“Being with me will help you learn” Tom McColl (Listen Softly London Press) – poetry review

Being with me will help you learn Thomas McColl book coverCheerfully takes a wry look at life: most poets would nod in recognition at “Open Mic”

“I went to an open mic poetry night,
read my poems to rapturous applause,
promoted my booklet,
did not sell a single one.

The following week,
I was back on the open mic,
filled my five minute slot
simply by repeating
16 AA batteries for a pound,
16 for a pound,
and by the end had sold
one hundred packs.”

Most poetry books are sold at readings and live events but occasionally you get an audience that’s only interested in their own poems and not in listening to or buying anyone else’s. “Green Graffiti” ends after flowers spell out a crude message,

“Police psychologists conclude
that this spate of horticultural graffiti
has been committed by a lone teenage individual
whose background is an explosive mix
of broken home and well-kept garden.”

The poem isn’t just about the juxtaposition of elegance (flowers) and crude messages but also the contrast between the “well-kept garden” and “broken home”. A reminder that some families hide private heartbreak behind a public image of competence and being from a “good” home is no guarantee of a undamaged child. It’s poems like these, with a serious message behind a humorous gloss, that work best.

Occasionally use of language fells sloppy. I got distracted by the irregular rhymes in “Muslim Girl at the Bus Stop”

“Muslim girl at the bus stop,
wearing hijab and headphones,

full length skirt and colourful top,
respecting Allah and listening to hip-hop,

the fingers of her left hand
click to the beat of the tune,

the fingers of her right hand
adjust the veil, keep in in place,

covering her hair
and perfectly framing her beautiful face.”

The poem’s subject seemed perfectly normal to me so I wasn’t sure what was being communicated. I guess it’s about the normality behind an exotic appearance, that someone can wear a hijab and be a regular teenager, but my reaction was ‘so what?’. In “Sweat Shop” the language is judgmental,

“From Isan, through Phuket, to London,
at a sweat-stitch label’s flag-ship store,
a girth-maddened girl –
belt-brained and vacuous –
stiletto-stabs the floor,
as a plumed assistant
breaks the news:
I’m sorry, but there’s no more
of the 10 (that fits your 12) size.
Over the speakers, a muzak pop group
sings the wrong-belt-buckle blues,
while a stale-eyed boyfriend –
raked of all patience,
bulged with bags,
sighing a stream of lies –
pretends he loves still
his swell-shocked girlfriend’s
ever-expanding thighs.

On the bus, she gawps at photographs,
which illustrate a token serious article –
on sweat shops and their workers –
in her glossy fashion magazine.

The women, look how slim they are‘ she cries.”

Why do readers need to be told the customer is “belt-brained and vacuous” instead of being trusted to work it out? I like the sound of “swell-shocked” but it’s too far away from the shop assistant’s news and so loses impact. I very much doubt the “(that fits your 12)” is voiced by the shop assistant so it shouldn’t be in the speech. The final “cries” is ambiguous, is she shouting or in despair? What’s not ambiguous is that she has not figured out the link between sweat shop wages and thin workers.

Tim McColl is better when his poems feature a dose of surrealism as in “Chalk Fairy” where the narrator draws chalk outlines of rough sleepers,

“I’ve found
that, even in the early hours
of Christmas Day,
there’s no shortage of bodies
to draw my outlines round:
London’s one big crime scene
every single day of the year.”

Or in “Smile”

“Today the street hawker’s selling knocked off smiles from an old battered suitcase in front of Camden station.

Hey darling! Why the long face? Come over here and get a smile from my suitcase. What do you mean the smile I sold you last week has begun to fade? My smiles ain’t fake. Didn’t you read the packet? “Happiness not supplied.” You gotta keep recharging your batteries, love. But don’t worry. I’ve got just the thing for you – happy pills, three for the price of two…‘”

At its best, “Being with me will help you learn” strikes the right balance between reassuring and unsettling its audience by presenting a familiar scene – London’s homeless, a street hawker, graffiti – and providing a twist, nudging readers to look at the scene from a fresh perspective. The better poems also have multi-layers – they can be read at face value during a performance but also offer a deeper message when read from the page.

