Category Archives: Reviews

Destiny’s Rebel

Written by Philip Davies

Published by Books to Treasure 

Review by Charlie Britten

4quills

It’s ten days before her eighteenth birthday and her Coronation as Queen of Anestra and Kat (officially Princess Katelin) is dreading a life of royal duties.  Kat’s parents having been killed in battle when she was small, the country is currently ruled by regents, her Uncle Ethabos and Aunt Sirika, whom annoy Kat to distraction.  When her aunt attempts one last attempt to break her (in other words, to bring her into line) Kat helps herself to one last adventure, by scaling down the wall from her bedroom, escaping from the palace and buying a sea passage on The Oyster Shell.  Captured by slavers, she is taken to the land of Lasseny, but the crew of The Oyster Shell, who promised her safe passage when they accepted her fare, buy her back in the slave market.

Lasseny is not a nice place to be, its residents ground down by punitive taxes levied to keep the evil Duke of Lasseny and his son, Count Bassilius (who thinks he’s going to marry Kat), in luxury.  Kat, however, is with new friends: Armus, a cleric; Hedger, a mercenary; Sigzay, a female mercenary, barbarian and Hedger’s girlfriend.  On a quest for missing segments of the Anestran Crown, said to be in the possession of the Duke, Kat and her companions become aware of fighters and armaments being mobilised in readiness for an imminent attack on Anestra.  They set off on a long trek on foot back home, not only to warn the Anestran Court of the coming Lassenite assault, but because Kat knows, in her heart, that she must return and be resigned to her fate.  Then comes the twist, which I did not anticipate at all.

Published in September 2015, this is Philip Davies’s first novel, available in paperback only.  Targeted at the young adult market, Destiny’s Rebel, like many others in the fantasy genre, is set in a fictitious world and a broadly medieval setting, in which royals live in castles and fighters do battle with bows and arrows, bolts and battering rams.  There are no fantasy animals, though, or magic forces, just humans.

What is significant is the modern role of women: both Kat and Sigzay fight alongside men, and appear to have no obvious domestic roles.  Sigzay, however, is jealous of Kat in a bitchy way, which makes her vulnerable, thereby gaining her the reader’s sympathy.  Sigzay is a particularly well-drawn character.  Kat is a likeable gutsy girl, who wins the reader’s confidence within the first few pages, although she has her flaws, which make realistically, and endearingly, teenage.  

A gently Christian novel, Destiny’s Rebel evokes the Biblical story of Jonah, who, not wanting to go to Nineveh where God had sent him, ended up in the whale.  The Anestrans worship the gentle good goddess whom they call ‘The Divine’, to whom they owe a distinctively Christian duty of love and obedience, while Lasseny is presided over by the evil devil Ilbassi Note that ‘The Divine’ is a woman.

A thoroughly readable first novel by Philip Davies, a page-turner, but thought-provoking.  Hope the young adults enjoy as much as I, an older adult, did.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog: http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Written by Anthony Doerr

Published by Scribner

Reviewed by Yushin Jeng

5 quills

 

Written in two distinct points of time, 1944 and 1934, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See starts at the beginning of the ending. The date is August 7, 1944, and the end of World War II is near. Saint-Malo, a walled city at the northern tip of France, is to be the grounds for Nazi Germany’s last stand for control over France. As the bombs are falling and the world, it seems, is about to explode, Doerr jerks us back to the safety of 1934 like yanking back a teetering glass before it tumbles over the edge of the table.

From 1934 onwards, we watch the two main characters Marie-Laure and Werner grow up in two different worlds where the Nazi regime is slowly taking hold. Marie-Laure is a blind girl who lives in Paris with her loving father, the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History. Her life is quaint, peaceful, filled with vibrancy, and follows a steady, reliable schedule. For Marie-Laure, the Germans bring war and fear and blood. As the threat of war looms ever closer, she and her father are forced to flee the soon-to-be-occupied Paris for Saint-Malo, burdened by a stone that may or may not be the most valuable (but cursed) diamond in the world.

