Following up on 2022 in Review, pt1, lack of time has meant that mastering the TBR&R pile has been a frustrating challenge this year. Many fantastic books have been published in 2022 by independent trade publishers championed via The BookBlast Diary over the years. The intermittent support is mightily appreciated of a couple of donors who stepped into the breach when official funding organizations turned us down not once but three times – apparently due to form filling-errors on our part, and our being based in London as opposed to the regions.
Titles which caught the eye in 2022, in order of publication month, include:
Jeanne Benameur’s The Child Who, trs. by Bill Johnston: The child walks and then runs in the forest, gradually getting used to the mystery and feeling of freedom engendered by the disappearance of his vagabond mother. Led by a dog, he explores and discovers the ruined remains of a house. The child’s father, the hard-working village carpenter, finds solace in the village café. His fiancée had died, and now, his wife – “A woman of the roads and of another language” – had disappeared.
“In your head of a child there are sudden bright skies wrested from a low, lingering, unfathomable sadness. Your mother has disappeared. Never mind that she was never entirely present, it was her smell, her warmth, her silent hands, that you relied on to feel that you truly existed.”
The child’s grandmother visits local farms nearby in order to feed her family. Her last stop is Émilienne’s place, one of her oldest friends who lives right on the edge of a village, and is rumoured to be a witch.
The ambiguous, tense, mysterious, dreamlike narrative is driven by grief, longing, a childlike desire to understand that which cannot be explained, and the power of the imagination. The emphasis on sensual beauty, Nature and the strong connections between the visual and the visceral makes for an ethereal and potent read.
“The ballroom was looking good, ready for the big Welcome Party. The bars were full, with free rum from every island the ship had docked at, beer for the English soldiers and wine from Mexico. The tables each had a low light on them – and the atmosphere was all set.”
The stories and experiences of a motley group of passengers on board the Empire Windrush – 1027 passengers and two stowaways in total made the voyage from Jamaica to London in 1948 – are reimagined in this absorbing debut novel by the founder of The Windrush Collection.
During the two-week voyage friendships are made and broken, there are fights and gambling, flirting and sex, discussions about God and love. The motivations behind leaving a country they love, and their hopes and expectations of starting a new life in an unknown land, are revealed.
Twenty-two-year-old Mavis gets a special free ticket for nurses, bound for a new life escaping from the demands of looking after her siblings; a young teacher, Miss Bell, and her friend, Miss Grey, are excited at the prospect of well-paid work in the ‘Motherland’; Winsell a.k.a. Chef, a superb cook, along with three other chefs, all end up in the ship’s kitchens catering for the passengers; Miss Precious and her two girlfriends from Bermuda are in the mood for adventure . . .
Much has been written about the Windrush generation after their arrival in Britain, but the passengers’ back stories and experiences on board the ship have not been explored as much – until now. The narrative is imaginative, stirring and entertaining, with striking oral storytelling in places.
Reading this novel in the wake of the recent Windrush scandal – which exposed the treacherous official treatment of Caribbean immigrants from that era – is particularly poignant.
“In all our years rolling through this world of scumbags and shitheads, Lex and I, either together or separately, have been up to our necks in at least a thousand fights, more or less all of them ending in bloodshed and more or less serious injury.”
A cult novel about the adventures and misadventures of a group of friends involved in the trafficking and use of heroin and other narcotics in Catalonia in the 1980s and 1990s, the chaotic world of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll culminating in the living hell of addiction and AIDS is conveyed with agile lucidity and writerly skill by an ex-dealer and ravaged survivor of heroin dependency.
A kind of literary pulp fiction, Jordi Cussà’s narrative about this particular chemical generation is conveyed by means of a chorus collectively commenting on events. A grim and gritty storyteller, Cussà is Catalonia’s answer to the likes of William Burroughs, Stewart Home, Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis and Virginie Despentes. The linguistic and stylistic innovations of the novel make for a disturbing, darkly humourous and macabre read.
