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“… I prefer a symbol to an explanation.” #ReadIndies @sublunaryeds #mihailsebastian

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Up today on the Ramblings for #ReadIndies is a relatively recent discovery for me; a wonderful indie producing some fascinating and provocative texts in a variety of formats – Sublunary Editions. Based in Seattle in the USA, the publisher offers (like many indies) a subscription option; and that’s how I’ve been exploring their work over the last six months or so. I’ve written about some of their releases previously on the blog, but today I want to share a recent arrival in the form of an obscure work from an author I’ve read before: “Fragments from a Found Notebook” by Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri.

I discovered Sebastian when his seminal work, “For Two Thousand Years”, was finally issued in English translation by Penguin Modern Classics; and you can read my thoughts about that book here. There’s obviously a lot more to this author than just that one book, and if you check out Marina Sofia’s blog you’ll find more coverage of Sebastian. Suffice to say he was a playwright, essayist, journalist and novelist; a multi-talented man who suffered during the 20th century because he was Jewish, and died far too young.

To circle life as a spectator, to adjust it here, to prop it up there, to arrange it. Between a shrub that grows barbarically and a gardener with scissors and plans, my animal sympathy resides wholeheartedly with the first one.

As far as I’m aware, “Fragments…” was Sebastian’s first published work, released in 1932; and it’s making its debut here in English, so kudos to Sublunary for putting this out. The framing narrative is that the main text is taken from a notebook found by the River Seine in Paris, with the author merely the translator (and providing occasional notes to the text). The body of the work is indeed fragmentary; the writer (perhaps channelling his inner Barbellion) recounting parts of his life, episodes of ennui, and his general decadence and dissipation.

Friends and mistresses stayed with me somewhere, bonding to words I had not uttered, fooled by a shadow that was not me.

The writing is, of course, beautiful. And the atmosphere of the narrative oozes from the pages – Paris really is the perfect setting for a work of this kind! The question arises of course as to how much of the narrator was Sebastian himself, and that I can’t answer as I know little about the man and his life. What I *do* know, however, on the evidence of the two works I’ve read, is that he was a marvellous writer.

“Fragments…” is a fascinating read, one which is not necessarily a straightforward narrative, but which catches the thoughts of a man in a particular time and place, perhaps struggling with his sense of identity. I marked quite a number of passages or phrases which resonated, and could have stuck post-its on many more – which shows how much impact this has for such a short work. This is another marvellous release from Sublunary, who really do like to bring out such a wonderful selection of texts; and it’s definitely whetted my appetite to track down more work by Mihail Sebastian!

“…a liquid chorus…” @saltpublishing @HaslerPoet @RebTamas #ReadIndies

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In contrast to my recent post on a fascinating novel in translation from Verso, today I want to focus on an independent publisher closer to home – Salt Publishing, who hail from the East of England. They’re an imprint I wanted to feature during #ReadIndies month as I’m a great fan of their poetry releases, and that’s what I’ll be posting about here.

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of Salt books here on the Ramblings – Marina Warner’s excellent collection of short stories, “Fly Away Home“, and an unexpectedly wonderful book of poetry, “Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel” by Tim Cockburn. I loved both of these, and today’s offerings were equally impressive. Both slim collections were issued in the Salt Modern Voices range (as, I think, was the Cockburn) and they made excellent reading.

“natural histories” by Emily Hasler

Hasler’s volume was first released in 2011, so I guess any biographical information might not be up to date. However, it seems she’s also indiginous to the East of England, and has published her poetry widely as well as winning prizes for it. Since releasing NH, she seems to have issued another collection and on the strength of the Salt volume I’d be very keen on exploring this.

The poetry featured here is very much rooted in nature; but using nature as a jumping off point to explore life and emotions more deeply. There’s an immediacy to this verse which I loved, and many of the poems resonated with me. I was particularly taken with a sequence entitled “The Safe Harbour” which explored the life of Flora McDonald, known of course for her connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie; a very moving series of verses.

