Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

"The cranes that build the cranes" by Jeremy Dyson (Abacus, 2010)

"Isle of the Wolf" builds up rather slowly. It could have started on the island of Lalouppe. The main character has added security features to the place, including sensors. I thought the story was going to take a different turn at "He was amazed at the sense of connection they gave him with the place, as if Lalouppe was now an extension of his consciousness - part of his nervous system ... [it] was answering the need in him that he had always thought could never be answered."

"Yani's Day" features Waterstone's, a SuperKiller and a budding artist. It's the most original piece in the book, and a good read. I liked "The Challenge Club" the most (in particular the cinema scene on p.59, the hotel scene, and the ambition of the main character) though the ending (like those of most of the other stories) somewhat disappointed me and the wife didn't figure enough.

"Out of bounds" and "Come April" didn't work. "The Coué" is quite a lot better (on p.115 there's "The ... skin ... was yellow in colour"). The main character doesn't want a child. Instead he buys a mummified baby. It's maybe my 3rd favourite story.

The final three stories didn't excite me. In "Bound South" it's 1913. The main character is told a story on a train by a man who turns out to have been a character in the grim tale. "Michael" is standard for the genre. A boy is tempted into a dangerous situation by a girl who (unsurprisingly) turns to have been dead months before. I think it could have started with the discovery of the card. "The Bear", about a fancy-dress party that goes wrong, has a muted ending too.

Other reviews

  • Tibor Fischer (The outstanding turn is "Yani's Day")
  • James Urquhart (A habit of toying with his characters' vanities and insecurities places Dyson alongside Roald Dahl, whose twistily mystifying stories generate a similar sense of unease. ... Following an indifferent first novel, this collection confirms Dyson's mastery of stylishly disquieting short fiction.)

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

"Much Possessed" by John Foggin (Smith Doorstop, 2016)

The Acknowledgements mention more competitions (7, including a Plough Prize win) than magazines (6, including The North, The Interpreter's House, etc).

There are sequences connected by subject matter (e.g. Mallory) or by method. Endings fall into groups - e.g. the "who knows?" group "Who can say who they were", "who knows what happens next", "I don't know what to make of it", "why have we brought you these wild white flowers?", "and no-one knows what it means", "I do not know for a second the woman who stares back at me". All the same I had trouble tuning in to the styles. I got the impression early on that I couldn't work out the intention behind some of the poems. So in the hope of arriving at a greater understanding I made some notes

