Sabotage Reviews’ End of Year Critic’s Choice 2016

It’s that time of year again when reviewers and editors look back on this year’s publications and performances and share their favourites:


Becky Varley-Winter, Poetry Reviews Editor, shares her favourites:

Among pamphlets, I’ve been impressed by Richard Scott‘s Wound (Rialto), pamphlets by Clinic (Edwina Attlee‘s The Cream and Chloe Stopa-Hunt‘s White Hills), and Primers: Volume 1 from Nine Arches Press (Geraldine Clarkson, Maureen Cullen, Katie Griffiths & Lucy Ingrams). Among magazines, I’ve especially liked the poems in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and Poetry London. Among full collections, some of my favourites have been Denise Riley‘s Say Something BackA. K. Blakemore‘s Humbert SummerJohn McCullough‘s Spacecraft, Sarah Howe‘s A Loop of Jade, Vahni Capildeo‘s Measures of Expatriation, and I loved Warsan Shire‘s poetry appearing in Beyonce’s LEMONADE. Among non-contemporary poets, I’ve been reading/re-reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith, Stéphane Mallarmé, Jules Laforgue, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy and William Blake.

Richard T. Watson, Fiction Editor, says:

One highlight of Sabotage’s Fiction year came early on, with a new addition to the ever-popular Unthology series: Unthology 8. Somewhat the opposite of an anthology, each edition has showcased a variety of styles and subjects that might not ordinarily sit together in the same book. Our reviewer, Charley Barnes, described the eighth instalment as a ‘tremendous whirlwind of emotions encased in neatly composed literary nuggets’, and went on to state that Unthology 8 succeeded in the publisher’s aim of producing work that broke out of the boxes usually surrounding short fiction.

Another popular review from this year was that of Melissa Reddish‘s Girl and Flame, a novella telling the story of a girl and her growing relationship with an ember from the fire that killed her closest relatives. Daisy English, our reviewer, described it as a ‘daunting but dazzling bled of harsh reality and an eerie fantasy’.

Once again the Saboteur Awards proved a highlight of the year, and gave us plenty of high-quality publications to consider. Several of the votes were, as our regular MC Webster likes to say, right down to the wire. Once again, we were glad to enjoy the hospitality of Vout-O-Renees in London as our host venue, and this year we had gin to award to the prize-winners, courtesy of Sacred Gin.

Most of the nominees for Best Anthology were fiction anthologies, and the eventual winner was Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood. It is, as the name suggests, a collection of stories about fatherhood, by writers who are all fathers themselves. One voter described it as ‘insightful, thought-provoking yet humorous – a brilliant collection of parental reflection’. It certainly provides a reminder that parenthood isn’t all about motherhood, and at least one story actively asks why an attentive father is praised when he’s doing just the same – if not less – than the child’s mother, who is only doing what’s expected of her. You might think the last thing the world needs is another book, written by men, about men being men, but this mitigates that by showing these men in a care-giver role that seems at once less traditional but absolutely right and admirable.

James Webster, Spoken Word editor for London and the South East, shares his highlights:

