Thursday, 29 August 2019

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Handheld: The Return

Last year I posted about Handheld, a new publisher bringing back neglected but excellent books into print. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, resurrecting great books by the likes of Rose Macauley (her forgotten SF novel, no less) and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and also publishing new work by wonderful writers like Nicola Griffiths (who early in her career produced two true SF classics, Ammonite and Slow River) and Eddie Thomas Petersen.

A number of years ago, the Furrowed Middlebrow blog mentioned a book that sounded like just my thing: Inez Holden's Night Shift. A short documentary-style novel about the lives of workers in a Blitz-threatened factory over the course of a week? Sign me up! Unfortunately there was not a single copy for sale online anywhere in the world, not even for ludicrous sums of cash. Every now and then I'd have another look, and every time there would be nothing.

Now Handheld have republished Night Shift, along with Holden's It Was Different at the Time, her diaries of 1938-1941. It's available! It's affordable! It's mine! And it was worth the wait.

Series design by Nadja Guggi

Night Shift has a narrator, but one we learn almost nothing about. Her observations of her fellow workers, their habits and conflicts, their personalities and oddities, are perceptive and sympathetic, but clear-eyed, too. The weird flattening of class and gender differences is noted... is the tribalism between the different shifts.

Holden was obviously drawing from her own experiences of war work, and it reminded me of a more textured, fictionalised version of another forgotten book, Mass Observation's War Work, whcih was actually written by an uncredited Celia Fremlin, the crime writer behind paranoiac classic The Hours Before Dawn. Another one for Handheld to bring back?

In some ways, though Holden's diaries are even better. The daily observations of London life during the Blitz are absolutely fascinating, and drawn with perfectly judged prose: dispassionate and interested. Some examples:

I could read this stuff all day.

Handheld have even more amazing stuff lined up. More Townsend Warner! Vonda N McIntyre! Jan Jacob Slauerhoff! Elizabeth von Arnim! Buy their books now so they can keep publishing stuff for me.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018



The Last Window-Giraffe: A Picture Dictionary for the over Fives by Péter Zilahy, translator Tim Wilkinson: wonderfully playful sort-of memoir about growing up in Hungary and being in Serbia during the collapse of Yugoslavia, all in the form of a children's encyclopedia.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper, an investigation into the horrific Black Saturday bushfires of Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people, and a perceptive, disqueiting look at the peculiar man convicted of lighting them.

Mem by Bethany C. Morrow: if you don't want to read a Jazz Age Montreal sci-fi alternative history novel about the nature of memory and consciousness, with a surprisingly affecting old-fashioned romance thrown in, then I can't help you.

Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima; translated by Geraldine Harcourt -- the first of three books by this wonderful late Japanese writer I read this year, about a sort-of-single mother in Tokyo...

...followed by Child of Fortune (novel) and Of Dogs and Walls (2 stories) (also translated by Geraldine Harcourt), which are similarly excellent, and I hope the forerunners of an ongoing Tsushima recovery.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori: intriguing novel about a woman with unnerving character traits who has found her niche in life and is resisting everyone's attempts to push her out of it. Both unique and faintly Highsmithy.

Murmur by Will Eaves: Alan Turing, consciousness, AI, love... It was very nice, if unexpected, of Eaves to write a book just for me; all the rest of you with any taste will love it too. Published by the great @CBeditions; a US edition comes out next year.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith: one of the most purely interesting books ever written. Hard to do it justice, but if this piece doesn't intrigue you, you must be dead.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken: this book will, if read properly, fuck you up severely. Heartbreaking, beautifully written. Did I mention how sad it is? And it has a weird slingshot ending whereby the worst, saddest thing happens BEYOND the final page.

The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti: splendidly concise and perceptive novelish non-fiction about the unholy marriage between corporations and fascists, as exemplified by Nazi Germany and as imitated by everyone else these days, sadly.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy: brilliant personal essays, the second volume in a series that doesn't require you to have read the first. Levy's having a renaissance after @andothertweets brought out "Swimming Home", and it's hard to think of a writer who deserves it more.

The Smoke by Simon Ings: one of the most deeply strange works of serious literature published this year, a regularly startling tale of human speciation, working pseudoscience, massive Dan Dare-style technology, and the failures of family bonds.

Evelina by Frances Burney: obviously I'm a bit late with this one, but you can see why Jane Austen loved it--a funny and piercingly perceptive look at the horrible precariouness of being a woman with obligations but no power.

Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson: 4th, final book (start with Europe in Autumn, NOW) of cartographic sci-fi, extremely witty and charming political/espionage stuff in near-future where our familiar countries all collapsing into numerous micro-nations.

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch, translated by Jamie Bulloch: clever, stylish, short epistolatry thriller from 1910 about a student embedding himself in a White Russian family as a tutor/helpmeet, but who is really there to kill the family father, a repressive local Governor

The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen, translated by Gaye Kynoch: if I'd known more about Nielsen (ie performs in blackface, etc), I would not have read this modernist, beautifully done group portrait of a family and various hangers-on over the course of a rural Danish summer

An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated David Colmer: Dutch partisan thoroughly sick of WW2 deserts and takes over luxurious empty house in abandoned warzone, and is then determined to do absolutely ANYTHING to keep it; dark and nasty.

