Thursday, 19 December 2013

Telegraph Christmas Day iPad edition extract of THE BROKEN KING

Some lovely Christmas news: The Telegraph are going to run an extract from my new book, THE BROKEN KING, in their Christmas Day iPad edition. Look out for it.

To the left is a picture of Childe Roland, by Edward Burne Jones. THE BROKEN KING takes its cue from Browning's poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins: Blue men and blindness

I haven't read a Wilkie Collins since I was an adolescent; what with the new biography out this year, by Andrew Lycett, I found myself drawn to one of them which is rather more obscure than The Moonstone.

Poor Miss Finch is unlikely to be found on many university reading lists, still less library shelves, and yet I think, despite its faults, it deserves a little attention because of its sheer weirdness, and because of the refreshingly dashing nature of its female characters (bar one). It was published in 1872 (some time after The Moonstone), and contains portraits of two of the most daring and adventurous Victorian heroines I've ever come across.

Miss Finch, far from being poor (therein lies the irony) is a woman of private means who lives in her own quarters in her father's rectory; the inhabitants of her rather dismal village term her "poor" because of her blindness. She, however, is a delightful creature, who thrills with sensitivity at the touch and sound of the things she encounters. She is clever, forceful, and brave enough to take matters into her own hand, standing up to her boorish father and organising her own destiny. Crucially, though, she has a hatred of dark colours (which she claims she can sense.)

The novel is narrated by a Madame Pratolungo - a Frenchwoman who spent her fortune fighting in various countries for Republicanism (no, really) - who ends up as a companion to Miss Finch (named, of course, Lucilla - little light.)

There are some extremely striking, not to say lurid scenes: a little girl arrives in the rectory with a message scrawled on her pinafore in blood; the hero, apparently weedy Oscar Dubourg, arrives shrouded in mystery - he's been let off a murder charge because of the evidence of a clock. More strange still is the plot which - bear with me - continues like this. Oscar Dubourg has a charismatic layabout artist twin brother, Nugent, who comes to stay and sponge; Oscar falls in love with Lucilla, and they make tentative moves towards marriage.

The crisis of the novel comes when Oscar develops epilepsy. In order to be cured, he embarks on a course of silver nitrates, which has the unfortunate effect of turning him blue. Since Lucilla hates dark complexions, when she hears one of the children asking where "the blue man is," everyone pretends that it's Nugent who's gone blue, not Oscar. And so the stage is set for an impersonation which will see Lucilla's virtue tested and Oscar's courage blossom.

The sensationalism of the plot kept me going: I will admit that some aspects of the latter parts of the novel began to drag a little - there was perhaps too much discussion about various minor matters, and there is a character, a gourmand oculist called Grosse, whose German-English expressions become immensely wearying - but on the whole, those who wish to understand how a complex plot can be manipulated, and to see the beginnings of the "weird" in our literature, should definitely take a look. And I won't mind if you skip the last few chapters.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Literary Review Children's Christmas Round Up

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the December / January super-soaraway-bumper edition of Literary Review is out NOW, and in its already brimming pages you'll find my round up of children's books for Christmas, featuring:

The Hanged Man Rises by Sarah Naughton,
Lockwood and Co by Jonathan Stroud,
Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell,
The Dead Men Stood Together by Chris Priestley,
Close Your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nicholls,
Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan,
How to Be Invisible by Tim Lott,
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein,
The Company of Ghosts by Berlie Doherty,
Hold Your Breath by Caroline Green,
Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre,
and Runners  by Ann Kelley.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Telegraph Christmas Books Round Up

Sally Gardner: Hot stuff
Hello all: December creeps towards us, and what better time than to think about what books to get for any children of your acquaintance. Here's my round up of the best of this year, done for The Telegraph. It features a host of novels, from Sally Gardner, Emma Carroll, Katherine Rundell, Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, F E Higgins, Philippa Gregory, Anthony McGowan; my review of Patrick Ness' More Than This was cut, so I've pasted it here below:

 Patrick Ness’ More Than This (Walker Books, £10.99, 477pp), is a book which descends from our anxieties about our universe, as seen in films such as The Matrix. What is this strange world on which we live, and what if it was all a simulacrum? Ness’ treatment of his troubled gay hero is thoughtful and brave – which more than makes up for the slightly creaky premise.

