Everybody's Reading

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "StarMark" by Katherine Hetzel

As a creative writer myself, and one already drafting a cycle of children’s stories, I came to this novel with a keen interest in seeing how an established author manages to appeal to both adults and younger readers alike. In StarMark, Katherine Hetzel manages this difficult tightrope walk with apparent ease. The fantasy world of Koltam is brimming with original myths and legends that appear to have their roots in Pagan and Celtic lore, but have a distinct character all their own. 

The central appeal of the novel though lies in the author’s careful crafting of a simple, yet engaging tale of one girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood, and all that implies.  Irvana is both brave and determined, highly likeable and appeals to all readers. She’s an excellent role-model for younger girls, particularly, in that she proves both fallible and willing to learn from her mistakes, whilst never appearing vulnerable. 

Hetzel’s profound skill is in presenting Irvana and those around her with a series of perils and encounters that develop the characters, but also encourage you to devour this short tome in one or two sittings. The dialogue is snappy and well-observed, as are the passages of description, which never detract from the immediacy of the action; the cast of antagonists are even given their own space to develop a connection with the reader, and this helps younger minds consider the grey shades of morality, not just its contrasting tones. I look forward to reading more by Hetzel, and seeing her expand this specific universe still further, taking her developing fan base with her. 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the discipline of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University, His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Review by Lee Wright of "Death and the Seaside" by Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s novels feature no demons or monsters. Yet behind every closed door she makes you hear unsettling noises. Those noises are made by people. And hell is other people.    

A closeness to the real, day-to-day, small desperate lives filled with nothing moments. Characters who take unfulfilled, uncomfortable breaths. Her first two novels, The Lighthouse and He Wants, are close to the Southern Gothic tune of Carson McCullers. Like the girl from Georgia, Moore takes alienated individuals, and plunges them into unnatural societies, where they are experimented on by the shadier side of humanity. 

Her main protagonist in The Lighthouse, Futh, bares resemblance to McCullers’ deaf-mute, John Singer in McCullers’ stand out work of fiction, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Both men are isolated from within and longing for something they cannot get back. Both await lonely ends. Moore has made sure that the quarrelling tick has bitten and embedded itself in each character she invents. 

For her most recently published novel, Death and the Seaside, we discover the story of the milk skinned, failed writer that is Bonnie Falls (with Moore, there is always something in a name). Hers is a life left unfinished in every sense. Abandoned degree, missed chances, and underwhelming, overbearing parents. A would-be writer whose time is taken up by a disparaging cleaning job at a pharmaceutical building. Until the day she becomes involved with her scrutinising landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Then, Bonnie’s timid existence begins to collapse like a sandcastle beneath the tide. 

All of Moore’s novels are short and they linger like a vivid nightmare. At times, Death and the Seaside can appear like an interrogation of other novels (Irving’s The World According to Garp, Camus’ The Outsider, and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea among others are given a direct mention). 

And the ocean, or at least the appeal of it, is a recurring theme throughout Moore’s work (John Irving has his bears). In The Lighthouse, Futh crosses it. Lewis Sullivan in He Wants longs for it. And Bonnie Falls visits it.   

By the time Bonnie drives away from the encroaching sea, we are left with the slow burning pay off, questions are answered and our protagonist’s future far from certain.

In a time when most novels rely on formula, and great authors such as John Fowles, Raymond Carver and Carson McCullers are rarely talked about (outside of the wider read), Alison Moore, like DBC Pierre (Breakfast with the Borgias), represents a breed of writer who succeeds in painting a portrait of the inept and naïve side of human nature. Do not get too close to this kind of author, for they leave permanent scars. 

And long may they reign.  

About the reviewer 
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.

Review by Robert Richardson of “Seurat To Riley: The Art Of Perception” at Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire. 8 July – 1 October 2017

Degas famously stated ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’ Seurat, his contemporary, responding to colour theories of his day took more direct action. His Pointillism juxtaposed individual brush strokes of contrasting colours to create shimmering effects. In addition to paintings by Seurat, the opening room of this excellent Compton Verney exhibition has a painting by that icon of 1960s art, Bridget Riley. This sets the agenda for her pervasive presence. Although the organisation of the artworks is mostly chronological, this is occasionally broken, but always with an intelligent thematic purpose in mind.

The exhibition proposes other precursors of 60s Op Art: the mathematical compositions of M.C. Escher and dynamic responses to machine movement by the Vorticist Helen Saunders. Perhaps more significant is Josef Albers. Better known for his investigations of colour, he is also represented here with compositions based on shapes and lines, their angles and varying thicknesses producing optical illusions of depth. As a leading member of the Bauhaus, it should not be a surprise that Albers approached optics with a combination of rationality and experiment.

When I visited this exhibition, I also attended a talk by Dr Frances Follin, who co-curated it with Compton Verney’s Penny Sexton. She presented some of her fascinating research on the reception of Riley’s work in the 1960s. One of the hot debates at the time was the position of mathematics and science in relation to Op Art. There were apparently scientists eager to escape the intrusion of art into their activities, thinking its populism might swamp their more serious intentions. Riley was going in the other direction, basing her art on an aesthetic of perception and an intuition that did not have mathematics or science as its basis (no matter how much it might be possible for others to interpret it in those terms). 

Riley’s technical realisations, through drawing, painting and printing media, are superb and part of her integrity as a leading artist. Her earliest works in black and white are stunning. To stand in front of Fail (1963) and Over (1966) is to experience the wobbling of visual perception and, even more incredibly, colours not physically present can nevertheless emerge. Her work is an invitation for the viewer to experience change and transformation. As with other Op Art work, this can bring about disorientation, but reality becoming unfixed is also exhilarating.

