Bookish Musings for July 2021

This past month has been a strange one for me (for the rest of the world too, possibly, but I’ll stick to what I know best). It was composed of roughly four quarters/weeks. The first was extremely busy at work with a major event (which went well, but exhausted me). The second was spent recovering from the aforementioned major event, catching up on home life and cautiously venturing forth into the Big City. The third was phenomenally busy but exhilarating with the online British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, which made me realise how much I enjoy the literary life and wish I could spend all my days on it. And the fourth was going back to work, trying to catch up on everything while suffering one of my huge three-four day migraines.

So overall, it’s been the kind of month where my head felt very ‘ouch’ (both literally and metaphorically) and I struggled to concentrate on any reading or reviewing. I feel very far behind on just about everything. But I do want to recapture some of the sheer glee of the third week of July, when I lived in a literary bubble that consisted not just of myself, but many other people equally passionate about words and cultures, about comma splices and sounds and rhythms. Rather than a lone madness, I had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing a folie à deux – or rather, folie à plusieurs, which is much more fun!

My brain is currently a jumble of ideas and sudden personal insights relating to books, reading, writing and translation, so I thought I’d jot some of them down here, while they are still fresh. Apologies for not having a nicely digested, thoughtful essay, but just random bullet points.

  1. I mentioned that several of the books I read in July were excellent, entertaining holiday reads, but not particularly memorable. However, I feel they deserve more credit than that.
    • The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton is a mix of cosy and serious crime, with older female amateur protagonists, published in 2015, well ahead of the current trend of precisely such crime novels, which seem to be taking the bestseller charts by storm, perhaps in the wake of one written by a likeable male TV celebrity. It’s hard to be ahead of a certain trend, isn’t it? To my mind, this book was better than several others in this subgenre.
    • Caro Ramsay’s The Tears of Angels is a well-written, impactful police procedural and, although I haven’t read others in the series (which made the large cast of characters a bit difficult to place at times), has a great sense of place. However, although there is a lot of talk of #TartanNoir (which this one is not, not exactly), it seems that Scotland is still not perceived as being as atmospheric as Iceland, Sweden or Norway. I’ve seen far too many mediocre ScandiNoir fiction lately, so it feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, rather than focusing on homegrown stuff of equal or mostly higher quality.
    • I’ve grown to like Joanna Cannon on Twitter, but am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of her books (although I have them all on my Kindle – which usually means: out of sight, out of mind – I am far more likely to grab something off my shelves). I thought her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was an intriguing mix of humour and grit, mostly seen through the eyes of a child, which is notoriously difficult to do. I thought she was quite clever in giving us the perspective of a child looking back, but also additional adult perspectives, which shows us events and interpretations that a child couldn’t possibly understand. And yet this breaks all the rules of what us wannabe novelists are told to do: don’t have too many points of view, don’t switch too much between timelines so as not to confuse the reader etc. By setting out all these rules, are publishers just setting themselves up for clones of whatever has been successful in the past?
    • There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s when all I read was crime fiction and Sophie Hannah was one of my favourites for the way she managed to write her way out of the most outrageous, impossible premise. Nowadays, I usually prefer crime with a social message, strong characterisation, atmospheric details, but every now and then I crave a thorough page-turner (if it has any of the above additional elements, then all the better) and am willing to suspend some disbelief for a book that will keep me up all night. It’s harder to do this than it looks, and it hurts me to say that Hannah herself seems to have lost this capability in the final stages of the execution. But one writer who seems to have taken over the mantle of this successfully is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her Nothing Man was one of the most appreciated books we ever had at the Virtual Crime Book Club, and I embarked almost immediately upon her lockdown thriller 56 Days, which is coming out imminently (and which fits none of my August reading plans, but rules are made to be broken, right?)

2. The Translation Summer School made me realise how much I belong to this ‘tribe’, i.e. of people who are fond of and curious about other languages and cultures, even if some of them got into translation by accident. To be fair, I think fewer and fewer are getting into literary translation by accident, unless they are particularly well connected, because it is becoming very competitive. Translation courses are becoming the new MFAs – yet I think there are very few translators who can make a living entirely out of their literary translations (hence perhaps the need to teach). In particular, there are still cultural institutions, funding and awarding bodies, publishers who distrust anyone who is not a ‘native English speaker’ for a literary translation, as if the (sometimes, not always) superior command and understanding of nuances in the source language is not as important as fluency in the target language. But many of us ‘immigrants’ or ‘non-natives’ have grown up with the English language, which has become a victim perhaps of its own imperial and corporate success. Given the recent brouhaha about accents on TV in the Olympic coverage, the myth of ‘proper English’ is still alive and well, although there has never been one unitary, commonly defined and monitored English language (unlike the Académie Française – which, incidentally, is looking increasingly out of touch, conservative and ridiculous), but many Englishes.

