Monday, 21 June 2021


(Going to attempt some semi-regular capsule reviews: let's see how it goes!)


Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness: Alexandros Plasatis, 2021

A novel in stories that shifts and darts between voices and viewpoints, all centred at the Café Papaya on the Grecian coast, where Egyptian fisherman fight and argue with testosterone-crazed locals. In fact, unrestrained masculine foolishness is a recurring theme in the vivid tumbling parade of tall stories, misunderstandings, brief lusts and sweaty evenings. Unusual and worthwhile.

Detransition, Baby: Torrey Peters, 2021

Witty and clever and ultimately depressing, but also suffering from the bane of too many first novels in that it desperately needs pruning. Minutely detailed abusive relationships make up rather more of the book needs be, given their actual relevance to the plot (in which a trans woman is contacted by her detransitioned ex, now living as a man, because he has got someone pregnant and has an elaborate and ludicrous scheme whereby the two of them, plus the pregnant woman, will somehow form a family for the baby).

Warm Worlds and Otherwise: James Tiptree Jr, 1975

I have thoroughly enjoyed several other collections of Tiptree's (real name Alice Sheldon) genre-revivifying science-fiction, but I don't remember it being this datedly '70s to such an extent. Maybe one of those writers I shouldn't have revisited.

The Brainstorm: Jenny Turner, 2007

A weird one. A perfectly serviceable and enjoyable satire on working at a British newspaper in the 1990s, but with the title-giving conceit (a "brainstorm" that means the main character comes to at their desk at the opening of the book with no idea who they are or what they're meant to be doing) so half-arsed that it makes no internal sense and seems to be forgotten about for great stretches of the book. I would never suggest that the heaped praise from various British newspapers quoted on the front and back covers was a case of calling in the favours.

The Monkey and Other Stories: Miklós Bánffy (translated by Thomas Sneddon), 2021

The second of two Bánffy (1873-1950) short fiction collections published in a matter of months (after Len Rix's Enchanted Night selection), though luckily there are only around 50 pages of overlap. Widely varied in tone and setting, Bánffy's humanism and unusual worldview show through, as does his clear-eyed love for the Transylvanian countryside and history his life was steeped in. 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

After the Ball

'After the Ball' or 'Jove Decadent', by Ramon Casas:

Popular on many, many book covers:

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Australian Literature Recommendations... LIVE

I invaded Shawn the Book Maniac's Youtube channel and really ruined the place, talking about Australian literature. You can watch a tiny windowed version of it here, or click through:

Books discussed:

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Radio Caustic

If you'd like to hear my dulcet tones blathering on about book design and recommending obscure books on the Australian national broadcaster, have at it

Or listen here:

(NB: To my knowledge I don't usually sound as though I'm 4 feet tall and trapped in a metal bucket)

For anyone looking for the awful, awful book covers (like that above) referenced in the interview, start here.

For 70 more obscure book recommendations, try here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Inside the Red Circle

Anyone who has spent any time in my presence will have been bored to tears by me going on about how much I love: 
  • novellas
  • translated fiction
  • beautifully designed books
so it should be no surprise that the Red Circle Minis series does it for me.

Red Circle is a small publishing house dedicated to bringing Japanese writers to the attention of English readers, and its opening salvo is a series of novellas. What is particularly interesting and commendable is that, though 5 of the first 6 six books are in translation, for all of the books this is their first publication anywhere.

The books themselves cover a wide variety of genres: science-fiction, historical fiction, reality TV satire, domestic crime and more. I initially bought several of them as ebooks due to me being a fool, because when I got hold of the physical books I found these really are beautifully designed objects. 

The books are all designed by Aiko Ishida, about whom I have been able to learn almost nothing. Her design work makes use of textures and patterns from traditional Japanese textiles, building materials and garden designs, against traditional paper textures, to give a consistent but timeless look to the series which is simple and elegant. The two books by Kanji Hanawa use the same elements with different colours and textures. You'll also note there's not a cliched cherry blossom to be seen.