She blows out the stars clumps at a time
as though a dandelion clock.

Another poem which struck home was “Snow”, focusing the mind on the changes that weather condition brings, in just a few lines. Nature and the land runs through the words, and interestingly, Hasler uses a quote from Basil Bunting’s great “Briggflatts” as the epigraph to her collection. An impressive and thoughtful book of poetry and worth picking up from Salt if they still have copies.

“The Ophelia Letters” by Rebecca Tamás

Another older release from Salt, Tamás’ collection was issued in 2013 and at that point she was also publishing in journals as well as receiving the Grierson Verse Prize. Like Hasler she’s also released another collection since this one, again sounding most interesting.

As with Hasler’s collection, in Tamas’ work nature and landscape is often to the fore, although she explores more visceral territory – this is nature red in tooth and claw as they say. Meaning is not always obvious, but there is still an immediacy about the writing and some startling, vivid imagery.

There is no road to run down,
no tunnel that leads in or out.

Central to the collection (well, actually at the end of the book, and making up most of the page count!) is the long title poem; and this is a particularly powerful piece of work. Made up of nineteen sections, the verses explore a possible life of Shakespeare’s Ophelia – or possibly an amalgam of Ophelia and the poet herself. Obsession, frozen weather, sex in the snow and dark landscapes appear, while the narrator declares “Clarity, that’s what I keep looking for”. As rain and water begin to appear as motifs towards the end of the work, it’s impossible not to think that this may be prefiguring Ophelia’s eventual fate.

Tamás is another poet whose work I’d love to explore further, and indeed both of these writers have such strong individual voices that it’s not hard to see why Salt published them. Slightly annoyingly, I notice that both poets’ more recent books are rather lazily labelled by the Internet as their debut collections. That’s obvs not the case as these Salt volumes were around long before…

But that’s by the by. Both of these poetry collections were wonderful reads, full of beautifully composed words and vivid imagery. Salt Publishing are definitely one of the indies I’d recommend trying out if you can – they publish a wonderful array of titles and for poetry alone are definitely worth your time and money! 😀

 

“….too weak to hold the fragments together….” #ReadIndies @VersoBooks

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Up today on the blog for #ReadIndies month is a book from a publisher who’s featured on the Ramblings before – Verso. I’ve covered their Book Club before, and the title appearing here today is one which has received a lot of positive coverage and was part of my membership – Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund).

Hjorth hails from Norway, and she’s published a substantial number of works in her native country. I suppose her name first came to promimence with English speaking readers following the release of another of her books by Verso: “Will and Testament”, which came out last year. It garnered a lot of praise, attention and controversy; so I was very keen to see what “Long Live…” was like, particularly as it’s about a subject close to my heart – the postal service!

The post has been much in focus during these strange times, with the USPS under threat from unscrupulous politicians, and our own Post Office doing sterling work getting essential things (like books!) through during the pandemic. The focus in “Long Live…”, however, is the Norwegian postal service and the threat to it from EU directives…

Our narrator is Ellinor, a detached PR consultant who runs a firm with two colleagues, Dag and Rolf. As the book opens, Ellinor is in a strange, mentally disengaged state of mind, looking back at her past and wondering where her life is going. News that Dag has resigned and simply disappeared does not help, and relations with her boyfriend Stein seem equally disconnected. Ellinor is clearly not feeling well at the moment; in fact, her emotions seem quite frozen (much like the Norwegian weather). She’s going through life almost on autopilot, and it’s not until she gets involved with an obscure EU postal directive that things seem to change…

I yearned for a breakdown. To surrender to it and be carted off to a quiet and balmy place far away where the pace was slow.

