CategoryFiction

Eden Book Society: Holt House

The Eden Book Society was a private subscription publisher founded in 1919. For almost a century, it published horror novellas, always under pseudonyms. Now, the people behind Dead Ink Books have acquired the rights to the Eden Book Society’s backlist. This year, they are reissuing the six titles that the Society published in 1972; the first to appear is Holt House, by the mysterious L.G. Vey.

Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, in the middle of the Holtwood, live old Mr and Mrs Latch. Ray watches them through a hole in the fence: as a child, he was taken to stay with the Latches one night when his mother fell ill. Mr Latch showed him something that was stored in the wardrobe; Ray can’t remember what it was, but the experience has blighted his life ever since. Now, as an adult, he has returned to Holt House to find out exactly what happened. When Mr Latch dies suddenly, Ray seizes the chance to befriend Mrs Latch and find his way into the house.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Ray finds that life at Holt House has a curiously timeless quality; a real sense of eeriness develops as Vey unveils this. But where the novel really shines is its exploration of Ray’s character: the realisation that he’s not entirely sympathetic, and the queasy to-and-fro of whether the tale’s real source of horror is setting or protagonist.

It would be nice to maintain the pretence, but I think I should be honest: there was never really an Eden Book Society, and Holt House does not originate from 1972. The Society is a publishing project from Dead Ink, and was initially funded via Kickstarter (they’re now offering subscriptions through the Society website, linked at the start of this post). However, the books are being published anonymously: Dead Ink have announced that this year’s novellas are by Andrew Michael Hurley; Aliya Whiteley; Alison Moore; Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst; Gary Budden; and Sam Mills. That’s a fine list of writers, and what really got me excited about the Eden Book Society in the first place. I don’t know who’s writing behind the name L.G. Vey, and it doesn’t matter: Holt House is a strong start for the Society; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Book details

Holt House (2018) by L.G. Vey, Eden Book Society, 101 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Document 1 – François Blais

In the years since I started reading and reviewing more books in translation, one of the nice things has been the chance to talk to translators on social media. This has given me a greater appreciation of the work that goes into translation, and made me more attentive to the language of fiction in general.

One of the translators I’m in touch with on social media is JC Sutcliffe, who translates from French. Recently, she asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a couple of books she had translated, which were published by Book*hug in Canada. I’m not that familiar with fiction from Quebec, and I liked the sound of both novels, so I said yes.

The title I’m looking at today is Document 1 by François Blais; he’s written nine novels, but this is his first to appear in English. At the start, we’re introduced to a pair of amiable slackers: Tess and her partner Jude (those names are referencing Thomas Hardy, but as I’ve not read him I can’t explore that). From their home in Grand-Mère, the couple travel the world – via Google Earth and a flick of the mouse, that is:

We jump the four hundred kilometres separating Minnesota’s metropolis from Des Moines, Iowa. We’d better see what the buzz is down here. Fly low over Grand View University. Not much going on, it’s all very peaceful, but let’s just note in passing that the Des Moines fire hydrants are yellow. Another crucial piece of information to take up storage space in our brains. There’s not much happening on Euclid Avenue either, even though it seems to be one of the town’s major commercial streets. Lots of vehicles (trucks in particular), but no pedestrians: apparently strolling is not the done thing in Des Moines…

One day, against their usual instincts, the couple decide to go on a road trip, to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania (they like places with unusual names, and it’s not too far to travel). The problem is, they don’t have a car, or indeed enough money to fund the journey. Eventually, they hit on an idea: to apply for a government arts grant that would fund a book of the road trip. Tess and Jude find a local writer, Sébastien Daoust, to lend his name to the grant application; the resulting text is the novel we’re reading (though it’s Tess who has ‘written’ it, with a very little help from Jude).

In case you’re wondering, the title of Document 1 comes from the default name of the Word file that Tess creates for the text. She says at one point:

Dear reader, as you have in your hands the finished product, with a beautiful cover, a beautiful ISBN number, and gushing thanks to the Arts Council, you must already know the title we chose. Admit it, it’s a pretty impressive title! I have no idea what it will be, but I know we’ll find something spectacular. I have faith in us.