  • "While" - While a male angel and Adam aimlessly debate, the Eden apple's "acid sweetness filled the dark of [Eve's] soft mouth like a cushioned pearl". The phrase "cushioned pearl" makes me think of a pearl being presented on a little cushion. Perhaps the pearl-cushion is like the pip-pulp of the apple. Perhaps it's a pearl of wisdom. But anyway, I can't visualise the simile. Then "The acid just bided its time, slowly dissolving the pearl till nothing was left but the dark at the core, slaked ash". My knowledge of chemistry is very limited, but "slaked ash" confuses me - where did the ash come from? And I don't understand the fable overall. A feminist message?
  • "The Priest and the Ploughman go Skating" - "They have no language for not working. They want for the cold flags of a chapel ... or ... the red of the Fordson, sharp blue exhaust". Equating priest-hood and ploughing as more than mere professions, both preferring a "straight furrow"?
  • "Blended" doesn't use quote-marks (hence risking confusion between speech and narrative - but perhaps this confusion refers back to the title?) and yet uses line-breaks that look gratuitous to me. I think it would work better as prose.
  • "Richard before Bosworth" - a monologue with updated language but few surprises. So?
  • "A Pibroch for (MacCraig)" - even after the note I don't know why the piece is described as a Pibroch. And why end with "Still learning me your language" rather than "Still teaching me your language"?
  • "For the true naming of the world" - one needs to pass through a mythic stage (fair enough) before "stones and flowers might come to know themselves" (I don't know what that means). What does "true" mean in the title?
  • "In the Meantime" describes how Bede's sparrow "comes up against thatch ... beats its wings, it tastes a wind with the scent of rain, the thin smell of snow, of stars, and somehow it's out into the turbulence of everywhere, and who knows what happens next." - the sparrow exits limited life into ubiquity/eternity - the mystery of afterlife?
  • "Much Possessed" has a long set-up of three stanzas describing a taxidermist and her skills, then one about what she (unsurprisingly in this context) thinks of when looking at her hands.
  • "Bounty" ends with "Imagine a squirrel with a tail. Think of a rat" which is how I think of squirrels anyway. I've used the image in pieces before, though not as a punch-line.
  • I like the start of "Wren" ("God thought of the smallest coin/ he could make, and made the Wren/ to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,/ tail cocked like a flintlock trigger") but is the poem saying any more than "Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?"? It's not the only poem whose punch-line provides the insight that creatures great and small die even if they somehow don't deserve to.
  • Roy Marshall's opinion (see below) of ‘Whether it cared or not’ contrasts with mine. Perhaps I've read too little - or too much - theology.
  • I don't like "One Sunday" though I like the next poem, "Colouring In". I can easily imagine people having opposite preferences.
  • I don't get what the 39-line "First Pressing" is trying to do.
  • I get (and like) "Short back and sides" though - a conventional template and layout ably filled in.
  • I like "What the Owls Saw" (though not the usage of "fractals")
  • "A Proper Job" sags after the first stanza, which does a good job of introducing the plot and tone. The ending's good though. It would be good in prose too. What do the line-breaks add?
  • I didn't understand what the viewed episode was about in "A Dreadful Trade". And was the narrator blind? I think I'm missing an allusion or two. [Aha! Later I found King Lear Act 4, Scene 6. Edgar - "half way down/ Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!"]
  • It didn't dawn on me until I read Helena Nelson's review that "Myra" might be about Myra Hindley.
  • I didn't see anything beyond the surface in "Chimes", which makes me think I didn't get it.
  • The poeticisms in "Cold Comfort" (repetitions, line-breaks) do little to disguise that it's based on an all too familiar plot.
  • "St Ives/Porthmeor 1953" like the previous poem is a captured moment - a well observed anecdote. This time there's less of an attempt to poetize it. I like it
  • I liked "I made this box" (moreso after having read neighbouring poems). It's mostly a list poem, itemizing things to help someone "know the random loveliness of being alive" - "black branches snagged on the weir's rim", "a sheriff's badge". "I wondered if you'd find the answers or if I might understand the questions".
  • "A weak force" works well and is moving. It's about reactions (by a parent?) to a suicide by jumping off a tall building. The deceased is imagined as shutting their eyes as they jumped, because "when you did that the world// would go away the world/ would not see you". "I remember how you ran like a dream./ I remember how you laughed when I swore/ I would catch you". The parts that work best are prose.
  • I can't see how "Untrammelled" expects to work.
  • "Falling apart" is a sestina (with a missing line-break on p.77?) that doesn't work for me.
  • "Curtain call" flirts with prose. I like it. After pre-op - "all around, the extras,/ lighting crew and hangers-on,/ who idly watch you being made up and dressed/ while you fail to remember any lines for this part/ that you've never played"

Summarizing my jottings -

  • I like "Wren", "Colouring In", "Short back and sides", "A Proper Job", "St Ives/Porthmeor 1953", "I made this box", "A weak force", "Curtain call" - more poems than I'd often like in a book.
  • The poems I like are later in the book. I tend to read books from start to end, so early poems can provoke a reaction that colours my response to the rest of the book. Perhaps it's not that the later poems were better, but that I was in a better mood then. Or I'd learnt by then how better to appreciate the pieces.
  • I've a problem with descriptive pieces if I can't see an ulterior motive
  • I can easily miss allusions big and small.
  • I've a problem with dramatic monologues where the requirements of drama/performance drag the piece out

He makes many interesting points on "John Foggin- stocktaking", amongst them -

  • I took my cue from The world’s wife and worked away at ventriloqual monologues spoken by fallen angels. I like some of them, but no-one else seems to
  • It’s a long business, learning not to shy away from hard truths. Kim Moore has taught me that in her poems that deal with domestic violence in her lovely collection, The art of falling. And then, in March this year, in a residential she ran, she somehow ambushed me into writing a poem about my son’s suicide, direct, unmediated through games with myth and personae. It’s the poem I’ve waited all my life to write

He's been inspired by a variety of experiences, and has re-started writing poetry a few times, which has resulted in a collection of poems from different phases of life, based on different aesthetics. A mode of interpretation that works for one poem from one phase may not be applicable to the next.

