“…while a wave fingers the beaches, never farther, never nearer, we will grow old and die.” #rosalindbrackenbury @spikenard65 #ReadIndies


Continuing with my journey through #ReadIndies, another favourite independent press whose books turn up regularly on the Ramblings is that of Michael Walmer. Mike initially published out of Australia but relocated to the Shetlands – and what a change that must have been – where he continues to issue fascinating works, from lost classics to books from more recent years which are unjustly ignored. Today’s book for #ReadIndies is one of the latter, from an author being championed by Mike – “A Virtual Image” by Rosalind Brackenbury.

Brackenbury is a writer still living and working, and I reviewed her first novel, “A Day to Remember to Forget” (1971), back in June last year. It was a beautifully written and very atmospheric work, and so I was keen to move on to “Virtual”, Brackenbury’s second novel, which was published in the same year. The beautiful cover of the book is apt, as it follows the lives of two women who have been friends from childhood and are both artists – Anna Parrish and Ruby Smith. Anna is blonde and beautiful and ethereal, Ruby the down-to-earth dark-haired sensible one; hints of Snow White and Rose Red, then. They grew up together living in their own intense childhood world of fantasy, play and make-believe; and in some ways it does seem they’ve never quite left it.

Anna usually takes the lead, and the bulk of the narrative tells the story of a summer where the two friends have planned to meet up in France; at an artists’ colony of sorts, but if that doesn’t work out, the back up plan is to meet in the South, in the Camargue. The story is (mostly) narrated from the point of view of Ruby, and we follow her journey driving through France, firstly stopping off with some friends, then moving on to the artists’ colony. At neither place has she really found a trace of Anna, and the colony is a disappointed, with most of the activity involved being worship of the two artists running the place. So Ruby moves on, driving further into the South of France, and it is when she arrives at Aigues-Mortes, where the women were meant to meet, that she runs into Caleb ‘Caley’ Hanson, an American poet. Caley is a friend of Ruby’s friends, but as the reader knows from earlier parts of the narrative, he’s also been involved with Anna and their affair had not gone well. So both Ruby and Caley are on the same quest, to find Anna, which inevitably draws them together. But will they find their missing friend? And how will what they find affect them?

There are days which seem to have been washed, early in the morning, which start with such hope that by midday they can only be a blazing miracle, by evening they have changed and mellowed and set one at rest; it was a day like that, or I think I should have looked a little longer backward. As it was, my eyes followed my pointing car bonnet towards the south, and I rolled the windows down and filled my eyes and lungs with the beauty of rural France…

It has to be said up front that Brackenbury writes beautifully, a quality I remarked on in my review of her first novel. The opening pages of “Virtual”, where Ruby looks back on her childhood and growing up alongside Anna are quite stunning; vivid, evocative, capturing the days of childhood brilliantly, it’s a remarkable start to a book. And her prose is like this all the way through; often dream-like, sinuous and wonderfully poetic, she conjures place and time with apparent ease. Looking back, those times were odd; the turn of the decade, from 1960s into 1970s, was an era where things were out of place a little. The 1960s had brought changes but it was still unusual, perhaps, to see women travelling through France on their own; in the relationships between Caley and the women there are questions about how they should behave; and as both women are artists, it’s fascinating to see the place art takes in their lives, and the struggle to decide if they need men, or if the best choice is to stay single and follow your art, not your heart.

I don’t want to provide any spoilers here, because although this is not a mystery or thriller novel, the end is perhaps a little unexpected – or maybe not! Certainly, Ruby becomes much clearer about what her friendship with Anna has actually been, and is hopefully going to be able to move on with her life. And the dramatic finale, set in a brilliantly depicted South of France, with its heat and smells, is striking and memorable.

“A Virtual Image” was an immersive and compelling read, and Brackenbury’s powers of description are impressive. Whether driving down the French roads with Ruby or looking out over the countryside, the landscapes come vividly alive as if you’re living out the story alongside the characters. As I mentioned, most of the narrative is from the point of view of Ruby apart from occasional inserted passages which, as you read, it becomes clear are from Anna or Caley. In her fascinating introduction, Janet Burroway posits a theory that those parts might even be projections from Ruby, putting forward what she thinks might be running through the heads of Anna or Caley. It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not entirely sure  I would agree; for me, those narrative voices were a necessary counterpart to that of Ruby, and convincingly showed how what people are thinking can be very different to what we imagine is going through their heads!