Fall by Bridget Riley

Follin’s talk expanded on the exhibition text that cited Op Art as part of a post-1945 movement towards greater participation in the making of art. Contemporaneous with 1960s “Happenings” Op Art led back to two dimensions that involved active perceptions of the viewer. It might be argued that visual art had always done this, but it had never before achieved it in such a heightened and powerful way. 

Although Riley predominates, there are plenty of wonderful artworks by other artists, notably Victor Vasarely, equal in importance to Riley, and someone more accepting of the mathematical. The paintings of British artist Peter Sedgley were a revelation to me. They are both majestic and subtle. He deliberately presents us with an out of focus effect, and our eyes conditioned to focus are nudged into perceptual movement.  He also uses colour, which of course Riley, after her classic black and white Op Art, also has as central to her practice.

The Venezuelan artists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jésus Rafael Soto combined Kinetic Art with Op Art, and our own bodies are the kinetic element: giving the artworks Op Art movements by walking along them. A 2008 sculpture by Liliane Lyjn actually does spin round, and in doing so lines that are part of it move vertically without moving: it is perceptual illusion. The title is Clear Red Koan, with Koan being that Zen puzzle which creates doubt and paradox as a way towards truth.

Op Art still looks fresh and also continues to have an influence on some of today’s artists, as shown in the final rooms, with impressive work by Jim Lambie and the more established Daniel Buren. The exhibition ends with Lothar Götz taking over the walls of an entire room. With Salon Diagonale (Compton Verney), he has responded with shapes and colours to the architecture of the room and the Capability Brown parkland visible from its windows.  

This exhibition has received considerable press coverage and rave reviews, and rightly so. Anecdotally, at the end of the 90s I visited an exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool: a survey of British twentieth century art. From that selection, I thought Bridget Riley was one of the standout artists. It was a suitable judgment, because Riley and Op Art are not just about perception, but affirmation too.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris/Barcelona based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). His website is www.bobzlenz.com

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "Dividing Lines," edited by Farhana Shaikh with a Foreword by C. G. Menon

Dividing Lines is an anthology of short stories dominated by themes of divisions of caste, gender and race. This lyrical and haunting collection brings to the surface a deep appreciation of life as well as a fear of the future. Frequently dealing with conflicts based on oppression and betrayal, Dividing Lines is an evocative representation of Asian experiences.

My first impression of the short stories was full of excitement. It’s rare to see such a diverse collection of short stories, and each really gave a different view of culture. It’s difficult to find media representations which break down the walls of stereotypes. The themes of belonging and division are so strong in some stories such as Ashok Patel’s ‘Ninety Days’ and Serena Patel’s ‘The Other Side of the Bridge.’ These stories offer an insight into how racism can have devastating consequences for minority communities. 

The stories are not only infected by fear but also a psychological burden that emotionally cripples the mood of the society they are set in. ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ takes us into a bleak future while ‘Ninety Days’ tells the story of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in the 1970s. Two of my favourite quotations from ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ were: ‘I didn’t belong there and maybe I don’t belong here’ and ‘I don’t seem to be here or anywhere else anymore.’ These powerful lines in an all-round heart-wrenching story quickly became my favourites because of the pain they reflect. The scary in-between where you’re lost and can’t go back or move forwards particularly reached out to me due to my own hybridity as a British Asian continuously trying to find the balance between the expectations of British society and my deep-rooted Indian values and heritage. 

Another story I really enjoyed was ‘Under the Same Sky’ by Farhana Khalique. I could relate to the soft and comforting childhood experiences and innocence. The use of space imagery and this idea that somehow we’re all connected through the sky no matter who and where we are added to its magic. I would definitely recommend the Dividing Lines anthology. It’s one of those collections that is an all-round emotional rollercoaster, featuring relatable characters and a wide selection of writing styles. 

About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham, U.K., is a BA English (with Creative Writing) graduate. She is an aspiring writer, a storyteller for young children, a volunteering editor for Seeing Ear. Her latest project is about a female warrior in a fictional middle eastern war-torn kingdom.

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "The Sorry History of Fast Food" by Paul Sutton

In her book The Poem and the Journey, Ruth Padel suggests that ‘all poetry is about loss: about being, at the same time, in one place and another you can’t get to, or can’t get back to.’ If this is true – and, like any generalisation, it is debatable – then poetry is always in danger of a nostalgic conservatism, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles to better places, pasts and people which have been lost. Not unlike the Daily Mail, with its constant harking back to a fake version of the 1950s, poetry’s present becomes a poor substitute for some utopian ideal which has been lost – something which perhaps never really existed in the first place. 

Certainly, some contemporary British poetry is susceptible to this kind of nostalgic conservatism and backward-looking political quietism. By contrast, judging by his new pamphlet The Sorry History of Fast Food (Open House Editions, 2017), Paul Sutton’s poetry emphatically is not – even though it too is all about loss. His poetry is angry, politicised, nuanced, paradoxical, and ambivalent about both present and past – and hence about as far from a simplistic Daily Mail nostalgia as it is possible to get. Indeed, Sutton arguably satirises such monolithic nostalgia directly in his poem ‘Jupiter,’ where ‘Holst’s giddy joy,’ which seems to embody ‘pride, history and triumph, / … green English fields – / assurance, love, trust,’ is really ‘only a sound, / pure cadence; / just words.’ Though it inspires ‘old feelings’ in the listener, Gustav Holst’s famous piece of music seems to represent an Englishness, or Britishness which has only ever existed in music and words – an Englishness which has always already been lost.
Beyond the experience of Holst’s music, Sutton’s ‘old feelings’ of loss are much more complex, conflicted. On the one hand, the pamphlet is all about what has been lost through ‘the sorry history of fast food’ in modern Britain: with its urban gentrification, the ‘regeneration of King’s Cross / or even worse Paddington,’ its ‘frozen food,’ and ‘motorway service station[s]’ and their ‘invocation of oblivion,’ it would seem that ‘our true country’ has become ‘pure retail park, B & Q.’ Undoubtedly, this all represents ‘such a loss,’ for Sutton - but, on the other hand, the past itself is no golden age; the past itself is ambivalent, with its ‘coffee … [like] Thames mud,’ shops which had the ‘aroma of an old man’s crotch,’ the ‘rain [that] smelt like bomb damage,’ the ‘Victorian chophouse[s]’ and ‘Elizabethan / “offal and hoof quickbits.”’ In this respect, Sutton’s sense of loss might be termed a ‘dirty nostalgia,’ a harking-back to a past which was ‘loved … all the more for being so bad.’

