Our April top 10 indie reads take in Albania, Arabia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the Balkans, the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with the Best of British crime, poetry, and experimentalism.
@BloodaxeBooks @BloomsburyBooks @BelgraviaB @Carcanet @DarfPublishers @MelvilleHouse @noexitpress @PennedintheM @SaqiBooks @CrimeClassics
Negative Space by Lulketa Lleshanaku trs. Ani Gjika (Bloodaxe Books) buy here
Winner of an English PEN Award
“At night the voice of the river is totalitarian
like his alcoholic father’s breath
that blows against his neck after a haircut.
And he doesn’t dare look back at what he did.
His vision doubles, two pasts,
two version of the truth,
two women to fall in love with,
two lives to escape.
But which of them is real? Which an illusion?”
The empty desks in the front row of a history class are “the missing arm of history / that makes the other arm appear omnipotent” . . . An anonymous man attends funerals, “It’s his latest hobby. / Nobody knows who he is or what connects him to the dead person” . . . A fishermen’s village where “the streets reek of fish and yet there are no fish” . . . A pub “of cheap beer and live music” the habitués gathered there for its “vast emptiness” . . . The third-generation butcher whose “life is simple, made up of speed and knives” . . . The dead sister whose identity papers are still active . . .
Lleshanaku may write about daily life and domestic scenes yet the overriding atmosphere is an eerie one of tyrannical gloom and abuses of power with an undertow of surreal, isolated intensity. Luljeta Lleshanaku grew up in negative space, living under family house arrest during Enver Hoxha’s autocratic communist rule. Although she came of age in post-communist Albania, free to write as she wished, she was marked by the political hinterland. Her poems are a response to the reality of her Albanian past and what was missing then, not only in her life but for her whole generation, evoking absences and a void – what was unseen, unspoken or undone – through the concept of negative space.
“Luljeta Lleshanaku is a pioneer of Albanian poetry. She speaks with a completely original voice, her imagery and language always unexpected and innovative. Her poetry has little connection to poetic styles past or present in America, Europe, or the rest of the world. And, interestingly enough, it is not connected to anything in Albanian poetry either. We have in Lleshanaku a completely original poet.” – Peter Constantine
The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh trs. by Catherine Cobham (Bloomsbury Publishing) buy here
Edward Said, who was professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, said of Hanan al-Shaykh that she was the “premier woman writer in Arabic” who has “done more than any other to explore the misperceptions of Arab women’s lives.” Comparing her with the Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, he said: “Hanan is much more of an artist. Her writing has a calm assurance; it’s not embattled or polemical.” Salman Rushdie extolled her novel Beirut Blues (1992) as a sensuous, unsentimental portrait of a shattered universe, unified in her prose by the “low, unabated fever of human desire.” – The Guardian, 2001
Huda and Yvonne are on holiday in the Italian Riviera, soaking up the sun and relishing the sparkling Mediterranean which is reminiscent of their childhoods in Lebanon. While Yvonne dives off the rocks and flirts with Lucio, Huda is hesitant, for as a child growing up in Beirut, swimming was forbidden, “The sea meant wearing swimming suits, which meant that a girl’s reputation as soiled like a silver bowl whose gleaming surface had become tarnished and blackened.” Yvonne and Lucio . . . Huda and Roberto . . . both women wonder if they will wind up pregnant after their respective flings. At the holiday’s end, Yvonne returns to running an ad agency in London, and sees a psychoanalyst to get used to being single and childless. Huda returns to Toronto and her life as a theatre director.
Three months later they are reunited in London and go for a walk in Hyde Park, ending up at Speaker’s Corner where they befriend an Arab youth, Tahir. He is knocked to the ground by a religious fanatic, Hisham, after an argument, and goes home in a taxi. The two women part: Yvonne heads to a neighbour’s wedding reception in the City of London while Huda gets caught up in a demo in Grosvenor Square outside the American Embassy. Returning home, Huda faints at a bus stop in Oxford Street. Hisham rescues her and a bizarre game of seduction ensues.
The struggle between trust vs. envy in a friendship, faith and desire, intimacy and authority, religion, sex and the veil, are cannily addressed in Hanan al-Shaykh’s unusual and very entertaining must-read new novel about two friends and their pursuit of love.
Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne (Aardvark Bureau/Gallic Books; new PB edition) buy here
A British doctor, Simon Swann, runs towards the carnage of a bomb blast on the Edgware Road – even though he longs to run in the opposite direction, towards a house known as Brixton Beach, looking for Alice Fonseka, a sculptor who works with found objects.
“Acid-green jackets move grimly about, directing the traffic, securing blue-and-white tape, herding people away. That’s what he sees. A red double-decker bus stands parked at an odd angle, black smoke pouring out of its windows. There is glass everywhere. His feet crunch on it and he notices shards glinting dangerously in the light.”
The narrative then “winds back thirty years to an idyllic Sri Lankan beach, where the young Alice is receiving her first cycling lesson from her beloved grandfather Bee, a renowned artist and printmaker. At first, the civil war seems safely remote from Alice’s blissful childhood. But intimations of the conflict begin to infiltrate; first when Alice is discriminated against at school for having a Tamil father; then when her mother loses her baby due to the wilful negligence of a Sinhalese doctor. The family head for Britain, where the Fonsekas’ marriage crumbles as Alice’s father joins a radical sect which supports the Tigers, and her mother slips into dementia, crafting cardboard coffins and dressing a collection of dolls in her dead baby’s clothes.
“As with the heroines of Tearne’s previous two novels, the therapeutic power of art enables Alice to survive. She names her house Brixton Beach and is mentored by a young art teacher who encourages her to develop the driftwood creations which provide a symbolic link to her lost home.” – The Guardian
New Poetries 7, an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet Press) buy here
FEATURING Luke Allan, Zohar Atkins, Rowland Bagnall, Sumita Chakraborty, Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman, Rebecca Cullen, Ned Denny, Neil Fleming , Isabel Galleymore, Katherine Horrex, Lisa Kelly, Theophilus Kwek, Andrew Latimer, Toby Litt, Rachel Mann, James Leo McAskill, Jamie Osborn, Andrew Wynn Owen, Phoebe Power, Laura Scott, and Vala Thorodds.
“Different as the poems included in this anthology are – from concrete poems to extended philosophical meditations – they share concerns with form and language, issues they resolve differently. Yet there is coherence in this book as in its predecessors, a sense of continuity with the past and the future of the art. Ned Denny talks of the synthesis in his poems and translations, “the apparent paradox of something both highly ordered and numinous, condensed yet expansive, Apollo and Dionysus in one.” Andrew Wynn Owen writes of “the mind’s capacity, sometimes, for active self-redirection.” Zohar Atkins feels on firmer ground, declaring, “For me, poetry is the discipline of subverting discipline; it is theory in reverse.” His themes and language are rooted in scripture. So too are Rachel Mann’s (she is a member of the Anglican clergy), “The genesis of my poems in this selection lies, in large measure, in acknowledgement of the ever-failing grip the Word has on a culture once saturated by it.” For Vala Thorrods, “The spirit dwells in us like a curse or a spell, and these poems try to embody that haunted feeling.”
“The poets express the contrariety of art, the bringing into balance that entails different degrees of self-effacement in the making of the thing that is a poem, which exists in its “fundamental ‘otherness’,” (Jamie Osborne). It is the poems’ integrity that makes it possible for them to engage with some of the political realities of our time, as with less time-bound experiences. Sumita Chakraborty’s single poem in this book may be “an elegy of a kind,” but “it was my hope to write the mood of elegy rather than an elegy proper, or to write a way of inhabiting grief rather than exactly writing about grief.” And the poem thus becomes habitable by the reader, an experience rather than a report on experience. For some of the poets the choice of English is a challenge, to themselves and to the reader; and the choice is never quite complete . . .” – from the Preface by Michael Schmidt
Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann trs. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp illus. Franziska Harvey (Darf Publishers) buy here
Leila is the new girl in Max’s class in Grossbödecke in rural Germany, and they become close friends. She has fled Syria with her family, leaving her grandmother and father behind in Damascus. Her most cherished object is a walnut from her grandmother’s garden which she had with her all the way from Syria to Germany. Leila is devastated when she loses it.