In addition to ‘who gets to translate’, there is also the issue of ‘what gets translated’. There is still far too much stereotyping of what the ‘the literature of a particular culture’ should look like, or what writing style will appeal to English language readers. There is far too much emphasis on what will sell among the big publishers, and it is left up to the small independent publishers, the ones who can least afford the risk of low sales, to educate readers and try to broaden their taste (or cater to a more diverse group of readers).

On a more cheery note, the Summer School made me realise how much I enjoy theatre and all the people who work in it (I was in the Multingual Theatre Translation stream and our tutor was the very thoughtful, encouraging and thoroughly engaging William Gregory). I was very active in theatre groups throughout school and university, and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a coherent, beautiful whole emerge from a group effort, something that is so much better than the work of any individual, and that depends on each person performing at their best. The work of a translator is often very solitary, but this collaborative effort that is inevitable in theatre translation is something that appeals hugely to me, and I will try to keep it in my life somehow, if I can afford it. At the very least, my eight fellow theatre group participants and I are planning to keep in touch and meet up occasionally to continue sharing our play translations.

3. The joys and woes of indie publishing

In my upbeat moments, I tell myself that Corylus Books is doing great work, taking on lesser-known languages and the kinds of quirky, genre-busting works that I like to read myself and that many of my (online or not) friends tell me they too like to read. However, the sales figures tell another story. Although each one of our books thus far has received excellent reviews, it appears that English language readers are not ready for Balkan Noir, nor for crime fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the subgenres of police procedural or psychological thriller or spy thriller etc.

I don’t want to rubbish the crime fiction genre, which I truly love, and where so much great writing and experimentation is taking place. But I have to admit it is discouraging to see some of the very average and ‘samey’ offerings that are being churned out by the big publishers month after month, and which end up ranking very highly on the sales charts. Yes, maybe that is the sort of book that the wider public prefer, but I think it’s at least 50% due to the money they can afford to splurge on advertising and promotion, the connections they have to journalists and other media people, to festival organisers and celebrity endorsements etc. There is no point in being snobbish and saying that we are not influenced by the buzz: probably around 80% of readers are. It works, and that is why they do it. And if it doesn’t work for three out of ten titles, they can afford to swallow the losses, or the Amazon spokes in their wheels.

Last but not least, there is one aspect of being a small indie publisher that I hadn’t realised before (and probably should have). Namely, that if you are not a purveyor of literary fiction in translation, you are unlikely to have much chance of winning translation and publication grants from the source countries, or literary awards which can then increase sales and visibility (both are usually given to ‘works of literary merit’, which crime fiction is still not considered to be generally).

I’ve been in this position before, starting my own company, and know it can take a couple of years to find success. But at least back then, I was only tightening my own belt, while this time there are many other people that we are letting down if we don’t achieve at least a modest success. Ah well, we chose this path ourselves, so mustn’t grumble, as they say. We’ll find ways to access funding, pay our translators properly, market and distribute our books and promote our authors in innovative ways, overcoming the double barriers of Covid and Brexit.

Oh, and Happy National Day, Switzerland, miss you lots! Hop Suisse!

#ReadIndies: Poetry Presses

One area where the independent publishers really excel is poetry. Probably because there is little money to be made from it on the whole (presidential inauguration ceremony effect excepted – hurrah for Amanda Gorman!), and so most big publishing conglomerates won’t touch it with a bargepole.

Many of these poetry publishers are tiny, often one-person outfits, operating on a shoestring, often run by other poets. And all of us who love (or write) poetry are all the richer for having them: they are worth every penny of arts funding that they can get (although many don’t get any). I have written about discovering and splurging on poetry books back in 2018, so I won’t mention Ignition, Sad Press, V Press, Tapsalteerie, Bad Betty Press, Midsummer Night’s Press, Stranger Press or Burning Eye Books again here, other than to encourage you to seek out their beautifully produced volumes of poetry (occasionally flash fiction) and explore the boundaries of both English language and translated poetry written today.