The Norwegian Postal Workers Union hire Ellinor and Rolf to help them fight the directive, which by allowing competition could completely undermine the country’s postal system. Initially uninterested, Ellinor is drawn into the cause, becoming committed to a most unlikely fight against powerful forces in Government and the EU. Will the fight to save the Post Horn also be a fight to save Ellinor’s sanity?

On its own, the story in “Long Live…” is fascinating enough. Ellinor is a woman at a crisis point, and the fact that at one point she references Plath’s “The Bell Jar” is very relevant. Our narrator is often distracted, incapable of focusing and completely without direction. The fight for the postal system is the key to her recovery, and that battle is also very involving; if you have left wing sympathies like me, and like to root for the underdog, you *will* become invested in that element of the story, although the prospects of a positive result are not good.

However, what lifts the story even more is the language; Hjorth writes quite wonderfully (and I commend her translator, Charlotte Barslund!) The narrative conveys vividly Ellinor’s state of mind, in almost stream of consciousness prose at times, and it’s fascinating watching her change as events start to influence her and her clarity begins to return. Ellinor’s lack of focus on anything but her own internal monlogue is sometimes funny, but often disturbing, and I did wonder at Stein’s apparent failure to notice this… (or maybe the episode with the sex toy was his attempt to get her to engage!)

So “Long Live…” is a perfect combination of story and form, with some wonderfully painted and completely memorable characters; from the absent Dag through the stressed Rolf, via the anxious union members and the committed postal workers, these are all people I felt I knew. The importance of letters and the people that deliver them to our lives become very clear as Ellinor hears stories from the postal workers, and this leads to some poignant moments in the narrative. In particular, the sub-tale of a lost letter and its effects on those who finally receive it is quite moving. As Ellinor regains equilibrium, the people with whom she interacts come into sharper focus – this is a remarkably clever book!

I guess by now you can tell that I absolutely loved this book! We had a slogan back in my early feminist days that the “personal was political” and that’s very much the case here, with a quite brilliant weaving together of those two strands by Hjorth. It’s by looking at the personal, how these big rulings affect people’s everyday lives, that Ellinor not only finds the motivation to try to help them, but also brings her own life back into line. Are there happy endings for all concerned? Are there ever in life? I’m not going to say – but I will instead encourage you to get hold of this book and enjoy it. The fight against an EU directive may not sound like the most obvious subject for a great read, but this book is proof that it is! Highly recommended!

#ReadIndies – small is beautiful…. @halfpintpress

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My focus, this month, is of course on independent publishers; and that’s a term that can actually cover a wider range of imprints. There are those who publish on a fairly normal commercial scale, selling in the traditional way; there are smaller outfits who sell via their own websites as well as the traditional outlets; there are presses who produce their own works, often printing and binding by hand; and then there are what I would call really niche presses who issue limited items which as well as being interesting texts are also beautiful objects in their own right. Renard Press are doing that with many of their pamphlet style issues; but today I wanted to just share some images of a lovely item I obtained at the end of last year from Half Print Press.

As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I came across HPP last year during the Great Harvill Leopard Hunt; Tim, the man behind the Press, was instrumental in pulling together the final reference list of Leopards and has created a wonderful website listing them – you can see that here and it’s most definitely worth checking out. However, Half Pint Press itself deserves exploration as they really do produce some lovely objects!

The cover of the Stein handprinted edition

As the website explains, HPP’s projects are mainly produced using letterpress printing; this is an old established method of printing which had gone out of fashion but is having something of a revival as a skilled handicraft. I currently own one HPP edition, a small chapbook of Gertrude Stein’s “Vacation In Brittany” and it’s quite gorgeous, as you can see from the image above.

Interior decoration

“Vacation…” is printed on an Adana eight-five press (which sounds very exotic!) and as well as the text has some additional lovely decorations by Lupe Nunez. The paper is thick, textured and quite beautiful. So the result is an all-round beautiful artefact and I may well have to explore the HPP website to see if there any more titles which appeal!