So another winner from Mike Walmer! It really is beyond me why Brackenbury’s work is not more widely known, as she’s such a marvellous prose stylist, and so wonderful at atmosphere. Fortunately for me, Mike has also reissued Brackenbury’s third novel, “Into Egypt” – so I have another treat in store! 😀

“I’m not on good terms with the present day, but posterity loves me.” #SigizmundKrzhizhanovsky @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary #ReadIndies


For our #ReadIndies a year ago, I was delighted to be able to revisit one of my favourite authors in translation, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I think I’ve written about everything of his which has been translated into English, mainly in volumes from NYRB Classics, translated by the wonderful Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov, and his writing is truly unique. However, in 2022 Columbia University Press took up the baton, bringing out a new collection of Krzhizhanovky’s non-fiction under their Russian Library umbrella. ‘Countries That Don’t Exist turned out to be a stupendous read, expertly rendered into English by a group of talented translators. So imagine my excitement when I learned that CUP were bringing out *another* Krzhizhanovky in time for this year’s #ReadIndies; and that it was going to be a collection of fictions entitled ‘Stravaging “Strange”‘, with Turnbull and Formazov at the helm!! The publisher kindly made a copy available for review and frankly I was so hyped that the book barely made it onto the TBR before I picked it up and started reading; and I’m happy to report that it lived up to my expectations!

Well done CUP for naming the translators on the cover!!! 😀

I won’t go over SK’s background again, but suffice to say he ‘wrote for the drawer’ pretty much all of his life and it’s only in recent decades, since the fall of the Soviet Union, that his work’s been discovered and has been reaching the audience it deserves. The bulk of his work which has been published in English is in the short story/novella format, and he excels in this. The new collection, with its unusual title, does include shorter works, and what treasures they are. The three fictions are the title work, plus Catastrophe and Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki. The first and last are substantial pieces, approaching novella length; the middle one a shorter, more overtly philosophical piece, which is quite haunting; and all are just marvellous.

I have a platform ticket to literature. I watch others seeing people off or departing. but I’m not meeting anyone or seeing anyone off. That’s how it is.

First, I’ll address that word ‘stravaging’; I had to look it up, and it comes from the Scots/Irish word ‘stravaig’ which can be defined as wandering about aimlessly or with no goal – so that’s my vocabulary expanded! The title story could be regarded as typical SK, as it has a fable like quality, drawing on the imagery and adventuring of a Gulliver. The story within a story (told to the narrator by his old magus) tells of that teacher’s adventures in pursuit of a woman he loves; his next door neighbour, married to a much older professor, she’s somewhat out of his reach. However, the teacher is provided, by his own tutor, with a liquid which will shrink him, Alice-like, to a size too small to be perceived. He pursues his adventures, where to travel next door is an epic quest, and because of his miniaturisation can cause havoc with his rival, the Professor. And indeed, when returned to full size, he pursues an affair with his neighbour. However, jealousy will cause him to drink another potion which will cause him to become even more microscopic…

Catastrophe, by contrast, explores what would happen to the universe if Kantian thought was taken to its ultimate end, resulting in time no longer existing – which would indeed be a catastrophe! I’ll say no more about this piece, but it was most entertaining and thought-provoking!

Here the outskirts of literature ended. I went as far as possible past the line of words, walked through wastelands, falling down and picking myself up, despairing and spurred by the power of my despair. Suddenly I saw – looming up through the nothingness – the verge of a forest of mysterious and ineffable images. I looked round – and realized: I would never make it back to words.

The final piece, Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki, relates a fictional biography of a remarkably unsettled man! Katafalaki is fated never to find a real home, constantly on the search for the perfect tutor, the perfect discipline to study, and plagued by bad luck. He travels from country to country, moving through Berlin, Paris and even London, desperately trying to find his place and his metier. Yet nothing he tries seems to work, he’s easily tricked by those more devious than him, and even his attempt to make his mark by literally walking every street of London over a number of years is ruined by WW1 and then life moving on while he somehow stands still whilst continuing to walk… It’s a mesmerising work of fiction, with an unforgettable protagonist.

That’s just a little of what the stories are about, but I have to mention again SK’s unique prose; I’ve commented in the past how he twists your expectations, having a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That’s on show here, as well as his incredible imagination; the vivid descriptions in Stravaging are stunning, conjuring images of how the world would look from the viewpoint of something microscopic, and really I think his writings are quite visionary. The whole of Catastrophe, with its brilliant sequence of events showing how philosophy can literally affect the world, is stunning. And Katafalaki, with its hapless and peripatetic protagonist, surely is also some kind of wish-fulfilment for SK, who was never able to travel thanks to the Soviet regime. Just brilliant, all three pieces.

I live in such a distant future that my future seems to me past, spent, and turned to dust.

The three fictions on their own would make this a treasured volume in my collection of SK; however, there are other riches included. SK obviously kept extensive notebooks (as well as loose-leaf notes it seems), and some extracts of these were featured in ‘Countries That Don’t Exist’. Much to my delight, more are included here and these are wonderful; often short Krzhizhanovsky-ish aphorisms, but sometimes longer pieces; frankly, I loved these and I want all the SK I can get my hands on!

