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, 24 April 2019

"No Time for Roses" by Michael Tolkien (Poetry Salzburg, 2009)

Four sections whose subject matter contrasts more than their styles. The first section's stronger on nostalgia than poetry, the language metaphoric in the way that some journalism is.

The butcher in "Butcher's Ghazal" is similar to the one in Sally Goldsmith's book that I've been reading. I liked "Under Thomas Hardy's Skin", with its rhyming. I liked "Between villages".

Sometimes there are too many words - e.g. "Your tentative boot rests on a glistening rail" (p.38). The sonnet "Disarmed" ends with "Now she's gone we're all somehow/ more exposed: our horizon's undermined/ and shadows are less sharply defined". "Two Months Apart" spins out one idea over 26 lines.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

"Weather Permitting" by Dennis O'Driscoll (Anvil, 1999)

He depends rather heavily on lists ("9.A.M" is typical with fairly randomly ordered observations until the final one), and is happy to write about minor matters (e.g. "Buying a letterbox"). The earlier poems seem too slight to me, and there are too many poems like "The Celtic Tiger" which look like decanted notebooks of observations - "Outside new antique pubs, young consultants/ - well-toned women, gel-slick men -/ drain long-necked bottles of imported beer.// Lip-glossed cigarettes are poised/ at coy angles, a black bra strap/ slides strategically from a Rocha top". Some of the poetic additions to the observations sound forced - "Dry-gulleted drains gulp down neat rain" (p.56). The "End of the peach season" villanelle seems especially average. "Coming of age" ends with "my sister, below the age for admittance to the wards, was plied with goodies in the hospital shop: all the chocolate she could cope with, all the fizzy orange she could drink", which would have been a telling aside in a story. Here though the 10 added line-breaks don't help.

I liked "Votive candles" - "One lighting the next like a nervous chain smoker's cigarette: little rockets, boosters, launched to heaven". "Churchyard view: the new estate" is a long piece in fragments, some of which I like - "The child's coffin/ like a violin case./ A pitch which parents' ears/ can hear through clay ... Two sisters who wished each other dead languish side by side. ... Plots divided like vegetable allotments ... Those who discover an aptitude for death they never had for life ... As you were built on bone,/ your house was built on sand./ Not a stone will stand upon stone.// A painted wall is a white lie./ You will crumble to the ground./ Your house will sicken, die".

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

"Call it blue" by Judi Benson (Rockingham, 2000)

80 pages, poems not always starting on a new page. I can see why she's been published. I can also see why she's not better known. The book needs editing - words, lines and whole poems could go. There's variety, though the poems fall into a few categories. No forms - she's not precise enough.

I liked the phrase "retreating into his sleeves" (p.12) but the poem ends with "There are more tears inside us than oceans but we don't cry. Just let grains of sand sear the corners of our eyes." There were several other phrases I took an instant dislike to -

  • I nearly drowned in his stream of consciousness. A brookling babble (p.20)
  • First touch of cold, un po' freddo huddles the family closer together (p.68)
  • But once you uncork the bottle, once you slice the loaf, open the box, cross the line, there's no coming back (p.79)

I didn't like the poems on pages 20, 25, 26, 33, 38, 58, etc. I understand a far bit of Italian and have recently stayed in Praha, which should have helped me appreciate the poems about Praha and Italian. The opposite was true. "Checking out the Sun" is all over the place - Sun/son, Praha/Italian, etc.

I liked "Child's Play" best of all the poems. "Escaping Backwards" (9 pages) is promising too. I didn't get "Smoke Signals" (2.5 pages). It might be good too.

I think "carboard" on p.27 is a typo.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

"Madame Zero" by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2017)

