Something for the Weekend: #ReadIndies 2023 Event Index


Lizzy and I know how many love to go book shopping at the weekend. So just in case you need some ideas, the #ReadIndies event index is here!

Think of the index as a mini yellow pages of book recommendations and let your fingers do the walking …. before you walk for real into the bookshop, of course!

“A name, a colour, a smell, a season…” #richardmabey #theunofficialcountryside @LittleToller


As I mentioned in my end of February round up, I’m going to try to keep focused on the indies lurking on Mount TBR and today I wanted to share my thoughts about a book I’d fully intended to get to for #ReadIndies month – “The Unofficial Countryside” by Richard Mabey, published by Little Toller Books as one of their nature writing classics. LT are a firm favourite at the Ramblings, and I’ve previously enjoyed several of their books – “Millstone Grit”, “Snow“, “On Silbury Hill” and “Beyond the Fell Wall“. I picked up “Unofficial” at the same time as “Millstone” and can say that its reputation as an important classic is more than justified…

First published in 1973, the book grew out of Mabey’s observations of the urban areas which we would certainly not describe as ‘countryside’ – abandoned city docks, left over bomb sites which hadn’t been touched since the end of the war, the towpaths of inner city canals, gravel pits, rubbish dumps; none of these are areas we would dub the picturesque countryside, yet as Mabey’s wanderings revealed, the wealth of wildlife to be discovered was surprising and stunning.

Split into four seasonal sections, the book explores these liminal spaces from different angles. So one part considers the earth, and what will grow in the soil of the wastelands; another looks at water, and the pools in gravel pits, marshy abandoned areas and the canals themselves. In Parks, Mabey explores Hampsted Heath and looks at the way we construct green spaces within cities and try to regiment them; and in Gardens he ponders upon the strangeness of humans, who want some wildlife as part of their living space but are intent on controlling it.

These are just some of the places Mabey goes whilst tramping the unofficial countryside, and following his journey is fascinating. Of course, the landscape of the UK has changed dramatically since the 1970s, as I know myself; when growing up during that decade, there was still an area of local scrubland at the end of my ordinary suburban street known locally as “The Woods”. It contained remnants of bomb shelters and a wooded area plus an overgrown area where some houses had formerly stood. It was a small piece of nature but much loved by us local children and we haunted the place, climbing the trees, building dens and occasionally venturing to the entrances of the ruined shelters (though never quite daring to go inside…) That kind of area is gone now – our woods were flattened and housed over by the end of the 20th century – but I look back and relish having had that kind of experience. And if I’d had Mabey’s eyes I would have been able to appreciate the species surviving the suburban sprawl in this natural area.

Because what this book is, most of all, is a tribute to the resilience of nature. The places Mabey is exploring are left over products of human endeavour; whether skulking near the runways at Heathrow, or exploring around industrial estates, he’s engaging with industry and its leftovers. But given a moment’s peace, natural things will return to claim back their space; birds will nest in unlikely places; rare plants will find a space to flourish; and lost species will make a comeback. It’s inspiring to see these examples of nature fighting for their place on our increasingly beleagured planet, and reading through the book, you share Mabey’s joy in encountering the species he does.

In areas of gross contamination most plants and animals quite simply die. They have no choice. We do have one, which is to clear up our own filth.

As I’ve said, the world has of course changed; and many of these havens of nature have been crushed again. Mabey’s writing is prescient in places, recognising that the increase in plane flights and dumping of rubbish will have long term effects on the planet, which we now know but still seem incapable of halting. He’s full of common sense, too, wondering why local authorities need to manicure their green spaces so much; the simple suggestion of putting hedgerows round parks instead of horrible railings, thus making something lovely to look at which will also provide a valuable habitat, seems quite a reasonable one; yet certainly none of my local parks have anything like this. Again, when discussing Hampstead Heath, he comments on the variety of the landscape, the differing levels, trees, overgrown areas, and all the things which add to the experience of being there and also to the visual appeal. Once more, my local parks are mostly bleak, unlandscaped and left as dull stretches of grass, presumably to allow people to kick a ball about. It’s not terribly inspiring…

Weeds are too close to us, too humdrum. We judge them by convention, not for what they are. Buttercups are admired in a grazing meadow yet hunted down with herbicides on front lawns. The notion that a plant is a weed is the most effective barrier for stopping us looking at it closely.

