April 2021 Reading: Empower Your Kids; Another Life; The Dig Street Festival; The Summer Job; Sybelia Drive; Chauvo-Feminism; Absorbed; Outsiders; Boys Don’t Cry; Poirot Investigates; Among the Beasts and Briars; Charity

I’ve had a funny old month, with a little wobble about my book blogging abilities, but I feel like I’ve come out the other side and realised that as long as I am enjoying myself and sharing the book love, it really doesn’t matter if I don’t manage to read ALL the books! Of course, relaxing and leaning into it means I actually managed to read a bit more than usual this month, because life is funny like that! So here’s a quick round-up of the 12 books I read in April, along with links to my full reviews where relevant.

Empower Your Kids! by Judy Bartkowiak (2021)

I find Judy Bartkowiak’s work really interesting and useful – I am still getting to grips with some of the concepts, but I use bits of her techniques on an almost daily basis with my little ones. This guide, Empower Your Kids, is another brilliant, friendly, helpful book. You can read my full review here.

Another Life by Jodie Chapman (2021)

Jodie Chapman’s debut novel is a beautifully written exploration of the complications that come with falling in love. There is both sadness and hope in this book, and I was very moved by it. My full review is here.

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh (2021)

I had a good feeling about this book, and I was not disappointed. Walsh dives joyously into the odd lives of those who aren’t often depicted in fiction, the side-lined, the margin-dwellers, and brings both humour and poignancy to the bizarre journey he takes us on. Highly recommended – you can read my full thoughts on this fabulous book here.

The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent (2021)

The Summer Job is a sparkling, fun-filled, quirky comedy with plenty of heart and a flawed protagonist whose missteps and triumphs are a joy to follow. Perfect for sunny garden reading this spring/summer. My full review is here.

Sybelia Drive by Karin Cecile Davidson (2020)

Sybelia Drive is a stunning debut novel that absolutely blew me away, and I am already sure it is going to be one of my top reads of 2021. Interweaving the first person narratives of several characters, this astounding book feels complex and full while still being a total pleasure to read. I loved it. You can find my full review of this incredible book here.

Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills (2021)

Sam Mills writes boldly and frankly about the insidious rise of hidden chauvinism – men who outwardly profess alliance with the #MeToo movement, while their private actions tell a different story. A thought-provoking, powerful read that opened my eyes to behaviours that it is all too easy to ignore. My full review is here.

Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead (2021)

The first book published by new imprint New Ruins, Kylie Whitehead’s novel is a strange, horror-tinged exploration of modern relationships and individual identity. It’s a surreal yet compulsively readable book, and I enjoyed it immensely. My full review of Absorbed is here.

Outsiders edited by Alice Slater (2020)

I really loved this collection. Authors at the peak of their powers explore the titular theme in a variety of surprising and powerful ways, and it is a book I know I will be revisiting. You can read my full review of this stunning short story anthology here.

Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett (2021)

Oh, this book is so very special indeed. I cannot urge you enough to add this to your TBR – it is a beautifully written debut novel that will stay with me forever. Click here to read my full review.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie (1924)

This was our Poirot readalong book for April, and I think most of us agreed that while the short stories in this collection were fun as brain teasers, it was hard to get invested as the stories are so short. It is always amusing to see Hastings and Poirot interacting, but I am looking forward to getting back to a full novel for our May read, The Big Four.

Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston (2020)

Another readalong book – I don’t think I loved this one quite as much as some of the group, but to be fair I don’t read very much fantasy, so it was probably a bit out of my comfort zone! I loved Fox, though, and had a LOT of fun chatting with the group about the book, so I regret nothing! And the story rattles along at an impressive pace, which is always a good thing!

Charity by Madeline Dewhurst (2021)

This is a very impressive debut novel, weaving multiple genres together in a clever, satisfying way. I really enjoyed this book – you can find my full blog tour review (hot off the press!) here.

All in all, I feel like I’m ending the month on a really positive note. I have read some great books in April, and I’ve resolved to be kinder to myself and not put myself under unnecessary pressure. I even have tentative plans to read some of my own bought books in May – wish me luck!

Happy Reading!

Ellie x

Review: Charity by Madeline Dewhurst (2021) #CharityTheNovel @MDewhurst3 @EyeAndLightning @damppebbles #damppebblesbts

Charity by Madeline Dewhurst

Blurb

Edith, an elderly widow with a large house in an Islington garden square, needs a carer. Lauren, a nail technician born in the East End, needs somewhere to live. A rent-free room in lieu of pay seems the obvious solution, even though the pair have nothing in common.

