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.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

"More than weeds" by L. Kiew (Nine Arches Press, 2023)

Poems from Bad Lilies, Poetry Salzburg, Rialto, Dark Horse, Under the Radar, etc.

On p.83 it says - "The page is an open fertile space in which to explore ... Poetry proliferates along the edges, whether of the raised bed of meaning or friable soil of sense ... I also believe that readers are curious and able to enjoy the sounds and shapes of words, to dig out meaning from context, and to explore using the many tools and resources are available online [sic].". I'm in favour of such advice from authors. But what happens when readers' curiosity ends in frustration?

"Tulips" is rectangular. To achieve that it uses spaces between words. The '|' character is used. Some lines have none of them, some 5 in a row. Often (12 out of 17 times) there's one at the end of a line. I'm puzzled. I don't know which of the many tools to use. Maybe they represent tulip stalks scattered in a rectangular flower bed. '|' means 'or' in some languages. Poets sometimes use it instead of a line-break. I don't enjoy its sound or shape.

The 2nd half of the lines of "Forest text" are in italics. Why?

The last stanza of "Corydalis lutea" is "When she has a wasp in her mouth/ she asks: can weed be just another/ name the rain calls down/ for refugee, unforced flower.". From context, "she" is the plant. The earlier verses fit with the description of the plant I've found online - it comes from S. Europe. "fumitory" is another name for it. In suitable conditions it can spread fast. Having looked that up, what of the final stanza? I know the phrase - "a weed is just a flower in the wrong place". Here the use of the word "refugee" is being compared to how "weed" is used? I don't get the rest of the stanza.

At times it turns into a "guess the plant" game. In "Red rearranged" the narrator wants red paint to be washed away. But there are "marks on a cheek, bloodstained teeth, nose rearranged ... His name was Rufus ... One day I'll forget I have lost anything". "Rufus" mean red, and it's a name of a flower, but is that relevant here? Doesn't look like it. But it's not much of a poem if Rufus is a battered person.

"Impatiens glandulifera" describes something/someone who arrived in 1839, spreading fast enouugh to irritate locals. "Migrant" is more of a riddle. Toads? "Learning to be mixi" is more interesting.

I don't know what "What has survived is the custom,/serving girls even pairs, adding strength to their futures" (p.36) means. I don't know what "Today it's cold and dark,/ the biscuits shop-bought. I eat them alone/ and anxious after the taste of sugar if I stop." (p.38) means.

If I'd gathered enough or help you

a mermaid's purse lightly attached to weed
maybe there would have been no cramping
or tides bearing away the floating foam
on p.58 looks like the start of a miscarriage poem. It uses apostrophes but not commas or full stops. It's in triplets for some reason, the lines nearly all the same length. It uses upper case for first-person "I" but nowhere else. I can't work out the rationale. Why try to distract the reader?

I don't get "Pyllotaxis". Words are scattered on the page. Sections are numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377 - house numbers where the plants are?

In "Vandals", "parakeets are sacking city trees .. they're feral flashbombs ... it's no wonder that magpie on its beat like a policeman with powers to stop and search calls them hooligans - says Send Then Back" sounds light. "When I said I wanted to be" sounds light too.

"To live here" ends with "Into the conflagation I flung/ myself, petals, language/ drifting from the page, not/ belonging, longing to live. Here."

"There's always spontaneous combustion" might be my favorite.

Saturday 25 November 2023

"all the beloved ghosts" by Alison MacLeod (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Stories from BBC, Short Fiction, etc. Several commissioned pieces.