And you can see how well that went…

I don’t always care for this kind of metafictional humour, but Blais gets it spot on for me. Tess has picked up a couple of ‘rules of writing’ books and keeps pointing out for our benefit the techniques she’s used in her text – techniques not necessarily used with much care or sensitivity (a random flashback resolved several chapters later, for example). Blais has managed to balance it so that he writes with a tin ear in places, yet this still works well in context, without coming across as making fun of his narrator – and Sutcliffe captures all that in her translation. When I write it out like that, it sounds onerous; but it reads so lightly.

Stu has also reviewed Document 1 over at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and he too is impressed with the novel’s dry wit. I hope we will see more of Blais’ work in translation, because this is a fine introduction.

Book details

Document 1 (2016) by François Blais, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 172 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Four Devils – Herman Bang

Today’s book is one of the launch titles in Very Short Classics, an occasional ebook series from the people behind Abandoned Bookshop. Herman Bang (1857-1912) is a renowned name in Danish literature, but not widely translated into English. The Four Devils was originally published in 1890; this translation, by Marie Ottilie Heyl, dates from 1927.

As children, the brothers Fritz and Adolf were taken in by the circus; along with sisters Aimée and Louise, they became the Four Devils, talented trapeze artists. Aimée is in love with Fritz, but he has eyes for a rich married woman in the audience. Fritz waits for her after the performance each night; eventually, the woman notices and speaks to him, and everything unravels from there…

What makes The Four Devils such a pleasure to read is the intensity of Bang’s prose. As befits a story about trapeze artists, everything is refracted through the lens of movement and the body; here, for example, is Fritz regarding the rich woman in the circus’s stables, where he works as groom:

It was all for his benefit – ah, he knew it well; through 1000 little gestures – the straightening of her back, the movement of her arm, the glance of her eye, she showed that they were destined for one another. They seemed actually to touch, though each took care to keep the distance that separated them. In spite of it, they felt close to each other; it was as if some indescribable impulse had caught them in a double coil that held them both bound.

I found The Four Devils a fine introduction to the work of Herman Bang, and I’ll be looking out for more.

Book details

The Four Devils (1890) by Herman Bang, tr. Marie Ottilie Heyl (1927), Very Short Classics, 53 pages, ebook (source: personal copy).

The Four Devils is available on Kindle and Kobo for 99p. Read another review by Grant at 1streading’s Blog.

Man Booker International Prize 2018: and the winner is…

I’m late in covering this, as the Man Booker International winner was announced last Wednesday. Although the official and shadow shortlists had only two books in common, the judges came to the same conclusion as the shadow panel: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft) took the Prize. Congratulations to both author and translator, and of course to publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions.

#MBI2018 Shadow Panel Winner

It’s been ten weeks since the Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced, and in that time the Shadow Panel has been working away in the background, reading frantically while discussing the merits and flaws of the selected titles. From the thirteen books we were given by the official judges, we chose a shortlist of six (only two of which made the official cut!), and off we set again, to reread as much as possible in the time we had. Then we discussed the books a little more before voting for our favourites, culminating in the choice of our favourite work of translated fiction from the previous year’s crop. And who might that be?

THE WINNER OF THE 2018 SHADOW MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE IS:

OLGA TOKARCZUK’S FLIGHTS
(FITZCARRALDO EDITIONS, TRANSLATED BY JENNIFER CROFT)

Congratulations to all involved! While not a unanimous decision, Flights easily won the majority of votes from our judges. In fact, in the seven years we’ve been shadowing the prizes (IFFP, then MBIP), this was the clearest winner by far, showing how impressed we were by Tokarczuk’s integration of seemingly disparate pieces into a mesmerising whole. Thanks must also go to Croft for her excellent work on the book – as always, it’s only with the help of the translator that we’re able to read this book at all…

A special mention should also go to Fitzcarraldo Editions. This is their second consecutive MBIP Shadow Prize (we selected Mathias Énard’s Compass as our winner for 2017), and having also come close with Énard’s Zone in 2015 (which wasn’t even selected for the official IFFP list that year!), they have proved to be one of the UK’s rising stars of fiction (and non-fiction) in translation. We look forward to seeing whether they can continue to provide titles for the longlist in future years.

