Everybody's Reading

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. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Interview with Hélène Cardona

About Hélène Cardona
Hélène Cardona’s recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry), the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), winner of a Hemingway Grant; Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne); The Birnam Wood by her father José Manuel Cardona (forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2018); and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.  
She has also translated Rimbaud, Baudelaire, René Depestre, Ernest Pépin, Aloysius Bertrand, Maram Al-Masri, Eric Sarner, Jean-Claude Renard, Nicolas Grenier, and Christiane Singer. She contributes essays to The London Magazine, co-edits Plume and Fulcrum, holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut & Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, worked as a translator for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College & LMU. Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Drunken Boat, Asymptote and The Warwick Review.     http://helenecardona.com

Interview with Jonathan Taylor

JT: How would you describe your own (very individualistic) poetic voice? What are your intentions in your poetry?

HC: I write as a form of self-expression, fulfilment, transcendence, healing, to transmute pain and experience into beauty. For me, poetry is a process of self-revelation, an exploration of hidden dimensions in myself, and also a way to express the profound experience of the fundamental interconnection of all in the universe. Writing is cathartic as it extends a search for peace, for serenity, rooted in a desire to transcend and reconcile the fundamental duality I see in life. Ultimately, I seek expansion of consciousness.

We are stretched to the frontiers of what we know, exploring language and the psyche. The poem is a gesture, an opening toward a greater truth or understanding. Art brings us to the edge of the incomprehensible. The poems, in their alchemy and geology, are fragments of dreams, enigmas, shafts of light, part myth, and part fable. Mysticism constitutes the experience of what transcends us while inhabiting us. Poetry, as creation, borders on it. It is metaphysical. It offers a new vision of the universe, reveals the soul’s secrets and mysteries. These lines from the poem “The Isle of Immortals” encapsulate my philosophy:

The ultimate aim is reverence for the universe.
The ultimate aim is love for life.
The ultimate aim is harmony within oneself.

What defines my writing is the sacred dimension of the poetic experience. And it is founded in very concrete reality, a reconciliation of the spiritual and the carnal. It speaks of transformation and seeks the unison of all that lives. 

JT: Clearly, your poetry is enjoyed by a wide range of different readers; but I was wondering if you have a kind of ideal reader? That is, who is the reader you imagine when you are writing?

HC: Thank you for saying that. I’m delighted to have a wide range of readers. But I don’t write for a specific kind of reader. I’m hoping my poetry leaves the reader in awe, with a renewed sense of wonder and of the sacred. 

JT: Your poetry collections Dreaming My Animal Selves and Life in Suspension are bilingual, and you write in French and English equally fluently. What are the challenges of presenting your work in this way? For example, are there things that one language can do which the other can’t, and vice versa?

HC: English has been my language of choice for a long time now. French is my mother tongue but English became the dominant language when I moved to the United States. Actually it took over even before, when I wrote my thesis on Henry James for my masters at the Sorbonne. I was already an anglophile, having lived and studied in England, and I loved writing in English. I feel as if English, even though it was my fifth language, chose me. So I write in English first and then translate into French. I love this exercise of going back and forth because it enables me to make beautiful discoveries. I’m also influenced by other languages, including Spanish, German, Italian and Latin. It’s very stimulating and enriching. I was born in Paris and grew up in Switzerland, France, Monaco, England, Wales, Germany, Greece and Spain, absorbing different cultures and ideas. 

When I wrote my first collection in English, I did not originally intend it to be a bilingual collection. It was my first publisher’s idea that I present it as a bilingual collection. This turned out to be a brilliant idea. It was fascinating because it rekindled my love of the French language and of writing in French again. The French translation absolutely informed the English version. I made discoveries with the French and it became a dance between both languages. I also felt more freedom than if I were translating someone else because it was my own text. This has been the process for all three collections.

To answer your question, there are always things one language can do which the other can’t. And so the process is a bit like that of a detective searching for clues and of a mathematician looking to solve a problem.

In my interview with John Ashbery for Le Mot Juste, which was also published on the Poetry Foundation, I commented that French leaves less room for ambiguity. It’s a very precise language. So is English but English is more fluid. Interestingly, Ashbery responded that he needs “sort of a sfumato effect to hide in or to find material in.” 

JT: How do all the languages influence you and your writing?

HC: I think they stimulate the mind in different ways. I’m naturally curious about other cultures. Having been raised in a very international environment makes me a citizen of the world. Both my parents were immigrants. My mother left Greece to move to France. My father escaped the Franco dictatorship so as not to be jailed for his writing. That’s how my parents met. I am an immigrant too. After moving to the U.S., I became an American citizen. So I’m keenly aware about not fitting into molds. I wasn’t the typical French girl growing up. At home, all my parents’ friends were foreigners. My dad worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Paris, among other places, and his colleagues were mostly from South America or Spain, but also from Iran and other countries. I literally grew up in the U.N., which is a microcosm of the world.