“Being with me will help you learn” by Thomas McColl is available from Listen Softly London Press.

“Dissolve to LA” James Trevelyan (The Emma Press) – poetry review

Dissolve to LA by James Trevelyan book coverGiving voices to minor characters or those who didn’t get to say anything in the original story is not a new idea, but, when done well, it can enhance a reader’s understanding of the original or offer an in-depth exploration into an issue or episode that got skipped over in the original. “Dissolve to LA” gives voice to minor characters in action films, offering not only a commentary on the films but also an exploration of cinematic tropes. In “Lloyd”

“They gave me a name
and does that not give me life?
More at least then UNIFORMED COP,
NIGHT NURSE or FIRST JOCK,

who may have had more to say
but can’t claim to an existence
beyond their scene. I suppose
they forgot me, but I’ll not

forget the night…”

The character, in this case the owner of the truck stop diner from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, looks at the hierarchy of characters: his name boosts his sense of importance over and above an unnamed speaking part. Another minor character plays with a stereotype, “Admiral Chuck Farrell” speaks:

“You had me at your name and innuendo, your made-up cod-Russian sweet nothings, your fatal frame and martini twist: might have known a Ferrari-toting Soviet pilot might come with added spice,”

His speech picks up on the irony of an admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy, from “Goldeneye”, being seduced and killed by an assassin, and suggests he has the self-awareness to know that he will, against all common sense, allow this to happen because it’s a necessary plot device. Similarly “Girl” explores cliches,

“Why always making a grab for fame;
the good girl fallen;
the prominent dad downtown.

Why always naked, wasted;
testing the strength of a balcony fence;
always weightless and hilarious.

Why a car bonnet that breaks the fall;
the shirt always open, not a hair out of place,
like Ophelia or a centrefold.”

This girl’s death sparks a police investigation into a drugs ring in “Lethal Weapon” where it’s discovered her name is Amanda Hunsaker. It buys into Edgar Allan Poe’s assertion that the most tragic scene is the too-soon death of a beautiful young woman. Death leaves her as voiceless as she was in life, with other characters all too ready to project their theories onto her. Tragedy is also found in unrequited love, particularly when the would-be lover only gets to tell them on their death-bed. “Helen” muses,

.                                      who cradled your chest
when that bullet ripped in; who heard you’d die
in your whisper and who followed you, pressed

into the road? I’m Helen. I hope they’ll write about us,
Sam, and our too-short time on this too-fast bus.”

The film is “Speed”, Sam is the fatally shot driver and Helen’s hope that they will be remembered as forlorn as her hankering after the man she was too shy to tell she was in love with.

“Dissolve to LA” avoids two potential problems. Firstly it’s a judicial selection of poems so it doesn’t feel like a one trick pony. The selection of characters isn’t predictable. They all share that they are minor characters from action movies with tragic endings but the characters themselves are different. Secondly the voices are all distinct. It’s not known whether the poet has picked his favourite films or whether the films weren’t gripping enough to stop him doodling on his notepad whilst watching, but the poems lack the arch tone of superiority or a vocabulary that sounds odd in the character’s mouth. Each poem has been allowed to find its own form. Each character has been given chance to speak.

“Dissolve to LA” is available from The Emma Press.

“Rivers within Us” Sandy Coomer (Unsolicited Press) – poetry review

These poems are mostly set in Tennessee and the rivers are literal and metaphorical; sometimes connecting people to the landscape, sometimes the connections between people or roads that take us somewhere else. Some rivers are passive, taken for granted until we notice them. Others are dangerous, like the first one in “River Man” which starts

“We swam the Tennessee River
with your dead eyes open to us, silent within
willow fronds on the surface, green tendrils
reaching down.
.                    Your body hung there, suspended
for days. No one knew you, or counted you missing,
or turned the shore end over end to discover
your ending.