However, with Mabey as our guide perhaps we can get past this. His discussion of weeds is particularly interesting; I have no issue with them, particularly if they’re attractive and don’t try to take over. Some of the nicest plants which pop up in my garden are wild ones which appear every year (we have a particularly attractive batch of cyclamen which flower every late autumn). And I’ve seen small wild pansies popping up in the street through paving stone cracks; truly, nature always seems to find a way.

Colin Smith / Summer Wild Flowers via Wikimedia Commons

“The Unofficial Countryside” was a lovely read; Mabey is a pleasant companion through the world of urban rambling, his observations always on point, his views sensible and his discoveries fascinating. If nothing else, this is a book to set you off on your own local explorations, finding the spaces where nature is peeking through and reclaiming some space. The mania for modern flattening out of everything and building wherever you can is trying to squeeze out the remains of nature in built up areas, but it can still be found. A lovely book and a worthy reprint by Little Toller – another indie which punches above its weight!

(A little word about the loveliness of these Little Toller editions! The Nature Classics come with French flaps, interesting forewords – in this case, by Iain Sinclair – and illustrations. The artist featured here is Mary Newcomb, a name new to me, and her work does really enhance the book!)

February – reading a lot of wonderful Indie books! :D #readindies


Well, that was a quick month, wasn’t it? February seems as short as January was long, and although it whizzed past I have had another really wonderfully bookish month, helped by the fact that there was a half term in the middle of it and so I got a lovely lot of time for resting and reading. Here is my pile of February reads and they were frankly all wonderful! I’ve not reviewed everything on the pile yet, so anything not covered will be carried over to March!

February was of course #ReadIndies month, and just about everthing on the pile is an indie – and there have been some wonderful treats which just goes to show the riches of books from independent publishers. Some of my favourite presses and authors have been featured, but I also discovered some new ones so that’s wonderful! However, on the subject of reading indies, we won’t be extending our #ReadIndies event this year as Lizzy has other project commitments in March! But I’ve barely scratched the surface of the pile of independently published books on the TBR; so although I will continue to follow my reading muse as the year continues, I’m going to try to fit in as many indie publishers as I can! 😀

If you’ve been reading along with us during February, don’t forget to leave details of your posts in the Mr Linky here, as Lizzy always puts together an index of all the reviews, which is a wonderful resource. Of course you may still be catching up with reviews as are we, and so if you’ve read an indie, you have until 6th March to post the review and be included in the index!

So what are my upcoming reading plans? Well, vague and amorphous as usual! I’m currently reading a fascinating review book from Columbia University Press called “The Narrow Cage” by Vasily Eroshenko; the author hailed from Ukraine and lived a peripatic live, and the book is translated from Japanese and Esperanto so this is something of a first for me!

Then there is the pile of journals and notebooks and essays I assembled at the end of February when I was reading Sartre – here they are again and there are just so many options into which I’d love to sink…

But of course there are many, many more unread books on the TBR and of course March has the #Dewithon as a reading event – I may try to join in, but it will depend what I can find in the stacks. In the meantime, I shall continue to read independent publishers, and here are some of those stacks, showing just how many choices I really have… ;D

One of the TBR shelves, although I *have* read some of these!


Another shelf, a mixture of read and unread…


A heap of intriguing books which currently lives on a table!


A rather precipitous pile…

Looking at those, you can no doubt see how it can be difficult for me to decide which book to read; I guess this is why I usually go with my reading moods and I’m sure they’ll continue to guide me throughout March! What do *you* plan to read??

“We…were being prepared for the abnormal, even for chaos.” @NottingHillEds #ReadIndies #CaryGrantsSuit


When I was a teenager I was a bit of a movie buff, spending most of my Saturday afternoons at the local fleapit (‘The Savoy’!) watching whatever latest disaster film was showing. I would often go with schoolmates (in whose company I first discovered Russia and its Revolution via a re-run of ‘Doctor Zhivago’); but I was a bit of a loner at times and happy to go on my own too. However my real passion was Old Hollywood, in the form of the black and white movies of the classic years. A Bette Davis season on BBC2 was a real treat; if there was anything on with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, I was in heaven; and the highlight of our family visit to Los Angeles when I was 15 was getting to see Groucho Marx’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard. So really, I’m the perfect audience for today’s #ReadIndies book: “Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I Am Today” by Todd McEwen, from Notting Hill Editions.

This picture really doesn’t do justice to the loveliness of NHE books – I mean, the quote text is actually pale blue!!!

