Saturday, 31 December 2011

Celebrating the book in Stroud

There has been some recent discussion about celebrating the book as a thing of beauty... James Daunt (of Waterstone's) pitched in about his love of hardbacks, Julian Barnes (in winning the Booker) remarked that whatever you think of his book, it is a beautiful object. Having recently attended a presentation from Random House which included the graphic story of making that particular cover I could see what he meant. At Five Leaves Towers we can rarely afford such time and costly graphic designers, but we do like to see people celebrating the book in all its forms. Over in the People's Republic of Stroud, our friends Dennis Gould and Jeff Cloves, with others, are planning a big local celebration of the book, based on an exhibition by 75 local people of their ten favourite books, displayed in any way they like. We're happy to give that event a lot of notice, and like our Stroud chums, hope that the idea catches on. Don't complain about lack of notice as the event is November 17 - December 8 2012. You can find out more on

Books of the Year (not published by Five Leaves) - #2

This time from second Five Leaves worker, Pippa Hennessy:
These are the best books I've read in 2011. I tried to keep it to a 'top 10', I really did, but I've read so many good books this year...
Forcing myself to leave Five Leaves books out of the mix helped. We publish so many fantastic books (I am proud to be able to say 'we'), it would be impossible to select a top 10 from those I've read this year. I will mention though one book that's due out in the New Year – This Bed Thy Centre by Pamela Hansford Johnson. First published in 1935 and out of print for years, it's a biting social commentary, an acutely observed depiction of normal people dealing with a rapidly-changing world, and above all, a rip-roaring yarn. When it comes out, buy it and read it!
So. Here is my top 16 (which includes two trilogies and one book I've read before, so it's really a top 11).
I read The Planiverse by AK Dewdney decades ago. It's inspired by Edwin Abbott's Flatland, published in 1884, and tells the story of A Square. Square lives in Flatland, a two-dimensional universe, and is blind to the social repression and discrimination of his land until he discovers Lineland, Spaceland and Pointland. I've been meaning to read Flatland for ages, and I'm so glad I finally got round to it this year – it's social satire at its best. The Planiverse takes a geeky angle on the story, examining the implications of life in two dimensions in exhaustive detail while describing Yendred's great journey across the Planiverse. Both are brilliant, and should be read one after the other.
Letter Fountain by Joep Pohlen is a beautiful book, and speaks to the typography geek in me. Originally published in Dutch (in several editions), Taschen published an English language edition this year, and although it's quite expensive I couldn't resist. Its design is exactly what a book should be – clear and restful – and the attention to detail makes it a joy to behold and hold. The contents are a geek's delight, divided into three sections which tell you all you need to know about how type works, display specimen types in exhaustive detail, and tell the history of typography. I want to make books like this.
Another book which is a beautiful object in itself is Nox by Anne Carson. This is a printed version of an elegy she created for her brother. Originally put together in a notebook, the book is printed on one long strip of paper which is concertinaed into folds and presented in a sturdy and gorgeous box. Nox takes Catullus's "poem 101" (an elegy for his brother) as its starting point, and gradually translates it through the document. At the same time she remembers her brother, questions why she needs to memorialise him, and tries to work out how to do it. The words, the pictures, the presentation, everything about this book is stunning.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is yet another desirable object. This book caught my attention because of the associated online game ( – a great publicity stunt. I wouldn't have noticed or bought the book if I hadn't been following Alison Hennessey from Random House on twitter (@vintagebooks)... just goes to show, this social networking thingy does work sometimes. The story is told out of chronological order, and to my mind that's the only downside. It's fantastical and strange and gripping and uplifting all at the same time, and the book itself is an example of how innovative design can lift a story from the very good to the extraordinary.
Conversely, the 1Q84 trilogy by Haruki Murakami shows how design is totally irrelevant when the words are extraordinary in themselves. I read it on a Kindle and was completely drawn in right from the start. This is a perfect example of speculative fiction – what would happen if there were a parallel universe where past events had happened slightly differently, and two people were somehow transferred there, after which everything becomes gradually more complex and surreal. The main characters are totally engaging and it's a beautiful story beautifully told. I've ordered the real books, as I will definitely be reading these again and I want to do it properly next time.
I'll read anything Neal Stephenson writes – he's so clever, and his novels are BIG in size and scope. Reamde is a departure from his usual speculative fiction in that it's a thriller, but it is still satisfyingly BIG. It's based on the possibilities for fraud and extortion presented by online gaming, rapidly descending from geek-talk into seemingly endless violence and mayhem. Somehow Stephenson manages to maintain an element of fun amongst all the destruction, and although it's over 900 pages it rattles along right to the end.
Adam Roberts is another speculative fiction author I read obsessively. He's not as well-known as Stephenson, which I think is unfair. Both have BIG ideas... Anyway, Yellow Blue Tibia is delightfully bonkers. In 1945 Stalin corrals a group of science fiction writers and orders them to develop an alien invasion scenario which will provide him with a 'common enemy' to replace the weakening USA and unite the USSR. He changes his mind after a while and orders the writers to forget about the project on pain of death. Things aren't that simple though...
The Night of the Mi'raj by Zoe Ferraris was recommended to me by a friend as an interesting study of women's life in Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi society is repressive but I find it hard to understand how women can accept living that way. It's also a well-written mystery thriller with fascinating characters and a twisting plot that kept me guessing.
I've been meaning to read The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan for a while (Niki is the course leader for the degree I'm doing, and occasional Five Leaves' author). As well as being a shocking yet strangely endearing story, it too describes a life I find it difficult to comprehend – this time that of a girl growing up on one of Nottingham's roughest estates.
Peter F Hamilton's Void trilogy (The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and The Evolutionary Void) is grand space opera at its very best. Hamilton is one of the best SF authors around; he's capable of building entire universes in his head and putting them down on paper in a completely believable way. The scope of this trilogy is not just BIG, it's ENORMOUS. I listened to it as an audiobook (in the car and while cooking) at the same time as reading Reamde then 1Q84, which almost resulted in a mental implosion as I tried to keep two bundles of storylines straight in my head. I'm not even going to try and summarise the stories of the Void – just go and read the books.
Finally, one of my fondest memories of 2011 is the Nottingham Stanza reading of TS Eliot's Four Quartets from start to finish in one go at Southwell Poetry Festival. I hadn't read the Quartets before this, which was a shocking omission on my part... but taking part in that reading was an almost spiritual experience, and in a way I'm glad that was my first real experience of the whole group of poems. I have read the book since, and will do again many times, I'm sure.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Books of the Year (those not published by Five Leaves)