It was an accident – finding you.”

The poem ends:

“You were a sentence in the newspaper.

.                     Unloaded from your house
of sticks after the last swimmer passed – no name,
no hometown – your cells swollen, sloughing into the vast
throat of river,
.                     you were the voice
imagined in our watery dreams, trapped beneath glass,
the liquid breath over the words we finally found for you
on the shore.”

The poem flows through its details and the isolation of the two solo lines, “It was an accident – finding you” and “You were a sentence in the newspaper” echo the sense of isolation of this corpse, found by accident since it was hidden by the willow fronds, and left unidentified. The poem doesn’t reveal the cause of death – whether accident or deliberate – leaving the reader to speculate and think around the clues left in the poem. “If Only” has a metaphorical river, “I’m down to these words./ If only the river cut straight/ across the land like roads, pitched/ north to south, simple, expected.” This poem’s river islands and separates:

“If only my heart would beat slower.

If only someone had warned me how this
would feel.

If only I could hear beneath your silence,
read the words behind your eyes.

We leave each other to our privacies.

If only we weren’t so good at that.”

Not all the poems are dark, there is some humour. In “The Black Ant”, an ant crawls on a white suit worn by a late uncle laid out in a casket,

“Your eyes widen with a strange mix
of horror and amusement, as if you
can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

It’s always hard at times like these,
when emotion hovers between extremes.
That’s why the family put out all those pictures

on either side of the casket, ludicrous poses,
funny faces, sideways hats and tongues
sticking out. They want us to laugh,

but to have enough sense to cry”

The final poem, “Rivers Within Us” reprises the notion of river as connector,

“You see what you look for, someone said, and I think that’s mostly true.

Still, I hope I’m surprised by turquoise skies roaming
the back of the storm, the sacred heart of trillium daring

to rise from the deeply-patched underneath. Even something as simple
as a blade of grass braving the crack in a driveway is enough reason

to believe in miracles. What I’m saying is, there are rivers within us –

whole galloping herds of horses, hummingbirds that beat
their tiny hearts millions of times between the bee balm and the sage.

Any moment now, we may open a door and enter a green field
and the knot of fear will be untied. The roots of a tree

may curve beneath us and unearth our heart. This is how much the world
needs us. The river may swing its wide current and catch us in its arms,

a small blue spear of joy welcoming us home, while all around us,
the whole world whispers, What took you so long.”

It ends the collection on a philosophical, hopeful note. Sandy Coomer’s voice is rooted in the natural world but with respect rather than sentiment. It’s also a world of human interaction and compassion. Her river is warm, clear and nurturing and its invite extends to all.

“Rivers within Us” is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. The review was written from an advanced review copy.

I met the criteria, why wasn’t my poem selected?

OK, so you read the submission guidelines, double-checked your poem complied, read it, read it aloud to some friends who told you to send it in, got feedback, edited it, re-read the guidelines to check it was still compliant and sent it in… and the pesky editor rejected it.

Tempting as it is to respond to the editor or want an explanation that goes deeper than a standard rejection letter, it’s not always a good idea. Rejection is an even bigger part of writing than acceptances. Even acceptances are tempered by rejection. It’s usual to send three or four poems to an editor who’s likely to accept one or two and reject the others.

Rejection isn’t always about the poem being rejected either. An editor working on a magazine or anthology might be looking for poems that work alongside one another or may have already published ten poems on Leicester winning the premiership so not want another on that theme. It’s possible the editor liked your subject but not the way the poem’s worded. Another editor might like your phrasing but not the subject. Your poem may have been brilliant but didn’t fit with the other poems the editor wanted to accept.

