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 As a consequence, the withdrawn father and unruly son become closer as they both focus on the task of thinking up a new joke every day.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 rennieparker.wordpress.com; also on Twitter @rennieparker. You can read about her latest collection, Balloons and Stripey Trousers, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Tuesday 9 January 2024

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Encounters with Everyday Madness" by Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill’s fascinating collection is a tidy reminder that we are all on the mental health spectrum. Every day one sees madness or experiences it in one form or another, as we go about in the world − I know I do!

Opening these splendid off-kilter stories is ‘A walk by the river’ that’s written in the second-person perspective, which grabs the reader’s attention straight away. Hill magnifies a family outing with a nod to the film Deliverance. I have to confess that the frenetic ‘Duelling Banjos’ twanged in my head when I perused this passage: ‘The fish wriggles in the father’s hand and, holding it by its tail, he smashes its head against a stone and tosses its unwanted body into the water. The boy laughs. It is not a pleasant laugh.’ What should be a halcyon walk turns into a brooding ordeal for our detached protagonist and kicks Hill’s collection off, majestically.

In Hill’s captivating ‘Stuff,’ existential angst and anxiety disorder are tackled with humour and aplomb. The nullifying grind of the everyday is deftly realised in elegant style. Hill’s Kafkaesque protagonist gets a dose of inner-city blues over seven days. I loved the hilarious interior monologue conducted whilst he’s walking to the shops on Monday, concerning the fascist household on his route: ‘I think there must be all manner of social-anthropological connections between garden centres and fascism.’ Moreover, Hill’s authentic portrayal of anxiety disorder is spot-on, too. It is well defined and captures someone in mental freefall, exquisitely. In this respect, Hill’s text reminded me of an Akira Kurosawa’s quote: 'In a mad world, only the mad are sane.'

There are no weak narratives within Hill’s collection. Whether flash fiction or short story, all hold the reader throughout. I found this collection, with its superb West Midland detailing, very compelling. ‘The man in the churchyard’ exemplifies this: ‘Through Highgate and into Balsall Heath there is an Islamic Centre and the Moseley Road baths – Men First and Second Class; Listed, with Victoria in its bricks – and a carpet warehouse and shuttered curry houses and then fruit and veg shops with shopkeepers arranging plastic bowls of fruit out front like a market, oranges and tomatoes and mooli and chard. Then there is Zaffs.’  

Hill’s urban sensibility inhabits every inch of Encounters with Everyday Madness and this is truly standout writing, which deserves an audience. Highly recommended.

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack (PhD) studied Creative Writing at Leicester University. He writes from the gut − from the underground − about the underdog. His collection of short stories The Mad Road was published in September 2023. He is now an actor-simulator, writer and community advocate.

You can read more about Encounters with Everyday Madness by Charlie Hill on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 8 January 2024

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Autodrive" by Jordan Crandall


Jordan Crandall’s speculative fiction, Autodrive, is a thought-provoking and highly-experimental read that imagines a world in which a new form of super-intelligence has become so embedded in our lives it has taken centre stage and relegated humans to a peripheral role. This is not entirely new ground for the genre, of course, with evident nods being made to the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, whereby the human-machine interface has become so stifling and so much a part of everyday reality, it has transformed the very meaning of ‘collective consciousness.’ 

Structurally speaking, the novel is composed of a series of discrete, partially-connected chapters with each one focusing on a different character or scenario, onto which the author etches a fleeting scene or moment - often done with great humour and pathos - before moving onto the next vignette. This was initially disorienting, particularly as Crandall commits to a second experiment with language itself – creating a hybrid of human and machine expression. So jarring is the effect, it felt almost as if parts of the novel had been created by AI and then fashioned by the author to create a consistent voice across the whole piece. Stylistically, I was reminded of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose seminal work, Jealousy, is akin to a Cubist painting, with a single day repeated over and over from different angles. It is a testament to Crandall’s compositional skills (himself a renowned artist and media theorist) that he manages to evoke similar feelings to those I felt when encountering Robbe-Grillet for the first time all those years ago.

