Tag Archives: And Other Stories

Ten Small But Perfectly Formed Publishers Who Will Post Books to Your Home

One of the very few silver linings to the coronavirus is a reported upsurge in book sales. We have booksellers, publishers, warehouse staff and posties to thank for getting hard copies to us, despite risks to themselves. You’re probably in the habit of browsing your local bookshop or maybe buying from online booksellers but small publishers are currently struggling to keep their heads above water and many of them sell books direct to the public. Below is a list of ten Cover imagewho, at the time of writing, will mail books to you – some also sell ebooks – together with links both to them and to reviews of a few reviews of their titles on this blog. They’re all publishers with interesting lists to explore. I hope it goes without saying that I’ve nothing to gain financially from this post. Just trying to do what little I can to help some excellent publishers in extraordinarily difficult times.

Eye/Lightning Books not only have a great list of both fiction and non-fiction but they’re offering 30% off plus free shipping to UK customers who use the discount code THANKS. They’re also offering bundles of books that will help see you through the long haul plus ebooks of their six bestselling titles at less than £1 a shot.

My recommendations: Good Riddance, An Isolated Incident

Myriad Editions are another favourite of mine and they, too, have an offer to tempt you – 25% off together with free shipping in the UK if you use the MYREADATHOME discount code.

My recommendations: Magnetism, North Facing, To the Volcano

Pushkin Press offer a wonderfully varied list to peruse: lots of interesting fiction, classics andCover image non-fiction together with children’s and YA books.

My recommendations: Liar, Bird Cottage, Browse

Peirene Press specialise in translated novellas, an excellent way to explore other cultures without leaving the house, and they donate 50p to charity for every book sold.

My recommendations: And the Wind Sees All, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, Her Father’s Daughter

Salt Publishing hail from Norfolk, a place dear to my holiday heart. They publish excellent contemporary fiction, well worth a look.

My recommendations: Good Day?, Flotsam, The Museum of Cathy

The Indigo Press published one of my books of last year. Their list is short but what I’ve read Cov er imagefrom it has impressed me.

My recommendations: Silence is My Mother Tongue, An Act of Defiance

Reflex Press also have a tiny list which includes one of my books of last year, the beautifully jacketed, Witches Sail in Eggshells

Époque Press publish a handful of titles, two of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. They’re currently taking pre-orders for their new title to be published later in the year

My recommendations: El Hacho, The Wooden Hill

Influx Press have a longer list which I’ve yet to explore in depth but I’ve included them because they’reCover image the UK publishers of the brilliant Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier which has me in tears of laughter last week. Review to follow soon.

And Other Stories are last on my list but only because they’re currently selling only ebooks and subscriptions. They offer a varied list of mostly translated fiction with a few English language novels and some non-fiction.

My Recommendations: Theft, Love,

Janet over at From First Page to Last has a useful list of independent booksellers still posting books which also includes a few publishers. Happy to hear of any favourite small publishers you’d like to help keep afloat, and remember, no matter how grim things seem, there will always be books. Keep washing your hands…

Theft by Luke Brown: ‘An exhilarating howl of a novel’

Cover imageThat subtitle is a quote from the press release for Luke Brown’s smart, funny new novel and it’s what made me want to read it. I tend to find the A4 sheets that accompany review copies a wee bit over the top but I loved that phrase which turned out to fit Theft very well. Of course, if I’d known that its main protagonist was a bookseller and reviewer, I’d have needed no such persuasion.

Paul lives in the dilapidated Dalston flat he’s shared for years with various friends and acquaintances. He’s worked part-time in a Bloomsbury bookshop for a decade, trawling clubs at night for fetching haircut shots to post on the magazine page whose hits far outstrip his book reviews. He’s on the edge of London’s literary milieu, managing to land himself an interview with a reclusive novelist with whom he sparks a connection. Emily invites Paul to lunch at the Holland Park house she shares with her partner Andrew, a well-known historian several decades older. There he meets Sophie, Andrew’s daughter, busy cultivating her rebelliousness via her Guardian pieces on sexual politics. Holland Park is a world away from the small Northern seaside town where Paul was raised with his sister Amy. Their mother has recently died in a car crash, leaving them the family home. Amy’s keen to sell, planning to plough the proceeds into a flat currently just out of her financial reach and thinks Paul should do the same but he’s reluctant to let go of the life he’s led since he left university, despite having reached his mid-thirties. Over a year which sees the EU referendum, Paul continues to flirt with Emily’s world until he takes an irrevocable step and is cast out.

What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context.

