As we head out of the old, into the new, year, our top 10 reads to see us out feature superb writing from China, fin-de-siècle Paris, the Middle East, Istanbul by way of New York, Switzerland and Cuba, in no particular order. @maclehosepress @carcanet @BanipalMagazine @melvillehouse @dedalusbooks @NBNi_books @hoperoadpublish @oneworldnews @jamiebulloch @PennedintheM
A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes (Vol. 1) by Jin Young, trs. Anna Holmwood (MacLehose Press) buy here
The author Louis Cha who died aged ninety-four on 30 October, wrote under the pen name Jin Yong. His books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide and been adapted into countless films, TV series, graphic novels and video games. His works are all set during the rich and storied history of China. The first English translation of A Hero Born, the first of his 12-volume epic Legends of the Condor Heroes, was published earlier on this year by MacLehose Press. We include him here as a tribute to an unparalleled master storyteller.
“Set in 13th-century China, this novel follows the fortunes of its hero, Guo Jing, from birth to adolescence. It begins with Guo in utero, when his father is murdered by forces loyal to the occupying Jin army and his pregnant mother flees to Mongolia. Here, on the fringes of the Middle Kingdom, Guo grows up among Genghis Khan’s nomadic warriors, while the Seven Heroes of the South, who have sworn an oath to train him in martial arts, scour the country to find him.” – Marcel Theroux, The Guardian
“Despite the frequent comparisons, unlike The Lord of the Rings, there is no magic or fantasy world in Jin Yong’s novels. Instead, they are a swashbuckling blend of history and heroic fiction.” – Beijing Review.
Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Fiction) buy here
“Written crisply and with visual clarity, this disturbing narrative has a texture reminiscent of impressionist style and evokes scenes and moods from Bonnard’s best-known works.” Publishers’ Weekly
Reissued to coincide with a major exhibition at Tate Modern of the work of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) – the first in the UK for twenty years – Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard is an invaluable companion to the show. The narrative in three parts is told from the perspectives of Bonnard’s wife, daughter and the artist himself.
Known for his radiant, colourful domestic interiors and nudes in a variety of intimate scenes, the impact of his work lies in the sensuality of the painting itself rather than in the erotic charge of its feminine subjects.
READ our interview with Gabriel Josipovici, author & critic
Banipal 63 – The 100 Best Arabic Novels (Banipal) buy here
“The title feature The 100 Best Arabic Novels is a new up-to-date list in response to the greatly increased popularity of novels in the Arab world. The introduction explains how it was prepared and nominations ranked. To whet your appetite, here are the first five: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, The Cairo Trilogy and Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri and The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby.
“We present a feature on Iraqi writer and academic Hayat Sharara who tragically lost her life to suicide after decades of struggling against and suffering the tyranny of the Ba’athist regime and the later barbaric western sanctions. Her posthumously published novel When the Days Grow Dark is a lament for the city of Baghdad by the first-person narrator, who is a university teacher like Hayat Sharara. He can only talk in whispers, even to himself, and is haunted by a nauseous fear that no one is immune from, and that “even stuck to their clothes”. Daily life continues relentlessly, with people, worn down by constant orders, daily humiliations and intimidations, facing no alternative but to go along with the culture of orders . . . that had to be obeyed [. . .]
“Rounding off the issue are a number of book reviews that will give readers plenty of ideas for books to buy, or borrow, from the library. In one, of A Boat to Lesbos (Banipal Books, 2018) by Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah, fellow poet Ruth Padel writes of his ‘unforgettable lyrics’.” From the Editor’s Introduction.
Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra, trs. Achy Obejas (Melville House) buy here
“What had this year been about? Remembering what happened to my parents, and the strong pressure that came after their deaths.
I closed my eyes to remember the torrent of silver and pain the dilated explosion that turned the only people who had guided my life into ashes. To close my eyes is to open them to death.
On certain days I would wonder why I had been saved. Would what was to come next be worth it?”
Cleo, scion of a once-prominent Cuban family and a promising young writer in her own right, travels to Spain to receive a prestigious award. There, Cuban expats view her with suspicion assuming she is an informant for the Castro regime. To Cleo’s surprise, that suspicion follows her home to Cuba, where she finds herself under constant surveillance by the government. She cannot trust anyone.