  • "Mrs Fox" won the BBC National Short Story Prize. A childless wife turns into a fox. Her husband (his PoV, 3rd person) tries to keep her in the house, then lets her go. In the wild she has cubs. He visits. It's a well-written piece which doesn't stray from the course it sets off on. Fades at the end.
  • "Case Study 2" - written as a report about a child brought up in an alternative life-style commune, the writer a childless woman who finds the task too much of a strain.
  • "Theatre 6" - 2nd person. A female doctor has to deal with an emergency miscarriage. Lots of medical detail with geese thrown in to add a literary feel.
  • "Wilderness" - I like this. A woman with her boyfriend have moved to S.Africa. With a friend of his they're having a country walk which involves a rickety bridge. She has a panic attack, and isn't happy about how the relationship's going
  • "Luxury Hour" - young mother has chance meeting with ex-lover. Minor.
  • "Later, His Ghost" - Post-apocalyptic. Norwich? A boy scavenges in a windswept, almost deserted city. An older woman (his ex-teacher) is staying with him, heavily pregnant. Could be the start of a novel.
  • "Goodnight Nobody" - A young girl's PoV. A dog has bitten the head off an unattended baby down the road, but the main theme of the piece is the girl's growing up and her attitude to death (her mum works in a hospital mortuary). Rather long, though I liked it.
  • "One in Four" - 4 pages.
  • "Evie" was shortlisted in the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. A wife experiences disinhibition especially regarding pleasure, the Chekhov gun of her husband's old single friend Richard just waiting to go off. Again, the course of the story has few surprises. Again a husband's third person PoV, and a lack of children. It turns out that she has a benign brain tumour. The change in the friendship between the husband and Richard could have been explored more, and there's scope for investigating how [temporary] personality change might affect "the self" but there's insufficient room to deal with these issues because of all the sex.

"boundary issues" are sometimes mentioned explicitly. Even when not, characters note when behaviour is unconventional. Motherhood's a theme too. Not as knock-out a collection as I was hoping for.

Other reviews

  • Kate Clanchy (None of these stories offers any redemption, personal or global: instead, like “Mrs Fox”, they say bluntly, insistently, in Hall’s smooth, clear prose, “Look, this darkness is here.”)
  • Lucy Scholes
  • Emily Mitchell (Hall’s language is at all times remarkable, moving between evocative lyricism and cool precision as the stories demand. The collection mixes the fantastic, the speculative, and the realistic, and, in general, this works well. But the author’s forays into science fiction are not as successful as her work in other modes. ... Hall is at her best when delving into intense psychological states and powerful emotions.)
  • Emily Harrison
  • Rachel Swirsky (["Mrs. Fox" and "Evie"] are the strongest in the collec­tion, and most clearly underscore Hall’s recurring themes of alienation, identity, and the impossibility of truly understanding ourselves and others.)

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

"mslexia 70"

An 84-page A4 magazine for "women who write" with a focus on the UK scene. Small text, so that there's lots to read. There are about 15 pages of poems/stories. Mostly it's adverts (small ads as early as p.12, showing how integral they are), market information, listings, features and articles. They've opted for many short articles and snippets rather than a few longer pieces. It's all useful for writers who send work away.

The leading article by Debbie Taylor considers the plight of litmags. She points out that Rialto gets 12,000 poems a year and prints 150, that a "combination of passion and (relative, if not outright) poverty is typical of the vast majority of souls working in the litmag sector", that in 2016 about a third of mags were print only, a third were online-only, and the rest were mixes of various proportions, and that the editors' own work often suffers because of time constraints. Granta and The London Magazine have private backing.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

"The Secret Ministry" by Tim Dooley (Smith/Doorstop, 2001)

A winner in the 2000 Poetry Business competition. I feel I wasn't on the right wavelength for these poems - they don't feel slight, and have a variety of stances towards realism and narrative, so I expected to like them more than I did. "Détente" begins with "A fingertip at play/ inside you and my head/ cushioned on your breast, listening like a safebreaker/ for some loosening/ of the latch" which deserves a better ending than it gets.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

"the shape of every box" by Helen Mort (tall-lighthouse, 2007)

I like several of the pieces (mostly the ones that got into "Division Street"). "An Englishman's Guide to The Eye of the Storm" took a long time to reach the punchline. "Seascape with Palm Trees, Addenbrookes" is set in a "stiff-backed" waiting room, where "doubts find us like early morning milkmen". Then there are 4 lines about being in bed early. Then "If you were here you'd stare/ at the pictures". I don't get "stiff-backed", nor why so much time's spent on the milkmen image. Who is "you"? Part of the "us" who were in bed earlier listening to the milkman? Here's the final (of 3) stanza.

Nobody has painted me, high
in the palm trees, the sky pulling tight
as addiction. When the breeze is strong
I'll launch myself like a kite
and all I will feel is how light,
how weightless you are in my veins

"high" (as a kite) and "tight" are emphasised by being at line-endings, and "addiction" plus "veins" add to the theme. The kite (bird) can launch itself, but a kite toy can't, so the phrasing seems awkward to me.

Other reviews

  • Matt Merritt (It’s only when she starts trying a bit too hard—for example on a poem like ‘The day the cat got his tongue’ —that she hits the odd bum note.)