Or do they? Why is Lauren so fascinated by Edith’s childhood in colonial Kenya? Is Paul, the handsome lodger in the basement, the honest broker he appears? And how does Charity, a Kenyan girl brutally tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion, fit into the equation?

Capturing the spirited interplay between two women divided by class, generation and a deeper gulf from the past, and offering vivid flashbacks to 1950s East Africa, Madeline Dewhurst’s captivating debut spins a web of secrets and deceit – where it’s not always obvious who is the spider and who is the fly.

Review

I love historical fiction, and even more so when the ripples of past actions reverberate into the present day. This debut novel intrigued me from its back cover description, and I am very grateful to the author, publisher and Emma at Damp Pebbles for my spot on the tour and for providing me with a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.

This is a beautifully constructed book which layers up past and present events in a careful and artful way, adding to our understanding of the characters little by little until eventually all is revealed. I won’t say too much about the plot as I don’t want to give anything away, but as the connections between the characters become clear, the murky questions of historical guilt, complicity, wilful ignorance and refusal to acknowledge the past all drift to the surface, as if Dewhurst is sifting through the silt of lies to uncover the truth.

The brutal and deeply distressing treatment of Kenyan prisoners held by the British under the pretext of quashing the Mau Mau rebellion was not something I knew much about, and these sections were the most impactful for me. Charity’s desperate situation is heart-breaking and rage-inducing, not to mention very traumatic to read at times. The contrast between these sections and the more modern storyline of Lauren, a beauty student, moving in with the elderly Edith in her posh London house, and the often comic scenes that the latter situation produces, shows the tonal range of this book, which crosses not only geographical but also genre boundaries. This book is many things at once: a powerful historical novel, a situational comedy, a mystery, a ghost story, and many other things besides.

What is most impressive is how Dewhurst manages to balance the many strands and ‘modes’ of the story, weaving a complex tapestry that shows enormous skill, especially considering this is a debut novel. It’s a strikingly original book, bold in its unflinching expose of the horrors of colonial rule and its refusal to sweep the past under the carpet. The complexities of the interplay between the modern day characters are nuanced and mutable; as the situation in the black-doored house reaches its boiling point, it is hard to know where our true sympathies should lie.

I really enjoyed this book, it kept me on my toes, never quite knowing where it was going to lead me next, but always happy to follow along. It is a pacy read, complex and puzzling without being overly confusing, and it illuminates the long-lasting traumas of colonial brutality in a fresh, original way. I am really looking forward to reading more of Madeline Dewhurst’s work in the future.

About the Author

Madeline Dewhurst studied English at Queen’s University Belfast and went on to complete an MA in Research and a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway.  She is an academic in English and Creative Writing at the Open University.

Her previous writing includes fiction, journalism and drama. Charity, which was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, is her first novel.

She now lives in Kent.

Social Media

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MDewhurst3

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/madelinedewhurstauthor

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/madelinedewhurst/

Purchase Links

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/31UqHMP

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3dJSYv5

Waterstones: https://bit.ly/3s2gEjF

Foyles: https://bit.ly/2RiKJPf

Book Depository: https://bit.ly/39RKsZU

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/charity-35

Google Books: https://bit.ly/2RjGzqn

Charity by Madeline Dewhurst is published by Lighning Books in digital and paperback formats and was released on 26th April 2021.

Review: Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett (2021)

Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett

Blurb

Joe is 17, a gifted artist and a brilliant older brother to 12-year-old Finn. They live with their Ma and Da in a Dublin tower block called Bojaxhiu or ‘the Jax’. It’s not an easy place to be a kid, especially when your father, Frank, is the muscle for the notorious gang leader Dessie ‘The Badger’ Murphy. But whether it’s daytrips to the beach or drawing secret sketches, Joe works hard to show Finn life beyond the battered concrete yard below their flat.

Joe is determined not to become like his Da. But when Finn falls ill, Joe finds his convictions harder to cling to. With his father now in prison, his mother submerged in her grief, and his relationships with friends and classmates crumbling, Joe has to figure out how to survive without becoming what the world around him expects him to be.

Review

I’d seen so many brilliant things about this book that pre-ordering it was a no-brainer, and once it arrived, I couldn’t resist diving in almost straightaway. I’m so glad I did, as Boys Don’t Cry is such a special book – and yes, you will need plentiful tissues.