But the icing on the cake was the last section of the book; this contains extracts of the memoirs of SK’s partner (and eventual wife), Anna Bovshek, and these were just wonderful. Bovshek met SK in 1920 in Kiev, and they were together until his death in 1950; and these extracts give us a vivid pen portrait of the author. As there is no biography of him available as far as I’m aware (at least in English) this is incredibly important and to see SK spring to life through the eyes of someone close to him was the best thing. I devoured this section, witnessing his struggles to write and be published, his poverty and devotion to his art whatever the circumstances, and was terribly moved. Whoever decided to include this deserves immense thanks.

As you might have guessed from all the hyperbole, I utterly adored this book; it breaks my heart that SK could never be published in his lifetime, but maybe the world just wasn’t ready for him then. At least he’s found an audience and a readership in this messed up modern world, and I have say he’s up there with my favourite Russian authors (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov). I can’t praise or thank enough those who’ve brought SK’s work to the English-speaking world, especially the dynamic duo of Turnbull/Formozov. I’ve been having a wonderful reading year so far, and this is another book which is certainly going to make it onto my best of 2023 list. If you like quirky and thought-provoking, I do recommend SK – a marvellous, marvellous writer!

“…bright ideas are so soon demolished…” #ReadIndies #deathofanauthor @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks


I suppose it was inevitable that I would squeeze some Golden Age crime into #ReadIndies, especially as I believe British Library Publishing counts under our rules! I have a number of their books on the TBR, but my eye was caught by a recent arrival from the pen of E.C.R. Lorac – the intriguingly titled “Death of an Author“. Lorac’s a writer I’ve been so happy to discover via the various BL reprints, and her books have made a number of appearances here on the Ramblings (including a particular favourite under one of her other pseudonyms). She can always be relied on for a twisty plot, and so I was keen to see where she went with this particular title.

“Death of an Author” is an early Lorac, from 1935, and apparently has been one of her rarest titles, very hard to find nowadays; so kudos again to the BL for reprinting it. Interestingly, it doesn’t feature her usual series detective, Inspector Macdonald; instead, the sleuths are Chief Inspector Warner and Inspector Bond; and the mystery they have to investigate is certainly a testing one! The book opens with publisher Andrew Marriott meeting with one of his most successful authors, Michael Ashe; and after discussing literature, and the failings of the crime novel, they move on to the subject of Vivian Lestrange. The latter has written the hugely successful mystery novel, “The Charterhouse Case”, which is considered not only a brilliant crime novel but also a highly accomplished work of literature. However, Lestrange himself is a total mystery; a recluse, whom nobody ever sees nor knows anything about, he’s managed to elude all attempts to meet him. Ashe is desperate to do so, though the resulting encounter confuses all concerned.

However, three months later, things become even less clear; a young woman, Eleanor Clarke, walks into a police station and reports her employer Vivian Lestrange missing, along with his housekeeper. The police attend his house, but are not actually convinced there has ever been a murder; or, indeed, whether Vivian Lestrange has ever existed, since Clarke had previously attended the dinner party at the publishers to meet Ashe, claiming to be Lestrange herself. So Bond and Warner set to investigate a possible murder of a person who might or might not exist, with no evidence and no way to know if they can trust Eleanor herself. When I said Lorac was good at twisty, I wasn’t lying…

There’s so much to love about “Death…” and I found for me it succeeded on a number of levels. As a mystery it’s clever and tricky; the narrative keeps you wondering about who to believe, whether Eleanor is telling the truth, whether Lestrange actually existed, and if there even has been a murder. Warner and Bond take opposing points of view, and I tended to find myself agreeing with whichever of them was proposing a particularly clever solution – really, I think I’d be rubbish on a jury!

Then there’s the whole debate about the merits of crime writing, which are very entertainingly discussed; it does seem that the views of the time were that this kind of book was meant to be read and discarded, and indeed some are ephemeral. However, the best of GA crime writing can in my mind stand beside any other kind of literature; I would challenge anyone to dismiss Sayers, for example. Alongside this aspect, Lorac uses her work to put up a robust defence against those who criticised women’s writing, challenging readers to identify the sex of an author simple from the text. She allows Eleanor to strongly assert that modern women are having none of this nonsense and that one’s sex is irrelevant to the quality of one’s work – it’s very robust and refreshing to see her arguing like this!

Another fascinating element was watching Warner and Bond investigate, and recognising how different the world was in 1935; the between the wars period was a strange one, still close to the turn of the century and the First World War. The world was a bigger place, there were much vaguer records kept and it was quite easy for people to disappear, change their identity and have a background with little or no information about their past. We might think it’s easier to fake an identity nowadays – I guess it can certainly be so online – but in 1935 you could have an identity that went back a couple of years and then nothing. This element comes strongly into place as Bond and Warner continue to investigate, finding a body, digging back into the past and taking their investigation far away from London. It’s ingenious stuff and left me guessing right until the end, which I did enjoy.