Werner is a small boy growing up in an orphanage in Zollverein, a poor, soot-covered mining town in Germany. An intelligent and curious boy, Werner’s mind is sparked by the magic of radios. For Werner, the Nazis offer a future out of the suffocating town he grew up in and into a promising future of glory and riches and scientific achievements. Werner heads off to Hitler Youth where he is favored for his talent with radios, and is eventually sent to war to track down enemy radio transmissions across Eastern Europe until he is ultimately led to Saint-Malo where his and Marie-Laure’s paths will cross.

Doerr writes the story during the years leading up to 1944 and during the days following the bombing of Saint-Malo in 1944 until the times merge together. He masterfully builds anticipation at one point before leaping back into the other, keeping the reader eager to read on to find out what happens. Doerr’s other works take on a lyrical cadence and manifest his affinity for nature; All the Light We Cannot See is no exception. His prose is brimming with imagery that bursts with poetic description. He describes the coastline through the imagination of a blind girl, writing that she “imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins.” Many of the other scenes that are depicted in the book are similarly of the imagination, so the tone of the book takes on an almost dreamlike quality.

Doerr writes All the Light We Cannot See as historical fiction, employing the commonly cited time period of World War II to show examples of humanity at its worst. Rather than focusing specifically on discrimination towards Jews (though he does touch on that) as it typically done, he utilizes the war to show the injustices of the world. How is it, he seems to be saying, that people who do the right thing are so often punished? How is it that acts of justice and goodness so frequently go unacknowledged and unseen? How is it that bad things happen to good people? And how can people find the strength to do the right thing when it is so much easier and safer to do the wrong thing with everyone else? Dealing with questions of morality, this book is for the readers wondering how humans manage to carry on with their lives when so much evil corrupts the rare purity in the world. It is also for the readers who wish to read about characters who find the strength in themselves and the goodness in the world that provide the reasons to do the right thing.

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Yushin Jeng was born in Taiwan and lives in Athens, Ohio where she is a student at Ohio University.

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Alone: A Winter in the Woods

Written by: Felicity Sidnell Reid

Published by: Hidden Brook Press

Reviewed by: Peggy Dymond Leavey

5 quills

 

After the end of the American War of Independence, in the winter of 1797, thirteen-year-old John Turner and his father, Elias, settlers originally from New York, arrive at their 200-acre grant of land on the north shore of Lake Ontario in Upper Canada.

They’ve already traveled on foot through deep snow and over frozen bays and inlets to make the seventy-mile trek from where the family had first landed. With them on this journey are two oxen, hauling a sled laden with supplies; Milly, the cow; and in a coop buried deep in the bottom of the sled, a rooster and three hens — the genesis of the farm the Turners plan to start. But first they must clear some of the land and build a log cabin and a shelter for the animals.

When the time comes for his father to fetch the rest of the family, young John will be left on his own to fend for himself in their little clearing in the wilderness. The adventure that follows is an example of the strength of the human spirit.

Will John be up to the challenge? Does he have the courage and tenacity to survive alone for three months? In the winter? It’s a fearful proposition, but John recalls his grandfather’s saying that if you’ve never been afraid, then you cannot be brave.

Because the Turners’ is the first land grant in a new township, there will be no neighbors for John to call on for assistance. He and his father are fortunate to meet one other traveler, a Methodist preacher named William Black. The kindly circuit rider gives John a New Testament, a quill and a bottle of ink, and some paper that John fashions into a small book. It is here that John will record the important events in his solitary life and keep a tally of the days until he is no longer alone. Best of all, Brother Black brings the boy a year-old pup he calls Bonnie. She is company for John, and they are able to keep each other warm at night, under the bear skin covering on the bed.

From the time his father leaves at the end of February, John is responsible for keeping himself and the animals alive. Buoyed by his father’s faith in him, John still has to face the fact that now, except for Pa and Brother Black, no one in the whole world knows where he is, or even that he still exists.

The book is filled with such vivid descriptions of the dense forest, the rivers and marshes, the glimpses of the lake in the distance, and the changing seasons that the reader easily imagines sharing John’s surroundings.

Besides the daily routine of caring for the animals, collecting water for cooking and drinking, keeping the fire that burns in a pit in the middle of the cabin’s earthen floor going, and gathering moss to fill the cracks between the logs, John must use all his ingenuity to come up with solutions to the challenges he faces at every turn. Every decision must be well thought out.

