Our end of year top ten reads for independent minds offers a smorgasbord of brain food, bringing you a medley of writing and ideas by way of France, Germany, Mexico, Romania and true-grit Britain, in no particular order.
An over-riding theme in our selection is the way most of the writers, each in their way, tend to hold a broken mirror to a world gone mad and muddled. What is the solution?
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Here at BookBlast we wish all of you readers, followers and supporters much joy, peace and love over this festive season. Have a merry one!
The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas, Syd Moore (Oneworld) buy here
“Now are you sure you want to hear the story? It unsettles most. Some have fled the house in terror once hearing the tale. Rest assured, in most cases, I have managed to safely return them to the warmth of our humble abode.”
“A witch is a woman in possession of power. To some, the witch is a figure to fear; to others, she’s one of empowerment. She is the healer, the medicine woman, the bruja, the Mother, the crafty Instagrammer,” writes S. Zainab Williams in BookRiot. Syd Moore, the author of the highly acclaimed Essex Witch Museum Mysteries, has a very particular way with the whole witch genre.
Moore’s most recent publication, Twelve Strange Days of Christmas, is a compilation of chilling short stories that are destined to get you into the festive spirit. These ghostly tales, one for each day of Christmas, range from the ghastly apparition of an evil, murdering child and his mother’s blind love for him, to a psychic policewoman, eerie warnings from beyond the grave, and a peculiar encounter with a Icelandic Shaman. All are tied together through their wintery and unsettling nature, offering an antidote to tinsel and saccharine Christmas jingles.
— Tasha Locke
My Life is Like a Fairy Tale, Robert Irwin (Dedalus Books) buy here
“I think it could be said that there is murder is in the hearts of everyone, no matter how blameless they are in their actions, and Dostoevsky, with his great soul, has divined this. He writes about murderers and saints, but really it is us, ordinary old us, that he is writing about, for Dostoevsky sees into the heart of Everyman.”
Robert Irwin vividly and brilliantly blends the fictional life and all-too-real times of a film star of the Nazi era in this a narrative of diminishing options and the advance to death and destruction. Cultured, clever and funny at times, in a grim Charles Adams way, Robert Irwin’s novel is engrossing and enveloping.
From a dull Dutch childhood in Dordrecht and a waitressing job, sexy Sonja Heda, cigarette in hand, wangles her way on to the film sets of various independent production companies making the films of the Weimar and Nazi eras. From The Blue Angel, The Gypsy Baron, Jew Suss, Habanera and Munchausen she lands the starring role in the Nazi screwball comedy Bagdad Capers.
Although German cinema became a key part of the Nazi war effort, the film industry continued to produce commercial films appealing to the varying film tastes of German filmgoers. Joseph Goebbels at the head of the Ministry of Propaganda propagated Nazi supremacist ideology and indoctrinate the population of Germany though film and radio, not unlike the way reality TV and social media are used today by populist politicians in the US and UK.
— Georgia DC
Selected Prose, Yves Bonnefoy (Carcanet) buy here
A range of translators contribute, from the editors whose work on Bonnefoy is celebrated and of long standing, to Iain Bamforth, Michael Bishop, Hilary Davies, Jennie Feldman, Emily Grosholz, Mark Hutchinson, Steven Jaron, Viviane Lowe, Hoyt Rogers, John Taylor and Ahren Warner.
“Since fire is born of fire, why should we want
To gather up its scattered ash.
On the appointed day we surrendered what we were
To a vaster blaze, the evening sky.”
A wide-ranging selection essays on literature, art and life — some translated into English for the first time — by the influential French poet, Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016). Illuminating his search for meaning and the principles of artistic creation, subjects include comparative French and English poetics, Shakespeare’s theatre, the paintings of Piero della Francesca and Poussin, the sculpture of Bernini, Mozart’s operas, a re-assessment of Rimbaud, the impact of photography on art, and much more. This selection was made in close collaboration with him. Carcanet published the first of two volumes of his works, Poems, in 2017.
— Georgia DC
Endland, Tim Etchells (And Other Stories) buy here
“These stories are the opposite of nostalgia – & this feels like the perfect time for them to appear. At the time of my writing this introduction we are once more ruled by a Conservative Party leader who has no problem with declaring war on at least 50% of the country that they are supposed to govern. & these stories tell you what it’s like to live in that kind of atmosphere for years on end. They are frightening – but they’re also necessary. Good things happen when you face stuff head on.” Jarvis Cocker
This collection of thirty-nine stories by Tim Etchells, an experimental performance artist with Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment, is a timely satirical take on how society is consistently screwed by inequality. It is a linguistic feast not for the faint hearted, imbued with mischievous dark humour and an undercurrent of despair and rage.
Supermarkets and tower blocks, amusement arcades and betting shops, cyber cafes and pubs are the world in which a motley crew of misfits, wanderers, sex workers, till-girls, depressed bikers, drunken football fans, cut-price assassins, urban gods and street rats, and “a donkey what had been painted by gypsies (Roma) so that it looked like a Zebra” do their best to survive. Post-Brexit-election Britain needs new narratives to make sense of it, and Endland is one. “WHO WOULD DREAM THAT TRUTH WAS LIES?”