Lorac has become a firm favourite for me via these BLCC releases, and “Death of an Author” didn’t disappoint; the narrative is clever and twisty, had me flummoxed in several places and not quite sure who to believe, with a very intriguing (and perhaps unexpected) ending. Shifting and mistaken identities are at the heart of the story and I think you’d have to have a very quick and sharp brain to work this one out before the finale! As always, the book comes with an interesting introduction from Martin Edwards which explores the subject of the author and her various identities when writing.

Golden Age Crime is always my go-to when I need a mental palate cleanser, a read I can rely on enjoying, and something that will be pure pleasure; with Lorac you get that as well as a truly satisfying and involving mystery. “Death of an Author” was a wonderful read, and I only hope the BL continue to reissue her books!

“…the beauty of a hand-poured wee dram is that it is undefined…” @BodPublishing @NonFictioness #weights&measures


Today’s #ReadIndies book is from a publisher who I am pretty sure qualifies as an independent one – Bodleian Library Publishing. The Bodley is part of Oxford University, and I think we *do* include Uni Presses; I’ve enjoyed a number of their books over the years and so I’m pleased to be able to feature one here! The title in question is “The Curious History of Weights & Measures” by Claire Cock-Starkey and it made for a fascinating read.

Cock-Starkey has featured on the Ramblings on a couple of previous occasions, when I explored her entertaining books on grammar/punctuation and libraries; so when I was offered the chance to review her new work I was very keen! How we reckon things in terms of size and weight is a really interesting subject, and as Cock-Starkey’s book reveals, there are more ways to quantify the world around us than you might think!

The book is divided up into sections covering Weights, Length & Area, Volume, Culinary & Informal Measures, and Scales & Scores. Within each section, the author investigates differents units of measurement, from the ‘Pennyweight’ in the first part, through things like the ‘Fathom’ in L&A, to such bizarre-sounding concepts as ‘The Glasgow Coma Scale’ in S&S. The book is just stuffed with fascinating facts and entertaining explorations, and Cock-Starkey delves right back into antiquity to tell us about old ways of reckoning things like the use of a hand to measure, now only really associated with horses. Weights and measures have, of course, changed radically over the years, and do vary widely depending on where you live. Even in my lifetime we’ve gone from imperial to metric and although some of that was an improvement for those of us who are a bit mathematically challenged, when it comes to measuring length, for example, I still think in ‘old money’ (inches) 😀

Then there are astronomical measurements, with the author touching on light years and parsecs, things she acknowledges are very complicated (and I’m glad about that, because I was thinking it was just me being thick…) I loved the Culinary section particularly, with its first chapter being entitled ‘Smidge, pinch, dollop, dash & drop’ – Cock-Starkey acknowledges wryly that these are always going to be undefined and might depend on whether you’re adding salt or wine to a recipe! The blurb on the back of the book asks how you might measure something like the heat of a chilli pepper, and the answer seems to be a thing called the Scoville Scale, which is again going to be very subjective as it depends on each individual’s heat threshold (mine is low – I’m a wimp…) Weather and planetary events are also covered, with the Richter Scale, the Beaufort Scale and the Fujita Scale featuring too.

Those are just a few of the joys of this book, and reading it really makes you realise how much of our daily life is spent assessing things! It’s a lovely volume to dip into, or read a section at a time, and there was so much here I’d not come across before. “The Curious History of Weights and Measures” is a wonderful read, brimming with information and fascinating facts which get you scratching your head and musing that you never knew *that* before! And as well as a fun read, it would also serve as a wonderful reference book, as it’s indexed, comes with a variety of scales and conversion charts, and on top of that has some lovely monochrome illustrations, including some marvellous vintage ones. Another winner from Claire Cock-Starkey and Bodleian Library Press, and a book that would make perfect reading for anyone with a curious mind! 😀

(“The Curious History of Weights and Measures” is published today; many thanks to the publishers for the review copy!)

A powerful and trenchant look at the fortunes of the North – over @ShinyNewBooks @BloomsburyBooks @Alex_Niven


Today I’m taking a temporary detour from #ReadIndies to direct you a new review I have up on Shiny New Books today. The work in question is a powerful new book from Alex Niven called “The North Will Rise Again” and you can read my full review here.

However, I wanted to say a little more here about how much I responded to this book on a personal level.

Niven is an author who’s already featured on the Ramblings several times before; his hybrid work “Newcastle, Endless” was my first introduction to his writing, and I followed this up by reading his fascinating “New Model Island” which explored ideas for a better way to govern our country, and the thoughts he came up with here do inform “The North…” More recently, I spent many happy hours exploring “The Letters of Basil Bunting” which had been expertly selected and annotated by Niven.

