Book Review: We Are All Somebody

we are all somebody

“I realised how powerful poetry can be. It can instil hope, it can inspire and you can feel the emotion in the words.”

“Listen to our young people”

We Are All Somebody is a poetry anthology written by street children who were chosen to represent their countries in Street Child World Cups. Starting in 2010, these international events are organised ahead of the world’s biggest sporting competitions in cricket and football. Their aim is to bring together street connected young people from around the world, and to advocate for change in the way they are seen and treated.

The anthology was compiled by Samantha Richards who, in 2018, represented the UK at the Street Child Football World Cup in Moscow. Inspired by her discussions with members of other teams from across the globe she put pen to paper and wrote out her emotions in a poem. She invited her new friends to contribute in poetry or artwork.

“We must encourage each other to be the best version of ourselves before we can expect others to do the same.”

The book opens with profiles of the young leaders in the competitions from various countries. Their plea is to be treated fairly and with compassion. What they want is: shelter, food, clean water, healthcare, education. They ask for protection from: violence, exploitation, sexual abuse, trafficking, child marriage. Key to accessing these basic rights is a legal identity, often hard to come by.

“They are children like any other children in the world.”

The poems that follow are heartfelt cries for needs to be met without discrimination. Several include references to COVID 19 and the difficulties of adhering to recommended guidelines when access to proper sanitation is limited.

“insecurity and hunger are their greatest threats”

The street children are exploited by all they come into contact with, including at times each other. Despised, unprotected and blamed for their situation they have no recourse to justice.

“We sleep in a group
If you sleep alone, you are sexual prey
If you sleep too deeply, your money gets taken”

Although raw at times, the message herein is powerful. The contributors ask that their voices be heard on behalf of other street children. I hope they find readers who will listen.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly On The Wall Press.

Book Review: Chaos

Chaos, edited by Anna Johnson, is the most recent poetry anthology published by Patrician Press. Many of the entries have been included in previous collections but have been brought together here as a reaction to various events affecting the UK over the past five years. These include attitudes to: immigration, Brexit, climate change, the current pandemic.

“In difficult times, then, we turn to Art; poetry, in particular, is one of the pithiest ways to process events that seem extreme.”

Many of the poems are provocative – understandable given that the issues being written about have generated controversy yet little in the way of balanced debate. There appears to be an assumption that readers will agree with the points of view of the book’s creators. There is limited exploration of why these views are not held by everyone.

In their introduction, the editor writes

“I hope there is enough in these pages to console, entertain and feed the spirit.”

Sadly, this was not my reaction. While I am appalled by the selfish and insular actions of too many politicians – lining their pockets along with those of their financial supporters and powerful advisors rather than working to help constituents – the issues are more complex than is suggested within these pages. Solutions are rarely as simple as they are made to appear.

Refuge is a Taxi features an immigrant, Basim, who is obviously intelligent and willing to work hard in order to realise his quiet ambitions. His past still gives him nightmares – of the horrific experiences escaped from. He regards his new home as a ‘land of opportunity.’

I found no poems exploring the messier side of immigration – of those who demand the retention of oppressive culture and damaging familial traditions that break the laws of their new homeland. I’m thinking of such practices as: FGM, ‘honour’ killings, forced marriage, rejection of homosexuality. Freedom and safety are not just the rights of heterosexual men.

It is possible to agree with the headline – show compassion, seek understanding – without accepting behaviour that damages those who also deserve protection.

Closed borders are the subject of several poems. In Something Human the freedom offered by a red passport is compared to the plight of refugees.

“I’ve never pleaded with strangers
to let me in to a cold and foreign nation
where I feel unwelcome,
derided and despised for trying
to save my life.”

Ride the Waves explores the removal of freedom that we are currently experiencing within the UK – how it has been so submissively accepted.

“Running away from each other in public
Get back!
We’re too close!
6-foot rule, or 6-foot under!”

The poet ponders if we have already said goodbye to our rights by accepting the ‘sanitised lies’.

Although there are a number of poems focusing on climate change – blame and fear more than a call to appreciate the still beautiful world – I enjoyed the images of nature in Wild Isolation. Birds and mammals continue their daily existence, even amongst the abandoned litter and other human detritus – while people fearfully isolate themselves from the current plague.