BBC South East: Costa Children's Books

I tootled down to Brighton College today, which certainly brought back a few memories, as it resembles rather closely my own alma mater, Lancing. I was there to be filmed talking about one of the shortlisted books for the Costa Children's Award - Chris Riddell's Goth Girl and The Ghost of A Mouse, which sees a Byronic cycling poet's daughter, Ada, uncover a nasty conspiracy going on in the grounds of her vast house, Gormly-ghast. I'm not sure when the piece will be on television, but I shall post a link as soon as I am told.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Troika Books press release for THE DARKENING PATH

Troika Books Press release: Troika Books acquisition news 4 November 2013

Womack trilogy The Darkening Path to Troika Books

Troika Books, the new children’s independent set up by veteran publisher Martin West is pleased to announce a major acquisition for 2014. The company has acquired The Darkening Path, a fantasy trilogy by Philip Womack, acclaimed author of The Other Book and The Liberators. The first book in the trilogy will publish in June 2014.

“The Darkening Path is a superlatively well-written quest adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats from the opening page to the very last word,” says West, “Taking as its starting point Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, the book tells the story of a boy called Simon who must undertake a dangerous journey into a brilliantly realised underworld to save his little sister. It is reminiscent of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, intelligent fantasy for young readers of the very highest order. We are anticipating excellent review coverage and are hopeful of prize short-listings too.”

Troika’s promotional plans include trade support and a PR campaign. Proofs of book one, The Darkening Path, will be available in January.

West acquired UK and Commonwealth rights from Tom Williams at the Williams Agency.

Plus, Troika Books bringing Snowy back at last

Troika Books has also acquired rights in Berlie Doherty’s much-loved picture book Snowy and will reissue it in February next year. Snowy is the story of Rachel, who lives on a canal barge, Snowy is the white horse who pulls her boat. “Snowy won the Children’s Book Award for the best picture book of the year on publication in 1993 and is a favourite with many readers, booksellers and librarians. But it has been unavailable for some years,” says West. “I am thrilled to be bringing this outstanding children’s book back into print and immensely proud to have Berlie Doherty, one of our finest children’s authors, on the Troika Books list.”

For further information contact:

Andrea Reece
Troika Books
020 8889 1292 / 07807893369

Notes for editors

Martin West began his long career in children’s books at Oxford University Press and Blackie before launching his own list Happy Cat Books. He founded Catnip Publishing in 2005 and joined Ragged Bears in 2009. He launched Troika Books in Spring 2013. Launch titles included Bocchi and Pocchi A Tale of Two Socks, a stylish and quirky picture book by debut artist Noriko Matsubara, as well as new books from award-winning children’s authors Bernard Ashley and Hilda Offen.

Troika Books sales are handled by Target Sales and distribution is through Orca Book Services. Petula Chaplin handles foreign rights sales.

Friday, 1 November 2013

T C Boyle Short Stories; Volume 2

T C Boyle: Giant of a man
Morning everyone, and a happy Hallowe'en for yesterday. I've reviewed T C Boyle's short stories; one or two of them, I suppose, could be considered topically scary; I did it for The Telegraph. Check it out here.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Hatred: a poem

I led a First Story creative writing workshop today, and we did the Poetry Machine, which generated some great first lines.

Here’s mine, based on “Hate shields you from the rain.”

Hate shields you from the rain,
When you open it.
Usually, it squats in the hall,
Furled like a bat at roost.
When the darkening skies
Split open, I have to run for the
Bus. There’s a spoke missing.
My hatred flaps.
It makes a space, for sure:
Small, private, empty.
But what it doesn’t do
Is keep the wind out.
You’ll still get battered.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Breaking Bad: A response

Jesse: free at last
Breaking Bad, the TV show which, over five series, charted the Faustian bargain made by chemistry teacher Walter White with the devil, in the form of methamphetamine and the power it gives him, has come to an end. This, naturally, has caused an outpouring of responses on the internet, on social and traditional media; there are some who think the final episode wasn't up to scratch (see Chris Harvey's piece on The Telegraph); and there are others who think that the whole shebang, from start to finish, was ridiculous (see Ed Cumming's piece, also on The Telegraph.)

The episode was, in many respects, a microcosm of the series. There was black humour; there was the sometimes straining attention to detail; there was violence; and there was room for poignancy. But what I think makes it truly good, and a fitting end to the series, is that all the time Walter White was in control. Here was the deposed kingpin, returning from exile to his ravaged kingdom, and crucially not just offering redemption - to his wife, in the form of a series of coordinates she could use as a plea bargain; to his son, by simply not talking to him (and arranging for his financial future in a satisfying manner); to poor Jesse, by giving him his freedom - but achieving self-realisation. He finally admitted his jouissance; his pleasure that results in pain. His final smile as he lay dying, or dead, said it all. The end was an expression of the transgressive pleasure he felt; and also allowed room for the true pleasure his family could now achieve. Incidentally, the simple nod between Walt and Jesse as Jesse flees was all that is needed - what else was there that they could say?

