Tuesday 9 April 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Come Here to this Gate" by Rory Waterman

This is a beautiful collection in three parts. The first part consists of a visceral remembrance of the author's father and the weight of his death due to alcoholic dementia. Here are memories that can never be forgotten, heaped with regret and self-loathing. The sequence is a disturbing, harrowing picture of loss, that we almost don't want to witness. We hide behind the pages, as it were, trying to understand Waterman's feelings, his anger and his love. He communicates his emotions in such a transparent manner, we are there at the bedside, there at the beginning of the end, and the final moments.

Remembered and mis-remembered events cloud his memories and we follow in his steps as he faces his father's death. With his father’s rambling, ranting, his anger unbound, nothing is erased from Waterman's memory, especially his love for his father.

After the horrors of the first section, we are taken through the gates of the second part of the collection, invited into another world. There is real beauty here in the descriptions that bring events to life. We are there picking gooseberries, we taste the fear of the narrator's visit to a chiropodist and we share the despair as his bike is stolen. The humour in the poem "Student Cuts" is blatant and laugh out loud, but then we are moved to tears by the sadness in "The Stepfathers" and earlier "At a Friend's Second Wedding," where death looks over the shoulder of the Mother who sits and watches the marriage.

Waterman's travels are described eloquently and are intriguing as are the friendships he makes and describes. None of the words are misplaced or misused and his journey takes us to the final part of the collection - an odyssey through Lincolnshire Folk Tales. Here, Waterman intertwines his own memories with tales from long ago and reflects on the world that has been lost. We can see the love for his home county. I loved "Nanny Rutt" with its humour and disdain for so-called decency. It flows like a song - a song for life and imagined worlds, just as this collection is a celebratory song of loss, life and love.

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. 

Monday 8 April 2024

Review by Lee Wright of "The Observable Universe" by Heather McCalden

Following the death of both her parents from AIDS in the 1990s, Heather McCalden was left an orphan at the age ten, to be raised by her grandmother. Convinced she could solve the mystery of why this happened and who her father really was, she became consumed by thoughts of AIDS and the internet developing on parallel timelines – 1982 was the year the terms Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and Internet with a capital I were first used. 

Years of searching for deeper understanding eventually led her to becoming an artist and writer, clearly needing to fulfil a desire to create, and fill that part of her which life had destroyed. 

The publishing world isn't short on grief memoirs, but McCalden has been innovative with her subject, imparting historical knowledge and personal intimacy like spoonsful of cough syrup. The experience of reading The Observable Universe may sometimes taste bitter, but it is easily digestible. 

Viral infection and the internet are both constructed on shifting sands and so the author is constantly moving. The book feels like a Russian doll, or scrapbook. Or, as McCalden explains on the opening page: "This book is an album about grief. Every fragment is like a track on a record."

Every vignette, whether on Facebook, desire, curiosity, Netflix, human longing, Wikipedia, useless private detectives, or Holocaust deniers, carries with it both the serious and the satirical. The dormant menace of AIDS erupted around her as she grew up in Los Angeles, and then years later, another menace – that of a family secret - caused more heartache. 

McCalden’s thoughts are everywhere but given only in glimpses. There are also episodes of – whisper it – flash fiction, in the form of retold conversations in hotel bars or rent a car offices. Like a virus, there are many directions this memoir could go, and like the internet, you have to filter through the pages to get to the real story. 

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

Sunday 7 April 2024

Review by Jane Simmons of "The Strongbox" by Sasha Dugdale

In her new collection The Strongbox, Sasha Dugdale draws on elements of Greek mythology and classical epic literature, exploring and reinventing narratives and characters from Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and incorporating distorted fragments of Heraclitus, to create fourteen new, long poems which come together as a cry of distress for the modern world. 

The dialogue within and between these powerful poems shapes our understanding of our troubled times, the conflicts between states, between political and religious ideologies, and between male power and female strength. In "I. Anatomy of an Abduction," Dugdale presents the reader with an unnamed girl who has somehow been abducted or persuaded to leave behind her country, family and childhood to travel to a war-zone.

          It began with the sun
          appearing over the plane wing
          supernatural orange
                                          but no light

It is impossible to read on without thinking of the London schoolgirls travelling to join Isis in Syria. Then, when Helen - the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta - is introduced, "trapped behind the walls of Ilium" and "plagued by dreams about the coming war," the familiar Homeric narrative of the Trojan War makes clear the parallels of lured brides, political conflicts in the Middle East, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These connections are ready to be explored in poems which offer the reader a lens through which to analyse both love and war.

The title of the collection, The Strongbox, is a good introduction to Sasha Dugdale’s use of the recurring metaphor, a technique which is key to an understanding of the collection. In one sense, this example serves as a metaphor for poetic form: the sonnet form is often described as a "box" and, although the poems are not sonnets - and some of the pieces are prose or drama-script - there are fourteen pieces here for the reader to unpack. These experiments with genre, along with the intertextuality, are part of Dugdale’s distinctive poetics.

If a strongbox is a secure place for storing valuable goods or valuable stolen goods, then it can be read as a metaphor for the abducted or lured brides, a judgement of male-female relationships, and of political and ideological conflicts as is made clear by the further metaphor of "a golden crown" for the city. Helen herself was famously born from an egg, the result of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. In "XI: Gods & Men," a precious egg is stored in a locket kept inside the secret drawer of a campaign chest, in a Greek king’s gold-painted canvas tent in the encampment on the Trojan plain. Then in "XIV: The Ticket Booth," Dugdale reworks the story of Europa whose beauty attracted the attentions of Zeus who then approached her in the form of a white bull and abducted her. "The Rape of Europa" is also a term used to refer to the fate of European art and treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. In the poem, the lines "[I] found no words / And little hope" invite the reader to consider the strongbox and its contents as a possible representation of Pandora’s box, containing all the troubles of the world - and finally a small hope. Perhaps language – the power of words – offers that hope. 

