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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Book review The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn

The Dragonfly by Kate DunnA father incarcerated for killing his wife. A grandfather ousted from solitude into the care of his granddaughter. An angry nine-year-old, a toy monkey and a boat slicing through the waterways of France.

Got that?

Kate Dunn’s set-up seems as much a surprise to her characters as to readers, seeking a genre to hook her book onto. As we meet Colin, an English man who has buried his loneliness in boatbuilding, there’s a curious comfort in not quite knowing where we’re going.

Colin holds himself separate to us so that it takes a while to get a sense of him and the great, multiple heartbreaks that separated him from his son years before. This aloofness is no error in judgement from Dunn, however, as the pages drift by and you find yourself warming to Colin and his awkwardness.

The story really comes to life when Delphine, the afore-mentioned angry nine-year-old, and her precious soft toy Amandine. Fizzing into the plot, Delphine is full of a barely contained rage that seems only appropriate given the death of her mother Charlotte and subsequent imprisonment of her father Michael. Continue reading

Book review – Some of Us Glow More Than Others by Tania Hershman

Some of Us Glow More Than Others by Tania HershmanThis luminescent collection of short stories and flash fictions offers up Tania Hershman’s unmistakable blend of the poetic, the uncanny and the deeply human. Drawing from a background in physics and a fascination with other sciences, Hershman explores our predilections and imperfections with effortless eloquence.  Through her writing you’ll feel yourself at one with nuns, researchers and divers alike, not to mention gas molecules and eerie little immortal girls.

I often see colours when reading fiction, and Tania’s tales in this collection are shot through with shimmering shades – pools of silver, midnight blue, aquamarine and ultramarine are gorgeously offset by threads of vermilion and gold.

Each of the tales examines, in its own way, what it means to be human, and the potential kindnesses and cruelties lying in wait both around and within us. While many lead us into laboratories, other sneak us into more unexpected places of moral and quizzical reflection, sometimes under cover of darkness.

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Book review – Watercolours Unleashed by Jane Betteridge

Watercolour Unleashed by Jane BetteridgeThe cover of this beautiful book offers a vivid preview of the treat you’re about to experience. Mouthwatering shades and intriguing textures abound. Inside, Jane presents an array of wonderful techniques, using everything from clingfilm and tissue paper to threads, seeds and (my alchemical favourite) salt to create effects that will lift and transform your art.

With chapters devoted to materials, colours and preparing your paints, Jane ensures you’re equipped to make the most of any opportunity to capture a scene. A section on composition will help you present your subject in the most breathtaking or pleasing way possible, while a series of projects will ease everything you’ve learnt beneath your skin so that it becomes an everyday part of your artistic arsenal.

With Jane’s exquisite paintings appearing through, the book is also a pleasure simply to pore over for a hit of energising colour.

I spent a very happy Sunday afternoon dabbling with a few of the techniques, and watching the results. My painting, below, created using Jane’s tips and encouragement, turned out a bit clumsy and abstract, but was infinitely satisfying.

Textured Haze by Judy Darley1

As Jane comments in her intro to the book, it turns out that “Watching paint dry can be extremely exciting.” She also takes a moment to remind us that painting should always be a pleasure, never a chore. “Free yourself up. Unleash your passion for watercolour by keeping an open mind, experimenting with techniques, and enjoying yourself by trying new ideas. The watercolour medium has a mind of its own.”

Well, how could you resist? Watercolours Unleashed offers full, unreserved permission to play. Whether, like me, you’re fresh to your artistic journey and seeking the courage to tackle the beauty about you, or experienced and wishing to rediscover that early joy, Jane is the artist to take you there, and inspire you every step of the way.

Watercolours Unleashed by Jane Betteridge (RRP £14.99) is available to buy from www.searchpress.com

Discover more of Jane’s art.

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 Judy(at)socketcreative.com.