Saturday, 31 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Five: Fiction

 Hello there, and welcome to the thrilling final installment of my books of the year - it's time for fiction! Hurrah! A good year, all in all, Booker mishaps aside, I'd say. It was also a good year for novels by my contemporaries - there was Ivo Stourton's slick The Book Lover's Tale; Anna Stothard's warm and vivid The Pink Hotel, and Jonathan Lee's inventive and accomplished Who is Mr Satoshi?, not to mention Leo Benedictus' post-modern The Afterparty.

1. At Last by Edward St Aubyn

Beware the teeny martini
The latest (and possibly final) book in St Aubyn's acidic Patrick Melrose series, this elegantly skewers the super-rich, and shows a deeply troubled man moving towards peace. There's a fabulous cast of grotesques: Nancy, who, though richer than Croesus, lies and steals and constantly bemoans her fate; Nicholas, a flamboyant and viperish socialite; and the mad drunk Fleur. Patrick seems almost sane by comparison. There are some brilliantly witty vignettes, too, including one about a Grand Duke who drank 20 martinis every day before lunch, which, I have decided, will be my New Year's Resolution. Cheers!

2. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

King Arthur: Real?
There are layers upon layers at work in this dazzling novel; it centres around a 'lost' Shakespeare play about King Arthur (itself based on Holinshead), which the author's father may or may not have forged whilst in prison. The book takes the form of an introduction to this play (which you must read first, and you will appreciate the beauty of Phillips' - I mean Shakespeare's - efforts), in which Phillips attempts to tell the story of his life and the events surrounding the play. The reader never finds out whether, within the context of the book, the play is real or not - it's totally fascinating.

3 The London Train by Tessa Hadley

What a novel should be - well-observed, beautifully written, surprising, funny and moving, this diptych shows two marriages in disrepair. Hadley's prose is filled with light; her eyes are keen, and her heart is clearly warm and open. 

4. My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly

A Parrot. Possibly psychotic.
Connolly's debut novel, about the loves and lives of three generations of women. Lilting, luminous prose and a deep understanding of human nature combine to make a polished gem. And there's a delightfully insane parrot called Birdle, as well as some lesbians, if you like that sort of thing.

5. Gods without Men by Hari Kunzru

A very involving tale whose themes and plots bounce around like echoes in a cave, involving the consequences of an autistic boy going missing in the desert. His parents are hounded; their lives interconnect with many other tales of strange disappearances, aliens and angels. Kunzru is a superbly strong writer, and this book won't disappoint.

6. The Champion by Tim Binding

This funny and highly acute satire of middle English life was somewhat overlooked this year; I highly recommend its tale of a Kent boy done good who wreaks havoc on his home town, to the detriment of its professional classes, it's full of insight and wit.

7. Ragnarok by A S Byatt

A numinous and powerful retelling of the myths of Asgard and the ends of the gods, it also works as part memoir and part ecological warning. More of a between novels stopgap, it's still worth reading to watch a master of prose at work.

8. By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

A married middle aged man falls in love with a beautiful young man; Cunningham perceptively and feelingly dissects the fallout of despair.

9. A Kind Man by Susan Hill

Taut and tense, this tale of the miraculous seeping into the everyday brings with it wisdom and strength. 

10. Ransom by David Malouf and The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

These both came out last year but they are marvellous: Malouf retells the last book of the Iliad, delving into the concept of ransom - Priam himself was ransomed as a boy, and he gained his name from that - it's a beautiful, eerie, poetical work. Mason's is dreamlike - he relates, in kaleidoscope fashion, different versions of the Odyssey; in which the latter's identity is subsumed; where Ariadne becomes Calypso; where Achilles is a robot. It's great fun.

11. The Hunter by Julia Leigh

Leigh's Disquiet  was a brittle, sharp, poised thing, like an arrow; this is her first novel, based around a man's search for the last Tasmanian tiger. It's just as fluid and elegant as her second, and I can't wait for her next.

So a Happy New Book Year to you all, and I look forward to seeing you in 2012. Now, another martini? 