This dirty nostalgia reaches its apotheosis in the poems ‘My Boy Jack’ and ‘Street Chicken,’ in which the narrators look back to Jack the Ripper, and attempt – nostalgically, as it were – to connect themselves with a frankly horrific past. In their narrators’ attempts to ‘trace [their] … history / through such disasters,’ these poems critique a poetry of loss, expose the dark side of poetic nostalgia. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Friday, 18 August 2017

Review by Alexandros Plasatis of "Conjunctions:67 - Other Aliens"

"Published by Bard College, with editorial offices in New York City and Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Conjunctions is a cornerstone of contemporary literary publishing. Since 1981, the journal has been a living notebook in which authors can write freely and audiences read dangerously" Bradford Morrow, Conjunctions editor.

This starts with two stories by Leena Krohn, translated from Finnish by Eva Buchwald. Sweet beginning, I thought, foreign. Nice, slightly eerie stuff. The first story, a story that made me feel a little sad, is entitled In the Quiet of the Gardens and is about Sylvia’s private world as we see it portrayed in her own creations of miniature gardens.

Later on in the volume, in Clouds, by Julia Elliott, an earth-woman and a sky-man go in a tavern and get hammered on organic, biodynamic wine from a local vineyard where they bury bull horns crammed with cow manure to add to the taste (if you’re into this sort of stuff and you live near Valley Falls State Park in West Virginia, please visit the Red Wolf Tavern). After getting drunk, they end up in bed, where the earth-woman explores the sky-man’s anatomy: firm chest, uncircumcised erection. They have mammalian sex (with satisfying crescendos), and the earth-woman gets pregnant and gives birth to a half earth- half cloud-baby, Adelaide. The problems begin when the earth-woman meets her sky-woman mother-in-law. Ah, mothers-in-law, you always, always mess things up.

In Valerie Martin’s Bromley Hall, Americans Janet and Frank visit the UK, but Janet isn’t happy with the hotel room they stay in and wants to be moved to another one and this really pisses off Frank who, in order to punish her, refuses to go to Bromley Hall with her. Janet doesn’t give a shit and decides to go on her own. Big mistake, Janet. So she gets on a bus driven by a very weird Indian man, then the bus breaks down in the middle of the highway (motorway…) and Janet feels all adventurous and walks off to find Bromley Hall. This is when she really starts missing Frank, and she will miss him much, much more when she gets to meet the DNA samplers…

Tinkerers by Lavie Tidhar takes place on the Mountains of the Moon. Atmospheric night-prose here, with farting horses, donkeys, scorpions, caiques, and the Stranger in a lonesome journey, riding away from the Doinklands and into wild, dark forests, until he comes across a couple of tinkerers (dwarfs) and their wagon. I liked these two characters, the dwarfs, they were funny and scary at the same time. I felt blessed being a smoker while reading this story – that bit about the pipe stuffed with cherry-flavoured tobacco got me going.          

Tinkerers is followed by an interview with Samuel R. Delany, conducted by Brian Evenson, which I found very, very interesting and informative, and, actually, an entertaining read. After that, there is a sad story with a very beautiful ending, Matthew Baker’s Transition.

50 pages of Conjunctions 67 consist of a selection of letters from James Tiptree, Jr. (the pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon) to the feminist SF writer Joanna Russ (who, for most of the time, didn’t know that Tiptree was a woman). Nicole Nyhan did a great job gathering and slightly editing those letters. There are many moments in those letters where the writing is beautiful and sharp, and there’s plenty of advice for writers.

The Process Is a Process All Its Own, by Peter Straub, is another beautiful story in this volume. It’s a horror story (I went to the toilet 4 times) that won’t let your mind drift away, and which, sometimes, made me smile with its clever prose (Only the strongest, most distinctively individuated, if that’s a word, of individuals can control the colorations of the words that pass through them).

In the pages of Conjunctions you will also find Madeline Bourque Kearin’s first ever literary publication. Her strength, I found, lays in beautiful descriptions: “I watched the buds on trees open and close like grasping fists and watched the pink blooms of rhododendrons yawn in and out of existence.”  

Joyce Carol Oates is a long-time Conjunctions contributor. I never read any of her stuff. For some reason I had this idea that her writing was King Kong-like, you know, dark, with heavy balls, and sloooow, one step …zzzvvvbooom… another step half an hour later, zzzvvbam…. The Undocumented Alien was nothing like what I imaged though, the prose was lively and funny and energetic, zip zip zip, mosquito-sounding-like, minus the annoyance.

I won’t write anything about E. G. Willy’s short story Radio City, except to say that I’m an admirer of his work now. Great style there, fantastic dialogues, a pure joy, fantastic, great fiction, amazing, amazing, so good (that’s my Trump impersonation).

There are many more beautiful stories in there, there are poems, a play, interviews and discussions. I’d like to close with an apology to those contributors that I didn’t mention in this little review of mine.