Editors don’t have time to give personal, considered responses to poets whose poems have been rejected. They’ve already moved on to the next batch of submissions or are busy typesetting. In any case, “There was nothing wrong with your poem: it just didn’t fit” isn’t going to be helpful. It’s even less helpful to get a hurried, scrawled, illegible note that resorts to sarcasm.

Those friends who told you to submit your poem were right. They were looking at your poem on its own merits and thought it was good. If you thought it was the best version of the poem you’ve written and guideline-compliant, it was worth entering. Your friends, however, didn’t have the benefit of sight of all the poems also submitted and weren’t able to compare your poem with the other submissions. The editor did and wasn’t just considering the sole merits of your poem, but was looking at your poem alongside perhaps 200 others when only 100 could be accepted.

That’s why it’s generally better to submit more than one poem: your Richard III poem might have been too similar to someone else’s, but your Space Centre poem would prove an ideal fit. But if you only submitted your Richard III poem and the editor didn’t see your Space Centre poem, you will have lost out.

If you are submitting on a given theme or in response to a given opening or image, your first or obvious response isn’t going to give you your best chance.

It also a good idea to have a plan B, somewhere else in mind to send your poems if they are rejected. By all means, take a deep breath, seek out some sympathy, re-read some generous words on your work to give you a boost, even put your rejected poems aside for a few days then re-read them with fresh eyes to see if another edit would benefit them, but try again. The next editor might love them.

Over Land Over Sea at the Poetry Cafe with Exiled Writers Ink

At the invitation of Exiled Writers Ink, “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” was featured at the Poetry Cafe at The Poetry Place on Monday 1 August. There were readings from ten contributors scheduled with a possibility of an open mic, time permitting, afterwards. Jennifer Langer of Exiled Writers Ink introduced the evening by mentioning forthcoming Exiled Writers Ink events.

It was great to see a large audience: the venue was filled. Rather than have a lengthy introduction about “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge,” I introduced the first reading contributor, Jasmine Heydari. Jasmine was bought up in Sweden and we were fortunate she happened to be in London. She is Iranian and her poems are inspired by her experiences of the Iran-Iraq war and she often writes from a child’s perspective, as her poem “The First Time” which is narrated by a child who has just learnt the letter “w” at school and ends, “and as the windows performed their dance and walls crumbled, I dreamt of a world where war was just a word scribbled underneath wooden desks and wished for another first time.”

Trevor Wright was next to read, starting with his “Over Land Over Sea” contribution, “Yalla,” which starts,

“Shadowed by fissured rock,
fingers funnelling cooling sand,
the pull of the moon carving
the rhythm I need to pierce
the gloom, smell the horizon,
taste futures.”

Trevor had travelled down from Nottingham. Our next poet had travelled across from the West Country. Tania Hershman who has two short story collections from Tangent Press and her poetry pamphlet, “Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open.” She started with Joanne Limburg’s poem “So Many Set Out” and read a poem from her new pamphlet as well as both her poems from “Over Land Over Sea,” “Relativity” and “The Observer Paradox” where a man with a box of knives has been trying to bargain with restaurant staff while diners may or may not have seen him, it ends

.                         When he gets home,
boxes intact, will the fact that you
saw him make any difference
at all? What’s a poem to a person

with a room full of boxes
and boxes of unsold
and unwanted knives?”

Martin Johns had travelled to the Poetry Cafe from Northampton. He read three poems plus his contribution to “Over Land Over Sea,” “Consignment,”

“He’s cold, cold as the desert night, but met
by the warmth of a soft voice.

He hears only softness,
tastes sandwiches that respect his faith.
As his erstwhile liberator recognises

himself, all men and women
in the black mirror of those wide eyes
before they arrive to take him away.”