Friday, 30 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Four: Non-Fiction

Mornin' all, and wasn't Great Expectations good last night? Well done BBC. Now, on to non-fiction - I haven't been reading much of it this year (which is probably a Good Thing), as I've been slowly wading my way through Pepys, and mostly reviewing fiction, but here's the best of what I did manage, from Henrician poets through lobsters, porn (sort of) and beasts.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (still alive)

1. Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt by Nicola Shulman

A beautifully written, silver-veined biography of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, this book shows life at the court of Henry VIII with a sharp eye for detail and a nose for wit.  Wyatt's poems come alive in Shulman's hands, her analysis is both involving and throws revealing light onto her mysterious subject and his codes. Breathe in the wrong place at the Henrician court, and on your head it really would be.  Plus it's worth it for the idea that some poems were read out with the use of a squeaky bladder.

2. A Life of Privilege, Mostly by Gardner Botsford

A dominatrix. Possibly.
This is an older book - it came out in 2006, just about the beginning of my literary career; it may be a little recherché for some, as it concerns the life of a New Yorker editor, but it is a book brimming with liveliness, poignancy, and insights into the world of letters - there is a priceless scene where the young Botsford returns home with a middle-aged couple, only for a tiger-skin clad dominatrix to burst out into the room with a whip. He fled in terror.

3. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

I finally got round to reading this collection of essays by the lamented David Foster Wallace (his unfinished novel, The Pale King, is something I've yet to tackle: sometimes I look at the pile of Books to Read in my flat and have a minor panic attack). Like many, I was hypnotised by Infinite Jest as a student (somewhat, even, to the detriment of my degree). It's impossible to read this book all the way through as it's a bit like being locked in a room with someone very pedantic telling you exactly what goes into making bricks - no wait, come back, I've just got to the interesting bit, DID YOU KNOW THAT.... but take each one as it comes and you'll find his ingenuity and style everywhere - whether he's at a porn festival or a lobster market. The best essay, to my mind, is the one about the English language, which should be read by anyone interested in how to make sentences.

4. Under a Canvas Sky by Clare Peake 

Mervyn Peake: Legend
This is a lovely, warm memoir about growing up as the daughter of writer Mervyn Peake and artist Maeve Gilmore. I had the pleasure of interviewing the Peake children this year (you can read it here), as it was also the year that Titus Awakes, a continuation of the Titus series by Gilmore, came out. Whilst Titus Awakes is interesting as a document about Maeve's own life, Clare's memoir shows a life enhanced by fantasy and overshadowed by the sad illness of Mervyn, which led to his death far too young. The Titus books stand as some of the most interesting post-war fictions to have emerged - they are sui generis - and this glimpse into the world of the writer, from 'under a canvas sky', as it were, is poignant and pleasing.

5. Vast Alchemies by G Peter Winnington

Read as research into the interview, this is a brilliant biography of Mervyn Peake, published by the redoubtable Peter Owen, fluidly written and with a fascinating slant on the creator of Titus. 
6. A Venetian Bestiary by Jan Morris

This is a lilting, kindly monograph on the role of beasts in Venetian art, with some passages of lyricism (as when she describes the Golden Stallions.) Morris is now on Tumblr, and posts deliciously observed vignettes often. 

Pip pip, then, till tomorrow, for fiction of the year...

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Three: Poetry

What ho! It's time for the poets. I made it my resolution to read more poetry this year, and have (mostly) succeeded; I've been reading a lot of Horace, Ovid and Propertius, finding much to enjoy in Horatian intricacy and Propertian sophistication. I also, having read an Anthony Hecht poem in an anthology, sought out a collection of his, but didn't find it as elegant or mysterious; I do now have his complete poems though, and hope to discover some gems in it. My collections of the year, then (not all of which came out this year), are as follows:

Sarpedon, carried off by Sleep and Death
1. Memorial by Alice Oswald

Truly a masterpiece. There is a poem by Stephen Spender which contains the phrase "let him not see what I see in this room of miniature Iliad"; and Oswald has captured and shrunk the Iliad with vatic brilliance, the similes, repeated, weaving in and out of the deaths of the heroes with grace and beauty, obliquely bringing to life all that the men will miss when they are dead. Here the lowliest of soldiers is given space; here the sons of kings, prophets, shepherdesses and seals are levelled by the sword, even if you are Sarpedon, son of Zeus. Cold, monumental, yet imbued with light, containing a kind of sorcery, it's not only my poetry book of the year, but most probably my book of the year.

2. Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, trans. by John Ashbery

Rimbaud: Angel/devil
On here rather than the classics list because of its translation by Ashbery. This is an astonishing book, published by the excellent Carcanet press. Rimbaud was a devil, or an angel; there's a fine, novelistic biography of him by Edmund White. What we must always remember is that he was barely out of his teens when he wrote; he died young, as a gun runner in Africa. The French is alive, shocking, full of startling imagery and phrases that tremble and shiver in the mind; read that first, then the opposing, almost literal translation, and you will find a spear-sharp counterpoint, or a mirror of extraordinary clarity. Apocalyptic and bright and terrible: "Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avançant." "It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward." Also a close contender for actual book of the year.

3. Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott

The Costa winner presented us with a collection full of liquid, joyous poems, including a lovely piece about Ovid: "everything he touched turned to song."

4. White Egrets by Derek Walcott

Another superlative collection, at once classical and sensuous, and richly evocative. The white egrets flitter through the verse as a motif of life, freedom and the approach of death.

5. The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson

Robertson's quiet poetry is heightened by sudden violence or interesting word choices. His poems seethe with myth, and include (obviously good for me) two versions of Ovid: Pentheus and Dionysus, which shows, capably, the frenzy of inspiration; the second is the daughters of Minyas telling each other tales - in Robertson's hands they become almost fishwivey. 'That's tedious,' one says, after the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

6. Night by David Harsent

Smooth, elegant, with some beautiful concordances and sounds: "monstrous and moonstruck," making a fine and sensitive collection.

7. Torchlight by Peter McDonald

There is a quiet power in this collection, also published by Carcanet, focusing around a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which McDonald renders stark and vivid. There are also many lilting, numinous works, including 'Cheetah', which celebrates transience.

That's it for today chaps, see you tomorrow for my non-fiction of the year...

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Two: Children's Books (and one Sci Fi novel)

Tally ho, yoicks, etc, and welcome to the brilliantly exciting Day Two of my Books of the Year. It's been rather a good year for children's and young adult books; I also thought a special mention (though I am not, as they say, "well-up" on the genre) should go to one science fiction novel (although I'm sure that the author would mutter about such a classification, but there you go.) Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, a hard-boiled noir full of betrayals and double crossings, is set on a planet taken over by mushrooms (yes, mushrooms), known as the Grey Caps. It's rich and strange, and whilst I must confess I wasn't always entirely sure who was double crossing whom, it offers an enthralling window into an alternative universe.

Right, now down to children's books.

1. Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

This is an exceptional young adult novel, warm and poignant and entirely absorbing. As well as being a finely written, emotionally mature piece of work, it's also an intelligent enquiry into cause and consequence, a study of class and its hidebound nature after the war (Clem is a labourer's son whose father goes up in the world to work for the local squire; Clem falls in love, naturally, with the squire's daughter.) The Cuban Missile crisis looms large in Clem's imagination, and it also works as a metaphor, layered through the entire text. A sterling book from a well-established author, this should almost certainly win prizes.

2. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A children's book that might have been crafted straight out of a nightmare and made solid: bursting with terrifying images and rooted in the deepest folktalkes, this warped fable also follows an involving emotional arc, and sits as a nice counterpoint to Ness's trilogy, Chaos Walking.

An Eck. About to eat something.
3. There is no Dog by Meg Rosoff

What if God was a sex-obsessed teenager called Bob? Well that would explain why the world is in such a mess, wouldn't it? It certainly makes sense; and Rosoff's quirky, intelligent and very funny tale explores the idea with verve and imagination. Oh, and it also contains the world's sweetest creature - the Eck. You'll want one, I promise. It eats everything in sight - and it's the last one in the universe.
4. David by Mary Hoffman

A marble-veined, beautifully crafted novel which sees a gorgeous young man enter into Florence to seek his fortune. His looks earn him the attention of both men and women; he also becomes embroiled in dangerous game of espionage - whilst, of course, being the model for Michaelangelo's David. Absorbing, thrilling, and full of historical sumptuousness.
5. Naked by Kevin Brooks

A very powerful, thoroughly-imagined fiction, concerning the privileged life of the daughter of an actress; she forms a band with the best looking guy in school, but he turns out to have his own problems; meanwhile she falls for the new Irish bass player, Billy the Kid - but he's tangled up in some dangerous political machinations of his own. Superlative. 
6. The Devil Walks by Anne Fine

Suspenseful, scary and absorbing, Fine's novel pushes through pastiche of the late Victorian / early Edwardian ghost story and emerges on the other side (much like Chris Priestley's Uncle Montague series.) An imprisoned, vulnerable boy; a hidden house; a Satanic doll; all these elements combine to make an unmissable tale.

