Book review – the other side of better by Michelle Elvy

the other side of better by Michelle Elvy book coverFans of Michelle Elvy’s novella-in-flash the everrumble (and yes, I very much count myself among them) are in for a treat with the author’s newest offering. the other side of better, is another literary marvel the defies categorisation, skirting genres and forms alike, with flash fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and general musings all layering together like a bowl of salt, sweet and umami-flavoured popcorn.

I was left with a palpable impression of the author’s deep affection for both her invented and remembered characters and the spaces they inhabit.

In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Shore’, Elvy offers up a painterly scene while drawing on all our senses: “A sandbar juts out and canvas claps as we tack away”, “Squishing feel, wet marsh”, and, most beautifully of all, in writing of a heron: “My wants are a blue-grey ghost, gliding.”

Something about those word choices suggest the cool of the barely discernible sky, the smell of the water and the quiet of the author’s heart, at that time, in that place.

Elvy’s specificity illuminates images in your mind’s eye. Consider ‘And in the museum: triptych’, in which fledging yearnings are offset against whaling memorabilia. “Beth is always at Marianne’s side. They have matching sweaters. John is wedged in, trapped behind the girls. (…) Beth takes Marianne’s hand: a barricade of laced fingers.” Those tightly written sentences capture a moment wholly particular and yet entirely universal.

Interspersed between some of the stories, and in a 27-page wedge in the collection’s centre, you’ll find notes from “the Fuddy-Duddy Editor” who “was once a Fuddy-Duddy Writer.” These intrusions, the literary equivalent of a theatrical aside, add humour and insight, as well as making you, in some cases, feel a surge of defensiveness towards the tale you just enjoyed and which she is now picking holes in. It’s a neat trick.

“Lost and found in Berlin” is a self-contained tale that re-emerges in this central part as a powerfully constrained abbreviation. By shifting from first to third person, the second version shines up our impression of the protagonist and of her tenderness towards an old man with a trainset in his basement at the end of an East Berlin trainline. “The girl recalled  the tiny free world, and the bigger walled world.”

It’s an imperfect echo that ripples through many of Elvy’s works – the themes explored, exquisitely polished, and then tipped on their heads; the memories subverted into fictions that read truer than any inventory of facts; and of sounds swelling with unuttered secrets just beyond the pages’ confines. It all succeeds in challenging us to engage in dialogue with Elvy’s hybrid forms.

Adventures small and large brim within these pages, where you’ll only need to hold your breath for exhilaration’s sake.

In the final section, ‘in a dream in a dream in a dream’, Elvy splices together fragments of climate fiction in the voices of an elephant, a sloth, a giraffe, and a deeply self-satisfied hippo, among others. The author sweeps us across oceans to shores where “waves roll in like timpani” and libraries serve up poetry with tea, draws us into childhood dreams of sails and pectoral fins, and enshrouds us in loss and discoveries. Through it all, Elvy reminds us of the joy to be found in this extraordinary world of ours, and that it’s up to us to choose to “give it a try.”

the other side of better by Michelle Elvy is published by AdHoc Fiction. Buy your copy.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

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. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Book review – Deep Water by Lu Hersey

I originally wrote and published my review of Deep Water by Lu Hersey in September 2015. I really loved this book and have been awaiting the sequel avidly! The book has just been released in a fresh edition by Tangent Books, so I decided to re-publish the review in support of Lu’s beautiful writing.

Deep Water by Lu HerseyLu Hersey’s debut may have been written with a teen readership in mind, but it transcends the YA category with a tender, eerie tale of marine myths and magic. Lu won the 2013 Mslexia Children’s Novel Writing Award for Deep Water, and the gentle, almost stealthy start belies the thrill and beauty of this book.

Danni is your average 15-year-old with an average family life, or so she thinks until the day she comes home to find her mother missing and a mysterious pool of salt water on the kitchen floor.

Along with cheery sidekick Levi, Danni is packed off to stay with her dad in Cornwall and soon becomes immersed in a world where curses take the form of ‘poppets’, the weather can be charmed with knotted fabric and a select few can take the form of seals when the fancy takes them.

In Cornwall, Danni gets to meet a family member she thought was long deceased, and discovers an inherited trait that will change her life forever – she’s a sea person, and needs to transform into a seal on a regular basis to retain her health and sanity.