When Bonnie has a painful encounter with a porcupine John is forced to extract the barbed quills from the dog’s face or risk losing his only companion. He helps birth Milly’s calf and then keeps a vigil all night to protect the newborn from the hungry wolves that appear at the edge of the clearing.

Felicity Sidnell Reid details many of the tasks John undertakes, how he makes birch bark tiles for the cabin roof, prepares simple meals for himself from a few dried beans and ships biscuits, decides how to tap the maple trees when the sap begins to run and to fashion a bucket to collect it. There is so much information here that I feel that the book belongs in every middle school classroom studying the lives of the settlers.

Between some of the chapters in John Turner’s narrative are diary excerpts written by Josephine Fontaine, a French-speaking girl from Montreal who lives with the Turner family. These entries give the reader insight into what is happening back home, while the family awaits the father’s return and then as they prepare for the journey to the new homestead.

When spring finally comes to John’s tiny clearing in the woods, and the ice leaves the creek, Bonnie unexpectedly runs away. Distraught, John ignores his father’s earlier warning not to go after her if this were to happen and thus neglect his responsibilities at the homestead.

Eventually, he finds the dog stranded on the opposite side of the flooded river, and in his attempt to rescue her, comes close to drowning himself. While he struggles against the strong current he is struck by a large tree branch and dragged out into the deep water.

Alone: A Winter in the Woods is a story about the challenges of existence in the bush and the isolation and loneliness early settlers had to deal with.

Canadian author Felicity Sidnell Reid delivers a compelling, at times harrowing, adventure story that will be enjoyed by readers of any age. Available in the US from amazon.com.

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Peggy Dymond Leavey is the author of the biographies Molly Brant, Laura Secord, Mary Pickford, and nine novels for young readers.

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Go Set a Watchman

    Written by: Harper Lee
    Published by: William Heinemann
    Review by: Charlie Britten

4quills

When Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-forgotten sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, first appeared in July this year, it was panned in almost every review, but, now the dust has settled and after some long reflection, this reviewer is awarding it four quills (out of five).

To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, set the world alight, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and rapidly muscling itself on to almost every school literature syllabus in the world.  Although set in the 1930s, its tone and content resonated with public opinion at the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but, unusually for a book set upon such a pedestal, Mockingbird is worth its every accolade.  Visitors to London may like to take in the staged version, currently running at the Barbican Theatre – warmly recommended by this reviewer. 

Go Set a Watchman was in fact written before Mockingbird, even though its action takes place some twenty years later.  As has been widely reported, editor Tay Hohoff (now deceased) saw potential in the back story of a submission from a novice author, and supported Harper Lee in writing a different story about racial discrimination from a child’s perspective.  Watchman, which was not looked at again until the beginning of this year, features many of the main characters: Scout, twenty-six years old and known by her real name, Jean Louise; her father, Atticus, crippled with arthritis; their servant, Cal, now retired.  Although Jean Louise’s brother, Jem, has died in a tragic accident, he appears in the many flashbacks, along with their friend, Dill.  Several other significant characters are added, including stiff and starchy Aunt Alexander and eccentric Uncle Jack, together with Jean Louise’s unsatisfactory lover, Henry Clinton.  

Like Mockingbird, the narrative rambles off on frequent diversions, but the main thrust of the story is that Jean Louise Finch, who now lives and works in New York, returns south to Maycomb County, Alabama, to find the community, with whom she grew up, gripped by racism, including her family and Henry Clinton, and, most shocking of all, her beloved and revered father, Atticus.  The title of the novel is taken from Isaiah 21:6, ‘For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees”’ (English Standard Version).  Although these words are only quoted directly once, in a Methodist sermon during one of the many flashbacks to childhood, its relevance is obvious, Jean Louise being the watchman who sees the South with fresh eyes and announces in disgust.  Confused, and with the superiority of an adopted northerner, Jean Louise burns with indignation, wondering if attitudes have changed or whether people have always thought like this and she hasn’t noticed.  “I thought I was a Christian but I’m not… Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me….”  