  • In "The Thaw", set in 20s Canada(?) 29 year old Marjorie is at a ball when the black double-bassist asks her for a dance. She says yes. The floor empties. William - 50, married, funeral director, gambler - defuses the situation by asking if he could take over dancing with her. The friends who gave her a lift to the dance refuse to give her a life home. He drives her across the frozen estuary. The ice breaks and she dies. Lots of detail.
  • "Solo, a cappella" - A boy (18, his first-person PoV) and girl (15, studious) both black, live in Tottenham. They decide to meet on a night of riots and looting, but they never meet. After, she disappears (maybe because her parents are illegal immigrants and a video of her sparking the riot goes viral). The language is mostly black/London - “Just the fact that she wanted me to know how to say her name made me high with hope. … They had the Feds under manners. On smash. On lock
  • In "The Heart of Dennis Noble", heart-themed scenes from the London life of Denis (a heart surgeon; father a taylor) are interlaced with the narrative of his heart transplant. He recalls his lover who was attending the Lady Chatterly's Lover trials while he was using an early computer to analyse heart beating. They talk about wholeness and the location of love. Thanks to a dream he has a breakthrough. He survives the operation and decides to live more dangerously with the help of his family.
  • "Sylvia wears pink in the underworld" is an article about visiting Plath's grave and reading "Birthday Letters". The narrator too needed to adapt to UK conditions. Colourful (flowery?) language - "At the village's heart, the soot-dark ginnels and archways still remember an emptiness - a wind-shot summit, the strange glow of moorland - while at the edge, the trees won't grow upright. They know the truth, as do the drystone walls that tremble at the lure of gravity"
  • "There are precious things" - a sequence of points-of-view of people in a tube. A mother, a nun, builders, a chorist, etc. At the end a racist argument breaks out and voices mingle.
  • "Oscillate Wildly" - Liam, 52, on his deathbed in his house with family and lover, recalls his Irish upbringing, his French mother dying when he was 15, the visit to his French uncle who looked after a Paris cemetary, who had the severed genitalia of the angel on Oscar Wilde's tomb. Liam inherited the genitalia, had to leave for London during the Troubles because of a death threat, hears The Smiths "Oscillate Wildy" through the wall. In the final paragraph the events are recapitulated. He imagines the genitalia returned to the angel and the angel flying away.
  • "Dreaming Diana: Twelve frames" - A personal essay, including 4 photos of a day when Princess Di visited her town. Public image and reality are compared. Later, 6 years into marriage, the narrator wonders what's up with her relationship. Appearances are deceptive. She reads about Di and Dodi Fayed, hears how her mother in law had advised the narrator's husband to marry a friend, because love will come. Perhaps the narrator, like Di, was never loved. She lists some reactions to Di's death - the suicides. A friend described the narrator's marriage as a "slow car crash". She goes to London on the funeral day, buys flowers. Later she looks through the CCTV footage of Di's last hours, imagines Di's thoughts in the final minutes.
  • "In praise of radical fish" - Humourous. 3 budding fundamentalists from Peterborough are waiting for the call to action on a burner. Meanwhile, they visit Brighton, hardening themselves against earthly delights. They are questioned by the police for lurking at the nudist beach, waiting for the young women who never come. At the Aquarium the narrator experiences beauty. The call comes through. They ignore it.
  • "Imagining Chekhov
    • "Woman with little pug" - A 50 y.o. husband alone in Brighton chats up a women using her dog as an excuse. The women (a wife) locks the dog in her hotel room while they take a walk. When they return to make love the dog has gone. The man says it never existed. It was only ever a device. "All the lights on the Pier had gone out. Even the full moon had been extinguished from the fictive sky."
    • "Chekhov's telescope" - A steamer has run aground only metres from Yalta ("the new Russian Brighton"). On it, Chekhov gives Olga a telescope. Through it she can see the past, an orchard, the manuscript he's working on. Once ashore they try to continue their relationship not realising that a journalist is spying on them.
    • "The death of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov" - It begins with "Omniscience is, admittedly, a dubious gift". He sees things he rather wouldn't.
  • "How to make a citizen's arrest" - A woman grabs a man's hand in a deserted London street - a famously nice man whose house has a 24-hour guard. He just popped out to Waitrose. She ties herself to him. They sit in a caff. She explains that he saw her with wife Cherie years before. She criticises his Iraq War decision. She says he isn't trying to escape because he wants to confess. They pop into a church, light votive candles. She video-chats to her little niece Evie 4,000 miles away (Quebec?). The niece tele-transports into the woman's arms. A helicopter hovers over the church. Evie fears suicide bombers. The woman and man exit the church and meet the police.
  • "We are methodists" - I've read this before, in "The Best British Short Stories 2018". I liked it then and still like it. A divorcee (history lecturer) who's moved into a house near Brighton (an ex-chapel) has the help of 40-ish workman Toby, an ex-commando (captured in Iraq). He has kids, a young 2nd wife and a fishing boat. He has a busy life and envies her loneliness. He secretly fishes. His wife thinks he might be having an affair. Sand drifts under her door in the night
  • "all the beloved ghosts" - Angelina Garnett, a confused old (90-ish) woman whose memories superimpose onto the present, is helped from her old kitchen at Charleston to the marquee. She sees her mother, Vanessa Bell, painting. She climbs onto a stage, hears a speech about her. She's interviewed by her biographer. She deals well with the questions until she's asked "do you ever dream of Charleston?". She recovers her sense of reality, mostly.

