Book Review: The State of Us

State of Us

“if we could start again, build the world again, build the world from scratch, knowing what we do now, would it be different the next time around?”

The State of Us, by Charlie Hall, is a collection of thirteen short stories that offer a black mirror reflection of modern society. Some are opaque, others pure metaphor. All are written with insight, and undercurrents of dark humour.

The anthology opens with a conversation between two workers. Burt’s job is to move things. Bill counts. Burt is unhappy with his role and would like to try his hand at counting. What plays out is how managers maintain their position at the expense of underlings, and how the world of work requires much nonsensical activity.

What is cleverly achieved in these typically short stories – many just a few pages in length – is how characters are developed to draw the reader in and make situations fully three dimensional. Conflicts are rarely resolved to the satisfaction of whoever appears to harbour critical thinking skills. Those wanting an easy life push for conformity, a suppression of inconvenient memory, whatever the ultimate cost.

Ruckus at the Dog and Duck, in just half a page, pokes fun at the ‘virtuous’ middle classes.

“Last night there was a fight between two groups of Johnnie Bodens”

The subjects they disagree on prove how little people think, and how ridiculous conflict can be.

This story is followed by one of the longer in the collection, a tale of a lone astronaut trying to maintain his sanity on the International Space Station while the earth below him burns.

The Tale of Big Hal and the Bethany Tower pulls no punches in its mockery of modern day parenting. So much of this was recognisable and relatable, although thankfully not the denouement.

The anthology closes with a tale that may be set in the future but, given current government policy, probably not that far off. Two wealthy couples meet for a social occasion while a riot builds outside. The host, convinced that his comfortable life is protected, gets his sport from riling a guest with a more empathetic understanding of the situation. I pondered if there is any chance of our overlords ever facing their comeuppance.

This was a highly enjoyable read that offers thought-provoking entertainment delivered in bite sized chunks. The angle from which subjects are presented adds to the originality and satisfaction. Never heavy but still multi-layered, a recommended anthology.

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


Book Review: Imperfect Beginnings

Imperfect Beginnings

“The art of re-membering for me is a coming back to that which once belonged, that may have been cut off from us – or dis-membered. In our busy, defended and urban lives, we are often complicit in this – separating our selves, our bodies and our hearts from what sustains and nourishes us”

Viv Fogel was forcibly removed from her birth mother and adopted by two refugee holocaust survivors when she was ten months old. Her adoptive mother was bi-polar. Now a grandmother, the author writes of the challenges a family faces when collective memory and personal experience harbours such darknesses. In this stunning, new poetry collection she explores themes of displacement and trauma, and how art and nature have helped her cope.

Divided into five sections, the first examines exile and rootlessness, the effects of poverty – material and emotional.

“Cuckoo’s first call is heard on April 14th,
my birth date. Taken to another’s nest,
with name and feathers I could not keep,
I became the strange one who did not fit.”

In the second section Vogel writes of the horrific memories her adoptive parents carried, the shadows these cast over her and their relationship.

“I wasn’t meant to hear about the officer’s
leather belt, his polished boots,

of the baby tossed
into the air, skull
cracking beneath the boot.”

For anyone who has visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin with its memorial installation, ‘Salekhet’, the cover of this book will be familiar. The author reflects movingly on what this represents.

“There are other holocausts
other stories      other memories
but this      this is what I know
is what I came from”

Practical UnEnglish is an incredibly powerful poem about her deeply damaged and flawed adoptive mother. Although the reader may baulk at the cruelties inflicted, there is an element of forgiveness, an acceptance that much of the abhorrent behaviour was due to her illness and history.

Vogel goes on to write of her own challenges as a parent. And then there is a softening as she spends time with her grandchildren. Two For Joy recounts a day spent at a playground with the youngsters and offers a sunbeam of happiness.

What Remains (a conversation) demonstrates the beauty of small details when time is taken to notice them.

“the leaving and the return
as the tide comes and goes
the breathing in      the breathing out”

These more hopeful themes carry on into the final section in which a new partner brings unexpected love to the author’s life. Night Drive provides a reminder that, despite how man has denuded the natural world, beauty remains in such moments as a darkening sky, a rising moon.

The final poem, How It Is, offers both acceptance and deliverance. The impressive and lingering imagery delivers a fitting ending.

An emotive collection but one written with such poise and precision it may be savoured despite elements of bitterness. Fogel delves without dwelling, offers honesty without resentment. This is poetry at its most accessible and yet profound.