7. One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson

A true delight, this was Ibbotson's last book before she died this year. It follows a young boy's quest for friendship, which he finds, in bagfulls. It's sweet and funny and charming, and the Pekinese alone is worth it - descended from dogs who guarded the Imperial Palace, he secretly nurses his fiery soul, waiting for someone to notice it.
8. The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

An almost perfect children's book, this lovely tale sees a boy with Asperger's syndrome in nineteenth century America, on the run after his family is slaughtered; he becomes a detective and foils some nasty villains. It's witty and moving.
9. Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis

This debut novel augurs well for the future - Lewis writes with a keen, poetical eye, and her story is alive to the wonders of nature, and manages to be sentimental without being crass. One to watch.

10. The Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones, Flight 714 by Hergé, and The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson

Three older books I've read (or reread) this year that deserve a mention. Diana Wynne Jones also died this year - her children's books are inimitable. I came to them late - very late, actually, as I was still at university when I read The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and Chrestomanci, a book about a boy wizard written years before Harry Potter. I read The Power of Three this year, which concerns three different tribes who hate and fear each other - one of them, us humans, are known as giants; but when two little "fairy" children have to work with the giants to save their community, they learn that perhaps differences aren't necessarily to be scared of. It's a charming, weird book.

The same kind of weirdness, but magnified, can be found in Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker; I'd never heard of him, but a chance remark by Marion Lloyd as we discussed writing children's books put me on to it: it should be read immediately by anyone interested in children's books. It inhabits its own world so thoroughly that it's almost impossible to put down; and it has the best grumpy horse in it I've ever come across. And, last but not least, after a wedding conversation I went back to Hergé, and found in Flight 714 all the thrills and humour that kept me enthralled as a child.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day One: Classics

Merry Christmas to you, and God Bless You, One and All! (Flings away crutches, downs eggnog, kisses unsuitable person under mistletoe, passes out with paper crown over one eye.) Well I hope you all enjoyed your Christmas. Mine was distinctly unbookish (apart from dipping into Samuel Pepys); to rectify the matter I am returning to my books of the year round ups, which I hope will become a tradition as Yuleish as weeping over the Doctor Who special. (What? I didn't do that! Not me, guvn'or.) To start with, here are my Classics of the Year.

1. Vathek by William Beckford 

Published by Oxford Classics, this is insane, terrifying and brilliant, concerning the Caliph Vathek, who meets an ugly stranger; said stranger promises him untold power and the knowledge of the pre-Adamite sultans; meanwhile, his Satanic mother Carathis gloats and commits various atrocities with her mute negresses. It veers from extreme farce (when Vathek shoves, one by one, fifty of the most beautiful of his subjects' children off a cliff) to madness (Koran-quoting dwarfs, anyone?). It's, basically, totally cool. Beckford was 20 when he wrote it, and it's my Classic of the Year for its complete and utter disregard for narrative and, well, anything, but yet managing to be scintillating. The bit where the mute negresses run into the marsh looking for poisonous weeds; the bit where Carathis storms around hell; the bit where people are being tortured for eternity with their hearts set on fire - just go and read it, you won't regret it.

2. The Iliad by Homer (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Some thought this new version (see comment below) too colloquial - would Achilles, asked The Economist drily, really say "I don't give a damn about that man?" I think he probably would. Mitchell retained the grandeur of the original, whilst injecting it with some zest and spice - an excellent version for those who haven't yet been introduced to the wonders of Homer.

3. The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

"The moving toyshop of the heart..." A fabulous little satirical epyllion, ordered yet chaotic, lovely, shocking, sharp and warm all at the same time, it left me longing for a twenty-first century Pope.

4. Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

Printed by the stalwart Pushkin Press, the cover of this beautiful edition shows a woman draped in a kimono, made inert by ennui, as is Eline Vere herself. The Dutch Couperus was revered in his time; his highly realistic novels drip with detail, as gorgeously and tightly rendered as a painting of his countryman's. The riotous characters and scenes in this book seemed to be so close to us in spirit and temperament, so much more so than the aristocrats of War and Peace, or the WASPs of Edith Wharton; there is a naughtiness, an impishness in his prose which I found very touching. Eline Vere herself is a complicated heroine (if one can call her that), and reading this you sometimes feel as if you've overdone it on the cherry brandy, but it's entirely worth it to become wholly immersed in a world both familiar and strange. There is a Dutch film, but if anyone knows if there's one with English subtitles (my Dutch being, er, non-existent), I'd be grateful.

5. Electra by Sophocles, The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus, Philoctetes by Sophocles 

This was the year I returned to Greek tragedy. There is something in the searing purity of Sophocles that cannot be garnered anywhere else; and the cosmic otherworldliness of Aeschylus feels like looking into a clouded mirror, back into the depths of our civilisation from which spring these extraordinary tales. The Philoctetes in particular I have been enjoying, finding in its tale of isolation, friendship and civilisation something that resonates widely, it being perhaps the most 'modern' of Sophocles' plays (containing, as it does, a meta-textual play directed by Odysseus). But lurking behind its resolution lies the future fall of Troy - and in that is the genius of Sophocles. I also highly recommend the version of Philoctetes by Seamus Heaney: The Cure at Troy, which adds an eeriness.

6. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Every time I read this I find it more savage. The murder of Mr Prendergast by the lunatic! The deaths of onlookers at the wedding of Paul and Margot! Almost every paragraph is laced with venom and wit, and it never gets any less fresh. I also read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold again this year, but found it hasn't lasted nearly as much - I think because its "trick" seems so outdated. It's something you need to look at in the context of its time, whereas Decline and Fall stretches its black limbs across the centuries, settling in for good.

7. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

This occupies a special place in my mental furniture, much like an old rockinghorse, having responded warmly to it as a child: its tale of young clairvoyants terrified of being found out for fear of death is both thrilling and poignant. And God I wish I was a mind-reader. It would make writing novels so much easier.

8. How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston

A little-known, and overlooked, novella, about the friendship between an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and a labourer on his lands; they come together in the trenches of the First World War, but their friendship does little but tear them apart as others misconstrue it. Written in sometimes quite oblique prose, it nevertheless manages to sear its imagery onto the brain.

9. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

The first Fitzgerald I've read - and why don't people read her more? This is a slim book but it contains within it more intelligence, wit, vividness and awareness of humanity than most. It concerns the lives of a group of houseboaters and is often quite nightmarish in its piercing lyricism.

10. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Published by Daunt Books, this deserves a mention both because Daunts are doing a great job of bringing out neglected books, and also because you can see what a great writer Bedford would become. This novel is very curate's-eggish; the opening chapter is peerless, but the bits in between can be remarkably stilted. However, it is worth persevering with just to see how a writer forms herself.

Pip pip, then, till tomorrow...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Launch of Hot Key, and Notting Hill Editions

A brace of bumptious literary parties last night: the first, in Clerkenwell, for a new children's imprint that will publish books for children and young adults. It is helmed by Sarah Odedina (who was my first editor at Bloomsbury), and looks set to publish its first book later next year, which I look forward to very much indeed. Lots of little mince pies and bucketfulls of champagne made a  merry evening in their snazzy, white-painted and wood-floored offices. I spotted The Fool's Girl author Celia Rees, who's got a new, modern-day novel coming out soon, as well as I, Coriander writer Sally Gardner. The place was thrumming with agents and authors as I left, so it all looks set for a rocket-fuelled lift off - very best of luck to Hot Key.

