Thursday, 30 December 2010

Books of the Year: Final Day: Children's Books

Bonjour! Although why I've suddenly gone French I have no idea. And here is the final list. Since all my lists have been books that I've actually read this year, rather than books necessarily published this year, there's a couple of oldies on here. Obviously, my best children's book of the year was something called, er, what was it, oh, The Liberators, by, er, that chap, you know, he reviews for the Telegraph, what was his name? Wasn't his first book called something like The Other Book? Oh yes, Philip Womack. So, apart from that obviously brilliant novel, take it away:

1. The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

An absolute delight - Shakespeare quoting, twisted fairy tale in which good somehow triumphs over evil. A disguised prince must carry out impossible tasks to rescue a princess from a cold duke who's 'forty six and six foot four'. A book like this just wouldn't be published today, I'm afraid. Come on, publishers, be more adventurous!

2. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

What those in marketing like to call a 'cross-over' novel, this is a brilliant account of a time-travelling goth who, after the death of her brother, becomes deeply involved in a life of Marie Antoinette's imprisoned son; one day she finds herself actually in the eighteenth century. Very well-constructed and written.

3. Blitzcat by Robert Westall

Another children's book that just wouldn't make it today: why? It doesn't even have a child in it, nor is the heroic cat even anthropormophised. Instead Westall provides a bleak and brilliant account of various different grown ups' psychologies as a cat called Lord Gort attempts to make its way home during the Second World War.

4. Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

This was a lovely little book, published this year, about the blossoming love between a dancing girl and a prince - unfortunately the prince has been metamorphosed into a clockwork doll. I hope to hear more from Dolamore.

5. The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley

A brilliant pastiche of all things gothic, and yet still frightening, this is an excellent ghost story about the workings of revenge.

6. The Rainbow Orchid (Vol II): Julius Chancer by Garen Ewing

Charming, Tintin-esque comic book adventure, set in the early part of the twentieth century. If ever there was a rip-rollicker, this would be it.

7. Frightfully Friendly Ghosties by Daren King

All the ghosts in this zany little book are absolutely terrified - of each other, and of real life humans (or 'still alives' as they somewhat snootily call us.) Funny and sweet.

8. When I was Joe by Keren David

A sharply written contemporary thriller about a boy who, having witnessed a murder in a park, must change his identity and come to terms with himself and his new life. An exciting new talent.

9. Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road by Joel Stewart

A skewed fairytale, this picture book will delight little ones (and their parents) with its tale of a little boy who can't stop tootling on his pipe. He must wake up a princess - but will she be able to stop playing too?

10. A Web of Air by Philip Reeve

As ever from the excellent Mr Reeve a stylish and involving chapter in his chronicles of a devastated future world. This is a prequel, before the moving cities, and it's as involving and clever as anything he's written.

11. Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling

On here for mostly sentimental reasons, I was actually amazed (having read it for the first time since a boy) at the message in the book - that 'England' was made through the combined efforts of all its settlers - Jews, Anglo-Saxons, Normans - and that peace is the only way forward. Who would have thought it from such a tub-thumper? Also deeply poignant, as Dan and Una forget what happens to them when they've seen Puck (which sort of defeats the point of what they've learned, don't you think?) It has special resonance for me as I grew up in Sussex, and would often dream about turning the corner to find a knight leading his horse to drink at a stream...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Four: Poetry

A rhapsodic top of the mornin' to you all on this foggiest of days. Welcome to Day Four of my Books of the Year - in which I give you some poetical delights. Here they come...

1. Faber New Poets 5 by Joe Dunthorne

This little pamphlet showcases the brilliantly ironic, often delicately beautiful talent of the young poet Joe Dunthorne (whose zanily dark first novel, Submarine, was published a couple of years ago). The poems reward re-reading - they explore friendship, memory, childhood and more, all with a sideways, intelligent glance. I look forward to more.

2. In the Flesh by Adam O'Riordan

Another promising debut by a fellow Oxford-ite (and, according to Tatler, Britain's Sexiest Poet), displaying a matured voice, and tackling a range of subjects in careful, studied form that shows both great control and passion.

3. Hesiod's Calendar by Robert Saxton

An excellent adaptation of possibly one of the dullest poems to come out of Greek literature, this is much better than the original. Split into two halves, The Theogony and Works and Days, the poem achieves a lightness of touch and wit that doesn't conceal the harshness of Hesiod's depiction of life.

4. The School Bag edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney

I read this all the way through in August. It's extremely satisfying to feel the shape of the themes rise up in your mind as you read - they are collected according to a vague, undisclosed scheme - as one moves from the sea, through animals, life, death. There are some true gems here, as well as some of the more canonically recognised poems. My only criticism is that there was too much folky stuff, which does not repay careful reading.

5. Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Initially I didn't like this very much: but after dipping in a few times, one can appreciate the real craftsmanship of the poems. They seem to be about the ameliorative power of work - the 'human chain' being a physical chain of people passing sacks, as well as a 'chain' of poetry - and also to be hugely aware of death, with Virgil's Book VI (the descent into the underworld) looming large.

Well then, off I go. See you tomorrow for the final list: children's books. Ciao!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Three: Recent Non-Fiction

Hello! And welcome! On this third day of my bumptastic books of the year, I give to you a selection of recent non-fiction. Which, er, for obvious reasons, are mostly to do with classics, but never mind. There's one about roads in there too.

1. Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler

This is a superbly erudite work tracing the birth of Latin as it fought against its neighbours (Oscan and Umbrian, anyone?) to become the global language that it still is. It's funny, well-written and even - dare I say it - gripping. Latin is alive! It also contains many interesting examples of real Latin, such as this, from a Roman school primer:

Et maledicit bestiarius? Dimitte me et dentes eius excutio.
Is this beastfighter dissin me? Let me go - I'll knock his teeth out.

Ego te excaeco.
I'll have your eyes out.

Video quid mihi facies.
I know your little game.

There is also a play written by a nun in the form of a Terentian comedy, about how maidens should keep their virtue, which is worth the price of the cover alone. And did you know that there were Incan princesses who wrote in Latin? (see picture). Oh yes. Ite! Legite! Emite!

2. Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield

This (also gripping) work traces the last days of the philosopher, placing him in a political and social context. He also has a marvellously clever interpretation of Socrates' last words - which you'll just have to read the book to find out.

3. On Roads by Joe Moran

Yes! It's a book about roads! I never thought I'd be excited by tarmac, but honestly, this is a work of genius. Moran has a novelist's sensibility; he interprets the psychological implications of roads in a way that J G Ballard would have been proud of. And if you've always wondered where Mills and Boon novels go when they die - well, they're under the wheels of your car.

4. A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare

Clare followed the swallows' migration from South Africa to Britain. This is a moving and vivid account of a young man's mental and physical journey.

5. Full Circle by Ferdinand Mount

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ferdinand Mount this year about this book - a warm, genial account of how in our thoughts and actions we really can't escape the classical world - and are in fact perhaps much closer to those Romans and Greeks than we think.

Toodle pip, till tomorrow ...

Monday, 27 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Two: Recent Fiction

Welcome to Day Two of my Books of the Year, and here I present to you a thick slice of contemporary fiction, taking in mysterious deaths by doughnut at Catholic boarding schools, uber-rich amoralists, ghosts, gods, surf punks, mysterious strangers, quests, more ghosts, and a Jane Austen homage. It hasn't been a vintage year for fiction, but there has been a lot of interesting stuff out there.

1. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

I have raved about this before - lyrical, eerie, funny, this is definitely my overall book of the year.

2. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

This is an absorbing and exciting account of an American couple's dubious ascent into the realms of billionaredom - a modern day Faust, without Mephistopheles.

3. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Water's pastiche manages to be a classic ghost story, with a pervading sense of the eldritch on every page, and an ending that causes everything to be thrown into question.

3. The Infinities by John Banville

I had dreams about living in the universe portrayed in this charming, weird novel. It's set in a slightly different world to ours - the theme being that that are infinite universes, and infinite gods of the universes, who play idly with mortals and often take mortal form (hence the picture: here the Greek gods are highly significant). The novel is, like the bones in the song, rich and strange.

4. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Completely loopy: the plot concerns a marijuana smoking detective in 70s California, who's been set to find a missing property developer. Everyone seems to be after everyone else; or maybe it's just the dope. Immensely enjoyable, even if it is as mad as several boxes of frogs.

5. In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

Finely-constructed triptych of inter-connected stories following the emotional development of the writer ('Damon') as he travels around the world. Beautifully written, and experimental too, this is a satisfying and troubling portrait.

6. Ghostlight by Joseph O’Connor

Initially, I didn't like this very much; but as I went on, I became immensely involved in the story of an old actress looking back at her involvement with the playwright Synge - so involved as to be moved almost to tears. Delicate and elegant and powerful.

7. Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt

A warm and gripping tale of a young girl's quest through France to England to find her father; vivid and truthful.

8. Corpus by Susan Irvine

These short stories are mordant, mournful comments on the art world. Ninety per cent of them are ingenious, original and funny.

9. Kehua! by Fay Weldon

The loopiness of the plot wins it a place on the list - Weldon manages to be so much more interesting than a lot of writers around at the moment.

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

This is an often hilarious homage to Jane Austen, concerning the late divorce of a seventy year old woman, and the effect it has on her and her two middle aged daughters.

11. Lights Out in Wonderland by D B C Pierre

A rollicking tale of decadence and drugs, the slightly baggy middle section can be forgiven because of the zaniness and excitement of the rest.

12. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

A late addition to the list (read over Christmas), these fantastical short stories show the influence of Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones; several of them are truly brilliant, including 'The Library', about a strange TV show that only plays randomly and may or may not be a TV show: it takes place in an enormous library that has its own tundra and desert - and even boasts its own ocean.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Books of The Year: Day One

As a reviewer, I don't get to read as many classics as I would like, but I do try to keep at least one at a time going. This year, my most satisfying discovery was J G Farrell's 'Empire' Trilogy. Such meatiness of prose - if his books were meat, they would be enormous capons or possibly large legs of lamb with giant crunchy roast potatoes and really thick gravy. And bread sauce, of course. And they would bring a spirit lamp to your table to make your coffee afterwards. Now, where was I. Yes, I'm going to give my own personal books of the year, spread over five days. I had intended to write them in sonnet form - or at least in the form of 'The Hunting of the Snark' - but then I thought it would probably take too long.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me (or if she had sent these books to me, then she would definitely have been my true love) a whole load of classic works. Furies, fops, fiends and fripperies (and ladders): it's my top twelve old books of the year.

1. The Family Reunion by T S Eliot

It's like the worst and best Christmas ever all at once! And it's all in poetry! Amazing. Just watch out for the Eumenides, who happen to be hiding behind the curtain. Of course.

2. The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

Oddly enough, I'd never read this at school, though everyone else had. I won't tell you what the Thirty Nine Steps are. You probably know. This is most definitely the most rambustiously exciting of all the Buchan thrillers.

3. Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray

If you've seen the wonderful film, (pictured here with Mr Lyndon about to blow smoke into his wife's face), then you'll be stunned at the novel - Barry Lyndon is here portrayed with the blackest of morals; even Lady Lyndon is frightful. It still makes me want to walk around in a frock coat and duel a lot, though. The first of many dubious heroes who have accompanied me this year.

4. The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac

Intricate and thrilling tale of sibling rivalry - Philippe is as much of a monster as Barry Lyndon. Fortunately virtue prevails in the end, in the form of his artist brother Joseph.

5-7. Troubles by J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell, The Singapore Grip by J G Farrell

See above for the steakiness of these books. They create a world so entire that it occupies one's mind for days. Empire collapses; hypocrisies are exposed; absurdities pile up; and does anything change? We can only hope...

8. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

A beautifully wrought study of loneliness and misdirected intentions. Taylor is brilliant at having her characters mooch about London not doing very much - and her writing is beautiful too.

9. Hippolytus by Euripides

Poor old Hippolytus doesn't really get much of a look in... It's such an alien concept, that to still feel the blade of the tragedy centuries later as keenly as ever is deeply thrilling. Watch out for that bull!

10. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

No bulls, but more blades, and a human tragedy, this study of evil resonates loudly.

11. The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

Scary monks! Last minute reprieves! Underground vaults! Illicit marriages! Comedy servants! Nuns! There is absolutely nothing that you could want in a gothic novel that isn't in this stonkingly brilliant novel. There's even a moment to rival the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, really.

12. The Red and the Black by Stendhal

The last of the dubious heroes, Julian Sorel is a carpenter's son who hacks his way up from a position as tutor to a provincial noble to the salon in Paris of the Marquis de la Mole and conquest of M Mole's daughter. The plot veers excitedly from farce - he's putting a ladder up against his lover's window! And then three pages later he's doing it again! - to tragedy, with a good dose of mordant satire in between.

Merry St Stephen's Day! I can't see anyone collecting wood from my window, but if you can, I'd invite them in for a mince pie - and a reading of T S Eliot.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Review of The Liberators in The Oriel Record

And so as Christmas approaches, I attack the pile of magazines that has piled up in my post box over the last couple of months, and find an issue of The Oriel Record. It contains a marvellous review of The Liberators, by my old tutor, James Methven. He takes particular delight in the scenes at The National Gallery (hence the picture). Here it is in full, below. Incidentally, Methven has himself just published a collection of versions of Catullus, called Precious Asses, published by Seren Books. Click HERE for their website, where you can buy a copy.

The Liberators, Philip Womack
By James Methven, Oriel Record, 2010

Philip Womack’s second novel pitches us into a world of global financial crisis, fear of deadly attacks on the Underground, and the false fashionable world of arts junkets in the capital. This sounds the very model of a modish political and economic setting to an adult thriller, yet this is a novel for young teen readers from the author whose debut, The Other Book, (Bloomsbury, 2008) was reviewed in these pages two years ago. Where The Other Book player upon themes and ideas from epic and Arthurian legend, The Liberators draws its energies from the world of Greek mythology.

The story opens with a savage narrative bang: mass hysteria afflicts the passengers of an underground train and when the laughter and panic subsides a man is discovered beheaded and dismembered. Moments before, he has pressed a mysterious small black object in to the hand of a young boy with the strange injunction: Koptay thurson. The police are baffled and the media speculate as to the nature of this possible terrorist attack. The narrative voice shifts and we run for the rest of the novel with Ivo Moncrieff, a young boy let loose from school for his Chrismtas holidays, who is tasked with a quest that will deny him his freedom for a while, but, should he fail, all our freedoms will be destroyed. Freedom is the central motif of the book; the problem posed being what freedoms we truly have. The monstrous forces against which Ivo must fight represent the absolute anarchic freedoms of the god Dionysus; here taking split human form as the devilishly seductive Luther-Ross brothers who seek to unman the nation to a violent squabbling mess of inhuman savages. These figures from beyond mortal time are a spooky incarnation from Greek mythology, shape-shifting between a grotesque true self and a suave falsity. Their monstrous appetites and their desire to feed others the freedoms they normally avoid form the core of the descriptive power of the novel (there is a horribly queasy scene in which the young hero is force-fed alcohol and tempted by the antagonists to give licence to his inner demons.)

