Book review – Down in Demerara by Mike Manson

Down In Demerara coverFelix Radstock isn’t an instantly likeable protagonist. Fumbling his way through the unfamiliarity of Guyana, the best way to describe him might be as a tropical fungus – he’ll grow on you, whether you want him to or not.

It’s 1999, and the world is anticipating an ‘end of days’ scenario courtesy of the Millennium Bug. Felix has been sent to Guyana, a South American country described as ‘culturally Caribbean’ by Wikipedia, to gather evidence on the country’s economy and, he assumes, make suggestions to improve it. He regards himself as a whizz-kid with data and numbers – seeing colours in the information that highlight patterns that could lead to solutions.

In truth, to start with, he seems a bit of a waste of space, floundering around missing his girlfriend Aurora. As he reminisces about his first meeting with his love, in Bristol Zoo’s butterfly house, she offers up the line: “You have to be still and let them get used to you.”

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Beautifully balanced Chicago flavours

Cafe Robey Gnocchi

Set on the corner where North, Damen and Milwaukee Avenues meet in Chicago’s Wicker Park Bucktown neighborhood, Café Robey is just one ingredient of the immense art deco tower that also houses the hotel of the same name.

The wait staff are as attentive as America has taught us to expect, with a soupçon of elegance layered on top. Our water glasses never fall more than a half inch below brimful, and Mr J is called Sir so often he has trouble holding onto his composure.

Cafe Robey Ford Model cocktail

I start with the Ford’s Model cocktail, a reference to the Chicago Assembly, Ford Motor Company’s longest running manufacturing plant. It may not sound like the most mouthwatering premise, but the cocktail itself, with Hibiscus Ford’s Gin, Chareau, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, cucumber and 11th Orchard Pine Bitters, is as refreshing as stepping into an air-conditioned store after a stroll down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, aka North Michigan Avenue.

Mr J opts for a beer, taking advantage of America’s flourishing microbreweries. We find ourselves discussing the beauty of the glassware between sips and feeling just a touch Great Gatsby.

The menu is pleasingly simple, with each dish sporting a single word description to whet your appetite: Gnocchi, Scallop, Pork, Duck…

Mr J starts with the Pork Belly, a treasury of braised pork belly, almond mole, charred pineapple gel (gel proves to be a key a feature on this menu), corn fritters, spiced cabbage and pickled radishes. He describes it as “tenderly glazed”, and “perfectly balanced.”

Cafe Robey Prawn

I opt for the head-on prawn with fried green tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, Acqua Pazza, Three Sisters’ Grits and fresh basil. The grits are crisp, the prawns deliciously meaty and the Acqua Pazza (yes, I had to Google that) delightfully light, but unexpectedly, it’s the heirloom tomatoes that steal the show, with a delicate juicy flavour that sweetly asserts their fruit status.

Mr J chooses the gnocchi as his main, and raves about their crunchy exteriors and soft, moist centres.

Cafe Robey Duck

I can’t resist ordering the lavender-cured duck breast, accompanied by duck consommé, faro (a whole grain) fava bean succotash and kumquat marmalade. The whole dish taste wonderfully nutritious, the antithesis to the burgers and deep pan pizzas more commonly associated with Chicago cuisine. The duck is utterly luscious, while the succotash and faro add just the right amount of bite.

Cafe Robey Honeycake

For dessert I’m all about the toasted cardamom honey cake, served in glistening wedges with moreishly rich pistachio custard, raspberry gel, zingy raspberries and thyme and lavender salt. It’s a texture and taste bonanza; my mouth has rarely been happier.

At the end of our meal, we’re each brought a shot of milk and a cookie. Glancing around, I spot diners across the restaurant cosying up with their own cookies and milk. It’s an unlikely touch of comfort at such a chic establishment, but one received with as much appreciation as the finest gastronomic mouthfuls on this indulgent and imaginative menu.

Find Café Robey at 1616 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL, USA,
872 315 3084 https://www.caferobey.com.

Got an inspiring venue, event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw my attention to? Send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud(dot)com.

Book review – If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch

If I Die Before I Wake coverEasing a reader into the viewpoint of a protagonist is every writer’s greatest magic trick. Emily Koch managed something remarkable with her debut novel, enclosing us in the mind of a man suffering from undiagnosed locked in syndrome.

Unable to move or speak, Alex lies in his hospital bed, wishing he could let his friends, family and medical attendees know that he’s aware of everything that happens around him, that he feels pain, hunger and pleasure, and hears and smells each person who visits. From their point of view, he’s in a vegetative state, and the kindest thing to do might be to let him slip away.

More than a year into his ordeal, he wants nothing more than to die. But something isn’t quite right. Alex knows a climbing accident led him to hospitalisation. He was an experienced climber with confidence in his equipment, so what went wrong?