The chapters alternate between the two brothers, Joe and Finn, and it was a matter of pages before I realised I had taken both of them into my heart. There is a special kind of magical quality to writing that can create fictional characters who seem absolutely real – it doesn’t happen all that often, and it is such a thrill and a gift. Fíona Scarlett’s book is absolutely given over to the two voices of the boys, in a generous and full-hearted way, allowing their utterly authentic first person narratives to carry the story along without authorial intrusion (this makes it sound like I don’t know that she wrote it – what I MEAN is that you can completely believe in the two characters as real people as you immerse yourself in their individual voices!)

The threat of heartbreak is present from the beginning, and I was wet-eyed long before the full-on sobbing episode I had towards the end of the book. But it never feels as if Scarlett is playing with our emotions or going for ‘tragic effect’ – my growing sadness as I read came out of a genuine affection for the boys, who, as well as being authentic and funny and touching, are also nicely contrasted, so that Finn’s innocence and naivety finds its opposite in Joe’s disillusionment about the future and the hopelessness that threatens to overwhelm him when he tries to imagine forging a different path from the one that seems laid out for him.

There are echoes here, for me, of What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson, which also deals with a beautiful sibling bond, and of David Joy’s Where All Light Tends To Go, a story in which a teenage boy faces similar struggles to Joe in his attempts to escape the bonds of his family history. The difference here is in the location – Boys Don’t Cry is absolutely rooted in its gritty Dublin setting, and every sentence shimmers with authenticity and realism. I don’t do audiobooks, but I can imagine this would be a fantastic one to listen to – as it was, I heard the voices clearly in my head and loved every line of it.

This isn’t a long book, but it doesn’t need to be – it packs more punch than novels twice its length. Moving without being sentimental, soft and harsh all at once, Boys Don’t Cry is an incredible debut novel, and I am SO excited to see what Fíona Scarlett produces next. In the meantime, Finn and Joe, and Annie and Sabine, too, for that matter, are going to stay with me for a very, very long time, and I am grateful to have been gifted their presence.

Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett is published by Faber & Faber and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent (2021)

The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent

Blurb

Have you ever imagined running away from your life?

Well Birdy Finch didn’t just imagine it. She did it. Which might’ve been an error. And the life she’s run into? Her best friend, Heather’s.

The only problem is, she hasn’t told Heather. Actually there are a few other problems…

Can Birdy carry off a summer at a luxury Scottish hotel pretending to be her best friend (who incidentally is a world-class wine expert)?

And can she stop herself from falling for the first man she’s ever actually liked (but who thinks she’s someone else)

The Summer Job is a fresh, fun, feel-good romcom for fans of The Flatshare, Bridget Jones and Bridesmaids.

Review

I got a proof copy of this from Penguin Viking via my friend @bkslovelythings, who always looks after me and makes sure I get treats when I need cheering up! Thank you, Jo, as always! It took me longer than I wanted to get around to reading The Summer Job, but perhaps I can claim I was waiting for the sun to finally put in an appearance!

There has been a lot of love for this book on Twitter, and I can see why. This is a fizzing, funny, surprising novel that carries you along with its sheer zest and enthusiasm. The premise is the stuff of Hollywood comedies – a classic identity switch with hilarious consequences – but the way the story progresses is quirky and unexpected. Birdy is a great character, lost and drifting but with a fabulous sense of humour and a great line in swearing – it is easy to empathise with her, even when some of her more unlikeable character traits come to the fore. She is perfectly pitched as the adult who struggles to adult, and, as we learn about her childhood, we gain even more sympathy with her, though the hints of her traumatic past are subtle and never over-done.

James, the chef at the hotel who becomes the inevitable love interest, is the first fictional character I have properly fancied in quite a long time! He’s slightly awkward and gorgeous and kind and could whip you up a cordon bleu meal – what’s not to love?! I was rooting for these crazy kids all the way. And although, this being a romantic comedy, we know where we’re going to end up, Dent still manages to throw in plenty of speed bumps and surprises before we get to the end of this fun-filled ride.

I have mentioned before that I don’t read a lot of love stories, but this one really made me smile (and occasionally snort with laughter in a very unattractive way), and I can’t think of a better read for a sunny day on a (local) beach or out in the garden. Grab your sunglasses and settle down with Birdy this summer – you won’t regret it!

The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent is out now from Penguin and is available to purchase here

Review: Outsiders edited by Alice Slater (2020)

Blurb

This is an anthology about people who don’t fit in. These stories explore what it is to be an outsider, from some of the most exciting voices in short fiction.

From lovers to loners, moonlighters to midnight walkers, these pages are haunted by more than ghosts: loss, lack of direction, insecurity and otherworldly hunger. 

