1. D.D. Johnston’s Disnaeland is a rare beast of a novel: it takes the stuff of the apocalypse and makes you laugh. Dystopian stories, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, lead readers into ever-darkening times. Disnaeland starts with the premise that life on earth is already pretty shitty: when the crisis comes, when the world’s power supplies cut off, what happens next? Here’s D.D.’s take: ‘The disaster in Disnaeland spurs the people of Dundule to grow and heal, find love and friendship, and briefly create something like Heaven on earth.’         So that’s our first pick of books from writers who find light in dark times. We asked D.D. Johnston to pick four others to which he feels close..
  2.  Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. Although published back in 2014, this Canadian pandemic novel’s having a new lease of life with a TV version currently screening. It’s unusual – and similar to Disnaeland – in that it focuses on the decency and humanity of survivors of the apocalypse rather than on their barbarism (it’s also really quite good!).
  3. The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan. Again, this is a bit older (2016) but it’s a somewhat hopeful and tender (and fantastical) Scottish take on the edge of the world.
  4. How To Survive Everything (When There’s No One Left To Trust) by Ewan Morrison (2021). This is probably the closest – a Scottish novel narrated by a teenage girl whose survivalist dad is obsessed with a coming pandemic. Even features a gruesome amputation scene.
  5. I’d also mention Rebecca Solnit’s non-fiction A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster (2010). It’s about how real-life disasters bring out the best in us: real-world public responses to disaster are characterised by “altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity”.

 

Brian Lavery, Yvonne Blenkinsop, the Lord Mayor of Hull and Mary Denness

Brian W. Lavery’s The Headscarf Revolutionaries introduces us to some wonderful, rich characters. Prime among these was Yvonne Blenkinsop, one of the four ‘headscarf revolutionaries’ who led mass protests after the tragic sinking of three of Hull’s trawlers within a month of each other.

Born in 1938, Yvonne passed away this week – the last of the four pioneering women. They took their campaign to Downing Street and turned politics around. Shipping became safer for their efforts, and many lives were saved.

Brian’s hours with Yvonne Blenkinsop and the other surviving ‘headscarf revolutionary’, Mary Denness, brought their remarkable tales to life. TV cameras rolled at the launch of The Headscarf Revolutionaries as the Lord Mayor of Hull unveiled new plaques to honour these heoes of the city. The book helped Hull take these pioneering women to its heart: Lilian Bilocca, the fierce leader of the group, felt the force of the community turn against her before she died.  Yvonne Blenkinsop lived to be honoured with such roles as turning on the city’s Christmas lights.

Here’s Brian’s obituary from the Hull Daily Mail. We extend our sympathies to her family, and give thanks for her vivid and generous life.

Th

Colin Sargent describes crafting Red Hands, his latest novel about Iordana Ceausescu, like salvaging scattered crystals from a shattered chandelier. For her, telling this past is not unlike shattering into a thousand shards all over again. Sargent’s depiction restores her as a luminescent and resilient whole set against a turbulent background.

Ceausescu grew up in Romania’s Nomenclature (communist party). Both her parents had high positions in the government. As her father and his colleague Nicholas Ceausescu conflicted over Romania’s direction, Iordana’s infatuation with Valentin Ceausescu tempted her teenage rebellion. But the thrill of taking risks turned into fear after their clandestine marriage. The Ceausescu family disavowed her and she, in turn, rejected many of their lavish gifts. She kept Valentin’s baby despite the family’s disapproval. She and Valentin divorced amidst political unrest sweeping communist countries in the late 1980s. She and her son fled the country when the Ceausescus came under attack.

The dangers Ceausescu faces become all the more convincing in Sargent’s depictions of their interviews in which information leaks out bit by painstaking bit. In contrast, she comes across in the rest of the story as a confident and principled woman. The novel focuses on the actions she takes to protect herself, her son, and fellow citizens. “The people were free without Communism and the Ceausescus but they were desperate without someone to blame” (254). With elegance and journalistic precision, this novel speaks to the timeless struggle of individuals up against powerful collectives.