In this post, I will wax lyrical about the slightly better-known poetry publishers that appear most frequently on my bookshelves and show some of their most beautiful covers.

The cover to the bilingual edition of the epic poem by Adnan Al-Sayegh.

Seren Books is the book imprint of Poetry Wales, but does not publish poetry exclusively. It does, however, focus on English language writing from Wales, although its range has expanded more recently, for example this fine dual language (English-Arabic) edition of the epic poem Uruk’s Anthem or recent poetry from Latin America. I also admire their beautiful anthologies about Women’s Work or Motherhood, and the way many of their ‘classic’ books reflect the enormous changes in Wales over the past hundred years.

Out-Spoken Press arose from the Out-Spoken monthly poetry and music events which were started in London in 2012 by Anthony Anaxagorou and other poet friends. The press was established in 2015 to give voice to writers that had been under-represented by mainstream poetry magazines and publishers, and it has demonstrated a real knack for finding talent. I’ve been following them since their creation and have had the opportunity to read poets such as Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Hannah Lowe before they became prize-winning household names.

An example of a beautiful Peepal Tree Press cover.

Peepal Tree Press is the Leeds-based home of Caribbean and Black British writing and literary or social studies. They always punch well above their weight and, most recently, have won the Costa Book of the Year Award with Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch. However, I encountered them through poetry, and one particular favourite is Tiphanie Yanique’s moving, by turns tender and broken, combative and submissive, Wife.

The Emma Press is the brainchild and labour of love of Emma Dai’an Wright and publishes lovely poetry chapbooks, anthologies and children’s books, including some in translation. I’ve attended a couple of their launch events and they are brilliant at creating a wonderful sense of community. I would recommend their anthologies on love, aunts and the sea (to just name a few), as well as Poems the Wind Blew In – an anthology of children’s poems translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, with amusing illustrations by Riya Chowdhury. It’s never too soon to expose children to poetry from all over the world!

Carcanet Press barely needs any introduction – it is one of the leading publishers of both classical and modern poetry (and literary criticism). Most recently, I’ve been smitten with Caroline Bird’s The Air Year and Eavan Boland’s The Historian, both shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for Poetry (Boland’s posthumous work went on to win the prize). One of my favourite poetry collections, that I keep returning to again and again, is Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, which might explain why I was so delighted that Rebecca agreed to work with me as a mentor back in 2019.

Last and possibly the best-known of these poetry publishers is Bloodaxe Books, which, in its 40 years of existence, has really redefined poetry for the English-speaking world, always one step ahead in terms of discovering new voices, both in English and in translation. Best known perhaps for their thick, diverse anthologies such as Being Alive, Staying Alive, Being Human, I love them especially for their translations of Romanian poets (naturally!). They have introduced me to far too many poets to mention here, but let me just call out a few on my shelves: Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica, Gillian Allnutt’s Wake, Denise Levertov and Anna Akhmatova (translated by Richard McKane).

#ReadIndies: What is indie on my shelf?

I may be pottering around Canada this month, but I wanted to take part somehow in the Read Indies month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambles. So I decided to have a look through my shelves and see which independent publishers have most caught my eye and made me take out my credit card. There are plenty of newer publishers that I haven’t yet explored – this is a list of those that I have in plentiful quantities. Please bear in mind also that I have a lot of books in other languages, and that the criteria for being an independent publisher is quite different elsewhere, so I will stick to the UK based publishers I own.

Translated Fiction:

Peirene Press – for short, concentrated bursts of brilliance from Central and Northern Europe (originally, although the selection has broadened in recent years). One of my all-time favourites was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke. They were also the first to introduce an annual subscription model (as far as I know).

Istros Books – for SE European literature – or, to be precise – literature from countries bordering the River Danube. A recent favourite was Ludovic Bruckstein’s The Trap, and there is a new translation of Bruckstein’s work coming out now.

Alma Books – particularly for their translations of classics, from the Russian for me and all sorts of other languages for my son. Most recently enjoyed the detailed annotations and translation notes of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island.

A good selection of Alma titles that I acquired in their annual book sale.