An example of the gorgeous paper in this lovely object

In realistic terms, this kind of printing is never going to be ideal for all types of book; printing the latest Hilary Mantel by this method would be rather laborious I feel…. However, the handmade adds something special to a work and if it’s possible to produce something like this I highly approve! There is room for all sorts of indies in the publishing world and here’s to outfits like Half Pint Press and the beautiful printed objects they produce!

#ReadIndies – my first encounter with a wonderful indie publisher: @FumdEstampa

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The Silent Letter by Jaume Subirana
Translated by Christopher Whyte

As I mentioned many times last year on the Ramblings, one of the good points about 2020 (and it’s worth hanging on to them… ) was the discovery of so many independent publishers new to me. I have taken out subscriptions to several and today I want to share my first read of a book from one of these – Fum D’Estampa. Based in London and Barcelona, they focus on translations from the Catalan, and have issued 6 titles so far, a mixture of prose and poetry. I have several on the TBR (ahem!) and my first read from them is a poetry collection by an award-winning poet, translator and academic – Jame Subirana. He’s apparently one of Catalonia’s most treasured and prize-winning writers, so I was really glad to be able to make his acquaintance.

Translated by Christopher Whyte, an accomplished poet in his own right, the book is a dual language edition collecting together a number of poems. As I know nothing about the author or his publishing history I was able to approach the book rather like my readings of the Penguin Modern Poets, just discovering the work without preconceptions – which I do like! And what a treat reading this book was…

Subirana’s poetry is very immediate, something I love; and his works range in length from haiku length verses to longer works stretching over several pages. The poet discusses love, life, nature, loss – the usual subjects you’d expect. I suppose – and in beautiful, elegant and evocative lines. I marvelled, as I often do, as to how a poet can capture so much in so few words, convey so much that’s actually not spelled out in their verses. The poems read to me as the work of a mature writer, and this conviction was confirmed when I read the essay on Subirana at the end of the book, by Jordi Galves. Interestingly, the latter says of the poet, “…he speaks to me of myself while apparently writing about himself…” and I think that’s the most wonderful description of what poetry can do that I’ve heard.

It’s hard to pick out favourites here, as “The Silent Letter” is such a strong collection; but I would mention “The Trees and Us”, focusing on the transience of life; “Like That”, encapsulating a whole life in a few lines; “Tomorrow”, about the rapid passing of time; and “Dusk” which some beautiful imagery equating life with words. But really, the whole collection spoke to me and I loved it.

My Fum d’Estampa collection!

Fum d’Estampa were a chance find for me; if I recall correctly, someone recommended them on Twitter and I couldn’t resist (and am very glad I didn’t) Catalonian literature, and the authors the imprint publishers, are not necessarily things I would have found on my own; but this wonderful collection absorbed and transported me, and it’s proof (if it were needed) that independent publishers are really the ones to watch. Fum d’Estampa books are very lovely too; with creamy coloured covers, French flaps and quality paper, they’re beautiful objects in their own right and will look very pretty sitting on a shelf together… This was a great start to my #readindie reading and I’m anticipating more joy with the rest of their books! 😀

Fum d’Estampa can be found on Patreon and also online here.

Launching Reading Independent Publishers Month! #ReadIndies

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It’s February! Which means today is the first day of Reading Independent Publishers Month, an event being co-hosted by Lizzy and myself. We hope you’ve all been raiding your TBR piles or madly spending all your hard-earned dosh on lots of lovely indie press books, ready to share them with everyone – it should be great fun!


In the run up to the month, the question has arisen as to what in reality counts as an Independent Publisher. That’s actually a difficult question to answer; some are obvious, when we’re talking about a smaller outfit printing and issuing their own works, like Renard Press. However, what about University presses? How can you tell whether a publisher is part of a bigger conglomerate. It *isn’t* straightforward, and so we thought we would offer a few hints or guidelines.

