Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christi Lefteri

Book - The Beekeeper of Aleppo

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is, without doubt, one of the saddest books I have ever read. It is told from the perspective of Nuri, a man who is fleeing the horrors of war with his wife Afra, who was blinded when a bomb exploded at their home, killing their young son. They leave Syria, hoping to join Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa, who has already made it to England, and their journey is fraught danger.

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Poetry Review: This Tilting Earth by Jane Lovell

This Tilting Earth by Jane LovellThere is a strong sense of time passing, in This Tilting Earth, a pamphlet of poems by Jane Lovell (the winning entry from last year’s Mslexia pamphlet competition). It begins with ‘Song of the Vogelherd Horse’, an elegy which takes us back to the Ice Age, giving voice to the artefact itself, conjuring up the ghosts of those who ‘smoothed my lissom back’ and ‘buried me in soil’. This introduces the pamphlet’s main theme – an exploration of mankind’s complex relationship with animals over the centuries.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Book - The Downstairs Girl by Stacey LeeThe Downstairs Girl is set in 1890s Atlanta, and it reminded me very much of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, which also features a protagonist called Jo, who writes. But this novel examines American society from a different perspective – that of the outsider. Jo Kuan is Chinese, scraping out a meagre living as a hat maker, and hiding away at night in the basement of a print shop, with her adopted father (Old Gin). They exist on the edge of society – not white or black, but viewed warily by others as something in between, to be avoided and ignored.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

Book - The Italian Teacher by Tom RachmanWhat makes someone a great artist? The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman provides a fascinating answer to this question, as it tracks the life of Charles Bavinsky, known as ‘Pinch’, son of the great artist, Bear Bavinsky. It begins in Italy, when Pinch is just five years old, watching his father entertain the crowds, desperate for his affection and approval. His mother Natalie is also an artist, working with ceramics, but she is eclipsed by Bear’s extravagant personality, and her work always comes second to his.   Continue reading

Book Review of Barack Obama: Dreams From My Father

book - barack obama dreams from my fatherA Guest Post written by Mary Le Bon

Dreams From My Father gives an honest, self-deprecating account of Barack Obama’s search for identity in the first part of his life. He was commissioned to write this book, after becoming the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. This led him on a journey of exploration, seeking out his ancestral roots and working through the confusion of his own childhood memories.   Continue reading

Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Book: The Overstory by Richard PowersThe Overstory is an epic tale which moves at an incredible pace, following the stories of disparate people, and trees, over several decades. I was uncertain, to begin with, what to make of the present tense omniscient narrator style, but soon became swept along, mesmerised by the way in which the lives of people and trees are intertwined:    Continue reading

Poetry Review: Vertebrae by Glyn Edwards

Poetry - Vertebrae by Glyn Edwards

Vertebrae is Glyn Edwards’ first collection – a book of poems that stand as a bridge between human and natural landscapes, linking past and present, beginning with the imminent birth of a son in ‘The Land or Body Tide’. This poem balances the emotive experience of seeing the unborn foetus via ultrasound scan, against the push and pull of seismic forces on the surface of the earth. It is shaped as a spine on the page, and it sets out the theme for what follows – a selection of poems that focus on relationship, particularly the challenges of fatherhood, within a natural environment, and emotional events observed from an analytical distance.

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Book - Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineThe title of this book – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – has intrigued me, ever since I saw people reading it when it first came out, and yet something put me off – I think it was the knowledge that it was about loneliness, and I was afraid that it would challenge my perceptions of others, and perhaps even my perceptions of myself. But it does far more than that. It is a fascinating, beautifully told, incredibly gripping tale about one young woman who is just about coping with life.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: Hand & Skull by Zoë Brigley

Book - Hand and Skull by Zoe BrigleyHand & Skull is the latest poetry collection from Zoë Brigley, full of poetry which confronts the reader with a fascination in observation, particularly focusing on traumatic experience, veering from intimacy and beauty to violence and abuse. Many of the poems are inspired by the relationship between the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O’Keeffe, of whom he took numerous photographs, and who became a well-known artist in her own right.     Continue reading