Now, Ed Cumming dismisses Breaking Bad as tedious and unbelievable. That is a critical stance that it is entirely possible to take; it also induces the characteristic response of the article commenter: "everyone's entitled to their opinion." His article, however, goes on to dismiss its fans as credulous, overblown, pretentious and naive. He has made a critical judgment about a work of art, and has than ascribed certain attributes to a set of people who like it simply because of that judgement.

He seems to have forgotten what criticism is, what its purpose is: to dissect, put into context, understand. He has replaced it with a jeering, ad homines attack. He says Breaking Bad fans are like atheists, convinced of their opinions as objective fact. There are certain objective things that you can say about Breaking Bad that are fact and are part of its critical understanding - the cinematography, the ingenuity of its plot - even if you don't agree about its characterisation and so on, which are necessarily subjective. (Let us not even mention his point about convincing relationships - I don't think anybody ever came out of Macbeth and said - "has Shakespeare even ever seen a real marriage?")

To attack those who admire a work of art is to slip into a mode of thinking that is both churlish and puerile. It's drawing a line and saying, "I like marbles and Take That and everyone who doesn't is rubbish." It's a dangerous path to follow: "You like Vettriano, therefore you are stupid and don't understand art." How far, after all, is Cumming's point, inverted though it is, from that?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Books for teenagers - a useful list

Hello all. Buying books for teenagers is difficult, isn't it? I was recently asked to come up with a list of books to buy for my First Story group. This is mine. Any suggestions and comments are welcome.

J G Ballard - The Drowned World
Raffaella Barker - Come and Tell Me Some Lies
William Burroughs - Naked Lunch
Douglas Coupland - Generation X
Roald Dahl - Tales of the Unexpected
Joe Dunthorne - Submarine
Umberto Eco - The Name of the Rose
Jeffrey Eugenides - The Virgin Suicides
Michael Frayn - Spies
Robert Graves - I, Claudius
L P Hartley - The Go Between
S E Hinton - The Outsiders
Ted Hughes - Tales from Ovid
Aldous Huxley - Crome Yellow
Nancy Mitford - The Pursuit of Love
Richard Milward - Apples
Paul Murray - Skippy Dies
Eva Rice - The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets
Hunter S Thompson - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Evelyn Waugh - Decline and Fall

Friday, 20 September 2013

First Story Festival, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Malorie Blackman: children's laureate
Yesterday was the First Story Festival at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. I walked up to Norham Gardens in the early morning mist from the station, meeting memories at every turn, and ready for a day of workshops and talks. There was an inspiring address by the young poet Caroline Bird, who talked about writing as being a gift to somebody - all writing, she said, may help someone understand something about themselves in a way that they hadn't before. Which is a very nice way of putting it. Some First Story alumni spoke about their experiences, and the work that First Story does (including one of my own, from St Augustine's, which made me proud), which was very moving.

William Fiennes interviewed the children's laureate, Malorie Blackman (or Marjorie, as Kate Fox later accidentally called her): she spoke warmly and enthusiastically about her love of reading, and what led to her becoming a writer. She received over eighty rejections, but kept going - a fine message of resilience. It was very revealing to hear her talk about her career: when she was at school, she wanted to be an English teacher; she wanted to do English and Drama at Goldsmith's, but was told that "black girls" don't read English, they become secretaries. I found that immensely shocking - it was perhaps only twenty or thirty years ago, and it made me wonder how much of that sort of thing still goes on. In any case, it gave her the will to wish to succeed; after going into Computer Sciences, she began to write, and has now produced over sixty novels - including the best-selling Noughts and Crosses series. I think she'll make a fine laureate.

I did two workshops, with a boys' school from Bradford, and my own school, St Augustine's in Kilburn: both produced some fine and interesting work.

In the afternoon, the magnificent Kate Fox (poet and comedian: see her website here) whipped up the crowd of 600 students into a roar of appreciation ("imagine One Direction in your bathroom giving you a private concert", which caused equal and opposite reactions). There were readings from students, and a final exhortation from Malorie Blackman to read, and write.