Mari Carlson

Midwest Bookreview

Terrific early models of LGBT+ publishing came from the likes of Gay Men’s Press  and Naiad Press. Other houses, such as Peter Owen who brought James Purdy and Paul and Jane Bowles to the UK, or St Martin’s Press in the States, folded powerful LGBT+ writing into wider lists.

Barbican Press takes on that model. Here’s a look at our LGBT+ titles.

Two Polari Prize books first. Sarah Walton’s Rufius was longlisted for that prize. Rufius is a powerful Roman exiled to run the library of Alexandria. His penchant is taking a passive role with boys found on the street. Steven Saylor loved the book, but said it could not have been published in the USA. It breaks so many bounds. And it’s wonderful and ultimately very moving.

We first heard of Paul Harfleet’s gorgeous Pansy Boy when it was in draft. The Guardian featured it, a work of beauty looking for a home. It tells of a boy tackling homophobia by planting pansies, and includes lovingly drawn field guides to flowers and birds. One for children, but a beauteous book for adults too.

Maggie Hamand’s Virgin & Child, a wild and bold story of the first Irish Pope, explores a unique trans world. To say more is to give you spoilers. Colin W. Sargent’s The Boston Castrato gives a unique trans perspective too, looking at the life of the last castrato. Set in 1920s Boston this also takes us deep inside the lesbian world and circle of the poet Amy Howell.

For gay poetry, explore James Thornton’s Notes from a Mountain Village. A Pyrenean village gave shelter when James was forced from his country to be the way he loved, and the collection reflects this. You’ll find striking gay poetry from among the writing of ex-offenders too, Hope Walks By Me.

In Martin Goodman’s Ectopia, Steve is gay, sixteen, nicknamed Bender, and the twin of the last girl born on Earth. The world of that book is a London dystopia. High up in Andes, in a variant SF realm, the lead character of Martin Vopenka’s The Fifth Dimension explores his bisexual nature.

Coming up is Richard Zimler’s The Lost Gospel of Lazarus, which depicts the intimate bons between Lazarus and Jesus.

The Polari Prize shortlists used to be dominated by independent presses. Last year mainstream houses led the way – a cause for celebration, as it’s always good to have the mainstream behind you. We stay glad to be an independent home, a barbican, for LGBT+ work with an extra edge.

A review for Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking from the Winter 2020 edition of Writers in Education (82), from NAWE:

The successful memoir sets out to reveal the intimate details of an author’s life, the lessons learned and key moments that shaped who they are. Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking is that rare thing that manages to use the form to explore the highs and lows, (mostly lows), of a teenager living with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder that quickly spirals out of control to dominate his every thought and action. It also serves as a manual to help identify young people suffering in this specific way and what might be done to help them—or at least come to understand them a little more.

The narrative opens with a family holiday in Florida and the dramatic image of the Discovery space shuttle rising into a cloudless sky. Although, sixteen year old Chris is preoccupied with an “empty Coke beaker”, wondering if it is large enough to contain the vomit he expects to appear any second and ruin his family’s special day. The catalogue of events that follows this initial episode are expertly handled and are always presented with a searing honesty that is introduced here and maintained to the final page.

The fact that this is about an otherwise ordinary boy from an ordinary working-class family, enrolled in ordinary college in an ordinary town, means the story will resonate with many readers. Chris is yearning to blend in, be a good mate, attentive boyfriend and dutiful son, mirrors most people’s lives at this notoriously difficult age and forces the reader to reflect on their own complex journeys to adulthood. In fact, Chris’s running commentary of fairly prosaic events provides some of the memoir’s standout comedic moments, covering everything from drunken parties to awkward sex, mammoth X-box sessions and Internet porn. But it is the quieter moments where the memoir could be said to achieve its true power and the need for the narrator to always be within a short distance of the toilet or his “Immodium tablets”, imbues the text with an almost rhythmic quality. Vibrant natural settings also punctuate the urban decay and are symbolic of Chris’s need to escape but also, ironically, fuel his mounting feelings of isolation and despair. Even away from everyone and everything, anxiety manages to track him down. “When I touch the gate,” Chris notes, “I make a note to wash my hands. I use as small a surface of skin as possible to do the latch. The very tips of my fingers on only one hand.”