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a PhD student at the University of Leicester where she has won the G. S. Fraser poetry prize. Her poems have appeared in various magazines, won the Seren Christmas poetry prize (2020), been long-listed in the Mslexia poetry competition and The National Poetry Competition (2022), shortlisted for a Candlestick Press prize (2023) and placed third in the Mslexia poetry competition (2023).

Friday 5 April 2024

Review by Rennie Parker of "The Point of the Stick" by Neil Fulwood

Here is one of those unclassifiable pamphlets which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? Take any number of conductors - magnetic figures all - encapsulate their style, their motivation or their hallmark, and present them as a sequence where the reader can guess who it is. Art as an enigma, much like the alchemy of conducting itself. You can read the unnamed stanzas in Neil Fulwood's nifty little collection, and check your answers at the back of the book, like any good test paper. I scored four and I'm disgusted with myself; maybe I am listening to the wrong recordings, but I enjoyed the guessing game nevertheless.

Of course we do not learn overmuch about the conductors as they march past - the poems are between eight and twelve lines, so the poet has to hit the ground running with a bijou design of those dimensions. What we have are lightning sketches, illuminating without becoming cartoonish. Judging by the correct four guesses, the pictures are accurate too: for instance, there are films of Adrian Boult wielding his trademark 'billiard cue,' and he was as sparing in his gestures as the poem implies, 'deployed with a slight / supple turn of the / wrist.' I like how 'wrist' is separated from the preceding line, emphasising the clean gesture. The collection is full of expert touches like this, the 'punchline' exactly situated, the felicitous phrase which brings the portrait alive.

There are references to war-torn countries, driven individuals rebuilding themselves, and the conductors as self-made people as well as media stars - familiar enough ideas when it comes to international artists, but relayed here in Fulwood's uncluttered and direct manner with not a word wasted. Each segment dovetails in with its neighbours so well that there is no 'odd one out,' which sometimes happens with a sequence. I would have welcomed a couple more lines for each conductor, because I was interested to know more about them - but it was not part of the poet's design; and anyway, that's what biographies are for.

The Point of the Stick may sound like a niche pamphlet but in fact there is a wide audience who would love this collection. Instrumentalists, concertgoers, choir members and Radio 3 listeners could all benefit from finding a copy in their birthday envelopes. Better still, it's so pocket-sized you can take it with you to a marathon recital and read it during the interval. As a concept album, it is small and perfectly formed. Go, little book! I am posting my copy to a pianist friend who will appreciate both the poetry and the subterranean references to complex lives and their overwhelming dedication to music.

About the reviewer
Rennie Parker's latest collection is Balloons and Stripey Trousers (Shoestring, 2023). She was born in Leeds but lives in south Lincolnshire, and currently works for an FE college. Blogs here, daily nonsense on Twitter @rennieparker.

You can read a review of Balloons and Stripey Trousers on Everybody's Reviewing here

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Review by Sally Shaw of "The Dark Within Them" by Isabelle Kenyon

The Dark Within Them is a novel by Isabelle Kenyon, a Manchester-based editor, writer, poet and spoken word performer. 

The novel is set in America within a Mormon community. The story is told from the viewpoint of the two main characters: Chad, well known in his home town of Lehi, and Amber, a faith-healer and visionary, who is widowed and mother to two teenagers Gilly and Ivan. Kenyon gives the reader an insight into both characters' inner thoughts and emotions. The story is fast paced, taking place from their first meeting in January 2015 to June 2015 when truths are uncovered and lessons learnt. I enjoyed the chapter lengths and access to the different mind sets of Chad and Amber. 

The story begins several months into Chad and Amber’s relationship at a Temple meeting. Chad is realising the complexity of being married and a stepfather. As a reader this chapter caused me to consider how Mormon beliefs and community could impact family live. Brett is the leader of the temple and the person Chad absolutely trusts. Chad asks for help with Gilly. "Gilly’s fifteen. Young. She’s … she’s mostly a good kid. Anything bad in her? It didn’t come from her mothering. That’s not to blame." The outcome is that Brett recommends his conversion therapy that isn’t practised at other temples. The interaction between Brett and Gilly is the catalyst to the death of Gilly. And Chad’s actions following her death are fuelled by the temple and community morals. Amber questions Chad following Gilly’s death: "'Was she possessed, Chad?' she said into his damp neck. 'Was my girl bad?'”  

Following Gilly’s death, Amber and Chad enter into a life of deceit and lies. Amber gains strength from the need to protect her son. Chad’s actions are powered by his Mormon values and devotion to Brett, while Ivan trusts no-one and his actions are perceived by Chad in a way neither he or his mother could have predicted. 

The story explores the impact on relationships of past experiences, upbringing, hidden agendas, resentment, religion, community and the unveiling of the characters' truth. Both Amber and Chad become unsure of each other and their marriage which changes the course of their lives.

The Dark Within Them is a novel that is easy to read. I enjoyed how Kenyon structured the chapters to move back in time and then back to the present, and the strength of Amber’s voice at the end of the novel. I found myself questioning Amber’s decision to actively seek out a husband. I was unsure why she choose not to have her children meet Chad in person prior to their move to his home. I did think some aspects of the plot were too far removed from reality for me. Still, the novel gives us an insight into the intricacy of relationships within a family, community and religion. It provides the reader with twists and turns and a strong ending.

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 Short Story Course book, 2019). Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam. Twitter: @SallySh24367017

You can read more about The Dark Within Them by Isabelle Kenyon on Creative Writing at Leicester here