Posts in Writing Squad Reviews

"The world is a strange and terrifying place": James Varney reviews "Dressing" by Michael DeForge

Posted Tuesday 4 December 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

"I first encountered Michael DeForge in issue #7 of his comic series, Lose, and it was revolting. Flesh may as well be jelly in his illustrations; bodies flow from one shape to another, and his longer stories feature grotesque and beautiful physical transformations, or slow but inevitable bodily degradation.

Dressing coverDressing is a short story collection. The stories are all comics but aside from including images and text they range in style and form wildly. More than once, I have handed the collection to someone and seen them amazed to know the whole thing is the work of a single person. Deforge will return to writing and illustration styles he has used before but has the ability to adapt his style for the story he is telling. This means we find abstract lines and colours accompanied by sentences of prose, in All of My Friends, Up High, in a Jumbo Jet, in the same collection as the simple, expressive figures and visual storytelling in the panel-comic Mars is my Last Hope.

The startling thing about Michael DeForge’s writing and creations is that in amongst stories of mermaid-based dot coms, flirting fish, leaping millions of miles in one bound, he retains the ability to recreate the tangible, skin-tearing awkwardness of human interactions. Someone’s face may melt away into a shapeless lump, but the tension in the story comes from their parents cutting off communication, their milk mysteriously curdling. Bodies are frequently an inconvenient detail of DeForge’s work – he deviates persistently from presenting naturalistic human characters. And the result is stories where changing emotional states are as important as morphing physical ones.

Christmas DressingIn Dressing, DeForge writes about anxiety, relationships, depression and alienation with the sense of a hand held out to you, which rather than taking your hand, strokes your elbow. The comics in Dressing end suddenly – you turn a page and there is a new story, the last panel you read becomes the final panel and suddenly is transformed. You’re forced to make sense of it. And that latent finality is something I see in the small mysteries of life, moments that are suddenly retroactively given significance: the last time you hung out with a partner before they dumped you, the morning you woke up before discovering someone had died.

My favourite by far is My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat, a scrappy and brutal comic in eight panels, ‘Drawn on a flight between Oakland and Las Vegas 08/10/2014’. It feels like an idea thrown down with force and exemplifies what I love most about DeForge’s work. DeForge’s characters are abject. They are at the mercy of both their own unreliable flesh, and the cruel rules of social interaction. The world is a strange and terrifying place, and so is your own body."

About the reviewer

James VarneyJames Varney is a writer and theatre maker based in Manchester. He has written for Le Monde, The Real Story, Exeunt and The Stage. He is currently developing Prince Gorge, a long-form poem and gig in which Prince George of Cambridge grows up to become a Queer cult leader. He maintains a blog of cultural criticism at and tweets @mrjvarney.

Event Boundary, a dramatic monologue written by James, was performed as part of My Uncle Who Works For Nintendo, a night of new writing inspired by playground rumours, urban myths and creepypastas at The Peer Hat in Manchester, Wed 25 October.

James is one of the featured writers in The Last Christmas, a collaboration between Writing Squad writers and Composers from the No Dice Collective, at the Anthony Burgess centre, Manchester on 7 December

"A biblical profundity that was unlike anything else" Lizzi Hawkins on the Narnia series

Posted Monday 5 November 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

We think we know Narnia. Lots of talking animals and something to do with a sailing ship with a cool name. But that's the Hollywood version. The original series is way darker and meaningful than that, even for an atheist. Here, Lizzi Hawkins from The Writing Squad, explains why ...

Aslan"Of all the questions surrounding reading and writing, one that I find most difficult to answer is when I’m asked what my favourite book is – there are too many good books, and it seems almost impossible to settle on one. So perhaps it’s fair that instead of choosing one book for this piece, I’ve managed, purely accidentally, to choose seven. We’ve all probably seen, or maybe read, ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’, but there’s so much more to the Narnia series than that single story, excellent as it is. Last summer, I reread the entire series, made up of seven short books, of which ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ is, in fact, the second, and was reminded how formative these stories had been for me. Sometimes myths, sometimes more like fairy tales, often just excellent adventures, these stories are a beautiful exercise in world-building.

Magicians Nephew CS Lewis NarniaMy favourites (at the moment at least) are ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, the very first story, where we see the creation of Narnia, and learn how the magical wardrobe came to be, and ‘The Silver Chair’, where we re-enter Narnia at a much darker time in its future to rescue a lost prince. These two, along with ‘The Horse and his Boy’, one of the more frightening books, set in the desert south of Narnia, and ‘The Last Battle’, the final story, are the ones that inevitably never make it to the big screen, but which remain really special to me, for their captivating storylines, and their moving, often unexpected morals. They are the heavier books of the series, carrying a biblical profundity that was unlike anything else I read as a child.

Silver Chair Narnia LewisReading them again as an older person, the religious connotations are much more clear to me – I understand now that C.S. Lewis wrote the collection of stories with the intention of introducing children to Christianity in a more appealing format. Despite being an atheist though, I relish the presence of these biblical undertones – they open the door for Lewis to mine some of the most ancient and powerful tropes in storytelling: death and resurrection, sacrifice, pilgrimage, return from the wilderness, the battle between good and evil, sometimes for an individual, sometimes for the whole of his magical world. I’d recommend these tales to anyone, not just children, and not just Christians, because you can find everything in them – a fleshed out fantasy universe to rival the best science-fiction, powerful stories of love and revelation, delicate explanations of faith, and most importantly storylines that refuse to let you go. I challenge anyone not to be captivated by them."

Lizzi HawkinsLizzi Hawkins is a poet from West Yorkshire.  She shares her time between her hometown of Leeds, and the University of Cambridge, where she is studying for a degree in Engineering. She has performed in venues across the north, most recently with Carol Ann Duffy and Imtiaz Dharker at Ilkley Literature Festival.

