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

Thursday 28 March 2024

Review by Megan Stafford-Adatia of "The Woman Warrior" by Maxine Hong Kingston

In her novel, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston shares the "talk-story" that has been passed down through generations of Chinese girls, without impairing the culture’s integrity or diminishing the painful history of womanhood that it encapsulates. In this way, Kingston unleashes the matrilineal voices that have been suppressed by society, allowing them to echo their impact on the reader long after The Woman Warrior has finished.

Silence becomes a "punishment" in the semi-autobiographical novel, one that, fortunately for us, Kingston refuses to participate in. No woman is left with their story untold. None are condemned to that historical culture of silence and erasure that Kingston presents as a reality for many Chinese women. The novel takes us through her life, the "talk-story" of her mother, her aunts (both living and dead), and even the myth of Fa Mu Lan herself—a story that has been so often distorted for Western viewers (Disney being perhaps the best-known example). The richness of the culture, the depth of the pains, the peaks of the victories—all are present in this novel along with the endurance of women who are fuelled by an independent spirit, yet concealed in a patriarchal society. Kingston not only awakens them to the light but shines a spotlight on "Warrior Women" who have been preparing to emerge from the shadows of silence for centuries. There are many different stories in this novel, both happy and heartbreaking. Yet with the glorious names of "Brave Orchid" (Kingston’s mother) and "Moon Orchid" (her aunt), Kingston demonstrates that your power does not depend on your history or life story; it depends on your strength in who you are. 

Maxine Hong Kingston refused to be forced into silence. I refuse to allow this book to fall into silence. We must, as Kingston stresses, "talk-story" about this educating piece of magnificence that establishes history in intersectional feminism.

About the reviewer
Megan Stafford-Adatia is currently a second-year undergraduate student studying an English BA at the University of Leicester. She was prompted to write a review in a Creative Writing seminar, and her passion for this novel led her here.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Review by Gary Day of "The Silence" by Gillian Clarke


Charles Simic said that ‘poetry is a translation of the silence.’ Gillian Clarke’s collection goes a step further. It is not a translation of ‘the silence,’ whatever that may be, but an evocation of soundlessness. The world was a noisy place until Covid struck and then everything seemed to go quiet for a long time. But it was only the human world that was hushed: nature’s music continued, the wind in the trees, the songs of birds, the hiss of rain, the bark of a fox. ‘Listen’ Clarke enjoins, ‘water tells its rosary.’

The linking of natural phenomena and religious ritual is central to the volume. To that extent it brings to life Blake’s dictum that ‘everything that lives is holy.’ The reader is returned to ‘Eden before the Fall.’ Along with this restoration comes a liturgical conception of time. The first section of the collection is organised according to the canonical hours, Matins, Lauds, Prime and so on. These were times of prayer but the poems are not addressed to a creator. They are an account of daily activities and observations tinged with an awareness of the devastation of Covid. ‘We settle close, / Seek sweet diversion from the day, / Its pestilence, its wars, the daily toll, the dead.’ In times of plague, small things become precious: the ‘psalm’ of an owl, ‘the turning of a page.’

Silence is not always desirable, especially if it has been imposed. But those whose voices have been suppressed, particularly in Welsh history, find some some sort of restitution in poems like ‘Llywelyn’s Daughter’ and ‘FForest.’ Finding the balance between silence and speech in the face of great events or small incidents is the shaping force of this collection. Stunning imagery - ‘chalice of gold overflows / with a cupful of snow’ - made me feel as if I were in an art gallery while the recurrence of certain phrases creates a sense of unity as well as an incantatory effect. This superb volume gets pride of place on my poetry shelf. 

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, will be published by Holland Park Press.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Review by Gary Day of "Selected Poems" by Hubert Moore

I do not know how I have missed the sight of Hubert Moore’s comet crossing my sky on its orbit round the poetic heavens. Thankfully I can now see what must have long been obvious to others: a poet who is acutely observant, piercingly lyrical and unwavering in his commitment to the breadth of human experience.

The Selected Poems come with a useful introduction by Lawrence Sail giving a brief outline of Moore’s life, his career as a teacher, the death of his first wife and his eventual remarriage. One of the many delights of the volume is the opportunity to trace Moore’s development as a poet. There is a whimsy about some of the earlier poems. Rabbits ‘look like / a group of friends, Romans and countrymen / lending an ear to each other.’ This fusion of direct observation and classical allusion is just one feature of Moore’s early style.