First off, here are some useful links:

Independent Publishers list: http://www.indiepublishers.co.uk/independent-publishers
The Independent Alliance: https://www.faber.co.uk/independent-alliance
Northern Fiction Alliance: http://northernfictionalliance.com
List of Scottish Independent Publishers: https://booksfromscotland.com/publishers
A small press directory: https://contemporarysmallpress.com/press
International Sites: https://www.alliance-editeurs.org/-reseaux-linguistiques,017-?lang=en
Publishers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland: https://www.indiebook.de
American Presses: https://medium.com/the-nonconformist/the-big-big-list-of-indie-publishers-and-small-presses-5e83e9522b5c

It’s worth noting that none of these are a complete listing, and some may contain publishers who aren’t indies! But they may well provide guidelines, particularly if you have a particular book in mind.

Another way to check is to have a look at a publisher’s website – many will proudly proclaim their independence, and their About page may give you more info on their status.

However, none of this is necessarily definitive, so we guess the best advice is to go with your gut. If a book is from a name which doesn’t seem to be connected with one of the main publishing giants, and you want to read it, go for it! The main point of this month is to read as many wonderful books as you can as well as supporting the smaller publishers who produce them. Lizzy has created a Mr Linky for you to let us know what you’ve been reading and you can find this here:

https://readindies2021.blogspot.com/2021/01/our-indie-bookshelf.html

Enjoy and share your reading for #ReadIndies during February – we can’t wait to see what you come up with! 😀

“… I ride and ride and I never arrive.” #JapaneseLitChallenge14 #mishima

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Having had an underwhelming experience with my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I didn’t want to let January pass without trying another work from that country; particularly as I’ve read some marvellous books from Japan. An old favourite is Yukio Mishima, an often-controversial figure; and I was delighted when previously untranslated works starting appearing recently in new English versions. So I decided to cheat! I say cheat, because the book I read was no 51 in the Penguin Modern series of bite size loveliness – and I am supposed to be reading the series in order!! However, the Mishima was issued after the box set came out so that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

The work in question is “Star” and it’s a novella-length work first issued in 1961, in a short story collection of the same name. In contrast to many of his major works, which look back to a golden past in Japan, “Star” is set firmly in the present. It tells of Rikio “Richie” Mizuno, a young actor at the height of his fame who’s nevertheless suffering from insecurity, disillusioned with fame and the film world. Despite being surrounded by hysterical young adoring fans, his most important relationship is with his personal assistant, Kayo. The latter is older that Richie, and considered unattractive; yet she offers the actor emotional and physical support, keeping him grounded in some kind of reality.

… threads of permanence cling to the underbelly of all formulaic poetry. It comes as a false shadow, the refuse of originality, the body dragged around by genius. It’s the light that flashes from a tin roof with a tawdry grace. A tragic swiftness only the superficial can possess.

Aside from the complexities of acting while surrounded by screaming fans, another problem occurs when a struggling actress inveigles her way onto the set and into the film. Things go wrong when she proves not to be up to the task of acting the part, and takes dramatic action. Needless to say, the PR people use this to their advantage, leaving Richie just as full of self-doubt as ever…

Real love always plays out at a distance.

“Star” may be a short work, but it’s just as brilliant and full of impact as any of Mishima’s longer works. Richie is the pefect Mishima character; struggling with the hollowness at the heart of his fame, losing sense of reality because of the number of different personas he has to adopt, his life feels empty and he’s assailed by doubt and ennui. The constant wearing of (metaphorical) masks has detached him from the reality around him; and the intense and unlikely relationship with Kayo is more real to him than anything else. Despite the fact that this anchors him, he acknowledges that the relationship is just as much of an illusion; and the couple can sit and calmly discuss the prospect of his suicide, as if this is a logical end to which his life is headed.

A star is more of a star if he never arrives.