After reading, I came away enlightened and richer for the experience, particularly as I have been in education for twenty-five years and was a secondary school teacher for much of that time. This account helped put a story to the empty seat in my English literature class and the growing string of absences in my form register. But Westoby’s talent as a writer lies not just in giving a voice to teenagers who find themselves unable to cope with everyday life, it is also the way that even when presenting moments of apparent utter futility, his prose bristles with hope. Suddenly there is light enough for Chris to navigate the darkness and find a way out for himself and others like him—and for anyone interested in witnessing this daring feat alone, The Fear Talking is an essential read.

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney

Thanks for giving us the freedom to bring it to our website, Paul!

Featured photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

 

 

Wonderful novels, some of the wonders of our first ten years of publishing, still shining BRIGHT and now only 99p on ebook. Check them out! Buy them for yourselves! Gift your friends a surprise!

Martin Vopenka’s THE FIFTH DIMENSION. The Czech novelist unravels mysteries in the Andes. ‘Absorbing, haunting and intellectually engaging throughout.’ – The Financial Times

James Thornton’s astounding SPHINX: The Second Coming. ‘Intelligent, inspiring and innovative’-  Manda Scott,

Martin Goodman’s ECTOPIA, vision of a baked London where girls stopped being born. ‘A terrific novel with excellent characterisation, world-building, narration and dialogue’ – Interzone.

Kate Horsley’s Frankenstein sequel THE MONSTER’S WIFE. Shortlisted for Scottish First Book of the Year.

D.D.Johnston’s THE SECRET BABY ROOM. A Northern Soul Pick of the Year: ‘the unputdownable type of book, the one where you are loathed to finish, loathe to leave those characters behind, disappointed that reaching the last page means you have to leave their world and go back to your own.’

Sarah Walton’s wild gay Roman love story from 4th Century Alexandria, RUFIUS. ‘Remarkable adriot. Highly recommended.’ –  The Morning Star.

HOPE WALKS BY ME, prose and poetry from ex-offenders in Hull. A Financial Times Book of the Year.

THE MYSTERY OF BRIONY LODGE, David Bagchi’s delightful mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Three Men in a Boat.

THE BOSTON CASTRATO – Colin W. Sargent takes us to 1920s Boston and the tale of a great castrato.

That Berlin Moment

AND!!! Three PLAYS by Sarah Jane Dickenson:

CBA – a digital thriller for children

REF! – the life of a pioneering woman rugby league referee

THAT BERLIN MOMENT, an identity thriller.

 

The Times crowns a great launch week for Martin Vopenka, making his MY BROTHER THE MESSIAH their Science Fiction Book of the Month.

This is a HARD book to grapple with in a short piece, but we’re impressed how well reviewers have taken to the task. Simon Ings grapples with Vopenka’s reputation as ‘the new Kundera’ – and of course, just to debate such a question is good. Ings concludes that My Brother the Messiah ‘weaves a gloomy, gripping, spiritual spell all of its own’.

My Brother the Messiah review in THE LADY

And here’s something else that’s striking. Reviewers for utterly different readerships all come out with huge positives for the book. None could be more different than The Morning Star (‘This is an Acts of the Apostles for a post-Christian Europe’) and The Lady (‘Vopenka creates a thought-provoking narrative exploring religion, politics and democracy. The author’s distinctive voice and vision are well worth exploring.’)