“All left in the lurch   to besmirch green and brown –
While squirrels   maintain their slight sordidness
Without being thought – sweet”

Climate change can be hard to discuss pithily. The need to respect the health of the planet – the life support system of all species – may be incontrovertible. How this is currently being approached, especially given man’s innate behaviour, creates unpalatable reverberations. As examples, wind farms kill birds and are a blight on the landscape. They and solar farms – with their tax funded subsidies – add wealth to already wealthy landowners. These poems suggest we may help with small, personal changes. Advocating for these is worthwhile but also of limited impact.

I have found this review hard to write as I fear opprobrium for not always agreeing with good and honourable intentions without reservation.

The writing within the anthology is mixed, as may be expected from a variety of contributors. Some of the poems have a simplistic structure; others require a number of rereads to unpack meaning. Together they are certainly thought-provoking. The issues explored deserve attention and careful consideration.

It is, perhaps, because humans and their behaviour are the focus of these poems that I did not find the consolation the editor hoped to offer. Instead, I found too much polemic – sad reminders of the misnomers now surrounding ‘fact’ or ‘expert’. We undoubtedly need more kindness, generosity and acceptance. We may also benefit from listening more attentively to those outside our echo chambers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Splice 1

Splice was set up by Daniel Davis Wood in 2017 (you may read more about their aims here). It has three main pillars: a small press that publishes short story collections by outstanding writers; online, in-depth book reviews; a biennial anthology showcasing previously unpublished work by three of the press’s authors, each of who selects and introduces the work of another writer deserving more attention. These selected writers will then be

“commissioned to publish new work in future and to nominate new and interesting writers of their own.

In essence, the anthology functions as a way of consolidating the Splice community and broadening its scope.”

Splice 1, as its title suggests, is the first anthology. It opens with a foreword by the editor, Daniel Davis Wood, who also writes the introduction to the work of the three Splice authors included: Dana Diehl, Michael Conley, Thomas Chadwick. After each introduction there is a complete short story from the author plus an extract from a further work by them (the full second story is available to read on the Splice website). The author then introduces their chosen writer whose contribution is presented in the same format – a short story and an extract.

Having read and reviewed the three featured authors’ short story collections, it was interesting to read the editor’s take on their work – what drew him to want to publish them. The short stories included here are all impressive examples of the form. One features an apartment that is carpeted in three feet of soil. Another has a character whose hair starts to talk when he allows it to grow. A story written entirely in dialogue is set on what I assume is a distant planet. Fantastical though these concepts may be they do not read as fantasy. The authors have grasped the essence of writing fiction and created distinctive and mesmeric voices.

As a reader I will have personal preferences but can recognise fine writing even in those stories I don’t enjoy so much. The final writer, Victoria Mansfield, includes vivid imagery that I found unpleasant in Whitegoods for Your Daughters. She describes sex, food and even travelling by public transport in ways that made me recoil. Yet I can appreciate her way with words and the emotional resonance. For those less squeamish than me her work may be better appreciated.

Despite such a strong field, my choice of standout story was by Abi Hynes. A conversation recorded before the end of the experiment presents man and alien attempting to communicate. The arrogance of humans is skillfully foiled by the encounter. Man is trying so hard to be reasonable, failing to comprehend the purpose and place in this new world that he has been granted. It is a fabulous tale, perfectly paced, both humorous and tragic.

Honourable mentions must go to Dana Diehl’s The Earth Room and Renée Bibby’s That Boy. Both stories draw the reader into the day to day difficulties individuals face and how they regard themselves, particularly when dealing with others. They are quirky and clever but never too much of either. The tales flow and entertain while offering much to consider.

I also enjoyed Thomas Chadwick’s The Unsuccessful Candidate. Office workers rarely wish to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of becoming a target for blame. The idea that someone could turn up daily for work, despite being rejected at interview, and co-workers would be flummoxed about how to deal with them, was just delicious, especially as the successful candidate was proving far from ideal.

The extracts included in the anthology provide tantalising tasters. I must find time to seek out the rest of Thomas Chadwick’s Politics. It opens

“David killed the Queen. It was nothing personal he said. It was just politics. All he wanted was to make a political statement about the abuse of power in the country”

The media twists the facts to fit their agendas. Peers are interviewed and quoted out of context.