Whereas Mockingbird presents the reader with a straightforward scenario, the noble black man, Tom Robinson, defended by valiant Atticus, against the lying white Ewell family bringing a false charge of rape against him, Watchman digs deep into the inner racist in all of us, and all the muddle and contradictions.  Atticus may attend citizens’ council meetings, with the boring and unimaginative Henry Clinton, to hear racist speakers, but he still waits behind black customers in the grocery store queue.  Probably, this is the novel Harper Lee, a Southerner and a liberal, wanted to write, about life in Alabama in the 1950s as it really was, whereas her editor – as was her job – directed her into writing something more palatable to the readership of the time.  Those who have screamed ‘Atticus is a racist’ all over Facebook have failed to scratch beneath the surface of Watchman or to appreciate that, although Lee has described the mindset of Maycomb in the 1950s, and explained its rationale, she has neither condoned it nor apologised for it.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at  http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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A Place in the World

Written by Cinda Crabbe Mackinnon

Published by Virtual Bookworm

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Born to American parents working in the diplomatic service, Alicia Collier has never felt sufficiently settled in any one place to call it home. The nearest she comes to it is during her teenage years in Bogota, Columbia, so, when she has to move back to the US, to university in Virginia, she falls for the only Latino around, Jorge Carvallo. At the first opportunity, Alicia rushes back to Columbia, believing Jorge’s vague promise of a job in tropical biology at Bogota University, only to find that no such post exists and that, in that continent, women’s careers are considered not to be important. Alicia and Jorge, now married and expecting a baby, move to a remote coffee plantation, Las Nubes, on the edge of the rainforest, which Jorge is supposed to manage for the family business. At first all is well, but, with the responsibilities of parenthood and financial problems caused by volcanic ash (ceniza) suffocating the coffee plants, Jorge becomes restless, setting off on a Che Guevera motorbike trip. Alicia, on the other hand, cannot bear to leave the coffee plantation, because at last she’s found somewhere she belongs.

A Place in the World encompasses the late 1960s through to the end of the twentieth century. The story arc is straightforward, albeit understated against a backdrop of volcanic eruptions, bandits, narcos, wild animals and, above all, the ever present danger of getting lost in the rainforest. Many things might have happened yet didn’t; the author, who is herself an American environmental scientist, did not go in for hype or thrills. This is a very honest novel, which seeks to chronicle a young woman’s battle with old fashioned social attitudes and male waywardness, her battle to keep the plantation going, against the elements and accepted ways of working which went against what she understood about ecology. Viewed negatively, you could say that this is a story about an American woman who came to sort out the backward Latinos, but that view would have to be balanced against Alicia’s love of all things South American and her acceptance of indigenous people and their way of life. I read this book because, with my son is currently in Columbia, I wanted to get the feel of Latin America and Cinda Crabbe Mackinnon did just that.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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The Photographer’s Wife

Written by Nick Alexander

Published by Bigfib Books

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Sophie, a struggling fashion photographer, is organising a retrospective of the work of her late father, Anthony Marsden, a famous art photographer of the Swinging Sixties. Her problem is winning the cooperation of her grumpy and withdrawn mother, Barbara, who has stashed much of his work away in her attic. What Sophie doesn’t appreciate is that Barbara has withheld the many painful truths about her father, his photography, his companions and events in Sophie’s own childhood. As she pig-headedly digs out the photos she needs, Sophie is too wrapped up in her own sanitised version of her Anthony Marsden, art photography icon, and her ghastly boyfriend, Brett, with his puerile sexual preferences, to be aware of what she is revealing, or to care about the pain she is making Barbara relive.

The storyline is well-executed, with hooks and twists skilfully planted, building up to a gradual, and believable, reveal, even though, at times, Nick Alexander found it necessary to ‘tell’, rather than show, the reader exactly what is going on. Being a child during the London Blitz has made Barbara emotionally resilient, but with low aspirations. All she wanted was a man who could provide for her, and a family, not all the baggage of the Swinging Sixties. When complications and aspirations came her way through Tony Marsden, she dealt with them all phlegmatically, his inadequacies as a man, a husband and as a photographer. Of course, Barbara is the real hero of this story, but she is not an attractive character, nor is Sophie, a supercilious art snob. Brett is repulsive, Tony irritating and predictable, and none of the other characters won me over. Even though each character is well drawn, well understood by the author and distinct from each other, it is difficult to enjoy a book when you can’t warm to anyone on the page.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War

Written by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman

214 pages

Published by Hill and Wang

Review by Brian Burmeister

5 quills

 

One hundred and fifty years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the President’s legacy and the Civil War itself continue to fascinate our nation. As Battle Lines points out in its preface: more books have been written about the Civil War than days have transpired since its end. (Some 10,000 more, in fact.) Amidst so much information about that era, how then can a book stand out as remarkable?