As with Womack’s previous book, there is a twisting plot, some rather gruesome violence (a dead cat features nastily at one point), and some hard moral lessons for the protagonists. The writing is of a high quality, with a poetic turn of phrase; the sentences have pace but also hold our interest such as to make us read without missing detail. Ivo befriends two other youngsters, Felix and Miranda (beset with the horrors of a private tutor in the Vacation), who, along with an organization called FIN (Freedom is Nothing), devoted to the ousting of the Liberators, must undergo all manner of slick and sudden shocks and trials before the grand show-down which comes in the National Gallery in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales ‘and his Duchess’.

The strangeness of the London depicted – it’s real, but its inhabitants at times seem not to notice the horrors being perpetrated around them – and the delightfully batty shift from apparent elderliness to lithe marshall arts prowess on the part of the members of FIN calls to mind the old TV Avengers from the 60s, and the stylishness of the antagonists suggests that any film version would need a very groovy design indeed. And if so, who will play the Prince of Wales ‘sheltering behind an upturned table’, as anarchic humans and the devilish Acolytes of the Liberators battle it out? For early teen readers this is a highly entertaining and heady mix of contemporary fun and quite sophisticated satire, laced with satisfyingly horrid danger for the young heroes.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Apprentice as Greek Tragedy

The Apprentice as Tragedy

A fearsome presence descends from the heavens, attended by two hovering Furies clashing their teeth, ready to dispense justice upon the mortals quivering below. An unearthly light permeates the air: the scene is metaphorically dripping with blood. It is, as Cassandra says when she arrives at the house of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, ‘a human slaughterhouse’; a body has just been displayed to the baying audience, whilst the other characters have been through a test of psychological and physical endurance. Yet one person will be saved; one who has performed correctly; one person to make some sort of order out of the chaos left behind by a glut of misunderstandings and errors. You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m describing the end of a Greek tragedy. I am – up to a point. In fact, it’s The Apprentice, with Lord Sugar as the deus ex machina, and Karen and Nick as the crime-pursuing Furies.

Yes, it’s the closest thing we have today that both follows the same arc and has the same effect as a traditional Attic tragedy. An audience of Athenians, settling in at the City Dionysia (a festival of plays and other events), would have known exactly what to expect from what was put in front of them. When it came to tragedies, they were in for a bout of kin-killing, incest, or another sort of god-defying behaviour; the point being, according to Aristotle, that having watched the antics of a Pentheus (torn apart by his own mother) or an Agamemnon (slain by his wife), afterwards they would be ‘purged’ of pity and fear, and thus be able to live happily.

So it is with The Apprentice. Like the City Dionysia, it brings the country together in voyeuristic pleasure – what Mrs Radcliffe called ‘the strange delights of artificial grief’. We settle down in front of the television, and as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ kicks in, our brains spark with the knowledge of what we are about to receive. We are gripped by the consistency of the narrative, with all its dramatic ironies and reversals of fortune, just as the Attic audiences were. The formal nature of the program feeds our synapses in exactly the same way. Aristotle posited that a tragedy has unities of time and space. The tasks in The Apprentice take place over 24 hours. The house and the boardroom function as fixed loci, with the beautiful London townhouse standing in for the ancient palaces of the nobility (the skene, from which characters emerged to meet their fates); and the contestants’ tasks do tend to be confined to a certain place, such as a shopping centre.

Greek tragedy concerned the misbehaviour of people in an elevated position – kings, queens and heroes. In our meritocratic society, what more elevated position could there be than someone in Lord Sugar’s ambit? Fighting for position in an ‘agon’ (contest), just as the actors in the Dionysia contested to win a prize, these are Brtain’s ‘brightest business hopes’. And, in the same way as Pentheus refuses to believe in Bacchus, or Agamemnon walks upon the purple cloth, thus showing his pride, the contestants yap and bark about their brilliance at various different skills (well, mostly selling.). They’re riding for a fall. They have committed hubris – an assault on the gods.

Of course the real tragedy in all this is that the prize of the one who’s saved is a job with Lord Sugar. This, to my mind, makes The Apprentice a far more effective tragedy than even the Agamemnon. That cycle came to an end with the Furies tamed; we know, however, that The Apprentice could go on for ever. And that is what makes it so brilliantly tragic: with no limit, it reflects the endless vicissitudes of human existence. So let us pour libations to Lord Sugar (anax glukus?) and joyously acclaim the next series.

(Incidentally, Chris Bates should have won. Anax Glukus seems always to be swayed by where people come from. Is that prejudice? I think so.)

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Used Up by Dion Boucicault

A great deal of Christmas cheer was to be had last night at a performance of Dion Boucicault's 'Used Up', at Edward Barker's house in Notting Hill, in aid of the Notting Hill Churches Homeless Concern. Boucicault's London Assurance is a staple of the repertoire; Used Up probably hasn't been performed in a while. Director Matthew Sturgis stumbled upon it in the Lord Chamberlain's Archives. It concerns a gentleman called Sir Charles Coldstream (ably played by Sturgis), who is tired of life. He's been all around Europe, loved hundreds of women, but 'there's nothing in it.' His friends bet him to marry the first woman who comes along; she turns out to be a marginally dodgy bigamist called Lady Clutterbuck. Also in the mix are a bankrupted blacksmith, two carousing aristos (Sir Adonis Leech and the Hon Tom Saville), a farmer called Wurzel and an innocent maid. When Coldstream and Ironbrace the blacksmith fight (erroneously) over Clutterbuck, it causes them both to fake their own deaths in fear of having murdered the other. Yes, it's a marvellously complicated farce, involving wills, ghosts (real or not), hidden chambers and wit. Ultimately it is an assurance of life - Coldstream comes to realise that life is about, basically, having something to do - but it's nothing, he finishes, 'without the approbation of friends'. The cast included William Sieghart, Rupert Smith, Andrew Barrow and Emma Hope; the audience never stopped roaring with laughter. It was indeed marvellous to see even the smallest children thoroughly enjoying themselves (including one little boy who helpfully pointed out where Ironbrace was hiding). In the audience were novelist Edward St Aubyn and satirist Craig Brown, amongst others; Nicky Haslam turned up to the party afterwards looking like a chic cowboy.

Here is some information about Boucicault (pronounced Boo-si-co) from the program:

'Dion Boucicault was, like many great English playwrights, an Irishman ... The author of over two hundred plays, Boucicault said 'I can spin out these rough-and-tumble dramas as a hen lays eggs. It's a degrading occupation, but more money has been made out of guano than out of poetry.'

So here's to guano, and the making of it; and also a Merry Christmas, as this shall be the penultimate post of this extraordinary year. Next up will be my Books of the Year - which may or may not take the form of a sonnet....

Monday, 13 December 2010

Literary Review Christmas Children's Round Up

My ravishing round up of children's books for Christmas is in the bumper December / January issue of Literary Review. Again, no online version, so a trip through the snow to the newsmongers to find it is necessary. Or you could subscribe. The books I've reviewed are:

Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley
Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood
The Fool's Girl by Celia Rees
Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Almost True by Keren David
Now by Morris Gleitzman
Elliott Allagash by Simon Rich
Pull Out All The Stops! by Geraldine McCaughrean
Ghostly Holler-Day by Daren King
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future by George Beard and Harold Hutchins
Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road by Joel Stewart
Alienography by Chris Riddell.

Phew! Now I'm going to read the entire Faerie Queene for a change of scene. See you in the New Year...