Other reviews

  • Roy Marshall (I don’t really want to write an analysis of something I am still marvelling at. I just want to enjoy it! ... ‘Whether it cared or not’ and ‘A Dry Place’ are breath-taking challenges to theological dogma that are driven by a compassionate need to question what has been handed down.)
  • Helena Nelson (Nearly a quarter of the poems are dramatic monologues from characters as various as Lucifer, Richard III, Myra Hindley, and one of John Milton’s daughters. John Foggin is an excellent entertainer: there are numerous switches and changes of costume, as well as considerable skill in voice and technique)
  • Kim Moore (There’s ‘For the true naming of the world’ which is a beautiful poem which I think underneath is about writing ... Or ‘Colouring in’ which has the best ending to a poem I’ve read ... ‘A Weak Force.’ ... explores suicide, and the impact of suicide on those left behind. However, it is also a beautiful poem and as well as being about falling and leaving and death, it is also about love, and the nature of love. There is an urgency mixed with acceptance mixed with anger in this poem, which makes it utterly compelling.)

Saturday, 13 January 2018

"Broken Cities" by Katy Evans-Bush (Smith Doorstop, 2017)

Poems from Ambit, PN Review, etc.

There's no "Here and Now".

  • If it's Here, it's now and then - time stops, or "time has warped" (p.8), or there's a comparison of the present with the past ("Field of Fire, 1555", "Prior Bolton's Oriel Window") often concerning London, nostalgia and decay. In "Snowing" (the day after a cremation?) "What was black and grey the previous day has turned to grey and white. Already Dad's dust must be sinking down".
  • If it's Now, it's here and there - abandonment or displacement (parties in ocean depths) though little movement. There's an immobile cat owner in "The Broken City" - "Who are those people? you ask, pointing a finger at the foot of your bed". In "The Great Illness" the character is wheelchair-bound. Train journeys are unpleasant.

"Prior Bolton's Oriel Window" describes an early 16th century scene of a Prior safely watching from on high his monks. He had a house built high in Harrow Hill to avoid dying in floods like the monks, fools and sinners below him. This is compared to us watching our own Prior Boltons on screens, "and they see us, with their data-gathering technology".

"Don't Look Down" is mostly in rhyming couplets with irregular line lengths. There's sing-song rhyme - "Oh, retro moon of London,/ How analogue you are!/ We lost all our signal,/ Down in the cellar bar" (p.21). We're told that

Bing
sure could sing:
it made him so rich he could afford to spend all his Christmases
on isthmuses.

but we can't all be so lucky. Anyway "crooning is a form of nostalgia" and "Tony Soprano/ at the piano/ plays like there's no tomorrow./ There is no tomorrow."

I was distracted in "The Milk God" when the poem left its realist beginnings, wondering who/what the God was (a big plastic bottle? a dead person?) - "Next to the sink sits the granddaddy, the sun,/ of all milk bottles. This mighty being/ stands tall and kind of bearded, his translucent plastic/ body almost mystical. Visible inside him/ where it radiates heat, and the smell that forms their atmosphere,/ is the source of his power: a hardened orb/ of golden orange". I had more trouble with p.18, p.19, p.20-22, p.23 (I think a poem that compares the underworld with the London Underground, and Tube stations with Stations of the cross needs to do more), p.26, p.30, p.31 - perhaps an indication that she's taking more risks while I've become more conservative. Does "Gyb" on p.31 mean "Got Your Back"?

Other reviews

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

"The Great Vowel Shift" by Robin Houghton (Telltale Press, 2014)

13 poems, none over a page long. The acknowledgements section is as extensive as some books', mentioning The Rialto, The North, Agenda, The Interpreter's House, and wins in 2 competitions.