We will be reviewing Endland at greater length in the New Year alongside The Book of Sheffield (Ed.) Catherine Taylor (Comma Press).
— Georgia DC
The Value of Nothing, John Tagholm (Quartet Books) buy here
“A shout from behind brought him back to his senses and he turned to see two policemen running towards him. He took off across the tracks to hi right, towards the old signal box. A local train was heading for the station and he judged that he had time to get in front of it so that the flics wouldn’t see him double back towards the footbridge. The train’s horn gave a low bark of warning but he had plenty of room to spare and for ten seconds or so he ran alongside the carriages. Although the train was going considerably faster, he was hidden until he got to the old steps where he crouched down by the crumbling brick balustrades. The policemen were making their way towards the signal box, as he knew they would, so he climbed up to the passerelle, and squeezed through the bent and rusting bars of the wrought-iron gate topped with barbed wire.”
The Value of Nothing is a Dickensian tale for our times, and a timely read given the recent news that, “Legal protections for refugee children have been reduced in the tougher new Brexit bill. The legislation removes a post-Brexit obligation on the government to secure protections for refugee children in Europe who may want to reunite with family members in the UK.” [The Times]
Youssef Tigha, a twelve year old Arab boy, lives in a makeshift camp behind the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est which will soon be destroyed and the ruined warehouses bulldozed. “He was an immigrant, an alien, a foreigner, a stranger, and so this land in front of him, territory that didn’t belong to Paris any more than he did, was ignored like he was.” He wings it, living minute by minute. His ugly, cruel, anonymous Paris is not the glorious, gilded, welcoming city featured in tourist brochures. When Michael Finistere, a multi-millionaire financier with several homes, and his young assistant Mary, land in Paris to finalise the development of a warehouse complex, worlds collide and assumptions are overturned.
— Georgia DC
The Wild Book, Juan Villoro trs. Lawrence Schimel (HopeRoad) buy here
“There are people who think they understand a book just because they know how to read. I already told you that books are like mirrors: every person finds in them what they have in their own head. The problem is that you only discover what you have inside you when you read the right book. Books are indiscreet and risky mirrors: they make your most original ideas take flight, inspiring thoughts you never knew you had. When you don’t read, those thoughts remain prisoners in your head. They’re no use at all.”
From award-winning Mexican author Juan Villoro, the star-turn of this novel for young adults is thirteen-year-old Juan as he spends his summer holidays at his reclusive uncle Tito’s house. The place is essentially a library. Its bookshelves are crammed and overrun with tantalising reading material. Juan’s adventures in the house involve more than getting lost and falling through trap doors: he is a Princeps Reader. Meaning that he has a special power: only he can find the Wild Book. Brimming with magic and adventures, this novel pushes the reader to question how and why we love the written word so very much. Don’t judge a book by its cover: it is invariably much more than its outward appearance.
— Tasha Locke
The Trap, Ludovic Bruckstein Trs. Alistair Ian Blythe (Istros Books) buy here
“His parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, the whole family was shut up in the ghetto, while he roamed free in the mountains. And that neighbour of theirs, the honourable notary public Mr Zeleznay [. . .] so jovial, always smiling whenever he spoke to his father, and there he was, attempting to lay hands on the family home. [. . .] These were the neighbours they had lived next to for so many years.”
Ludovic Bruckstein was born in Muncus in 1920, and grew up in Sighet, Transylvania (now Romania), a town where a Jewish community once flourished. His parents and two sisters died when they arrived at Auschwitz. As Ludovic was an able-bodied young man, he was moved to a forced labour camp from where he was freed by the Soviet Army in May 1945. Only Ludovic and his younger brother survived the Holocaust.
Published for the first time in English, the two novellas, The Trap and The Rag Doll, chart the lives of people living together peacefully, and co-existing well, in and around the Carpathians at the time of the Second World War. Their world implodes and is decimated by racial persecution and the Holocaust.
“What kind of world was this? How had things deteriorated like this in the space of just a few months?” Through the eyes of the main protagonist, Ernst, a well-travelled, university-educated young man, the reader navigates the cruelty and vicious absurdity of ideological discrimination. The Trap serves as a cautionary tale of evil for our times.
— Tasha Locke
The Divers’ Game, Jesse Ball (Granta) buy here
“Why should they bother to care about someone so inferior? It makes perfect sense that service of every kind should be given by those who provide it. Those who are ridiculous bear ridicule. Those who are beneath notice are not noticed, and those who are elect are raised up. As much as we like to think there can be fairness, it is really a foolish idea, one ought to have done away with long ago. Instead of fairness there is just order and its consequences.”
Prizewinning writer, Jesse Ball, takes us into societies that are forged on difference, void of compassion, and driven by fear and violence, to produce a powerful critique of our increasingly divided Western world. Comprising four parts, the stories are set in a universe which is divided into two unequal groups: one has limitless absolute power over the other, including the right kill.
