Book review – My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonI have a stubborn streak that makes me shy from the books that hit mainstream esteem. Part of me wants to seek out the underdogs that will really benefit from the boost of a review. However, My Name Is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman whose childhood placed her squarely in the camp of underdog, with a level of poverty that Elizabeth Strout paints with visceral skill, rendering it utterly relatable without oiling the hinges with sentimentality.

Throughout the novel we are entirely within Lucy’s head, seeing her experiences through her own eyes. At times her memory is uncertain, in the way that all childhood memories are to a degree, but because she doesn’t view her early years as pitiful, neither do we.

We join Lucy during an extended stay in a New York hospital following an operation to have her appendix removed. Lucy’s long-estranged mother arrives to keep her company, and the pair drift through anecdotes from the past, while Lucy observes her mother with a fond yet wary eyes. It’s an interesting set up, made more complex as Strout parkours into Lucy’s future, where she is taking a writing class and the novel, or rather Lucy’s memoir, is taking shaping. The opening line forewarns of this chronological fluidity: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.”

Strout is an agile and fearless writer, freerunning between past, present and future in a way that sharpens our understanding of Lucy’s nature, as well as the backdrop of her life in Amgash, Illinois and New York at the start of the Aids epidemic, when yellow stickers were placed on the hospital doors of patients suffering from the virus, and outside “gaunt and bony men continued to walk by.”

We learn that Lucy is the youngest of three children in a family once so poor that for a time they lived in a garage, that she was aware from an early age of her differences compared to the other children (“We were outcasts”) and minds this less than her older sister does, and that as soon as she can read she takes refuge in fiction.

We know that her parents punish their children for crimes such as lying or wasting food, but that they, particularly the mother, also on occasion hit out “impulsively and vigorously, as I think some people may have suspected by our blotchy skin and sullen dispositions.”

Yet she feels a great fondness for that childhood and her family. “I missed my mother, I missed my father, I suddenly missed the stark tree n the cornfield of my youth, I missed this all so deeply and terribly.”

Lucy, like any of us, is complex, contrary and swirled through with emotions built on experiences, deprivations and desires. She sees her good fortune in having moved on from the meanness of her beginnings, but argues, if only in her head, with those who believe she came from nothing: “No one in this world comes from nothing.”

This is a novel that will deepen your empathy for others, while impressing on you the value of compassion and forgiveness, as demonstrated by Lucy. It’s a story that is relatable at the most innate levels, and one that will give you hope that however dire things seems, a bit of courage and obstinacy might just carry you through to something brighter.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin Books and is available to buy here.

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.

Anthology review – No Good Deed

No Good DeedUnexpected gems abound in Retreat West’s 2019 Charity Anthology. You’ll unearth them like lost ancient treasures by  roadsides where characters dreamt up by an assortment of outstandingly original writers immerse themselves in stories of generous acts, for the most part committed for no better reason than to alleviate someone’s anxiety or improve a slim chance of a better life.

In the case of the latter, it’s not only humans on their way to hopefully improved circumstances. Johanna Robinson‘s exquisitely wistful Bufo Bufo juxtaposes an ailing father with a communal project to help toads cross a road. “A toad stirs next to my foot, and I crouch and reach. I’m careful to hold it and not-hold it. It’s a new sense, to grip but not squeeze. Not too hard; not too soft. (…) Body soft but bony and skin glowing like topaz. Dangling legs every now and again pumping the air, like an electrical fault.”

Climbing Wall by Rosie Garland offers an askance view of what happens when we only take care of others and forget to look after ourselves, while in Seedlings by W.T. Paterson, a child’s belief converts a father’s lie into a startling truth.

“‘The first language a child learns is story,’ Navi said. ‘The second language is games, things like risk/reward, probability and chance, and what if. Their third language, which is spoken, becomes their native tongue.’”

A Longing For Clouds by Amanda Huggins is redolent with aromas that weave through the passages, evoking the rich, sensual squalor of heat, from “the pungent scent of overripe mangoes” to “sandalwood on warm skin”. Huggins’ story is a masterclass in engaging the senses, as she evokes scenes vivid with jewel colours, textures and flavours, overlaid with a yearning nostalgia.