Many writers took part in the workshops, including Charles Cumming, Frances Wilson, Raffaella Barker, Mark Haddon, Betsy Tobin and others; the train home to London was particularly merry.

It's an exciting start to another year of First Story fun and wonder. Well done to all who took part.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

vPPR Ott's Yard launch

Tatiana and Brigid von Preussen
Greetings, from rainy London. I went to the launch of hip young architecture firm vPPR's new residential buildings in North London. Their website is here, and you can check out some pictures from the party on the Tatler website here. It was fun, and the buildings are beautiful - shaped like triangles, as was a lot of the food. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Asylum by John Harwood: review

John Harwood's previous two novels, The Ghost Writer and The Seance, were superb Victorian-set ghost stories, carefully wrought and with a layer of ironic detachment that allowed us both to enjoy them as straightforward thrillers, and to admire the devices that he used to maintain his effects. The Asylum, though not based in the supernatural, is just as good, and deals once more with a woman in seemingly desperate circumstances, fighting for her very life. Georgina Ferrars wakes up one day in an asylum, only to be told that she is not who she thinks she is at all. Harwood cleverly manipulates diary entries, letters, and Georgina's own narrative, to create a sense of growing menace which plays with notions of identity as well as containing all the classic Gothic tropes: madness, illicit romance, doppelgangers, deranged scientists and pathetic fallacies. Harwood has a beautiful, convincing style (with the occasional note of levity: one of the characters likes nothing better than striding around pretending to be Byron). Whilst the ending plays a little too closely into the hands of cliche, in the "villain-tells-all" sense, it is surprising enough, and gripping enough, not to matter. Harwood, an Australian writer, has now produced three of these fantastically controlled novels of suspense: his reputation deserves to be larger. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Taking Flyte

Oh, and whilst I'm at it (blogging, I mean), here's a lovely video by Flyte, Over and Out, their brand new song, which is jangly and lovely and summery. Will Taylor's voice is haunting and powerful, rising and falling over luscious chords. Plus, the video has the best use of an egg in it that I've ever seen.

Veni Vidi Vici by Peter Jones: review

Happy September, everyone! My review of Peter Jones' new book, Veni Vidi Vici: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Romans but were too afraid to ask, is out in the September issue of Literary Review. Quaerite! Legite!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review of Nigel Williams' Unfaithfully Yours

I've always been a fan of Nigel Williams, so I was very pleased to review his new novel, Unfaithfully Yours, for the Financial Times. Here it is.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: review

Sam Lipsyte: inventive
Hello there. I've reviewed Sam Lipsyte's short story collection, The Fun Parts, for The New Humanist. Read it on their website here.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Breaking Bad: Final series review

Morning all: I've reviewed the new episode of the last half of the final series (lots of "ofs") of Breaking Bad, for The Telegraph. You can read it here.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Kick Ass v X Men

I watched, at the weekend, the first X Men, followed by Kick-Ass. I remember when the first X Men came out - it seemed fresh, at the time, with a serious cast (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan; an excellent Rogue, played by Anna Paquin, and nice turns from James Marsden, Famke Jansenn, Hugh Jackman, et al.) It had quips, and wit, and wasn't too full of itself. But now, after the slew of portentous superhero movies that have come after it, it seems to have lost some of its lustre.

Unfair, perhaps; but far more exciting, sweet, involving and clever was Kick-Ass, starring Aaron Johnson, and with the unforgettable Chloe Moretz as the super-cool eleven-year-old foul-mouthed assassin, Hit Girl. Even Nicholas Cage managed to be good. It has a fabulous conceit (for those of you who don't remember, it sees a geeky boy try to become a real life superhero, only to become embroiled both in organised crime, and in a revenge plot led by Hit Girl's father.) The direction is sparky and aware of its comic-book status; the violence, though perhaps extreme, is leavened by the fact that we know it's all a silly dream.

Unfortunately, there were trailers for Kick-Ass 2 in the ad breaks. It looks like the film has become more of a straightforward action movie. Let’s hope that Johnson’s endearing goofiness, and Moretz’s totally ice cold moves, endure; that it won’t become yet another boilerplate, doom-laden action flick, whose momentous images leave nothing behind when you’ve finished watching. Let's remember that in real life superheroes don't exist; so they may as well make us laugh.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Horace and Me by Harry Eyres: Review in The Telegraph

Horace: a poet of the middle age
I seem to have forgotten to put up a link to my review of Harry Eyres' book, Horace and Me, an amiable reflection on the poet Horace and his own life. I did it for the Telegraph, donchaknow: here's the link.