So very early on I would transition between languages and countries. It’s harder to be nationalistic when you’re made of several countries. It opens up your mind. When you learn new languages it creates synapses in the brain. They inform my writing, consciously, and unconsciously. All kinds of associations come to mind when I read or write.

JT: Your poetry draws heavily on dream, mythical and psychoanalytic imagery and archetypes. In this sense, I suppose it’s not really “poetry of the everyday,” perhaps.  Why are you drawn to this kind of imagery in your poetry?

HC: I like to cultivate a relationship with my inner self through dreams and love to remember them. I keep a notebook by my bed and write them down. You always dream, it’s only a matter of remembering. The day is the waking dream. When I trained with Sandra Seacat at the Actors’ Studio in New York, she introduced me to a particular form of dream work, which could be called Jungian. I have done this work for many years now. It’s very therapeutic. And it can also be used to develop a character in a play or movie. Your inner self has all the answers and will give them to you, as long as you’re meant to know what you’re asking for. 
In the dream you are connected to your inner self and to the divine. We experience the dream’s intelligence and the world psyche. Everything in the universe is connected. Dreams provide insight into the personal and archetypal dimensions of the unconscious. I’ve continued to train with different teachers and shamans. Dream work is medicine for the soul and helps us integrate our conscious and unconscious selves so we can explore our path, gain self-insight and wisdom, and fulfill ourselves. Many poems are born from dreams. It’s a wonderful gift to be given to hear a new melody or lines this way. For instance, the poem “My Mother Ceridwen” came from a dream: my mother appeared to me as the Celtic goddess Ceridwen.

JT: You’ve talked in interviews about the “transformations” of self involved in acting, costumes and performance. What are the similarities and differences, do you think, between the kinds of transformations of selves in your poetry, and those involved in, say, acting?

HC: Acting and writing are two creative outlets for me, two ways of expressing who I am. It helped me a lot when I was in drama school studying Shakespeare from a performer’s perspective that I had already read most of the plays and knew the language. The fact that I had studied so much literature made it easy for me to analyze the texts. But then you want to get out of your head as an actor. And studying the Meisner technique was very useful for that. It helps you be in the moment and react to what’s going on in the room, to be acutely aware of your surroundings, of others. It shifts the attention from you to whoever is with you. Which in turn is helpful when you read poetry. There is an audience you want to address, you can’t just be in your head. And you have to project. There isn’t always a mike. So good diction helps. I also like to hear what I write, the sounds and rhythms. If I stumble, maybe I need to change a word.

As an actor I am drawn to films that are visually beautiful and poetic. At the same time, I always pay close attention to the screenplay. It’s the backbone of the film. I was lucky to work with Lawrence Kasdan (Mumford). He writes all his screenplays, and they’re usually original screenplays. He’s a terrific writer and director. I was also lucky to work on Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat. Robert Nelson Jacobs’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA award. It’s based on the beautiful novel by Joanne Harris. Great writing helps the actor. 

Acting and writing both raise your consciousness and in that sense, enhance one another.
On a personal level, it’s very satisfying to have more than one creative outlet. If I’m not working on an acting project, I can write. I can always use my time creatively. 

JT: Which of your many talents - acting, voice-over, poetry, etc. - do you enjoy spending time on the most?

HC: I’ve worn many hats over the years: teacher, writer, actor, translator, dancer, shaman, dream analyst. I have multiple selves. To be an actor you have to be a chameleon. The search for fulfillment is a recurrent theme in my life. It’s the title of the thesis I wrote about Henry James. Jean-Claude Renard writes that “I” by essence becomes “Other,” that is to say “someone who not only holds the power to fulfill his or her intimate self more and more intensely, but also at the same time, can turn a singular into a plural by creating a work that causes, in its strictest individuality, a charge emotionally alive and glowing with intensity.” In that sense the work’s artistry affects others and helps their own transformation. This applies to any art. I’m happy as long as I can express myself through art and I love to work. Whether writing or acting, I find myself in an exalted state of concentration and consciousness, like a meditation or trance. It’s as if time stops or expands and I’m able to touch other worlds and keep a sense of connection with what is bigger than me.    

JT: What are you working on at the moment?

HC: With my partner John, we have adapted his novel Primate into a screenplay and we’re looking to get it made into a film. 