I like how she manages to combine naturalism and artifice without damaging either, and I enjoyed most of the stories. I wasn't so keen on the latter 2 Chekhov pieces, perhaps because I know little about Chekhov. And "all the beloved ghosts" seems a relatively weak finish.

In the Acknowledgements she writes that Angelica Garnett read and approved her story. Prof Denis Noble collaborated with her.

Other reviews

  • Ann Skea (fact and fiction are woven together, often with iconic figures at the center of an imaginative vision ... My favorite story is "We Are All Methodists")
  • Yoona Lee (One of the most striking pieces in the collection is MacLeod’s rumination on the late Princess Diana, the complicated role of the media, and the dissolution of her own marriage. ... even if [“Solo, A Cappella”] was written with the best intentions, its romanticized angle could be construed as problematic and simplistic. ... The beginning of “There are precious things” best demonstrates MacLeod’s innovative use of language.)

Wednesday 22 November 2023

"The weather in Kansas: short stories" by Crista Ermiya (Red Squirrel Press, 2015)

Stories from Structo and various anthologies.

  • "1977" - The start is "Memet Ali was eight years old when a woman on his estate gave birth to a cockerel". It's an estate in the UK with many Turks. Suleyman (about 50) had returned from a holiday in Turkey with a young wife Elif then a year later died from a heart attack. Memet's grandmother helped the reclusive Elif organise the funeral and sent Memet round to keep Elif company. At other times his father went. Rumours began that she liked old men because when they died she could take advantage of the social services, etc. About half way through the story we learn that Memet is motherless. Elif becomes pregnant. She tells Memet that back in her village people thought she could cast spells. People said that her father had turned into a cockerel before she was born. Elif disappears. An ambulance had come because people had heard screams. She had a stillborn or a cockerel. She was deported. Memet tells a friend that the cockerel was his brother. The ending is "And then they went to look for bloodstains in the stairwell three blocks down, where a man was supposed to have been stabbed the night before". It was in "Best British Short Stories 2016"
  • "Marginalia" - "You" read an old bestiary in a library. You love it because "the margins at last come to the centre ... the freaks have top billing". You notice another reader, a man. The two of you exchange glances. You follow him to the cafe, still wearing the gloves and hat with veil that you always wear. Later you see Susan, a librarian, being friendly with him. You trip, and Susan sees behind your veil that - to her surprise - there's nothing wrong with you.
  • "Surf Scoter" - Vernon's mother Cathy had been a widow for nearly 9 months when he was born. It seems that his father had been sleeping around. From the age of 8 Vernon was obsessed with studying waterbirds. Later he was into punk. He got a job at a record shop. The owner said that Vernon's dad had liked the Ramones. He saves enough money to secretly fly to the States. He'd never flown before. He'd hardly travelled. He takes with him the 3 flying ducks on the wall. Later, a parcel is delivered to Cathy - parcels within stamped parcels from many countries with the ducks in the middle.
  • "Maganda" - It starts with "Not every creature wearing human skin is a human being". When she was 8, Maganda's grandmother bought her a red dress at a London market. She died a few weeks later. Maganda wasn't allowed to the funeral. Her mother thought Maganda ugly and hairy. 21 years later she attended her mother's funeral organised by her mother's Filipino friends. She wears red. There's a karaoke at the wake. She walks out, ends up on Hackney Marshes at night. She recalls her grandmother's stories where "women always turned into something else". She sees her mother and grandmother together, like a 4-legged beast. Nature comes alive. The beast fades. She walks home.
  • "Freak show" - The narrator (21 year old fat girl) visits the travelling funfair with friend Tommy 9about to do a Masters in psychology). There are many romany fortune tellers. He says she has identity issues and over-identifies with her romany ancestors. She thinks "this is how I imagine the Freak Show, a hall of mirrors. Except it's not a hall, it's a bare room ... with one plain mirror, full-length, that doesn't distort at all." She puts a romany potion in his drink before he goes on a ride, and he dies (I think).
  • "There's no place like home" - It begins with "Voyeurism is truly the last refuge of the mediocre and the dead. When I was alive ...". The narrator became a ghost in her 20s, stuck in her flat. The first 2 female occupier's were ok, but she didn't like Tomas. So she learns how to haunt. He thinks it's his late sister Irina and gets a Ouija board. He pays for a spiritualist. When she arrives, the narrator notices she's a previous occupier. Tomas and her become a pair and move out. I don't get the ending - is it just that time and space grow vague?
  • "Signs of the last days" - Miri, a loner from a strict religious family, is a classmate of the (13ish?) narrator. They walk to a cemetary after school. The girls get Miri to put lipstick on. She kneels at a war memorial and writes a bible quote on it with lipstick. They attack her. It rains. They don't see her at school for a while. After the summer holidays, all at a bigger school, they hear that she's become a rebel.
  • "On Skar and matters pertaining" - A Borgesian academic article about some small Scottish islands, isolated to aviod cultural contamination. Many men die from bravado or nautical incompetance, their bodies not found. Recently, objects have been washed up. It's speculated that might be a twin planet where the bodies go and whence the objects come.
  • "Adverse camber" - Only 3.5 pages - much the shortest piece in the book. The narrator is driving at night on an empty country road. Dials are broken. Black birds swoop past. Someone's in the back - a stranger? Neither knows where they're going.
  • "The weather in Kansas" - It begins with "The world came to an end on a Thursday but there was still more waiting. It was a bit lonely at first". Then David, a suicide, returns. They're in Cumbria, isolated. He runs a cafe, she lives in a cottage where a poet used to live. She's reminded of a film where a house is blown to a new world, except that the narrator's still in the old world. 12 motorbikers arrive for breakfast on their way to the coast, like most people. After they leave, she listens to the sheep.