Another is an almost matter of fact description of mysterious actions such as letting down the tyres of a bicycle, apparently belonging to a complete stranger. A bicycle appears in a later poem about poverty. Moore’s social conscience is particularly marked in a number of poems about asylum seekers where he draws on his own experience of working with refugees. Poems of mid-career such as ‘At the Bottle Bank’ show a deftness in capturing the complexities of lived experience in a single image. Poems dedicated to his children and to his first wife are, at times, almost unbearably moving. Some of the more recent poems are cautiously receptive to experiences which transcend the physical.

Lovely lines abound throughout: ‘that rare gift of rhyming with oneself.’ You can do that, these poems suggest, if you can keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars.

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.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Orwell’s Roses" by Rebecca Solnit

In the spring of 1936, a young author set about planting a garden in his rented cottage. Awaiting the arrival of his new wife and hoping to put behind him the experiences as a serving police officer in colonial Burma, Orwell turned to nature to heal both his lungs and calm his mind. His first attempts at recuperation saw him live in extreme poverty, which he later recorded in detail in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. These were places that were a source for great fiction, but it was in the little hamlet of Wallington where he decided to settle his mind.

Solnit begins with Orwell's essay from 1946, "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray," that focused on the beauty of a mature yew tree which long outlived the vicar that planted it. After a lapse of time, all that is left of him is a comic song and a beautiful tree. From this spark of a thought, Solnit decided to track down Orwell’s cottage garden and see if his plants had also outlived the creator. He had mentioned revisiting his garden in that essay of 1946 and noted that that too had thrived in his absence. The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble.

Orwell was passionate about nature and the earth; he was a keen gardener and a naturalist. He took many long walks with friends who later commented on his knowledge and alluded to his fear for the future, drawing attention, with anxiety, to this shrub budding early for the time of the year. Solnit urges us to revisit and look deeper into Orwell's prose, to seek out the passages of flora and fauna and promises us that if we do, the grey portrait will turn to colour. Even in his novel 1984, deeply political and prophetic, there are moments of joy. Nature itself is immensely political, in how we imagine, interact with, and impact it. He was ahead of his time in this interpretation of our living world. 

Extolling simple manual labour with direct visible results must have appealed to Orwell, a passion that led him to further expand his small holding with animals, an orchard and a vegetable garden. Finding predictability with effort that gardening promises was a complete contrast to the uncertain life of prose. He referred to gardening in his many essays, extolling the virtues of the simple, cheap Woolworth rose, the common toad and country life. He advocates for a simple life, in tune with our surroundings. Solnit sums this up with her phrase: "Even when the agenda was bread, what spills over is roses."

This book takes us on a journey through culture and art to society and socialism to examine how roses have represented our desires, passions and goals through the centuries. Throughout these meanderings, Solnit discusses the written words of the essayist, his humour and humanity, his politics and passions to understand him better.

Orwell finally died of tuberculosis aged just 46 after suffering with bronchitis most of his adult life. His final request was for roses to be planted on his grave: "Outside my work, the thing I care for most is gardening – for like the rest of us, it’s beauty for today, hope for tomorrow."

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council.  She writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime.


Thursday 29 February 2024

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

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

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

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

          of the weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 28 February 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 26 February 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Reviewer 
Gus Gresham has an MA in Creative Writing (NTU) and has worked as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, environmental activist, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, medical-scenario simulator/facilitator, civil funeral celebrant, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines including Brittle Star and Under the Radar, and his most recent novel, Kyiv Trance – a dark, twisty, love story and crime thriller – is available on Amazon.

Friday 23 February 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 16 February 2024

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 13 February 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 3 February 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Sublimity" by Mary Gilonne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 2 February 2024

Review by Cathi Rae of "Makeover" by Laurie Bolger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 1 February 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 30 January 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the reviewer
Laura Besley is the author of 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She has been widely published in online journals, print journals and anthologies, including Best Small Fictions (2021). Having lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong, she now lives in land-locked central England and misses the sea. She tweets @laurabesley

Saturday 27 January 2024

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 22 January 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 21 January 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 20 January 2024

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


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

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

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

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

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

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