I just co-translated, with Yves Lambrecht, Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. It was commissioned by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. It was a ten-month long endeavor. The Civil War Writings retrace Whitman’s writing and service as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. We also translated the in-depth commentaries that scholars Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill wrote for each text. The poems and texts are thus bookended with a foreword and afterword. They explore how writing and image can be used to examine war, conflict, trauma, and reconciliation in Whitman’s time and today. 

Ce que nous portons, my translation of What We Carry by Dorianne Laux, was recently published by Editions du Cygne in Paris.

I’ve been translating Franco-Syrian poet Maram Al-Masri. Several poems were published in the Plume Anthology 4, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Anastamos, and Exchanges Poetry Journal, and some are forthcoming in Drunken Boat, the new issue of Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics, and a few other journals. 

Some translations of French poet Eric Sarner were just published in The Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation and a translation of Nicolas Grenier is forthcoming in TAB: The Journal of Poetry & PoeticsBeyond Elsewhere, my translation of Plus loin qu’ailleurs by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, just came out from White Pine Press. It was awarded a Hemingway Grant by the French Ministry of Culture. 

For quite some time I’ve been translating the poetry of my father José Manuel Cardona from Spanish. Salmon Poetry will publish The Birnam Wood next year. You can read some of the poems in World Literature TodayWaxwing Magazine, Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art, The American Journal of Poetry, National Translation Month, Askew Poetry Journal, Periódico de Poesía, Plume, and TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics.

I’ve translated an essay from Christiane Singer’s book N’oublie pas les chevaux écumants du passé, which just came out in Asymptote.

Finally, I’m co-translating another book by Maram Al-Masri with Marc Vincenz and co-producing the documentary Pablo Neruda: The People’s Poet, with Mark Eisner.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta Books, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Review by Peter Flack of "Radio Sunrise" by Anietie Isong

Anietie Isong's Radio Sunrise is a bitter satire on life in post colonial Nigeria that would have pleased fellow Nigerian musician and political commentator Fela Kuti. It is the story of Ifiok, a radio journalist who wants to produce radio drama and do the right thing from the point of view of story telling, but keeps on running into nepotism, superstition and politics. It's a world of brown envelopes that would have even satisfied Neil Hamilton. 

Ifiok's radio show is cut due to government pressure for more time for religious broadcasts and official announcements, so Ifiok accepts a news job. He is sent back to his home region to report on the successful conversion of former extremists who engaged in attacks on oil pipe lines and kidnappings to peaceful educational pursuits. Ifiok teaches them how to make documentaries. Meanwhile the government has reneged on its agreement with the oppositionists, so they make a special documentary, for national consumption. 

This is a witty, sardonic book, that looks at the failings of human nature with a kindly heart. But it is still an incisive piece of satire. Do yourself a favour. Read it.

About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher and member of the  National Union of Teachers. He is co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy project and chair of Everybody's Reading Festival in Leicester.

Review by Katherine Hetzel of "The Knowing" by Kevan Manwaring

The Knowing follows the story of Janey, an American singer who, when we first meet her, is pretty much at rock bottom in her life. But when a mysterious journal is left for her, everything changes; she is forced to confront the past, clean up her act and find a new path with the help of her Scottish ancestors.

Janey discovers she has The Knowing – she is able to see beyond our world and into faerieland because of a curse laid on a distant relative and passed down through the female line. The journal provides the link between the two worlds, with Robert Kirk – captive of the Fairy Queen and one of Janey’s ancestors – writing about his life in captivity and living in the hope that, one day, a descendant of his will release him. In relation to fairyland, the author is knowledgable and draws on existing literature from Robert Kirk’s own research into all things faerie in the 17th century, as well as having done some serious research into the music that Janey sings and the Scottish landscape she visits.

What makes this book interesting is that, throughout the main narrative provided by Janey, there are points where the reader can hear parts of the story told by other voices – read Robert Kirk’s journal, or see the life of one of Janey’s ancestors through whom The Knowing is passed, for example. Although readers are assured that they can read the main narrative on its own without following these links, I did not find it so; in certain places, the main narrative would not have made sense without visiting the ‘other voice’, yet in other places, the break in narrative felt false and unnecessary, even annoying at times. I confess to not following all of them, because a lot of the information relating to Janey’s ancestors had been revealed by researchers Allen or Eliza before we encountered the same information, albeit told differently. Using digital media in this way is reasonably novel, so perhaps it is something to be refined in future works. The novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.

