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The title "From the Dark Room" is a phrase from a sequence of poems called "Travelling Light". Some unexpected things happen with light and dark in this collection. In "Rare Old", whisky abandoned in Antarctica and "protected by the freeze" is "brought into the damage of light". Nesting house-martins in "Hemispheres", by contrast, are pictured "sliding the dark around themselves" in an act of protection, while "Globe" ends with the sinister volcanic image of
what might ooze if the egg

of the Earth were cracked, light
hatching from the world's blown sphere.
more behind cut )

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I feel very iffy about reviewing this anthology, because I have some poems in it. But it seems to me to have a far more interesting organising principle than your average anthology of "poets under 30" or "women poets", who don't necessarily have a damn thing in common. This is an anthology of poets who came from, or live on, Scottish islands (not just visitors on holiday) and as the thoughtful intro makes clear, this liminality does give their writing traits in common. "The islander's sense of being removed from the heart of things relates, I think, to the writer's sense of being an observer as much as a participant". This is true, though it should not be taken to mean that island poets are unaware of what is going on at the heart of things, just that they can view it with a certain amount of detachment. Jim Mainland's scorching, careering satire "Prestidigitator", which I've blogged about before here, is as committed a modern political poem as you'll find:

Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes:
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I'm spooling tissue from an ear, I'm sawing her in half, no, really,
I'm vanishing your dosh, I'm giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,

but the same writer, in "The Gunnister Man", is acutely conscious of the massive timeline, reaching back centuries, on which he is a point and which connects him to everyone else who has ever lived there. Those who live in small communities are more apt, I think, to have this sense of connectedness to the past; it appears in the poems by which George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean are represented here (MacLean's "Hallaig", in both the Gaelic original and the English translation, being a bright particular star).

It is in fact thought-provoking to consider the roll of famous names who fit this anthology's criteria: MacLean, Brown, Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, MacDiarmuid, and in more contemporary times the recent T S Eliot winner Jen Hadfield. But there are many others less well known, like Jim Mainland, Laureen Johnson, William J ("Billy") Tait, Laurence Graham, who deserve to be more widely read than they are and who should come as a salty surprise to those who maybe picked up the anthology for other reasons but happen on something like James Andrew Sinclair's "Immigrant":

Fill my pockets with lochs
the wind will fit snug in my wallet.
I will weave a scarf of mackerel, haddock and trout
the good fit of sheep on my feet.
My jacket, knitted peat and heather
with a bottle of good humour for the journey.
Planks of fishing boat bound tight as a belt
the sails making dandy trousers.
My back-pack holds the entire ocean
and last but certainly not least
I will wear the sky beneath my hat.

These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Island Poetry is published by Polygon.
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Review of Melog by Mihangel Morgan, translated by Christopher Meredith (Seren 2005)

Melog is a novel with a rich cast of characters, but the only two who really matter are Melog himself, an avatar of that perennial literary type, the Mysterious Stranger Who Changes Lives, and "Dr" Jones, the hapless protagonist whose life is changed. Dr Jones is a failed academic on the dole, devoting his middle years to somewhat nebulous study of the vast 19th-century tome, The Welsh Encyclopedia. At least, however, this is a real book, whereas the one for which Melog spends most of the novel searching, The Imalic, may well exist only in his imagination, as may several other things like his country and his history.

Melog is a young man, emaciated, with striking blue eyes and unusually white skin and hair, whom Dr Jones first sees theatening to throw himself off a high building. He's thus in an accidentally rather angelic pose (he is also stark naked) and Dr Jones' first impression, indeed, is that Melog is extra-terrestrial. True, the first request an angel makes is not usually to be taken to the nearest chip shop, nor are they generally portrayed as habitual liars, thieves and fantasists.
cut for length )
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Tamar Yoseloff has long been interested in urban landscapes, particularly ruined or decaying urban landscapes, and the first section of this new collection blends the often exhilarating feel of a modern city (not always the same one) with a consciousness of its past and its detritus. cut for length )

The City With Horns is published by Salt Publishing
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I'll Dress One Night As You, by Chrissie Gittins, Salt Publishing 2011

The title comes from a sequence about mourning a mother; in the poem "Out Of Place" the bereaved speaker envisages putting on the dead woman's clothes and habits:
I'll dress one night as you,
wear your weighty beads and bracelet,
I'll stretch my lips across my teeth,

             half open my mouth,
apply red lipstick in a compact mirror

It's an appropriate title image, because much of this collection is about putting on the voice and personality of others - a former bodyguard of Hitler, a 17th-century chorister who also acts in Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys's mistress.

