the Night" by Malka Al-Haddad


The poems in Malka Al-Haddad’s collection, The Truth at the End of the Night, are powerful and very moving, as noted by Emma Lee in her Foreword, and by three reviewers at the start of the book. A strength of the collection is the inclusion of short and long poems. The shorter poems often include moving ideas and images, described with admirable brevity and economy of words. There are poems about the wars and atrocities in Iraq, as well as  love, home and hope. Some of the poems (for example, "American Propaganda" and "Love and War") include interesting juxtapositions of opposing ideas.

Black and white illustrations by George Sfourgas complement the poems movingly and effectively to portray the "pain, struggle, bravery and sorrow," which Malka so vividly describes. There are striking images throughout the collection. For example:

          I was told in secrecy that the land I loved
          does not want me to grow wheat or fruit here,
          I only grow cacti.

Vivid, surreal images are used to describe disturbing experiences: 

          Put my head in the chimney
          To speed up the burning of waiting and scattered memories,
          Put the spoons in the fridge.
          Put shoes to sleep on the pillow.

Some of the poems are redolent with memories of home – contrasted with the starkness of war:

          Remember if Tony Blair had not stormed my country
          With his war chariot
          I would now be drinking cardamon tea
          With my brothers and the children of my neighbourhood.
          If he had not occupied my country
          I would have fallen asleep
          On my mother’s pillow smelling of incense.

Malka’s "Introduction: Author’s Journey" provides an additional vivid account of her experience of war in Iraq over several decades, and its devastating effects on herself and her family.  Malka describes how "discovering poetry was life-changing" and how she "confronted [her] ... pain by working as an advocate in human rights issues in order to raise the voice of the oppressed, and that of [her] ... family." Malka also refers to ten years of rejected applications for asylum in the UK, and being moved by "the Home Office … from place to place":

After ten years of Home Office challenges,
still their hands are spiders mapping
bullets in the walls of my sanctuary.

Another poem describes the unpleasant experiences of being detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre ("Yarl’s Wood"). This poem is a contrast to the images of hope in "Psychiatrist’s Prescription":

          At sunset
          I go to the sea to complain about my bad luck.
          Feed the birds.
          Write poetry.
          Butterflies invite me to dance with them.
          The doctor said: All this is beautiful
          You do not need medicines …
          Keep singing with birds.
          This gives you eternal happiness.
          And you feel completely free.

Elsewhere, there are expressions of hope. I really like the lovely lines: "Exile is the place / Where the light releases your voice" and:

          My heart is a dark room
          And as I fell in love with you
          The wind opened all the windows and the sun entered me.

Malka’s collection ends with the lines: “and there the bird without sky was able to nest / And the bird rose soaring through the sky." As Pam Thompson writes at the start of the collection: "Love will always be home and family for Al-Haddad, yet in their absences, marriage and love of nature and the solace of specific memories, their images shining brightly within the poems: schoolbooks, birds, a grandmother’s song, a wooden table.” 

Some of Malka Al-Haddad’s verse is majestic and reminds me of the language of the 1611 King James Bible. I particularly like the stately cadences of:

          A campaigner against the madness of the military
          A speaker to liberate the inhabitants of other villages
          From the intensity of the horror of the moment
          He and his soldiers froze in their place like statues
          From that day on, he and his generals became statues.

A few lines later, Malka writes: "That’s why all birds now poop on the heads of statues" – a great and unexpected contrast to the lines above!  

In conclusion, I strongly recommend The Truth at the End of the Night. The collection includes moving, powerful and vivid descriptions and images of the pains of war, exile, and an appallingly difficult and long process of seeking asylum, as well as of hope, love and family.  All proceeds from purchases of the collection are "donated to City of Sanctuary UK." 

Congratulations to Malka Al-Haddad, to George Sfourgaras for illustrations which complement the poems so well, and to Camilla Reeve and Palewell Press for publishing the collection and making Malka’s work available to a wider audience.      

About the reviewer
Since retirement from his "day job," Richard Byrt has tried to develop his writing of poems. He facilitates Creative Writing at SoundCafe, Leicester: a charity for people with many diverse backgrounds and talents, who have experienced homelessness. 