Caroline Rooney, Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Kent, gave the last reading before the interval. Her poems often explore the way refugees can lose their voices by, e.g. documentary makers, who try to frame another’s story through their own prejudices rather than letting their subject speak with their own words. “People like to make films about me” ends

“Or why not ask me about the sweetened black tea and goat’s cheese?
Or ask me about the moped I left behind.
I thank you for your offer to write a poem about me.
I hope you’ll excuse the little I’ve sent on.
As for me? I’d like to direct a movie, to bring you
The bringing of where I am from.
You’ll see. It won’t be the same as the words about me.”

After the break, Daniel O’Donnell-Smith continued with a tribute to Elee, a friend who’d sadly passed away earlier in the day. His poem “and the sea did give up those dead in it” (quote from “Revelation 20:13”) explores the break down in language that occurs after trauma, both first hand or second hand where those who try to help vicariously live the lives of those they seek to help. It’s based around the phrase, “I enjoy great privilege those around me suffer immeasurably.”

Next was Barbara Saunders, a grandchild of Russian refugees who now teaches English to children of refugees. Her poem, “A Memorable Journey” takes a child’s viewpoint and is based on George McKay Brown’s “The Horse Fair” and starts with a group of children being instructed to write about an exciting or memorable journey and ends,

“I held on by my nails
men climbed out of the sea
someone shouted at me
are you dead or alive

the moon was gone
and my brother was gone
I was dead but they
picked me out of the sea
now I am in this country

Fantastic effort! Thank you so much for sharing.”

Hubert Moore has published eight collections of poetry and has been a writing mentor for Freedom from Torture. One of his poems for “Over Land Over Sea” looks at preparing donated clothes for wear by charity recipents. He also loves birds and their lack of respect for borders. His second “Over Land Over Sea” poem “Pedestrians” looks at “men on the long hard shoulder/ between Junctions 5 and 6,/ between entry / and almost certain removal” and ends

“There is no stopping
on their motorway.
Wait till the overhead sees,
announces its kindly truisms:
PEDESTRIANS IN THE ROAD,
TREES IN THE FOREST,
BIRDS IN SKY.”

Ambrose Musiyiwa at the Poetry CafeAt least there are birds. Malka Al-Haddad had wanted to travel down but wasn’t able to on the day so I read her poem “Children of War” before announcing our final reader, Ambrose Musiyiwa. Ambrose read from his poem “The Man who Ran Through the Tunnel” and a selection of micropoems from “The Gospel According to Bobba”. We rounded off the “Over Land Over Sea” part of the evening with a joint reading from Carmina Masoliver’s “The Sinking Ship.” Her poem is presented in two columns so we read in two voices with one voice for each column, one voice belongs to a refugee setting out with hope, the second to an observer questioning where refugees come from.

There was just enough time for three open mic readings. The first reader explored the contrast between the normality of wearing a headscarf in her own country with it taking on an almost political significance in the county she lives in now where reactions to her headscarf have been different. The second reader had a love song to his former country. The third reader, a nine-year-old, had a poem which explored reasons for homeless and why we shouldn’t just walk on by.

A big thank you to Exiled Writers Ink for inviting us.

Over Land Over Sea at the Poetry Cafe

Over Land Over Sea

Editing the “Welcome to Leicester” Poetry Anthology

Ideally all submitted poems would have been typed with the title, not all in capitals, at the top of the page, any dedications or epigraphs under the title, the poem and the poet’s name at the end, with any explanatory notes following the poet’s name, and sent by email to the correct email address. However, we considered poems that were handwritten, posted or, in one case, sent as an image despite not being a concrete poem or requiring a special layout. (It’s fine sending an image as a guide to layout, but the poem also needs to be provided as text: if you make work for editors, you’re setting up your poems to be rejected.) And even poems sent to the wrong email address.

No poem was rejected or ignored because it wasn’t in an ideal format. All poems were either typed (if send by post) or reformatted (if emailed) into a standard font so we could focus on the poem.