Drawing on Cornish Celtic legends, Lu has created a version of the metamorphous stories that’s far removed from the fey prettiness of most mermaid tales – changing is physically excruciating for Danni and a mackerel she consumes while in seal form is painfully thrown up when returned to human physiology. Details like this keep the fantasy elements firmly rooted in reality, and make you invest wholeheartedly in the flawed yet potent core characters.

The underwater scenes are powerfully written – atmospheric and charged with dazzling energy. “Out in the open water, we circle a swarm of ghostly jellyfish with cauliflower-like tentacles that have somehow survived the winter, drifting along on some invisible current. I swim through the darkening water, somersaulting round and round in sheer joy at the sensation and the freedom.”

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Book review – Am I in the Right Place? by Ben Pester

Am I In The Right Place book coverIf your preferred reading place and time is in bed before sleep, you may need to develop new habits for Ben Pester’s debut collection Am I in the Right Place? Seemingly ordinary settings (a café; an office) twitch with unreliable edges that threaten to upend into the unknown. Cupboards open into other worlds, and roads lead to versions of memories that encroach on the present in unexpected ways.

We open with a character waiting to meet his ageing father, and then spooling into a journey where anxiety lingers with such a palpable presence it almost takes on human form.

Later in the collection, in ‘Low Energy Meeting’ a line manager introduces us to the embodiment of his love, a sorrowful figure in a dingy dressing gown.

Emotions here have powers to shift our surroundings, making every step uncertain. What was floor moments ago could now be a hole with an insatiable appetite.

Some pages, dyed black from corner to corner, abandon us to our rattled thoughts only quieted by the rustle of us scrabbling to get to the next printed words.

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Poetry review – The Estate Agent’s Daughter by Rhian Edwards

The Estate Agents Daughter book coverOpening her collection with the title poem, Rhian Edwards immediately sets the tone: wryly humorous, unabashed, yet slightly self-depreciating, as she describes herself in the terms of a property complete with a ”white dogleg staircase”. With lines such as “Her writing desk has been nudged to the brink/ of the bay” and “cable-knit cardigans draped across Ikea chairs come as standard”, I feel I’m gaining an instantly relatable image of the poet in Part One.

‘House Share’ is a clear demonstration of Edwards’ observational acuity as we find ourselves in the midst of an apartment that is “a dog-eared novel, laced in saliva” where a lethargic Labrador “pricks up/ her envelope flap of an ear” before collapsing “into a coil of herself.” It’s so vividly written that I feel I know this dozy dog and the affection both felt by and towards her.

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Book review – The Naming of Bones by Jan Kaneen

The Naming of Bones cover showing a drawing of a woman in front of a green ocean at night.The beauty of this book is dazzling. From the first page, I felt myself being drawn into a work of art where light catches on grains of sand and waves hush continually. There’s a quietness to the prose that’s deeply beguiling. It makes you want to listen harder, to breathe in every word and nuance.

Dreamscapes, memories and make-believe all play their role, climbing into each other’s arms and laps until you can’t be sure where real ends and made up begins.

We commence in the middle of the night with a sound of singing, “soft and faraway.”

Jan Kaneen‘s narrator is in bed, just woken and “straining to hear.” In the following pages, it seems that straining to hear could sum up all her efforts – to identify, to gain clarity of a surrounding resonance that hums always somewhere just beyond reach of full comprehension.

Our location is a shoreline where a beachcomber is seen each day, whatever the weather. It’s a wonderful, wind-swept setting, and one that feels shaped by the narrator’s sense of grief. Kaneen sums up the mood and our narrator’s mood in two lines: “I favour wilder weather and stormier skies, and I only go outside on rainy days. I prefer to watch people rather than be with them, and the rain keeps them away.”

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Book review – Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter

Gaps in the LightThere’s a rare exhilaration that comes from beginning to read a book crammed with written works that you can’t hope to pigeonhole, and to choose instead to dive nose-first and headlong into, trusting the words to catch and anchor you where they will.

Poetry, memoir, flash fiction, sociological and psychological and anthropological study, myth, dream… In Gaps in the Light by Iona Winter, it all builds together into a tidal wave of impressions, sensations and emotions that you’d do well to surrender to and allow it to sweep you away.

Scattering in the Te reo Māori language, where water (wai) and song (waiata) are separated by three letters, and the word for ground is the same as the word for placenta (whenua), Winter ensures that divisions between who and where we are blend as well. The relationship between our bodies and nature are intertwined.