NHE should need no introduction; purveyors of most beautiful little cloth bound hardback editions devoted to the art of the essay, they’ve appeared on the Ramblings many, many times. Their latest book is penned by Todd McEwen, who hails from Southern California and has had a varied life working in radio, theatre and the rare books trade; after relocating to Scotland in the 1980s he worked at Granta, and now works editing and teaching as well as writing (he has a number of novels to his name). In “Cary Grant’s Suit” he takes a look back at his life as a movie addict, and the book is a joy from start to finish!

McEwen grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, in a normal street in a normal little Californian town; but was a stone’s throw away from the source of his celluloid dreams. A 1950s childhood was by necessity overshadowed by the aftermath of WW2, and McEwen and his friends were consumed by cinematic visions, re-enacting their current favourite, drawing their games from the on-screen action and living for those visits to the picturehouse. His book is structured around his memories of growing up with film and specific movies which are still lodged in his heart; however, it inevitably goes further than this, capturing a lost world, perhaps a more innocent one, as well as a time when cinema really was magnificent.

Some of the fun in sight gags comes from a love of destruction which is not very healthy, and these days it’s way out of control: the only movies most people now attend are nothing more than a series of explosions. Cats, houses, children, women, men, dogs, cats, cities, Russians and dinosaurs of all kinds all blown to bits in increasingly sadistic ways. Because we westerners, Americans in particular, hate and fear ourselves and the physical universe we have created. And so we should.

It has to be said that I’m not a fan of the modern movie, which frankly mostly seems to me to be a version of the computer game; so I find myself in sympathy with McEwen’s outlook. He starts by exploring Laurel and Hardy shorts (which I do love, though Mr. K is an even bigger fan); runs through such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Casablanca and Chinatown (which he’s apparently seen 61 times – so far…); and explores the effect of technicolour, the humour of Jacques Tati and the sheer exhaustion of tramping round Scotland under the influence of The Thirty Nine Steps. There’s The Wizard of Oz, White Christmas, and of course Cary Grant himself – or rather, his immaculate suit, which manages to survive all of the dramatic action in North by Northwest with barely a crease! The latter piece is particularly entertaining; I never would have thought of looking at the film in terms of the leading man’s costume, but it actually is a fascinating study!

McEwen is a wonderfully humourous commentator, and I find myself laughing out loud at several points in the book. However, under the wit is such a genuine love of films and indeed the movie making business in general; McEwen seemed to make it a habit whenever he could to visit the projectionist’s booth; and although at several points he rues the fact that there was a lost opportunity to become involved in the movie business, films have obviously really affected his life!

When I was seven, I was going to be an Egyptologist, the skipper of a submarine, or a projectionist, which would have in some ways incorporated the other two: a projectionist unlocks certain aesthetic mysteries, and he also has at his command a lot of valves, switches, levers and bells. And there’s a bonus, as for a motion picture projectionist the possibility of being crushed to death on the floor of the sea or dying in agony from an ancient curse is somewhat reduced.

“Cary Grant’s Suit” was a treat from start to finish; I found myself empathising with McEwen all the way through, with his tales of his obsessions with movies, his deep dives into how those infatuations made him feel, and in places, with the sheer detail of his observations about the films. I’ve had obsessions with particular movies in the past, where I’d seen them so often that I could practially recite the dialogue, where I began to study the backgrounds and sets more than the action at the front of the shot, and so I totally get where he’s coming from. The book is also a wonderful paean to old Hollywood, to those classic, beautifully filmed, stunning works of art which can still hypnotise – it’s quite clear how much McEwen loves those movies. He’s also a very astute critic and I found his observations always spot on.

One thing I find with Notting Hill Editions is that, whatever the subject of their books, the quality of the essays and writing is aways superb, and that’s definitely the case here. McEwen is a funny and entertaining commentator, writing with real love about his life and the films which formed him. “Cary Grant’s Suit” was a wonderful read, and another success for #ReadIndies – really, what a wonderful month of reading it’s been!

And to round up this post in the way Madame Bibi Lophile often does, i.e. with a song, here’s a tune with which I was obsessed when it came out, and the black and white imagery in the video was the icing on the cake!

“Cary Grant’s Suit” is out today from Notting Hill Editions; many thanks to the publisher for the review copy!

“… a pure translucency, a purely passive thing…” #FrenchFebruary #ReadIndies @seagullbooks


We’re getting perilously close to the end of #ReadIndies month, and it’s become clear to me that I’m not going to fit in all the books I wanted to read and cover. However, I was really keen to include something which as well as being indie also qualified for MarinaSofia’s #FrenchFebruary challenge; hence this extra weekend post!