“Toti, who I knew from secondary school in Sants (Barcelona) was a kid like any other, perhaps slightly more shy and formal than the rest, but who, after a few drags and a couple of tinnies, would get so incredibly high he’d be making contact with a constellation of gods, undergods and antigods, all cosmogonic in nature and whose names and genealogies multiplied as far as the already mentioned edges of the known universe the more he continued to smoke and drink. At times he reminded me of Lovecraft’s The Myth of Cthulhu, which I don’t think he’d ever heard of. What I do recall is getting extremely angry one day with Xénia – cruel Xénia – after she deliberately got him stoned merely to record one of his freewheeling discourses.”
The Frontline, A Story of Struggle, Resistance and Black Identity in Notting Hill (ed) Ishmail Blagrove
“The Frontline constitutes a huge slice of British post-war social history, and of the history of the settlement of the African and Caribbean diaspora in Britain. It gives voice to the Notting Hill Carnival community pre-gentrification, and enables that voice to be shared for generations to come. This volume illuminates the past in our present, and that, at least, makes it a compelling read and a major resource,” from the foreword by Gus John
In 2014 Ishmail Blagrove and Margaret Busby brought us Carnival, A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival. Now, The Frontline, A Story of Struggle, Resistance and Black Identity in Notting Hill, an epic and beautifully produced volume, brings to us the stories, in their own words, of the black communities in and around Notting Hill, and most specifically those living on the ‘Frontline’ – All Saints Road – as well as Harlesden, Brixton and beyond.
The book comprises short extracts from countless hours of interviews. It is a superb volume of oral storytelling offering a genuine insider take on events of over seventy years – very different to that of the media prone to prejudicial spin and/or (mis)interpretation.
Covering four generations, and shedding light on the struggle against Oswald Mosley’s neo-fascists based in the area from 1958 on, the twenty-five themed chapters take us from the post-war period to 1999 and today. All eight hundred pages are a an irresistible and illuminating read.
Jennifer Croft’s Homesick
Jennifer Croft translates from the Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian and is best known for translating Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights which was awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
“So she reads aloud the headlines from the Tulsa World at breakfast while Amy and Zoe eat their Cheerios. The girls stay quiet while their mother talks, but they don’t really listen. All they know is that there is always a disaster happening somewhere. Besides tornados there are earthquakes, and plane crashes, and wars. There is an AIDS epidemic, although neither Amy nor Zoe knows what AIDS is. They only know they are supposed to wash their hands.”
Zoe runs away from home once or twice a week.
Amy takes pictures of everywhere they go.
Zoe has a seizure and is diagnosed as having a brain tumour.
Amy suffers great guilt since she is healthy and her sister is so ill.
The girls are home-schooled because surgery is expensive and their parents can’t afford to pay the school fees any more. Their dad is a college teacher anyway.
The girls watch TV while their grandparents play Scrabble, or else they read Dr Seuss. Amy is wholly focused on protecting her sister, and does not bother to make new friends. “Without Zoe Amy has no idea how she should be when she’s with people, and no balance.”
After Zoe enters remission, she decides that she “wants to learn a language, but isn’t sure if what she wants to learn is Russian because by now the girls have learned that Zoe’s favourite ice skaters are from Ukraine which has recently turned into a separate place from Russia. Their parents are astonished to discover a true feud arising between their daughters; more astonishing still is that the source of the feud is a question of sovereignty in Eastern Europe.” No one in the family has a passport, nor are there any linguists among them.
Amy is the most serious of the two when it comes to languages and she studies Russian in their room for hours on end. “Her favourite letter in the Cyrillic alphabet is ж, which looks like a butterfly and sounds like the s in treasure, zh.”
Amy goes to college.
Zoe runs away from home once again.
The sisters have reached an important crossroads. How will they establish themselves out in the world, outside of their relationship to each other?
Recounted in a blend of images and fragmented snatches of autobiographical writing, Jennifer Croft’s coming-of-age memoir is a moving and absorbing read. Its artless tone of voice is strangely unsettling and poignant.
Andrey Kurkov’s Diary of an Invasion
According to Kurkov, as Ukrainian troops advance to the east and the south, the work of the writer consists of “explaining to Western audiences what they do not know and do not understand about Ukraine“.