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

Book Review: Disobedient Women

disobedient women

“Just because the party you support is not in power doesn’t mean democracy is failing”

Disobedient Women, by Sangeeta Mulay, is set in contemporary India. In many ways it is an uncomfortable read, focusing as it does on how women are treated in what is still a staunchly patriarchal society. Although now working in London, the author was born in Pune where the novel is set. This gives her uncompromising writing style authenticity.

The story opens in a hospital where a middle aged woman, Aparna, is undergoing a forensic medical examination following her rape. The timeline then shifts back four months. Aparna is in a police station attempting to register a complaint against a Hindu Godman accused of sexually harassing a young woman.

“He promised to change the gender of her foetus using black magic,” Aparna said in a tight voice. “In return for sexual favours.”

The policemen fear the Godman’s supernatural powers and refuse to take down the details. The women are regarded as trouble makers because they will not quietly accept the domestic lives men wish them to live, demanding rights for themselves. By making a fuss, complaining about how they are being treated, any trouble they suffer is blamed on their behaviour.

Aparna is married to Manish and they have a teenage daughter, Naseem. Although concerned about the attention she draws for her outspoken campaigning against religious bigotry and superstition, Aparna’s family mostly support what is obviously important to her. The recent change in government – from secular to Hindu – is causing increasing difficulties. Aparna’s promotion of rationality and atheism through the blog and periodical she writes for leads to attempts to silence her and her supporters through the courts – and by more violent means.

The second part of the book introduces a family who wish the country to return to more traditional, Hindu values. Vijay raises his son, Hari, to believe the increasing westernisation of India goes against their culture and should be suppressed. Hari takes much of what he is taught on board, although remains hypocritical when it comes to satisfying his sexual desires. He accepts the marriage arranged for him but has little interest in his wife, Lata, other than as someone who serves his needs and makes homelife comfortable for him.

“The marriage was consummated on the first night itself. By now, Hari had become adept in deriving sexual gratification from a woman. The thought that the woman deserved some did not even cross his mind.”

Lata and Hari soon have a baby, a daughter they name Kashi. Hari remains indifferent to the child, believing his role is to protect her until he eventually hands her over to a husband. As the grows, Kashi observes how her mother is treated. When she learns there are other ways of thinking, other ways in which women may live, she turns against her upbringing. To solve this problem her parents plan to arrange her marriage as soon as is legally permitted.

Hari becomes aware of Aparna’s campaigning and sets out to silence her. Manish fears for his wife’s safety. His friends and wider family blame her for not being more compliant. The law may claim to offer protection but society still expects women to submissively accept the role they have long been assigned.

In refusing to remain quietly at home, Aparna is made to feel guilty for the shame she is accused of bringing down on her family. Naseem in particular struggles with her mother’s refusal to stay silent about her rape. Manish tries to support his wife but then turns elsewhere, encouraged by friends who find Aparna too strident and uncompromising.

“My views are clear as always. I don’t have a problem with those who quietly practise their faith. My problem is with the misuse of faith. The minute your belief tramples on the human rights of others, it’s a no from me.”

This is a disturbing window into life in India and the damage wrought by religious intolerance and patriarchal thinking. It is hard to see how life for women will be improved while any who demand change face the opprobrium of society and law makers rather than protection from violent extremists.

A tense and fascinating debut from a strong, new voice in fiction. A recommended read.

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

Book Review: No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall

building a wall

No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall, by Ruth Brandt, is a collection of eighteen short stories that explore, in eminently readable and engaging prose, a myriad of challenging lived experiences. Whilst there is an undercurrent of melancholy, this is infused with the beauty to be found when one pays attention. Love, with its many shades, is valued yet cut through with the cruelties inflicted by individuals who, inevitably, look out for themselves. There is also humour alongside an appreciation of transitory moments that prove pivotal. It becomes clear that the now can only be experienced through a lens coloured by what has gone before.

The collection opens with Happy Ever After, in which a mother waits desperately for news of her grown son, who is missing. The structure is clever and effective in offering the reader events from a variety of perspectives. The ending elicits sympathy despite its shocking nature.

Several stories explore child and parent relationships – the love and the disconnects alongside the damage inflicted by parents’ chosen actions, however well intentioned.

Strands features a young boy as he is moved between foster homes, a process that colours his development into adulthood, his ability to trust others and himself. He is regarded as trouble and continues to believe this.

There are a number of stories that follow the difficulties encountered due to sexual attraction. Petrification, set in Iceland, follows a hoped for holiday romance. Lifetime looks at the worries caused by age difference, but in a wonderfully off-centred way.