“Leila stands in her room looking at the drawings on the wall. An intoxicating desire has filled her heart: to return to Syria. And bring back a new walnut. From Grandma’s garden. And ideally bring Grandma and her Dad back with her. The journey can’t be as bad as the journey on the way here . . .”
Loss and longing, exile and grief, and the need to belong somewhere underpin this heartfelt, thoughtful refugee tale. Apple Cake and Baklava is a deeply-affecting and touching debut children’s book for older primary and younger middle-school children. Franziska Harvey’s gorgeous black-and-white illustrations give added depth to the story.
“Eliade may be describing the life of a student in a Romanian lycée of almost a century ago, but anyone who has ever been at school, full of ideals but also too shy to speak to the opposite sex, or incapable of revising for an exam until the very last minute, will relate to this. As will anyone who has ever committed their private thoughts to paper, as the true record of their soul and a rebuke to posterity.” – Nick Lezard’s choice, The Guardian
Gaudeamus (Let us Rejoice) is Eliade’s second autobiographical novel covering his university years, and follows on from his Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent.
In this exuberant and touching coming-of-age novel, Eliade recounts the fictionalised version of his university years in late 1920’s Bucharest. Marked by a burgeoning desire to “suck out all the marrow of life,” the protagonist throws himself into his studies; engaging his professors and peers in philosophical discourse, becoming one of the founding members of the Student’s Union, and opening up the attic refuge of his isolated teenage years as a hotbed of political debate and romantic exploration. Readers will recognize in these pages the joy of a life about to blossom, of the search for knowledge and the desire for true love.
Already an accomplished writer as a young man, this follow-up to Eliade’s Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent reveals him to be a keen observer of human behaviour and a seeker of truth and spiritual fulfilment whose path would eventually lead him to become a leading historian of 20th century religions.
Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else by C.D. Rose (Melville House) buy here
“An intricate exploration of literary intrigue, suspense and levity,” – Eley Williams, author of Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press, winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018)
Fleeing heartbreak, an unnamed author goes to an unnamed city to give a series of lectures at an unnamed university about forgotten books . . . only to find himself involved in a mystery when it turns out the professor who invited him is nowhere to be found, and no one seems quite sure why he’s there.
@zachary_houle writes in Medium, “This absurdist novel is a criticism of modern problems plaguing the book field – how titles are bandied about by pretentious critics (like, say, me), how inaccessible some of the great works really are, and how certain genres somehow slip out of the literary canon. (Horrors, I’m looking at you.) Basically, even the book itself seems to be destined to not even be a literary footnote – try Googling images of the author and see what comes up, (which is to say, not much at all.) Who’s Who seems self-reflexive in this regard. The novel addresses some important themes.”
Ten Year Stretch: Celebrating A Decade of Crime Fiction at Crimefest ed. Martin Edwards Foreword by Peter James (No Exit Press) buy here
FEATURING Bill Beverly, Simon Brett, Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Jeffery Deaver, Martin Edwards, Kate Ellis, Peter Guttridge, Sophie Hannah, John Harvey, Mick Herron, Donna Moore, Caro Ramsay, Ian Rankin, James Sallis, Zoe Sharp, Yrsa Siguroardottir, Michael Stanley, Andrew Taylor, and Maj Sjowall who, together with partner Per Wahloo, was the originator of Nordic noir.
The twenty crime stories in this terrific anthology by the A-list of crime writing have been specially commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of CrimeFest, described by the Guardian as “one of the fifty best festivals in the world.” @medwardsbooks The editors: Martin Edwards is responsible for many award-winning anthologies and Adrian Muller is one of the co-founders of CrimeFest.
“The true beauty of short stories is that they enable all of us to explore themes about the human condition in a sharp, succinct way free of the constraints of the diktats of a novel. Dip into this anthology and pull out the nuggets of characters, situations, life in the raw. You’re going to have a rough ride, your eyes jerked wide open and a good time for sure!” – from the Preface by Peter James.
An Ocean of Static by J. R. Carpenter (Penned in the Margins) buy here
“This book is made of other books. The poems in this book are composed of facts, fictions, fragments and codes collected from accounts of voyages undertaken over the past 2,340 years or so, into the North Atlantic, in search of the Northwest passage, and beyond, into territories purely imaginary.