*****
And that’s it for 2018…

Firstly, thank you to the rest of our Shadow Panel. While Tony, Bellezza and Lori were around to help once more, it was a new-look team this year, with Paul, Vivek, Naomi, Oisin and Frances joining the crew. It’s been fascinating to compare our opinions about the books, even (or especially!) when we disagreed about them. Here’s hoping that we can do it all again next year!

Secondly, a shout-out to all the readers and commenters out there. It’s heartening to have people appreciate our endeavours, and when people say that they’re following the prize vicariously through our reviews and comments, even if they don’t have time to read all the books themselves, it makes us feel as if the whole process is worth it.

Finally, thank you to the official judges for taking the time to read an awful lot of books in order to select the cream of the crop (although occasionally there’s a suspicion that the milk has gone rather sour…). We hope that their final choice (to be announced about twenty-four hours after ours) is a worthy winner to round off this year’s prize. Who will it be? Come back soon to find out…

Adapted from an original post on Tony’s Reading List.

Zero Hours – Neil Campbell

Zero Hours is Neil Campbell’s second novel, the sequel to 2016’s Sky Hooks (which I haven’t read, though the new book mostly stands alone). As its title suggests, this is a novel about work:

Try doing some of this zero hours shit. If you’re off sick then drag your arse in because you won’t be getting sick pay, you’ve got no rights whatsoever. Day after day you phone in asking for work. Day after day you sign in at the desk, just another face from the agency. On the phone, they used to call you for work. Now you have to call them. Time after time it’s engaged.

Campbell’s narrator is a young working-class man from Manchester. Throughout the novel he works a number of zero hours jobs, first at a mail-sorting depot, later at a number of libraries. There is nearly always something to dishearten our man, be it his duties, colleagues, managers, or just the constant uncertainty that comes with this kind of employment. Besides work, the narrator has a number of unsuccessful attempts at relationships, and sees the face of his city change, losing its character to gentrification. There’s a stop-start feel to reading the novel itself: as with zero hours work, the present moment is all, and even the immediate future uncertain.

Alongside his ‘day job’, the protagonist is a writer, active in the local literary scene and with a number of books published. This comes across as the glue holding the man’s life together, a source of continuity in contrast to pretty much everything else happening in his world. Sometimes reading Zero Hours feels like eavesdropping; at other times, it’s like being confided in. It makes one hope that, by novel’s end, there will be some light on the horizon.

Book details

Zero Hours (2018) by Neil Campbell, Salt Publishing, 138 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Read my review of Neil Campbell’s chapbook ‘Jackdaws’ (Nightjar Press) here.

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena

Today I’m looking at a book from Latvia, the first title in Peirene‘s ‘Home in Exile’ series for 2018. Two unnamed first-person narrators alternate: a mother and daughter. The mother is born in Riga in 1944 and becomes a talented doctor, offered a position to study in Leningrad. She gives birth to a daughter in 1969, but struggles with the prospect of being a mother: she disappears for five days immediately following the birth, and remains distant from her daughter, who is brought up mostly by her grandmother and step-grandfather.
All this changes, however, at the turn of 1977/8, when the mother has a run-in with the Soviet bureaucracy which ends with her being sent to run an ambulatory station in the Latvian countryside. She takes her daughter to live with her, hoping to grow closer to her – but depression continues to overshadow the mother’s life. There’s a stark quality to Nora Ikstena’s prose (in Margita Gailitis’ translation) that really heightens the intensity of her subject matter.
Milk is a recurring motif throughout the book: for example, the mother fears that she will poison her daughter if she breastfeeds, and the girl grows to be lactose intolerant. This works effectively as a metaphor for the troubled mother-daughter relationship at the novel’s heart, but also as a metaphor for the relationship between Latvia and the Soviet Union. The mother longs for Latvia to gain its independence, while the daughter starts to learn about Latvian culture at a clandestine after-school group. As the novel approaches its end in 1989, change is on the horizon, but the way for the two protagonists to reach there remains uncertain.
Soviet Milk is a fine example of a human story that refracts to illuminate a wider picture, and works well at both the small and large scales. I’ll be looking out for more of Ikstena’s work in translation in the future.