Here’s Aurealis from out in Australia: ‘Czech author Martin Vopenka tackles complex contemporary issues in his writing. My Brother the Messiah is no exception—a quietly profound story that moves slowly at a deliberate pace and stays compelling. It presents a subtle and provocative meditation on the nature of faith and hope in the face of despair and chaos.’

And Jewish Renaissance: ‘Vopenka’s voice is Czech yet global and his prose compelling.’

We cherish the care the reviewers have put in to their reading, and letting others know that this book is there and waiting. Is this a world classic just making its first baby steps in the world? We think so. Please try it for yourself!

 

 

Writing fiction about a real person is a big responsibility. As I researched my novel about the painter Angelica Kauffmann (1741 – 1807) I worried that I wasn’t bringing her to life vividly enough. During the fifteen years she lived in London she was so successful that a word was coined: Angelicamad. I’m a Londoner, so it was easy to stare at the site of her house in Golden Square and visit Kenwood House in Highgate where there are five of her paintings. As Catholics, she and her Italian husband were traumatised by the violently anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780 and she spent the rest of her life in Italy.

In Rome she had a beautiful house, now demolished, at the top of the Spanish Steps. I was lucky enough to be given a grant by the Authors’ Foundation to revisit Rome, a city I love and where I lived for three years in my twenties. My research wasn’t formal; it involved wandering around the city, which has changed less than most capitals since the eigh

teenth century. I had a very expensive cappuccino in the luxury hotel that has replaced her house and, with the aid of a floorplan, tried to imagine it as it was when she lived there. Revisiting the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, I shut my eyes and tried to see them as they were in her day, before Mussolini tidied them up; wild ruins overgrown with wild flowers and olive trees where sheep and cows grazed.

One of the most important characters in my novel is the brilliant polymath, poet and statesman Goethe. During the year he spent in Rome as a kind of celebrity student of art I believe that Angelica was unrequitedly in love with him. In pursuit of him I got the train to Weimar where Goethe, influenced by that year in Italy, built himself an Italianate palace which is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.

One of the many fascinating things about Angelica is that she was a true European. Her mother was Swiss, her father was Austrian, and she spoke German, Italian, English and French. Her father came from a village called Schwarzenberg in the Bregenz Woods where there is now an Angelica Kauffmann museum which I’m looking forward to visiting in some sweet post-Covid days.

For 25 years James Thornton has spent a good portion of each year nestled in a  Pyrenean mountain village. Like the house martins that flock to the valley, it was part of his migratory journey. Each year, he observed the flow of villagers and the natural world and wrote what he felt and saw into poems.

This year we have that collection, Notes from a Mountain Village. A launch would have happened in the village’s main square. This is 2020, so that could not happen. Instead James takes us all to France in this short film.

Enjoy the film, and please buy, borrow and share the book!

Also: tune in to the ClientEarth webinar in which James  Thornton discusses eco poetry with William Sieghart, which include’s William’s readings from James’s first collection The Feynman Challenge.

Chris Westoby launches his debut THE FEAR TALKING: The True Story of a Young Man and Anxiety in a truly open-hearted launch event. Watch Chris in conversation with the writer Edmund Hurst.

Here’s a surprising snippet from the conversation. The word ‘anxiety’ only gets mentioned once in the whole book, by Chris’s girlfriend as she guesses what is wrong with him. Why is that? Because Chris is writing about his teenage years, when his anxiety went undiagnosed. He had no name for it.

Chris was in his twenties before he was able to ‘bust the secret’ and speak openly about his anxiety and OCD. You can see he’s practised. His is a remarkably clear and engaging voice.

And some podcasts for you, to take the conversation further – with thanks to Hull Kingston Radio.

Chris in conversation with Geoff Bielby, on men’s mental health. Part One   Part Two   Part Three

And, speaking about THE FEAR TALKING, Chris in conversation on Liveline with Wolfy O’Hare.

 

 

 

 

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