There is inevitably a thread running through all of his books and that is, of course, the North. Now I’m a far Northerner myself, originally hailing from Edinburgh, and the older I get, the more I feel drawn back to that part of the world. As I mention in my review of “The North…”, Niven describes that longing for your homeland by using the Welsh word hiraeth, and certainly I often find myself fighting off my homesickness! So, much of the narrative in Niven’s new book certainly resonated with me strongly.

An additional element which appealed, of course, was Niven’s exploration of the culture of the North-East, in particular Newcastle’s Morden Tower poetry boom. I’ve written about Bunting, Tom Pickard and the other Morden Tower poets before; and so it was fascinating to see them slotted into the history of the area in this book, which takes a wide-ranging look at history, culture, sociology, politics and life in general all over the North.

The book also had the unexpected result of sending me off down a musical rabbit hole! There’s coverage of the Newcastle band ‘Lindisfarne’, who I vaguely recall from my childhood, and this reminded me I had meant to watch a recent BBC documentary on their singer/songwriter Alan Hull. So I dug this out and had a look, and it was fascinating and quite brilliantly done, and I’m currently spending a lot of time exploring their music! Rather wonderfully, too, there was another connection in that Hull was a friend of Tom Pickard, appearing on screen in the latter’s short play “Squire” in the 1970s. Pickard appeared in the documentary talking about his friend and reading a poem about his death – very moving. Here’s one of Hull’s most highly praised songs:

Anyway – this is a book which I not only think is a very important read, it’s also one which I thoroughly enjoyed and which touched me very deeply. Do check out my review, and read the book if you can – a fascinating look at the history of the North, as well as an exploration of how we could work for a better future for all.

“The danger that we are seeing too much in such images is never far away…” #ReadIndies @briangdillon @FitzcarraldoEds #Affinities


Those of you with longer memories will recall that #ReadIndies grew out of Fitzcarraldo Editions Fornight, an event Lizzy and I co hosted back in 2020. So while we have expanded our remit for #ReadIndies, I always like to fit in a Fitzcarraldo book if I can; and I was delighted that this month sees the release of a new essay collection by one of my favourite essayists, Brian Dillon. Entitled “Affinities”, it explores a series of visual images, mostly photographic ones, which have occupied the mind of the author over the years, and perhaps took on more importance during the COVID lockdowns. The result is a fascinating book which takes a look of those works of art which inspire us and the resonances we find between them.

I suspect it might have been sensible to have my trusty notebook to hand when reading “Affinities” – so many interesting quotes and ideas to remember!!

Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is currently UK editor of Cabinet magazine as well as teaching Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. “Essayism” was his first Fitzcarraldo, and he’s written a number of books, myriad articles and curated exhibitions; “Affinities” is his fourth work to be issued by the publisher and it carries on the high standard of the earlier books (the other two titles are “In the Dark Room” and “Suppose a Sentence“, which you can read about if you follows the links to my previous posts!)

Affinity is a mood. A temporary emotional state, yes – but also something close to the musical or grammatical meanings. A mode, that is…

Dillon’s previous books have ranged far and wide over autobiography, essays and the point of them, the sentence as a work of art and much, much more. A regular subject is art and photography, where he often references such luminaries as Sontag and Barthes, and so it’s particularly interesting to see him explore mostly the visual in this work. The book features a series of pieces on specific works or artists, interspersed with essays of varying lengths on the whole concept of affinity itself; it’s an often nebulous word which can be interpreted in many ways, and Dillon is not only exploring the affinity we as viewers might feel with a particular piece of art, but also the affinities which we might perceive as existing between different artworks. These are subjective judgements, but can really affect our appreciation of a photograph or, say, a piece of performance art, and that very personal relationship between humans and something another human has created can be remarkably powerful.

The subjects of the essays run in broadly chronological order which adds a fascinating element to the reading of the book. Early photography features, from the very first images captured by artists such as the pioneering Julia Margaret Cameron; and it’s interesting to note through Dillon’s explorations that much of what we perceive now as atmospheric blurring, which is so effective in the photography of the time, was in fact down to technical issues.

The affinity…is a kind of crush, and like a crush it tends to mark one out for the moment as faintly mad. The one who feels an affinity embraces knowingly, eagerly, his or her own madness and stupidity. Idiocy. Affinity exiles us from consensus, from community.

Dillon moves on through artists such as Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Beckett and Warhol; but he also looks at other ‘non-artistic’ images, such as scientific studies of sea creatures, visual representations of the auras producted by migraines, and even illustrations created from dreams. All of these works have come more into focus (hah!) for Dillon during lockdown, when the enforced silence and solititude forced us back into ourselves more than usual; and their importance in helping relate to other humans and find those affinities when we most needed them was significant.

Moving to more modern works, Dillon looks at contemporary creations from a fascinating array of artists, most of whom were new to me; that’s the danger of a book like this (and in fact all of Dillon’s books, with their lists of sources/references/recommended reading at the end, have left me with notebook pages full of things I want to follow up…) Of the modern creators featured, John Stezaker and Tacita Dean were particularly interesting; and as the books features a monochrome illustration to go with most of the essays, there was a useful opportunity to glimpse the works of the artists.