It's been a decent year for reading, with two or three let downs by some favourite writers. Solar by Ian McEwan did not excite me, but was not as dull as the Booker-winning The Story of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which ending came mercifully soon. The year started off well though, with Colm Tobin's novel of migration, Brooklyn (Penguin), which I'd been looking forward to, followed immediately by the late Tony Judt's book of essays/memories Memory Chalet (Heinemann). One week of January gone and I knew these two would be in my top ten reads of the year. I'm a big fan of essays, or occasional pieces, which brought Ian Hamilton's The Troubles with Money and Other Essays (Bloomsbury) and Damn Fools and Utopia by the late Nicolas Walter (PM Press) into my top ten. I'll ignore that part of Hamilton's book which is about football. The last essay in Walter's book (thinking of Judt) was written while he was dying, and is about dying, and is worth the cover price alone, the rest are about the 1960s. Four of this year's top ten are related to East Europe. I re-read John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - probably for the third or fourth time - and it remains outstanding. This year's Booker longlist included two East European-based novels. Snowdrops by AD Miller (Atlantic) is set in the mafia state of modern Russia and is terrifying. This made the shortlist, while The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness (Seren) dropped out at the longlist stage, though I think it is a better book. The last hundred days are those of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, with the narrator being a young English lecturer living there. The publicity made a huge difference to the sales of this previously ignored book from an indie press, which is good news. The only East European book by an East European that made this chart was not new, the Complete Works of Isaac Babel (Norton). At 1,000+ large format pages this is not something for a quiet evening at home but it is complete, with different versions of some of his short stories. His murder, in 1940, makes me impotently angry.
The last two of the top ten, which is, by the way, in random order, includes that "travel writing" classic Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (Eland), which I'll re-read soon. It reminds me very much of Alexander Baron's writing on the British occupation of Italy. Finally, one large photographic book, Ida Kar: bohemian photographer (National Portrait Gallery) - the only book here with a Five Leaves' connection, as her subjects included our writers Laura Del-Rivo, Bernard Kops and Terry Taylor. Their images also appeared in a terrific Kar retrospective at the NPG.
I'd also like to give an honourable mention to Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs by DD Johnson (AK Press), a rollicking novel of life in the international anarchist direct action movement.
Seven of this year's top ten, plus the runner up, were from independent presses (hurrah!) but only one by a woman (shame). Most, but not all, were published this year.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Five Leaves - the year ahead

We have not done our "annual report" yet, but as we have been working on next year's programme to meet our repping schedule dates, we do know most of what next year will bring. Apart from peace on earth and all that stuff.

With 2011 being such a busy year - 29 titles, was it? - there were bound to be a couple of delays, so apologies to the Estate of Pamela Hansford Johnson that her This Bed Thy Centre (New London Editions) will not now come out until January 2012, as will the new edition of Dominic Reeve's Romani memoir Beneath the Blue Sky, which we should get out at the end of January. The main change will be the addition of illustrations by the Romani artist Beshlie.