Finding a French indie looked like it might be problematic when I first rummaged through Mount TBR, but then I thought of Seagull Books; they’re an indie with a BIG French List, and I have several lurking. Many of these are lovely collections of Barthes’ works and though they’re most appealing, the manic quality of real life and work at the moment meant I doubted my ability to concentrate enough! Fortunately, though, I have a couple of slim volumes of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s writings, and although he’s no light read, I thought I’d have more chance of reading those at the moment – and I was right!

Sartre is an author I read mostly in my twenties, and then it was mainly his fiction; I’ve not revisited him much in recent years but have wanted to explore his non-fiction, and so this was the perfect introduction. His writing *can* be a bit intimidating, but on the whole I found these short pieces bracing and fascinating; so here are my thoughts on the individual volumes.

On Novels and Novelists

This is Volume 11 of the Seagull Sartre Library, and it collects together five pieces by the author of various lengths and on a variety of writers or works. Covered are Francois Mauriac, Andre Gide, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Giraudoux and Jules Renard. Of the five, I’ve read Mauriac and Gide, and have a couple of Sarraute’s books on the TBR, so this made interesting reading. Sarte does not mince his words, and his critiques are pithy and entertaining; he’s not a fan of all of the authors or books covered, but when he wants to criticise he does it in a detailed and erudite way. He’s positive about Sarraute (and I think I was aware of this before), as well as Gide; however, I found myself very much in tune with his criticisms of Mauriac and his ‘Therese’ books. I read those quite a while ago and found them somewhat problematic, so it was frankly quite enjoyable seeing Sartre pulling them to pieces in such a clever way – the devastating last line of the piece made me laugh out loud.

For a book is either merely a little pile of dry leaves or, alternatively, a great form in movement: the act of reading. The novelist seizes upon this movement, guides and inflects it, he makes it the substance of his characters.

There was much in these pieces to set the brain whizzing and once I got my thoughts aligned with Sartre’s way of writing and expressing things, I had a whale of a time reading this collection. A real treat, and I shall definitely have to seek out more of his literary criticism!

On Camus

Camus and Sartre had a notoriously rocky friendship – close buddies and allies to start with, they famously fell out over a review of one of Camus’s books by a writer on Les Temps Modernes, of which Sartre was the editor. This collection (volume 8 of the Seagull Sartre Library) contains three pieces – a reply by Sartre to Camus’s response to the bad review, after the falling out had happened; a memoir of Camus after his untimely death; and a review of his most famous work, here titled “The Outsider”.

Our freedom today is merely the free choice to struggle to become free.

Both Camus and Sartre were powerful authors in their own right, and obviously powerful personalities as well. I haven’t read the actual review, nor Camus’s piece in response, but Sartre goes into great detail as to why Camus was misguided. The 1950s were, of course, a time of considerable conflict on the left, particularly in a country like France where artists were so politically engaged, and the issues were obvously very complex. The breach was enough to last until Camus’s untimely death in 1960; and the second piece in the book is Sartre’s moving homage to his erstwhile friend at that point. Despite their quarrel, he states he always regarded Camus as a friend, if an absent one, and you feel the real sadness at the loss of such a great intellect.

The final piece, a review of “The Outsider”, is excellent reading, exploring the meanings behind the book, Camus’s philosophy of the absurd, and expressing the importance of the novel to modern literature. There are many insights here, and I think that when I return to “The Outsider” Sartre’s thoughts will definitely inform my reading! As I said above, Sartre’s lit crit is definitely something to look out for!!

So both of these books were wonderful reads, full of food for thought as well as reminding me that I have some very interesting books from and about that period of French literature hanging about unread. Thanks to MarinaSofia for the nudge to search out something French and Indie – I have enjoyed my reunion with JPS very much!


As an aside, it seems that these volumes have been pulled from larger collections from Seagull and themed, which is a good idea to introduce Sartre’s non-fiction in bite sized collections. I do have other collections of his non-fiction, and in fact was prompted to dig out a number of books including these by my recent read of “Traces” by Mairead Small Staid (review to follow). Her book has mention of all manner of journals, diaries, notebooks etc from authors as diverse as Pavese, Gide and Camus. I have a lot of those books on the TBR and as you can see from this image I went down a bit of a rabbit hole – these are the tree books I own that kind of tie in with this angle and some of the insights in her book:

As well as the physical books, I also have a number of digital, so the choices are really endless, and I am sorely tempted by all of the non-fiction and diaries and journal collections I have. What to read next – so many books, so little time is always the issue!!

“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!)

“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! 😀

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