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Category: Reviews

Review: ‘West is San Francisco’ by Lauren Sapala

Another masterpiece from Lauren Sapala. It washes back over her first in the trilogy, ‘Between the Shadow and Bo’ and I see that, gritty and alcoholic as that first novel is, the central theme is not addiction to a substance but the relationship with the Shadow, that dark part of the soul which is twin to the light.
The protagonist and her boyfriend set up in San Francisco and she has stopped drinking completely. Instead she seems to become a ‘workaholic’. All seems reasonably good until she comes up against a woman who is both nemesis and mirror. She loves and hates her. Her boyfriend says she has become addicted to her. No more story here: suffice it to say that the author handles the narrative with flair and expertise.
As in the earlier novel, ‘West’ is saturated in colours and shades, light and darkness, executed with stunning imagery. Sapala’s use of metaphor is singular and exquisite. Her observation of the many characters in the book is spot on. Her style is concise and compressed, never a redundant word.
There is a tone of naturalism above which, with no boundary, hover and shimmer dreamscapes and a transcendent sense. I’m lost for words to describe some of the writing techniques which culminate in a stunning finale.
Maybe this could have gone at the top: both books are very, very funny despite the elemental depths.
To a large extent the novel is about the process of writing itself. And there’s one sentence near the end which is a jewel any author will treasure.

Review: ‘The Beauty of Broken Things’ by Catherine North

I read this in one sitting yesterday after seeing a tweet from Lauren Sapala directing me to a video of the author’s talking about this, her first novel. And what a stunning first novel it is!

The novel’s central themes are brought to life with excellent writing. Set mostly in a charity shop, brilliantly observed, the story centres on the intense love affair between two ‘broken things’, a man and a woman who despite their difficulties come to realise that having mental health problems does not make them broken at all. Upon a shelf in the shop is a somewhat ugly figurine of Cupid, one eye missing which also, though written off by most as ‘junk’ has its own beauty for one customer (the sort of person, sadly, whom society could write off as unbeautiful, as junk).

The central character, Kerry, is on a journey from debilitating anxiety to strength, and she sees that her story is one of “an ordinary life. If you changed a few of the details it could be any one of a million people’s narratives. The story of a woman growing up in the western world.”

Kerry has been hurt, and continues to be hurt, by casual sexism, a sexism made worse in that the multiple instances of it are so normalised, the ‘perpetrators’ often do realise they are doing anything wrong. A greater hurt is that her interior suffering is something she is ashamed of and dare not speak of to even her parents and sister, though she is to find comfort and affirmation from those who have known the pain of mental distress. I recognised so many of the difficulties facing a person often locked into their lonely darkness.

The depiction of Kerry’s lover’s the intense depression is as powerful and accurate as any I have come across. Not only is Alex often isolated in a seemingly inescapable abyss of despair, a private hell, his troubles are magnified by thoughts of suicide and his own belief that he is a weight on the world of ‘normality’. That and the everpresent attrition of Britain’s ‘welfare’ state, a cruel and cold also scours Kerry. Both Kerry and Alex are highly intelligent, well-educated and very sensitive people whose humanity and self-worth are constantly undermined by things they are not responsible for: biological factors, stigma, cultural beliefs and the non-stop machinery of uncaring ‘normality’, a world which has no time for those unable or unwilling to join in with its Set mostly values.
There are so many aspects of the approach to mental health, some which reference other characters such as Dan’s autistic daughter’s being bullied at school.

I am immensely grateful to have read this book because it reminded me that I am not alone. I identified with and recognised so much The novel helped me articulate things which I have kept private and muddled. Simply to know my own life is not so different after all from millions of others has helped.


There is a short passage that jumped out in particular. A character who has never suffered as Kerry and Alex have, appoints herself a moral guardian of ‘mental health’. There is a liberal consensus that ‘mental health’ is something like ‘the environment’ or ‘poverty’. These are Very Important Things that people know from dinner parties and ‘respectable’ media should arouse the appropriate expressions of concerned rhetoric. In my own life, coming constantly across such a phenomenon has added immensely to my own sense of being misunderstood or feeling able to ever make my voice heard. In fact, on several occasions after engaging with organisations that proved to be patronising and politely dogmatic, I was driven to despair. So I feel that the author has helped me so much here. I hope future readers will recognise their own assumptions, often so hurtful to matter how well-intentioned.

By taking each aspect of the issues around mental health discussed by professionals, politicians, educationists and (in my opinion at least) some big mental health charities, and distilling the reality into the thick lives of individuals, North has done more in this novel to portray the reality of mental distress than millions of pounds worth of expensive campaigns. Setting it in a charity shop, with understated references to ‘junk’ is brilliant. Broken ‘junk’, worthless, ugly, lonely, forgotten, cast-off, homeless: all made beautiful.