Then onto the Hammersmith and City line (not one of my favourite lines, I must admit, although it was behaving properly last night) to the other end of town, for a party celebrating Notting Hill Editions' new series of essays. It took place in the Idler Academy, which was packed to the brim with literary types and lots of cakes (including a rather delicious ginger biscuit) and, of course, champagne. Latinist Harry Mount (who teaches at the Academy) was there; as was the author of The Kit-Kat Club, Ophelia Field, and erstwhile Cheap Date editor, Kira Jolliffe, as well as bags more. NHE's new selection of handsomely bound essays includes Adam Mars-Jones, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, and Simon Heffer, as well as Osip Mandelstam and Stanley and Munro Price. They combine intellectual curiosity and power with - well, looking nice on your coffee table. And there aren't many things that can do that. The box set makes a lovely present, too.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Cheap Date! And PORT issue 4 - Benjamin Millepied, Book porn, Alain de Botton, DBC Pierre and Noam Chomsky

 Salut mes amis! Yes, it's the fourth issue of PORT magazine, which marks its first year as a quarterly magazine. It's a stonking issue - the cover is graced with ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied (quite an appropriate name, that, don't you think?) and inside you will find a mixture of fashion, style and intelligence that you won't get anywhere else. There is a (very) angry letter by DBC Pierre to marketers; there is an exclusive extract from Noam Chomsky's new book; there is a piece by Alain de Botton about pornography; there is an interview with Michael Fassbender; and there is "PORT's version of porn", as the editor, Dan Crowe, puts it in his letter - a series of photographs of people's bookcases. Basically, your life will be a lot better after you've read it. Go and seek it out!

It comes in the same week as I received a copy - the first copy that I ever did see - of my first ever contribution to the magazine world. A long, long time ago (well, 2000), when I was still at school, I wrote an article for Cheap Date magazine about starting trends. The issue on the right was the New York edition, which came out in 2001. It was very strange reading the article - I winced slightly at my prose, but it gave me immense pleasure to see it. And with Liv Tyler on the cover, too. It was also quite cool seeing my name in the list of contributors along with Tracey Emin, Erin O'Connor, Larry Clark, Sophie Dahl - and someone called Bum. So thanks enormously to Kira Jolliffe (the editor) for sending it to me after all these years.

The magazine is full of fun stuff, including a photo story about the Sock Man - who keeps girls in his cellar in order to steal their socks. My favourite feature, though, is definitely "Horror Scopes". Sample: "Capricorn: You appear to be happy but you're not ... your close friends know that you're living a lie and that you're only disguising your depression with your daily doctor-described medication ..." It's a shame that Cheap Date isn't around any more, but I'll certainly treasure this issue.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Daily Telegraph Children's Books Special: Interview with Jacqueline Wilson, and review round ups

The Daily Telegraph Children's Books Special was published on Saturday; it's now available online. I've done a bunch of things for them: an interview with Jacqueline Wilson, in which she talks about Hetty Feather; and round ups of the best historical, humorous and real life books of the year, including Meg Rosoff, Mal Peet, Kevin Brooks (a new treat for me), David Walliams, Eva Ibbotson and many others.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literary Review: Children's Round Up

My round up of children's books is in this month's Literary Review, a magazine so packed with jam it's like a bonus-sized jar of Bonne Maman. And don't we all love Bonne Maman. Mmmmm. Hold on a sec. Right, now that I've had my afternoon fix of toast and jam, I'll tell you about the review - I'm doing ten (mostly) creepy books for Christmas.

They are Anne Fine's The Devil Walks, Mary Hooper's Velvet, Chris Priestley's Mr Creecher, Lauren Oliver's Liesel and Po, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce, A Greyhound of A Girl by Roddy Doyle, Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp by Philip Pullman, and School of Meanies by Daren King.

In this issue you will also find out what the Hawaiian word for sulphur is - "kukae pele", or Pele's excrement (Pele the goddess, that is), and be introduced to Leet, the gaming language in an article by David Profumo; there's also brilliant stuff from Kwasi Kwarteng, Robert Irwin, Adrian Tinniswood, Claire Harman, John Gray, D J Taylor and bags more.

Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards: David Guterson wins

I went to my first Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2004, when Tom Wolfe won the gong  for a bracing scene in I Am Charlotte Simmons; his famous white-suited back was seen leaving as the announcement was made (or so the compere, Alexander Waugh, claimed; he of course wasn't actually there.)