Needless to say, reading this wonderful novella from Mishima has restored my faith in my love of Japanese writing. Inevitably, because of the author’s complex relationship with his country and fame, it’s hard not to imagine him drawing from his own life and feelings when writing “Star”. Mishima had himself recently had a go at movie acting and it apparently proved not to be to his taste; so presumably much of that experience was funneled into this story. It’s a compelling, beautifully written work, and I can’t understand why it’s taken so long for it to appear in translation.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

Like my encounter with another recently translated book, “The Frolic of the Beasts“, reading “Star” has reminded me what a stunning writer Mishima was and how I really need to revisit his other works. And rather wonderfully, I also have another previously untranslated work of his sitting on the TBR…. ;

“Star” is translated by Sam Bett, who apparently has received kudos for his work – to which I would like to add my thanks and praise! Any previously untranslated Mishima is very welcome in this quarter!!!

“Patterns coalesce, sometimes by chance at other times by design.” @FitzcarraldoEds #jeremycooper

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Back in 2019, I read a wonderful book from one of my favourite indie publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions; and it was by a completely new-to-me author, Jeremy Cooper. The book was “Ash Before Oak”, and was a kind of autofiction in the form of journal entries by a man living in the country and struggling with mental health issues. It was a powerful and compelling read, so of course I was delighted when an ARC of his new book, “Bolt from the Blue” popped through the door. I was hoping this would be as good a read as his first work of fiction – and I wasn’t disappointed.

As I mentioned in my review of “Ash Before Oak”, Cooper is an art historian and so the art world is very familiar to him. Elements from his experiences there crept into “Ash…”; however, in “Bolt from the Blue”, that milieu takes centre stage, as the book relates the story of the relationship between artist Lynn Gallagher and her mother, via their letters, postcards and emails to each other over the period 1985 to 2018. I love an epistolary novel at the best of times; but this book takes the form to an extra level.

The book opens with Lynn introducing the correspondence, relating how she discovered the letters her mother had kept after the latter’s death. Initially, Lynn is something of a narrator, interjecting comments or descriptions of the postcards she’d sent to her mother; and she seems to dominate the story. However, as the book progresses, her mother starts to come to the fore, and more is gradually revealed about both women’s backgrounds, the events that made them what they are, the reasons for tensions between them and, eventually, the similarities between them.

Lynn leaves home to go to art college in London, leaving her home in Birmingham and her mother behind her. It’s obvious from the tone of the initial correspondence that she was glad to get away to a new life although at the start we don’t know why. Over the decades, Lynn negotiates a complex path through the art world; she’s a strong feminist who refuses to compromise, not only with others’ expectations of her, but also with the money and the corporate structure behind much of the modern art world. The narrative is studded with familiar names – Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin – and also less well-known figures I had to look up, as well as some invented ones. Into this structure, Cooper brilliantly weaves Lynn’s story, her rise to prominence, her search for her own voice as an artist, and the compromises she has to make in her personal life. This story alone is fascinating, as was watching the world change around Lynn as the decades passed (and Cooper did capture the changing times quite brilliantly).

Nothing is ever complete, everything always a version. An illusion to imagine that diligent research and enquiry, about anything or anyone, can produce the whole story. There is no such thing.

But what of Lynn’s mother? The initial impression, of a restrictive, traditional mother seen through a young girl’s eyes, is changed and tempered as the book progresses. Lynn’s mother is a woman with her own past and family issues, with reasons for turning out the way she did, and the relationship between mother and daughter changes significantly over the years, often in unexpected ways. Is there resolution? That’s a thought which calls into question the whole possibility of resolution in human relationships – and certainly the mother-daughter one is fraught with problems.