Slightly too many ghosts for my tastes, but much to like. Even the stories I don't care too much for have interesting details - e.g. the contents of the Freak Show in "Freak Show".

There's an interview online.

Other reviews

  • Phil Clement (neat and well-observed fictions that evoke more than a flicker of the uncanny, conjuring a world in which all stories are true, somewhere ... Later, (and perhaps most enjoyably) in ‘On Skar and Matters Pertaining’)
  • goodreads

Saturday 18 November 2023

"The Night Raids" by Jim Kelly

An audio book.

It's 1940. A German bomber tries to hit a railway bridge outside Cambridge.

Inspector Brooke is in a Cambridge pub when a bomb lands nearby. He finds that a nearby house has been looted - the fingers of an old woman were cut off to get the rings. She was murdered first. The criminal might have used a bicycle. Brooke had earlier found blue fuel in the Cam.

He's 41. His mother died when he was 6. His father (a prof) died at 60. Brooke served in Egypt. He has sleep problems, is over-sensitive to light, and likes swimming. He's married to Clare, who's a sister at Addenbrookes. He has a daughter Jo and a grandchild. Jo's husband is missing presumed dead.

He's friends with Grandcourt who works at the university's Engineering Department, which gives him access to various forensic experts.

The Fitzwilliam has been commendeered as an HQ. His ex-colleague Kurler works there. All but the big Egyptian treasures have been put away in storage.

The grand-daughter of the killed woman has disappeared. So has her boyfriend (whose Italian parents are in a camp). She'd had another boyfriend - Tim, a pilot.

The blue fuel is adulterated petrol. He tries to track down the gang (they get kids to siphon petrol from cars), because gloves found at the crime scene smelt of the fuel.

The grand-daughter's body is found in the river, strangled like her grandmother. 2 months pregnant. The boyfriend's departure was a coincidence - his father was in hospital.

The body of the pregnant woman's sister is found.

We're more than 50% through the book before we're tolds that Brooke's father was a Nobel prizewinner.