Friday 12 January 2024

Review by Teika Marija Smits of "The Alchemy: A Guide to Gentle Productivity for Writers" by Anna Vaught

In the ‘Welcome’ to The Alchemy, Vaught writes that: “This is a book for everyone, but with a particular eye on those who are tired and lacking in confidence; those who are disabled, chronically ill or perhaps care for a loved one who would struggle without them.” And that, in a nutshell, summarises the two major hurdles to the creative process of writing: a lack of self-confidence and enough time / energy. 

Vaught, in all honesty, explains that “I had been raised to think poorly of myself” which led to a delay in getting going with her writing. But once she did get going, the words came thick and fast. 

Refreshingly honest, Vaught, in her own unique voice – which is full of love, encouragement and some sweariness – shares her own struggles with the reader, and offers tips and suggestions for gentle productivity – an idea that I really like. For although my own two hurdles to writing are relatively small compared with the hurdles of some other writers, time is not an infinite resource for anyone. Neither is an unfailingly “zen” and positive attitude to the publishing industry, which (as Vaught says) can sometimes feel like a brutal place. By placing an emphasis on gentle productivity, Vaught reminds us that thinking is also writing; that living in and observing the world from wherever you are is also writing; and that penning any number of words is an achievement. She is also keen for writers to use any kind of small creature comfort – be it a hot chocolate, snuggly blanket or set of fancy pens – to encourage us to make progress with our writing goals. (Another idea I like very much!)

I read this book relatively quickly since the chapters are short and Vaught’s breezy, chatty style of writing is thoroughly engaging, and I found it to be an inspiring and comforting read. I am sure that many writers will find it an invaluable resource.

About the reviewer
Teika Marija Smits is a Midlands-based freelance editor and the author of the short story collections Umbilical (NewCon Press) and Waterlore (Black Shuck Books), as well as the poetry pamphlet, Russian Doll (Indigo Dreams Publishing). A fan of all things fae, she is delighted by the fact that Teika means fairy tale in Latvian.

You can read more about The Alchemy by Anna Vaught on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Review by Rennie Parker of "Eleanor Among the Saints" by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann writes the kind of poetry which says: 'don't be lazy, think about this and check up the references you don't understand.' At the same time, she pitches us headlong into all the big questions about identity as she examines and acknowledges the pain and terror of being between lives. 

The Eleanor of her title is Eleanor Rykener, a transwoman from the Middle Ages who (in Mann's expert rendition) becomes a vehicle for other lives and women-divines, rather like an alternative Magdalene. However, the focus is on the journey and the difficulty, at times luridly so, like a vision from Hieronymous Bosch. If you like your poetry strong and without sweeteners, this book is for you.

Her lines are densely-written, often omitting 'a' and 'the' to give each phrase more otherness; and there is a deliberate sound and formatting which recalls Anglo-Saxon riddle poetry. Echoes of Hopkins are also evident, particularly in the piled-up race to embody experience; I can hear a hybrid Geoffrey Hill / T.S. Eliot at times, but that's no bad thing and probably my fault as a reviewer, reading through other poet-Anglican texts.

What's most impressive is the passion behind the lines. Mann is a poet of conviction (rather than the traditional 'faith and doubt') meaning that her world becomes our world as we swim further into the state of all those Eleanors. Her excursions into the present day are no less forceful, even alarmingly so; 'Eleanor as a sixteen year old murdered trans girl' appears to reference the recent case of Brianna Ghey, yet the typical book production schedule would surely place its composition before the case appeared in the media.

I heartily recommend this rich collection to anyone, not only for its fabulous wrangling of character, medieval history and lived experience, but as a reminder of how we too should step up to the plate with the same courage as the poet. The self as transformed into female is nearly always a metaphor for suffering, but the end result is also victory, like the resurrection of Christ. It's okay, Rachel / Eleanor, I want to say. We believe you. 

About the reviewer
Rennie Parker is a poet living in the East Midlands, published by Shoestring Press. She studied for a PhD at Birmingham University and currently works in FE. Blogs at; also on Twitter @rennieparker. You can read about her latest collection, Balloons and Stripey Trousers, on Creative Writing at Leicester here