“”Who told you that?”
“We can’t say.”
“Was it Charles? Because if anyone needs locking up, it’s Charles. He thinks wealth trickles down. He knows all the verses of the national anthem. He sleeps beside a copy of Atlas Shrugged.”
David was told that for all his sins Charles had not shot the Queen.”

Splice 1 provides excellent and varied reading. It is also a fine introduction to a literary endeavour that deserves wider attention from readers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Book Review: Planet in Peril

“This anthology was founded upon the belief that words have the power to change.”

Planet in Peril, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, is an anthology of poetry, photographs, artwork and think pieces focusing on climate change, pollution, and man’s impact on Planet Earth. Whilst timely given current interest in the subject matter, it is not exactly cheery reading.

An early poem, Mother Earth by Rachael Ikins, injects early controversy with a possible solution to the humans causing so much damage to their beautiful home and life support system.

“She urges them to genocide, war, the moon;
sends in viruses, bacteria, her fiercest warriors the smallest –
anything to rid
the plague that consumes her”

I was entertained later in the book by a poem written by one of the younger contributors, Niamh Hughes, whose Animals reversed imagines the outrage a person would feel if Earth’s other animals treated people as humans treat their fellow creatures. Throughout the book human actions are shown to be selfish and damaging to all, including themselves.

Early entries explore the importance of trees and the true cost of deforestation.

There is a section focusing on the polar regions – a sanctuary under which people dump their nuclear waste.

Preserved in Ice by Dr Sam Illingworth offers a strong portrayal of man’s grasping invasions. Information provided after the poem explains that researchers have collected and radiocarbon dated samples of ancient plants in the Canadian Arctic continually covered by ice for at least the past 40,000 years, until now. Whilst I understand the concerns about melting ice and rising sea levels, I was curious about the time when these plants grew. Planet Earth has experienced fluctuating global temperatures throughout its existence.

The many photographs included of our world and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it are a joy to peruse. I did wonder at the footprint left by the scientists cited and the artists who captured the images. Habitats and species are best preserved if left to nature rather than adapted for man’s convenience, even when intentions are worthy.

In some ways this book felt like an elegy to the world as we know it today. Life on Earth is constantly evolving. Whilst it appears obvious that modern man is a scourge, our own actions may eventually provide the cure. This is a difficult process to dwell on and one many refuse to contemplate despite their lifestyles bringing it ever nearer.

The blazing sun and what to do about it by Peter Ualrig Kennedy takes a wry look at human attitudes, capturing typical responses to growing but ignored crisis. As is pointed out later by Geoff Callard,

“we humans are incredibly bad at trading off short term gratification for long term gain”

There is suggestion that the speed of current change prevents other species adapting. In the futuristic Specimen by Joanna Lilley, Homo sapien is described as “architect of annihilation”. Our unwillingness to radically alter our behaviour is cleverly captured in Sleepwalking by Amélie Nixon.

“we are tired
put your alarm clock on snooze;
shove your head back under the pillow.
just 10 more minutes.”

Another young contributor, Jenna M, provides a poignant hand drawn picture of Planet Earth and the creatures suffering man’s pollution and incursions.

Automachine by Aviva Rynne Browne brings vividly to the fore how wasteful we are with resources, and how little we seem to care about this.

The contributions may be moving but are somewhat didactic to read. The lack of hope would be my main criticism however realistic the portrayal may be. The purpose of the anthology is to inspire change in human behaviour. The bleak picture painted puts into question how possible this is.

There is talk in the news of tipping points, and perhaps the damage wreaked has already taken us beyond what can be fixed. As a species it is troubling to consider that Planet Earth may only flourish if we are removed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

A proportion of the profits from this book will be donated to The Climate Coalition and WWF.

Book Review: Tempest

Tempest: An Anthology, edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, contains a wide variety of speculative fiction, poetry and essays that explore our tempestuous times. Subjects covered include politics, climate change, equality and the possibilities offered from the development of artificial intelligence. Donald Trump appears as himself or in caricature. Dystopias are created to portray imagined post-Brexit worlds or ecological Armaggedon. Although sometimes lacking depth, the collection’s strength is its spread of opinions.