An item from the looted house was sold at Norwich market. It's tracked back to an ARP warden, Ollie, who lives on the house's street.

We learn about the German bomber's family. They're in Berlin, which is beginning to be bombed. He's under pressure not to fail bombing the bridge a 2nd time.

He canoes down to Barrington, where locals claim that they have the country's biggest village green, and find where the petrol scram (and much else) is centred.

Ollie is hiding in an allotment hut when the police find him. He escapes. Tim shoots down the bomber over Cambridge before he dies. The bomber crash-lands, having failed again to hit the bridge. The wreckage is looted by Ollie, who'd proposed to a murdered woman with a ring he'd looted (and she recognised). Ollie and the crew all die.

Jo's husband returns.

A bit too much research in places. Or maybe it's just that I knew the background already - I work in the Engineering Dept almost opposite Old Addenbrooke's.

Other reviews

Saturday 11 November 2023

"All the beautiful lies" by Peter Swanson

Harry, a student who's about to graduate, hears that his father Bill has died suddenly - slipped on a steep path? heart attack? His mother had died when he was in his early teens. His father had re-married - Alice, 13 years younger than him.

Bill ran a bookshop. Old John helped him.

We learn about Alice's childhood, - how her single mother found a partner, Jake; how Alice distrusted boys her own age having been tricked into losing her virginity by one; how she fancied Jake; her mother's alcoholism. Alice watched her mother choke to death on her own vomit, then realised that Jake had been watching her. Alice's best friend Gina drowned when the two of them were swimming. Alice might have been able to save her but they'd probably have both gone under.

We learn about Jake's childhood - how a woman of about 50 seduced him in his teens. She died soon after.

A women - Grace - appears in town after the death. Harry is attracted to her, and wonders why she's there. Turns out that she was having an affair with Harry's father. On the night of Bill's funeral, Harry and Alice have sex. Grace is found dead. Her sister Caitlin turns up. Harry and Caitlin want to sleep with each other. But Harry's attacked by someone watching Caitlin. He survives. While in hospital Caitlin's attacked.

We learn that John is Jake. Alice had asked him to check up on Bill, who she's suspected of having an affair. Alice tells Harry about John and says that Bill knew. Harry doesn't believe this and suspects both John and Alice.

Alice visits John, who confesses all. He suggests that Alice kills him, making it look like self-defence. She does. Harry arrives, finds Caitlin knocked out in the boot of John's car.

Gina's mother is soon to die of cancer. She drugs Alice, who she blames for Gina's death, takes her on a boat and sinks the boat.

Other reviews

  • crimebythebook (I was shocked and genuinely puzzled by the story’s insistence on coming back, over and over, to the repulsive themes at its core)
  • kirkus reviews (he too insistently invokes Lolita, a dangerous point of comparison not only because he can’t match Nabokov’s magisterial prose, but because it’s impossible to take on the notorious psychopathy at that book’s heart without having something of its author’s command of tone and empathy. Swanson’s novel has the twisty plot and page-eating pace one expects from him, but it lacks the finesse and psychological acuity required to make its villains quite believable.)
  • fictionophile (Harry’s character which should have been sympathetic – left me feeling quite apathetic. I’m not sure of the reason for this… It seemed that all of the characters in the book were quite narcissistic. The novel contained a few plot twists, but to be brutally honest they were not really unexpected twists. This is a well-paced, though lackluster, psychological thriller )

Wednesday 8 November 2023

"Find me" by Andre Aciman

An audio book. Until I read the reviews I hadn't heard of "Call me by your name".

Sami, a father (a prof) joins the Rome train at Florence, on the way to visit his grown son, Elio. He gets into conversation with Miranda, a beautiful, clever young woman going to visit her terminally ill father, who's also a prof. They engage in conversation. They both worry about being too forward, too withdrawn, apologising for imagined slights - "She'd seen right through me. And she'd seen that I knew it". She says that he's good company, that people "like who they are when they're with you". They both have therapists. She's in an unhappy relationship. She invites him to her father's flat. He's writing a rather abstract dissertation about time, how each 24 hours God blushes for shame (sunset) and asks forgiveness (dawn) about making people die. There are anecdotes in the essay showing how events and the awareness of them are on 2 different timelines. She's a B/W photographer. Rather than accept her offer of going to his hotel room he takes her to a old house - a photo opportunity.