Book details

Soviet Milk (2015) by Nora Ikstena, tr. Margita Gailitis (2018), Peirene Press, 192 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Man Booker International Prize 2018: the shadow panel’s shortlist

The scores are in, and we have our shadow shortlist:

  • The Impostor by Javier Cercas, tr. Frank Wynne (Spain, MacLehose Press).
  • The White Book by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (South Korea, Portobello Books).
  • Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (Argentina, Charco Press).
  • The Flying Mountain by Christoph Ransmayr, tr. Simon Pare (Austria, Seagull Books).
  • Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Jennifer Croft (Poland, Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi, tr. Darryl Sterk (Taiwan, Text Publishing).

Go, Went, Gone and Frankenstein in Baghdad receive honourable mentions from the shadow panel.

We’ve ended up with quite a different shortlist from the official one (only two titles in common) – but of course that’s all part of the fun!

The winner of this year’s MBIP will be announced on 22 May, with the shadow winner revealed shortly before.

Man Booker International Prize 2018: the shortlist

The judges of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize announced their shortlist on Thursday:

  • Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, tr. Frank Wynne (France, MacLehose Press).
  • The White Book by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (South Korea, Portobello Books).
  • The World Goes On by László Kraznahorhai, tr. John Bakti, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes (Hungary, Tuskar Rock Press).
  • Like a Falling Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina, tr. Camilo A. Ramirez (Spain, Tuskar Rock Press).
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, tr. Jonathan Wright (Iraq, Oneworld).
  • Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Jennifer Croft (Poland, Fitzcarraldo Editions).

I ended up prioritising reading over reviewing this year, so I haven’t been talking much about the longlist on here. Suffice it to say that my two favourite books were Frankenstein in Baghdad and The White Book (which I still hope to review), so I’m pleased to see them both on the shortlist.

We’ll be announcing the shadow panel’s shortlist this coming Thursday. Watch this space…

The Dinner Guest – Gabriela Ybarra (#MBI2018)

The opening of Gabriela Ybarra’s debut novel (longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize) explains its title:

The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.

The first to vanish was my grandfather.

[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

The novel narrates and juxtaposes two deaths in the author’s family; a prefatory note suggests that this is Ybarra’s way of trying to come to terms with what happened.

The first part of The Dinner Guest focuses on Ybarra’s grandfather Javier, a Basque politician who was kidnapped by separatists in 1977 (six years before the author was born), then killed after a month of unsuccessful negotiations. The second section mostly concerns the death from cancer of Ybarra’s mother. There lies the contrast at the novel’s heart: on the one hand, public events which are told at a certain remove; on the other, a more private, intimate loss.

There are some poignant moments as Ybarra depicts her mother’s decline, but the novel is also striking when she brings the different strands together. For example, Ybarra searches the internet for images of the man who sent her father a package bomb in 2002, and finds herself experiencing a particular that she can’t quite pin down:

Looking at pictures of him, I feel the same way I do when I look at images of cancer cells. I don’t think about the threat, but about the story conjured up. The images of the tumours look like galaxies, and when I look at them, I tell myself stories about space.

It’s that impulse, to make stories out of what could be seen as threatening, which drives the form of this novel. The intersection of those different stories is intriguing.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

The Dinner Guest (2015) by Gabriela Ybarra, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2018), Harvill Secker, 160 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

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