By encompassing a wide section of time and a wide range of issues, graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and historian Ari Kelman have created a text which gives life and meaning to the years surrounding the American Civil War. Instead of just a history, Battle Lines gives us the stories of people’s daily lives, challenges, and hopes for the future.

Organized in 15 chapters, the book closely examines specific moments in time, ranging from the years leading up to the War through the years immediately after. To assist with grounding the reader in the realities of each moment, every chapter begins with the front page of a newspaper. Through the mechanism of these introductions, the reader is given the necessary context for the stories that follow. From these clippings, one learns of the political climate and the war efforts—all valuable information to set the stage for the stories at the heart of Battle Lines. Whereas the newspaper introductions focus on the major moments, the major players, the events and the people school children are taught about in classrooms all across the U.S., the focus of each chapter is on the War’s unsung heroes and forgotten villains, the everyday people who lived during this difficult chapter for America.

I was greatly impressed with the care Fetter-Vorm and Kelman took in being as true as possible to history. Inspired by surviving photographs, letters, and objects, the stories in Battle Lines hope to be as true to life as possible and, as the authors write in their introduction, “These . . . are the faces of the war. These are the stories behind the statistics.” These stories are compelling, powerful, and moving. They highlight that the War was many things to many people. We see stories of women’s roles as nurses at the front lines. We see the class struggles that erupted into violence in New York City. We see slaves escaping in the night after the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Through the book’s 15 chapters we see a fine representation of the issues of the time (during the buildup to the War, the War itself, and the Reconstruction), issues that affected different regions, different races, different genders. The book gives voice to the voiceless: forgotten figures of our past, whose powerful stories show us that the Civil War was as complicated as it was deadly.

While the realities of the war were violent and gruesome, Fetter-Vorm does a wonderful job establishing the grim realities of war, including the tragic loss of life and limb, without overwhelming the reader with unpalatable levels of gore. This balance was masterfully done; while one might call the art in Battle Lines a PG-13 version of the horrors of war, one cannot read Battle Lineswithout feeling the Civil War was one of the most heartbreaking eras of the American story.

In general, the art itself is beautiful. Despite the comic nature, each drawing is realistic, giving each person unique attributes and clear emotions. Additionally, the simple, muted color palate gives each chapter a feeling of unity, as well as a somber tone.

Battle Lines is an absorbing, attractive, and haunting book. For anyone with a strong desire to learn more about the Civil War, or anyone looking for a graphic history with real heart, I simply cannot recommend the book enough.

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Brian Burmeister (@bdburmeister) is Program Chair of English and Communication at Ashford University. He is an ongoing contributor to the Sport Literature Association and Cleaver Magazine.

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Kettle Bottom

Written by Diane Gilliam Fisher

Published by Perugia Press, Florence, MA

Review by Carole Mertz

5 quills

 

In her chapbook of fifty weighty poems, most of which are prose poems, Diane Gilliam Fisher gives us the bleak history of coal miners’ lives and travails during the period of the West Virginian miners’ wars of 1920-21.

Most commendable in this collection is the ring of authenticity in the poet’s voice and the way she has captured the slang and often grammatically ill-constructed sentences of the coal-mining poor, voices which carry a poetry of their own. None of the lines are rhymed, and Fisher employs few poetical devices, but her eloquent tone is present throughout.

In “Ironing,” we read:

I does it. All the rest, too, I ain’t white— 

 scrub the clothes when they dirty, 

 feed the children when they hungry, comb 

 the cinders out of they heads when the train 

 blast by, spewing like a devil out of the hind end 

of Hell…

A miner speaks in “The Rocks Down Here”: First hour of every shift down in the mine, / shakes and cold sweats worse’n the grippe / that near took me last spring. / Past that, I begin to feel easy-like, / moving through the dark.

In poem after poem, Fisher, who, perhaps ironically, holds an advanced degree in Romance Languages and Literature, captures precisely the sparse language and poetry of the miners, their wives, and children. A young girl speaks in the poem, “Pearlie Asks Her Mama What Poontang Means .” 