Sometimes too the alter egos are from the myth-kitty, as in "Alcyone" and "Triptolemus". I'm not among those who are turned off by the mere mention of Greek myth; it seems a perfectly valid source of material as long as the poet recognises that it has been extensively mined already and needs something new doing with it. In "Triptolemus" we see the man cheated of the gift of immortality as a baby, now on his deathbed and massively grateful for not having had to outlive his own children - a good twist on the myth, I think.

I've always liked voice poems because they give the poet a certain distance from material that might otherwise become sentimental, also because it seems weird to be a writer and not take advantage of the freedom it gives you to get into someone else's skin. In "The Carpet Fitter's Wife", this fondness for shape-shifting combines with an interest in vocabulary: a married couple's relationship becomes defined by their respective idiolects, his as a carpet fitter, hers as a maths teacher:
Our congruent bodies lie parallel,
an owl calls from the coppice,
he holds me firm like gripper rod.

Another sequence, about a woman transported to Australia, works well. Of course the thing about voice poems is that the voice needs to convince throughout; if "Chorister, St Saviour's Church, Southwark, 1607" works less well for me it is because I can't hear a 17th-century voice saying "his lips were mink on mine", given that mink weren't introduced into Britain until about 1920. Granted, their fur could have been imported earlier, but it can't have been widely known, and it just seems unlikely to have been among this speaker's references.

The other main theme of this collection is bereavement, and on the vocabulary and minutiae of loss she is very sharp - "the back of everyone's head is you" ("Around Thaxted"). The poem which sticks with me most, though, is another about the place of fictional vocabularies in life, "She Gave Me Her Childhood Books, in which fiction becomes a talisman for children against reality:
on a cold stone wall in the playground

we're joined by the King of Peru
who falls down a well

and comforts himself with a rhyme.
The bell sounds for lessons, we fetch up in a line.

Beside us loiters a row of ducks,
an old sailor, a knight with quiet armour.

When keys are thrown at chatty Colin
the knight shields the blow

If I were feeling picky, I might object that actually he deflects the blow, or shields Colin from it, but the idea behind the words is one most of us could relate to. Gittins has in fact worked a great deal with children, but this collection shows her as a poet adults can certainly enjoy as well.
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Michelle McGrane's poems, like those of many a poet who grew up in one country and now lives in another, show a keen awareness of location, not just the ones she knows but those into which she can imagine herself. This goes for historical times and personas too; she's as likely to think herself into a female Irish pirate or the last Russian tsarina as to speak in her own person. In short, she sees poetry as a window rather than a mirror, which is in my view the best way to make it entertaining and relevant to others.

Paradoxically, I think this outlook can also be beneficial to more personal poetry, because being in the habit of seeing herself as only part of a wider universe, rather than as the whole concern, enables a writer to universalise her experience, giving her an eye for those details that will resonate immediately with others. The second poem of "January Triptych", on the loss of a father, is a good example:


It arrives in the mail
with a licence renewal,

wears the thin grey socks
never returned.

It curls up, settles in
where I least expect –

a note slipped between pages,
a bald head in a supermarket queue.

Now the thin grey socks of old men struck an immediate chord with me, because exactly the same detail was true of my father. But so did the bald head in the supermarket, and in this case the detail was different; my father had very white hair and for a long time after his death, I couldn't see a white-haired old man without thinking it was him. This shows, I think, that if the poet gets it right, it isn't necessary for the reader to share every incidental detail of her experience; it is the basic situation, the essential in the experience, that travels.