A glance at the titles ("The Last", "Closure", "Ellipis", "Still here", "Fermata") reveals an interest in time and permanence. Often the more specific subject matter of the poems isn't obvious. I needed help understanding what "The Last" was about (my initial guess was 'fantasy lovers'). I found "River Ouse, Rodmell, 1941" less of a riddle, though unless one realises that it's about [Woolf's] suicide by drowning, one might be puzzled. Its symbolism of pebbles as death-wish grows stronger towards the end - "Pebbles lean into her, take us they say, take us, the floods are coming// but like Noah she must leave some behind, the unbelievers". "Geography Lessons" (about the lesson of maps - edges mattering more than things) ends well too - "Under the droop of nightfall she dreamt of borders/ between lands, some fading like horizons in a storm,/ some slicing through countries like cheesewire/ and guarded with lights, other just wide, wide rivers/ where boys watch from the opposite bank"

"East from Seahouses" proceeds at a prose pace even when using imagery. The persona's on a boat in drizzle to see puffins, etc. "I think of those football matches on TV in the seventies// when each team wore grey, the shirts had no name but we knew/ who was who". "Still here" deals with a topic (London's hidden tributaries of the Thames) that I've seen used before, bringing little that's new.

In "Midnight pickup" at least 2 people are waiting for a bus, which first appears as a distant light amongst stars. The persona wonders when the bus-driver will see them, or if they'll stop at all. I presumed that the title would become a pun, so I guessed that the bus/persona interaction is being compared to a pick-up - "will the swapping of people, backpacks, jokes amount to anything here".

"Closure" includes "last night ... while dialling room service after phoning home" - an affair? Then there's "seeing the white zipper mark from belly to breastbone ... like a line between time-zones ... but a false heart had saved him". Ah - closure of a relationship and of a ribcage. A "false heart" is transplanted but also signifies false emotions.

"Closure" is gappy, gaps (one per line) sometimes replacing commas. "Ellipsis" (which doesn't do much for me) is gappy too. Most of the other poems though tidy on the page with regular stanzas have rather spurious line-breaks. An exception is "Left" which is a sonnet. I had trouble understanding it. The title's another pun - the persona's leaving their accommodation. I'd guess that "the chain held" refers to a buyers' chain. Later, "if I asked with which hand would you hold the roller" picks up a different meaning of the title. After that, there's "changing sides, consider which was best in mirror-image before pronouncing 'left'?", which I don't get.

I'm a bit lost with the title poem too. I can understand that The Great Vowel Shift was a gradual change that led to inconsistencies of spelling, etc (as the Notes explain). I can imagine this been used as a metaphor, but the final line - "Listen, I think you said, and laughed" - made me try to work out what "you" might really have been saying had the vowels been different.

When writing about Time, it's hard not to write about Loss too. In "When my sister is old" the future is more hope than expectation - "I will wait at the door with flowers ... I ... will remind her of twenty tears she thought she's never have".

Other reviews

  • Josephine Corcoran (‘The Last’ writes what was unwritten every month ... Contained and controlled, with as many lines as there are months of the year, these six couplets of poetry are assembled as neatly as discreet packages hidden in a scented drawer. The placement of the poem at the start of the collection is a declaration that this is as much a beginning as an ending.)
  • John Field (In the pamphlet’s thirteen poems, Houghton’s presentation of loss is often contextualized by a wider sweep of history)
  • Afric McGlinchey (only one poem didn’t quite work for me, and this was ‘Left’. While the images here are visual and vivid, I felt the reached-for pun was overly laboured. ... Occasional misuse of commas is mildly grating)

Saturday, 6 January 2018

"al-Sahara" by Antonio D'Errico (Ananke, 2005)

Mohammed lives in Beni-Mellal in the middle of Morocco. He suddenly runs away from home, hitches to Casablanca. At the beach wondering where he'll spend the night, the sand making him homesick for the Saraha. Someone takes pity on him, gives him a meal ("Assaporo per la prima volta in bocca il piacere di qualcosa che non fosse couscous e tashin", p.41) lets him have a room and finds him a job as a waiter in a night club. There he meets a girl, but on their first date her brother attacks him.