Red Circle has more books planned, and it will be very interesting to see where this insider's guide to contemporary Japanese literature will take us.

The online magazine Red Circle publishes is a good guide to the company's ethos and interests. If you like good books or good design then you need to look at the work they're doing.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Ramona Quimby age 65: The Art of Ramona Quimby [A Guest Post]

A guest post by Lisa Morrison, who previously wrote about the art and reality of Last Suppers.

As an eight-year-old girl in 1984, I didn’t like my teacher and was increasingly anxious about going to school. A local librarian recommended Ramona the Brave to my mum, among a selection of books that might help me. Here a lifelong love of Ramona books began.

In the pages of this children’s novel, I felt understood, entertained and inspired to be courageous. To this day, I still marvel at how author Beverly Cleary knew, or could remember, what it was like to be a child: the worries and enthusiasms, frustrations and misunderstandings.

I read all the other Ramona books, was super excited when a new one appeared and was never disappointed by them. The final Ramona book, Ramona’s World, was released around the time I was having problems with someone at work and about to be married. It was so comforting to return to those characters I loved so much.

I’ve always read Ramona books as a cosy treat as an adult. But the even greater joy is how much my own daughter, now seven, also loves them. Now, as a parent, I also find myself identifying with Ramona’s mum, Mrs Quimby. Beverly Cleary was just as on the mark about how adults act and the universal things they say to children. The Quimby’s money worries, scheduling issues, car breakdowns and job dissatisfaction seem so adult and serious now. But, as a child reader, I hardly noticed them.

Every Ramona reader would have their own remembrances and fond feelings. So it is such a joy to see the Ramona books and their illustrations celebrated in Anna Katz's The Art of Ramona Quimby. And Beverly Cleary, at 104, is still around to see it.

Anna Katz takes us through each Ramona book in turn, showcasing the work of the five main illustrators that have drawn this spunky girl over the years. They are Louis Darling, Alan Tiegreen, Joanne Scribner, Tracey Dockray and Jacqueline Rogers. Interestingly, the work of Thelma Lambert, who illustrated my edition of Beezus and Ramona, is not mentioned.

Cover art by Joanne Scribner

The artwork is always at the forefront, combined with summaries and extracts and spare commentary about how different illustrators have interpreted the same pivotal episodes in each book.

Artwork by Alan Tiegreen


Alan Tiegreen’s illustrations will always be my Ramona; and it was lovely to see some of the covers I knew as a child again here, which are different to the paperbacks I own. 

Artwork by Louis Darling

Louis Darling was the original Ramona illustrator, and his depictions of the younger, very 1950s, Ramona are also delightful. I hadn’t seen many different illustrators’ work before this collection, and am particularly taken with the recent imaginings of Ramona by Jacqueline Rogers. They are detailed, emotion-filled and endearing. They capture Ramona more realistically and less cartoonishly, and I want to go out and get editions drawn by her. Illustrations by Tracey Dockray and Joanne Scribner have their charms but don’t seem quite right to me.

Cover designs by Tracy Dockray

The Tiegreen image of Ramona’s father trying to remove burrs from Ramona’s hair after she made herself a nature crown—and which I recall making into a shoebox diorama for Mr Parson’s class in Year 5—will always stay with me.

Artwork by Alan Tiegreen (above) and (below) the same scene illustrated by Tracy Dockray

Readers who have not read Beverly Cleary’s compelling memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, will enjoy discovering that Cleary, like Ramona, also ate the first bite from many an apple and discarded the remains and was also tormented by hearing a teacher call her a nuisance.

Inclusions of facsimiles of letters between Louis Darling and Beverly Clear at the end of the book are so enjoyable, as is the afterword by Jacqueline Rogers about being chosen to illustrate the Ramona books.

Click to embiggen

The Art of Ramona Quimby is a joy for any Ramona fan!

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Classics Reconsidered

 You think you know the classics of world literature? But do you? Do you? Do you REALLY? Well, then, please explain the output of Sheba Blake Publishing:

It's like the glory days of Tutis, all over again.