While I don't object to poems having notes (especially when, as in this case, they are at the back), I think some of these are unnecessary; if your reader has not heard of marchpane or doesn't know the translation of remise, he can soon look them up. Also, though I'm averse to suggesting any subject is off limits, I do think there are territories that have been so thoroughly claimed that one needs to be sure one has a new angle. My first thought on reading the title "Bertha Mason Speaks" was "Wide Sargasso Sea!" and I didn't see anything in the poem that Rhys hadn't already said in the novel. But in the poem "Princesse de Lamballe" (one of Marie Antoinette's pals who lost her head during the Revolution), the head held aloft on the pike memorably sees a side of Paris its owner never saw when alive:

growling alleys and ravenous back streets
guttered with urine, nightsoil and vermin,
toothless, frayed women queuing for bread

It's this heightened awareness, a window on something one hasn't seen or been conscious of before, that the best of these poems can provide.

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This is a collection of short stories (pub. Salt 2010) and ever since Joyce, the one thing we've known about a short story is that it should have an epiphany: ie, at some point something should become clear, either to us or to the protagonist, that wasn't clear before, and that changes everything. One of the most interesting things about these stories is the way Rickards sometimes subverts the epiphany, by subtly implying that though the protagonist has indeed found out something new about himself or the world, this new-found knowledge is not in fact going to change anything; things will go on much as they did before. In the title story, the materialistic Dominic finds himself having fun in a way totally independent of the money and social cachet on which he generally depends for enjoyment, but you could lay bets that he will not, next morning, sell all he has and give the money to the poor. In "Mango", a failing marriage, seen through a child's eyes, gets a sudden boost of happiness and all seems well at the end, but an adult reader can easily deduce that the respite is temporary and does not address the real problems in the relationship. And in "The Last of Her", Jo, having been welcomed at a vulnerable time into the home of what seems a kind couple, has to reassess them in the light of their conduct to someone else, but again you could bet she is not going to walk virtuously out on the comfort she needs.

Sometimes Rickards does use the epiphany in a more traditional way; in "Odissi Dancing" it does feel as if a woman's self-image has been permanently altered, and in "Ultimate Satisfaction Everyday", Greg, who's always thought of himself as a loser, finds out not so much that he is or isn't, more that nobody has the right to make such a judgement about what anybody's life is "worth". In "Life Pirates" there are practically two stories running in tandem, the one most people see, involving a drunken tramp in a park, and the quite different one seen by the narrator, who knows him.

There are a few stories that don't work for me, notably "Moon" which I don't see the point of and "Moleman" in which the tempting metaphor in a real situation has completely taken over the story to the point where it reads like an exercise. But as a collection, this is massively more worth reading than some considerably more hyped ones I've read lately. Where these stories end happily or at least in temporary contentment, it is often because of some apparently trivial thing: the taste of a mango, the gift of some dog biscuits, the budding of an apparently dead tree, can be enough to turn a situation, a mood, even a way of seeing the world.

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This is a selection from Henry's published work since his collection Time Pieces in 1991, plus about 25 new poems written since the publication of Ingrid's Husband in 2007. I'd heard most of these new poems at various readings, and been so impressed by them that I turned to the end of the book first to read them. But don't do this at home unless you already know Henry's work well, because some of these new poems, including the sublime "Penllain", about which I've blogged before here, derive part of their powerful, brooding nostalgia from reprising characters who first appeared in earlier work, notably The Milk Thief (Seren 1998). Henry, a musician and songwriter as well as a poet, has always been one for using the techniques of reprise and refrain; there are poems from Ingrid's Husband, like "The Snow Dome" and the section of "Gestures" beginning "I want you close before I go" that are effectively, though unobtrusively, rondeaux, and the whole of "Penllain" is a sort of verbal fugue, with motifs, images and people from the past endlessly shifting and recurring, coming around again as things do. Nightingale Ann, Prydwen Jane, Brown Helen all resurface from The Milk Thief in the new poems; so does Catrin Sands, in a poem heavy with recall, whose recurring, subtly changing lines again have some resemblance to the rondeau:

Catrin Sands, are you still there?
I dreamt about you last night.
You think it's all Brown Helen but it's you
who were pale and thin last night.
And your eyes were brown instead of blue
Catrin Sands, if you're still there.

more behind cut )
When I think of some of the almost unsayable, and certainly unmemorable, prose in lines that passes for free verse, and of some highly praised, competition-winning poems that resemble determinedly quirky exercises rather than an attempt to articulate anything important enough to need saying, I am at a loss to understand why this poet, who not only concerns himself with themes that would resonate with most readers but has the verbal and musical skill to make them resonate, is not more widely known and admired. When, recently, I had to name 15 authors who were important to me, he came just below Louise Gluck and Edwin Morgan, which still feels about right.

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If you've had enough of contemporary novels about nothing that matters very much, with tedious or dislikeable protagonists you wouldn't care if you never met again, with posturing authors anxious to show off their stylistic brilliance at every opportunity instead of getting on with the story and, above all, novels that don't so much end as peter unsatisfyingly out along with the author's ideas and impetus, I suggest you try this one a.s.a.p. and don't be daunted by its doorstep size. The intrinsic interest of the story and its two main narrative voices is such that on a first read you won't even be conscious of time passing, much less of the stunningly artful structure that underpins it.
more behind cut )

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Find me in your own time
find me in your own face

- "Thames Idol"
review behind cut )
Flatlands is available from Salt
sheenaghpugh: (Sydney Smith)
The first thing to say is that when I'd finished this book, I knew for certain I would read it again. This is important, because I've been fearfully disappointed in my novel-reading over the last few years; if I had a quid for every well-reviewed contemporary novel I've read once and know I shall never re-read… Usually it's because they just don't seem to be about anything fundamental enough, and they don't do enough to me; you don't get that wrung-out feeling of having been through something momentous that you get after reading, say, Adam Bede or Kim. There are a few exceptions, and this is one of them; it is definitely a re-reader, partly for all the right reasons and partly because I'm by no means sure I understand it all yet.
more behind cut )

sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I don't copy all the reviews I write to this blog, but am doing so with this one, partly because it's a new press which should therefore be encouraged, and partly because one way or another, I know several people in Manchester, who might be interested. There's a shorter version of this on

An anthology of the current poetry scene in Manchester )

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Crown of Acorns, Catherine Fisher's latest, has three separate strands, taking place in three time zones. In prehistory, Bladud the leprous king is cured by the sacred spring of Sulis, but the circles he builds to her honour in his gratitude come to imprison him. In the 18th century, Zachariah Stoke works as apprentice to Jonathan Forrest, who dreams of building a perfect circle of houses. And in the present day, a girl of 17, calling herself Sulis, arrives in Bath, with a false identity provided for her by social services and a habit of looking over her shoulder for a man who may or may not be there.

It will be clear already that what links the three strands, apart from images and themes, is a location, the city of Bath. To the young Sulis, it is her "ideal city", bewitching her both with its golden stone and its unimaginably long history, and it works much the same magic on the reader. So does the grand obsession of Forrest, a slightly fictionalised version of John Wood, architect of the King's Circus in Bath, a visionary artist plagued by mole-eyed money men. Meanwhile in the best Fisher tradition we have not one but two refreshingly chippy, unorthodox young protagonists in Sulis and Zac, (not to mention their two equally chippy foils, Josh and Sylvia).

Like the perfect circle of houses, the themes and images in this book constantly mirror each other, but though what goes around comes around, it is subtly changed; history does not simply repeat itself in a new time but rather reinvents itself constantly, as no two acorns produce identical oak trees.