Autodrive is a short, intricate novel, and is for anyone who enjoys the challenge of drawing together the disparate parts an abstract, literary experiment - especially one that is centred on the highly topical theme of human over-reliance on AI and technology. Crandall’s true skill here is in employing art to help us make sense of this brave new world of technocracy, even if we are unable to navigate it without the consent of those machines we once created to serve us. 

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.

You can read more about Autodrive by Jordan Crandall on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Sunday 7 January 2024

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Desire Lines" by Jess Mookherjee


In Desire Lines Jess Mookherjee leads you through city streets like Dickens on speed - the taxi driver warns ‘don’t you get smart green girl – like the hicks from the sticks / who in no time think London’s not so clever-clever.’ 

But this is more Angela Carter-esque – ‘Green Girl’ goes ‘Pitter- / patter down the Holloway in ruby slippers.’ She is told, ‘I’ll turn you / hoofer, prancer, get in with the chancers.’ She is ‘urchin, doxy. Cut purse, foot pad, felon, they’ll never / catch you alive on the run.’ She is street smart, always on her guard; a kerb crawler backs off when she ‘grins him down with the knife in her / smile,’ ‘She sees the nasty man off in the dark roads.’ 

Green girl is a shapeshifter, she is all and none of the characters who inhabit streets, ‘blind alleys and dead ends,’ ‘tributaries and deltas … tube lines and tunnels,’ the place where ‘canal joins slum/and cemetery.’ She is a nature spirit, ‘all the wells spring as she / runs step by step, Clerkenwell, Baggnigge Well … Sadlers Wells.’  She knows the ‘Green of London’s secret paths,’ calls ‘come with me to the forest.’ The city is a living being – like the London of Peter Ackroyd’s Biography, it is a palimpsest: ‘Stories bubble up from the old river, fleet foot, dam the river, curse the/ground.’  

The prose poetry in this collection is pitch-perfect, an exuberant chatter of language, as the poet herself explains, ‘notably Romani, Polari, Cant, Rhyming Slang, back slang, Victorian ‘Gobbledygook’ and other ‘anti-languages.’ Quotations and allusions to literature, poetry, fairy tales and nursery rhymes bump up against each other.     

Like the Booth maps of London, places and postcodes are defined by poverty and affluence; ‘on the eighteenth floor, SE18, Tanya’s got two kids, / at seventeen’ … ‘She knows who killed that black kid / in Eltham.’ In the Yuppie society of the eighties. debts to ‘gangster landlords’ grow, while home-owners are ‘Mortgaged up in the long game’ … ‘She moves her lips from Upton Park to six pound pints in Hackney Wick.’ This is a city of cappuccino, pasta, Young British Artists, ‘Imax, BFI, the embankment, and OXO tower, the Barbican and Lumier … and good restaurants.’

But it is also a city of ‘Benylin and acid,’ ‘Brit-pops and cider,’ rough pubs and drug deals on back streets. These are the modern precariat under a Hogarthian ‘gin-green sky.’ ‘People are Skint, even though they tell things can only get better.’ There are ‘Bombings, racists, anti gays, anti black.’ There are lost and unwanted babies, abandoned mothers, the shadow of Coram Fields: ‘He gets her a foetus, look after it for me, he says, and disappears.’ 

Personal incidents time check the narrative – a mugging in New Cross on the ‘day of the Twin Towers,’ a kiss ‘by the traffic lights on Fore Street’ … ‘The moon’s big / the night of Lady Di’s crash.’    

And there is the enigmatic ‘blue boy,’ ‘A lover she doesn’t think / he’s who he says he is,’ her own role ambivalent, ‘I’m not your absinthe mother, I’m not your absent mother.’  There is domesticity and aspiration. ‘She can’t afford a sofa in Habitat,’ but ‘He cooks her Sunday dinner after Sunday dinner. See what we’ve become / he says puts a computer on the landing, play house on / the fire escape.’  