With its snappy opening sentence Brown sets his readers up for mischief in this novel which explores the intergenerational divide, London’s literary life and the state of our divided nation. Paul is an engaging narrator – a bookish party boy, falling in love here and there, caught up in his obsession with Emily, seemingly unable to fully acknowledge his mother’s death and how angry it’s made him. Brown’s characters are astutely drawn – Sophie’s constant public yanking of her father’s chain in her Guardian pieces and her cynical virtue signalling are particularly well done – and it’s very funny at times, underpinned, as all good social comedy should be, with some acute observations. Paul’s London life is in stark contrast to the lives of his old schoolmates in the seaside town where the fishing industry has long since dwindled, replaced with nothing. A hugely entertaining novel with a pleasingly acerbic edge, I loved it.

And Other Stories: London 2020 9781911508588 320 pages Paperback

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (transl. Martin Aitken): In the deep midwinter

Cover imageAlthough I’ve yet to read Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room reviews of it by bloggers whose opinions I trust were enough to convince me that Love was likely to be something special. This spare novella tells the story of Vibeke and her son, Jon, on the eve of his ninth birthday, each, unbeknownst to the other, out and about on a frigid Norwegian winter’s night.

Vibeke and Jon have recently moved from the south to a village close to where she works as the arts and culture officer for the local authority. Vibeke spends most of her time reading when she’s not working, barely registering her imaginative, curious son although tender towards him when she does. Jon is sure that Vibeke has plans to bake him a birthday cake, considerately taking himself off to the visiting fair so that she can surprise him with it the next day. Vibeke, however, has not a thought for Jon’s birthday, caught up in fantasies of the brown-eyed colleague for whom she preens in the mirror before setting off for the local library in the hope of bumping into him. When Jon returns, he finds he’s locked out, convincing himself that his mother has gone to the convenience store for cake ingredients. Off he goes again, taken home by a young girl who spots he has no mittens. Meanwhile, finding the library closed, Vibeke has switched the focus of her fancy to a friendly worker at the fair. Over a single, chilly night Jon and Vibeke’s paths will almost cross, both of them returning home during the long winter’s night. The next day will be far from what either of them might have expected.

Written in clean, bright prose, Ørstavik’s intense novella packs quite a punch. Her narrative slips back and forth between Jon and Vibeke, smoothly at times, at others shifting disconcertingly, disorienting the reader and ratcheting up the tension as we wonder what will happen to each of them. Both characters are vividly drawn, their voices clear and distinct. Jon is an endearing little boy, sensitive and curious, given to catastrophist thinking about his mother who he calls ‘Vibeke’ rather than ‘Mum’. Vibeke is a naive young mother, married far too young, her head full of romantic fantasies and willing to take risks to fulfil them. While it’s clear she loves her son – there’s a tenderness in the few exchanges between them – she hardly notices he’s there most of the time, a carelessness that will cost them both dear. The stories of the fair workers with whom each of them becomes involved are left untold but we can guess that for them Jon and Vibeke are mere bit-players or perhaps even pawns. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed. Time to order a copy of The Blue Room, I think.

And Other Stories: London 2019 9781911508724 128 pages Paperback

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (transl. Tim Parks): Happiest days of your life…

Cover imageFleur Jaeggy’s novella is part of And Other Stories’ response to Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ back in 2015, calling for a year in which only books written by women should be published. For me it’s not so much the gender ratio of authors published that’s the problem, more the level of serious coverage books by women are given. I imagine Shamsie wasn’t expecting much of a take up but And Other Stories responded with alacrity. Written in 1989 and set in post-war Switzerland, Sweet Days of Discipline explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity.

Our unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. She’s boarded at a variety of schools since she was eight, spending holidays alone with her taciturn father. Her mother lives in Brazil, sending instructions about her daughter’s education but having little else to do with her. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends. Our narrator has nothing but contempt for her German roommate with her pink cheeks and frilly dresses, only cool admiration for the girl who tells her all about her Andalusian adventures and talks to her of philosophy. Then Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Frédérique fades into the background but our unnamed narrator will not forget her, meeting her later in life and coming to a deeper understanding of her friend.

Written in austere, pinpoint sharp prose, Jaeggy’s novella takes a scalpel to teenage boarding school relationships. Our narrator’s determination to win Frédérique’s devotion seems, at first, more about the challenge it presents than a sincere interest and yet Frédérique is the person she continues to look for, even in adult life. The cruelty of boarding school life is painfully vivid – our narrator’s apparent regret at the hurt caused by rejecting a younger girl’s overtures turns out to be something else entirely: I had lost a slave, without getting any pleasure out of it. The school’s cloistered claustrophobia is smartly skewered: We saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks. The effects of this life stripped of parental affection are clear: The pleasure of disappointment. it wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it since I was eight years old. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere to be found in Jaeggy’s elegantly expressed, forensically observed novella. A deeply unsettling piece of fiction.