But most importantly, it asks the question: if we’re us, then who are you?

With stories from: Julia Armfield, Jen Campbell, Sarvat Hasin, Beverley Ho, Emma Hutton, Susan James, Kirsty Logan, Lena Mohamed, Heather Parry, Leone Ross, Stephanie Victoire, Anna Walsh, Eley Williams, Lara Williams and Anna Wood and a foreword by Irenosen Okojie.

Review

I have been meaning to read this collection for ages, and I am so glad I finally found a space for it in my busy reading life. The anthology has a foreward by Irenosen Okojie, whose brilliant short story collection Nudibranch I raved about last year, and many of these stories seem tinged with her influence, playing with the borders of reality, pushing boundaries and revelling in the strange gorgeousness of language.

The list of authors involved reads like a shelf of my own TBR bookcase – I’ve just bought Leone Ross’s new novel This One Sky Day; Salt Slow by Julia Armfield is one I think I would love; Eley Williams and Anna Wood are also waiting patiently on my shelf. So it is no surprise that reading this anthology felt like coming home, like swimming in the murky, silky waters of the type stories I love. I am even more excited to read more by these authors now.

My favourite stories were Anna Wood’s ‘Francine,’ a deceptively simple tale of a chance encounter at a festival; ‘Peep Hole’ by Leone Ross, ‘Skin’ by Lena Mohamed, which reminded me of the work of Carmen Maria Machado in My Body and Other Parties, the bizarre and frankly hilarious ‘Sinkhole’ (sorry, I can’t work out how to do a heart instead of the ‘o’!) by Emma Hutton, and Susan James’ subtly heart-breaking ‘But Not Like That’. However, in each and every story, I found much to admire and ponder – these stories go deep, and I want to reread the whole collection, probably several times.

What surprised and delighted me the most about this collection was how cohesive it felt. The common theme of being an outsider is not overplayed – it is subtler in some stories, almost a background note, but it adds so much to the anthology as a whole, so that the stories thread together like beautiful beads on a necklace. We dip our toes into horror, love stories, tales of grief and friendship and loneliness, and leave feeling wrung out from our immersion in the whole spectrum of feelings presented here. This is a collection to revisit, to cherish, to dive into again and again.

Outsiders edited by Alice Slater is out now from 3 of Cups Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead (2021)

Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead

Blurb

Allison has been with Owen since university. She’s given up on writing her novel and is working a dull office job at the local council – now it feels like the only interesting thing about her is that she’s Owen’s girlfriend. But he’s slipping away from her, and Allison has no idea who she’ll be without him.

Panicking, she absorbs him…

Soon Allison begins taking on Owen’s best qualities, becoming the person she always thought she should be. But is Owen all she needs to complete herself? Will Allison ever be a whole person?

Absorbed is the original and timely debut novel from Kylie Whitehead; a darkly comic story of female insecurity, body horror and modern relationships.

Review

When I heard that two of my favourite indie presses, Dead Ink and Influx Press, had got together for a collaborative project, I got a bit excited. And then I read about it and got even MORE excited. From the website:

“New Ruins is a paperback originals imprint focused on the porous and uncanny boundary between the edge-lands of literary and genre fiction.

New Ruins publishes books that are comfortable sitting across, within, or outside of genre labels, for readers unafraid of transgressing boundaries.”

To me, that is just music to my ears. And so I was delighted when the lovely Jordan Taylor-Jones sent me a review copy of New Ruins’ first book, Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead, which sounded as weird and wonderful as I hoped.

I read this book so quickly, devouring it, perhaps appropriately, over a couple of night time reading sessions. It definitely gave me weird dreams. And it definitely flits across boundaries – it is a modern love story, a horror story, at times a story of personal development, at others dipping into supernatural mysteries. It is unsettling and engrossing in equal measures. The protagonist, Allison, is a curious mix of being pretty self-aware, calling herself out on her flaws and foibles, and (pardon the pun) self-absorbed, childish, unable to see how her actions affect those around her until it is too late and the consequences have spiralled out of control. She isn’t particularly likeable, but that is a strength of the book – I have said it before, I’m sure, but we need more dislikeable women in novels.