I enjoyed Superstitions in particular with its supposedly practical and fact valuing protagonist. She is taking part in an experiment involving a ladder and a cat but with questionable measures and aims. The humour provided in the ending was neatly executed.

Many of the stories have a pleasing ‘life is for living’ element, one that feels particularly valuable given our current situation. In Heading West an elderly man sets out to visit the seaside. His pursuit may seem foolish yet comes across as hopeful. His attempts to gender a young driver who helps him adds nuance to a poignant yet uplifting tale.

Snow Blindness is set during a ski holiday. A woman is spending her time focused on living longer by not taking risks.

“obsessing over whether the next check-up will be clear, retreating from the world to live in total safety all those extra minutes, months or years gifted her by expert doctors.”

Meanwhile, her partner determines to enjoy the moment, however foolhardy this may appear to a woman who believes he should deny himself pleasures she does not approve.

“Today he is going to squander his life, spend every last moment of it. Christ, today he feels alive.”

Stories include: spies and refugees, the bullied and depressed, young carers and children caught up in parental conflict.

Stop all the clocks imagines a seventeen year old Turing, dealing with school in the aftermath of his best friend’s death. Knowing how this affected him in real life adds to its power – how authority at the time tried to quash and ignore what was a desperate cry for understanding.

The writing is skilfully rendered, offering stories that are affecting and humane. There is much to consider in how we choose to live, the effect choices and personally proclaimed edicts have on others in the longer term, the walls being built between loved ones when they will not act in an approved way.

This is an engaging, timely and worthwhile read.

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

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.


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

Book Review: How To Make Curry Goat

How To Make Curry Goat, by Louise McStravick, is a collection of thirty-three poems that bring to vivid life the experiences of a second generation Windrush immigrant. The author describes herself as of mixed race and heritage. Many of the poems explore the theme of culture, belonging, and the challenges of expectation and assimilation. Questions are asked about how people change when horizons expand – if this is improvement or loss, and how these affect those left behind.

Opening with Just another road in Erdington, the reader is offered a picture of the place where the narrator first remembers living. There is violence, drug taking and a nod to urban habits and survival tactics. There is also humour in the memories of home furnishings.

Tanned Feet considers skin colour and the pride to be felt in what this represents. Although many of the poems in the collection examine how often the narrator tried to change how she looked or acted – in order to please others or feel accepted – there is also acceptance of her cultural inheritance and how this has shaped her. She may now prefer Earl Grey tea to builder’s brown brewed, but this is neither a rejection of where she came from nor of who she is.

The titular poem is just wonderful. The frequent interjections from the parent add both fun and poignancy to what is a recipe but also an appreciation of stories passed down through generations – memories evoked through the senses and richer for the depth of feeling this brings.

Mommy Belly is a love song to a beloved parent.

“We learn the beauty of belly with skin
that no longer fits.
That does not conform to the rules of playdough
it does not return to its original shape, no
more like a creased cape now
on the world’s greatest superhero.”

Beyond family, there are poems looking at the difficulties inherent in dating and cohabiting. The woman contorts what she is in order to conform, fitting in but not comfortably.

“There isn’t enough space for everyone and her curls take up double. So they pull and they push and use their fingers to touch, make her disappear between the lines”

There are betrayals and endings, pain but then valued lessons learned in hindsight.

“I thank you for teaching me the nature of things that a smell can become cotton fields and tropical rainstorms that futures are real in the moment but live in the past more than anything”

A few of the poems are more opaque – perhaps dealing with the loss of a child, or a child who could have been. It is always a mistake to assume authors create work that is autobiographical but the writing is nuanced and intensely personal in all it represents.

As a white, female reader there is much that resonates but also much to consider. The collection presents a life outside my personal experience but with a strength and piquancy that may be savoured. In avoiding both the didactic and the sentimental, these poems offer a candid window into growing up in a country that invited but then struggled to welcome. The next generation wove their lives around the impact of this treatment of their parents, and these poems reflect that there is much still to be unpicked.

Playful and clever use of form and language add weight to the always accessible reading. This is a poetry collection I am happy to recommend.

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

Book Review: Grenade Genie

Grenade Genie, by Thomas McColl, is a collection of 25 poems that are described as ‘brief studies of the cursed, coerced, combative and corrupted’. Divided into sections corresponding to these descriptions, each entry takes a contemporary theme and offers the author’s insights with a mixture of wit, humour and poignancy. There are standout poems and those a reader may pass over more lightly. What is captured within these pages are many of the absurdities of city living – behaviours people adhere to against their best interests yet tacitly accepting.