Anna Vaught writes in her introduction:

“I would desist, if I could, from political and social involvement – I know plenty of people who have entirely stopped following the news and/or placed severe limits or careful muting on their social media diet. I understand this, but it is not an option for me or, really, for this press, with its philanthropic bent, passionate sense of questing after social justice and being involved in politics.”

This passion is evident in many of the entries. What is refreshing is the lack of shouting despite the frequent despair so clearly expressed. The issues raise awareness. When there is anger it is controlled and measured.

The opening article, The man who would be Christ, was written in 1988 and is a study of Donald Trump, the property developer. This is aptly followed by a story, The Wall, which I enjoyed until its unlikely ending.

Women must act now looks at the development of robots – artificial intelligence.

“Women must act now, or male-designed robots will take over our lives”

“There are great benefits in the use of AI and we should cherish them. However, the issue is not innovation, or the pace of technological improvement. The real problem is the governance of AI, the ethics underpinning it, the boundaries we give it and, within that, who is going to define all those.”

Whilst finding this subject interesting, I remained unconvinced by the author’s arguments that most low paid, replaceable jobs are held by women because they cannot access anything better. I would have liked references to verifiable studies on this premise, to make the piece appear less opinion. If the only jobs remaining in the future will be in STEM, women are as capable as men.

Some Start Fires is a poem around climate change offering a picture but no solution. Of course, there may not be one as man appears bent on destroying his life support system.

This is Earth is a similarly depressing depiction of man’s selfish tendencies, this time written from the point of view of aliens. Although offering a clear message, its development felt somewhat simplistic.

I enjoyed The cowboy with the calcium spur, a poem that I read as having another dig at Trump.

The Walking Stick imagined a post-Brexit Britain, although I considered the ending another ultimately pointless protest.

Save me from the dogs was a more straightforward story about uncared for children living underground and groomed as criminals. Between the lines lies the question of what options society offers those it rejects.

One of the headline contributors is Sam Jordison and it was no surprise that his article, Rage, had Brexit as its subject. He suggested that those who voted to leave the EU did so out of a desire to return to times they remembered as better.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the Leave Vote was inspired by misplaced yearning for the years when Baby-Boomer voters didn’t have such bad backs, still had flowing locks and something more to look forward to than nights in watching repeats of Mrs Browns’ Boys. They imagined that everything was better before we joined the EU, because that was when they personally felt better.”

Populists are on the rise… is a cogent essay, first published in the Guardian in 2018, that appears to offer more balance than is normally apparent in newspapers writing for their loyal readers. Perhaps it was simply good to consider some alternative opinion.

Nature and culture provides a discussion on the damage to ecosystems from globalisation.

“We have come to believe that harm to the world is inconsequential, or at the very least if something is lost then it can be replaced.”

The essays around nature and ecological collapse put many of society’s current political preoccupations in perspective.

I readily admit that there were certain pieces throughout the collection that I didn’t get. Neither can I comment on subjects I know little about, such as Palestine. It is good that the publisher offers space to such potentially divisive subjects and divergent opinions. Refreshingly, the authors make their cases without getting shouty or insulting.

The Job takes an interesting idea – a future where most people do not work – and weaves a story of coercion. Although sometimes lightweight, I enjoyed many aspects of this tale, including its ending.

A narrow escape for the Chelsea Hotel takes another dig at Trump, exploring what is valued in life other than money. I couldn’t help thinking its conclusion was reprieve more than escape but the Russian angle was a neat addition.

We should own the stars is an fascinating essay on AI and equality with reference to Bladerunner. This entry was a particular favourite of mine.

Tempest on Tyneside offers a vision of the region as a sought after destination offering beer and football while southern England disappears under water. Ironic as this turnaround is to consider I thought the apparent interest men had in female footballers a stretch too far. It says much about the reader what imaginative aspects of a story can be accepted.

As with any collection of opinions there will be favoured and disregarded contributions. What I enjoyed in the reading was that disparate voices were included. Projects such as this, which take us outside our carefully curated echo chambers, are always worthwhile.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Chains

Chains: Unheard Voices is an anthology of eleven short stories. It is the first offering from a new independent publisher whose stated aim is:

“to empower writers who have been pushed to the margins by the mainstream”

The tales included here are challenging, poignant, and at times disturbing. The diverse range of voices are quietly resonant.

