BookBlast’s Top 10 Reads this month is going up at the eleventh hour as I have just got back from a break in Patmos, a paradise in the Aegean Sea . . . The independent publishers of today are often compared to the independent record labels of yesteryear, so to enjoy total immersion in the wild and wonderful world of musical entrepreneurship, my perfect beach read was Taking Leave by island resident Jeremy Thomas (Timewell Press, 2006) — a first novel about “the record business and lives hilariously out of control,” as A. L. Kennedy put it. Stephen Fry had this to say, “Jeremy Thomas is a complete original. His writing, like his life, is a whirlwind of brilliance, wonder and blunder, by turns hilarious and terrifying. Highly recommended.”
Our May reads take in West China, the coastline of North West England, the Caribbean coastline of Colombia, Latvia, Liberia, Slovakia and Palestine.
“Fifteen Yuan Street doesn’t exist anymore, or rather it appears no longer to be there. But if you know the password, you can find the way in. The bums and petty criminals of Pingle Town all know exactly where it is, in other words, all the townsfolk are only pretending not to know. In actual fact, if you head out of town on South Street, as you get near to Factory 372, there is an inconspicuous little road with osmanthus bushes dotted along it and ropes strung from the branches on which towels and wet clothes sometimes hang. This is the famous Fifteen Yuan Street. It wasn’t called that when Dad was young, in fact, it wasn’t even a street, it was where Baby Girl lived and did a bit of business in her home. Dad had heard she charged five yuan, or four yuan 50 if you were lucky. It took ten years for this to turn into the famous Fifteen Yuan Street — that became the going rate after a whole bunch of other women moved in as Baby Girl’s neighbours. Business boomed, with some vermin even catching the one yuan 50 minibus from Yong’An City, to get themselves a woman. But when Dad paid another visit, in 2000, or perhaps it was 2002, the woman put out her hand: ‘150 yuan.’And that was when Dad felt that the good times really were gone for good.”
Never mind the news headlines, what is contemporary Chinese society really like? Set in a fictional town in West China, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is the story of an affluent family caught in the economic turmoil of the 1990s — a period marked by social alienation and ethical breakdown that accompanied sudden prosperity. The Duan-Xue family and their formidable matriarch are wonderfully wanton and excel in excess. Xue Shengqiang is the owner of a chilli bean paste factory and he enjoys a high-flying lifestyle replete with affairs, alcohol, infatuation with money and all things ‘bling’. His social position is bolstered by his status-obsessed, controlling mother, or ‘Gran’. As her eightieth birthday approaches, the family comes together to make preparations. Debilitating family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. And Shengqiang struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress and his wife . . .
Seaside Special: Postcards from the Edge (ed) Jenn Ashworth (Bluemoose Books)
Authors: Louise Ayre, Carys Bray, Bethan Ellis, Andrew Michael Hurley, Pete Kalu, Paul Kingsnorth, Kirsty Logan, Anita Sethi, MelissaWan and Lucy Wilkinson Yates.
“I endeavoured to curate a collection of short tales that, as a postcard does, present us glimpses of a landscape. This region is not one that we who live here possess, but one that we who write about are possessed by, that is at once known and unknown, familiar and strange, a place of both leisure and work, refuge and threat.” — Jenn Ashworth
From the bright lights of Blackpool to the eerie calm of Morecambe bay, from the port of Whitehaven to the dunes of Formby: these ten startling short stories are untold tales from the edge featuring seasonal workers, society’s misfits, the overlooked natural world and offer surprising perspectives and diverse voices. Vivid glimpses of lives and landscapes from the coastline of North West England overturn the usual stereotypes of depressed, down-at-heel seaside towns, gaudy sea-front arcades, Ferris wheels, roller coasters and caravan parks and of past-their-best Lakeland towns with stunning views and grim prospects.