I’m not a big SF, fantasy or aliens reader, and, still, I’m glad I have a copy of Conjunctions 67.       

About the reviewer
Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in UK and American anthologies and magazines: Meat For Tea, Meridian, Aji, AdelaideBull, UnthologyOverheard: Stories to Read AloudCrystal VoicesblÆkk, Short Fiction in Theory & Practice, and Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class. He is a volunteer at Leicester City of Sanctuary, where he helps find and develop new creative talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community. He lives in Leicester, UK. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review by Luke McNamara of "Risk the Pier" by Shelley Roche-Jacques

From free verse to the ballad Shelley Roche-Jacques demonstrates her ability to execute a wide spectrum of forms, as well as her ability to assume the perspective of a range of characters in her new collection Risk the Pier. Ranging from a mental health patient, a murderer, a struggling parent, the disgruntled everyman, to an innkeeper’s wife, Jacques’s collection traverses the landscape of the 19th century – with her allusions to Chekhov, Browning, and the Great Sheffield Flood – as well as the modern day.

Thematically blending voices two hundred years apart through her occupation with social realism and the tribulations faced by every manner of person, this time travelling collection never feels disjointed or chaotic. The highlight of part one (Men, Women and Mice) for me is ‘Shrink,’ telling the tale of a mother suffering mental health issues, triggered by Robin Thicke’s blurred lines. Roche-Jacques highlights the relentless and unforgiving torment of social media for the speaker’s decisions; a trap which so many find themselves in. 

A standout from part two (Somewhere to Get to) is ‘We Do Not Mention.’ Roche-Jacques’s fruitful yet controlled use of conduplicatio over the phrases ‘the meat was tough’ and ‘do the washing up and then make love’ symbolises the mundane repetition of married life for both man and woman. Yet both continue to live such a life ‘not mentioning’ how bored they really are. 

Part three (Claims – Voices from the Great Inundation of 1864) is principally an anecdotal collection relaying the untold tales of this tragedy. For me the final poem of the collection – ‘Claim for Mary Ann Pickering, Aged 8’ - is the strongest. Roche-Jacques’s anaphora in the final stanza elegantly conveys the heart-break of a mother who desperately, yet unsuccessfully attempts to recover her daughter’s personality.  

Overall, the collection continues a trend in modern poetry to employ the free verse form to relay the experiences and suffering of many different kinds of people, but Roche-Jacques succeeds in capturing not only the voices of the millennial generation, but also those of the Victorians.

About the reviewer

A graduate in literature, soon to undertake an MA in Modern Literature and Creative Writing, Luke McNamara has a passion for experimental literature. He was previously on the Creative Writing Committee for the University of Leicester, and has aspirations to see his own novels and poetry published one day. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "The Book Index": An Exhibition at the Bodleian Library

It’s hard enough to display books interestingly, but book indexes? This I have got to see, I thought, so I travelled up to Oxford last month and picked my way through the city’s shops, tour parties and bicycles to the Bodleian Library, where there turns out to be … one display case.

Still, it covers a lot of ground. First are early Bible concordances (from 1230 onwards) – alphabetical lists of key words together with the passages they come from. These were the models for all subsequent alphabetical indexes, we are told. The curators have grouped three of them with a ‘Goldilocks’ motif – one too small (the size of a smartphone), one too big and unwieldy, and one just the right size. 

Then there is a charming list of individual squiggles put together by early medieval theologian Robert Grosseteste, each of which he assigned to one of 440 topics such as ‘Imagination’ and ‘Existence of God’, then used in the margins of books when the writers mentioned these things. 

Next are the first known page numbers, in a book printed in Cologne in 1490, followed by playful indexes by Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. Lastly we have artist Tom Phillips’s concordance to The Human Document by W H Mallock, a 19th-century book which he picked up at random in a bookshop in 1966 and vowed to use as the basis for a long-term artwork. Since then he has brought out six editions of the book, calling it Humument (see http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument/introduction) most pages worked over by him artistically at least twice. Here is one of the pages, the text now illegible under Phillips’s ink except for a few words picked out in white bubbles to make a nonsense sentence. Phillips’s concordance to the novel is a brown pocketbook with tiny lists of handwritten words.

The display is thus bookended with two concordances, the first a necessary accompaniment to a central text of the time, the last a private aid for an idiosyncratic artwork.

But have search boxes put indexes out of business? ‘Ctrl +F is not the same as a good subject index,’ claims the display text. Is this true? Well, a good index is not an automatically compiled list of words but the work of someone trained in choosing and ordering the most important ones, and thus should have some intellectual credibility. An index also offers chance discoveries – you may find things by accident when browsing through it, not so likely when starting off with your own search terms. An index is also I suppose a production in itself, like a noun-heavy summary of the book with wonky syntax and a non-chronological order. A search box, by contrast, is not a work but a tool, albeit a very powerful one. And of course you can’t use them with paper. 

Still, indexes will have to argue much harder for themselves in the age of the e-book. This display, by showing that indexes have functioned for hundreds of years as ways of mapping reading and thought, is part of that argument.