When she meets and falls in love with Gerónimo Martines, a Hollywood filmmaker, she discovers her father who died under suspicious circumstances was not who she thought the was. Investigating her parents’ dark past enables Cleo to recalibrate her own identity, and future . . .
Sappho by Alphonse Daudet, trs. Graham Andersen (Dedalus European Classics) buy here
“He went up the stairs to first floor in one go, happy to bear the weight of the two beautiful, cool, naked arms wrapped around his neck.
As the woman relaxed and got heavier, it took longer to reach the second floor. Her pendants which had just tickled him at first, dug deeper and deeper and more and more painfully into his flesh.
By the third, he was groaning like a piano mover. While he panted, she murmured ecstatically, widening her eyes, “Ah, my dear friend, how delicious . . . how good we are . . .” He went up the last few steps one by one as though climbing a giant staircase, the walls, the bannister, the narrow windows of which were like a never-ending spiral. It was no longer a woman that he carried, but a heavy, horrible thing that choked him. Any second now he could let go of her; throw her down angrily, administering a fatal blow.”
Sappho is set in the permissive world of artistic, bohemian fin-de-siècle Paris, and was inspired in part by Daudet’s affair as a young man with the model Marie Rieu.
A handsome young student, Jean Gaussin, arrives in the capital from Provence and is smitten with a beautiful older woman. Fanny Legrand is a poet’s muse, a model and a courtesan. The calculating, worldly-wise woman has seen and done it all in the twenty years since her first lover, Caoudal, cast in bronze the girl from the Paris gutter and named her Sappho. Despite continual outbreaks of rage and jealousy, Jean is gradually able to live with Fanny’s disgraceful past, finding an element of pleasure in the degraded domesticity of their life together, and he is proud of his new connections with famous men.
Published thirty years before Colette’s Chéri, the novel captures the paradoxical atmosphere of passionate first lust and maternal passion.
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee (Fentum Press) buy here
“There is thunder as Angela flies to New York with Virginia Woolf in her handbag, lightning crackling off the wings of the plane.
Bad karma – not that she believes in it. The flight is delayed and the pilot greets them with a warning. ‘We’re expecting a little turbulence today so if the seat belt signs go on, we’d ask you to return to your seats and keep your seatbelts fastened . . .’
Electricity flashing on chemical-rich pools 3.5 billion years ago started life, Angela reads. The power of lightning. She snaps her book closed at once. Life on Earth, it’s called. Death in the air, she’s thinking.
Taxiing, now. Too late to leave the plane.
The passport in her locker says ‘Angela Lamb’. Place of issue, London. Date of birth, 20 May 1966. There are many stamps on its pages, she’s a Frequent Flyer, she should be accustomed to storms.”
Angela Lamb, a middle-aged, bestselling novelist, is going through a mid-life crisis. She flies to New York to view Woolf’s manuscripts at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. She plans to finish preparing for a Woolf conference in Istanbul – and to take her mind off her precarious marriage to a documentary filmmaker on location in the Arctic. When a bedraggled Virginia Woolf materializes among the bookshelves and is evicted, Angela, stunned, rushes after her on to the streets of Manhattan. Soon Angela is chaperoning her troublesome heroine as the latter tries to grasp the internet and scams bookshops with “rare signed editions”. Then Woolf insists on flying with her to Istanbul, finds a Turkish admirer and steals the show at the conference . . .
The narrative is told by the imagined voices of both Woolf and Angela, alternating with the omniscient third person perspective giving an overview. Virginia Woolf in Manhattan is an extremely clever, witty and thought-provoking novel about the miraculous possibilities of a second chance at life.
Zombie XI by Peter Kalu (HopeRoad Publishing) buy here
A story for young adults about football, friendship, family and cross-cultural teen relationships – there’s never a dull moment when reading Pete Kalu!
“It’s a bad day. I’m a substitute again. On the bench. And this time there’s a girl on the bench with us. Can it get any worse than this?
From the get-go, I knew it was going to be bad. We were gathered in the poxy changing room, under the mouldy ceiling that dripped green spores and black mould and the shells of dead insects. The cracked floor tiles were getting the usual pounding from studs being dragged across them. Players were flicking towels, kit was being swapped, shin pads tested. In the air was all the usual howling, shouting and laughter that comes when you know you’re going to be playing in a football match. I was quiet, awaiting my fate.”