Mama says to don’t tell Daddy, for he

would have to go after them men that spoke

to me that way, and God only knows 

what would happen then…

them men has put murder in my heart.

Looking back, we can appreciate the astounding contributions these struggling, overworked, undervalued and blackened miners handed to our country. They carved out of the earth the energy source the U.S. needed to continue its industrial sprouting and feed its steamships and steam-operated rail lines; they delivered this energy, almost mutely, out of the sweat of their coal-darkened bodies, with little reward for themselves.

A sixth grader reports in the poem “What History Means to Me:”

“…before we was West Virginia and was only the Endless / Mountains of Virginia. [Aunt Mandy] has put it to me like this. First / the railroads come and lots of  fancy pants forriners trying / to buy up ever little creek and holler and home place they set / their thieving eyes on. Then the timber men come, took the / oak and yellow poplar, wrecked the rivers and left. Collieries / come and stayed, but the coal and the money went. What it / means to us is a lot of dead husbands and caved-in bellies…” 

Each poem in this collection moved me. But the composite created an impression not soon forgotten. In “1920, Winco Coal Camp,” we witness a three-fold loss.

My third-eldest brother, Robert Warren, went in 

the mine at sixteen. We’d buried Daddy three days before,

right next to Alma, for even though Daddy had sold 

mineral rights to Stone Mountain Coal, he would not

sign till they wrote in the paper how we’d always 

have use of the burying ground. The Company 

told Mama it was a kettle bottom took Daddy. They say

that a lot—kettle bottom, they figure, ain’t nobody’s fault. 

They give Robert Warren Daddy’s tools, and his number,

  1. Put him to work in the same room. Roof 

sounded hollow, Robert Warren said, but he couldn’t see 

where no kettle bottom had fell through. He had twelve

days in the hole when his section caved. Company says

couldn’t nobody have lived, says they can’t go in 

for the bodies without risking more men…

Fisher organizes her poems carefully. They lead us to the miners’ breaking point. In reaction to  the “gun thugs,” as the miners called the agents sent to enforce company policy and spy out any union activity, violence erupted and became the Matewan Massacre of May, 1920. Men on both sides of the struggle were killed.

The miners eventually contributed to unionized power, after the severe test of the Battle of Blair Mountain. In that confrontation, the men ultimately chose not to fight against uniformed government soldiers with whom, side-by-side and wearing the same uniform, they’d so recently fought in the First World War. (The United Mine Workers of America, begun in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, did not achieve collective bargaining rights for its workers, however, until 1933, nor health benefits until 1946.)

In “One Voice,” the poet draws on a pastor’s sermon, to strong effect:

Did not John the Baptist

say unto the people, Let him who hath two coats 

impart unto him that hath none? Any operators

stop you on your way to church this morning

and impart? Any of you leave a child

at home, on account of it wasn’t their turn

with the coat?

“Raven Light,” one of the most powerful poems in the collection, also uses a Biblical excerpt. A miner reflects, “When I was a boy, I liked the story of Jonah. / He done right, I thought. If God / meant to send him to a evil place, / why shouldn’t he get on a boat / and head the other way? I bet Nineveh / was run by folks like Stone Mountain Coal…”

A schoolgirl tries not to defy in “A Book Report, by Pearlie Webb”:

“First off, I do not understand what a book report is for . It   

 seems to me books is to read , and it is the author’s job to 

 write . Second off, I do not believe being extra smart, as you 

 said I am and that is why I have to write this book report, 

 should mean a person has got to do extra work. But I was   

 not raised in a barn, my mama has taught me do not sass, 

so I will write my book report as I am told.”

A lively oral history of the life of miners exists and is carried through time by the spoken word and song. Fisher’s sad, but beautiful, poems deserve to be read aloud and thereby contribute to that precious oral tradition. As a history, Kettle Bottom is commendable; as a book of poetry, it deserves to be treasured in its own right.

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Carole Mertz has reviews and essays in Arc Poetry Magazine, Ascent Aspirations, Copperfield Review, The Conium Review, Capper’s, Mom Egg Review, Tiny Lights Journal, Working Writer, and World Literature Today. Her poems appeared in Every Day Poems, Page & Spine, Rockford Review, WestWard Quarterly, and in various anthologies. Her poem won the June 2015 Wilda Morris Poetry Challenge. Carole trusts the power of the pen to influence, in large ways or small, the direction our country takes today. She writes in Parma, Ohio.