Barbara Windsor, after hearing a passage from Christos Tsiolkias
The awards, which take place at the In and Out Club, in St James', are usually a joyous occasion, full of mirth and merriment; initially intended, when instituted by the late Auberon Waugh, to gently discourage the extraneous insertions of sexual writing into otherwise good books. Whilst there is no general theme, I have noticed a tendency towards sea creatures in writing about sex; this was very much present last night, in Dori Ostermiller's passage: "For a moment, two moments, three, we’re part of the same organism: some outrageous sea creature washed up and tangled on the shore, terrifying beautiful, beyond hope," which is as interesting an exposition of the beast with two backs as any I've heard.

Since my association with the magazine (I started as a lowly, wet-behind-the-ears General Assistant, and am now a slightly loftier Contributing Editor, which means I get to sit in the armchair) I've seen Giles Coren win the gong for describing a penis as leaping around like a showerhead in a bath; and, if my memory serves me correctly, ejaculating in a Z - "like Zorro." Rachel Johnson and Iain Hollingshead both accepted with pleasure - particularly Johnson, who threw off her coat on stage; Hollingshead was wrapped in a Valkyrie-like embrace by Courtney Love, who presented the award. (What I remember most about Love is how sweet she was - she wore spectacles, and reading out her speech she came across more like a librarian addressing a room full of children than a ripped-dress-wearing rock goddess. I still didn't quite manage to pluck up the courage to speak to her though.)

Last night was the 19th ceremony, and to my mind it was one of the best yet. Literary figures were out in force: novelist Edward St Aubyn looking very smart; satirist Ian Hislop looking exceedingly hunky and chipmunky; philosopher A C Grayling's noble leonine magnetic mane was a feature. There were others:  I did see Nancy Dell'Ollio quaffing champagne. The passages were read out by actress and writer Lucy Beresford, paired with writer Arthur House (looking brilliantly spindly as he enunciated some meaty scenes). Both were excellent - drawing out innuendo from pauses and emphases without being overly camp or blatant. Alexander Waugh was on the toppest of top form: a passage from Chris Adrian's The Great Night ("He came and came and came and fell backward, as if through a mile of air or a lifetime, to land on the soft grass with a noise like his name, feeling like he was saying his name properly for the first time") caused him to recite a limerick:

There once was a man from Kildare
Who was screwing his wife on the stair.
When the Bannister broke
He quickened his stroke
And finished her off in mid air.
Waugh's explanation of the Murakami - "about a cult that worships small people that come out of other people's mouths" - caused one of the biggest laughs of the night.

One indicator of a passage's success or failure - at least, in terms of gruesomeness rather than the elusive quality of "badness" -  was the expression on actress Barbara Windsor's face. You could call it the Barbarometer. She sat by the edge of the stage; most provoked mild horror, and Barbarometer readings of between 19.5 (Haruki Murakami) to 80 (David Guterson).  The one from Christos Tsiolkas' made her look as if something worse than usual had just happened in Eastenders. Barbarometer reading: 1000. Tsiolkas was nominated this year as well as last - the only time this has happened. He did, after all, suggest last year that the only pleasure Literary Review staff managed to get was "jerking each other off at Eton." So that was his reward.

Windsor was a fantastic prize-giver, with a charming mixture of pretended (I thought) prudishness and winning charm - unlike Michael Winner, last year, who was rude and boorish (he changed his tune when boos came from the crowd.) And David Guterson's acceptance letter (read out by his publisher, Michael Fishwick) was apt. His book, Ed King, is a retelling of Oedipus Rex. And as Guterson said, it was Oedipus who invented bad sex.

People tend to get themselves into a tizzy about the Bad Sex awards - particularly ones who attribute prurience, or inverse prudery, or titillation to the awards, suggesting that they are on a par with furtive adolescent fumblings. But what they really are is a celebration - of writing, and of writers, and an opportunity to laugh in a world that's increasingly characterised by dullness.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Reading with Meg Rosoff, at Manns of Cranleigh, Surrey

Meg Rosoff: All Round Good Egg
Hello troopers - I hope that you are all well and happy in this pre-Christmas season. I will be reading and chatting with the fantabulous Meg Rosoff, Carnegie Medal winner, author of several brilliant young adult novels, including her latest, There is No Dog (a slickly witty fantasy in which it is revealed that God is in fact a teenage boy - and a rather lusty one at that), and All Round Good Egg. It promises to be an interesting and fun afternoon, and will start at 3pm this Saturday, at Manns of Cranleigh, which is on the High Street, Cranleigh, Surrey. Check out their website,