The Book Index was at the Bodleian Library, Oxford from 28 May - 9 July 2017.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds is a teacher, writer and editor. Her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain's Museums was published in February this year. She blogs here.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review by Rachel Evans of "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

(Some spoilers!)
Much like the terrifying and sentient Wood at the centre of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, this novel reaches out with subtle violence, wraps its tendrils around your expectations and pulls them out from under your feet, leaving you (and your beliefs about what fantasy should be) altered for good. Fortunately for you, gentle reader, Novik is happy to take you by the hand and show you the safest route, saving you from any twisted ankles – or absolute insanity.
The tense stalemate between the two warring nations of Polnya and Rosya is but an abstract threat for Agnieszka, resident of the village of Dvernik, located on the border of The Wood. The most pressing issue for Nieszka, who happens to be Dragon Born, is the almost inevitable loss of Kasia, her best friend and fellow Dragon Born; for the Dragon chooses one girl from the surrounding area, and keeps her for ten years. In return for this, he protects the towns and villages from the constant, malevolent onslaught of The Wood.
Of course, this is not what happens. In a slightly predictable (and yet effective) twist, the Dragon ends up abruptly whisking her off to his lair – uh – tower. Apologies Ann Rice fans, but this Dragon is, in actual fact, a Wizard. He abandons Nieszka at the top of his tower without so much as a word of acknowledgement, leaving her to the realisation that she is going to spend the next ten years of her life locked up with him, not Kasia.  Unfortunately (fortunately) for the Dragon, Nieszka is not one to sit quietly and take instruction. Despite, or more accurately, because of his generally terrible behaviour, it is highly satisfying to witness Nieszka’s determination to make his life as difficult as possible. Nieszka’s vibrancy and agency in a world that is constrained not only by gender, but also class (making her pretty low on the food-chain) proves that there is scope for more female-driven fantasy that does not rely on the (boring) idea that 'women can do what men can, but in heels.'
The first third of the book focuses on world building, and brings to life the living, breathing threat of The Wood. It is refreshing to have a completely different antagonist to the usual run-of-the-mill demon/necromancer/manic ruler. The Wood is a genuinely terrifying creation, filled with all manner of creatures and malice that are hell-bent on destroying humanity. Beyond The Wood are Polnya and Rosya (Poland and Russia respectively), who have been at war with each other since the Polnyan queen disappeared with the Rosyan prince (into… you guessed it, The Wood!) These combine to create a backdrop of conflict and tension that feeds into every aspect of the story.
The rest of the book moves rapidly through a complex and sometimes confusing narrative. One could argue that the story doesn’t quite work in its current form, and could benefit with either being trimmed down or expanded into a multi-book series – there is certainly a wealth of material to draw from, both within the fictional world, and the mythological corpus on which it is based. In fact, the only true criticism that I have of Uprooted is its need to be everything at once; both high fantasy, multi-series epic and punchy one-off; YA but also oh-so-adult (some of the overarching themes and scenes in The Wood are highly disturbing); action-fantasy-thriller and romance. In fact, it is the romance aspect of the story that lets it down the most, something that I found incredibly disappointing. For all of Novik’s innovation with The Wood and Nieszka’s system of magic, there is a woeful lack of imagination and diversity when it comes to l-o-v-e. Initially, I thought that there was going to be a queer relationship between Nieszka and Kasia, and I was overjoyed. Those high hopes were crushed, however, when Novik practically forces the Dragon and Nieszka into a tryst that neither of them seems to want. The resulting relationship is both awkward and lack-lustre.
Despite the issues with pacing and with character interrelationships (both of which may have been better addressed in a multi-book format?), Uprooted is still a vastly enjoyable read. Novik’s prose is both evocative and hypnotic, and the way in which she builds the world of Polnya, Rosya, and The Wood is so immersive that it is possible to forget that you are reading a novel. Finally, Nieszka is a character that would cause me much distress if we were friends in real life; which is exactly what makes her such an excellent protagonist to guide you through the deepest, darkest parts of The Wood in order to reach the other side, both changed, and yet exactly the same.
About the reviewer
I am a first-year PhD student exploring the connections between gender and textiles in Old Norse literature at the University of Leicester. In my spare time I like to read (mostly dystopian, speculative or fantasy novels) and knit.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Review of "Alien Covenant" by Jeremy Sumner


It’s been a long five year wait for Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated sequel to Prometheus, but now we have been finally presented with Alien: Covenant. The film follows the crew of the Covenant spaceship that is transporting thousands of colonists and embryos through space towards a newly identified hospitable planet. During the course of their journey, they pick up a stray transmission that leads them to discover a previously unknown planet. This one possesses uncannily similar traits to Earth itself and, compelled by curiosity, they decide to follow the message and explore this alien planet.

Having read previous reviews of Alien: Covenant, I was very sceptical as to whether this film would be the sequel I wanted it to be. The consensus appeared to be that the film, whilst delivering on entertainment and visuals, rarely contained the essence of horror that had been synonymous with the rest of the series. Where Prometheus had aimed to fascinate with its stimulating origin story, Alien: Covenant was set to add more pieces to finish the puzzle of how Alien came to pass. I tried my best not to let anything I’d heard before taint my experience as I took my seat in the cinema.

Despite the action sequence that unfolds shortly after the trademark Alien titles roll, the first section of the film felt very slow. I found myself struggling to feel the threat and terror that has become associated with Scott’s Alien films, perhaps due to not having met the crew of the ship whilst the event is happening. The slower tempo is understandable after this as we are gradually introduced to the rudely-awakened crew of the Covenant. Unsurprisingly, the main point of focus as we meet the cast is Daniels. Like Noomi Rapace as Shaw before her, Katherine Waterson provides a strong female lead as Daniels, balancing the character’s sense loss and hope with ease, and not to mention providing the only voice of reason when newly appointed Captain Oram decides to detour to the mysterious and uncannily Earth-like planet. Her trepidation over visiting this planet is one that will be undoubtedly shared unanimously by the audience, albeit primarily for her own personal reasons, as me and my friends still to this moment struggle to understand the logic behind the Covenant’s rogue mission to this “perfect” planet that they have somehow managed to miss.