The plot, as is clear from the blurb, is as mad as it sounds. Yes, Allison literally absorbs her boyfriend. There’s no rationalising or metaphorizing it – that is what happens, and then Allison must try and figure out what to do next. You do need to hop on board and accept this premise, but there is a decent amount of Allison also feeling bewildered and confused and trying to figure out what the hell has happened, so it’s clearly not ‘normal’ even within the confines of the storyworld. As we learn more about Allison’s past, there are hints of how this could have come about, but again, everything is hazy and the truth is hard to pin down. Two characters, Maggie and Odile, are remarkably accepting of Allison’s version of events, but by allowing her to share the story of her absorption of Owen with a couple of people, the plot can open out a little to include witnesses to her drama.

The story gets gradually darker and more physically uncomfortable – always with the shadowy sense of not being sure exactly what is going on. In this way, Whitehead allies us closely with Allison’s first person narrative – like Allison, we are struggling to make sense of the changing sensations and emotions she is going through. I felt quite on edge reading this book, always waiting for something horrific to happen, for some massive revelation, and I think there is some very clever suspense threaded through the sometimes rather casual-seeming descriptions of Allison limping on with her existence as best she can in the circumstances. There’s a good pay-off for this, though not the one I was expecting, and I got a lovely shiver down my spine when I realised where the narrative was headed.

It is tricky to describe my feelings for this book, which is about as far from a warm and fuzzy read as you can get – it definitely provoked a visceral reaction, and I found myself oddly aware of my body as I was reading. There is a delicious warping of reality, a scratching away at the veneer of normality – at one point I couldn’t stop thinking about how bloody weird pregnancy is, having another being growing inside you, at another, I wondered how far loving someone means wanting to be them. This book raises so many questions, and has dark fun exploring them, though it is not necessarily forthcoming with the answers. Relationships, friendships, parent-child bonds are all examined through the smashed surface of a fractured mirror, and it’s a disorientating and weirdly compulsive experience. I would absolutely read more of Whitehead’s work, and I am excited to see what New Ruins comes out with next, too.

Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead is out in May from New Ruins, and is available to pre-order here.

Review: Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills (2021)

Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills

Blurb

The 2017 #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse felt like a flagship moment, a time at which women were empowered to share their stories in a spirit of empowerment and solidarity and demand change. But have some men simply changed tactics?

The latest addition to The Indigo Press’s Mood Indigo series sees Sam Mills, author of the acclaimed novel The Quiddity of Will Self (“ambitious and outrageous” Guardian), and recent literary memoir of caring, The Fragments of My Father (“brave and original” The Times) investigate the phenomenon of ‘chauvo-feminism’, where men present themselves as feminists publicly, in order to advance their careers, while privately exhibiting chauvinistic attitudes.

Through testimony from women and men, as well as her own experiences with a chauvo-feminist, Mills explores the grey areas of modern relationships, gaslighting and emotional abuse, the psychological underpinnings of the chauvo-feminist, and asks how we might move beyond ‘trial by Twitter’ to encourage an honest and productive dialogue between the sexes.

Review

A few months ago, I read and reviewed Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel, a short but powerful essay on women and desire in the age of consent. When Sam reached out and kindly offered me a copy of her book Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo in exchange for an honest review, I jumped at the chance to read more on this fascinating and important topic.

This essay is as thought-provoking and challenging as Angel’s, though it approaches the topic from a different angle. In Chauvo-Feminism, Mills turns the lens back onto men, and asks if performative allyship with the #MeToo movement is allowing a new kind of chauvinist to evade detection. She details her own experiences with one such man, and provides one of the best descriptions of the now-ubiquitous expression ‘gas-lighting’ that I’ve come across. What was really interesting to me was that as I read of her interactions with R, the anonymous chauvo-feminist she encounters, I found myself going back and forth as to whether I could find any ‘wrong-doing’ in his actions, until I realised that the reason it was hard for me to condemn his behaviour was because it is SO common, I’ve seen and experienced it so often, that it feels normal to me. And that, as I think Mills is arguing, is the problem – these kinds of behaviours are so insidious, and as women we are so used to them, that as long as more overt anti-feminist stances appear to be vanishing off the radar, we’re at risk of thinking the work is done, and equality is all but achieved.

The conversations around #MeToo have, by their very nature of occurring mostly on social media, been performative to a certain extent. It is very difficult to have honest talks, even in person, about these issues – I am sure I am not alone in having had some fairly fraught conversations even with those men closest to me, where no one wants to step outside of the accepted rhetoric and pull at some of the loose threads. I have had some pretty open discussions, too, but even with those I love, we are dancing around the edges of something dangerous when we press too far into the truth of some of the feelings that the #MeToo movement has provoked. I honestly don’t even want to go into detail here for fear of making it sound like I know chauvo-feminists – you can see how fraught it is! The very fact, however, that it all feels so uncomfortable to discuss is an absolutely blinding sign that we NEED to be talking about it.