If having two teenage protagonists - albeit pretty late teens - makes a book "young adult" rather than adult, I suppose that's what this is, despite the fact that the portrayal of 18th-century Bath's gambling hells, and the girl who used to work in one, is as grim and gritty as you'd expect. But the adult/young adult boundary is meaningless when the book is good enough - does anyone stop reading Treasure Island when they grow up, just because Jim is young? - and this is the most enjoyable novel I've reviewed for a while (S. Pugh. aged 59 and a quarter).
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
Review of Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood

I thought I had enough pirate books, till I saw this one specifically dealing with the Barbary pirates of Algiers, Tripoli etc. It's well researched and scholarly but also written in a delightfully lively style - see this sardonic little piece on everyone's dream job - not...:

"The governorship of Tangier was not a passport to success. The Earl of Peterborough was recalled to England after 11 months, amidst allegations of corruption and incompetence. His successor, the Earl of Teviot, managed a year in office before being killed in a Moorish ambush. During a bout of diarrhoea the Earl of Middleton, who took up office in 1668, got up in the middle of the night, fell over his sleeping manservant and broke his arm; he died two days later. The Earl of Inchiquin was recalled in disgrace after allowing the Moors to overrun the outer defences, though he managed to calm the King's anger by giving him a pair of ostriches. The Earl of Ossory fell into a fit of depression on hearing of his appointment as governor and succumbed to a fever before he could even leave England."

Always keep a pair of ostriches handy for awkward moments. This book is full of unforgettable characters, rich historical ironies, absorbing personal stories and just sheer style, both Tinniswood's and that of his (anti-)heroes. Did you know Samuel Pepys, at very short notice, was ordered to go to Tangier to help supervise its evacuation and destruction? Or that the French mortar-bombed Algiers, in the teeth of a threat, which was carried out, to blow an elderly French priest from a cannon? And don't forget Sir Robert Mansell, to whom no modern mortgage-flipping, duck-house-building MP could hold a candle...

"Sir Robert Mansell stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries in his relentless pursuit of public funds which were not his to spend. In 1604 he obtained the post of treasurer to the navy and clung on to it for all it was worth. He fitted out his own ship at the crown's expense, then hired it to the crown at an inflated rate, while simultaneously using it to carry private cargo. He routinely demanded bribes from naval suppliers as a condition of paying their bills. He ran a lucrative business buying timber and supplies, selling them to the navy at a handsome profit and, as treasurer, authorising the purchases himself. And when, in spite of his best efforts to stop it, the 1618 commission enquiring into abuses in the navy began to examine his dealings, he resigned, mislaid his accounts and handed the commissioners a £10,000 bill for his travelling expenses, which they could not pay. Instead they quietly dropped the investigation."

My own favourite is the harassed Thomas Baker, neglected but kindly English consul in Tripoli, but he's only one in a bewildering tapestry, at a time and cosmopolitan place where people called Hassan Rais, who made a living by importing Christian slaves, frequently turned out to be someone called Rowley from Bristol. You can never have too many pirate books.
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
Review: Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas, pub William Heinemann 2010

Jacob Smith, firearms officer, is dressed for an op:

"Today’s outfit:

Atlas Assault coveralls with Namex III flash-resistant fabric and Kevlar Reinforcement patches on the knees, elbow and groin; Damascus Imperial neoprene knee pads; Damascus Imperial ‘Hardshell’ elbow pads; 5.11 Tac-Ak Tactical Application gloves with Kevlar; spare Blackhawk Hellstorm Light Operations gloves; Lava Combat GTX boots; Web-Tex Cross-Draw Vest for cartridges and percussion grenades along with Maglite LED 4D cell torch, plasticuffs, Gerber multi-tool and normal kwik-cuffs in a Fobus cuff-case; 5.11 ‘Field Ops’ Sniper Watch; Viper 3-point rifle sling modified to hold my pump-action; Bianchi UM92 military holster for the Glock; Blackhawk Hellstorm Poly-Pro Tactical Balaclava; Bulldog customised ballistic body armour; Avon FM12 respirator coupled with an Anson Atlas flame retardant Avon respirator cover; Atlas ballistic helmet which offers ballistic and blunt trauma protection; Gorilla Bar for method of entry and a collapsible ‘Quickstep’ ladder, both strapped to my back.

All in black. I look cool as fuck. Imposing. Intimidating. A futuristic street-warrior. RoboJake, and you've got twenty seconds to comply. Only problem is I can barely move."