Tilted Axis – predominantly Asian selection of countries, forever grateful for introducing me to Thai literature via Prabda Yoon’s Moving Parts or daring Bengali author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.

Strangers Press – a very small outfit, linked to the UEA Publishing Programme and Norwich Writers’ Centre. I’ve been particularly interested in their Keshiki New Voices from Japan series, as you might expect, but they also have a series on Korean literature and another on Dutch literature.

Nordisk Books Рcontemporary Nordic fiction aimed at proving that there is more to Scandinavia than just crime fiction. Was particularly struck by Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen and Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattstr̦m.

Bitter Lemon Press – I like to travel while reading crime fiction, so the mission of Bitter Lemon to cover the dark side of foreign places really appeals to me. They introduced me to Argentinian writer Claudia Pineiro and Spanish writer Teresa Solana, and The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda is the most recent book which really struck a chord.

Charco Press – an emphasis on striking, even challenging contemporary Latin American literature, with equally striking covers in a rainbow array of colours. Recommended titles include: Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (the first I read from them and still a favourite) and Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo.

Since I arrange my books by countries, publishers like Charco mess up my system a little, since I cannot bear to not keep all their books together, so I’ve created a Latin American bookcase.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – this publisher straddles two worlds, with their blue-covered translations/fiction titles and white-covered essays/non-fiction. I discovered Olga Tokarczuk thanks to them and most recently was bowled over by Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

English Language:

Comma Press – another publisher which straddles two categories, their focus being on short stories, whether in English or in translation. I particularly enjoy their city series, such as The Book of Tokyo or The Book of Shanghai, and of course their Europa 28 (Writing by Women on the Future of Europe).

Persephone Books – how I miss the dinky little Persephone bookshop, which was dangerously close to my workplace! This publisher does reprints of largely forgotten titles by early to mid-twentieth century women authors. I’ve been smitten by Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, who was the wife of painter Eric Ravilious and an artist in her own right.

Orenda Books – there are far too few independent publishers of crime fiction, and Orenda does a great job of providing readers with both translated and English crime novels. Not only do I admire the publisher’s ability to create a real sense of community around her books and authors, but she is also happy to let her authors experiment with cross-genre fiction, which the bigger publishers are seldom prepared to do. Some of the authors I particularly like are: Antti Tuomainen, Helen Fitzgerald, Will Carver, Agnes Ravatn and Simone Buchholz.

Silver Press – a small, recently-founded feminist publisher, with a very promising list of authors including Leonora Carrington, Chantal Akerman, Nell Dunn and Audre Lorde. This is the new Virago in a way. For many years, I was an avid Virago fan, and I still am, but they do not count as independent (they are currently part of Hachette).

This post is getting rather long, so I will leave the poetry publishers for next week.

But before I go, I will just very gently remind you of Corylus Books as well: translated crime fiction with a social edge from countries and languages that tend to get fewer translations. We are currently in the process of reconfiguring our website so that it will work both in the UK and abroad. Our best reviewed books from our first year of operation were Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu and The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir.

Exciting news: what’s been keeping me busy

You may have noticed that I’ve been far less present online since the start of this year. There are several reasons for that: some boring, and some very pleasant indeed.

In this latter category, I am proud to be part of a very exciting initiative. I am one of four friends and literary addicts who have decided (probably against any common sense) to set up a publishing venture to bring more translated fiction to the English-speaking world. Our baby is called Corylus Books, we are planning to launch at the London Book Fair and we are still in the process of setting up our website. But we do have a Twitter handle @CorylusB and a couple of books all ready to go.

Who Are We?

We are passionate readers of crime fiction and literature in translation. We have close connections to several countries, chief among them Romania, Iceland and the UK, of course. We are eager to build bridges between different cultures… and one of the best ways to do that is via literature. The four of us are writers, translators, academics, bloggers, festival organisers, reviewers and publishers, so we have a broad and complementary set of skills. We are starting with crime fiction, because that is a genre we know and love, but we are open to any interesting stories that are well told. We always like a slice of social commentary with our fiction as well.

Corylus is the Latin name for the hazel tree which produces hazelnuts. According to the Celts, hazelnuts confer wisdom and inspiration. In German fairytales, the hazel branch offers the greatest protection from snakes and other dangerous creatures. Last but not least, the Romanian name for hazel is ‘alun’ and the song ‘Alunelu’, alunelu’, hai la joc!’ is one of our best-known folk dances. Plus, like all good deciduous shrubs, it grows profusely in the right climate. All splendid metaphors for our venture.