Luckily, Sam Mills is far bolder and more eloquent than I am, and here she uncovers much of the hypocrisy that swims around the rhetoric. She weaves anecdote and research with aplomb, creating a highly engaging, readable account that gave me so much food for thought. I highly recommend getting your hands on this short but impactful piece of writing, and opening yourself up to some of the difficult conversations it will provoke.

Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills is out now from The Indigo Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Sybelia Drive by Karin Cecile Davidson (2020)

Sybelia Drive by Karin Cecile Davidson

Blurb

In the small lake town where LuLu, Rainey, and Saul are growing up, day-to-day life is anything but easy. Navigating the usual obstacles of youth would be enough for anyone, but for this trio a world marred by the Vietnam War, detached parents, and untimely death create circumstances overloaded with trouble. Yet through their unyielding resourcefulness and the willingness to expose their vulnerabilities, these three friends discover deeper bonds than even they could ever imagine.

Told through kaleidoscopic images and in prose that will keep you on the edge of your seat, Sybelia Drive is a story of three friends who push beyond the typical woes of childhood into teenage years transformed by the shared baggage of a generation, years when men walk on the moon; students are killed during a peace demonstration at Kent State; and the obligations of military service claim the lives of fathers, husbands, and children.

Investigating the personal impact of social upheaval with unparalleled sensitivity and depth, Sybelia Drive is a novel that will stay with you for a long, long time. It is an extraordinary debut.

Review

There is a whole long backstory to how I ended up with both a digital and physical copy of Karin’s book – I owe thanks to Lori @TNBBC, Karin, her publishers and Blackwell’s – we got there eventually, and I would consider myself a fool for not reading this gorgeous book as soon as I got the PDF, except that the physical book is a thing of beauty, and I’m just getting so much more into the actual turning of physical pages these days. Anyway, now that I own a copy, with a lovely bookplate, I am going to treasure it forever – and here’s why.

It has been a long time since I read anything set in the era of the Vietnam war, and I certainly can’t remember reading anything that uses the backdrop of the war in such a clever, complex way. On one level, we have a coming-of-age story, as we follow Lulu, Rainey and Saul through their childhood by the lake, into adolescence and early adulthood. All three grow up in the shadow of fathers and older friends lost to the war, some to return, some not, and the absences at the heart of their young lives are poignantly depicted. Rainey has the added complication of being more or less abandoned by her mother, living with the Blackwoods in a kind of limbo between sibling and stranger. A novel that focused solely on these three incredibly complex, real, fascinating characters would have been a triumph of a debut in itself.

But Davidson is even bolder with her structure and the breadth and depth of her exploration: a multitude of characters are given a voice, in a dazzlingly skilful balancing act. I’m still puzzling out how she manages to flick so smoothly between first person viewpoints, something I have rarely seen done so effectively, and certainly not in a debut novel. We move between the inhabitants of Sybelia Drive (and also characters from across the world) getting glimpses of insight into their secrets and desires, and by the end, as the community comes together again, we feel we are a part of it. It is powerful to feel so bonded to a fictional place and its people; I was genuinely sad to leave them behind at the end of the book.

This review is hard for me to write, because I loved this book so fiercely – similar to how I felt recently about Cory Anderson’s What Beauty There Is – and it is difficult to express just how much the prose moved me. Davidson writes with a magic touch, weaving truth and beauty out of words, creating sentences that honestly made my heart ache. There is a sense of the organic here, of personal growth and development and the ebbing and flowing of affection and resentment between characters that just feels stunningly real. Every character had my sympathy at one point or another, though I think spiky, funny, sometimes cruel Lulu was probably my favourite. These are characters so vivid, written so beautifully, that I miss them and carry them with me still.

Sybelia Drive is the sort of book that leaves me feeling that everyone should know about – it deserves to be widely read and loved. It’s a lyrical, intelligent, probing book that also hums with the comfort of friendship and connection, and moves along at a rhythmically soothing pace. It is subtle but also surprising, written with a lightness of touch and a depth of feeling that left me feeling changed. I am so excited to have discovered Karin Cecile Davidson’s work, and I urge you all to seek it out as well.

Sybelia Drive by Karin Cecile Davidson is published by Braddock Avenue Books and is also available to purchase in the UK here.

More info can be found on the author’s website.