An Ocean of Static transforms the fragmented archive of the North Atlantic into an astonishing sea of new text. Maritime and code languages splinter and pulse across the page. Amid global currents of melting sea ice and changing ocean currents J.R. Carpenter charts the elusive passages of women and animals, of indigenous people and migrants, of strange noises and phantom islands.
“These poems are intended to be read on the page and to serve as scripts for the live performance of a body of web-based works. They retain traces of the syntax and grammar of code languages.”
So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans ed. Nicholas Laughlin | With an Introduction by Marlon James (Telegram/Saqi Books) buy here
“I wonder if it is because we island people are surrounded by sea, hemmed in and branching out at once, that we are always in a state of flux. The sea and even the sky are definers and confiners, they have spent millions of years carving space, while at the same time giving us clear openings to map the voyage out. And, today, to be an islander is to live in one place and a thousand, to be part of a family that is way too close by for your business ever to be your own, or way too far but only a remittance cheque away. Or, put another way, to be island people means to be both coming and going. Passing and running, running and passing, as the song goes. Living there, but not always present, travelling or migrating, but never leaving. Or what has never been a new thing, but might turn into a new movement: more and more authors staying put, all the better to let their words wander. That last part is potentially contentious. Because the writer in the diaspora can quickly lose touch with the pulse of the people, even as he claims he has not, and bristles when it’s even suggested. I might be talking about myself.” From the Introduction by Marlon James, winner of the Booker Prize 2015.
So Many Islands brings you poems about revolution and protest. You will be transported to Marakei, “the women’s island”, and join the battle to save a beached whale. Alongside family politics, nuclear testing and climate change global issues that are close to the heart of these precariously poised communities re also tackled. Giving voice to their challenges and triumphs, these writers create a vibrant portrait of what it is like to live and love on the small islands they call home. Readers everywhere will find universal connections with these words and worlds. Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, Cyprus, Grenada, Jamaica, Kiribati, Malta, Mauritius, Niue, Rotuma (Fiji), Soma, Singapore, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago.
Awards News | Istanbul Istanbul wins inaugural EBRD Literature Prize
Istanbul Istanbul by Burhan Sonmez trs. Ümit Hussein (Saqi Books) buy here
Winner of the inaugural EBRD Literature Prize 2018
“’My mother believed in books,’ said Demirtay. He looked at us as though trying to work out whether we believed in them too. ‘Some nights when she became engrossed in a novel and forgot all about me, or when she smoked more cigarettes than usual, I wondered whether there might be a new wound in her heart. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t tell me. She was like a child struggling underwater, fighting to come up to the surface for air. She didn’t drown, but neither was she able to come up to the surface for air. She rebuked this city that was built on calculations instead of on dreams. She thought Istanbul looked like a fancy book cover. The decorations and patterns on the outside deceived people, distancing them from the truth that was inside. Sometimes, I would ask childishly: Mommy, why do you work so much? Demirtay, she would say, I want to buy a house so that in the future you can live in comfort. I can’t give you a good life now, but I’m striving to make sure you’ll be happy in years to come. Don’t think the future is a long way away, actually it’s around the corner. When you read about the lives in books you’ll understand it better. Whenever my mother spoke that way I would listen faithfully. It was from her that I learned to believe in books’.”
Below the ancient streets of Istanbul, four prisoners – Demirtay the student, the doctor, Kamo the barber, and Uncle Küheylan – sit, awaiting their turn at the hands of their wardens. When they are not subject to unimaginable violence, the condemned tell one another stories about the city, shaded with love and humor, to pass the time. Quiet laughter is the prisoners’ balm, delivered through parables and riddles. Gradually, the underground narrative turns into a narrative of the above-ground. Initially centered around people, the book comes to focus on the city itself. And we discover there is as much suffering and hope in the Istanbul above ground as there is in the cells underground.
Istanbul Istanbul is set to join the ranks of the great classics of prison literature, which include: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letters from Birmingham Jail, Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Jack Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, Robert Stroud’s The Birdman of Alcatraz and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light.