The collection opens with No Longer Quite So Sure – a satisfying glimpse of nature and man’s futile attempts to tame it. A coup d’œil unsettles the tired worker through whose eyes we view the streets from the bus he is travelling in on his journey to work. This reader felt cheered at the potential for natural regeneration.

Next up is The Evil Eye, the first of a number of poems exploring modern man’s attempts to find affirmation of his existence on social media. The warning being given segues into a disturbing reflection on the narrator’s history – a plea to take notice of more than self on-line.

The subjects covered in this section include: refugees, shoddy housing, the desire for wealth. It concludes with a wry look at how literary talent is measured given shrinking attention spans, and whether this matters in the wider scheme of things.

“Who knows? Maybe, by 2021,
I’ll have no choice but to fit my opus
into four lines on Instagram.

But then, when I do,
my simple, artless platitude
will inexplicably receive a million likes,
and then, released as part of a book,
will inexplicably sell a million copies”

The second section has a lighter feel although with serious subject matter. It looks at: expendable workers, interchangeable senior management, the modern addiction to shopping, dress codes and fashion.

I particularly enjoyed Jan, Jen or Jean which details a passing encounter when the narrator struggles to remember an old acquaintance’s name. The metaphor of gambling is used to good effect in this and across several of the poems.

The third section takes further swipes at consumerism before veering into the difficulty of being a pedestrian on the busy, packed streets of the city. The narrator does not appear to like cyclists any more than drivers of motor vehicles.

The Phoney War sees two boys playing war games behind a sofa. Its conclusion is devastating.

The final section explores themes such as: internet privacy, grammar and literary snobbery. It then touches on drug taking before offering two entries that I found somewhat weird – I pondered if the narrator of First Kiss was high on something.

The collection concludes with Literal Library which I very much enjoyed. The shelves in this library are divided into contemporary subjects, each commented on with wry humour.

“There’s no longer any room for books which are off message
on the LIBERALISM shelf”

The poems entertain whilst also provoking thought on a wide range of issues pertinent to a resident of a city such as London where the author lives. Readers who fear that poetry can be difficult need have no concerns about understanding and enjoying this selection. It was perfect for a time when my ability to concentrate is impaired yet still offers plenty to consider and evocations that linger.

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

Book Review: Bad Mommy Stay Mommy

Bad Mommy / Stay Mommy, by Elisabeth Horan, is a collection of poems that provide a visceral and often harrowing account of the author’s postpartum depression. Following the birth of her second son, Horan found her world unravelling. Her behaviour made others uncomfortable and, at times, angry. She was not behaving as a new mother is required by society. Most of all though Horan struggled to cope with the change in herself.

“I am you in mixed acrylic on a Pollack canvas”

The author writes of the guilt she feels over how she treats her two young children due to her illness. The boys know that she is sad but must still bear the brunt of her mood changes.

“Who am I? lashing out –
my tongue a leather whip
leaving verbal welts
on the back of someone so small”

In Wellbutrin in my Brain, Horan recounts the effects of the medication she was prescribed.

“I’m fat and puffy yet endlessly hungry,
my hair in my hands and
my back to the wall of a cliff;
then falling, falling
into a Dali sea –

Rife and roiling with
lunatics like me.”

Efforts to be around her family are depicted in raw, emotion. She writes of prowling through night’s darkness and of regrets when, exhausted, she lashes out again.

“But what of the little boy?
Cowering, looking to me for shelter”

Basement Mother is one of several poems that reference her self-hatred. This leads to suicidal thoughts that are expanded upon. In Mother Maple she writes of the cost to her family.

“Funnny, how they hold up
The felled trunk of me
Even as they succumb
From my smothering –
From the immense weight
Crushing them.”

Despite the torment she knows that her family wants her. She struggles to see how, in this state, she can be good for them. She becomes desperate to find a way out of the abyss.

“Gnawing on one’s own failure bed
my prone heart
the same the same”

A climax is reached in Better off without me which is powerful, painful, and should be read in its entirety.

As the title suggests, eventually Horan finds a way to stay alive.

“t’isn’t easy being in the world now
as a member, not an inmate

My own warden.”

It is rare to find such an honest depiction of a new mother’s wounds and shortcomings. The complexities of mental illness are balanced with the love felt for the children, love that is written between the lines rather than sentimentalised. Despite the depression so searingly depicted there is hope in this collection.

A stark yet spirited window into a condition rarely brought into open, honest discussion. An important portrayal that overflows with a rare candour. Hear her roar.

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