Blog Post: Balancing The Books – a few thoughts on bookblogging

I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed and anxious today (not an unusual state of affairs for me – I have Anxiety with a capital A and the prozac prescription to prove it), and so instead of tackling my monstrous To Do list, I am of course procrastinating further by writing a rambling blog post.

Yesterday I found myself feeling guilty because I hadn’t had time to post on bookstagram for a few days, or, more importantly, to boost my friends with the complicated, algorithm-busting combo of saving, adding to stories, comments over five words only, typed while standing on your head and reciting Shakespeare backwards, or something. Anyway, the point is, I felt guilty. And then I started to feel guilty about the three reviews I need to write, all the beautiful proofs I need to read, and a whole bunch of other stuff related to my book blogging hobby. In no time at all, because such is the nature of my fantastic ability to spiral, I had convinced myself I was letting everyone down, that I didn’t have the dedication and commitment it takes to be a good, supportive bookish presence on social media, and that maybe it would be better for me to just step away.

I am not posting this as any sort of bid for sympathy or rallying cries of “Oh, no, Ellie, you’re great!” – I am writing it to clear my head, and, perhaps, to illustrate that we all have these wobbles. How can we deal with that nagging guilt as the TBR pile gets bigger and bigger, as does the list of reviews to write and blog posts to schedule and bookstacks to take pictures of?

In my case (and we’re all different, that’s one of the things I love most about the book blogging community) I think it is about remembering why I do this. I love books, I love interacting with other readers and authors and getting excited about great reads. Any tiny little contribution I can make towards that hugely positive feeling of sharing enthusiasm about books is worthwhile, and if I sometimes don’t post on Instagram or don’t quite manage to read a book before publication date, as long as I’m enjoying it and doing my best, it’s okay.

I’ll always honour blog tour commitments and proofs I’ve requested – blog tour organisers work SO hard, and deserve a level of professionalism that matches theirs, and getting ARCs is an absolute privilege. I am in awe of some of my fellow bloggers who manage to fit in so many blog tours – more than a couple a month makes me a bit jittery! If I ask for a proof, I make sure it’s one I would buy anyway (and I usually end up doing so to support the author) and will never take for granted the thrill of an early read.

I read about ten books a month, which for me is good going, but it definitely means that sometimes I’m going to fall behind. Not only have I started to get unsolicited proofs (which, by the way, is AMAZING) but authors sometimes reach out and ask if I’ll review their book – and if it sounds interesting, I try to do so, and I feel very lucky to be in this position. But there are also the many, many books I buy for myself and which sit on my shelves for months sighing patiently and waiting for me to have time to give them some love – a lot of these books, I am desperate to read, and sometimes, I feel a bit sad that I haven’t had the chance yet! I’m thinking at some point there will need to be an ARC pause just for a stretch of free-reading, with reviews entirely optional!

I need to remember that there is no obligation here. I actually love messing around taking book pics, I find it a fun, creative thing to do, but if I don’t have time, that’s okay. I want to be a good friend to my fellow bloggers and boost them as much as I can, but the ones that know me will understand if I don’t always manage it. And I think – certainly I hope – that by this stage most publicists and authors know I’m not just out for a free book (I spend approximately ten times more on books since discovering Book Twitter!) so if I don’t get to a book before publication day, I hope I’ll be forgiven!

I am not really sure what the point of this post is! I guess that I’m a person, not a book blogging machine, and that I have a whole host of spinning plates to balance at the moment – two small and very time-consuming kids, a new business, settling into life in a new area, not to mention the small matter of trying to write my own book, and I simply MUST remember to be kind to myself, and not to start feeling guilty about something which is supposed to be fun! The pressure is entirely of my own creation – I very much doubt that there are publicists lying awake at night wondering why “that Ellie hasn’t written her review of the ARC I sent her at least two bloody months ago” – and I need to stop trying to do everything, all the time!

Anyway, if you’ve ever felt bad for not keeping up, I hope maybe this post makes you feel you’re not alone! And hopefully it also explains why I steer clear of NetGalley – as incredible and tempting as it sounds, I don’t need MORE unread books judging me, thank you!

I won’t stop, because I LOVE shouting about books, and I am so happy when authors say thank you for a review or readers say they bought a book because of my review. Those little things mean so much. But mostly, I won’t stop because reading is part of who I am, and sharing it with you all is a pleasure. The guilt is some kind of residue of my need to push myself, my inner critic who, these days, is normally much quieter, and I know I can overcome it and just be happy to be chatting books with you all.