In this new age of technology she finds ‘Family in India she never knew living on the inter- / net, her baba says, They’re strangers to you. you’re made of composite / mass movement and abrasion. Looks in the mirror to see/who she’s become.’

Recurrent themes run through the poems: metamorphosis, development, finding identity, finding where you belong, movement, restlessness, change: ‘you’ll never call this home you’ll be the never-be-loved.’… ‘She wants / to cross the river and go, he won’t go…’ She ‘packs the cat into flatpack,’ it is Time to Grow up tall as Canary Wharf.’

‘The city becomes one of ‘mixers, fixers and demol / ition, compulsory purchase orders.’ ‘The filchmen / knock Angel cottage down, oldest house in the East end, survived / the Blitz, it won’t win a medal in the next Olympics.’  She is wounded, like the city, ‘hobbled, ankles and hip broke, crushed under wrecking and knock / down’ and knows she must leave, ‘let the children / she never had go, where she wrote their names on London / roads.

‘The story is bigger / than her and flows despite her’ and she takes her London self ‘into the garden, to the orchards, to the deep deep green where she can never be / seen, never be sussed, hidden away by the plains of her sights, with / a cat on her back, cut purse, felon, Moll.’

The poems in this collection are a story of a personal journey, of love and loss, of London, innocence, relationships, identity, children who never were. I read it in one sitting, enthralled and enchanted by the quest through the labyrinth.

For me there are so many moments of recognition and authenticity. I grew up in London of 1960s and 1970s and I have ancestors who were Covent Garden costermongers, street traders, and a Pearly King and Queen. Like the Black Cab drivers being usurped by uber, Jess Mookherjee has the knowledge and the language. 

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  Agenda, Ekphrastic Review, Whirlagust, Bloody Amazing, The Dawntreader and Prole. In summer 2023 she won the Archaeology Festival Haiku competition which made them the most lucrative 17 syllables of her writing career!

Thursday 4 January 2024

Favourite Reads of 2023

At the end of every year, we ask readers to submit a micro-review of a favourite book they've read in the last twelve months. The book can be from any time or genre - the only qualification is that it has to be a book the reader found particularly memorable, striking or enjoyable. Here are the responses for 2023. Everybody's Reviewing wishes all its readers a happy new year of reading in 2024!

Kirsten Arcadio

The Running Grave, by Robert Galbraith: Not normally a fan of long, overly wordy novels, I've made an exception this year for Robert Galbraith's The Running Grave. This was a highly enjoyable, complex thriller with terrifying yet believable cult leaders and a damming insight into the psychological inner workings of its followers. If you think you'll never get sucked into a cult, think again. 

Joe Bedford

Local Fires, by Joshua Jones: In this collection of interconnected short stories, Jones’s treatment of his hometown (Llanelli, Wales) is by turns sensitive, evocative and ultimately mournful for a place, and a moment, which is fragile enough to vanish forever. In that sense, its resonance carries far beyond the borders of Llanelli, into those quiet parts of ourselves which know that what once was – our people and our places – can never be again.  

Kathleen Bell

Favourite non-fiction book: Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, by Daisy Hay: I delved delightedly into Dinner with Joseph Johnson, which is centred on the remarkable career of one eighteenth-century bookseller and publisher (the two roles overlapped). Every few pages I would learn something new whether about the evolution of children’s literature, the risks of printing or selling radical pamphlets, or the tricky class status of booksellers. Many famous people knew and were published by Joseph Johnson; he employed Mary Wollstonecroft as a full-time writer while William Blake was one of his engravers. But there are numerous other characters outlined in this history who deserve to be just as well known.

Favourite fiction: Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks, was first published in 1953 but I only came across it this year. It’s the shortest novel I read this year and many of the chapters are only one or two pages long but I spun out the reading for weeks, often relishing a single chapter at a time. As might be expected, Gwendolyn Brooks has a poet’s skill with language as well as a sharp observation, here turned towards the details of African-American life. Maud Martha - perhaps drawing on Brooks’s own experience - is full of dreams, hopes and ambition even as she contends with grating humiliations from people who see her only in terms of her social class and darker skin colour. I started reading this hoping to gain insights into Brooks’s poetry, which it certainly provided, but this is a great and perceptive novel in its own right.