The collection opens with Epilogue in which a family are trying to cope with an attempted suicide. Although lacking somewhat in depth, the prejudices and concerns of those trying to make sense of what has happened shine through.

Incubus explores the impact of dementia, death, and the effects of illness on the aspirations of a teenager. An inexplicable visitor helps put potential futures in perspective.

There are stories set in the past, present and the future. The impact of bullying, of both adults and children, is approached from differing perspectives, as are prejudices against single mothers and those living in poverty.

Crawl is a particularly powerful piece with its twisted take on foodbanks and the way donors respond to their own supposed beneficence, how they are encouraged to treat those they feed.

Several stories deal with alleged terrorists and miscreants. There are depictions of attempts to dehumanise and the effect on victims. The rule of law is accorded little respect.

Anchor is a chilling tale of the warped outlook of a domestic abuse survivor. They have not perhaps survived in any meaningful sense.

In amongst these challenging subjects is the delightful Help, My Dog Is Isaac Newton which takes a playful look at reincarnation from the point of view of an elderly widower. I enjoyed the protagonists observations on and attitudes to the recent influx of Hindu neighbours.

The final story, Identity, offers a window into the cost of fighting for woman’s suffrage. This follows a tale set in a tinderbox township on the eve of elections. The dangers to women living in different ages yet willing to fight for what they believe in is sobering.

The writing in these stories is fresh and varied, the subjects worth pondering. I have read stronger voices elsewhere, but these deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, MargŌ Collective. 

Book Review: What Are You After?

“Forgive me for the sin of making up my own identity; for not sitting easily inside a category; for leaving school with nothing; for learning languages from cassette tapes I borrowed from a public library; for liking literature and art and orchestras; for stuffing my face with a free university education before it ran out.

I’m far away from my council house. If I turned up there, they wouldn’t know me.”

What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran, is a collection of poems and prose poetry on love, life, family and self. It explores grief, loss, belonging and not belonging. It posits that memories are not what make us but rather that they provide a script from which we may write ourselves.

Subjects include marriage, class and religion. In the opening poem, Honeymoon, the narrator is taking her new husband north to visit a coterie of widowed aunts, noting how differently she and her partner are treated now that they have said wedding vows.

“my father’s brothers dead,
their crucifixes still hanging. In each house
we were given the double bed,
my aunties inviting us to fornicate

on concave mattresses, dead men’s
seed. Had we come one week before,
you would have been given nothing
but dusty blankets on a downstairs floor.”

The deaths of parents and unborn children are movingly presented, affecting waking and sleeping dreams. Children subsequently born carry with them as they grow a shadow of the losses that predate them.

The narrator of the poems investigates their own heritage. From the titular poem:

“A German seaman who abandoned his family
A seaside town in the North West of England
A new wife with a Scottish surname
English-speaking children
Three baker’s shops
Blond hair and blue eyes strong in the gene pool
Something for my children.”

The unimportance of possessions is conveyed as the narrator steps into their life outside of the already bereaved family circle.

Form is effectively played with in Telephony, a reverse poem.

Political issues are touched on, such as in “Police Say Sorry” which lists many apologies made for the behaviour of supposed law enforcers who earnestly claim, time and time again, that each transgression cannot be allowed to reoccur.

Harry Potter earns a mention, as do immigrants and their valid if too often ignored attempts to assimilate. Torrential is a powerful thought-piece on attitudes to suicide.

The anthology reads through as a personal history. One gets the impression that the narrator has had to be strong growing up under difficult circumstances and will not now suffer fools gladly. In Psychologies of Economy Ham reasons for donating to a food bank come under scrutiny. Certain poems do not offer comfortable reading.

Attitudes towards the elderly are included. Schooldays are remembered. Gavrilo is set during a history lesson, each group in the class of girls – the cool, the popular, the sporty, the nerds – thinking about their plans for the weekend. Unusually the remainder of the class earns a mention.

“Unremembered girls somewhere in the room […]

Drawing hearts and flowers around his name.
Not picked for netball teams
or parties or cinema trips”

Searing at times but wholly relevant the collection both moves and challenges. Beautifully presented it deserves wide consideration, and continues to reward on rereading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Nine Arches Press.