He gets to talk to Johann, a client. He's changed his name. and one night gives Mohammed a talk about how to change one's life. He offers Mohammed a flight to Turin, accommodation, language lessons and training to be a higher standard of waiting. He has a few hours to decide before the flight leaves. He decides to go.

He stays with Yousseff, who has done what he's done. Yousseff teaches him about the job, (like Zen and the Art of laying a table). There's a detailed section on how Mohammed copes with a session - etiquette, psychology, etc. Everything's going ok, but then he realises that Yousseff is taking cocaine, which upsets him. Yousseff is sacked by the maitre (German, maybe a racist). Johann turns up to take him to a dependency clinic. Mohammed carries on, finds a girl who quickly seduces him. He rejects her when she takes cocaine at a party and dances with others. She begs him to reconsider.

At the end Yousseff returns to Morocco and Mohammed spends a page telling us that there's one God but many religions. He's thinking about going home.

148 pages, and a 2 page author's note explaining that he met a Yousseff in Morocco once, who told him the story of his life and let him use it. Though the story is from Mohammed's PoV, there's the odd sentence from Yousseff's PoV - e.g. on p.108 the news that the contessa's order never changes comes from inside Yousseff's head, and on p.126 we're told that he invents stories to entertain friends.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

"A guide for the perplexed" by Dara Horn (Norton, 2015)

It's set partly in modern USA. Josie, 26, (with a mother who has early onset dementia, and a father who'd left to become a stricter Jew) is a software whizzkid whose program, Genizah, logs text, audio and graphics experienced by a person, classifying and linking material to make querying and prediction easier. It seeks patterns. There's a social component to it and an augmented reality feature so ""instead of seeing what's around you now, you can see what used to be there" (p.55). She had asthma.

She goes to Egypt (for reasons never convincingly explained) and is kidnapped. She's kept in a room with a sarcophagus - in the City of the Dead? Her death is faked and broadcast. "What is objective-C?" doesn't seem the kind of question the captor would ask, though the answer is factually correct. She's made to work on her software to create a malware variant. While doing so she adds test data about her daughter - "When you have enough material to work with, you can almost build an entire person out of this. It's like bringing someone back to life" (p.168). Her captor makes her erase it, but asks for her to set a similar thing up about his murdered son, Musa (who loved puzzles, and seemed to be something of a prodigy). She starts it. She manages to TXT out and is punished. On p.206 she refuses to complete the "Genizah of Musa". That she spends time reading an old text, "A guide for the perplexed", pondering about mumbo-jumbo like the nature of Evil detracts from the realism, but aids the plot.

Meanwhile her older but much less clever sister, Judith, helps Josie's husband (grieving) and daughter Tali, (6 years old and strange. An asthma sufferer). When Judith gets the TXT she does nothing about it. Nor does she delete it! She gets found out and decides to go to Egypt. She finds Josie, who escapes. But Judith dies. Josie's last words to Judith were "I forgive you" (p.304). It's unclear why the captor's wife takes such a risk. It's surprising that the captor doesn't have people watching over his house. I'd assumed the old woman was really Josie.

In another thread it's 1896 in Cambridge (UK). Schechter (46 years old; a male identical twin who suffered from asthma) meets a pair of identical twin widows, (one of them who hates rhymed prose), all interested in old middle-East texts. "Every synagogue has a storeroom in it called a genizah - a hiding place," Schechter said. "A place for keeping damaged books and papers that contain the name of God" (p.29). He travels to Egypt and brings back boxes of scraps from the genizah. I liked his conversation with the Grand Rabbi of Cairo.