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Poetry review – Kierkegaard’s Cupboard by Marianne Burton

Kierkegaard's Cupboard book coverBiography as poetry is an enticing literary choice. Rather than asking us to ingest and retain the cumulative details of a life, we’re instead invited to mull over scattered and strung selections of moments which offer a suggestion of the sum of the whole.In

While the majority of poetry shares roots with autobiography, for the poet to focus on a historic figure is a more unusual, but when done skilfully, the results are hugely pleasing. Think magician’s act blended with both anthropology and archaeology, and thoroughly interlaced with respect.

In Kierkegaard’s Cupboard, poet Marianne Burton has unearthed and thoughtfully restored a scant horde of treasures from the archives of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Throughout she has provided contextual signposts to help us understand the contemplations laid out before us, which support those of us new to Kierkegaard’s meandering preoccupations without intruding on the elegance of the poems themselves.

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Flash novella review – In the Debris Field

in-the-debris-fieldA novella in flash in a canny concept. Flash, by nature and when done well, can contain within a few hundred words the resonance of an entire novel. By layering one on top of another to build up to the length of a novella (or at least, a meaty short story), you get a cumulative effect. Each individual piece, ranging from a single paragraph to a page or two, has the strength to standalone, but by adding more attuned pieces to the slew, you end up with a distinctly explosive novella form. Quite simply, you get more bang for your buck.

This is never truer than with Luke Whisnant’s In the Debris Field, the title novella of Bath Flash Fiction Award’s trio of novellas in flash. Whisnant tells the story of Dennis (referred to throughout almost solely as ‘You’), his twin sister Denise and brother Donnie as they skid through childhood to middle-age. Contained in such small parcels, each tale’s narrative is heightened, summoning the raw emotions of adolescence with soaring skill. Continue reading

Book review – What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi Sold as a short story collection, Helen Oyeyemi’s latest creation has more in common with a sort of atlas, or a street view of a world most of us only glimpse between the places we walk and the places we avoid, or are avoided by. Shadowy gardens where unthinkable things bloom, doors that only stay closed when locked, marshlands where the drowned form communities, puppetry schools where the living and the made blur and tangle – all these and more make up the richly imagined dreamscape these stories inhabit.

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing is gorgeously painterly and wryly, sometimes wickedly, funny. Passion ripples under the characters’ skin, and reminds us that boundaries and societal rules are often less natural than the yearnings that drive us. Contemporary fictions hinged on social media sit alongside dark fairytales that feel eons old, and characters swim from one tale to emerge as cameos in others. It further deepens the sense of entering a fully formed world where history and present blend, and nothing matters more than the characters’ own foibles. Continue reading

Book review – Murmuration by Robert Lock

Murmuration by Robert LockDrawing us into the magic and squalor of a seaside town, Murmuration by Robert Lock is that rare thing, a novel strung from several stories, each of which contributes to the greater whole.

In this sense, the opening imagery of a flock of starlings performing their nightly show mirrors the nature of this unusual narrative. Rippled through the the starlings’ calls as they execute their extraordinary dance, “as perfectly orchestrated and paced as the finest symphony”, our omniscient view through their eyes takes in several centuries and lives – each disparate and yet mysteriously connected.

Discovering how our protagonists link together presents a quest-like element, as each story immerses us in the concerns of a single, stand-alone character. From the dizzying success and tragic losses of 19th century “music hall clown” Georgie Parr, to Michael ‘Mickey’ Braithwaite battling his “difficulties” to volunteer in World War II’s Observer Corps, to sceptical, shrewd, pier fortune-teller Bella Kaminska in 1965, to truth-seeking 1980s archivist Colin Draper, to, almost bringing us a full circle, modern day comedian Sammy Samuels. Continue reading

Book review – Boy Meets Hamster by Birdie Milano

Boy Meets Hamster by Birdie MilanoFull disclosure, my review copy of Boy Meets Hamster arrived with a stick of rock. A themed stick of rock striped in the book’s colours and with the book title running right through the centre. So let’s just say I was pretty well disposed towards author Birdie Milano before I even read the first page.

But beyond exquisitely en pointe bribery, the concept of this novel immediately grabbed me. Quite simply, this is one of the most inclusive YA stories I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into.

Fourteen-year-old Dylan yearns for a dream holiday, but ends up on a budget trip to caravan park Starcross Sands. When he lays eyes on the beautiful boy in the caravan next door, he’s certain things are looking up, but his best friend Kayla’s not so sure.

Nibbles, the giant hamster who serves as the park mascot, “with a perm-grin and two massive back teeth,” seems to be wherever Dylan goes, much to his distaste.

Dylan’s little brother, Jude, has cerebral palsy, “which is a medical condition where his brain gets a bit muddled about telling his body what to do.” Jude also has a tendency to honk when distressed, and an ardent passion for said-hamster.

Their paramedic parents are embarrassing on a whole range of levels.