The Three Wisemen... I mean Weissmanns, of Westport, by Cathleen Schine: review

My review of The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine is in The Tablet this week. It's a lovely novel. The review is unavailable online, so you'll have to mosey on down to the newsagents to get a real actual ink and paper copy. Gosh! It's a very Jane Austeny novel, so it's all the more suitable to read a review of it in hard copy. In fact, you all ought to go out and buy a frock coat now.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas Party Season upon us, and the first of the lot was Bloombury's Children's Authors Party, which was for people with books out this year, and took place in their offices last week. I almost didn't make it - there were small matters of riots, the Royal Variety Show, and entire streets in Soho vanishing under enormous blue barriers for Crossrail. But, weary and thirsty, I did eventually make it, and I chatted to the ever-lovely Mary Hoffman, and also to Jim Carrington, whose debut novel was out last year, Inside My Head, which has received good reviews, and Lucy Jago, author of Montague House. Mince pies and cheese puffs were the order of the day.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Liberators becomes... an Audiobook!

Here's something to brighten up February: The Liberators will be fully morphed into an actual, real-life audiobook read by an actual real actor who speaks and everything! It will be published by Oakhill Books, and is available via their website for pre-order. I'm very excited to hear what the actor, Tim Bruce, has made of it... And what really gets me is that it says 'Complete and Unabridged' on the box.

Click HERE to visit the site.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Ovid and Euripides: They've Done it Again

The weekend was spent buried deep in various texts, for various reasons; as I truffled through them I did come up with this:

'saepe pater dixit: 'studium quid inutile temptas?
Maeonides nullas ipse reliquit opes.'

Plus ça change
. It's from Ovid, Tristia (4.10), and its translation is as follows:

'Often my father said, 'Why are you hacking away at that pointless fad?
Homer himself didn't leave behind any money.'

It's Ovid's father, telling him off for wanting to be a poet. Ovid's brother, of course, is a sparky lawyer. (Maeonides is a name often used for Homer as he was thought to have been a native of Maeonia, or Lydia as it was otherwise called.)

It is so marvellous to hear the voice of the father roaring out across the centuries as his useless son potters about with ink and papyrus instead of swotting up on legal precedents. More proof, if any is needed, of the 'relevance' of classical studies...

Also, what could be more beautiful than this, from Euripides' Ajax?

'horo gar hemas ouden ontas allo plen
eidol' hosoiper zomen he kouphen skian'

Translated (poetically, in the Penguin translation) as

'Are we not all,
All living things, mere phantoms, shadows of nothing?'

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Inkblots, Jelly and a Hungry, Hungry Hippogriff

I haven't had anything in the Telegraph for a while, and now two pieces come along at once... First is a gift book round up, which takes in everything from inkblot tests to manuals on knitting dogs, with detours into jelly, bikes, royal alligators and annoying meerkats. HERE is a link.

And also Russell Hoban's new book. I haven't actually read any of his other books - everyone tells me I must read Riddley Walker - but this extraordinarily odd little novel has certainly piqued my interest. Click HERE. The book takes as its premise the idea that the hippogriff from Ariosto's romance poem Orlando Furioso is in love with Angelica; he bursts into twenty-first century America in order to find her. As someone who has grappled with Orlando, and is currently re-making his way through The Faerie Queen, as the basis for a novel (for me at any rate) it's got to be a good one. A talking hippogriff beats a talking meerkat any day... (Pictured is one of Gustave Dore's etchings from OF.)

Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award

Monday night brought the best party of the year - the Literary Review's (s)extravaganza, which takes place at the In and Out Club in St James' Square. This year was no exception to the festive excellence: the room was crammed with literary and other types right from the beginning. It's a place where Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey can be seen next to Nadira Naipaul; where Rachel Johnson of The Lady (an ex-winner of the prize for her novel Notting Hell) can be spotted with Nicky Haslam; soldier Patrick Hennessey appeared briefly; Latinist extraordinaire Harry Mount; actresses Olivia Grant and Daisy Lewis; novelist Elspeth Barker; biographers Anne Somerset and Jane Ridley; writer Louise Guinness; literary editors, journalists, teenagers and liggers; it's the only party where the young and the old mingle happily, much as at Margot Metroland's parties in Vile Bodies. All washed down, of course, with laudatory amounts of champagne and Hendrick's gin. Alexander Waugh, as always, compered the readings wittily and smoothly. The winner was Rowan Somerville (pictured), who very sportingly accepted the prize, saying that there was nothing so English as Bad Sex; it was given by Michael Winner, who said he'd prefer to be at home watching I'm A Celebrity... . Not the done thing, Mr Winner. Courtney Love once gave the prize - she was much more gracious. Aside from the rudeness of Mr Winner, it was a marvellously exciting evening. A toast: to Auberon Waugh and the Literary Review!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Daily Telegraph: Children's Books of the Year

More wondrous news: The Liberators has been selected as one of the Daily Telegraph's Children's Books of the Year, alongside Chris Riddell, Julia Donaldson, Charlie Higson et al. Huzzah and hurrah! HERE is a link.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Tablet Books of the Year

Here is my Book of the Year for The Tablet: if you can't read the picture (it's not very clear), it is, of course, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Debut: Pop Up Gallery

Last night brought an excursion to the Vauxhall Bridge road, and to 'Debut', a show run by the Pop Up Gallery. Here were works exhibited by Henry John - interestingly, intelligently composed interiors and landscapes, with a way of making the ordinary seeming ethereal, even extraordinary (see picture.) My particular favourite was a small painting of a traffic light: unobtrusive and elegant, it seemed to showcase much of this painter's talent as the red traffic light glowed out of a grey sky. Also on show was Marianne Spurr, whose diptych of a piece of black velvet next to a pale green acryllic made me stop and ponder. Amy Moffat's intriguing, almost cartoonish oils provided a note of amusement, whilst Chloe Ostmo's architectural prints were austere and striking. Will Martyr's pop-arty paintings provided a colourful contrast; and Timothy Betjeman's paintings were thoughtfully and movingly executed. The show runs till January 10th - it's definitely worth taking a gander.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One: Review

Harry Potter Review

This, the seven-and-a-halfth in the leviathan-like franchise that the Harry Potter series has become, begins with a scene of rare poignancy. We’ve come a long way from butterbeer, Nearly Headless Nick and eleven year olds grinning open-mouthed at ‘Diagon Alley.’ Hermione Granger, as played by Emma Watson, is in the salubrious surroundings of her parents’ house. She hears them talking downstairs; goes down, and pulls out her wand. ‘Obliviate’, she says – and every single picture of herself in the house begins to fade away. She will have been as nothing to her mother and father. It works so well because all teenagers grapple with their desire to be away from their family – and yet we all know that it is only they who can ever truly love us. So Hermione departs, about to enter upon a quest that threatens the very existence of that safe, leafy street. ‘Obliviate’ echoes throughout the film: the teenage trio take on (briefly) other identities through polyjuice; they transfer affections; at one point near the beginning practically all the adolescent members of the Order of the Phoenix turn into clones of Harry: what could better express the desire for conformity and the need to forget oneself? The action of the rest of the film, too, is a remarkably good expression, too, of the boredom of teenagerdom: the characters don't do much apart from mope around fields and lie around on sofas. I certainly spent most of my adolescence doing either one or the other.

As a film, it worked remarkably well, given that the book itself is so busy. It was clean, and beautifully shot: the fragile tent of the three adventurers, with one light burning, set against enormous landscapes; the children (although not quite so childlike now) walking along a shoreline underneath a bridge; the swooping drive up to the Malfoys’ house. The characters in fact were often dominated by scenery, suggesting perhaps the titantic efforts they would have to make to achieve anything.