At a concert a man, a pianist, meets Michel, a man twice his age. They're attracted to each other, cautiously. We learn that the man is the son of Sami in the first part, that Sami has married Miranda and they have a child. In Michel's family house out of town there's a mysterious old handwritten musical score, which they discuss. It was a gift from someone called Leon to Michel's father. His father had then lost interest in music. The pianist says he's going to do a tour of the States. Michelle realises that he isn't The One.

"I" (Oliver?) and his wife Micol are hosting a leaving party. He'd been hoping that living in New York for a year would bring them together again. He tells her he needs to go back to Italy. "Are you leaving me?" she asks. "I think so," he replies.

Oliver's on holiday in Italy with Elio(?) who he's met 20 years before, they go to Alexandria. They meet young Oliver.

There's much about comparing love then and now - with the same person or with others.

"Tears began to well up in my eyes". Where else would they well up?

Other reviews

  • John Boyne (Having read much of Aciman’s work, I find his writing intriguing and maddening in equal parts. While the elegance of his prose and the sophistication of his characters are to be admired, his creations rarely seem human, speaking in a pompous fashion where everyone, regardless of age or circumstance, is intimately familiar with classical music and philosophy. Love lies at the heart of his books, but as a concept rather than a reality. No one in an Aciman novel can ever just go on a few dates and see how things work out. Instead they know from their first interaction that they’re destined to be together, revelling in the authenticity of their affections. Ultimately, it does not make them seem evolved but narcissistic, shallow and a little immature.)
  • Kate Waldman (The result is a novel that feels besotted with its characters despite scant evidence of their charms. The sex writing itself is unfortunate. ... The Oliver section is likewise seeded with defective epiphanies. ... The book wants to be intimate, profound, but it reads as glib and remote, impervious to actual feeling. Indeed, the text seems not to account for an audience.)
  • goodreads

Saturday 4 November 2023

"Rewind" by Catherine Ryan Howard

An audio book.

On video a balaclava'd killer stabs a woman who's in bed, waited for her to wake.

Natalia, 30, has left home in Cork to stay in one of 6 isolated holiday cottages in Shanamore, near Cork. She wants cottage 6 because that's where something's happened before. She asks Andrew, the owner, if he's seen Michael her husband. He says no. She doesn't know that cameras are installed in the rooms. She finds a significant poetry book - evidence that Michael's been there? The book disappears. Somebody leaves a message, telling her to go. She meets Richard, a shifty odd-job-man.

Audrey is staying at her younger sister Dee's house but they'll all have to move within 3 weeks. Audrey's a reporter of sorts. She's been asked to find out about Natalia, a missing celeb. She arranges an interview with Natalie's partner of 10 years, Michael, who's also a celeb. She goes to Shanamore, stays in room 6, asks if people have seen Natalia or Michael.

Jennifer, a woman working a hotel, has her eyes on Michael. She's jealous of other women.

The police are interested. The local policeman is Sean. He used to holiday as a child there, and has unfinished business with Andrew - one holiday he saved his sister from having under-age sex with Andrew. Richard applied for the job Andrew got and has been angry ever since.

Andrew's father is dead. His mother is senile, institutionalized. At 13 he was a loner. Then a new girl, Caroline, turned up, taking the desk beside him. They became friends. They kissed. After a year she left. Andrew's been fixated by 13 year-olds ever since.

Audrey is send a video of the death. Richard leads her to a body. She informs the police, who are interested in how people knew what they did. There's a puzzling receipt. Richard, under anothe name, had been a bank robber.

PoV switches to Jennifer. Her hotel has cameras too. She's been selling footage online and has been exploiting Andrew - she has footage of him, and gets footage from him. Michael once stayed at her hotel. After the murder is announced she visits him to make friends. He only knows her as a hotel receptionist he saw once by chance. She's obsessed by him. She killed Natalie.

Chapters are prefaced with phrases like "Fast forward for 47 seconds". The scenes aren't presented chronologically. At the end we're given an extract from a forthcoming book by Audrey, tidying up loose ends, and repeating some details.

Other reviews