Book Review: My Europe

My Europe is an anthology of stories, poems, drama and essays exploring Britain’s relationship with Europe in the wake of the contentious referendum result that could lead to Britain leaving the European Union in a process commonly referred to as Brexit. The publisher writes:

“The anthology is about Europe, not just the EU, but in the interests of fairness we tried to include more pieces in favour of Brexit. Alas, it proved difficult”

In trying to present the facts around such a complex and emotive subject, certain of the short essays are a tad dry to read. Nevertheless, they succeed in offering up information that is too often drowned out in hectoring rhetoric by supporters on both sides, and in the click-bait seeking media. The dismay felt by so many at the unleashing of previously suppressed xenophobic hatred has led Remainers to consider the prospect of Brexit an unmitigated disaster. What is rarely now mentioned, but is acknowledged within these pages, is that the behemothic bureaucracy of the EU is far from ideal.

“In truth, Brussels is a democracy-free zone. From the EU’s inception in 1950, Brussels became the seat of a bureaucracy administering a heavy industry cartel, vested with unprecedented law-making capacities. Even though the EU has evolved a great deal since, and acquired many of the trappings of a confederacy, it remains in the nature of the beast to treat the will of electorates as a nuisance that must be, somehow, negated.”

In the first essay, Suzy Adderley writes:

“For many Tories, the neoliberal stance of the EU is not problematic, but free movement of labour and loss of sovereignty are anathema, while for left-wing socialists, the neoliberal structures are highly problematic whilst they would support the free movement of labour and regulatory structures. So it seems to me unrealistic to expect either main party, as presently constituted, to as a whole or entirely support or reject Brexit.”

Throughout this book there is clear headed recognition of why the referendum vote went as it did (hindsight being a wonderful thing). There are also attempts at increasing understanding of the cost of Brexit should it go ahead. This does not just explore the social cost, although the allegorical stories and poems cover this effectively. Several essays try to measure the economic impact, especially on those already so badly affected by recent government policies promoting austerity. Long term membership of the EU has created legally binding agreements as well as financial obligations that cannot easily be unpicked. Lawyers are being kept busy.

As I read each contribution I noted that the authors had travelled to countries in Europe and experienced their different cultures, something that many people will not have had the means or opportunity to do. The authors’ desires for wider European assimilation suggests that when they have been fortunate enough to travel abroad they have not been ring fenced with like minded tourists in coastal resorts but rather have explored and interacted widely. There is no acknowledgement of the ability and privilege this reflects.

There is mention of the problems of anger and nostalgia, a sepia tinted nationalism that has little basis in reality. With the country names and borders of the world in constant flux this is not a purely British phenomenon.

Several of the essays that purport to understand the Leavers’ point of view concentrate on the economic penalty Brexit would bring. There are mentions of important issues such as protection of workers rights, cross border health care agreements, research projects that pool resources and funding in order to share results across universities. Whilst not wishing to discount these potential problems, I thought it a shame that presentations for the Leavers side of the argument focused entirely on the negative aspects. Likewise, those authors waxing lyrical on the benefits of remaining in the EU concentrated on the social and cultural benefits of an open Europe, largely neglecting to mention the costs and frustrations of continuing EU membership.

In his essay, The Levellers and the Diggers, Giles Fraser writes:

“the bastard conqueror isn’t the European Union – we freely gave the powers away. But the EU has meekly become his servant. The bastard conqueror is international finance that ignores borders, locates itself offshore to pay no tax, and has the EU in its pocket. Look at how the EU dealt with Greece, imposing crippling austerity on its people. Look at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the massive trade deal that the EU has been negotiating – mostly in secret – with the US. Under the terms of this deal, large companies will be able to sue nation states if they introduce policies that curb its profits. I’d vote against TTIP if I could. But because of the way the EU is negotiating the deal, I have no say in the matter. And nor do you. The EU has become a neoliberal club, and I will not worship the God they serve.”

In committing itself to a timescale for leaving the EU without a clear idea of what must be achieved, the current British government has set itself up to either fail or wander blind into unchartered territory. The EU will not make it easy for Britain because otherwise other countries may follow suit.