Book Review: The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik

Book - The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie MunnikThis is a quiet, beautiful novel which stretches across time, rooted, to begin with, in an open, wild Scottish landscape on the North East coast. It follows the lives of three women. First there is Jane, newly married and learning to survive small-town life alone, with her husband away, fighting in the Second World War. She seeks refuge in walks along the shore, but is unable to escape the harsh brutality of war, or to defend herself against the local gossips, forced to do everything she can to protect the man she loves.    Continue reading

Hay festival 2019 – The Novels That Shaped Our World

BBC Novels that shaped our world

Hay Festival event, photo by Chris Athanasiou

Last week at the Hay Festival I attended the BBC launch event of their new project – Novels That Shaped Our World. It marks the 300th anniversary of the English language novel, and involves a panel of six people (Mariella Frostrup, Zawe Ashton, Syima Aslam, Kit de Waal, Stig Abell and Alexander McCall Smith) selecting 100 novels for this impressive list. I thought this meant selecting novels that have shaped the world, but at the event, they made it clear that it is much more personal than that, and the idea is to spark discussion and debate…

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Book Review: On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell

On Poetry - a book by Glyn MaxwellOn Poetry is not just another book about poetry, it’s in a whole category of its own. It’s short, and concise, but also full of irony, subtlety and humour. It has a simple structure and purpose, to break poetry down to its basic elements and encourage you to pick them up for yourself, beginning with ‘white’ – a chapter which considers the essential element of white space on the page – the one thing that, Maxwell argues, divides poetry from prose. After reading this chapter, I had to put the book down to process it for a while, and then I read the whole chapter again. It’s that kind of book.   Continue reading

Poems from Cardiff, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and The Borders

Poetry from Cardiff, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and The Borders

These four slim poetry anthologies are beautifully produced, each containing a selection of poems centred around a specific area of Wales, collated by Seren’s editor, Amy Wack. Many poems are taken from recent collections, but there are also several new poems, and each pamphlet has a distinct feel to it. To begin with, in Poems from Pembrokeshire there is a sense of time standing still in a landscape rooted to the past.

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Poetry Review: Sincerity by Carol Ann Duffy

Poetry Collection - Sincerity by Carol Ann DuffySincerity is Carol Ann Duffy’s final collection as Poet Laureate, and it is extremely varied, flitting between the personal and the political, with very little to hold the poems together except this notion of ‘sincerity’. It is full of poems which are honest and sincere, whether recounting private experience or teasing out the unwanted truths of political events, playing against the idea of ‘fake news’ and revealing the reality beneath the gloss.   Continue reading

Book Review: Dignity by Alys Conran

Book - Dignity by Alys ConranI was mesmerised by Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon, and her second novel, Dignity, is no less stunning. It follows the stories of three women – Magda, Evelyn, and Susheela – travelling across time and continents, from North Wales to India, as their lives begin to unravel in all sorts of ways, anchored always to thoughts of Home. This is a novel which does not shy away from portraying the conflict and hypocrisy of Britain’s colonial past.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: The Healing Next Time by Roy McFarlane

Poetry Collection by Roy McFarlane - The Healing Next TimeLast year I read Claudia Rankine’s powerful collection Citizen: An American Lyric, which tackles the thorny issue of racism in modern America. Roy McFarlane has produced a UK equivalent in his second collection The Healing Next Time, which begins with a narrative sequence covering the years 1999 to 2006, interrogating what it means to live as a black man in Britain, merging the personal and the public in an exploration of family, politics, love and hate.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: Us by Zaffar Kunial

Poetry - Us by Zaffar KunialI heard Zaffar Kunial read his World War One poem ‘Poppy’ on Radio 4 as part of the centenary commemorations last year. It includes a haunting refrain ‘no, this is not enough’ repeated throughout, until, in the end, this phrase becomes the poem itself, a powerful acknowledgement that nothing we can write or say will ever capture the horror of war. This focus on the power of language, contrasted with a sense of inadequacy or uncertainty, runs throughout Kunial’s debut collection, Us.   Continue reading