I have previously co-edited an anthology, “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015), edited a posthumously published collection, Paul Lee’s “Us: who made History” (Original Plus, 2012), and have many years’ reviewing experience so can recognise a poem longer than 40 lines without having to do a line count. Poems with a line length significantly over 40 lines were rejected. Poems with line-lengths between 40-50 lines were looked at to see if they could be easily edited to the right length. We were being generous: other editors wouldn’t have bothered and competition administrators would have automatically disqualified these poems.

Surprisingly we did receive a handful of poems that weren’t about Leicester. These and the 50+ line poems were the only automatic rejections (we did write to poets and suggest they substitute alternative poems although we were not obliged to.)

We weren’t looking for a pre-determined number of poems. We were looking to put at least one poem from every poet forward for consideration (not necessarily acceptance.)

The selection process was simple. Once typed or reformatted into a standard font (if necessary), every poem was printed. We met periodically and read each poem from the page and aloud. Each poem was placed into either a rejection pile or a maybe pile. We weren’t making firm decisions at this stage.

Some of the maybes weren’t perfect poems. We were prepared to consider good ideas that weren’t fully realised poems yet. In some cases we wrote back to the poet to ask them to consider our suggested edits, in other cases we decided to wait to the typesetting stage. We didn’t expect poets to automatically rewrite their poem to our suggestions. We did expect poets to look at our suggestions, think about what their intentions for the poem were and edit the areas we thought were weakening the poem. Most did have another look at their poem and resubmitted a new version. Some poems were edited for context too: in an anthology about Leicester, setting and explanatory lines weren’t needed as they would be in a collection without a specific geographical setting.

When we had a substantial number of poems, I started spreading poems in the maybe pile out on a table and grouping poems that worked together into a flexible order. We didn’t group poems by theme because some themes attracted a few poems which didn’t necessarily work together, other themes only had one poem and some poems would have fitted under more than one theme. I also periodically went through the rejection pile to see if any could be slotted into the emerging anthology, even though on first reading we’d put them aside.

There were one of three reasons for rejecting a poem

  1. It was a brilliant stand alone poem that didn’t slot into the anthology.
  2. The poem was a collection of notes for a poem, sometimes driven by a rhyme scheme, often including cliches, and not yet an actual poem.
  3. It failed the “do I recognise it?” test.

Most poems that failed the “do I recognise it?” test did so because they used generic descriptions and the resulting poem could have been located anywhere in the country. A list of children’s activities in a park is great for a tourist brochure but too vague for a poem. If your poem’s narrator is walking down a street of terraced houses, he could be in Nottingham. If your poem’s narrator is walking down a street of terraced houses where four are named after Disraeli’s novels, then he’s on St Peter’s Road in Leicester. Just one or two telling details can transform a poem’s sense of place.

Typesetting is underway. The anthology had been growing organically since the beginning of June and needed to be thinned down. We wanted to ensure each poem was carrying a message or telling a story and didn’t duplicate another. Some good poems were taken out, not because there was anything wrong with them as stand alone poems, but because they didn’t quite fit in the anthology.

Poets who have submitted poems have been notified of the outcome individually.

Top Tips for submitting poems to anthologies

  • Read the guidelines
  • If the  anthology is on a theme, submit poems on that theme no matter how obscure or tenuous. Poems that cannot be linked to the theme, cannot be considered.
  • Avoid generic, off-the-peg descriptions. Vagueness is fine if your poem’s narrator is struggling with language, struggling to recall a memory or you are presenting a series of clues for the reader. But avoid any phrasing that wouldn’t sound out of place in a marketing brochure.
  • Check you’ve read the guidelines.
  • Look at the presentation of your poem. Is it typed in a standard font and laid out the way you want it on the page? Always send the poem as text but accompany it with the image if you have a concrete poem or non standard layout.
  • Have you read the guidelines yet?
  • Have you written a poem or notes for a poem? First ideas often feel stunning, brilliant and original, but first drafts are rarely stunning, brilliant and original.
  • Check line-length. There is a default 40 line length (that’s lines of text, not including stanza breaks or titles) because that usually offers enough room for a poem and, where the number of pages is finite, offers the maximum opportunity for a variety of poets and poems. If everyone offered 400 line poems, there would be less opportunity for variety.
  • You have read the guidelines haven’t you?
  • Check you’re using the right email address. When submissions are sent to the right address, the editor can simply hit ‘reply’. If they’re sent to the wrong email address, which might be on a different email client/server, then the editor either has to copy and paste the reply email address or forward the submission to right address. That might not take long if you’re only forwarding one or two emails but when you’re up against a deadline and have a day-job, these irritations can lead to rejection.
  • Don’t create work for an editor: if you make it easy for an editor to reject your work, they will.
  • Those guidelines: you’ve read them, right?

