Book review – the everrumble by Michelle Elvy

the everumbleAt the age of seven, Zettie stops speaking and concentrates instead on listening to the world.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching  that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

I often see sentences as strings of interwoven colours, but in the case of the everrumble, it was a far more textural experience. Grains danced over my bare arms as I absorbed the passages. I felt tendrils of thread waft over the nape of my neck and the polish of seashells against my toes. Most of all, perhaps because of the blanket that Zettie takes refuge beneath at the beginning, which “light enters like tiny diamonds”, throughout the ever rumble I saw the stitch-work of crochet – that alchemy of yarn, deft fingers and hook, and the hushed focus that comes with that skill (which I do not have).

In other words, author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life. Sitting here typing this, I feel the pleasure of contact with each key, and a delight in the warmth of this sunlit room, while the soft sounds of bells chiming and traffic passing drift through the window to keep me company.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity. Even her name is notable, borrowed as it is from her aunt – Little Zettie being a nickname bestowed on her by her brother when she was small.

Through her silence, Zettiee opens up herself to the riches of Earth’s sounds, from the human, to the natural, to the unnatural, to “the everrumble. The heartbeat of every living creature.”

And in other ways, she is utterly normal. She gets crushes, falls in love, earns a living, bears and raises children. It’s her contentment, and her intense empathy for the most part, that is extraordinary. But she is mortal, and human, for all her communing with nature – a detail powerfully examined in a segment in which she imagines reading to her children.

In an era when climate change is accelerating at a dizzying pace and governments seem ever more disconnected both from their nations and the environment they’re impacting, the everrumble is a welcome pause, and a reminder: to listen, to savour, to live well.

the everrumble by Michelle Elvy is published by AdHoc Fiction and has been longlisted for the Guardian Newspaper’s Not-The-Booker-Prize. Buy your copy.

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, get in touch.

Review – new publishing house Grand Iota

Apropos Jimmy Inkling cover for webThe first two books released by publishing start up Grand Iota each entice us into streams of consciousness states of very different kinds.

In Apropos Jimmy Inkling by Brian Marley, we enter a court case where an unwitting customer, unnamed, has become the jury for the afore-mentioned Jimmy Inkling. Written entirely in dialogue with numerous digression into random topics, we soon learn that in the world our characters inhabit, gods tread alongside us and seem very like to us. We’re taught early on in the book that gods have far less power that we mortals suppose, but “have a tendency to boast”, hence this misconception. Instead of causing or preventing “typhoons and tsunamis”, for example, they are responsible for tasks such as making hinges squeak.

I’m a fan of authors who play with space on the page, and Marley works with his text as though it is clay, building small mountains by careful tweaks to font and alignment that lifts some passages so that they seem more akin to spoken asides:

His speed of thought was such that
he was incapable
of finishing one sentence
before starting another.

There’s a wonderful surreality to the court case’s progression, as time is taken out to honour the loss of a tooth, from the mouth of a character whose godly name is almost impossible for mortals to pronounce.

By this point I had lost track of whether I’d ever known what the court case was actually about, or even who was on trial, but was enjoying the ride.

It’s a frame of mind equally well suited to Grand Iota’s other bibliophilic pioneer.

Wild Metrics cover for webIn Ken Edward’s Wild Metrics we meander through the life of alternative poet K, sharing a squat in the early 1970s where, as in Marley’s book, characters ebb and flow, and the text is laced with the aura of dreaming philosophers, with punk, and Thatcher, on the horizon and literary genius bubbling below the surface.

In a neighbourhood of squats, the one where our hero resides (run by a bloke called Des) is special enough that nearby residents, including Big Steve, want in: “Steve would scrounge items from skips or dustbins that he thought Des or other members of the household might like and bring them round hopefully, like a cat depositing the gift of a decapitated mouse on the doorstep.”

There’s a sense of memories having been poured onto the page, possibly from a substantial height. Rather than being channelled towards a specific destination, each syllable nudges you one way, then another in a way that offer an impression of being immersed in K’s consciousness. I found myself setting the book aside for a few weeks and then, inexorably, returning to it – once it’s in your blood you’ll need more than a session of cold turkey to push past it.

Part memoir, part trip and part novel, it does, as the publisher promises, confound easy categorisation.

More than anything, reading Wild Metrics is akin to overhearing a discombobulating conversation on a bus that draws you to lean in with the aim of catch every muttered word.

In short, Apropos Jimmy Inkling and Wild Metrics are great companion reads. As you align yourself to unfamiliar atmospheric and gravitational pressures, you’ll find yourself hungering for another paragraph, another page and, most definitely, another book to allow you access back beneath the surface of this unconventional and intriguing waterway.

Apropos Jimmy Inkling by Brian Marley and Wild Metrics by Ken Edwards are available to buy from Grand Iota

Please note that Grand Iota is not currently open to submissions.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review – Unveiled

UnveiledThe first anthology of novel excerpts from the Unthank School of Writing was never going to be a straightforward affair. Created seven years into the School’s existence, editors Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver describe the contents as brimming “with storytelling verve, imagination and talent.”

That’s all true, but what strikes me most powerfully  is the immense variety within these tales, crossing time and geographic landscapes while presenting us with a multitude of realities, shared in a diverse array of authorial styles.

The anthology opens with Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men by Nicola Perry. Reading the author biographies, it’s clear Perry is one of the more practised Unthank School alumni, and that experience shines through in this prologue and first chapter.

