A copy of this book was very kindly provided me by the publisher. I can’t promise that this didn’t affect my feelings about it, but a book is a book is a book, however I acquire it, and I can promise that all opinions are my own.
The twenty stories in Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell are all fabulously odd. It’s a deceptively quick book to skip through and each story reads a little like a thought experiment – a place for the imagination to leap off from. They aren’t really the kind of stories that can be explained, however. Even those I enjoyed the most can’t be blurbed in the usual way. For example, in Extraordinary Elsie, the elderly lady of the title makes an unplanned visit to the theatre, but to say any more than that would just be to tell the story in different words.
Russell’s writing style is clean and unfussy, and there is often a wry humour tickling at the edges. I found each story easy to visualise even with the often quite minimal detail provided. There is a feeling that each one has been condensed down to its most concentrated form. I often enjoy short stories for this reason, if a novel is a holiday, then a short story is a weekend break, perhaps a bit intense because of time constraints, but stimulating nonetheless. The stories I enjoyed most in Russell’s book were those that felt like this, concentrated and stimulating: The Meeting, Escape from the Butcher’s Shop, Extraordinary Elsie, Harry’s Quest and The Shining Flower.
Most interesting, to me, is that I was left with no real emotional impressions after reading this collection. Feelings were often mentioned, but weren’t really a part of these stories, (hence the thought experiment impression, I think). Characters are in love, are angry or in pain, are frustrated or excited, but the reader isn’t invited into these emotional states, we witness them only as part of the puzzle that Russell is presenting in any given story. This is by no means a criticism, just something I found intriguing.
And that’s not to say I didn’t have emotional reactions to some stories. Two of them made me flat out uncomfortable, and one made me feel squicky. I was occasionally delighted – most especially by invisible bees, lost diary pages and the ghosts of a theatre audience – and almost equally often, perplexed. Sometimes I was left wanting further exploration. Just once I was glad not to have any.
So, yeah, a collection with a definite philosophical undertone, the sort of thing that keeps you musing about it long afterwards. Come for those invisible bees and the beard competition, for the man and his clone, for all those right hands that no-one acknowledges, for a mask that represents pain, for ghosts and premonitions and a blue house and a red house. Definitely to be read with a thinky friend so that you can talk over some of the situations and their possible consequences. Nothing is Strange … because everything is.