Sunday, 22 July 2012

Children's Books for the Summer: Magic, wine and butterflies

On the first genuinely sunny day this (purported) summer, it seems appropriate to post my round ups of summer reading for children and teens - I've done them for The Telegraph. You can check them out here and here - they included the ever-brilliant Caroline Lawrence and Marcus Sedgwick, a fantastically delightful comic book-style adventure from Guy Bass, Philippa Gregory's first teen novel and a mysterious fantasy from Frances Hardinge.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Joy by Jonathan Lee: A Lawyer's Life

Jonathan Lee: Strong sophomore
Joy is Jonathan Lee's second novel, following on from Who is Mr Satoshi?, which saw an agoraphobic searching for clues in a cache of lost letters. Alienation was the order of the day; here, in Joy, the characters each inhabit their own peculiar bubble, but are connected in complex - and often devastating - ways.

Lee evokes the predatory, semi-psychotic atmosphere of life at a corporate law firm with gleeful vividness. He shows this world from varying perspectives - the titular Joy, a solicitor about to be "made up" (how significant those two little words sound) to partner, and who has decided that she wants to kill herself; Peter, a man with a selection of chips on his shoulder and an active sex life; Barbara, the secretary, complete with hip-problems and dreams of America; Dennis, Joy's rambling, professorial, older husband; and Sam, the obsessive compulsive gym attendant who likes counting and covertly watching his colleague, Jack.

Structurally, the book follows Joy in the third person as she goes about her last day, remembering the things that led to her decision - a lost nephew features prominently, as do the suicide of her father, her husband's deviant sex life, and the overwhelming stress levels of her job (defending an unscrupulous chicken factory). This main narrative is interspersed with sections of monologue, told to the unseen Dr Odd as the characters deal with Joy's fall (or jump).

Lee's writing is clear, as if lit by the fluorescent, constant lights of a law firm, and the darkness of his subject is pricked by little dots of often surreal humour - a lizard, a solicitor who likes to unzip under his desk. Paradoxically, it suggests that law firms have very little to do with truth - all the characters cloak themselves and each other in some way. Lee is an escaped lawyer himself, and the main thrust of the book concerns the deadening, stultifying effects of repetitive action whose only reward (and rare at that) is material. (There's a particularly effective "Make Law Fun" day at the office.) If the catalogue of horrors that beset Joy seem a little stretched, then it seems to work as a metaphor for the way that that sort of life can really cut you off from your family - talking to your children on speakerphone, seeing your partner once a week - and, crucially, from yourself.

This is a well-wrought, compelling novel that addresses the way we deal with work in an engaging and intelligent fashion. Lee is a fine temperature-taker of our psyches, and this book confirms his talents.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

From the Book Mountain: City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish by Peter Parsons: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt

A while ago I reported the problem of "book lag", something which everyone whose professional duty it is to read books suffers from (and, I imagine, a lot of people whose duty it isn't). This means that perfectly interesting and enjoyable books get forgotten about; you get half way through them before, suddenly you are called upon to review three 900 page novels by the day after yesterday, or similar. Inevitably, the books on my Book Mountain (rapidly becoming a Book Himalayas) turn out to be worth it. One such was Gardner Botsford's A Life of Privilege, Mostly, which memorably featured a tiger-skinned lady chasing its unsuspecting hero with a whip.

This time it's a star turn for Peter Parson's City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007). This charming, entertaining and informative book is not only easy to read, it also delights with its clear-sighted analysis of the papyrus fragments found at the site of the Egyptian city of Oxyrhyncos. Here, in the early twentieth century, the archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt stumbled upon a classicist's dream - mounds and mounds of intact papyroi.

Obelix: "These Egyptians are crazy!"
A few of them gave up texts of Homer; there was a lost play of Euripides, Hypsipyle, (which it is thought concerns the cursing of a group of women by Aphrodite for neglecting her shrine; her curse was to give them all extreme body odour. Perhaps that's why it was lost.) There were songs of Sappho (who features in a Ronald Firbank novel, Vainglory, in which a professor reads out, proudly, the fragment to assembled high society: "Could not (he wagged a finger) Could not, for the fury of her feet!") and other Greek lyricists. But most were prosaic, and as such add a huge amount to our knowledge and understanding of life at the height of the Roman Empire, just before Christianity.

There are many, shall we say, odoriferous anecdotes, but my favourite is this: Kallirhoe writes to a friend: "I make obeisance on your behalf every day before the Lord God Serapis. From the day you left we miss your turds, wishing to see you." It seems that those Egyptians had slightly different priorities. Then there's a "joke billet doux": "Apion and Epimas say to their very dear Epaphroditos: 'If you let us bugger you and it's OK with you, we shall stop thrashing you - if you let us bugger you.' Keep well! Keep well!'" As Obelix might say: "These Egyptians are crazy."

Spicy and engaging, Peter Parsons makes a knowing Hermes in this, his guide to a world that we can build up from the tiniest of particles into a whole, bustling, human universe.


Jubilee Party Photobooth at Tatler Party

Freya Wood and PW
I went to the Tatler Jubilee party - there are some fun pictures up of what went on in the photobooth here on their website.

Manchester Children's Book Festival: Gala Dinner

Carol Ann Duffy: rock and roll laureate
To Manchester, for a Gala Dinner (although the organisers confessed to not really knowing what a Gala Dinner was; I'm not really sure either - I thought it was something to do with swimming) in a swanky hotel, to celebrate and fundraise for the Manchester Children's Book Festival. The festival is run by the legendary James Draper and Kaye Tew, and does some brilliant work with children from deprived backgrounds.

I was on a table with poet and writer Adam O'Riordan; Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, was at the table next to ours. I don't think I've ever seen a brace of poets dance quite so well as Carol Ann Duffy and Adam.  Is Duffy our first rock and roll laureate? Could Ted Hughes do the tango, and Andrew Motion the locomotion? Now that would be a sight.

Duffy gave away a bottle of Laureate's sherry - "from the Queen," said someone; "it's not from the Queen, it's from Spain," said Duffy.

She read out one of her poems, about Coronation Street; the speech was given by its creator, Tony Warren. It was written in big black felt tip and was like something out of a Ronald Firbank novel, all syncopation and sharpness. It contained some immortally brilliant lines: "She was a bishop's daughter, and she was very firm about it," being one of my particular favourites. He received a standing ovation.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Summer Reading for The Daily Telegraph

Hello there, I've given my Summer Reading choices to The Daily Telegraph. Check them out here - they include Anne Carson, Ronald Firbank, Samuel Pepys and Edith Sitwell.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fay Weldon's Habits of the House: Downtonmania

Weldon: dark and slick
Hello there, I've reviewed Fay Weldon's new novel, Habits of the House, for The Telegraph. It's one of a batch of country house novels that have appeared recently, which Jenny Diski has magnificently skewered in the London Review of Books. Weldon's book is slick and darkly tempered - check out my review.