Jacob's immobilizing armour is not just physical. Nor just verbal, though he has an impressive (and funny) screen of collective nouns ("a Pointlessness of Police Community Support Officers"), nicknames ("I just referred to him as Seal Pup because all I wanted to do was club him to death") and assorted sardonic coinages: even in his nightmare of being executed, the relatives and friends in the viewing gallery have programme notes printed "Jacob Smith: Why Bother?"

Behind his obsessive body-building, fascination with Vietnam war films and computer games, sudden attachments to women who aren't his wife and automatic iconoclasm in the face of accepted propriety and procedure, Jacob is breaking up. His principal worry is that he is 38, but only his wife and best friend know why this matters, and neither can help him overcome the fear that he will become what he hates in his own past. But Jacob should really be worrying about more immediate matters, like the money he owes to some very ruthless people and the growing concern of his superiors about his work methods.

Mike Thomas is a serving police officer and this dark, fast, funny but often moving novel has an authenticity that could never have come from outside. It helps us to feel we're on the inside, with Jacob, as he tries to make sense of his life. Jacob is not, when we meet him, a nice man, or a good man, though the more he comes apart the more, paradoxically, we see glimpses of the good man he might have been. But he is always a compelling, pacy, funny, complex narrator and protagonist in whom we can't help being interested and who carries us along on a breakneck journey of disintegration, revelation and growing self-awareness. Despite his best efforts, I ended up fond of him, and I think many other readers will too.

sheenaghpugh: (Trollfjord in Norway)

Arriving is always the same sweet mix of promises.
Leaving, well, you never know a person or a place
until you leave.
("Carl's Bar and Grill")
more )

Salt's website is here
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
A novel review this time:

Ghosts and Lightning, by Trevor Byrne, Canongate 2009

Denny Cullen, 21st-century Dubliner at university in Wales, thinks he's left home, but home isn't finished with him yet. Called back for his mother's funeral, he soon seems to be back in the groove, with relatives and friends who are going nowhere fast and doing nothing much (though, this being Dublin, they do it with considerable wit and inventiveness).

His sister Paula senses a ghost in the house she and Denny are allowing to go to rack and ruin; it might be her alcohol-fuelled imagination but then again it might be composed of memories of their dead mother, their absent father, the brothers from whom they are estranged and much other baggage. Before Denny can move on, he needs to decide which bits of his past he wants to leave behind, and which he needs to take with him. Though this is very much a novel of a young man in 21st-century Dublin, he is also a man with a sense of a long historical and mythological past (and his surname is no accident).

One reason this novel lives so vividly for the reader is the liveliness and realism of its voices. Denny's friends and family constantly come alive off the page: the insanely brave Paula, Uncle Victor the long-term book-borrower, gentle Pajo the emaciated recovering drug-addict with Buddhist tendencies ("he's mad into this kind o thing; life after death, ghosts, yetis, any and all religions. Basically anything there's fuck all proof for, Pajo'll believe it.")

Both fulcrum and observer, Denny himself is a joy of a voice. He is sardonically honest about himself:

Probably why I can't get a job, some witch's hex. Well, that or the fact I never filled out them forms at the FAS office

but also endlessly imaginative, as when he describes his friend Maggit having second thoughts about something he's stolen:

And wha about the kid who owned it? Is he not gonna miss it?
Maggit thinks about this. He looks into the bag again, like he might o robbed the answer as well by accident.

or when, travelling west, he finds himself overwhelmed by a sense of history:

… Dungloe, Annagary, Glencolumbkille. Never even heard o those places before, never mind been to them, and yet I dunno why, it all seems dead familiar. Mad that, isn't it? This feelin I get that nothing is new, not really.

There are a lot of very funny scenes in this novel – the car being constantly turned upside down, the funeral dominated by a priestly speech impediment. The variation of pace is remarkable too, from frenetic to leisurely and back, but above all the register of language, which accommodates colloquial and lyrical effortlessly. It's a terrifically assured and likeable debut.
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Geraldine Paine: The Go-Away-Bird pub. Lapwing Publications, Belfast, 2008, £7.95 ISBN 978-1-905425-92-1

review here )
The Go-Away-Bird is on and there's also order information here from the publisher.


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