And Jayden-Lee, Dylan’s potential love interest, is incapable of speaking without saying something ignorant and cringe-worthy.

Each of these characters is utterly believable. They’re flawed, complex and capable of redemption, even those you might prefer to abandon tied to a miniature train’s tracks (and yes, that happens in one scene). These are people with more than one side to their personalities. In some cases they’re still figuring out who they really are, and that makes them all the more credible.

Birdie summons the spirit of the British seaside and sensibilities with everything from Elvis impersonators to garden gnomes, not to mention fairy-themed hen parties, and plenty of mayhem thrown in for added laughs. Comedic set pieces are stunningly visual, with Dylan always at the centre of them and never quite knowing why.

There’s thievery, football, meat-related catastrophes, and in the midst of it all that a dancing gigantic hamster, not to mention the possibility of Dylan’s first kiss.

And there’s also a startling level of wisdom about love from our teenage hero: “Falling in love felt a lot like falling into a canal. A sudden shock as you’re plunged into murky depths, with all kinds of unexpected dangers just below the surface.”

How could you resist?

The real magic of the story, however, lies in its emotional depth. This is a technicolour daydream rippled through with glitter and laughter, but the true beauty shines through in uncertainties Dylan faces, and overcomes.

Though intended for the YA market, this book is the perfect summer read for anyone who’s ever survived the intensity of a teenage kiss, or a UK caravanning holiday.

Boy Meets Hamster is by Birdie Milano and published by Macmillan Children’s Books. It’s available to buy from Amazon.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

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Book review – Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn

Raising Sparks by Ariel KahnOpening on a vibrant domestic scene as protagonist Malka prepares the Shabbat feast with her mother and sisters, Ariel Kahn’s novel Raising Sparks immediately immerses you in a life, locale and culture.

Malka has grown up in a strictly Orthodox Jewish household in old Jerusalem, where women are born only to marry and bear children, with education and thought reserved for the male members of society.

Malka’s father, a Yeshiva teacher of traditional texts, allowed her to learn at his knee for many years, but suddenly withdrew her illicit privileges without warning, and closed his study door to her without explanation. Malka remains frustrated, and hungry to learn more.

When she meets one of her father’s students, Moshe, and has a vision of a terrifying tree, she knows she needs to find out more on her own terms. For the first time, she leaves her restrictive, overprotective home, and boards a bus out of the city she has never previously been beyond.

Malka’s journey may only take her from Jerusalem to Safed to Tel Aviv, but in emotional and cultural terms is feels like a thousand miles. Kahn paints each step of her pilgrimage in vivid technicolour, throwing in friendships, foes and plenty of food along the way. Moments of magic realism are offset by Malka’s growing scepticism as she develops from innocent child to an independent being, with a few exceptional abilities for good measure.

I spent several months travelling in Israel at Malka’s age, and recognised myself in her naivety set against those distinctive backdrops. My favourite moments are those that unfold whenever Malka finds some inner piece – especially when she teaches herself to swim in the sea that laps Tel Aviv’s shore: “She was still terrified when the current tugged her under, but now she had faith that she would float back up. There were precious moments when she soared, weightless on the crest of a wave, smiling through the salt and foam.”

To me those lines sum up Malka’s character: her bravery, resilience and openness to finding joy. These are the qualities that keep us journeying beside her and invested not only in her story, but in the stories that incite her own curiosity and passion.

In many ways, Raising Sparks is a love letter to a conflicted country, riddled with questions about human nature and stupidity, as well as excitement about a world of possibilities. In a book all about the true power of words, Kahn is adept at bringing symbolism to vivid life. He captures the essence of vast societal problems whilst never losing sight of the heart of the matter – family and what that word actually means.

Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn is published by Blue Moose Books and available to buy from Amazon.

Read Ariel Kahn’s guest post on the sights and encounters that sparked the inspiration for his debut novel Raising Sparks.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

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Poetry review – Visiting The Minotaur by Claire Williamson

Visiting The Minotaur by Claire WilliamsonDrawing on myths to make sense of our mortality, Claire Williamson’s first collection with Seren is at once heartbreaking and comfortingly human, with the skill to make your spirits soar.

Seen through Williamson’s eyes, a half bull, half man hybrid is nothing compared to the complexities of surviving your average childhood. From the aching tenderness with which she knits memories about her own daughters to the grief and confusion of losing a sibling and mother, Williamson immerses you with such conviction that you can’t help but empathise.

There’s a distinct irreality to much of the carefully conjured imagery, which only serves to heighten the stark honesty of the sensations being shared. Family members long gone return as horses: “She thrusts her black muzzle/ into the cleft of my torso and arm/ and I feel her warmth for the first time/ since she drank that poison.”

Bereavement is a theme throughout, but even in the bleakest contemplations, Williamson manages to find humour in the moments she captures.

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