I don’t want to say much more about the specifics of the book, because I would hate to lessen the impact; but what I will say is that this is another quite brilliant piece of writing by Jeremy Cooper. The epistolary form can be such a clever way of telling a story anyway, and Cooper uses it quite marvellously here. There are often long gaps between messages, leaving the reader to wonder what has caused this (lost letters? arguments? both are possible and hinted at by Lynn’s narration). The story never really evolves in a straightforward linear manner; instead, little pieces leak out into a letter or postcard which reveal something crucial from past or present, giving you little lightbulb moments as you read. There *are* revelations slipping out in the messages – the bolts from the blue to which the title refers – and some of these did make me catch my breath. The characters of Lynn and her mother build and develop as the book goes on, until you have a striking portrait of two women who are actually not always as unalike as you might think from the early letters…

“Bolt from the Blue” is another wonderful book from both Cooper and Fitzcarraldo, and was a completely gripping read from start to finish. If for nothing else than its portrait of the modern art world, it would be a vital read; but as well as that, it’s a quite brilliant portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and captures vividly the difficulty of remaining individual and true to yourself when faced by commercial pressures. Cooper’s insights into the art community are astute, drawn no doubt from his experience; and it’s worth noting that he’s not only written a work on the young British art movement of the 1990s, but also the British Museum’s catalogue of artists’ postcards. This latter element presumably informs the vivid descriptions of the postcards sent between mother and daughter, and adds another fascinating layer to the book.

When I reached the end of “Bolt from the Blue” I felt as if I’d lived alongside both these women, immersed in their lives, and if an author can achieve that, they’re quite brilliant. I’ve probably not done justice to the depth and complexity of the book in this short post, but it’s a remarkable work. Although I’m intending to share more Fitzcarraldos during #ReadIndies month in February, I wanted to post my thoughts on “Bolt…” today as it’s publication day for the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough – a unique and quite brilliant work!

“…your infernal fog is doing things to my nerves…” #johndicksoncarr @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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From one piece of pure escapism to another – although this book is very different to my last read, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”! John Dickson Carr has appeared on the Ramblings many times, of course – and most recently because the British Library have been releasing his Inspector Bencolin mysteries in lovely new editions. Bencolin is not Carr’s best-known detective, only featuring in five novels and a handful of short stories; but those works are wonderfully entertaining, and I’m so happy they’re being made available.

The latest release, “The Lost Gallows” is the third Bencolin release from the BL, but the second in the Bencolin series; and it finds the great detective, plus his sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, in London. The men are staying at the rather gloomy and macabre Brimstone Club, alongside an old friend of Bencolin’s, Sir John Landervorne. Also at the club is the unpleasant (and very rich) Egyptian gentleman, Nezam El Moulk, together with his retinue. However, all is not well; events from the past are coming back to haunt and threaten El Moulk; a ghostly hangman known as Jack Ketch is making appearances; and the lost gallows of the title has been seen in Ruination Street, a mysterious place which cannot be found anywhere in London. Stir in Jeff’s old flame Sharon Grey (who featured in the first book of the series), murder and mayhem and a car driven by a corpse, dark corridors, mysterious models or shadows of gallows which pop up everywhere, and plenty of chills, and you have the perfect recipe for one of Carr’s stories – which to be honest, are often like a cross between a mystery and a ghost story, and no less satisfying for it!

I love JDC’s writing – he does of course specialise in the locked room mystery with his other great detective, Gideon Fell; and there are certainly locked room elements in the Bencolin stories. These are early works, and Carr tends to lay on the melodrama, which I don’t mind at all, and the stories are spooky and gripping. “The Lost Gallows” was particularly dark, drawing on events back to the First World War, and the settings (particularly the Club, but also London itself) oozed dark atmosphere. The denouement was very dramatic – Carr really knows how to ramp up the tension – and Bencolin of course was triumphantly right in his solution of the crime.