As for the ‘Affinity’ essays, these range across general discussion to more personal explorations the affinities reveal. Inevitably, one of the photographic images which moves Dillon most strongly revives memories of the early loss of his mother from a rare disease, an event which has so obviously marked his life. That photo triggers a look back to her life, to events which he feels drawn to revisit and yet will never truly be able to understand; it’s a poignant read and Dillon himself says “To write means to find reasons to tell you about my mother, about my ordinary orphanhood and ordinary grief.” Though I think it’s worth stating here that no grief is ever ordinary…

It has to be said that Dillon is a powerful essayist and his writing is always beautiful; he’s also an erudite author, drawing on the influences of those commentators of the visual I mentioned earlier. And the overarching concept for the book is a fascinating one; the original meaning of ‘affinity’ was an attraction of opposites, but nowadays it’s a word used more to indicate a close similarity between things, or an attraction to, or sympathy for, something. Certainly, we all sense our own personal affinities, whether with other people or with music or with art or with writing; and that’s the joy of a book like this, which is intensely personal, yet sets you off on so many trails when you feel an affinity with the works or artists Dillon is writing about.

As you probably know if you’re a regular visitor to the Ramblings, I love a good essay; and Dillon is one of my favourite modern purveyors of the form. “Affinities” was a joy from start to finish; fascinating, thought-provoking, often very moving, it made me re-see some of the artists of whom I was aware, create a list of those I want to explore more and also made me re-evaluate the resonances I sense amongst those creatives who are my personal favourites. A wonderful book by a favourite author, and another excellent release from Fizcarraldo!

(“Affinities” is published on 16th February; many thanks to Fizcarraldo for kindly providing a review copy).

“illusions illusions illusions” #ReadIndies @glagoslav


Today’s #ReadIndies post features another favourite indie publisher of mine – the wonderful Glagoslav Publications. They’re an independent British-Dutch press specializing in the publication and worldwide distribution of English and Dutch translations of works from Slavic countries, as well as those bordering the Slav countries. I’ve read and covered a number of fascinating works they’ve released and today am delighted to be going in another new direction, as I’ve been reading a fascinating book of poems from a new author to me – “Poems about my Psychiatrist” by Andrzej Kotański, translated and introduced by Charles S. Kraszewski.

Now this is a new collection to me, but as the introduction makes clear, it’s a work which is astonishingly popular in its native Poland; and although that country loves its poets and their verses, in our modern age for a book of poems to sell so well is unusual. So what *is* it about “Poems…” which makes it so readable and popular?

Well, it’s a slim volume made up of page-long poems in blank verse, and many of them take the form of a dialogue between the narrator and his psychiatrist (as you might expect…) Although it’s not stated who is saying what lines, it’s pretty clear which is the view of the narrator and which of the psychiatrist! And the too and fro between the two is often very, very funny…

o please let’s not be
so afraid of the heebie jeebies
from the very dawn of history
no one’s ever been harmed by the heebie jeebies

Not all the poems are dialogues however; some are simply the narrator relating his thoughts about the psychiatrist, musing on issues in his life, and his failed relationships. The titles give a good hint of what’s contained here: “My psychiatrist went skiing”, “My psychiatrist has episodes of fury”, “My condition is stable”, “My psychiatrist doesn’t know what to do with me” – well, you get the picture! And also the titles hint at wry humour, which the poems do contain, although as the book progresses you realise that there’s a lot more going on under the surface.

The narrator is clearly someone who’s struggling to cope with life; as I mentioned earlier, there are failed relationships, loneliness and an apparent wish to flee from the everyday. Oddly, many of the characteristics of the narrator are reflected in his psychiatrist, to a point where you begin to wonder if there are two people in this dialogue or whether one is the projection of the other… Although the poems are clear and easy to read, they begin to undermine your certainties the further you get into the book; and this is a collection which definitely left me with many thoughts and questions at the end!

“Poems…” was first published in 2011, and this reissue contains an extra 10 poems added to the cycle as an addendum. They seem to me to fit in seamlessly with the original and I found the book a clever, fascinating and very thought-provoking collection. My response to poetry is always a very emotional one, and it has to click with me immediately; Kotański definitely did and I devoured this collection in big gulps, reslishing the wordplay and wit (well done that translator!) but also being struck by the underlying thoughts.