Likewise, the gap between fact and fiction are muddied in the most natural way, for fiction often provides the means to share our most honest emotional truths. If this thing didn’t happen to the author, that doesn’t mean it happened to no one, and the strata of feelings are undoubtedly authentic, regardless of what seeded them.

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Book review – The Yet Unknowing World by Fiona J Mackintosh

The Yet Unknowing WorldLayered like skeins of vivid ribbons, the stories in Fiona J. Mackintosh’s flash fiction collection The Yet Unknowing World strew colours through their readers’ minds.

Each tethers a moment in time, offering a sense of eavesdropping on stranger’s secrets. Many are portraits of love, others a sidewise glance at grief or betrayal. Woven by Mackintosh’s deft fingers, even the deepest losses are shared as exquisite parcels to be marvelled over. In ‘Hindsight’, the author opens with an image of cartwheels and trailing silk, before revealing that it’s these slippery fabrics that led to our narrator waking with his “heart fractured.”

There’s poetry whirled into these tales, and imagery rich enough to leave your senses tingling. Though most of the stories are only a paragraph or so long, they’re packed with details that evoke more than the sum of their words, and yet lie lightly on the page.

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Book review – Light by C. M. Taylor

Light front cover showing an illustration of a man in a white suit looking at fields, a house and barns.For a story bookended by deaths, Light by CM Taylor is for the most part a refreshingly cheerful affair.

Set in the 1990s against a backdrop of rural England a train ride from London, e-millionaires and enfant terribles of British art, Light  could have easily been titled Chiaroscuro, because it brims with as much darkness as light.

The core thread running through the novella is the friendship between narrator Ben and Will, formed in childhood, set aside for ten years and rediscovered when Will hires Ben as a gardener and odd-job man. A variety of stage-worthy characters jostle beneath Ben’s gaze, most notably Will’s ruthless wife Jessica and son Archie (named for a dead stranger), Sue, who has made a fortune from e-commerce, artist Maggie, and her boyfriend, the mostly silent Pavel.

Ben himself is rarely named – a choice that serves to emphasise how adrift he is as the novella unfolds. He’s a habitual witness impelled by people around him to take an active role.

“I was a grown up,” he observes early on. “I thought I was going to make it.”

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Book review – All Our Squandered Beauty by Amanda Huggins

All Our Squandered Beauty by Amanda HugginsIn her debut novella, Amanda Huggins casts her lyrical storytelling over the ruggedness of wild oceans, churning grief and raw adolescence with dizzying potency.

Set in 1978, the salt and tides of the North Sea flavour Huggins’ words as she introduces us to Kara, named after a sea in the Siberian Arctic and a guardian sprite who carried shipwrecked sailors “into the clouds in fishing nets” spun from her hair. Kara simultaneously thirsts for adventures beyond her field of vision while yearning to dive back into the safety of her past. Huggins captures this inner conflict beautifully, highlighting Kara’s confused emotions against a backdrop of motorbikes, unsuitable suitors, nature and art.

When Kara’s art teacher Leo informs her that she’s eligible for “a funded place for a gifted student” on a three-week art placement on a Greek island, Kara is swept away under a swell of first impressions that absorb every sense. Yet misgivings murmur beneath the surface, even as Huggins’ ribbons of words saturate us.

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Book review – Straw Gods by Tom O’Brien

Straw Gods coverSet in a coastal village and on the surrounding seas, Tom O’Brien’s intensely told novella-in-flash examines the insularity and isolation of grief.

Our narrator is Rosa, living on the shore of the sea that swallowed her husband Matteo ten years ago. With the sound of waves endlessly within earshot, she can’t move on from the hope that Matteo will re-emerge with the next tide.

It opens with a powerful declaration: ‘“I know that you’re dead,” I said to my husband. He didn’t respond.’

Rituals bring scant comfort – the making of tea for a wraith who can never drink it, the poring over of treasures he gave her as tokens of their love – each repeated as if Rosa can lull nature into letting what it has taken slip back to where it, or rather he, belongs.

Rosa confides: ‘There was no storm when he drowned. A freak wave hit the boat, they told me, caused by something far away.’ The details of this sentence are intriguing – the idea of something so seemingly inconsequentially distant could cause such devastation in the centre of a woman’s life ripples through every story that makes up the novella.

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