Lizzi Hawking Osteology Book CoverLizzi’s poems are published or upcoming in The Rialto, The North, The Cadaverine, The Compass Magazine and several anthologies. She is a winner of the 2017 Poetry Business New Poets Prize and has been Commended in the Foyle Young Poets’ Award. Her pamphlet Osteology is available from Smith Doorstop.

I will feel these things: a review of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Posted Thursday 4 October 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

NightwoodBritish-American poet Sarah Fletcher reveals the book that most affected her, as part of an ongoing series of reviews by members of the Writing Squad.

"A drunk, trans-sexual faux-doctor in drag starts to cry in a 1920’s Parisian bar. He is overwhelmed by the increasingly damaging secrets he’s become privy too. Starting to spill each stream of salacious gossip into the sozzled crowd, he sobs, as he breaks every confidence he can, ‘Oh, it’s a grand bad story, and who says I’m a betrayer? I say, tell the story of the world to the world!’”

This is the sort of moment in the swirling, strange universe of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood that becomes normal throughout this glittering book. Written in a luscious, High Modernist style, Nightwood is surreal in the most genuine meaning of the word: marked by the intense irrationality of a dream that is utterly believed by the dreamer nonetheless. Nonsensical, grotesque and fantastic.

People fall in love with the wrong people; then in wrong with the loved people, ad infinitum.

Djuna BarnesThe gut of the story is the dithering and pathetic love of Nora Flood for her party-loving girlfriend Robin Vote, who leaves Nora each night in search of a new cocktail, a new social scene, a new set of arms to sleep in. Berlin, Paris, London and Vienna become almost interchangeable in their flapperish glamour and dangerous character. 

"The gut of the story is the dithering and pathetic love of Nora Flood for her party-loving girlfriend Robin Vote, who leaves Nora each night in search of a new cocktail ..."

If love-gone-toxic is the guts of this story, its heart is the delicate, spellbinding language that weaves the plot together. When Robin passes out after a drunken night, Nora describes her flesh as having “the texture of plant life…sleep-worn as if sleep were a decaying fish”.

It’s these startling turns of phrase and beautiful descriptions throughout the novel that make the sordid plot palatable.

"Championed by T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, Nightwood is often marketed as a lesbian love story for its portrayal of vicious, triangular relationships between women."

Championed by T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, Nightwood is often marketed as a lesbian love story for its portrayal of vicious, triangular relationships between women. While this is an important aspect, I still return to the faux-doctor’s cry of telling “the story of the world to the world”.

Nightwood is an imminently human story, that beautifully expresses the complex sorrows and desires that make up human relationships. For as peculiar its plot is, a reader may not be left thinking that this could happen to me but, in all its intensity, a reader will surely know that this could be felt by me, and, one day, I will feel these things.

About the reviewer

Sarah FletcherSarah Fletcher is a British-American poet living in London and studying for a postgraduate at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has been published in Poetry London, The Rialto and the London Magazine. She was named a 2012 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, has received the 2012 and 2013 Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Stephen Spender Prize and Bridport Prize. Her debut pamphlet Kissing Angles was published with Dead Ink Books in 2015 and her pamphlet Typhoid August with Smith|Doorstop in 2018 as part of the New Poets Scheme.

I'm glad too, Lemn

Posted Tuesday 11 September 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

As a young poet my tastes in poetry and the choice of anthologies that I read shifts and changes as easily as the wind. Throughout my poetic career however, there has been one constant; the works of Lemn Sissay whom I first discovered reading the poem ‘Going Places’ in a collection of modern British poetry. That particular poem ends with a simple, abstract thought:

‘I think I'll paint roads on my front room walls to convince myself that I'm going places.’

This simple combination of a surreal idea with relatable imagery has defined my style as a writer and continues to inspire my work.

Tender fingersAlthough "Going Places" is not within it, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist is one of my most prized possessions. It was the first collection published by Lemn and was released as a small print run in 1988 while he was just twenty-one years of age.  The copy I have is a somewhat battered first edition paperback, bought from a library in Bradford which was forced to close due to lack of funding. But this somehow makes the book all the more special, within the peeling, creased exterior of the book sits Lemn’s youthful, raw emotion, a lone angry voice in the crowd telling anyone who cares to listen that he is done with all of this bullshit. Though Tender Fingers is not as formed or polished as Sissay’s later work, it is a priceless insight into the mind of a young writer on the verge of becoming one of most important poetic voices in modern day Britain.

One more thing makes my addition special; I had the fortune of meeting Lemn at an event in Sheffield and told him how much he has inspired me and now on the inside page, scribbled in black sharpie above his signature, he has written ‘Dan, I am so glad that you found this book’ I’m glad too Lemn.

"Dan, I am so glad that you found this book’ I’m glad too Lemn."


Dan WhittakerDan’s poetry is a reflection of the Yorkshire landscapes that raised him. The coherent playfulness of his work allows the reader to easily become lost in the unembellished but fantastic world that is conjured around them.

He is currently working on writing/editing a larger collection of poetry titled ‘Sea Glass for Eyes’ which chronicles his personal experience of losing an older brother at a young age. The poems use simple language and a deliberately small vocabulary to frame, with often striking and uncomfortable imagery, the idea of loss through the eyes of a child.

His pamphlet Know-it-all is available from Half Moon Books.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

Keep up to date

Follow Us

  • flickr
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • twitter

We use cookies to help us provide you with a better service, but do not track anything that can be used to personally identify you.

If you prefer us not to set these cookies, please visit our Cookie Settings page or continue browsing our site to accept them.