Laurie Cusack

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu: Cosmic Rentokil: Complete Experts in Galactic Pest Control – Distance, not a problem! Competitive … oh, yes! Gallows humour aside − Cixin Liu’s mighty doorstoppers The Three-Body Trilogy blew me away! Frenzied page turning. Unputdownable. I could hear my head squeaking. Scared? we should be ...

Sam Dawson

11.22.63, by Stephen King: Somewhere, out in the netherworld of possibility, a story exists about a time-traveller stopping the assassination of JFK on the 22nd of November 1963. Thankfully, 11.22.63 by Stephen King is a whole lot more. 11.22.63 is a time capsule, a love story, an ode to the uncanny. At over 700 pages, it somehow never outstays its welcome. Brilliant! 

Kristy Diaz

Penance, by Eliza Clark: Examining both the morally ambiguous explosion of society's fascination with true crime and the esoteric world of 2010s Tumblr culture, this ambitious novel brings you to a northern seaside town with a dark history and a horrifying murder case—a thrilling glimpse inside the mind of the 'extremely online' teenage girl. 

Rosa Fernandez

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl's Bookby Naja Marie Aidt (translated by Denise Newman): This is a moving, poetic, tragic, beautiful text; an incredible document of the absolutely unthinkable. A masterclass in writing about grief, one you stay up to finish, it's that good. The resilience to make art out of awfulness is a real feat and this is a great demonstration of that.

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke

You Let Me In, by Camilla Bruce, reads like a horrific fairytale. It entwines folklore with reality, slipping between the two to create a surreal world where dark sexual awakenings, abuse, and murder flit between the real and unreal. Sinister, cruel, and totally enthralling, it encapsulates the complexity of trauma, and how the escapism we construct for ourselves can be equally as horrifying as what it is we’re trying to forget.

Neil Fulwood

Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, by Roger Lewis: Assiduous, acerbic, scabrous, highbrow, lowbrow and all the brows in between, Erotic Vagrancy swings from passages of blazingly passionate declamation to grumpy-old-man irascibility. It’s a work that simultaneously wants to hymn a certain period in pop culture and start a fight with the modern age. Unlike any other biography or film-related title out there, it is easily the book of the year.

Beth Gaylard

The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes: Set between two world wars in the Appalachian Mountains, this is the story of how a dedication to enabling readers in remote areas leads to near disaster for Margery and Alice, two women who definitely don't fit the expected feminine mould. Together with other local misfits they form an intrepid band of librarians, travelling into the hills to deliver books to outlying homesteads, a mission that is not always well received at home. The story entwines two heartrending love stories, a childbirth scene that will have you on the edge of your seat, and a murder mystery to solve. Oh yes, and lots of horses. The horses are amazing. 

Timothy Grayson

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf: A Faustian novella from 1842. To prevent her village from starving, a woman makes a pact with a mysterious stranger for his assistance (in exchange for something priceless), but when the village goes back on their word, something terrible awaits them all. My goodness, this was dark. Horrifying, but excellent.

And also ...

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, by Victoria Mackenzie: A magnificent book. It brings fresh eyes and vitality to the lives of two real, medieval women of faith: Margery Kempe, and the anchoress Julian of Norwich. It is a work of fiction, but takes its inspiration from The Book of Margery Kempe (the first autobiography written in English by a man or woman) and Julian's Revelations of Divine Love (the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman). Interestingly, these women did meet in real life, and the latter part of the book deftly imagines their conversation. At times, I found myself moved beyond words, as if it was speaking to my soul. It may be classed as fiction, but the author has worked wonders here; it's almost as if she's assisted Margery and Julian in creating a new holy book. Outstanding. 

Gus Gresham

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett: I challenge anybody to best the humour and profundity of the opening line: 'The sun shone, having no alternative …' From this point on, Murphy's life is a tragedy shrouded in an absurdist daymare.