No collection, even one including writers as varied and accomplished at the ones you’ll meet in this anthology, could claim to provide a complete, exhaustive account of a region which encompasses hundreds of miles of coastline with centuries of complex history, a myriad of urban and natural habitats, and the entire available spectrum of human experience. Under these grey skies and rain-spotted sands lurk teeming hidden myriad of secret wildlife. The stories included in Seaside Special gift us readers with ‘postcards from the edge’ from a truly special stretch of coast.
Venus as a Bear by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet)
The Poetry Book Society Summer 2018 Choice | Shortlisted for The 2018 Forward Prize for Best Collection | The Telegraph, Poetry Book of the Month, May 2018
“A bald enumeration of Capildeo’s influences, subjects, travel destinations and poetic forms might give an impression of dizzying multifariousness . . . But the essential remains the same throughout. Capildeo, it is only fair to acknowledge, is a demanding writer, someone who stretches the conventions of the lyric poem in unprecedented ways; but Venus as a Bear demands nothing from its readers that it does not also repay generously. She is, among much else, a direct and sensual poet, warmly intimate and very funny.” —David Wheatley, The Guardian
Venus as a Bear brings together poems on animals, art, language, the sea, metaphor, description, and dance. They tend toward, and tend to, the inanimate and non-human, tenderly disclosing their forms of sentience. We have feelings for creatures, objects and places, but where do these affinities come from? How do things, as things, affect us, remain mysterious while making themselves known?
For Capildeo answers formed at their own pace, while waiting for lambing at a friend’s farm; exploring the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; criss-crossing the British Isles with the Out of Bounds poetry project; or hearing of Africa and the Romans in Scotland, of Guyana and Shakespeare, while standing over-the-boots deep in a freezing sea off the coast of Wales.
Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo trs. Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press)
Two novellas and an award-winning short story collection combine to create a superb Colombian Fish Soup. Margarita Garcia Robayo has been translated by Charlotte Coombe for newcomers on the indie trade publisher scene, Charco Press, who feature on the Man Booker International longlist with Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love. Our interview with Charco Press publisher, Carolina Orloff, can be read here.
Waiting for a Hurricane follows the fate of an ambitious girl obsessed with escaping life in a coastal village and her country. Emotionally detached from her family, and disillusioned with what the future holds if she remains, she takes drastic steps in order to achieve her goal, seemingly oblivious to the damage she is causing both to herself and to those around her. The stories of the collection Worse Things provide snapshots of lives in turmoil, frayed relationships, escapist dreams, family taboos, and rejection of social norms while simultaneously being rejected by society. Intimate struggles are as fragile as they are political. The semi-autobiographical novella, Sexual Education, examines the attempts of a student to bridge the strict doctrine of abstinence taught at school with the very different moral norms of her social circles. García Robayo blends cynicism and lyrical beauty with an undercurrent of dark humour. Her books have been translated into French, Portuguese, Italian, Hebrew and Chinese. Fish Soup is her first book to appear in English.
The Book of Riga (ed) Eva Eglaga-Kristone & Becca Parkinson (Comma Press)
Authors: Pauls Bankovskis, Dace Ruksane, Kristine Zelve, Svens Kuzmins, Ilze Jansone, Gundega Repse, Andra Neiburga, Juris Zvirgzdins, Arno Jundze, Aleksandrs Rugens. Foreword by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former President of Latvia.
Located on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, Riga is the capital and largest city of Latvia; and is also the largest city in the three Baltic states. The city lies on the Gulf of Riga, at the mouth of the Daugava, and has a rich cultural and historical heritage. It was once known as the “Paris of the North”. Now, after two decades of independence, Riga has once again established itself as a vibrant creative centre, attracting artists, performers and writers from across the region and beyond.
This rare showcase of contemporary Latvian writing gathers together stories by some of the country’s finest writers, chronicling the city’s continuing transformation after centuries of foreign rule. The Book of Riga is an absorbing read for armchair travellers and lovers of good writing.