She opens with words that anchor under your skin: “My mother is dead inside. There’s nothing I can do for her. I am instructed in this from a young age.” Questions bubble up immediately: who is our narrator? How young are they exactly? What’s wrong with the mum? Is she the one instructing her son in this peculiar fact? If so, why? Perry has clearly mastered the art of intrigue, and we’re only 21 words in. Impressive.

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Book review Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky Grut

Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky GrutIn her debut short story collection Live Show, Drink Included, Vicky Grut reveals her knack for summoning up characters so real they’ll follow you around your house, loitering in your kitchen as you make a cup of coffee until you almost feel you should offer them one too. Her protagonists crackle with unspoken preoccupations that often verge on somewhat unsettling obsessions. These are people you might see marking the perimeter of a social gathering, being avoided largely due to the air of discontentment, and even, resentment, that they exude.

Yet their delivery through Grut’s carefully selected words is deeply relatable. With her skilful hand, she renders them comedic, lyrical, or a shining blend of the two. We eavesdrop and enjoy their conundrums while being glad, for the most part, not to share them.

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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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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 – Who Runs The World? by Virginia Bergin

WhoRunsTheWorldcoverFor aeronautical student River, it’s a day like any other. She’s been out in the woods, collecting cider apples, and is now on her way home without a care in the world. But then she encounters a stranger who is seriously unwell. More worryingly, that person is an XY, a male, and River has never in her life met one before.

In Virginia Bergin’s third YA novel, Who Runs The World?we enter a reality set sideways from our own thanks to one significant difference. Sixty years earlier, a virus wiped out the majority of men on the planet, and now all male babies are taken away to live in sanctuaries, safe from the illness that would kill them, but which leaves the females untouched.

River has grown up in a society ruled by women, where concern for the planet comes first, and concern for community second. Concern for self is barely worth mentioning, as empathy and Courtesy (awarded a capital letter throughout) are the only accepted behaviours. It’s an outlook newcomer Mason is set to challenge.

If TV series The Handmaid’s Tale introduced a new generation of women to Margaret Atwood’s warning, Who Runs the World? kicks us into assessing our own auto-responses to what we think of male and female and the space in between. In many ways, the sans-XY world she has created reads like a utopia, but seen through an adolescent’s eyes, there’s a level of naivety and ignorance that allows for credibility to shift and crack. The darkness of the sanctuaries and the realisation that secrets are being kept at higher levels of society knocks River’s certainty about the world she inhabits. It’s a process we all go through as we get older, but set against a re-imagined world, it’s heightened in a way that’s wonderfully thought-provoking.

Throughout, Bergin is subtly seeding ideas about a better tomorrow, not least through the doctrines River takes for granted, from manners to avoidance of greed, waste and laziness. At the same time, the Grandmothers, a generation of women who were teenagers when the virus struck, offer reflections of a more familiar time and outlook. Bergin manages to achieve a perfect balance between the contrasting viewpoints formed by different societies, while allowing for contradictions that make sense within the bubble River has grown up within. For instance, while her understanding of the female gender is refreshingly broad and open (why would some jobs ever be left to men?), her untested opinion of men is stark –

It’s no wonder that when her first encounter with a male doesn’t go well, she can only assume the ideas she’s picked up on are correct. “Every strange and scary thing I’ve ever heard said about XYs comes bursting into my head.” Mason is terrified, and therefore threatening, in a way River has never experienced from any person previously. With her mother Zoe-River equally alarmed by the creature’s arrival in their lives, it takes River’s great-grandmother Kate to point out that Mason isn’t an It or a man, but a boy, and that he has far more reason to be afraid than they do.

This is just the beginning of River’s reawakening, and as she twists and turns through the story, re-examining what she has been brought up to believe, it’s inevitable that we readers do a semblance of the same. “I can’t find a place in my head where that fits,” she says near the beginning, but by the end of the novel, a new space has grown and her mind is more open, and wiser than ever. Throughout, River has questioned what she holds to be true, and we’re prompted to ask questions too, about right and wrong, gender norms and the society we’ve been shaped by, at least to some extent.

Vigorous, energetic and exhilarating, this is a novel that has heart and courage, just as its protagonist River does. A refreshing fiction with a core of truth, which should be compulsory reading for all age groups and genders.

Who Runs The World? by Virginia Bergin is published by Macmillan Children’s Books and available to buy from Amazon.

Read Virginia’s insights into writing YA fiction.

What are you reading? 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 Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Book review – Who Are You? by Anna Kavan

Who Are You coverLike a long, hot fevered dream, Anna Kavan’s story of a stifling marriage swarms with darkness and half-seen threats. Living in a tropical region labelled only through slang as ‘white man’s grave,’ our heroine is struggling to give up of the illuminated life of academic pursuit she’s left behind and accept the wedded unhappiness she’s been forced into.

Her husband, known by the staff as Mr Dog Head, seems no more satisfied with the arrangement. Her silences make him distrustful, which in turn causes him to simmer with violence. Favourite games include playing tennis with unwary rats, and forcing the girl to look on. At any moment, it appears, he’ll turn that brutality on his wife.

We witness the story through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, who shares one viewpoint, then another, often only speculating about the inward cause of responses and actions. It feels as though we are the mosquitoes that the girl unthinkingly lets into the house – swarming and spying on this desolate marriage.

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