Where Alien: Covenant really succeeds is where things start to go wrong. Curiosity does kill the cat, and the Covenant’s crew are unsurprisingly no exception. In a chain of events that contain gore, tension and hilarity (I found myself laughing out loud at an uncharacteristically slapstick shotgun failure), the tempo accelerates as violently as the deaths of the unfortunate few that succumb to this remorseless hostile world. These are humbling segments that show the weakness of this militarized unit that they seem hopelessly incapable of dealing with the horrors that they are encountering. The creature kills themselves pay tribute to the films gone by; there’s enough chest-bursting and face-hugging to please even the most casual fan of the series. 

The stand out performance, or performances, of this film has to come from Michael Fassbender. Reprising the role of the intellectually curious android David and also undertaking a new one as the identical robotic counterpart Walter, Fassbender delivers with both of his roles. I struggle to remember a film in which an actor has been able to create genuine sexual tension with himself (no, Austin Powers doesn’t count). The verbal sparring Fassbender participates in as David with Walter and the surviving crew members of the Covenant acts as an enthralling stop-gap between the disastrous first landing on the planet and unveiling the dark secrets that will inspire a truly shocking finale. Visually, Walter and David are inseparable, but it’s a tribute to the actor that he can make a simple American accent create two distinctive and believable personalities.

From what I’d heard about the film prior to viewing, there had been some debate as to the overall plot and ending. Personally, I quite liked both. I will refrain from revealing any spoilers, but the arc that had begun with Prometheus I felt was satisfyingly met, with Shaw and David’s story intertwining cleverly with the people of the Covenant. The ending itself was both haunting yet fitting, although I have to admit I had been able to work out the climax earlier than I’d have liked. As someone who longs for jaw dropping plot twists, I was slightly disappointed at the predictability of the ending, but nevertheless I think it fits in nicely with the story.

Having had time to reflect and think about Alien: Covenant, I think it’s fair to say the film has under delivered on the promising platform that Prometheus had built for it. The only character that I felt as though I was really rooting for to survive was Daniels. The rest of the crew felt very disconnected and individualised, with the relationships as artificial as the androids. This seems even more disappointing when you consider the underuse of both James Franco and the returning Guy Pearce, who have all too brief cameos in the film. The scenes that are designed to create unease and fear don’t have the same weight behind them that is traditionally associated with the Alien series. The idea seems to be to replace relentless terror with bucket loads of blood, and this tactic doesn’t quite resonate as well as Scott would have hoped.

Despite it being a reasonably enjoyable watch, and a film that I will undoubtedly watch again, I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the levels of terror and fear that are welcome baggage with Scott’s series. Having said all of this, there is still nothing quite like hearing the terrifying screech of the xenomorphs. And let me tell you, in the cinema, everyone can definitely hear you scream.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016, film, directed by Warren Beatty)

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first film as a director for eighteen years and as an actor for fifteen, and has the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, played by Beatty, at its centre. It is also a song within the film, actually composed by Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather, but for the purposes of the plot it is written and sung by Marla Mabrey, played by Lily Collins. The song applies as much to her as Hughes, the maverick who, despite his wealth and power, is shown too behaviourally odd for the template of corporate America. Similarly, Marla, a writer of songs rather than a singer, does not fit in with the expectations of Hollywood, where she has arrived with her mother (Annette Bening) from Virginia, as a contract actress, one of many, for Hughes’s film studio. Back home she had won a beauty contest, but a demure one since both mother and daughter are devout Baptists. Beatty, who also wrote the script, sets the film in the late 1950s/early 1960s and captures the church-going conservatism of Eisenhower era America. Eventually, the mother becomes tired of failing to have any meetings with Hughes, the promises of screen tests that never take place, and the general vacuity of Hollywood. She returns to Virginia, leaving her daughter with warnings of Hughes’s notoriety for bedding his contract actresses.
Frank Forbes  (Aiden Ehrenreich), the driver assigned by the studio to Marla, soon falls for her, and she for him, but they are both restrained not only by their religious backgrounds, Frank is a Methodist, but also by regulations imposed by Hughes. After Marla finally gets to meet Hughes, a triangle of sorts emerges, although this is not realised by Frank until the end of the film.
Marla does loosen up, but only as brief lapses from her Baptist upbringing. There is no trajectory into promiscuity or alcoholism. This is after all a romantic comedy, and Beatty successfully maintains a genial tone. In a similar vein, Frank’s personality becomes a little more steely when he is promoted from driver to one of Hughes’s close aides, but he retains his essential humanity.
Beatty obviously relished the role of Hughes and has great fun playing him, and this communicates to the audience, which is not a bad thing for a comedy to do. Hughes’s eccentricities were many, and Beatty plunders this fund for our entertainment: e.g. the obsession with TV dinners, burgers and banana nut ice cream; the repeated private viewings of Hell’s Angels, the World War One flying film he produced and co-directed in 1930; the ludicrous use of doubles  (Hughes employed more than one to fool the press and others). A more tragic side to Hughes, his addiction to codeine, is only mentioned in passing.
If ever there was a life open to fiction it was Hughes. In a way, he seems like a character from an American comic: supporting the conventional money making values of America, while paradoxically defined by strangeness and deviance. Currently, another ego-driven billionaire businessman is strutting the planet as US President. I think it is preferable when, like Hughes, they hide away.
Through this film, Beatty has created an opportunity for an impressive ensemble performance, which includes Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan. As well as the pay cheque, I think there was probably the motivation of working with Beatty and contribute to his welcome return to filmmaking,
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). Two of his publishing projects were recently represented at a festival in Rome, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Monday, 29 May 2017

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Deaths of the Poets" by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

A recent Radio 4 Book of the Week, Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape), is a thought-provoking and wildly amusing literary journey. The authors explore the legacies left by some the world’s most-notable poets, largely by visiting the geographical places associated with each poet’s final moments – taking in Britain, Europe and America. Opening with the death of young Chatterton, then exploring the tragic figures of Keats, Thomas, Plath and Sexton, to name but a few, the authors, employing an unusual first person plural in terms of voice, attempt to address the notion that poets – as opposed to novelists, say – are a unique breed of creative, in that they often carry a self-destructive urge to bow out of life when it proves too much to bear, or by enjoying the more visceral aspects of experience and often cutting their lives short. 