Football-crazy Leonard is never asked to play and sits, frustrated, on the substitutes’ bench. Then everything changes. After a game near a nuclear power plant, a weird energy passes through Leonard, and that night he is visited by zombies . . . The ghostly players from the winning 1966 England World Cup team tell him that if he follows their instructions, not only will he get off the bench but Ducie High Xl will start to take control. Leonard obeys, and the team’s prospects surge. But what is the price of the zombies’ involvement? How high will it be and whose pound of living flesh will they demand?
Damnation by Peter Beck trs. Jamie Bulloch (Oneworld) buy here
“I grew up a dedicated fan of the James Bond films. I was born three months before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service received its London première, but my first Bond was Roger Moore, who sadly died last year, and The Spy Who Loved Me my first 007 film. It is surely one of the best of the entire franchise, but I could be biased. That’s because my father had a minor role in the film, as a submariner aboard the vessel captured by Stromberg . . . I’m pretty sure I would have been a Bond addict even without this personal connection. The thrilling action sequences, the gadgetry, the beautiful girls, the suave charm of our hero, the struggle between good and evil – all of these are pretty standard ingredients of a growing boy’s fantasies . . .” Jamie Bulloch, TripFiction
The first of a trilogy, Damnation is a cracking good read à la Ian Fleming. Set in the Swiss Interlaken and Bernese Oberland, as well as Zurich and Bern, there are brief interludes in Egypt, Norway and New England.
An ex-cop, Tom Winter is head of security for an unassuming, private Swiss bank. After a helicopter explodes, leaving behind the charred bodies of his assistant and a client – an important Saudi investor – he teams up with Fatima, an enigmatic Egyptian businesswoman working with the head of a company to raise money to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt. When the CEO is ‘accidentally’ blown up, Winter is determined to find out if the helicopter ‘accident’ is connected to Kaddour’s death.
Together the pair follow the money trail around the world and back into the Swiss mountains, the National Security Agency watching their every move. They turn from being the hunters to the hunted and realize they are in a deadly, high-stakes race against the clock.
Alyson Sings by Caroline Bergvall (Penned in the Margins) buy here
“When I arrived in London in the mid-90s, I found a very developed, very varied performance scene, where visual artists, musicians, and poets would show work together sometimes in fairly private art events, and sometimes at more formal places, like the ICA. A lot of fascinating performance art took place across art forms at the ICA.
So I arrived in London and found that, through both the idea of clubbing and the queer scene, you had audiences focused on politics of gender through various kinds of time-based arts. This meant that my personal interest in a type of direct, contact-to-contact engagement with audiences, with listeners, with readers could take place. And developing my work within an English-speaking context was the other big draw” Caroline Bergvall, L.A. Review of Books (blog)
Alyson Sings reimagines Chaucer’s Wife of Bath through the precarious languages of the fourteenth and twenty-first centuries, going into the past to look into our future. It is poet and artist Caroline Bergvall’s first UK poetry publication for over a decade and her first printed work since winning a Cholmondeley Award for her overall poetic output last year.
Incomprehensible Lesson by Fawzi Karim, in versions by Anthony Howell (Carcanet) buy here
“When exile took us by surprise,
a surgeon ready-scrubbed
he treated us with scalpels
cleansed us of the dream tumours in our organs,
and pushed us into the last scene of the shadow theatre
in order that we perform for him our secondary roles.
Who are we? Fury of a blind man
being led by a thread of loss,
dice thrown on the night’s page
without even an echo of their rolling.”
© Fawzi Karim
This second volume of poetry by Fawzi Karim, the leading Iraqi poet, painter and author of over twenty-three collections of poetry and sixteen books of prose, is translated by Anthony Howell working from the author’s own versions. Now living in London, these poems explores Karim’s experience of transition: from a sense of exile to a sense of uneasy belonging. In his introduction the poet is candid and subtle, touching on universal themes such as exile and the nature of ‘home’.
Karim’s first collection, Plague Lands and Other Poems, was a Poetry Book Society recommendation when it came out in 2011. His poetry has been widely translated – into French, Swedish, Italian and English among other languages.
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