Phew. As Spoken Word Editor for London and the South East, I can only apologise that things have been a bit quiet from us this year, reviews-wise.
But we’ve still been out seeing shows and here are a few of our faves from the last year:
  • The return of Bang Said the Gun – early this year, after a much-deserved break, London’s most raucously popular regular event returned to the new venue of the Bloomsbury Theatre. A more formal venue, but our very own Lettie McKie assured us that “It’s clear the bang gang have lost none of their energy and ability to put on a good show.” Bang like a party in poetry form and it’s lovely to see them selling out that venue on a regular basis.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Family Ben Norris is just a really lovely man. In a genre where so much comes down to making an audience like you and getting them on your side, I’ve rarely seen anyone do it better. If I’m going to be honest, I went into this show with a little trepidation, as there seems to be an over-abundance of poets talking about their tricky relationships with their dads, but I emerged thoroughly won over by the original concept, the thoroughly wonderful way with words, and the one-man charm offensive that is Mr Norris.
  • The Hammer & Tongue National Final – a mammoth weekend of poetry. With two full days of performances from both individuals and groups, it would be very easy for the audience to get worn out. Thankfully, this event at the Royal Albert Hall was perfectly put together, interspersed with performances from some of the UKs best performers (particulars highlights were Hollie McNish and Vanessa Kisuule). The event built up to a truly frenetic final between four of the most electric performers I’ve seen. Soloman O.B was a worthy winner, bringing a breathless energy to his performance which left the audience stunned, but I’d like to give a special mention to Caleb Femi, whose turns of phrase gave me goosebumps that have still yet to fade.
  • Melody by Jemima Foxtrot – after having heard a huge amount of buzz surrounding this performer, I was thrilled to finally catch them in action. Foxtrot is a truly creative voice, her poems are playful, surprising and fiery and she keeps the audience in the palm of her hand.
  • Other Voices Spoken Word Cabareta regular treat at the Edinburgh Fringe, Other Voices continues to provide a vital platform for voices and subjects that society finds all too easy to ignore. Organiser Fay Roberts’ response is simply to make their words louder, better and more beautiful.
  • Stitch by Dan Holloway – a modern-day take on The Monkey’s Paw that was utterly arresting, genuinely spooky and may or may not have had digital age vampires in it (who knows? Dan does. Maybe he’ll tell us). He’s performed it at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio and the Ashmolean Museum and we dearly hope that he takes it further.
  • The Bifrost Incident by The MechanismsI’m a sucker for a good twist on a myth or fairy tale. And, once more, The Mechanisms’ brand of musical storytelling was so good that it utterly broke me, leaving me a pitiful (but very happy) wreck of a human.
  • The Sleeping Princess by Hel Gurneydid I mention I’m a sucker for a good fairy tale? Hel Gurney mixed together various tales in a way that made them totally new, full of rich language and an eye-watering emotional payoff. This is the show that Once Upon a Time would be if it grew up and learned how to metaphor.”

Here were Sally Jack’s highlights, our Spoken Word editor for the Midlands:

Moved by the theatricality of Maria Ferguson‘s Fat Girls Don’t Dance – brave pauses throughout enabled the power of her words to register. Jemima Foxtrot’s show Melody was quirky but accurate, including beautifully evocative depictions of children playing at the beach.
Also, delighted to see that following the collection’s launch in 2015, Leicester-based poet Lydia Towsey is now taking The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books) out on tour; a fusion of art, words and music.

Reviewer Cath Barton shares her favourites:

If I could go to only one publisher for new fiction it would be the Norwich-based indie Galley Beggar Press. Co-founders Sam Jordison and Eloise Millar home in on the keenest writing talent around, not least in their Singles, substantial short stories published and sold individually as ebooks. As a member of the GBP Singles Club I get one of these in my in-box every month and I relish them as much as if they were one of those chocolate tasting-boxes to which you can subscribe. The tastes are sometimes unexpected but there are always rich layers of flavour.

From 2016 my highlights from the GBP Singles include James Clammer’s Loving Kindness. In this story a man who, on his own admission, is affected by “certain chemical imbalances as well as various childhood events crowding in” comes across a hand-scribbled note about a found penknife. He daydreams, he fantasizes and at the end I shivered in a horrible combination of delight and dread. James Clammer is a writer who is able to drill into the human psyche with uncanny accuracy. Remember the name.

What all GBP stories do is showcase writers of today who are amongst the most skilful at using the subtleties of the English language to convey the vast panoply of human experience. At the beginning of this year Backburn, with which Ríona Judge McCormack, an Irish-born writer currently living in South Africa, won the inaugural GBP Short Story Prize, was made available as a GBP Single. It is an achingly good story about how people relate to one another and the land, and the images evoked, of burning the brush on a farm and the unintended consequences of that, have stayed with me strongly. Re-reading it now I loved it still, and at a deeper level.

And finally, here are Claire Trévien’s (founder of Sabotage Reviews) choices:

It’s difficult, as always, to narrow down your favourites to a particular year. I read a lot of South African poetry in 2016, as part of a Sabotage Reviews focus on the country, and not all of it was published this year. I would like to highlight in particular Genna Gardini‘s Matric Rage published by young press uHlanga, which is fierce and fresh.

In terms of pamphlets, I want to mention Otmoor by Andrew Walton and the late David Attwooll, which, like their previous collaboration Ground Work is a daring and inventive épuisement of a specific place. Other highlights include Leah Umansky’s theatrical post-apocalyptic Straight away the emptied world (Kattywompus Press), and Tania Hershman’s Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open (Southword Editions), which upends you in the best way. 2016 seems to be the year of long titles!

I’ve been a fan of Helen Ivory‘s witty art and word contraptions on Facebook for a while, so it’s a joy to have them all in one place in the form of Hear what the moon told me (Knives Forks and Spoons Press). I also adored playing and experimenting with Abi Palmer‘s Alchemy, a poetry object I wouldn’t have discovered without the Saboteur Awards.