I came to this as an avid fan of several poets within the selection, and it made me feel better knowing the same voyeuristic, ‘net-twitching’ need to peer beyond the curtains of pure, biographical fact was felt by other writers out there, too. Treading the ground of more familiar stories leads to some genuinely illuminating discoveries, including the works of Rosemary Lightband and Frank O’Hara, which I did not know prior to reading this study.

 Where the writing is consistently high-quality, the structural design is less successful. Ironically, most sections would have benefitted from including more poetry, showing the connection between economy of form and a life short-lived, perhaps. The first half is also edited with a sharper eye: poets are grouped according to theme with some genuinely stand-out observations made by the authors.  ‘We know London had something to do with it. Indeed, a monochrome, peeling, puddly, just off-rationing country seems bound up with Plath’s suicide.’ Yet, the second half of the book is more meandering. A fatigue sets in for both writers and reader, as we take in yet another tragedy – outcomes of contractual commitments appearing to being played out, rather than the authors trying to prove an over-arching hypothesis. So that by the final poet, Farley and Symmons Roberts take their collective foot of the gas, reducing some of the impact of the study, overall. 

That said, this is not meant to be construed as high literary criticism – it is more about two poets essentially wondering if their own works will be canonised if they remain with us much longer, and the ways in which art is commodified for consumers. Vain enterprise, indeed, to be human. Or, as Keats states more helpfully in 'Ode to a Nightingale': ‘Thou was not born for death, immortal bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down.’ 

About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the disciplines of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Interview with Kim Slater

Kim Slater is a full-time Nottingham author, writing in two genres. 

Her first Young Adult book, Smart, won ten regional prizes and has been shortlisted for twenty-five regional and national awards, including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups Prize and her first two novels, Smart and A Seven-Letter Word, have both been nominated/longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Her third YA novel, 928 Miles from Home has just been published in hardback by Macmillan Children’s Books (May 2017).

Writing also as KL Slater for digital imprint, Bookouture (Hachette), Kim’s first two adult psychological thrillers, Safe with Me and Blink, reached the top five in the Amazon UK chart and top ten in the Amazon US chart. Her third thriller, Liar, is published June 2017. To date, she has sold over 300,000 digital copies of her adult crime books.

Kim holds a first-class honours degree in English & Creative Writing and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. She lives in Nottingham with her husband. Her website is http://kimslater.com/.

Interview with Jonathan Taylor

JT: What originally drew you to the genre of Young Adult fiction?

KS: I chose Writing for Children and Young Adults as one of the modules on my MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University as I thought it would be interesting. Up until this point I never really fancied writing for younger readers as I thought it would feel limiting and ultimately be censured by gatekeepers. In actual fact, I found it to be quite the opposite. I wrote a short story called Smart for my assignment piece and fell in love with writing strong, young voices. And I have always found librarians, teachers and my publisher, to be embracing of the difficult and diverse subjects I often choose to tackle in my books.

JT: You write in two genres: crime fiction and YA fiction. In your YA novels, there is a kind of detective work, where the young narrators try to understand a complex and mysterious adult world. What do you feel are the differences and overlaps between the two genres?

KS: Adult crime was always my first love, it’s what I wrote (unpublished) almost exclusively up until embarking on my MA course in 2010. So, it felt natural for me to thread a bit of a mystery through my YA novels. It serves to keep the reader (both adult and young readers) turning the pages which is particularly important in writing successful adult commercial crime. 

For me, the similarity between all genres, not just these two, is in writing complex, believable characters. My characters are often flawed and it’s a challenge to get the reader to empathise with them but I enjoy revealing all their different facets when writing both YA and adult crime. Young readers and commercial crime fans all like a good story, so crafting a compelling narrative is a definite similarity, too.

A difference I find when I’m writing is being able to explore interesting issues more thoroughly in my YA fiction whereas in commercial crime, I can’t afford to dwell too much on anything that slows down the pace. That might sound a bit prescriptive and it’s easy to be sniffy about it but I love writing in this genre. I feel I have a good handle on what my adult readers are looking for - in what they deem to be a good book - and I enjoy crafting the characters and stories.

JT: Both Smart and Seven Letter Word are written from the perspective of teenage boys. I found the voices both compelling and convincing. How do you inhabit a teenage boy’s voice and, indeed, psychology like this?

KS: …and now a third teenage boy’s perspective in my latest novel, 928 Miles from Home
In the beginning, I never set out to ‘write boys’ but the character always comes first for me, even before I know what the full story will be and all the main character voices – in my YA fiction – have thus far been boys.

This has had an unexpected and welcome outcome in that schools inform me the books are very popular with their boys. I get asked by lots of girls in schools if I’ll write a YA female protagonist and my answer is that yes, of course I will . . . if she presents herself!

I inhabit a teenage boy’s voice in exactly the same way as I approach any voice I write: male, female, young, old . . . I put myself inside that person’s head. For some time before I start to write, actually. I get to know the character, listen to the little quirks and personality traits that make them the person they are. At the same time, I think about their world and the sorts of things that might happen. 

I don’t like to put labels on people, psychologically or otherwise and this allows me to write characters on a human level, from the perspective of their own experiences and how it feels to be them . . . regardless of what the experts might say. Within reason. I call it ‘simmering’ and it’s a very important part of the process for me. When I get a feel for that character and the world he or she lives in, then the words begin to flow.