As for the massive To Do list, tomorrow is another day…

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh (2021) @WalshWrites @LouiseWalters12 @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

Blurb

It’s 2006 in the fictional East London borough of Leytonstow. The UK’s pub smoking ban is about to happen, and thirty-eight-and-a-half year old John Torrington, a mopper and trolley collector at his local DIY store, is secretly in love with the stylish, beautiful, and middle-class barmaid Lois. John and his hapless, strange, and down-on-their-luck friends, Gabby Longfeather and Glyn Hopkins, live in Clements Markham House – a semi-derelict Edwardian villa divided into unsanitary bedsits, and (mis)managed by the shrewd, Dickensian business man, Mr Kapoor.

When Mr Kapoor, in a bizarre and criminal fluke, makes him fabulously credit-worthy, John surprises his friends and colleagues alike by announcing he will organise an amazing ‘urban love revolution’, aka the Dig Street Festival. But when he discovers dark secrets at the DIY store, and Mr Kapoor’s ruthless gentrification scheme for Clements Markham House, John’s plans take several unexpected and worrisome turns…

Funny, original, philosophical, and unexpectedly moving, The Dig Street Festival takes a long, hard, satirical look at modern British life, and asks of us all, how can we be better people?

Review

I’m so delighted to be back with my favourite combo of a Damp Pebbles blog tour for a Louise Walters book! Thank you to Louise for providing me with a digital arc – although I couldn’t resist getting the paperback, which is gorgeous, and includes fabulous photography by the author on the inside covers.

The Dig Street Festival is beyond quirky – it is a surreal, madcap adventure through the streets of the fictional borough of Leytonstow, led by our narrator, John Torrington, a man who finds himself on the fringes of society, and his ‘found family’, Glyn and Gabby, two of the best characters I have come across for a long time.

A lot happens in this book, most of it completely bizarre, and at times it almost feels overstuffed with incidents. But for me, this is all part of the fun – the novel has a breathless excitement that carries you along, no matter how strange things gets. I was very happy to willingly suspend my disbelief and follow John, Glyn and the wonderful, beautiful Gabby as they try to save their crumbling home, Clements Markham House, uncover nefarious schemes at the DIY store where John and Glyn (and briefly, Gabby!) work, and suddenly find themselves artificially rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Dig Street is masses of fun, but it also has both brains and heart. Glyn in particular is a really interesting character – at first I didn’t warm to him, falling head over heels for the childish, naive, gorgeous Gabby instead, but as the novel progressed, Glyn’s eccentric wisdom and oddly peaceful acceptance of his own quirks and mores grew on me, and I think there is something very profound about him as a character. Which seems an odd thing to say about a man whose defining characteristic is his penchant for gentlemen’s magazines of a certain genre, but then, this is an odd book.

The Dig Street Festival is also a brilliant exploration of male friendship, subverting norms and expectations at every turn, and, wonderfully, showing three men who love each other and hug each other and despair of each other with a depth of feeling that is rarely shown in fiction. The trio at the heart of the novel is the emotional core from which all the crazy adventures spiral out, and I loved to see it.

The novel is highly original, and it doesn’t bear direct comparison with much else that I have read, but I was reminded at times of Drew Gummerson’s equally quirky and hilarious Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel, which I read last year. What these books share, I think, is a determination to forge their own path, to explore characters who don’t fit neatly into predefined boxes, and, perhaps most importantly, to have FUN with the story and with language and ideas. It is no coincidence that they’re both published by wonderful indie presses. We need books like this, to push the boundaries, to be playful and funny and wise all at once, to show the beating human heart beneath the oddness. John, Glyn and Gabby (oh Gabby, I’m so fond of you still) may not be the characters you’re expecting from your fiction, but, my god, they are the characters we need.

About the Author

Chris Walsh grew up in Middlesbrough and now lives in Kent. He writes both fiction and non-fiction, an example of which you can read here in May 2020’s Moxy Magazine.

Chris’s debut novel The Dig Street Festival will be published by Louise Walters Books in April 2021. 

Chris’s favourite novel is Stoner by John Williams and his favourite novella is The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy. His top poet is Philip Larkin. He is also a fan of Spike Milligan.

Social Media

Twitter: https://twitter.com/WalshWrites

Purchase Links

Louise Walters Books: http://bit.ly/3f9jJvz

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3cakZfQ

Foyles: https://bit.ly/3lBCCIJ

Waterstones: http://bit.ly/3tO2VhH

Book Depository: http://bit.ly/3caF7yg

Kobo: http://bit.ly/2QoYsn3

Publishing Information

Published in paperback and digital formats by Louise Walters Books on 15th April 2021