Finally, I want to mention The Good Imigrant, a collection of essays by BAME UK writers, edited by Nikesh Shukla, which has deservedly been crowned Britain’s favourite book.

2015’s most popular reviews and interviews!

It’s that time of the year once again! I leave it up to editors whether they want to do any round-ups of sorts, but I thought you might be interested to know which reviews written this year were the most read on our website! So here goes:

Live performances/Spoken Word

Dan Holloway’s review of Simon Armitage’s inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry attracted well over a thousand views, making it the most read review of a live performance this year. The next most read piece was Mab Jones’ review of Jackie Hagan’s show Some People Have Too Many Legs, which went on to win the Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show later that year!


The most read poetry pamphlet review was Zara Raab’s coverage of Zaffar Kunial’s Faber New Poet pamphlet, followed by David Clarke’s review of Victoria Kennefick’s White Whale (Winner of Best Poetry Pamphlet at the Saboteur Awards this year!)


The most read review written this year was Sarah Gonnet’s take on Love In The Anthropocene by Dale Jamieson & Bonnie Nadzam, followed by Charlotte Barnes’ review of Unthology 6! A special mention goes too to Richard T. Watson’s review of A Midlands Odyssey.


Will Barrett’s interview of SJ Fowler was one of the most popular reads on the website, and with expressions like ‘most poems are bad speeches’, it’s easy to understand why. Also popular was his encounter with Ryan Van Winkle, in which he calls politicians ‘shitty poets’, check it out.

What else could you read from this year?

  • Holly Jazz Kotzé’s review of Because the Night by Stacy Hardy
  • Hayden Westfield-Bell’s review of Catharsis by Azra Page
  • Sasha Garwood’s review of The Lion-Faced Man by CN Lester and Hel Gurney – Tête à Tête Opera Festival
  • Will Barrett’s interview of Jim Hinks from Comma Press

Finally, thank you to all of our readers, reviewers, and supporters, may 2016 bring you fantastic things indeed!


Crime Writer’s panel discussion with Mick Herron, Toby Purser, Helen Giltrow and Dan Holloway @ Blackwell’s

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

2014-09-09 18.56.01

Crime Writer’s panel discussion at Blackwell’s Oxford Fiction Week 9/9/2014

Small confession to make: other than a period around the ages of 13 to 14 in which I was obsessed with all things Mary Higgins Clarke (translated into French of course, which made names like Megan feel spectacularly cool), I’ve not been much of a reader of noir. Of the four panellists at last night’s Blackwell’s Crime Writer’s discussion, I was only familiar with Dan Holloway’s writing. Rather un-usefully it was his poetry rather than prose that I was familiar with (with the exception of Evie and Guy of course, his novel written only in numbers).

All this is to explain that I went to the panel with plenty of curiosity but little knowledge for the genre, and left with a rather more expanded view of what crime writing could encompass and an eagerness to explore both the kinds of novels that play within the restrictions of the genre and inspired to apply some of the thoughts generated during the discussion to my own writing. Not bad for a one hour and a half discussion really.

The panel, comprising Mick Herron, Dan Holloway, Helen Giltrow and Toby Purser, was held at Oxford’s Blackwell’s to an intimate but enthusiastic audience of 30 or so friends and fans. While publicity material suggested that the talk would centre on ‘the City of Oxford as a perfect setting for the genre’, the writers discarded this for a more focused exploration of freedom, particularly the freedom of their characters. Each writer was given a turn at the pulpit to discuss the topic and read a short extract, followed by a plenary.

Toby Purser, who had suggested this new theme, discussed in particular the difficulty of writing historical fiction when you have a PhD in History. His academic side deals in fact, but his writer side needs to push against facts. His novel covers two distinct time periods: 1914 and c.1760-1834, and perhaps surprisingly, he admitted later in the panel discussions that he felt freer when writing the 18th century sections as it meant dealing with a more remote past. The general conclusion to his section was that facts are always open to interpretation and that his novel, The Zaharoff Conspiracy explored that very topic through the use of new information from the past that could put into question the present of a character.

Helen Giltrow started off with a very engaging reading of the start of The Distance. Whereas Purser writes crime fiction set in the past, Giltrow writes in the near future, so faces very different challenges. To Giltrow, freedom involves the need to create restrictions, and giving her characters ‘restrictions, often without realizing it’. In The Distance, Giltrow exploits the first person narrative to seed the idea that her narrator is not infallible in judgement or necessarily reliable.  Giltrow also interpreted freedom as her own freedom to write a main character (Charlotte Alton) that did not fit the usual mould. Hearing her readers’ comments that her character should have been a man or given some sort of mental illness to make her more palatable has made Giltrow incredibly glad that she wrote the character that she wanted to write.