Things could be a little confusing at times, even for someone who’s read the book (like me – I read it the day it came out, but have forgotten most of its details.) Hence I did not know why Bellatrix Lestrange thought that Godric’s sword had been in her vault; nor could I at first distinguish what Jamie Campbell Bower’s character was doing – he was Grindelwald, as it turned out. And things could be a little embarrassing too (I won’t mention the hallucinatory silver-body-suit sex scene between an imaginary Harry and Hermione, as witnessed by a Horcruxed Ron Weasley). Also, the sign for the deathly hallows reminded me of the tube advert for a sperm bank, where a d and b are placed back to back to indicate - well, you can guess. But the tone of the film as a whole was remarkably consistent. A scene in the Ministry of Magic was particularly effective, as pamphlets calling for the elimination and control of Muggles swept magically off desks, and Dolores Umbridge and the new, Fascist Minister for Magic surveyed everything with grim glee. The highlight, though, was the shadow-puppet play which told the story of ‘The Deathly Hallows’. The fable itself comes off as rather dry in the book, without the power or depth of folklore. But on screen it appeared as an eerie, haunting tale about morality and our acceptance of death. Even wizards have no power over death. A Socratesian message, in the end: learn to accept, and greet death like an old friend. Except we know that we won’t be obliviated – we’ll stay in memories, photos, films, for as long as is humanly possible. This was a fine, thoughtful and challenging work, which sets us up fittingly for the epic possibilities of the next and final part.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Liberators by Philip Womack: Times Critic Amanda Craig's Children's Books of the Year

So out of some weird synchronous activity, I bought a copy of The Times just before I went in to see the new Harry Potter (review to follow shortly). I got home, settled in my favourite chair with some music on. I always read the Review section first; I opened it, without looking, where I imagined the first Books page might be. I saw a large picture of a cat. Ah, I thought. Children's books. And then I saw my name - The Liberators has made it into the excellent Amanda Craig's selection of Books of the Year, alongside Eva Ibbotson, Kate Saunders, Patrick Ness and many more. I was so amazed and thrilled I had to read it again to check it was true and I wasn't actually reading about some other book ('The Terminators', for instance, as some of my friends have called it.) Libations were poured all round to the god Dionysus; paeans were raised and a hecatomb offered up. Io io!

A link to the piece is HERE: you have to be a subscriber to the Times to access it.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Daily Telegraph Books of the Year

HERE is a link to my books of the year, as listed in the Daily Telegraph. I'm going to post a longer list next week. I'm somewhere near the bottom...

Friday, 19 November 2010

Vanessa Garwood, and A Brace of Stirlings

Well, it has been an arty week. First off, I attended the private view of Kitty Stirling and her father Angus at a Cork Street Gallery. Though visually different in style, there is a subtle similarity between father and daughter in the way that they use colour. Angus' elegant landscapes were bold and striking; Kitty experimented with space and texture in a way that was fascinating to behold. A series of paintings made with photographs was particularly intriguing. I didn't stay for long, alas; but I did eat a lot of breadsticks.

Next up was Vanessa Garwood at 68 Dean Street for an exhibition curated by Aretha Campbell. The house itself is a marvel: almost practically the same as it has been for years. It also has the best lavatory I've ever seen (well, nearly - at least, at an art gallery.) Vanessa's paintings are mostly concerned with the human figure: beautiful nudes adorned the walls. A bronze sculpture of three girls was the centrepiece of the downstairs room - a charming take on the Three Graces. A mostly green landscape was luscious and inviting; upstairs, portraits of monkeys stole the show, each challenging one's conception of humanity. There were no breadsticks, unfortunately, but there was plenty of prosecco. Huzzah!

Friday, 12 November 2010

I'm Late, I'm Late... Christian Marclay's The Clock at The White Cube

I'm actually never late, at least on purpose. Last night, after a party for Help the Heroes at the Cobden Club (lots of soldiers, and Princess Beatrice), we piled into a taxi and headed to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard. It was all but empty: we got there at 3 am to watch The Clock, an installation by Christian Marclay which is a twenty four hour video. We sat on white sofas and watched the film unfold: it runs in real time, and is made up of excerpts from other films. The effect is hypnotic; even though the time is shown all the, er, time, one doesn't notice it passing because one is so thoroughly drawn into each narrative. And they only last three or four seconds. They flow and segue into each other, blending and fading and echoing each other: sometimes voices from one film will bleed into another scene. At 3am we saw nightmare, insomnia, sex, robbery, desperation, fear and even peace. It was incredibly beautiful and awesomely involving. I am going back, now. If you don't see me for a while, that's where I'll be.... I wonder if anyone has watched it all the way through? It only runs till Saturday, though, so hurry if you want to go...

It also made me think about The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. 'I'm late, I'm late...' he cries... Late for what? Is he permanently catching up, or is he heading towards his death? Who knows. It reminds me rather of 'Werner Herzog reads Curious George.'

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Lord Dunsany and the Treasures of Hungary

The two are not connected, of course. Lord Dunsany was one of my favourite writers as a child, his weird, enigmatic folktales short and sharp and affecting. Yesterday I acquired a letter he'd written to the young Penelope Betjeman (then Chetwode). He was a big influence on my writing at school. Having the letter on my desk is wonderful, it's as if he will walk into the room at any moment, pick it up and post it. Dunsany was somewhat of a hero: not only was he deeply literary, he was also the best shot in Ireland. Why aren't people like that any more?

I then pottered down to the Royal Academy: entering it was like walking into a shrine, with an atmosphere of sacerdotal hush. It was positively packed with beauty: and lots of pictures that, alas, do not seem to be very widely available on the internet - although perhaps that's why they're treasures. In particular I enjoyed two drawings from Giuseppe Cades' series illustrating Orlando Furioso (which has been haunting me recently: I've just finished reading a new novel by Russell Hoban, in which the hippogriff returns to find his lost Angelica). There was also a wonderfully witty Apollo and his Muses with Fame: Apollo sits snoozing under a tree, surrounded by the Muses' cast off clothing - they've got the afternoon off, and you see them cavorting in the nearby vegetation. Above, Fame flies somewhat sternly, looking at her watch (metaphorically speaking, of course.) It was by Lorenzo Lotto. Two more very striking pictures were Corner of a Room by van der Heyden, which showed a luxury of interesting pieces - a Japanese spear, and so on, and looked as if one might actually be able to walk into it; and Landscape with a Village Scene near Tivoli by Karoly Marko the Elder, which was endowed with incredible warm luminescence.

One of my favourite books of last year was about Hungary: it was about Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King, and his library, by Marcus Tanner, a fascinating - even gripping - account. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone, bibliophile or not. To buy it, click this link: The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Inner Room by Robert Aickman

Sometimes you read a story when you're a child, and it sticks at the back of your mind, milling around. In my case, at strange moments a dolls' house would pop into my head. All I could remember was that there was a boy who measured it and found it didn't quite fit into its dimensions; and also a far more creepy image, that of a doll who spent all her time recording what went on. I could never find the story again. I recently had quite a terrifying nightmare about a dolls' house, which was full of strange, tiny inhabitants who flew at me and stuck me with pins: a couple of days later (having written down the dream as it was so striking), I went with a friend to an exhibition and saw the very same dolls' house... There's also a very effective story in A S Byatt's The Children's Book, in which a girl finds some fairies and imprisons them in a dolls' house; alas for the girl, a giant comes along and scoops her up, dolls' house and all.