We all have full-time jobs in addition to this passion project – which is where the madness comes in. So, whilst we are ambitious, we will start small and grow gradually. Nevertheless, we have some some exciting works in the pipeline.

Our Books

Anamaria Ionescu: Zodiac

Four murders in four different locations, each body showing a strange mark (possibly a zodiac sign?). The only thing the victims seem to have in common is that they were all born in the little spa town of Voineasa in the Romanian sub-Carpathian region. The fast-paced narrative switches between the streets of Bucharest and the wooded hills of Voineasa. Sergiu Manta has been forced to work in the shadowy world of state-supported asassins, but he knows it’s not him who’s been carrying out these murders. In the course of the investigation, he locks horns with the local police inspector determined to crack the case. The novel cleverly blends well-worn serial killer tropes with an inside look at a secretive special-ops team.

Teodora Matei: Living Candles

If you enjoy travelling the world virtually through your crime fiction, then Living Candles is the perfect book to convey the atmosphere of the Romanian urban environment. Or at least the murkier side of it: the blocks of flats where the neighbours all know each other’s business, the pensioners gossiping on the bench outside the entrances, the machismo impregnating the atmosphere so thickly, you could cut it with a knife.

These two will be out very soon and ARCs should be available for a blog tour by end of March. So let me know in the comments if you think you might want to take part, and I can give you more details.

Bogdan Teodorescu: Sword

The third book is a political thriller which I have only just finished translating (and still need to edit). It’s called Spada in the original Romanian (Sword in English) and it is by political analyst and professor of election campaigning Bogdan Teodorescu. It was translated into French a few years ago and did quite well there, with Le Monde and other publications reviewing it positively. Among our blogger friends, Emma from Book Around read and reviewed it, called it a ‘stunning political thriller’ and said what a shame it wasn’t translated into English. We are once more in serial killer territory, but the focus here is not at all on the investigation, but instead on how the crimes become a pretext for politics. It is unnervingly, chillingly accurate of the political situation not just in Romania but in many other countries at the present time. So I am delighted that we will finally be able to share it with you! Here is my attempt at a blurb.

Romanian cover of the 2nd edition of Spada. Cover reveal of English edition to follow!

A petty criminal is found dead in the streets of Bucharest,killed with a single stab to the throat. Initially, the police believe it’s a fight between gangs, but when two more deaths follow in quick succession, all with the same MO, it becomes clear that Romania’s capital city is facing one of its first recorded instances of a serial killer. The press are eager to run sensationalist reports and give the killer the nickname Sword, after the weapon used.  But there is an added complication: all the victims are from the Roma (gypsy) minority, and all of them have a police record. While the police struggle to find any leads, politicians have no qualms about using the case to score points against their opponents. Is this some misguided vigilante – and will the majority population start seeing Sword as a saviour rather than a criminal? The race is on to find the killer before interethnic clashes engulf the country, but a series of blunders at all levels leads to an escalation of conflict. Originally published in 2008, the novel is remarkably candid and prescient about racism, the rise of fake news, manipulation of the truth and political corruption. This astute political thriller will remind readers of TV shows like Borgen or West Wing.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir: The Fox

Icelandic author Sólveig Pálsdóttir has only been writing for seven years, but she is a rising star in her native country. She’s been translated into German and we hope to introduce her to an English-speaking audience in late summer/early autumn.

Icelandic cover of The Fox.

A young woman, one of Iceland’s immigrant community, vanishes without trace soon after arriving in the village of Höfn, so suddenly that there are doubts that the vulnerable young woman had even been there at all. Her disappearance, some suspicious events in the town and an isolated farm spark the interest of Reykjavík police officer Guðgeir, who is spending time working as a security guard in Höfn while he recovers from trauma in both his professional and his private life.

Finally, if you are attending the London Book Fair on the 10th of March, come and speak to us at the Romanian pavilion/stand. We will be talking about our new venture, our books and our future plans in an event organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute that day. Also, if you are coming to Newcastle Noir on 1-3 May 2020, you will have the opportunity to hear the author of Sword speak and get your hands on drippingly new (ink barely dried) copies of the English translation of the book.