JT: What would you like younger readers to take from your novels? What’s your aim in writing for them?

KS: When they’ve read a Kim Slater novel, I would like young readers to feel that they have walked in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Often my main characters are young people who feel excluded and who feel different to their peers in some way. By the end of the book I’d like to think that the reader identifies with them, that despite apparent differences, people are essentially all the same. 

I enjoy exploring issues when I’m writing YA and my aim is to get young people talking about difficult and often contentious subjects. I try and avoid being too political, I like to show both sides like a debate and for them to think about how they might form their own opinions. Happily, my books are popular in schools for this very reason.

JT: What do you enjoy most about writing, and being a writer? What do you enjoy least?

KS:The thing I enjoy the most is reminding myself that my passion is now also my career. Now I’m writing in two genres, the financial rewards are excellent but if I wasn’t a professional writer I’d be working a day job and writing for no money at all – indeed, as I did for many years!

The thing I enjoy the least is also, ironically, I believe the secret to success; getting so utterly wrapped up in a fictional world and its characters that one forgets real life and real people are just outside the door. Writing draws me in every day like a powerful magnet and it’s not until I physically get out into the fresh air it releases its insatiable grip!

JT: What are you working on at the moment?

KS: I’m currently ‘simmering’ my fourth YA novel for Macmillan Children’s Books which is again set in Nottingham and explores issues such as poverty and the affects that crime can have on a family. And I am working on my fourth adult psychological crime novel, writing as KL Slater.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Review by Jeremy Sumner of "Get Out"

Is there anything scarier than realising whilst watching a fictional movie that it could almost certainly be a reality? 

Recent trends in cinema would seem to suggest that the horror films that hit a bit closer to home are becoming more and more popular. Films such as The Purge (somehow) have been so well received that they’ve found themselves in the position to continue making sequels until audiences have had enough of watching the general public disintegrate into sadistic psychopaths for twenty-four hours. Even upcoming movies, such as Life, which focuses on the discovery of hostile life from Mars, hits a lot closer to home than possessed dolls and vengeful poltergeists. It should be no surprise then that Get Out has captured the attention of the public and critics alike.

The story revolves around Chris Washington having to go and meet his girlfriend Rose Armitage’s parents for the first time in an isolated rural environment; a scary enough prospect for most. However, the draw of the film comes with the added factor that Chris is concerned that Rose hasn’t told her family he’s black, leading him to worry of any hostilities he may (almost certainly will) encounter. As the dream weekend evolves into a perpetual nightmare, Chris slowly begins to understand the gravity of the situation he has found himself in.

I confess I haven’t found myself connecting with many horror films I’ve watched. The best that I’ve watched in recent memory was The Witch, which depicted the supernatural fears and trials faced by a tormented family in medieval England. I admired this film for its boldness in avoiding cliché jump scares at all cost, with the real horror stemming from the despair and trauma faced by those inhabiting the world. Ever since then, I’ve always admired films that have been able to induce moments of pure terror and fear in an audience just by the placement and structure of the scene in regards to the plotline; Get Out follows this pattern wonderfully. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got anything against jump scares. As a matter of fact, this film has a fantastically placed jumpy moment that caught the entire audience off guard. However, the real power in this film is the tension that is built up throughout. From the first arrival at Rose’s parent’s house, myself and the entire audience were on the edge of our seats, genuinely worrying for the well-being of Chris in this completely alien world. Without revealing any spoilers, the final scene of the movie was so powerful in its terror that it caused outcries of fear and disbelief from everyone in the room, including myself.

In the starring role, Daniel Kaluuya acts fantastically as the sceptical and reserved Chris Washington. I found myself drawn to how effortlessly he handled a character with such emotional depth and trauma, and how easily he managed to develop Chris in a believable manner. His mannerisms when faced with the cringe-inducing racially charged questioning from the other guests at the Armitage family house almost mirrored that of my friend’s reactions when they were watching it with me. The reality from which this film draws is replicated on screen to such a level that it becomes even more horrifying to me that extreme racism like this does indeed occur in our world.

The Armitage family themselves prove themselves to be worthy opponents for Chris, with notable mentions to Allison Williams for her compassionate and understanding portrayal of Rose, and the hypnotically calm depiction of the malevolent Missy Armitage by Catherine Keener. Betty Gabriel, as the hauntingly ever-present maid Georgina, fantastically provides the strongest point of unease in this film, her excruciatingly calm voice and exterior clearly masking a tormented soul underneath. 

A great success of this film also comes with its moments of comedy, primarily provided by Chris’s best friend Rod Williams, played by Lil Rel Howery. This is an area in which director and writer Jordan Peele has thrived, with his success in comedy coming from his Emmy winning TV series Key and Peele. Howery’s scenes offer brief moments of relief and humour as he interacts with Chris over the phone, reflecting the difference in worlds they currently find themselves in.

As a horror film, Get Out has it all. The unbearably strong tension and fear built up throughout the entire film finishes with an incredibly horrifying yet satisfying climax; as clichéd as it sounds, the actors really did bring the characters to life, and scarily so; the director and producers shot a fantastically picturesque yet haunting film with a similarly spooky soundtrack to go with it (it’s safe to say that I will never be able to listen to “Run, Rabbit, Run, Rabbit” ever again). What’s even more impressive is that this film has come at the perfect time. As the world around us appears more and more bleak, this film challenges us with the frightening reality of racism that is taking place in our world every day. Walking out of the cinema, I couldn’t help but worry about just how real that film could be, and how many Armitage families and their friends are in this world.

In terms of ticking all the right boxes and operating within the realms of reality, I can safely say that Get Out will go down as the best horror film I have ever seen.