Death and Other Holidays by Marci Vogel: along with all of its other horrors, grief is almost unbearably boring to experience, so for Vogel to turn the experience of a woman grieving her beloved stepfather into such a funny and engaging novel is a real achievement.

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman: deeply intelligent and gripping near-future sci-fi about bonobos, the science of infidelity, endometriosis, climate change and more; constantly unpredictable, beautifully judged.

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet & John Batki: intense button-holing stories of great variety in setting but consistent claustrophobia; Krasznahorkai is not like any other writer in the world.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell: at this point I'm probably the last person to read this undeniable masterpiece and you don't need my incoherent ravings to tell you you should get it, but let's all raise a glass to the memory of super-translator Anthea Bell

Fireflies by Luis Sagasti, translated by Fionn Petch: an unclassifiable rambling masterpiece of non-fiction, taking in everything from Kubrick to space to Sun Ra to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Wittgenstein. Pure pleasure.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Sam Taylor: intricate multi-POV 24-hour-set novel tracing a heart from the death of its original owner in a car accident, via everyone involved along the way, to its new home, post-transplant, in a young woman.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts: seriously clever and rigorous hard sci-fi about the difficulties of planning a political revolution over the course of millions of years when most of the revolutionaries are in cryogenic sleep and never meet.

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice: literary collapse-of-civilisation novels are everywhere these days, but this one is especially good, affecting and unusual: an Indigenous Canadian community in the far north is so remote they don't even know the world has ended...

Sight by Jessie Greengrass: splendid time-hopping novel reflecting on birth, motherhood, death, the discovery of X-rays, the history of surgery, and anatomical autopsy models, all done in beautiful prose.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan: as with "Austerlitz" I am very late to this party, but what an amazing, dark, depressing, beautiful and bracingly chilly party it is. Pairs well with Hanne Ørstavik's Love (see somewhere above).

The Night Market by Jonathan Moore: unusual science-fiction crime novel, exploring memory and motivation and the total abject exploitation of desire by capitalism. Much more grim fun than that sounds.

Welcome Home by Lucia Berlin: unfinished yet brilliant memoirs of all the many, many homes Berlin lived in. Sardonic, sad and superbly written, even though it's just an incomplete early draft. (Also contains Berlin's selected letters.)

I think that's the lot. I just have to make sure I only read crap for the next two-and-a-bit weeks so that I don't have to add to this list.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018


A new publisher that is focused on resurrecting forgotten literature, new translations, and collections of letters, and including two Sylvia Townsend Warner books: it's nice that they want to appeal to me so very specifically. Handheld Press is off to a very strong start.

The first of their book series, the Handheld Classics, bring back forgotten or neglected books that deserve a second chance. Having just finished Una Silberrad's 'Desire', I can say that it's the sort of wonderful novel that Virago Modern Classics used to unearth before their great culling; a New Woman novel of unusual depth and texture.

Forthcoming is the amazing 'Kingdoms of Elfin', the spectacular late-career story collection from Sylvia Townsend Warner.

All the Handheld Classics have an attractive, clean design of a strong central image and lots of white space; the work of Nadja Guggi of Messrs Dash + Dare, with Handheld's editor/manager Kate Macdonald doing the image selection.

There are also the Handheld Research editions, non-fiction books likethe other Townsend Warner book noted above...

..and, excitingly, Handheld Modern, for new books. The first title, still forthcoming, is Danish author  Eddie Thomas Petersen's 'After the Death of Ellen Keldberg'.

This dramatic cover image brings to mind a personal hobbyhorse about nudity on book covers: it's almost invariably sexualised, and almost invariably aimed at men. Books for a general audience, even though mostly read by women, get naked women on the covers to appeal to men. Books marketed at a gay male audience often get naked men on the covers, also to appeal to men. Only romance novels get naked men aimed at women. You almost never see naked, non-sexualised adults on book covers, and a vanishing proportion of those will be images of men. All this is quite odd for such a female-run and -patronised business as publishing, but it's splendid to see Handheld break the trend with this startling and eye-catching design. Read more about it from Kate Macdonald here.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Over at the blog of the otherwise admirable Australian Book Designers Association, I am doing my party piece.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Penguin vs Peter Owen

I'm not sure what exactly has gone on behind the scenes, but a number of books long published, championed and supported by Peter Owen in their Modern Classics series seem to be slipping over, in paperback editions, to Penguin Modern Classics, with some very nice covers. However, Peter Owen seems to have retained the hardback rights, and are reprinting them as what they are calling Cased Classics. (See other examples of paperbacks at one publisher, hardbacks with another here and here.)

So here are the new/imminent Penguins...

..and here are the beautiful hardback Peter Owens, with diecut covers over fully illustrated boards (click for much bigger versions).

The moral of this story is that the much less attractive edition of The Ice Palace which I bought a couple of months ago, before I knew about any of these, was not a good investment.

(More Peter Owen coming soon: their beautiful and intriguing World Series books with Istros)