Told in the form of a series of diary entries, Kurkov describes daily life in Ukraine from December 2021 – as the possibility of war morphs into reality – to July 2022. He wants to show the ways in which Ukraine is an independent country historically, and not just as part of the former Soviet Union: “It is my contribution, it is in fact my duty.”
The publisher describes the book as being “part political commentary, part personal journal”, in which Kurkov explores the “fraught interrelation of the Russian/Ukrainian history and the complicated coexistence of their languages”.
Blake Morrison, The Guardian: “The author’s on-the-ground account is packed with surprising details about the human effects of the Russian assault . . . He’s best known for novels such as Death and the Penguin and Grey Bees. But after the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he put together a set of dispatches in a book called Ukraine Diaries. Now he’s done the same around this year’s Russian invasion, with journal entries that run until mid-July. The epilogue tells us to expect more; he’s still keeping a diary, sometimes in disbelief (“This new Ukrainian reality far outdoes my writer’s imagination”), sometimes in dismay (“Will I ever be able not to write about the war?”) and sometimes with a pleasing samurai aphorism in his head (“If you sit on the riverbank for a very long time, then sooner or later the corpse of your enemy will float past you downstream”). . .”
This book is essential reading.
On Travel and the Journey Through Life (Ed) Barnaby Rogerson (Illus) Kate Boxer
“For forty years (1982–2022) Eland has been publishing travel books, driven by a fascination with human society in all its forms and a desire to celebrate those differences. There’s an exhilarating variety of alternative ways of being, of different ways to think about the world around us and our position in it. And although we can’t all take off for years to settle in a foreign land, learn the language, embed ourselves in a community and observe its complex relationships, we do all know about the liberation of leaving home.
“Once far enough from our own hearth, we begin to see the ways that the walls around us have ossified our choices. Liberated from the tyranny of our schedules, we see that our time could be used more creatively, that we could inject greater variety into the rhythm of our lives. Immersing ourselves in the smells, tastes, sights and interests of another culture, we recognise the elements lacking in our own. Other people, otherness, is crucial to our understanding of ourselves. There is more than one right way to be, more than one perspective from which to think. And returning from our journey, there is space in which to continue to question our choices. But it’s hard work to keep that space open and we need constant reminders of its importance.
“This little book is designed to do just that. Dipping into it, you will find thoughts from our earliest recorded history and from yesterday, from European writers and from aboriginal peoples. Many are exhortations to live consciously. Echoing through the book is a carpe diem, a call to pay attention to the details of the journey rather than focussing on the destination. And throughout we are reminded of what Jonathan Raban calls ‘the most ancient of all metaphors’ – that life’s a journey, from that first voyage down the birth canal to the last in a coffin.” Rose Baring, Publisher, London 2022
On Travel is a wide-ranging collection of one-liners and comic observation, mining three thousand years of global wit and wisdom: from Pliny to Spinoza and Iris Murdoch; from St Augustine and Albert Einstein to Aunt Augusta. It also offers a smattering of practical tips to make the most of your journey, and clearly shows how travel is not just a form of escape but is an educational preparation for how best us humans can rub along together for the best possible journey through life, as opposed to the worst.
NEWS: THE CHILDREN’S BOOKSHOW 27 September – 17 November 2022
“The Children’s Bookshow takes children’s authors to meet tens of thousands of children, introducing the children to how and why writers write, illustrators illustrate. They give children insights into how they too can transform thoughts and feelings into words and pictures. This is not simply a matter of it being enjoyable, it’s a necessary part of what we understand by the word ‘education’,” Michael Rosen, patron of The Children’s Bookshow
This year, Daniel Morden, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Yasmeen Ismail, Jessica Souhami and other children’s authors performed in theatre venues across the UK – from Manchester and Newcastle to Milton Keynes and Ramsgate – that were filled to the brim with enthusiastic teachers and school children buzzing with excitement at being given the opportunity to see and hear world-class artists talk about their work in person.
This year, the Children’s Bookshow celebrated its 20th birthday with an exhibition and auction of artwork to raise funds for their work bringing literacy and books to school children.
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