Wrestliana by Toby Litt (Galley Beggar Press)
“I had been thinking a lot about modern masculinity. Not only because, as the father of sons, that was where my limited experience lay, and where my day-to-day dilemmas took place. (Should we let them play this macho video game? Do we need to have another talk about nature/nurture?) But because the push to the extremes of body and mind seems at its worst amongst Western men. The two outlying male tribes, Jocks and Nerds, have become completely culturally separate. Their rituals and sacrifices are completely different. Each defines itself by hating the other. You couldn’t possibly be both, could you? And yet back in the 1810s, my great-great-great grandfather had been able to exist successfully in the wrestling ring and also in literary society.* And because of this, he seemed to me an ideal figure: someone from whom I could learn things I needed to learn. I decided to write a book about William, and to pay tribute to him by calling it Wrestliana.† By doing this, I would explicitly take William on, on his home ground. Because all of this ‘being a man’ stuff was something I needed to wrestle with. To be a better son and to be a better father. To be a better man.”
Toby Litt’s father wanted him to write about their ancestor: William Litt, a champion at Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. One of the greatest ever “kings of the green,” he reigned undefeated in one of the nineteenth century’s most popular sports, taking home over 200 prize belts. He was also a smuggler — and a published poet and novelist. Coming to terms with him was tough for Toby Litt. Huge and fascinating, William was also a paradoxical figure, having ended his life in poverty and exile. A wrestling champion born in 1785 is the perfect lens through which to study modern masculinity, and why fatherhood in the 21st century has become such a mixed blessing.
Land of My Fathers by Vamba Sherif (HopeRoad Publishing)
“I often wondered, in the light of the stories my mother told us about Africa, what had happened that resulted in us being cast away forever from our land. Why had we become the property of other human beings? Nothing I could think of could justify our circumstances and why they were being perpetuated for so long and by so many.”
The coastal Republic of Liberia was founded in the 19th century with the triumphant return of freed slaves from America to Africa. Once back ‘home’, however, these Americo-Liberians had to integrate with the resident tribes, who did not want or welcome them. Against a background of French and British colonialists busily carving up Mother Africa, while local tribes were still unashamedly trading in slaves . . . the vulnerable newcomers felt trapped and out of place. Where men should have stood shoulder to shoulder, they turned on each other instead.
The Land of My Fathers plunges us into this world. But in the midst of turmoil, there is friendship. Edward Richard, a man born into slavery and a preacher by profession, is convinced that the future of Liberia lies in bringing peace amongst the tribes. His mission takes him to the far north, where he meets an extraordinary man, Halay. Edward’s new and dearest friend is ready to sacrifice his own life to protect his country; for the Liberians believe that with Halay’s death, no war will ever threaten their land. A century later, this belief is crushed when war engulfs the land, bearing away with it the descendants of both Edward and Halay.
Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovsky trs. by Julia & Peter Sherwood (Istros Books)
“1.c To be unique means to be beautiful in one’s own way. Official bodies are not interested in beauty, all they want is to keep an accurate record of us. They don’t see us as unique beings, only as numbers . . .
2.e ‘By the way’, Štefan said, ‘now that you’ve brought up homeless people, I think that’s a misleading term. They should really be called home-everywhere people. They have no permanent place of abode – their home is wherever they put their plastic bags’ . . .
1.l A foolish thought, but sometimes I can’t help wondering: what does an identity card identify? The body or the soul? . . .
5.e We had never been in the habit of declaring our love for each other, not even in the early days. That was quite sensible, as each of us would, in any case, have had a different idea of what the word meant. But sometimes I would plant a kiss behind her ear. She had a dimple there, in addition to a bone. When I kissed the dimple, it held the same significance for both of us. We both experienced the same thing.”