About the reviewer 
Katherine Hetzel is an ex-microbiologist who took to writing stories for her children when they were young. She now writes mainly for children, having published two books of short stories and one novel (StarMark) to date, with another due to be published this summer. She has also been published in several anthologies for adults, blogs at Squidge’s Scribbles, and enjoys visiting schools to deliver creative writing sessions. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” (exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 11 February – 17 April 2017)

The Royal Academy exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 coincides with the centenary of the Bolshevik led uprising. The 1932 date relates to a particular exhibition held in Leningrad during that year: Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic. This brought together, for the last time under Stalin, both the avant-garde and Socialist Realism, which had coexisted since the 1920s (the RA aims to reflect this inclusive agenda). Following the Leningrad exhibition, Stalin decreed Socialist Realism as the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union, ending an era of vibrant creative activity.

The RA exhibition is comprehensive in its approach, and the visual arts it covers are painting, photography, film, graphics, ceramics and textiles. There is even a full-scale model of El Lissitzky’s 1932 Design for an Apartment for Narkomfin (People’s Commissariat of Finance), and a small room devoted to a reconstruction of one of Tatlin’s eccentric gliders.

Two Russian avant-garde isms —Futurism and Suprematism— predated the Revolution by a few years, but their leading artists shared its ideals and contributed to its causes of equality and justice. Early on, some of these avant-garde artists painted bright colours to decorate trains taking the optimistic messages of the Revolution to small towns and the countryside. This is a revolution we might still believe in, and I feel the RA exhibition could have shown more of what must have been genuinely exciting times. I remember once seeing and entering a mock-up of a carriage of one of those agitprop trains, and the colours and designs of the propaganda posters communicated the sheer energy and enthusiasm of those first revolutionary years in a way the RA exhibition fails to achieve. By perhaps not wanting to be too starry-eyed about a revolution that brought much cruelty and suffering, the RA misses showing the exhilaration also present, and a more complete representation of the time is lacking.

The exhibition of course has star names: Malevich, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Popova, Tatlin, Rodchenko, and the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky. Both experimental poet and graphic artist with his own bold and powerful style, his 1921 poster series Enemies Surround Us is exhibited. As satirical cartoons on the oppression of English workers, they have at last found their way home. In the same room, Rodchenko’s photograph of Mayakovsky presents him with eyes, one in half shadow, which continue to stare at us with an almost frightening intensity of vision and commitment. In 1930 he shot himself, at a time when he was disillusioned with turns the Revolution had taken. The 150,000 who attended his funeral are evidence of his popularity. To others, like the painter Marc Chagall, the revolution had become sour much earlier than 1930.  He had founded an art school at his home city of Vitebsk, and was also its Commissar of Arts. Nevertheless, disappointed, he left Russia for France in 1922.

In the late 1920s, the authorities were denouncing Malevich’s work for not showing social realities. Despite this, he was given a room of his own in the 1932 Leningrad exhibition. This is also the case at the RA, and they have included those works exhibited 80+ years ago: Suprematist abstractions alongside representational work attempting to conform. His paintings of peasants, though, show blank faces, commenting, it seems, on loss of identity under the communist system.

The RA’s Malevich room also includes work by one of his Suprematist followers, Nikolai Suetin. His designs on coffee pot, cup, saucer, plate, inkwell and vase, manufactured by the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd, are one of the exhibition’s highlights. Still looking fresh and wonderful, they could also be labelled Constructivist, as might El Lissitzky’s apartment design. Constructivism was the only avant-garde ism developed in the Revolution. It is basically an extension into areas of design and production of Suprematist painting’s use of visual fundamentals.

Aesthetically, some of the very best exhibits are graphics. The Stenberg Brothers, Vladimir and Georgi, produced stunning theatre and film posters using photomontage in Constructivist compositions with dynamic angles, and space as an active element of the designs. The colours are also tremendous. On a personal note, after completing a design degree I studied at a teacher training college in 1981/82, and on a wall of my hall of residence room I placed a few postcards of images that were touchstones for my own creative aspirations. They included Russian Revolution film posters by the Stenberg Brothers. I valued their work highly, and still do.

The final rooms are profoundly depressing. Stalin’s centrally planned drive to industrialisation demanded images of heroic workers, especially the ‘shock workers’ who were promoted as examples of those whose productivity exceeded the official targets. The grim reality behind this propaganda included strikers and slow workers being imprisoned or executed. The Union of Soviet Artists suppressed the avant-garde, leaving only the dirge of Socialist Realism. Artworks from one of the twentieth century’s greatest times for artistic innovation were locked away in storerooms and cupboards. State terror claimed victims from all walks of life, including the brilliant avant-garde theatre director Meyerhold, who was tortured and shot. The exhibition ends with the emergence of this ruthless and brutal tyranny.

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 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).