“The only sound she could hear was the faint tinkle of the tiny bells on the women’s bracelets and ankle chains. The noise reminded Maggie of the dress she wore to Deepak’s wedding; cerulean blue with bells around the hem. It conjured the warmth of the soft Jaipur dusk; the air heavy with incense and sandalwood attar, the gate adorned with flowers. Bright saris, silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes. The bride, nervous and pale, beautifully gift-wrapped in red and gold.”

Thought-provoking lines shine throughout the anthology, often revealing a wealth of backstory in only a few, carefully chosen words. In Blue Swing by Matty Bannond, it’s the memory of a father “who was always there but usually facing the wrong way”, while in Dancing Crimson by Claire Hinchliffe, we encounter the zigzagging narrative of a woman, Miranda, who we begin to decipher through her simple yet poetic description of a common kitchen implement: “There’s a strange silver bowl covered in tiny holes, like rain and sprinkles and Blackpool.”

The breadth and variety of the stories is at times startling, with a focus that zooms into the minutiae of everyday lives before swooping outwards to carry us thousands of miles across our planet to concentrate on another life, another viewpoint and another example of empathy.

In many cases, the theme of ‘Help’ is the only connecting thread among these compact, heartfelt, and occasionally surreal stories. But what a strong thread that is, reminding us that regardless of our protagonists’ preoccupations and concerns, the underlying characteristic they share is humanity and the desire, however confused or grudging, to reach out and make a positive difference. An uplifting read for our times.

Sales from No Good Deed raise funds for the Indigo Volunteers charity. No Good Deed, edited by Amanda Saint and Sophie Duffy, is available to buy here.

Confession: My story What We Talk About When We Talk About Owls is included in this anthology.

Book review – All That is Between Us by K. M. Elkes

All That Is Between UsWarning: the intimacy in this book sneaks up on you, so that you’re living between the lines before you’ve had a chance to consider the implications – that if you do this, you’re going to empathise. You’re going to feel.

It’s a trait of K.M. Elkes’ writing that’s impossible to avoid. He draws you in with humour, and with exquisitely visual writing, until suddenly you realise you’ve become the character pressing their ear “against a window to feel the vibrations of trains and the deep, deep breath of the city”.

That’s a rare talent, most visible in this collection, perhaps, in You Wonder How They Sleep, in which the lines above appear.

Somehow, Elkes transports you, body and soul, less to another place than to another state of mind, into another’s state of mind.

In this collection, his debut (remarkably, it feels he should already have a shelf-ful of own-works), Elkes not so much invites you into other lives, as commandeers you: for the time it takes to read one of these brief flashes, or one and the next, and the next – as they’re addictive – you are immersed. You breathe the air his characters breathe, and ache exactly where they ache.

Elkes’ elegance with language is vivid throughout, frequently offering fresh terms on which to understand the world – “the buttery tang of trodden grass”, an old book with “the edges of its pages the colour of beer”, taxi cabs “yellow as a smoker’s finger.”

Picking a favourite story seems cruel, like choosing between a class-full of children, but inevitably one charmed me with its wit, its pathos and the ecological truth underpinning its fantasy. The King of Throwaway Islandis a love story in which the tale itself is being written by the protagonist repeatedly and released in plastic bottles from the island of refuse he’s been shipwrecked upon. “My island gets a little smaller ever time I send you a letter. But I stay confident – that’s part of the new me.”

In Swimming Lessons, an overbearing dad battles the ingrained hurt inflicted by his own father. Fathers crop up in many of the stories, often cruel, usually misguided, occasionally striving to do their best, and, at times, succeeding.

In Three Kids, Two Balloons, Elkes takes a passing moment and harnesses it in a way that somehow manages to be funny and moving and powerful. Hints of flippancy here, as in many of the stories, are deceptive, as beneath each is a bolt of such tenderness that you’ll be stopped in your tracks.

It’s intriguing that by fixing our focus firmly on the people at the heart of each tale, the stories themselves swell outwards, so that the details chosen to depict place and time become transferable across countries and, to an extent, eras. Loss is perhaps the most universally recognised emotion, and Elkes has the ability to make every situation he turns to infinitely relatable.

In that sense, the collection’s title rings with particular resonance – chiming with the awareness that in fact all that is between us are the things that make us human, which means that time, location and circumstance matter far less than our responses to the situations we find ourselves within.

 All That Is Between Us by K. M. Elkes is published by AdHoc Fiction and is available to buy here.

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.

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, Zettie 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