Lethe and Lois enjoy a typical teenage friendship; they rush to sit next to each other in class and wear matching outfits, yet they are also ‘citizens’, armed with gas masks and lethal gas. Through their college history lessons the reader is introduced to the troubling world that surrounds them. Migrants and prisoners are restricted to Quads, ‘precivilized’ areas that are walled, policed by guards and where no one has any rights – not even ‘citizens’. Through weaponising the most innocent members of society, and desensitising them to violence, Jesse Ball shows how inequality is so very deep-rooted and pernicious. If we do not change our world will collapse.
— Tasha Locke
Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making it Happen (Ed.) Sabrina Mahfouz (Saqi Books) buy here
Contributors: Riz Ahmed, Sabeena Akhtar, Travis Alabanza, Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus, Malorie Blackman, Michaela Coel, Emma Dennis-Edwards, Maureen Duffy, Jenni Fagan, Marvell Fayose, Salena Godden, Hassan Hajjaj, Omar Hamdi, Kerry Hudson, Rabiah Hussain, Fran Lock, David Loumgair, Lisa Luxx, Paul McVeigh, Bridget Minamore, Courttia Newland, Aakash Odedra, Maxine Peake, Rebecca Strickson, Chimene Suleyman, Joelle Taylor, Monsay Whitney, Wiley, Madani Younis.
“The 2018 ‘Panic!’ Report by Create London and Arts Emergency revealed shocking data about the percentage of people working in arts industries from working class backgrounds: in publishing 12.6%; in film, TV and radio, 12.4%; and in music, performing and visual arts, 18.2%. All of which is hugely under-representative of the population, approximately a third of which is regarded as working-class, according to the report.”
Through a collection of powerful pieces, Smashing It addresses the ongoing under-representation of the working class in the arts. The contributors, who all consider themselves working class, offer inspiring advice through a range of literary mediums (poetry, essays and even commandments). Working-class people are the readers and artists of the future. We need to make sure that there are ways into the arts sector for more working-class artists. People from those backgrounds need to be in positions of leadership. Smashing It confronts a variety of questions requiring solutions surrounding identity and empowerment, and obstacles ranging from the financial to the philosophical, that are barriers of entry. The publication concludes with a helpful guide from Sabrina Mahfouz on how to apply for arts funding.
“Smashing It is a companion to replace the imposter syndrome; to show that we do belong in the spaces that might, for a million reasons, make us feel otherwise. It is to shout in our own accents a big old thanks [to] those who have opened doors and paved ways and shown us what can be achieved [. . .] ‘Go smash it up’.”
— Tasha Locke
The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine (Comma Press) buy here
“Really, the dressing-up was an end in itself. Every child wondered at the creature and character he or she had chosen to become. And in the medley they all astonished one another by their metamorphoses.”
A vision of our world gone mad through the looking glass, The Dressing-Up Box is a rich and disturbing collection of sixteen stories by award-winning short story writer, poet, and, translator, David Constantine. Children and confused adults caught up in unbearable, bizarre or hopeless situations in a deteriorating universe, and struggle to make sense of what is happening.
In the title story, a boy and his puppet-monkey arrive in the Big Safe House which is occupied by a large group of children fleeing helicopters and gunfire. Marooned in snowy isolation, they find a dressing up box full of “outfits, costumes of all the humans in every land and in every age,” and re-enact all manner of entertainments, while an undertow of foreboding threatens them in their place of fragile safety.
While in Siding with the Weeds, Joe visits Bert in his handsome shed “built towards the apex of the two gardens across the width of both” behind the half-demolished ruins of Paradise Square. In dirty, dusty decrepit surroundings, they enjoy some Veuve Clicquot 1998 as they reminisce. Joe is increasingly discomfited as his old friend chews over “the endgame.”
Rivers of Blood has a painful resonance to today, as a silent protest walk on May Day in Oxford — “an occasion, like Grosvenor Square or the big Iraq War demonstration” — is remembered by AM and HC. “I have to keep persuading myself there was once a time of hope and I lived then and acted hopefully and thousands around me were doing the same.”
The orphans living in the House of the Brothers and Sisters of Mercy, “rescued from loveless and violent circumstances,” are exhorted to grow up and be good Christians, yet the sadistic adults — “agents of the Church and State” — are anything but, as they mete out physically and/or psychologically abusive punishments to their vulnerable charges.
My favourite story, however, is based on the tragic end of French poet gone mad: Gérard de Nerval. Poverty-stricken, disoriented and prone to hallucinatory visions, he committed suicide by hanging himself in rue de la Vieille-Lanterne in a seedy, squalid part of Paris.
David Constantine’s beautiful, poetic, tough and tender writing, the way he conjures mood and emotion, and his incredible compassion and humanity for the people he writes about are masterpieces of compression.
— Georgia DC
The words of Seneca, the philosopher and rhetorician who was tutor and advisor to Emperor Nero, seem apposite as this tumultuous year draws to a close: “Remember that all we have is ‘on loan’ from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, we should love all our dear ones, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.”
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