So “Poems about my Psychiatrist” turned out to be another stellar read from Glagoslav. I absolutely loved Andrzej Kotański’s verse, and sadly I think this may be the only volume currently available in English – but I do get that translating poetry is a particularly difficult branch of the translator’s art. If you’re in the mood to explore some entertaining yet thought-provoking poetry, I can highly recommend this book. Another winner from Glagoslav and I absolutely loved it! 😀

A couple of slim and entertaining volumes from a favourite indie! @RenardPress #ReadIndies


Today I want to share some new titles from one of my favourite indies, Renard Press! I’ve sung their praises enough times on the Ramblings for them to need no introduction, so I’ll just get on with talking about the books instead. I have a monthly sub to Renard, which I think is a great way to support an indie, and the most recent arrivals were different but lovely! Renard specialise in bite-size treats which can be read in one sitting, and both of these fit that bill.

The History of England, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian – Jane Austen

First up, a small but entertaining piece of juvelinia from the wonderful Jane Austen. Here, she turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man” (I’ve long felt that history has misrepresented him!) The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)

This is such fun (as is all Austen’s youthful writing, which I’ve covered in the past). I particularly enjoyed these humorous vignettes, and the edition is enhanced by the colourful reproductions of Cassandra’s illustrations on the inner covers. A treat!

Morris’s Manifestos 1: Art, Wealth and Riches – William Morris

Renard also print some marvellous essays in free-standing editions – the Orwells they’ve done so far are stellar – and this particular title inaugurates a new series of ‘Morris’s Manifestos’ which promises to bring to readers a series of writings by the esteemed artist and polymath William Morris. His work has become absorbed into our culture, and he’s so often now thought of in terms simply of his beautiful and distinctive designs. However, Morris was responsible for much more than lovely images; he had strong Socialist and Utopian views and values, and these come to the fore in this work which is drawn from a talk Morris gave at the Manchester Royal Institution in 1883.

Morris was of course a champion of all that is useful and beautiful, and supported artisanal crafts produced individually and with love and care. His lecture is critical of mass-production, the creation of ugly objects in difficult and unpleasant conditions, and all to feed what he calls competitive commerce’. He obviously recognised early on the negative effects of factory work, the division of labour into piece work and the deleterious effects of unsatisfying toil. And he’s clear about how it’s the workers who suffer and not the bosses – it’s obvious whose side he’s on.

“Art…” also rails against the wealth of the country, in terms of its heritage and its artistic creations, being kept in the hands of those with riches, bringing them more funds, and keeping the mass of the people downtrodden. Morris seems always concerned for a fairer, more equal society and his beliefs are laudable and inspiring.

Since the time of Morris’s life and work we have moved on, of course, to technologies and populations of which he could never have dreamed. And perhaps the kind of Utopian, gilded life he proposed is out of reach for most. However, his work is a stirring reminder that we can make a difference by choosing to take something into our homes that will last, rather than something cheap and ephemeral; that we *should* still fight for equality for all; and that we should having nothing in our houses which is not beautiful or useful, to paraphrase his famous quote. This is a wonderful first volume in what promises to be a fascinating series, and I’m definitely looking forward to see which title of Morris’s Renard issue next!


So today’s reads were fascinating; a marvellous pair of little books which really packed a punch in different ways. Austen is always a treat, and Morris an inspiring commentator. Renard is a shining example of what can be done by a small organisation determined to produced quality items – in this case, books – and I’m sure William Morris would have approved!

“Home has always been complicated…” #ReadIndies @TheEmmaPress


Having got on so well with a novella for my first #ReadIndies book, I thought it would be nice to keep going with slimmer volumes, especially as I have so many in the pile of possibles and on Mount TBR! So my second book of the month is a recent arrival, one of two from the publishers The Emma Press which were a Christmas gift from lovely blogger HeavenAli. Both of these looked marvellous, but in the end I settled for “Tiny Moons” by Nina Mingya Powles.

First, though, a little background about The Emma Press. Currently based in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, this indie publisher was formed in 2012 by Emma Dai’an Wright, and their focus is on poetry, short fiction, essays and children’s books. Certainly, a quick browse on their website reveals some fascinating-looking titles, and I suspect I may have to explore further… But on to “Tiny Moons”…

The book is subtitled “A Year of Eating in Shanghai”, and the author draws on her mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage; having been born in Aotearoa, New Zealand, it soon becomes clear that she’s led a very peripatetic life. Structured around that year spent in Shanghai, whilst at university studying Mandarin, Powles explores her past and various homelands via the medium of food; and as well as revealing much that is fascinating in the way of food facts, the book also delves into belonging in a particular culture and how what you eat can inform that.

Maybe it’s impossible to recreate the exact weight of a memory, but we keep trying.

The author has revealed the book started out as a diary, and as a food memoir it’s beguiling. Powles writes beautifully and evocatively, capturing a rainy day on campus, the heat of the summer, the changing of the seasons and all through this, the food which is available at that time of the year. The cyclical nature of life is evoked, as well as Powles’ friendships, loneliness and memories of her past and family. It’s a joyful read, and is enhanced by line illustrations by Emma Dai’an Wright; and the inclusion of the Chinese characters for some of the foodstuffs and the make-up, and often poetic translation, of those elements, is a lovely addition.