In chapter 9 we slip back to 1171. We meet David, younger brother of Mosheh ben Maimon (physician, scholar, and writer of rhymed prose). Mosheh looks after a Sultan who has asthma. Moshen is writing "A guide for the perplexed". He thinks that "forgiveness is only possible when one is able to control the past ... the way we remember the past" (p.254). Mosheh has a vision of the port as layers of scenes from the past (like augmented reality!). He hears his little niece -

"Maybe Abba is going away to visit all the days from last year," Mosheh overheard her saying to her mother one evening. "Are the years that already happened in a place a person can go?"
"No, my love." David's wife had told her.
"Because we don't have a map?
(p.265)

When he hears that his brother has died he throws documents into the genizah.

At the end of the novel we're following Tali's viewpoint. It's 8 years after the kidnap. She now has a younger, clever sister and isn't enjoying it. Sibling rivalry has been a theme throughout.

Themes

Parallels and connections abound. Many seem gratuitous to me, damaging believability and making the writing kludgey in places (e.g. in the dialogue quoted above). Having threads in three time-zones seems wasteful. In the end I decided the best way of reading the novel was to map the connections rather than care about the characters.

Doors, genizah

There are lots of doors to memories - "A door opened in Judith's memory" (p.105). The extended hallucination on p.36 sounds especially contrived - "As she drifted into dream, she saw something extraordinary: instead of dirt, there appeared, on the tall round walls of the pit, hundreds and hundreds of doors". The Genizah program uses a door metaphor.

The genizah theme is picked up later, figuratively - "[Judith] had just begun to see into Itamar, to discover the hidden vault within him" (p.215)

Salt

Itamar says "My father came from the melah in Marrakesh ... Salt the word meant ... the Jewish ghettos" (p.188). Not long later salt is mentioned again. I don't know why.

  • "Salt burned her, blinded her" (p.202)
  • "For a long time he stood still, his body a pillar of salt pressed against the wall" (p.227)

Pit

Judith had once left Josie in a pit. Later,

  • "No one had ever looked at her like that before, except for Josie, reaching up from the pit" (p.215)
  • "she ... tumbled blissfully down into a deep pit of unremembered dreams" (p.217)

Free will

"Nasreen was right: it was impossible to control the future. But it was possible to control the past" (p.309). It's an old idea, much exploited by dictatorships - and religions. There's discussion of blame, responsibility, predetermination, etc.

Resurrection

There's mention of how some versions of the Bible don't include Christ's Resurrection; how people can be recreated from texts. On p.324 Agnes and Margaret say they tried it to recreate their mother from old texts. Schechter revives the memory of Mosheh in a similar way. Before then several others did similar things. And of course Josie seems to rise from the dead.

Other reviews

Saturday, 30 December 2017

"A Present of Quince" by Jennifer Petty McMahon (mudfog, 2015)

Poems from Poetry Review, PN Review, Stand, and BBC Radio 3.

I like the flow of most of the poems - not too smooth or jerky. My favourite is perhaps "1. Waterlily 2. Lullaby 3. Piano Practice". "Deciding to excavate Sutton Hoo, 1938" is based on an interesting moment, and could have been far too direct in its treatment of time. I didn't like "Modernist Verbs" much though.

Some of the imagery is rather mundane - "Black undertow of tide/ rumbled foreboding" ("On the Beach"). "Record and Art" deals with how art records, using imagery which doesn't try quite hard enough - "The fluttering of nature is stilled in the hieroglyph ... While his flocks wandered, we heard the hopping pipe. Now heads are totted and numerals close the stops". Some of the imagery tries too hard. For example, in "The Milk Cart" we sense that the people in the cart feel like royalty, but "spokes rose and sank in homage to our throne" doesn't ring true. "Mustard Gas and Influenza" is a villanelle about a widow. The odd line struggles - "At last his parents low as she must stoop;/ They send his heirloom silver in regret./ The rest was coping when she could not cope".

Amongst the rest there are worthwhile phrases - "Her plump arms scabbed with dough,/ his boots standing empty, askew after a long day" (p.18), "In our turn, come lighter days,/ having mostly griefs to shed,/ we cast cotton garments, and with them/ all our years, a lifetime's dash/ to reach that nakedness/ no painting can redress" (p.31), "Death is extravagant,/ a spending all we know we have and more" (p.20), etc.