This is a brilliantly executed piece of fiction. I won’t detail its specific skills. I would like to state that it represents writing of the highest calibre. I’ll just say that in its artful use of settings, its characters, its pacing, we are given an immensely powerful drama set in a charity shop which could be on any high street. And the novel’s last sentence is a triumph. Doubly so.

Adam Laws Shows the Value of Indie-Published Poetry

Adam Laws shows the value of indie-published poetry in Morgue, a wonderful collection of beautifully crafted poems.

A slight shyness on the book’s ‘blurb’ seems to downplay the ‘morbid representation of life’ in the poems. Well, any representation of life that isn’t morbid is going to be pale and thin. Life is morbid. The pale and thin narratives we use individually and as cultures to provide delusional comforts, security and ‘meaning’ are evaporated when we explore the depths (even when our depth exploration is, as one poem reminds us, itself pretty thin).
This collection shows us what self-publishing does best. Poetry never did gain a wide readership, especially contemporary poetry. For Adam, like almost all poets, it will be the very narrow sector of reviews that may inspire someone else to read. Twenty serious readers of poetry who claim that a poet is worth reading may circulate and increase exposure. So this reviewer says, Adam Laws is a serious poet with the required combination of feeling and craft.
I’ve ‘read’ all of the poems several times. I say ‘read’ because I like to read (without inverted commas) one poem at a time, maybe half an hour of reading ‘poetically’. The anthology here has to join my (many) poets to whom I return time and again.

 

The poems are short, often involving a momentarily glimpsed ‘real’ image such as a high-rise, the interior of a living room, a balloon deflating. They blur what the ‘real’ world takes a fixed, sharp-contoured relationships and forms. I/You/We/They; surface and depth; simplicity and complexity; coherence and fragmentation; darkness and light; shadow (-play) and bodies; livng bodies and corpses; desire and mind. And verb and noun: one formal trope Laws uses to dissolve the ‘thinginess’ of things is to use a noun as a verb: ‘An ill observe’.
The poet’s ‘darkness’ is interlaced with stock situations (including affairs of the heart) and stock, quotidian phrases. A fine sense of bathos deflates the portentous digging in the depths. Laws is confident and accomplished with regard to his craft. Cadence resonates with imagery. A few examples of the latter: ‘desire becoming derelict’; ‘buried blunders’; ‘hoarse and haggard boaters’ (on the) ‘brain canal’…’greet in grim salute’; ‘some/empty department of death’.


I’ve many more thoughts about ‘Morgue’ (including some possible minor criticisms) but overall, this is by far the most nourishing contribution to the quality of life you could hope to come across for the price of a cup of coffee

Jim Carruth: rural poet of Renfrewshire

I have recently been gifted an anthology of poems by Jim Carruth: rural poet of Renfrewshire

Completely new to me despite his apparent fame and high regard. It is a lovely gift which introduces a new poet. In this case, I immediately loved Black Cart This is an unsentimental homage to to farming life of Renfrewshire: families, tragedies, bleakness, brutality, harshness, beauty and love.

The body, mind and earth are melded in vibrant images and metaphors which blend sinews, worn bodily creases, age and physical suffering, earth’s canvas of furrow and stone. A hard humour too.

To connect with a poet immediately is to have a gift for life.

The poems stirred me to retrieve the writing of that other great creator of hymns to land and people, George Mackay Brown

And it is impossible not to think of R.S.Thomas.

Review: The Flame by Leonard Cohen 2018

 

I’ve just received this great book. The Flame is the book Leonard Cohen was working on right to his death on 7 November 2016. It is a collection of 63 poems he selected as ‘complete’ (Part 1), poems which became songs (Part 2) and  material collected by the editors after his death (Part 3). It also includes Cohen’s acceptance address for the Prince of Asturias Award. Poignantly, also included is his last email, 24 hours before his death.

Throughout the pages, at his own wish, are drawings by Leonard Cohen.

The introduction by his son, Adam, is brief at two pages but gives intense insights into his father; the same is true of the equally brief remarks by the book’s editors.

It’s beautifully produced by Canongate and a must for any Leonard Cohen fan.

Review : Elli

 

Elli is the story of a young girl’s coming of age during the Holocaust. Livia E. Bitton Jackson’s account of her experiences in 1944 onwards as the Nazis continued their rounding up of Hungarian Jews, people who would suffer at first growing restrictions and then to the ‘final solution’ at Auschwitz.

I frequently read about the Holocaust, not because I am interested in the Nazis but because I am interested in human beings. I believe it is vital to always keep in mind how a highly civilised people like the Germans could stoop, as we are all capable of in certain circumstances, to the depths of barbarity and cruelty.

This is among the best biographies I have read. It contains some truly horrifying examples of brutality by people who in other worlds would be considered ordinary.

Yet it is the writing quality as well as the witness which commends the book. It is the work of a very gifted writer and a very brave girl.