A friend, purely by chance (well, off the back of my scary books list) sent me a copy of a book: The Inner Room by Robert Aickman. Even before I began to read it, I knew it was that story. The familiar chill spread along my spine; before I knew it I was twelve again, and in the fascinating grip of a story whose implications have resonated with me all my life. In it, a girl buys a dolls' house from a dingy shop (a classic ghost story trope). She brings it to her house, and then abandons it; meanwhile she has terrifying dreams about the inhabitants. Then, much, much later, it comes back to haunt her, in a shockingly real manner. It is splendidly well-written and atmospheric, and has exactly the right sort of ambiguous end that all the best ghost stories have.

Go forth and acquire it: it is published by Tartarus Press. Click Inner Room to buy it from Amazon.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Zadie Smith on The Social Network, New York Review of Books

HERE is a link to an excellent piece by Zadie Smith on The Social Network, in the New York Review of Books. It has certainly made me think twice about my addiction to that nefarious site, Facebook. Whether I will actually change my behaviour or not remains to be seen... (And thank you to Anna Arco of The Catholic Herald for putting the link my way.)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Talk: Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford

Walking through the streets of Oxford on a grey day is rather melancholy; I revisited a couple of old haunts (including the marvellous Georgina's café, which I am pleased to see hasn't changed a bit). As I was walking down Cornmarket, I was stopped by an undergraduate who wanted to sign me up a to a jobs website. He was very convincing. 'Do you have a job?' he asked. I stuttered an answer. Queuing in Lloyds Bank as I took my pen out of my pocket the lid snapped: an ill omen, I thought.

So all in all I was mightily pleased by the warm welcome I received at Christ Church Cathedral School, where I gave a short talk and a reading of The Liberators. Their questions were rather good; they also asked if The Liberators is ever made into a film (are you listening Spielberg / the makers of Harry Potter? If you are, have a look at Keren David's post too...) that I should ensure none of the details are lost. And they asked the most important question of all: do I surf or skateboard? To which the answer, unfortunately, is no; but there's still time... Thank you very much indeed to all who were involved, it was a pleasure.

The picture, by the way, is of the house Dorothy Sayers was born in - just round the corner from the school. No wonder she wrote such brilliantly murky books...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Literary Review Grand Poetry Prize

And so today brought with it oddly mild weather, presumably because the gods - or at least the Muses - were feeling beneficial towards Literary Review, which, today, held its 997th (or something like that) Grand Poetry Prize. This award, begun by Auberon Waugh, was intended to promote the writing of verse that 'rhymed, scanned and made sense'. Much harder to do than you would think... Fitzroy Square (I walked past Roger Fry's house as the leaves blew redly around my feet) was the locus for the lunch. Writers descended from all four corners of the earth - or, at least, London and its environs. There was V S Naipaul, grandly seated with his wife Nadira; there was Alexander Waugh playing the piano; there was biographer Jane Ridley in the best red velvet coat I have ever seen. Editor Nancy Sladek gave a toast to Auberon Waugh and the late Beryl Bainbridge (always a favourite guest at the lunch). The room filled with writers and assorted literary types; wine and champagne flowed. Our food arrived: I don't know what it is about potatoes recently (see earlier post about the Oriel Gaudy), but our main course came with some imperially purple ones. The three courses were interspersed with more wine - and light opera, including a song from a musical written by Alexander Waugh called Bon Voyage. The prize (sponsored, with generosity, by the Mail on Sunday) was given by Eileen Atkins, who elegantly read out the winning poem (about cities) by Iain Colley, who accepted it saying: 'I had a whole speech prepared which was studded with witticisms and would comment upon the state of literature'. But he was so blown away by Dame Eileen that he was lost for words.

The lunch continued till four, when I wandered (somewhat erratically) down Piccadilly towards St James'. I popped into the Waterstones', where the excellent children's section (recently remodelled) kindly asked me to sign a couple of copies of The Liberators. Not that most people were interested, though: there was a queue forming for Keith Richards - and he's not arriving till 5pm on Wednesday.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Booktrust Teenage Prize

Once a year, in November, at the top of the Penguin building on the Strand, Booktrust award their Teenage Prize for fiction. It's where Churchill used to go, apparently, to view the damage done to London after a bomb attack; although the only damage that might possibly be done these days is by champagne glasses or cocktail sticks falling down to the street below. I've been going to the prize for several years now: it's one of my favourite events in the literary calendar. Always, it seems, it's a beautiful day. You can see the Embankment down below, lined with flaming trees; inside is champagne, merriment - and, of course, lots of people in children's publishing. There was a very strong shortlist this year, including Charlie Higson (for The Enemy) and Zizou Corder (for Halo); but the winner was Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes. I haven't read it yet, but I shall certainly look out for it.

I chatted to Mr Higson, although this time we did not cross swords about the role of celebrities in writing; I spoke to the charming Mary Hoffman, who has written over ninety children's books and still looks to be going strong; and I met the organiser of the Bath Children's Literary Festival. I left at two, quite happily filled with champagne and canapes, to snooze - I mean, of course, work very hard - in an armchair in the London Library until my duties took me elsewhere - to Kensington, in fact, where I wandered into the Waterstones just before Malorie Blackman arrived to do a book signing. Rather sweetly, they asked me to sign a few books too. So all in all, a brilliantly bookish start to what will be a brilliantly bookish week.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Hallowe'en Horrors

Hallowe'en encroaches. Lists are made. I thought I would put up a list (which, by pure chance, happens to consist of thirteen books) of the tomes which frightened me the most since I first began to read. Of course, I can't remember all of them: there are one or two which left a lasting impression on me, but which I don't think I'll ever find again: there was a book where a girl went on a journey with a gnome from her mantlepiece (it came alive); she went to a mountain covered in multicoloured snow, some of which was poisonous, and fought with a witch. And there was another, where a girl looked through the wrong end of a telescope and ended up on a strange, savage planet... But they will remain fragments of my memory, alas. So here is the list, in no particular order.

1. The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

This uses suspense to terrifying effect, as inanimate scarecrows encroach upon a house, perhaps possessed by the ghosts of some sinister people. It is also a brilliant psychodrama, and unsparing in its details of adolescent pain. I remember being absolutely gripped by it as a twelve year old; I gave it to a friend; he didn't like it; I thought less of the friend.

2. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

A recent novel, this tale of possession I was not able to read alone. It sent me scurrying into the drawing room in the house where I was staying, panting with fright. In particular I found the idea of a 'beacon' - a soul that stood out from the others because of its propensity for possession - extremely disturbing.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What can I say: pig's head. Flies. The Beast.

4. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

A very successful pastiche, and yet also remarkably original. All the more creepy for its ambivalence.

5 & 6. The Seance by John Harwood, and The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Australian writer Harwood is a master of the ghost story. The first, from different viewpoints, tells a Gothic story of ghostly monks, haunted suits of armour and decaying houses that has much more to it than meets the eye; the second tells of bitter family rivalries and secrets. Heavenly for winter's nights.

7. Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

Blackly broiling with psychological and actual fear, these tales, told from the viewpoint of snobby, cruel Edwardian children, are works of near genius.

8. A short story by Elizabeth Bowen (whose name I cannot remember)

In this tale a man on a bicycle happens upon a house, in which a woman weeps and the sound of a tennis match can be heard. But when he gets back to his friends, everything is thrown into confusion. Not so much terrifying as deeply affecting - and plausible.

9. Chocky by John Wyndham

As a child I found the idea of an alien intelligence infiltrating my head immensely scary - and yet, at the same time, I sort of wanted to be suddenly able to do maths, and paint alien landscapes, as the child in this story does.