“Nothing Short of Dying” Erik Storey (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Nothing Short of DyingClyde Barr is an ex-Marine, sometime mercenary and former hunter/tracker in the African bush, camping in the Colorado wilderness after his ‘sensible’ sisters refused to meet him. He gets a phone call from his ‘wild’ sister, Jen, begging him to get her out. The call is ended by her captor before Barr can establish her location. The only glimmer of hope is that his sister is being used by her captor so Barr has a small window of chance to find her.

His first port of call is an old school friend, now married to Barr’s high school sweetheart, who reluctantly agrees to put him in touch with a local drug dealer who might shed light on Jen’s whereabouts. The local drug dealer points him in the direction of a bar nominally run by a small time dealer who likes to talk big but actually run by a barmaid, Allie, working what shifts she can to help with her mother’s medical bills. Allie’s seen Jen and offers to help Barr. The bar owner has a big brother, Alvis, who’s a bigger dealer with a slick drug operation based in the Colorado mountains. Jen had started working as a cleaner in a government owned building with a chemical store and it’s thought that’s what Alvis wants her to help gain him access to. Barr and Allie have to shake off a DEA team before they meet up with a former acquaintance of his to track down Alvis’s location.

In flashbacks, readers get Barr’s background: his alcoholic mother and succession of abusive boyfriends, one of whom helped himself to Jen. Barr and Jen relied on each other to survive the abuse, which is why he’s prepared to go to such life-threatening lengths to rescue her now. Barr’s escape was via the Marines. Jen drifted in to drugs and was trying to get clean, using her cleaning job to restart her life when her path crossed Alvis’s.

Initially he thinks Allie is just along for the ride. But learns that her life’s reached a dead end. Toughened by caring, bringing herself up and bar work, she proves a useful side-kick. Although neither of them realise that their initial rescue of a drugged Jen was perhaps a little too easy.

Betrayed by his old acquaintance, the two have to regroup, restrategise and figure out how to rescue Jen a second time. Alvis ups the ante by threatening Barr’s other sisters and families. It’s not an idle threat: Alvis has both means and motive to see it through. Can they commit and carry out a second rescue and protect Barr’s family? Barr’s prepared to put his life on the line, but will Allie see it through?

Barr’s credible: drawing on local and foreign experience, military-trained strength and it’s clear he understands the situation. His isolation makes him reluctant to ask assistance from anyone he doesn’t know. He trusts Allie when she shows she’s capable, tough and packed with resilience. His shoulders are broad enough to carry a series. Female characters aren’t sidelined or boxed into feisty/pretty roles. Allie is allowed a vulnerable side. Jen spends most of the novel out on drugs but, when she’s awake, she’s aware, lacks self-pity and doesn’t make additional demands on her brother.

Erik Storey is firmly in control of both plot and character. Background information is filtered through on a need-to-know basis and flashbacks temper the action, giving variations in pacing. Gripping fight scenes are counterpointed by some credible tenderness. Allie helps humanise Barr. He may be strong and fit but he also tires and makes mistakes. He shows he wants to be a big brother to Jen but isn’t a superhero.

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