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The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School

Written by David Turner

Published by Yale Press

Review by Charlie Britten

2quills

 

Every British schoolboy or schoolgirl is desperate to go to boarding school at some time in their life, tantalised by Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series (girls), Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series (boys) and more recently by Harry Potter (both sexes). The Old Boys, published in March 2015 and written by David Turner, former education correspondent for the Financial Times, is not about ‘jolly japes’, but a very serious, thorough and well-researched account of the British public school system from the very first such establishment – Winchester College, founded in 1394 – to the present day.

Winchester, like many public schools that followed it, started out with charitable intentions, as a free educational facility for boys from poor families, subsidised by commoners who did pay fees. Of course, the commoners rapidly overtook the non-fee payers in numbers and in status, with the result that, within a hundred years, public schools had become the place where arrivistes with money but without noble status or connections could purchase the latter, alongside a classical education. The Old Boys chronicles riots by boys, bullying and poor accommodation. Many of the problems which beset schools today were present from the beginning: huge class sizes, with teachers frequently asked to supervise two classes at once; the standard of teaching on offer being so poor that parents hire extra tutors; well-connected parents making a nuisance of themselves to teachers until their darlings were awarded better grades.

Although Turner’s work includes a lot of fascinating information, backed up by excellent primary sources, his treatment of the topic is disorganised and off-putting. The book starts in an uninviting way, with some long captions to illustrations, which don’t have much meaning as the illustrations are not displayed with them. Chapters are very long and, although the book attempts to tell the story of British public schools in chronological order, rather than by topic, the result is meandering. For instance, the reader is amidst a discussion of the impact of sport on the curriculum when suddenly we move on to homosexuality. Turner does not discuss girls’ public schools in any great detail, but that is not the brief he set himself.

Although The Old Boys has been promoted for the ‘general interest’ genre, it is, in truth, one for academic historians.

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Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.

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The Cunning Man: A Hippo Yeoman Anthology

Written by John Yeoman

Published by Amazon

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Published in December 2014, The Cunning Man is a collection of historical crime stories featuring the impoverished Elizabethan apothecary, Hippo Yeoman, whose sideline is solving mysteries. The crimes he is required to solve include the theft of a bowl from a locked room which it is ‘impossible’ to enter, the plight of a milliner faced with ruin because she can’t read Latin, vandalism of books and a dead man found in a privy built for the personal use of Good Queen Bess in anticipation of a Royal Visit which never happens. The writer moves Hippo around sixteenth century London with the sort of assurance that is based upon sound research, and occasionally brings some real people into his plots, including William Camden, headmaster of Westminster School and author, and well-known courtiers.

It is curious that the main character has the same surname as the pen-name of the author, John Yeoman. (I gather from his website that this is not his real name.) I didn’t warm to the protagonist Hippo Yeoman. He isn’t smug or a know-it-all (as detectives can be) or have other obvious vices, except a tendency to whinge, especially about his poverty. The problem is more that his character is not clearly defined, with the result that I didn’t get to know him.

Hippo also appears in two novels, Dream of Darkness and Fear of Evil (both published in January 2015) and in another short story, “The Hog Lane Murders” (published in February 2015). As well as being there for the reading, these works, which John Yeoman calls ‘fictionals’, include footnotes hyperlinked to what he calls ‘clever tips’ – for writers – about how they were written. Each story has about twenty such footnotes, all of which are easily accessed using my classic Kindle, although obviously this sort of interactivity would be no use on a printed version. The ‘tips’ provided by John Yeoman, who runs the writing website ‘Writers Village’, are pitched at a beginners/improvers level and often appear to reflect his personal opinion, as in, for instance, ‘Humour is a dangerous thing. Too many one liners and the author leaps out of the story, grinning at us…’ Although many of the footnotes are insightful, his approach to writing is mechanistic, with lots of named tools such as ‘The Indispensable Incident’ and ‘a character signature’, which could lead those following his tips to write technically correct literature bogged down in technicalities. Nevertheless it’s a clever idea and good use of multimedia.

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 Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.

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