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