Dan Hollloway began his talk by reading a 1 star review of his book on Goodreads that described The Company of Fellows as ‘by far the most depraved and perverse thing I have _ever_ read’. Holloway called this an accidental 5 star review. To Holloway, it is important to write passages that he hopes people find uncomfortable, so that readers can confront, or even inhabit, aspects of themselves they wouldn’t normally acknowledge. He discussed freedom in terms of responsibility too, and the conflict he felt with certain scenes between his responsibility to a character (the need not to flinch, or look away), and his responsibility to any vulnerable readers (the need to not glamourize suicide for instance following guidelines set out by MIND and other charities).

Mick Herron spoke the least of all four authors initially, explaining that he has ‘difficulty talking about what I write’, but his extract from his next novel, Real Tigers, was a real hit with the audience, mixing pithy phrases (‘like most forms of corruptions, it started with men in suits’) with incongruous gruesome humour involving Fathers 4 Justice. In the discussions, Herron spoke eloquently about the need to stay true ‘to how you created [your characters] in the first place’, as well at his frustration at many endings in crime fiction (‘as if the last 10% was written in a different genre’).

The discussion between all four authors started off with a slightly strange Hilary Mantel-specific question from the audience. Fortunately, the writers managed to broaden its scope to discuss wilful use of anachronism in novels. Holloway suggested perhaps placing a false note early on in the novel so it’s out of way: ‘then you can get on with the story’. From then on the conversation covered various topics such as the role of commercial restraints on the creative process (‘self-publishing is the worst for that’ quipped Holloway),  and whether you can infringe on your characters’ freedom. Giltrow compared the restrictions of crime writing to those of a sonnet: how you play within the boundaries is what’s important.  Overall, this was a well-thought out evening of four clearly different crime writers finding new ways to make the genre their own.

Blackwell’s fiction week continues tonight with David Mitchell in conversation with Michael Prodger at the Sheldonian Theatre, Charlie Hill and Zoe Pilger tomorrow, Ali Smith on Friday and Deborah Harkness on Saturday. Full details here.

Saboteur Awards 2014 – 31st May

photo (46)

On Saturday 31st May, at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern, we will be announcing the results of the public vote for this year’s Saboteur Awards (check out the shortlist here). Over 2500 of you cast your vote this year to have a say in the outcome.

However, results are just the tip of the iceberg of what we have planned for that day, which will be the ultimate literary bash, combining fiction with the page and stage sides of poetry.

Pre-awards, we have a whole day planned out for you, with fantastic authors giving you a taster of their work and a bookfair featuring some of the most exciting indie presses around. Best of all, it’s free! So grab a pint or a cup of tea and come and hang out with us.

The evening awards are ticketed, and it’s cheaper if you book in advance, so we urge you to head over here to buy some now. Sabotage Reviews is entirely run by volunteers, each ticket you buy helps us break even, and makes it more likely that we can keep running these celebrations of indie literature. It’ll also be our 4th birthday, so, you know, it’d be nice to see you and all.

Enough with the chitchat, below you’ll find a timetable of the afternoon readings as well as a list of the publishers attending the book fair. A quick note that each editor curated an hour’s worth of readings in the afternoon so the poetry/spoken word/fiction labels are a reference to that.



Spoken Word from:
Lucy Ayrton
Tina Sederholm
Dan Holloway
Rose Drew
Florence O’Mahoney

Fiction from:
Emily Cleaver
Thomas McColl
Lyndsay Waller-Wilkinson


Poetry showcases from:
Flarestack Poets (Nichola Deane and David Clarke)
The Emma Press (John Clegg, Andrew Wynn Owen and Jacqueline Saphra)

Fiction from:
Ashley Stokes
Kate Garrett
May-Lan Tan
William Thirsk-Gaskill


Poetry from:
Rising (Tim Wells and Rowena Knight)
Paul Hawkins
Kirsten Irving
Kiran Millwood-Hargrave

Spoken word from:
Jenni Pascoe and JibbaJabba
Fay Roberts Poet and Allographic Press
Steve Nash

Book Fair

Arachne Press
Bare Fiction
The Emma Press
Flarestack Poets
Hesterglock Press
Nine Arches Press
Peirene Press
Stairwell Books
Stewed Rhubarb Press
Unthank Books

Buy your tickets now!