David John Griffin

The Barnum Museum, by Steven Milhauser: With its high-quality prose and the author's extraordinary imagination showing through the words, I was repeatedly blown away (and, should I be honest, slightly envious of his wonderful writing skills!).

Jack Peachey

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, presents a dystopia that is outwardly and inwardly repulsive in character, yet one that is shown with a verisimilitude I've scarcely seen in the genre; a naturalistic state with comprehensive worldbuilding. A challenging novel delivered with evocative prose, it far surpasses its contemporaries in creating a society that is at once alien and disconcertingly real. 

Karen Rust

Stonemouth, by Iain Banks: Set in the fictional Scottish coastal town of Stonemouth, we meet twenty-five-year-old Stu standing on the edge of what sounds like the Firth of Forth Bridge. He's back home for the first time in five years for the funeral of the patriarch of one of the towns' two gangster families - a family he was about to join, until a drunken indiscretion led to them trying to kill him, and a hasty exit on a goods train. Set over a few days, this is a masterclass in how to keep the reader hooked and drip feed the back story in until everything makes sense. Funny, cool and sometimes violent, we follow Stu as he navigates old school friends, the family who wanted him dead, and the woman he lost in his escape to London. An edgy and fun read, I could picture it in my head as a Trainspotting-style film, and have since found out it's been dramatised by the BBC, so will be checking it out on iPlayer! 

Teika Marija Smits

The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker: At over 700 pages long, it took me a long time to make my way through this book, but I know I’ve been profoundly changed by reading and reflecting on Booker’s theories. Not only has The Seven Basic Plots greatly enhanced my knowledge of literature, it has also deepened my understanding of how humans make sense of the world, and their lives, through stories. And as a fan of the theories of Carl Jung I appreciate the way Booker approached storytelling through a Jungian lens. To my mind, this is an essential read for everyone. After all, we are all the authors of at least one story - the story of our life.

Jonathan Taylor

What to Do Next, by Sue Dymoke: Brilliant author and educator Sue Dymoke died in 2023. This is her last collection of poems, and includes a beautiful preface by her partner, David Belbin. The book is a poignant memorial, then, but it is also a joyful celebration of life, of travel, of childhood, of science, of allotments, of what to do next.  

Maria Taylor

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s an evocative and stirring narrative of two sisters both before and during the brutal Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70. The novel vividly depicts the emotional truth of their lives.

Miranda Taylor

Fruits Basket, by Natsuki Takaya, follows Honda Tohru, a young girl who has lived her life in solitude after losing her parents and her house. She encounters a family who takes care of her - however, the family is not as it seems, as they can change into animals of the zodiac. The story is a sad one yet also hopeful.

Rosalind Taylor

The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, follows Shen Yuan, who reincarnates in a very badly-written novel as the abusive teacher of the protagonist, Shen Qingqui, whose fate is to die at the end at the hands of the protagonist. Scum Villain's Self-Saving System is very funny and enjoyable to read. I liked reading about the characters and how they change. 

Paul Taylor-McCartney

Prophet Song, by Paul Lynch: This is a visceral, heart-wrenching story of one woman's fight to keep her family together as her country descends into a totalitarian nightmare. Urgent and timely dystopian fiction that will live long in the memory.

Harry Whitehead

In the Eye of the Wild, by Nastassja Martin: In this fierce, dark and utterly unique memoir, French anthropologist Martin is attacked by (and attacks!) a huge bear in the Kamchatka wilderness, an event the shaman of the people she’s been studying had long warned her was coming. Unable to rationalise the psychological fallout from her injuries back in France, she returns to Siberia to embody the bear/human she’s become.  

Lee Wright

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton, is a graphic memoir of a young woman’s experiences working in the oil sands in Alberta. Kate Beaton grapples with the morality of the oil industry, faces harassment and sexual violence while working in an overwhelmingly male work force, reflects on environmental degradation, homesickness, loneliness, the health risks caused by the oil sands, and the destruction of the lands of the First Nations.