We'll be publishing little in the first half of next year. There are two reasons - firstly we're turning more of our backlist into eBooks and need the time to do that, but more importantly, with the ups and downs of the book trade we think we need to allow more lead-in time for our books to organise more events. I don't think we'll reach the heights of the Cable Street combined book launch this year, attended by 350 people, but events and talks do sell books, and we need to do more of them. And to find more ways of publicising our books.

That means our first really new book of the year will be in May, Andy Croft's 1948 - a crime fantasy novel in verse, about that year, about George Orwell, illustrated by Martin Rowson. Maybe a little earlier we'll be publishing our only poetry pamphlet of the year - Joanne Limburg's The Oxygen Man. In June Michael J. Malone joins our list with his first crime novel, one of a series. Michael is normally a poet, but this is Scottish noir, set in Glasgow, the title being Blood Tears. Actually, it's in a sub-genre, Catholic Scottish noir, though Russel D. Mclean's third novel for us, Father Confessor, sounds as if it should be, but isn't. It is noir though. This is our third great Dundee crime novel, which comes out in September. That's it for crime next year. Other regular Five Leaves' writers with a book next year include the late Colin Ward, a series of lectures entitled Talking Green and Peter Mortimer, who returns to his home in Nottingham after fifty years away to tell us what he finds in Made in Nottingham. Given that his previous books include "extreme travel" in Yemen and Shatila refugee camp, we hope this does not cast aspersions on this city. You can find out in June.

We have three young adult fiction books out in 2012. Regular writer David Belbin (who also writes for other publishers, big and small) has written Student a crossover novel about, um, a student. There is not much about studying though. Student appears in August. Our other two young adult books are Five Leaves' editions of books by East Midlands' writers, previously published elsewhere. These are Dark Thread by Pauline Chandler, a time slip story set in Derbyshire (July) and What's Your Problem? a short novel on racism - set in Nottinghamshire as it happens - for reluctant readers, by Bali Rai (October).

Our annual journal appears in August - following the success of Maps this year. The theme is Utopia and it looks like it will be 50% bigger than Maps. We've already got some material in hand for Crime in 2013. Utopia is a mixture of material "from the vaults", from work in progress and new work, again with a mixture of Five Leaves regulars and irregulars, and other writers friendly to the press. Also in August will be From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish writing from 1917-1952, edited by Joseph Sherman. This was previously announced as From Pogrom to Purge but never published, due to the untimely death of the editor. We did not have the heart to continue the book for some time, then put it back to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the murder by Stalin of all the Yiddish writers in the book. It will be launched at an international gathering in London on August 12th next year, with speakers including Robert Chandler, translator of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate.

Moving to September, our one-title jazz list will triple in size with Red Groove by Chris Searle, someone long in our orbit, and Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories by Peter Vacher. Both Chris and Peter were previously published by our friends at Northway, and we are pleased to ensure publication of their new titles. In Chris's case the book is a selection of reviews published over fifteen years in the Morning Star and in Peter's case, interviews with American jazz men and women going back to the 1950s.

In October we'll be bringing out more books, the first a New London Editions title - London E1 by Robert Poole, introduced by Rachel Lichtenstein. This novel is set in Brick Lane at the end of WWII, one of the first, if not the first, novel to include many Asian characters, then moving in to the area. The second is by David Bell, author of The Dirty Thirty. His new book has the working title of East Midlands Rebels and is a popularly written book about suffragettes, Quakers, football managers, poets, trade unionists and others who have tried to stir things up a bit round here.

Finally, we'll be publishing a new Bromley House Editions book in November - not sure what yet, other than it will be in this series of hardback editions of forgotten Nottinghamshire books.

On projects.... Lowdham Book Festival will be thirteen next year, States of Independence three. Lowdham will run for roughly ten days up to June 30th, while the Leicester celebration of indie presses will be in Leicester on March 17. We are in discussion with people in Newcastle about a similar event to States there, and with people in London about the return of a socialist book fair, though it might not be in 2012. More news on that as we have it. The first Bread and Roses Prize for radical publishing (see will also be launched.

All in all, a fairly busy year, but not as frantic as this year has been, and with our programme already settled, and most of the books written, if not yet edited, I think we are more organised than some previous years. Quite looking forward to it really.

Monday, 12 December 2011

What else can you do with a book apart from read it?