The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić: An apartheid allegory

Cover imageA couple of years ago I read and reviewed Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative. It’s his fourth novel but the first to be published in the UK. The Folly is his debut and entirely different from Double Negative. According to the book’s blurb, when it was published in Vladislavić’s native South Africa back in 1993 it was considered to be an allegory of apartheid but without that prior knowledge I’m not entirely sure I would have come to that conclusion.

It opens with Nieuwenhuizen surveying the desolate plot he’s inherited having arrived by taxi with nothing but an ‘imitation-leather portmanteau’. Next door, the quarrelsome Mr and Mrs Malgas gaze out of the window mystified as to what he’s up to. She’s deeply suspicious, urging her husband to find out what’s going on after Nieuwenhuizen pitches camp. Obediently he wanders over and introduces himself with an offer of help, brushed aside by Nieuwenhuizen who says he’ll call Malgas when he’s ready. So begins an odd relationship in which Nieuwenhuizen cajoles, beguiles, ridicules and exploits Malgas, drawing him into his illusion of a grand house replete with rumpus room and bomb shelter until Malgas sees it with his own eyes, eagerly joining Nieuwenhuizen every evening to gauge the progress of this grandiose edifice. All this is watched by the ever-sceptical Mrs Malgas who diverts her attention from her increasing anger by inventorying her seemingly endless collection of knick-knacks.

Vladislavić’s writing is often very striking – ‘The radio hinted and tipped’ neatly conveys the rather didactic nature of Mrs Malgas’ listening; the ever more baroque descriptions of Nieuwenhuizen’s Plan are vivid – but its allegorical references are somewhat opaque, at least to a present day British reader, although some of its allusions and symbolism are clear. Nieuwenhuizen seduces Malgas using a combination of arrogance and false chuminess, musing that Malgas ‘seems eager to serve. But he’s full of questions, and hard to convince’. He urges Malgas to call him ‘Father’ and at one point in a fit of panic Malgas calls out ‘daddy, daddy’. Towards the end Nieuwenhuizen is striding around in a bandolier and hunter’s hat much to Malgas’ chagrin, eventually turning on his hapless neighbour with ‘This is my house… … My namesake. You’re just a visitor… not even that, some sort of janitor – a junior one, with no qualifications and precious little experience, and damned lucky to have a broom cupboard all to your self’ before proclaiming ‘What’s in a house? There’s plenty where this one came from’ like a true imperialist laying claim to the world. It’s all beautifully expressed, and astonishingly ambitious for a debut. When I reviewed Double Negative I mentioned Teju Cole’s illuminating introduction. Another for The Folly would have been very welcome.

I wasn’t the only one scratching my head about South African allegories. Just before I started writing this review I read Claire’s of Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk which sounds intriguing but I don’t think I’ll be reading it just yet.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (transl. Lisa Dillman): A Mexican fable

Cover imageMade up of only nine short chapters, Yuri Herrera’s novella weighs in at just over one hundred pages. You might be forgiven for thinking you could knock it off in a few hours and move onto the next pressing book on the list that only seems to get longer but that would be a mistake. Herrera packs a great deal of food for thought into this short book. Reading Lisa Dillman’s illuminating translator’s note at the end of it might be best done before you start – there are a few hints as to the turns the story takes but plot isn’t the point here.

This is the tale of Makina and the journey she makes from the Little Town by way of the Big Chilango across the border to the United States in search of her brother who set off three years ago to lay claim to their father’s fabled patch of land. Makina is fluent in her own language, in anglo and in the lingo that has sprung up between the two. A switchboard operator, she’s privy to messages passed back and forth across the border, adept at reading nuance. She’s savvy, smart and – that word that’s always used for strong women – feisty, more than capable of fending off the endless lechery that comes her way. She has no intention of staying in the land of the anglos – she’s only going to please her mother. Her passage is eased by the repayment of favours owed by a gangster and what she finds is surprising. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Herrera’s novella tells of Makina’s journey – fraught with hardship and challenge – from one world to the other, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground.

The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid: a vigilante rancher’s ‘eyes shot bullets through the two windows between them’; ’you are the door, not the one who walks thorough it’ perfectly describes the job of the message carrier avoiding trouble. Makina is a memorable character, powerfully drawn, who makes you look at Westerners afresh. As she journeys from one world to the other, she wonders what to make of this place where there’s only one festival considered worth celebrating, where her fellow Mexicans tacitly recognise but dare not embrace her. She stumbles upon a gay marriage and wonders why the joyful couple might want to enter into this institution which seems to make so many people unhappy. Herrera – and Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving you pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.