In the publisher’s conclusion she states:

“There might possibly be eventual benefits in leaving the EU, but it could take a generation. […] The true tragedy is that Brexit is a distraction from far more important problems needing to be addressed”

The Brexit issue has become so polarised it is difficult to debate. I applaud this attempt at presenting both sides in what is an informative and engaging anthology with a variety of writing styles and a mix of contributors. It would be a step forward if readers from both sides could allow their strong opinions to be rationally questioned. While such an outcome appears elusive, books such as this provide necessary insight.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press. 

Book Review: The Long Gaze Back

the-long-gaze-back

The Long Gaze Back is an anthology of short stories written by Irish women whose collective work spans four centuries. They are presented in chronological order, thereby offering the reader the chance to observe how much, and how little, has changed in women’s lives.

The editor, Sinead Gleeson, comments in her introduction that, with a few notable exceptions, it is only in the past few decades that women writers, particularly Irish women writers, have been selected for inclusion in anthologies. In recent years there has been a new energy and enthusiasm for Irish writers of both genders, an increased visibility that has enabled new voices to be heard.

The short story is described as a form whose brevity belies the scale of thoughts and ideas within. The thirty tales included here offer:

“a triptych: deceased classic writers sit alongside the feted names of the last two decades and the next generation”

The collection opens with The Purple Jar by Maria Edgeworth, a story of a young girl whose mother allows her to make a choice, knowing it to be a foolish one, and then insists that she live with the consequences.

Frank’s Resolve, by Charlotte Riddell, is an observation of a marriage where both partners appear dissatisfied, each blaming the other. The reason for this lack of understanding becomes clear, although I felt little hope, given the way Frank inhabited his world, that a satisfactory resolution would be found.

The third story was amongst my favourites – Poisson d’Avril, by Somerville and Ross. It narrates a fraught train journey across Ireland as a man attempts to reach his family who are congregating for a wedding. He has been instructed to bring with him a salmon, caught whilst holidaying. The trials he encounters are presented with a dry humour and easy empathy.

Most of the stories revolve around family life and the associated day to day battles faced. There are tales of birth and death, of both the old and the young; the impact of collective decisions made without consultation; how expectations can lead to resentment, particularly across the generations. The authors highlight the discomfort felt when personal problems are disclosed. The small communities may wish to know everyone else’s business, but few wish to become involved when troubles they prefer not to acknowledge are aired.

There are stories of those who have left and those who have returned. The self proclaimed success stories expect to be feted whereas those who feel they have failed to live up to their former promise seek an anonymity that is often denied.

The Meaning of Missing, by Evelyn Conlon, explores the relationship of close siblings when one emigrates to Australia, fails to keep in touch, and then returns for a visit.

The Crossing, by Lia Mills, offers the reader the complexity of family dynamics when a middle aged couple take their teenage son to Egypt on the holiday of a lifetime. The husband’s assumptions about his wife resonated – that the brightly coloured top she bought for herself must be a gift for her more conspicuous sister, that she had somehow failed by paying too much for the item whereas the value to her was in the act of purchasing.

There are relationships – between a young girl and an older man, between a young man and an older women. There are the resentments of children who suffer their parents mistakes.

Frogs, by Molly McCloskey, looks at childhood friends, separated when parents move house, who meet again after more than thirty years. There is still a spark between them but they carry baggage that may prove too heavy for the other to bear.

A Fuss, by Bernie McGill, explores a theme that presents itself in many of these stories, that families prefer to keep their ideas of each other intact, retaining an aversion to any distasteful reality.

“she will remember the important lesson she learned from this, from him and from her mother, that it is more agreeable to be quiet than to make a fuss by telling the truth.”

Children return to the parental home to attend funerals. A surviving spouse must find a way to live alone. Reasons for leaving are unpicked alongside the pull of duty. Suppressed grudges resurface when challenged by familial guilt.

The writing is consistently impressive and varied making this a collection that effortlessly holds the reader’s attention. There is a strength to even the most broken of the characters, each are recognisable from everyday life.

An enjoyable read that offers a taster menu of authors deserving further attention. I will be watching the trajectory of those previously unpublished with interest.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Island Books.