One encouraging development has been people taking their Five Leaves' books onwards and outwards in different ways. Jazz Jews by Mike Gerber has turned into a monthly radio show, Kosher Jam, on UK Jazz Radio, Dave Bell encouraged Alun Parry to turn his book Dirty Thirty into a song,, and here we have Rod Madocks who has made a short film - seven minutes or so - from his book, No Way To Sat Goodbye: A challenge then to our other writers... just skip any ballet, please. I was particularly pleased with Rod making this short film as his book first came out in 2007. It did pretty well at the time, being shortlisted for the ITV 3 Crime and Thriller Awards, but like most five year old fiction, there is a tendency to slumber. This is a nice piece of work.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Fry's German Delight

To many modern readers, a surprising element of David Rosenberg's Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s was the degree of support for the British Union of Fascists by British big business, especially Rothermere's Daily Mail. Why should we be surprised? Whether it be Germany, France, Italy or Britain, some parts of big business felt that a fascist government would keep the unions in check and and bring a bit of order. Rothermere and his allies faded away as it became obvious that the BUF were a bunch of violent thugs, but you could sense their disappointment. The degree of upper class support for the far right in the 30s is not really news though, however much it is kept quiet. My friend Ron Morris has just sent me a photocopied section of the rather pompous autobiography Life Worth Living by that polymath and sportsman CB Fry, who represented England at cricket and football. Fry thought it would be a good idea, in 1934, to forge stronger links between the uniformed British youth organisations, the Boy Scouts for example, and the Hitler Youth, so that both groups could learn from each other. He travelled in Germany, met, and was impressed by Hitler, Hess and Ribbentrop. In his conversation with Hitler they discussed the "Jewish question", the dangers of Communism and the need for friendship with Britain. Fry was happy to greet Hitler with a straight armed salute and to leave with the same, before spending more time with the smart and elegant ladies of Berlin. Indeed most of the people he met seemed to be attractive, and full of vitality or extraordinarily nice. At first I thought that Fry was simply another gullible upper class twit who would have come to his senses before realising that the book was first published in 1939, by the respectable publishing house of Eyre and Spottiswoode (which would eventually become part of Methuen). 1939? Wasn't there that little trouble with Hitler around then? Worse, the book ran to a second impression in January 1940 and a third in July 1941. And the book still carried Fry's sycophantic notes about Adolf Hitler and the ending "Such were my impressions and my conclusions when last I saw Adolf Hitler. Whatever may have happened since, I see no reason to withdraw any of them."

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Safe socks

We were pleased to see the review of our New London Editions' title The Furnished Room by Laura Del-Rivo in today's Guardian. The reviewer, Cathi Unsworth, is one of the younger "London writing" fans and, as it happens, buys socks from Laura's market stall on Portobello Road. I doubt the commissioning editor of the Guardian knew that when she asked Cathi to write the review - this is not sock-gate. Of the reviews in this issue of the paper, twenty were of books from small and large independent publishers, four only were from conglomerates. I'm not sure where to place Cambridge University Press, but I think a score of 4-1 in favour of the indies is good enough. In addition, the lead story in the Guardian Review, on Marilyn Monroe, was by Sarah Churchwell, whose book on Monroe was published by an indie; the "a life in..." profile this time was of Simon Armitage who is mostly published by indies; the poem of the week is from a Carcanet collection. It would be nice of this kind of coverage was reflected in bookshops... anyway, here's the review of Laura's book:

I'm told that Patrick McGuiness - speaking at the Inpress group of small publishers AGM - said that when his book The Last Hundred Days came out, it sold 64 copies in the first three months, with no mentions in the press. Once it was on the Booker longlist all the papers that had ignored the book wanted another review copy. His book was also on the Costa shortlist and has now sold 12,000. This is great news for Seren, the small Welsh publisher, and for Inpress. Indeed, the Booker turned up several books from groundling publishers. But wait... the book that sold 64 in three months and 12,000 in the next three is the same book. Unless the critics review such books, and bookshops stock them how are we supposed to know of their existence? So well done Guardian.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Another year

Five Leaves is well known as being a serious political and literary publisher, as this picture from our end of year event shows. With so many of our writers present, it would have been invidious to have picked out particular writers to promote their own books, so a mixture of writers, readers and friends read from the Five Leaves' backlist, from absent friends as it were. These included politico David Rosenberg reading from Roland Camberton's humorous novel; retired solicitor Barrie Ward reading a section from Baron's Court, All Change about smoking dope for the first time; Deirdre O'Byrne coming over all celtic; publisher John Lucas reading from Swimmer in the Secret Sea; playwright Michael Eaton channelling Ray Gosling; journalist Julia Bard reading Bernard Kops' poem Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East in support of libraries (the subject of a local Five Leaves/UNISON campaign this year). Oh, and the anarchist tattooed biker Heather Nelson reading a poem about fairies, joined by me, fresh from flower arranging classes. And Myra Woolfson made 180 pieces of cake.
It was a good opportunity to thank - and to repeat that thanks here - to those who keep Five Leaves going. The gathering included writers, editors, those from the technical side, other publishers, UNISON stewards, local press, librarians and a small group of people (you know who you are) to whom Pippa and I turn for advice, or, in my case, to moan about trade matters. There'll be a more formal annual report later.