What does it mean to taste something and be transported to so many places at once, all of them a piece of home? To be half-elsewhere all the time, half-here and not-here. There are two sides of myself: one longing for the city, one at peace near the sea.

At ninety pages, the book is easily devoured in one sitting, but be warned – if you read it whilst hungry, you will end up craving all kinds of food!! I’m a huge fan of rice, noodles, dumplings and all that kind of thing; so I was definitely struggling to resist the urge to send out for a takeaway by the end of it! Powles’ writing captures the appeal of so many different types of food that I did feel I rather wanted to move to Shanghai myself for a year.

As a woman, Powles is very aware of the pressures from society to conform to a particular type, and our complex relationships with food because of it. To be seen to have an interest in, and enjoyment of, food is often portrayed as a negative characteristic where females are concerned and one we need to get past.

It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness. The body must be punished for every misstep; for every “indulgence “the balance of control must be restored. To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, is a radical act, of love.

But there is, of course, more to the book than food; Powles is using this as a tool to find her way into her complex heritage, connect with the different elements that make her up, and the memories of her grandmother in particular are very moving. Recipes can of course be passed down in families, but you never make a meal in the same way as a loved one used to, and I guess every family has its own repertoire of favourite meals (mine certainly does). Food and eating can represent so much more than just fuel to keep us going, and Powles’ exploration of her heritage through the food attached to it makes for a lovely and thoughtful read.

So my first read from The Emma Press turned out to be an atmospheric and memorable little book. It was apparently very popular during the various lockdowns and I totally understand that. Watching the seasons passing and reflecting on life through food is wonderfully distracting, and if this book is any indicator, I’ve obviously found an excellent new author and publisher to explore!

“…one always paints women who never exist…” #ReadIndies @PushkinPress #MonaLisa


My first book for #ReadIndies comes from an indie publisher who I’ve loved reading for many years, and an author who’s become a recent big favourite! The book is “Mona Lisa”, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Ignat Avsey, and the publisher is Pushkin Press.

I came across ALH when I picked up a copy of his “I Was Jack Mortimer”, an energetic noir thriller also published by Pushkin; I read this back in 2015 and enjoyed it very much. Last year, I reconnected with him via his “Baron Bagge”, an atmospheric tale of impossible love, and was convinced he was an author for me. There’s not an awful amount of his work available in English, but I did manage to search out a copy of the slim “Mona Lisa” novella and decided this was a perfect way to kick off #ReadIndies.

“Mona Lisa”, not surprisingly, is set in early 16th century Italy, and follows the misadventures of a young nobleman by the name of Bougainville. Sent as a member of a party of nobles to claim tribute from Naples, he accidentally stumbles upon the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci and the WIP that will become the titular painting. Bougainville is immediately smitten with the woman in the picture, and bereft when he’s told that she died in the plague. He sets out on a quest to find out if this is true – but does the woman in the painting really exist and who, in truth, was she??

ALH’s story is a short one (88 pages) yet provides much food for thought while being very entertaining! “Mona Lisa” offers a surprisingly vivid pen portrait of the mercurial mind of Leonardo at work, and the scenes set in his studio are hilarious. Bougainville is a man obsessed, refusing to accept anything the great artist tells him, covinced Mona Lisa is still alive, and prepared to go to any lengths to find her. This involves battles with locals, invading tombs and all manner of shenanigans; and the end result is frankly not a happy one.

It is certain that nothing, or almost nothing, is ever accomplished to the end, and the little that has been may, in the last analysis, be a delusion.

Underlying the occasionally slapstick action is, of course, a more serious message. ALH explores our obsession not only with the ‘Mona Lisa’ painting and the effect it has on us; he also makes more general points about how paintings actually relate to their subjects, whether there is one true inspiration for a great work of art, and if all art is simply something seen through the eye of the artist rather than existing separately. That alone is fascinating enough, but there is also an element which seems to me to run through all of the author’s books I’ve now read, and that is of lost or impossible love.

In “Jack Mortimer…” the title character was in pursuit of a mysterious and beautiful woman; in “Baron Bagge” the love transcended the most impossible boundary; and here Bougainville is consumed by a passion for a woman who most likely doesn’t even exist. Certainly, this thread which runs through his work seems to be one which really preoccupied him, and I’ll be interested to see if it makes an appearance in the other translated work I have of his on the TBR, “Count Luna”.

So a great start for #ReadIndies month, with a slim but very affecting story from a publisher and an author I love. I enjoyed “Mona Lisa” a lot, and it’s a shame it seems to have slipped out of print (although second hand copies can be tracked down!) I don’t know if I’ll get to “Count Luna” this month (though it would be eligible for #ReadIndies as it’s published by New Directions); but I shall certainly try to get to it sooner rather than later! 😀


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