An early, and somewhat grimmer, edition of the book…

Of course, this *is* a vintage murder mystery; and I do have slight reservations about the portrayal of El Moulk. He was less cliched than you might expect from a book of this age, but I did wonder whether having a non-English person in this negative role was necessary. Another subsidiary character is portrayed using terminology we wouldn’t nowadays, but neither of these characterisations were too strong so I was ok with the book. And frankly, Carr is hard on a lot of his characters, whatever their origin – he does like to lay it on with a trowel at times! 😀

As well as the main story, there is also a rare Bencolin short story included called “The Ends of Justice”. This dates from an earlier period to “Gallows” and is an interesting, if stark and dramatic, adjunct to the main book. As Martin Edwards reminds us in his useful introduction, Carr was an author still learning his craft; and he does tone things down slightly in later works! Nevertheless, I found this book to be an absolutely gripping read; I was completely bamboozled and had no idea of whodunnit or how! I’m really enjoying encountering Carr’s Bencolin mysteries and I have my fingers crossed that the British Library will release the other titles!

High jinks with a legendary royal personage! #queenvictoria

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If there’s one thing to be said about Mr. Kaggsy, it’s that he does know how to hunt me out obscure and entertaining books! 😀 I featured this particular volume in my birthday/Christmas round-up, and it’s a title and an author who are both new to me – “The Day they Kidnapped Queen Victoria” by H.K. Fleming.

The author himself seems completely obscure; the blurb in the book says he was born in the UK in 1901, emigrated to the USA and had experience in the American Government and newspaper world. However, a quick look online reveals absolutely nothing more, and the only evidence of any works by the man is the appearance of second-hand copies of this one plus one other title! This seems to suggest a less than illustrious writing career!! Nevertheless – onward and upward with the book itself.

First published in 1969, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria” travels back in time to the reign of the monarch in question; the widowed Victoria has been staying at her beloved Balmoral and is preparing to travel to Ayrshire to unveil yet another statue of her late husband, Prince Albert. Her errant son, Prince Edward (known to all and sundry as Bertie) is being dragged along rather unwillingly to take part; it’s quite clear that Victoria is less than happy about his wayward behaviour and dodgy contacts. However, as her train steams away, it’s discovered that the telegraph wires have been cut and that a plot is afoot. Enter a group of Fenian revolutionaries… They’ve soon hijacked and taken control of the train, with Victoria inside it; and things get worse when a truckload of explosive is installed alongside the queen’s carriage. Will the combined powers of Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Brown, Benjamin Disraeli, the eccentric cleric Charles Anderson and the might of the British forces be a match for the wily and fanatical revolutionaries? And where does a rather colourful character called ‘Skittles’ Walters fit in?

The concept of the book is intriguing, and it must be one of the earliest examples of the use of real historical characters in fiction; something which is quite common nowadays. And Fleming manages to create a very authentic atmosphere, with lots of humour and excitement; Victoria is portrayed as quite a tough character with hidden resources; and Skittles is great fun. The plot rattles along nicely with several moments of tension (although I suppose the modern reader is a little hampered by the knowledge that Victoria didn’t die in an exploding train, so some suspension of disbelief is necessary). The denouement is satisfying, if perhaps a little sudden and underplayed, but cleverly done by the various forces involved! Fleming writes well and the book was an enjoyable piece of escapism.

MediaJet (A Photograph of a Photographic Portrait,captured by me sometime in 2009), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

However, I have to be honest and say I have a couple of reservations. First off, I know little about the Fenian movement, so can’t comment on how the revolutionaries are portrayed here. But bearing in mind how badly Ireland has been treated over the decades by England I might well find myself sympathising with the Fenians rather than the Victorians… (although I should say that I’m not a fan of violence.)

My other reservation is from a reader’s point of view. The book ends in quite a satisfactory manner; however, the author felt it necessary to put in a final paragraph which is totally unecessary and might well be considered to spoil the story completely! There are few reviews of this book online, but those I’ve seen have felt exactly the same – so I whilst I can recommend this as a fun and escapist read, I would say you might not want to read that last part! Kudos, however, to Mr. Kaggsy for finding me such an obscure and interesting book; but I do wish Fleming had had an editor to advise him about the ending!!!

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