10. Metamorphoses by Kafka

When his family throw an apple at the morphed K and it sticks under his carapace I was stiff with terror for weeks.

11. The Vampyre by Tom Holland

Read in one sitting, as a thirteen year old on a ferry from France to England. Pure escapism, and brilliant.

12. Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Doppelganger is also one of the more skin-crawling ideas to have come out of folklore, and Hogg uses it with sinister panache.

13. Albion’s Dream by Roger Norman

A bit of a recherche choice: this was a children's book, a first novel, which was in my school library. I at the time was at an old-fashioned prep school; this was set in a similar place. In it the hero finds himself up against a truly sinister doctor: there's a moment at the end which is almost heart-stopping. Sadly out of print.

*LATE ADDITION* - and thank you to Suzi Feay of the Financial Times for reminding me of this:

14. The Ghost of Thomas Kemp by Penelope Lively

An incredibly eerie tale of a haunting: a ghost who can be capricious, mean and genuinely dangerous. Totally marvellous.

Oh, and while I'm here:

15. The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo

I think this gave me nightmares for years...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

When I Was Ivo: Keren David on The Liberators

Keren David, author of two heart-stopping, gimlety thrillers, When I Was Joe and Almost True, which follow the adventures of a teenager called Ty who becomes involved in a stabbing, has written about The Liberators. I am glad that she likes Strawbones - my own favourite. I think that Ivo and Ty would get on very well together. We should arrange a meeting. Here's what she said:

'On the surface, it's a fast-moving, exciting adventure, with well-drawn characters that you care about - and intriguing sinister baddies,whose seductive charm is irresistible. It would make a wonderful film - the riot on Oxford Street, and the final scenes in the National Gallery make great use of London as a setting.
But it goes so much deeper. I was extremely impressed by the way you conveyed Dionysian ecstasy in a way that a young audience would understand - particularly the sexual undertones, which were suitably subtle but definitely there - and the conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian philiosophies. So often nowadays we see mythology raided for storylines, but stripped of its essential meaning.
I also loved the way that Ivo, Felix and Miranda were unapologetically posh and privileged - learning Greek, going to boarding school and living with servants. I wrote a post on Norm Geras's blog recently about the importance of boarding school books for those of us who did not go to a school where Greek and Latin were taught. I learned a great deal from reading books about boarding school children - not only about poetry and the classics, but about how the upper classes lived - extremely useful information in later life!
I only have tiny criticisms - much as I loved the image of Charles and Camilla at the party, I did wonder about the security arrangements. And at the beginning I was a little bewildered by all the characters and had to go back and check who was who a few times. But once I'd got everyone straight in my head, and particularly when Strawbones appeared, I was completely hooked.

Now I must get hold of The Other Book (great title).


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Chilean Miners

What is it that the Chilean miners represent? A paradox: we send these men into the depths of the earth, into the underworld itself, where lurk thin, hungry ghosts (and worse) in order for them to bring us things that will give us light. They sought the fire of gold in the heart of the earth, and brought fear into all our hearts. It is Promethean. It is hubristic: they went too far - they overreached - or rather, not the individuals, but the overarching system which constantly seeks to expand itself, went too far. The individuals themselves were innocent - hence our fear for them, as there is nothing, to the human mind, more terrifying than the incarceration of an innocent soul. And these were several innocent souls. They tunnelled into the bowels of the earth, like dwarves into the mines of Moria. They didn't find a Balrog, but they did unleash the monstrous media machine. When they came out, they had to wear sunglasses: again, paradoxically, to protect them from the light; and to keep from their eyes the glare of the world.

There are parallels with the BP oil spill – into the abysses of our planet we plough, seeking fuel to light our way, and what we bring up instead is gluey darkness. Beneath the crust of the earth the miners languished. Above them melodramas played themselves out. We, as distant readers, could sense the coming arc of the story: but would it end in chaos, or in order? Luckily the Phoenix was on hand, to bring them out (one by painstaking one) to rebirth. Like Fawkes rescuing Harry Potter from the Basilisk.

It was a grand narrative, exotic, far away, and yet it reminded us of our global relationships. It played on our most primal fears. Fire makes us civilised; seeking it makes us savages. Like Aeneas, Achilles, Ulysses, like all the great heroes, they went into the land of the dead: but they have come out stronger, and wiser. Already they are treated as heroes: perhaps soon they will have stranger stories to tell. In the meantime the golden flames of the phoenix light up the world, and the shadows have retreated. For now. And I - I wanted one of the miners to say, 'No. I don't want to come up. I like it too much down here, in the dark.' Maybe one of them will go back into the womb of the world. Let's wait and see.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Last week, in honour of a new work by Alan Ayckbourn and an old (republished) novel by Barbara Cartland, I was asked to write a piece about prolific authors for the Telegraph. I worked out that Cartland must have written a novel every forty days: which is the same time Jesus was in the wilderness. I wonder if the two are connected? Anyway, here is a link to the article: click HERE.

The picture, by the way, is of Edward Gibbon. The Duke of Gloucester, on being presented with a pristine volume of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is said to have uttered the immortal words: 'Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?' Which, as a reviewer, I slightly feel quite a lot of the time; though, of course, this is an entirely contrary sentiment to my feelings as a writer.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mysteries of Auster

Auster means the south wind in Latin; it's also the surname of a very popular author. I was asked to review his new novel, Sunset Park, for The Daily Telegraph: click HERE to read it to find out which way the wind is blowing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Liberators Makes it to Vienna

A friend of mine has sent me this photograph, taken in a bookshop in Vienna. The other authors you probably won't have heard of: some chap called Dan Brown, and another called Terry Pratchett, and a book about a woman who goes on some sort of mystical life-trip called Eat, Pray Love.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Booker Prize: An Omission

I'd been meaning to write about the Booker (or the Man Booker as one is meant to call it), but other things have slipped in the way: miners, the onset of winter, bills, and a children's round-up that I am in the thick of, (and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, which I am currently obsessing about.) This year's Booker choice, Howard Jacobson, was a solid decision from an otherwise slightly odd shortlist: Galgut's In A Strange Room, a marvellous piece of work, being rather too slight; I don't think, however, that Jacobson's book has the broader appeal or heft of something like Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. It seems that this year the judges have based their opinions entirely on enjoyment of a novel: which all seems a bit book club to me. And the one book which should have been on the short list, and a strong contender for the title, was Paul Murray's enchanting, weird, brilliant Skippy Dies. Its omission was a huge mistake.

I went to the Booker party for Andrea Levy for about five minutes: it was in the Century club, and there were mounds and mounds of toothsome canapes; after a long chat with an editor about a misery memoir I ought to write about psychic pandas who can see angels, we slipped off quite soon to the Cape party. There I spent many an hour deep in conversation with an up and coming novelist, Leo Benedictus, about the pros and cons of electronic books; Tom McCarthy made an appearance, as did the elegant Chloe Aridjis, and Adam Foulds, whose beautiful book The Quickening Maze was shortlisted last year. The canape quality was excellent, I might add.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Stray Sod Country by Patrick McCabe: review

Here too is a link to my review in The Daily Telegraph, of Patrick McCabe's new novel, The Stray Sod Country
. It reminded me, in a weird, intertextual way, of Browning's 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came': that sense of being in a place unknown, heading to a destination equally mysterious. In a way, I suppose, James A Reilly, a maddened teacher in the novel, could be a type of Poor Tom in King Lear, or even of Lear himself: raving and alone on the blasted heath. Click HERE

Gaudeamus Igitur: Oriel Gaudy

Having attended Oriel College, Oxford, between the years of 2000 and 2003, I was asked back to a Gaudy dinner a couple of weekends ago. The College asked me to write a short piece about it: click HERE to read it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: review

Here is a link to my review in the Financial Times of Salman Rushdie's new children's book, Luka and the Fire of Life. I think it fails on almost every level as a children's book. Click HERE

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Thomas', Kensington: Talk about The Liberators

Last week, in the driving rain, I headed to the wilds of Kensington, to a charming school called Thomas'. I was greeted warmly and had the pleasure of seeing a class studying The Liberators. I then gave a short talk to about seventy children (of about nine and ten years old) about being a writer, and read from the middle of The Liberators. The questions afterwards were peerless. One asked me what the general themes of the book were. It is extremely rewarding to engage with readers on a level like that. So thank you Thomas' for a marvellous morning - and for a delicious lunch, too.

Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt: review

Fernanda Eberstadt (pictured, right) has produced four novels which manage to combine a meaty, sensual richness of language with engrossing plots and characters: her territory has, so far, been mainly New York. Her most enduring hero (or anti-hero) was Isaac, who appeared in a brace of novels (Isaac and his Devils, and When the Sons of Heaven meet the Daughters of the Earth), a bumbling, goofy misfit who enters the art world. Now we have a spirited, resourceful fifteen year old heroine in Rat, Eberstadt's latest novel. The terrain is the South of France, and the plot concerns the flight of fifteen year old Rat and her search for her absent English father. Rat is a fascinating character, vividly and boldly drawn, generous, fearless and intelligent, battling to understand herself and the strange circumstances of her life. She manages to get herself (and her young foster brother) across France and into Britain without a passport. Eberstadt delineates beautifully the various milieux: whether it be a market in the South of France, or a grey West London house with its windows barred. The scenes between Rat and her father (an artist, seemingly incapable of true emotional connection) are beautifully realised. The book ends with a powerful affirmation of the importance of family. It is a fine addition to the author's oeuvre, and sits very well alongside her work of non-fiction, Little Money Street, which concerned the plight of gypsies in Southern France.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Today Program: Philip Womack and Charlie Higson talk about Barack Obama, and Celebrity Writing in General

Saturday morning saw me entering the BBC studios dressed in a morning-coat. Alas, I wasn't an extra for a television drama; I was attending a wedding later in the day. But, first things first: I was chatting with Charlie Higson, author of the marvellously cool Young Bond books, about children's books. Click HERE for the link. We're on at 0820.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Barack Obama's Children's Book

Here is a LINK to a comment piece I've written for the Telegraph today, about Barack Obama's new children's book.

Lust and Murder in Lilliput: The Return of Liza Campbell's Dark Boxes: review

Last night I wended my way through the slate-grey streets, past the megalithic tower blocks of Royal Oak, down a road that seemed never to end. I felt like a knight on a quest (specifically, like Childe Roland): and then I came to the Dark Tower; although it wasn't actually the Dark Tower - it was Westbourne Park Studios. Brooding under the arch of the Westway, it is a strangely tranquil place of glass and space - and the perfect setting for the return of Liza Campbell's Dark Boxes. No Lilliput Lane is this: Naughty Lego, as the poster said. Here you will see tiny people in the throes of existential crises; possessed twins, unreformed bestialists, suicidal actors and gun-toting tortoises. The landscape is the mind: anything can happen in the square, dark confines of the black box. Incredibly wry, funny, and often deeply cutting, they are both salve and stimulus for the troubled. The centrepiece was a large doll's house, which on the surface appeared normal. Peer into the windows, however, and you see a devil walking out of the bathroom; a man who's hanged himself, a woman who's put her head in the oven; an orgy going on blithely upstairs, and a party of sinister nuns approaching a cradle.

The real party, of course, went swimmingly, with the guests managing to suppress their neuroses even with the application of several glasses of wine. Chief amongst the admirers was the actor Bill Nighy, who loomed in his greatcoat; perhaps he found some inspiration for his next sardonic film role.

By the end of the party, I'd never seen so many red dots. May the dark boxes invade every house.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Literature of Dystopia: Gary Shteyngart in Literary Review

Gary Shteyngart has written a new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. I've reviewed it in the September issue of Literary Review – unavailable online, so go and buy the print version. The novel is about the state of the world. Read the issue to find out whether it is a valuable contribution to dystopic literature: or does Aldous Huxley still rule supreme. Bruce Chatwin's letters is the cover piece of the issue. It's also nice to see my old friend Patrick Hennessey, whose excellent book about being a soldier, The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, I have been seeing being read on almost every tube train in London, on the same contents page as me - he's reviewing Matterhorn. Visit Literary Review HERE

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris: Review

Yesterday was a day of rain sliding out of the sky in sheets, of cloudy hot skies, of cocktails and mussels and balconies. I went to see Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. As I queued to buy a packet of Cheese and Chive crisps, a rather small but very polite young man walked past me and apologised for getting in my way. What a nice young man! I thought. They do still teach manners! The nice young man turned out, of course, to be Daniel Radcliffe, presumably on a night off from wizardry and Harry Potter.

We (not me and Daniel, of course) had seats right up in the rafters, which made it feel as if we were watching a puppet show. The first half took place in a stereotypical American household. The wife, in a New Look dress and pinafore, demonstrating intelligence but totally desperate, watched her husband loaf around in his pyjamas, mourning the death of his son. Things progress: it appears that a black family is moving into their house, and the neighbours are not happy. I felt that this act had too much in it: racism, the suggestion of hidden tragedy; it felt bitty, whilst the characters did not live and (even the wife) seemed to be merely mouthpieces - puppets, even. One touch of originality was the racist resident's association leader's deaf wife; but even she seemed played for laughs rather than any deeper meaning. Everything was contrived: a trunk was buried (no doubt for future significance), a colander served as an awkward sign of condescension. (Incidentally, I laid a bet with my companion: every 'issue' had been touched upon - gender, disability, racism - so there was a good chance the second half would have a gay character in it.)

But the second half was like a magnesium flare in the darkness. The curtains opened on the same set: but the house was now decayed. Now the neighbourhood was almost totally black, and a middle class white couple was moving in. The same actors appeared in new guises: the once silent maid now reincarnated as a sassy black woman; the suburban mother as a loudspoken lawyer. Martin Freeman (most famous perhaps, at the moment, for putting a stapler in a jelly, but here showing his real skill) went from playing the slimy, pedantic, wordy residents' association leader, to an articulate, bewildered husband. Norris played cleverly with our notions of offence: as a white middle class person, I go through life wondering why most people are so offended by things all the time; a joke the black woman says (after much goading by the others) caused me (and the rest of the audience) to have a sharp intake of breath - and then to think how absurd it was to be offended at all.

The play neatly showed the links between this new society and the one that had gone before. It ended with everybody storming off: and then had a quiet, poignant coda, which showed how fragile we all are anyway. (Oh, and I won the bet by the way - the male lawyer turned out to be gay.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Obits: Elizabeth Jenkins and Michael Burn

There were two marvellous obituaries in the Daily Telegraph today, of the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins, and the writer Michael Burn. Both led lives of incredible interest and excitement which leave my humdrum metropolitan existence in the shade. Obits can often be the most interesting part of a newspaper: I find myself cutting them out and keeping them aside. I suppose my favourite recently was of the film producer Hercules Bellville (pictured), a man remembered for his dedication to his profession and his gift for friendship. Who would not want to be remembered for such things? What comes out of these lives is the intensity and uprightness with which they lived. Whatever one does, we can only hope to do the same.