Sworn Virgin by Elivira Dones (transl. Clarissa Botsford) plus Shiny New Books issue 2

Sworn VirginJust back from my holidays – more about that later in the week – but in case you’ve not yet noticed I thought I’d let you know about the second issue of Shiny New Books. I have a review of the intriguing Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin in this issue. It’s set in Northern Albania where the clan system is deeply embedded, blood feuds confine families to their houses for decades and, according to traditional law, a woman can become a ‘sworn virgin’ taking the name, dress and persona of a man providing there are no males of her generation in the family – an honorable choice for a woman left alone in this strictly segregated society. This is what Hana decides to do. Aged nineteen, reluctant to accept an arranged marriage and easy prey for sexual predators, she becomes Mark and remains so until her cousin Lila invites her to join her family in America. Click here for the full review but if that doesn’t take you fancy there are a multitude of reviews and features that might. Do pay them aMarmot in the Dolomites visit.

Back to the laundry mountain but before I go here’s a little taster for my ‘what I did on my holidays’ post. Look very closely and you’ll see a marmot sticking its head up through the gorgeous meadow flowers that were everywhere in the Dolomites. I have to say that s/he reminds me very much of Punxsutawney Phil from Groundhog Day.

Why we need independent publishers

Quercus logoLast week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent  started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent

I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.

I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with theCorsair logo literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.

Double Negative from And Other Stories: A new approach to publishing

Cover imageI have to confess that I hadn’t heard of And Other Stories until a copy of Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative dropped through my letterbox. They’re a not-for-profit organisation who publish books funded by subscriptions from the likes of you and me, readers keen to support new writing and happy to pay an annual subscription for two, four or six of their books – publisher crowd sourcing, if you will. If Double Negative is anything to go by the standard of writing is well worth the subscription.

Narrated by Neville Lister, the book is structured in three parts each set in a different period forming a triptych of South African apartheid. It opens in the early 1980s with Nev, freshly dropped out of university, becoming embroiled in a minor brawl with his racist new neighbours. His father arranges for him to spend a day with Saul Auerbach, a much-lauded documentary photographer. Nev finds himself playing third wheel to Auerbach and Gerald Brookes a British journalist who sets Auerbach a challenge: they will each choose a house and Auerbach must take a portrait of the occupant. The first two become celebrated emblems of apartheid but time is too short for Nev’s choice. The middle section sees Nev returning from a decade spent in London. He’s now a photographer but not in the Auerbach mould. His are the photos in catalogues, magazines, advertisements. Drawn back to the third house, he listens to the elderly householder’s stories and examines a stash of dead letters sent by poor black workers that never reached their families. The third section is set in 2009. Now married, Nev’s photographs of walls and their faded vestiges of apartheid are about to be shown in an exhibition. He’s being interviewed by an eager young blogger, keen to document his work.

Vladislavić’s writing is beautiful, almost painterly in its subtlety. Metaphors and similes abound, devices often overused by clunky writers but here they work: ‘I don’t care for the excess of paving like pressed grey linen, it’s too proper I think, a city square in a business suit. But on that day it had loosened its buttons’ is the perfect description for the jubilation outside South Africa House on the day of the 1994 South African elections which brought Nelson Mandela to power. Nev’s day with Janie, the blogger, nicely echoes his own with Auerbach contrasting her manic digicam tour of a black village with Auerbach’s patient wait for light and the subject’s story to emerge for his portraits. The book is a treat from start to finish, illuminated by Teju Cole’s fine introduction. If you’re interested in subscribing to And Other Stories or would like to see what else they publish you can visit their website here.

Hugh Masekela and Larry WillisReading Double Negative reminded me of the Hugh Masekela concert H and I went to in Bristol a few weeks back. We couldn’t believe our luck at getting the tickets. He was playing with Larry Willis, the pianist he had met 50 years ago when the two were students in New York. There was a wonderful rapport between them and a tremendous wave of affection from those of us who remembered Masekela’s Free Nelson Mandela days. We had hoped for an evening of excellent music, which we got, but neither of us had expected Masekela to be so funny, or to be such a vivid raconteur of his New York jazz days. He also spoke touchingly of his ex-wife the late Miriam Makeba with whom, it seemed to me, he was still in a little love. A great and memorable evening.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few days, written before the sad but not unexpected news of Nelson Mandela’s death. As Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘he made us understand that we can change the world’. And she should know.