Fleeting Snow is a philosophical romance. Pavel Vilikovský reflects on a life shared as he muses on a long marriage and issues ranging from human nature, the soul and memory loss, to names and the phonetics of Slovak and indigenous American Indian languages. His digressive and eccentric ruminations are humorous, touching and absorbing.
The novella’s title refers to its recurring central motif: an avalanche whose inexorable descent cannot be stopped once the critical mass of snow has begun to roll, echoing the unstoppable process of memory loss. Five themes or storylines, intertwined in passages of varying lengths, are marked by letters of the alphabet and numbers alluding to scholarly works and musical compositions flowing together towards a finale. Fleeting Snow is a highly satisfying reading experience for those who wish to explore life in a continental way.
Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die by Amber Massie-Blomfield (Penned in the Margins)
“In 2016, I began plotting an adventure. It was the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and in the fractious atmosphere of that summer I found myself thinking not only about the stories of Britain’s theatres but also their purpose. ‘Theatre is the most complacent place in the world,’ one friend had written on Facebook, despondently, in the days following the referendum. The issue, it was true, had barely broken the surface of the nation’s stages. Still, I could not be dissuaded of the idea that there was something that theatres — only theatres — could offer us now. You can take any empty space and call it a bare stage, but it seemed to me extraordinary that up and down the country there are so many places designated for this purpose, citadels to self-expression, to big ideas and imagination and the electrifying power of people getting together in real time, in a real place to think about what it means to be human. But how, I wondered, do so many continue to thrive, despite the ongoing threat from funding cuts, reduced education in the arts, and a culture of instant online gratification?”
From the tip of Cornwall to the Isle of Mull, Amber Massie-Blomfield takes the road less travelled to discover Britain’s most astonishing and unexpected theatres. A ruined playhouse, haunted halls, a stage hewn from granite cliffs. Theatres on wheels, squeezed into a former public lavatory and rescued from fire. A theatre that is not there at all.
Making the case for radical, quirky and nonconforming performance spaces alongside iconic venues, this book is a celebration of thriving against the odds. It also tells a personal account of a life-long love affair with the places where ‘anything is possible’: from open-air fry-ups and an impromptu can-can to paranormal manifestations.
An adventure through theatre, place and the people who make it happen, Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die is well written and illuminating. It is essential reading for admirers of the performing arts; and drama and theatre students.
Pay no Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense by Marcello Di Cintio (Saqi Books)
“In the summer of 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against militants in the Gaza Strip. During a brief lull in the bombing, a series of four photos emerged of a young Gazan girl sifting through the wreckage of a destroyed building. The girl, around ten years old, wore a green dress and pink leggings, her long hair tied back in a neat ponytail. In the photos, she pulls books from beneath shattered concrete and cinderblocks and stacks them in her arms. The books are tattered and filthy, their covers dangling from their bindings. But in the last photograph, the girl walks away, smiling.”
Using the form of a political-literary travelogue, Marcello Di Cintio explores what literature means to modern Palestinians and how Palestinians make sense of the conflict between a rich imaginative life and the daily tedium and violence of survival. Across Palestine, from the Allenby Bridge and Ramallah, to Jerusalem and Gaza, he meets writers, poets, librarians, booksellers and readers, finding extraordinary stories wherever he goes. He recounts how revolutionary writing is smuggled from the Naqab Prison; about what it is like to write with only two hours of electricity each day; and stories from the Gallery Café, its opening celebrated by three thousand intellectuals gathered together.
The biographies of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani, two of Palestine’s most revered writers, both begin with frightened boys felling a war. Both end with a detonation. In between exile and explosion are lives that followed Palestine’s frayed plotlines. Paying homage to the memory of these two literary giants, and the contemporary authors they continue to inspire, this evocative, lyrical journey shares both the anguish and inspiration of Palestinian writers at work today.
Pay No Heed to the Rockets offers a window into the literary heritage of Palestine that transcends the narrow language of conflict. Di Cintio uncovers a humanity, and a beauty, often unnoticed by news media.
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