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.

Book review – A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland

A Book of Silence coverIn A Book of Silence Sara Maitland takes us on a journey not just into her own quest but those of countless others, as she searches for the pure joy she equates with the experience of true silence.

According to Sara, silence is not a vacuum or an absence of something, but rather an element in its own right, and one we are losing a sense of in our increasingly fraught and noisy lives.

On the surface this is an almost political attempt to overthrow a deluge of lies and misconceptions about the concept of silence: “We say that silence ‘needs’ – and therefore is waiting – to be broken: like a horse that must be ‘broken in.’”

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Book review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The Magic Toyshop by Angela CarterAngela Carter’s riches-to-rags story reads like an exquisitely written fairytale in reverse. Beginning in the summer Melanie turns 15, when she is swooning with the romantic possibilities of her future and increasingly enamoured with her own blossoming beauty, things swiftly turn dark.

A borrowed wedding dress, an altercation with a cat and a midnight scramble up a tree spells the end of Melanie’s dreamtime as she and her younger siblings are packed off to live with their mother’s brother, an uncle they have never met.

Uncle Philip, the proprietor of a gloriously old-fashioned toyshop, has all the potential to be a wonderful guardian but is swiftly revealed to be the ogre lurking at the heart of Melanie’s childhood fairytales. Foul-mouthed and riddled through with violence, he doesn’t even bother to pick up the children from the train station when they arrive, instead dispatching his wife’s brothers to collect them.

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Book review – Shambala Junction by Dipika Mukherjee

shambala-junction-coverThis vividly written, courageous book begins with a train journey that’s unexpectedly aborted long before its destination. An American with Indian parents, Iris alights from her carriage at Shambala Junction at 2am, drawn by the sight of a doll-sellers stall. Left behind when the train resumes its route, she’s plunged into a terrifying situation. With little Hindi language at her disposal and only a small amount of cash, her only option is to trust the strangers who surround her.

Spending a night in a slum was never on Iris’ ‘to-do’ list – through her eyes we experience the shock of poverty, and the discomfort of shamelessly leering eyes. More crucially, however, we enter into the crisis of the people next door, a couple with a missing baby Iris may be able to help recover.

Alone without backup for the first time in her life, Iris reveals a vein of inner strength that she’s never suspected existed. For the first time in her life, without her father or fiancé by her side, she’s forced to draw on her own resources.

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Book review – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman coverThe title of this short story collection by Margaret Drabble was enough to make me put it on my wishlist. There was no doubt in my mind that the smiles of the woman in question would be hiding a multitude of less presentable emotions.

The women in Drabble’s tales are often to be found smiling in the face of adversity. They’re quietly courageous individuals, usually unnoticed for the most part by the boorish men in their lives, and that’s how they like it, because it frees them up to get on with the serious job of living.

This particular collection from Penguin Modern Classics is laid out nose to tail, by which I mean the stories are organised chronologically according to original publication dates, beginning with Hassan’s Tower, published in 1966, and culminating with Stepping Westward, dating from 2000. As a result, we get a sense of Drabble growing and developing with her narratives. Her characters age and so do their preoccupations, not to mention their self-confidence.

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Book review – The End

The End coverWe’re often told to begin at the beginning, but in art, as in literature or film, sometimes it’s far more interesting to begin at the end, or, at least, the beginning of the end.

So it is with this upcoming anthology, The End, from the adroit Unthank Books, commissioned by Ashley Stokes, for which authors were invited to respond to the artwork of Nicholas Ruston. Each painting itself uses the words The End, imprinted on shadowy backgrounds that offer the sense of a narrative drawing the close.

With a subhead of Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, you know you’re not in for the sunniest of rides, but with contributors ranging from Tania Hershman to David Rose and u.v.ray, you’ll want to hold on tight, right till the actual end.

The variety is wonderful. Each story examines a different image, veering off in dazzlingly unexpected directions. Yes, there are deaths, but also near misses, recoveries and quiet moments of realisation.

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