At university I must admit to not really liking Horace as much as I loved Ovid, Virgil, Propertius, Lucretius et. al., but Eyres has persuaded me to have another look at him. Another book on the pile of things to be looked at again, or read for the first time... Currently I want to read Jane Austen again; Samuel Richardson's Pamela (for the first time), finish Pepys' Diaries; and that's not to mention the 100 odd books I have on my "To Be Read" pile, still less the children's books I've got going for the Costa Book Award... Oh, and there's Ford Madox Ford, as well. And I'm trying to catch up on Hilary Mantel and Don DeLillo's backlists. Wish me luck...

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Hunger: A poem

 I was running a creative writing workshop yesterday. I usually take part in the exercises, for kicks. Here's a poem that came out of it:


There he is again.
So tiny, to start with.
Flipping a coin, he smirks in the sun.

Under the cracks he creeps,
Tipping his hat, so ruefully,
Brushing the dust off his sleeve.
He squats in the fridge,
Nibbling the potatoes,
Sticking his thumb in the cream.

I let him dance on my table,
Too lazy to banish him.
He uses my fork as a cane.

He’s bigger now: as tall as a
Candle. He yammers, and
Blows out his cheeks.

I put on some toast.
He flickers his tongue.
To end him, you’d have to be dead.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Launch of Philipp Meyer's The Son

To Soho, last night, in the heat, for olives, peanuts, rosé, and also for the launch of Philipp Meyer's The Son, a book that has been garnering impressive reviews in America and Australia. Meyer apparently spent years researching this sprawling Texan family drama, including going on tracking courses. Which is pretty cool. The book's definitely one to look out for. As I left, Meyer appeared to be practically drowning under female attention - those tracking courses must have paid off. Sometimes I wish that my novels required more research than, er, sitting on the sofa.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Launch of Daniel Metcalfe's new book, Blue Dahlia, Black Gold

To the South Bank, incidentally my new favourite place in London, and the BFI, for the launch of Daniel Metcalfe's new book, Blue Dahlia, Black Gold. It's a study of Angola, and how it's starting to take matters into its own hands - a microcosm of the rest of Africa. Metcalfe is no stranger to travelling in out of the way places - his last book, Out of Steppe, took in various groups of people whose troubles are little known in the West, such as the Volga Germans. It's refreshing to find a light shone into murky areas. Congratulations, Dan, and here's looking forward to the next one.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Launch of the First Story St Augustine's Kilburn anthology, The Gods Amongst Us

We recently launched my First Story Group's anthology, The Gods Amongst Us, at St Augustine's, Kilburn, where I've been writer in residence for a year. Carnegie winner Sally Gardner was there to cheer us on, and the afternoon was both moving and special. And involved lots of fizzy pop. Seeing all my students reading out their work to a large audience was wonderful. The launch has made it onto the Kilburn Times website - have a look here.

I've reproduced here the text of my introduction to the anthology. You can buy it, via the school website here, or even via Waterstones, here.


Did you know that the gods are amongst us? Some of them are out of sorts: nobody prays to them any more. They sit in their cloudy palaces, filing their nails and twiddling their thumbs. Some, like Bacchus and Diana, are still very much with us: they look at us from out of the frames of paintings, but watch out – they might turn you into a star, or a stag, if you cross them.

Did you know you could meet Revenge in Starbucks? Or that you can write a letter to a comb? That King Arthur is burdened by memories, that death is a device that tells the time, or that not remembering can be more effective than remembering?

Over the past year I have made the journey to St Augustine’s, on a Monday – traditionally a day associated with the blues – but for me (and, I hope, for my students) it became the most exciting day of the week. My First Story group have been keen, intelligent, challenging; they’ve delighted me, surprised me, frustrated me; they’ve made me laugh more than I can remember (I refer, specifically, to an exercise called ‘Ten Ways to Lend Your Wheelbarrow’.) We’ve eaten more sweets than my diet usually allows.

Most of all, we have looked at language and stories, and seen how they can be found everywhere: on a walk, in a picture, in an object. We’ve seen how the most striking images can come from unlikely conjunctions. We’ve marvelled at the strange ways of the ancient gods, and made something new from their tales. And each week, my group produced witty, charming and insightful pieces. This anthology is called ‘The Gods Amongst Us’ for a reason – not only have our best pieces come out of interaction with those ancient myths; but we have also discovered that the divine, the numinous, the powerful, can be found in our everyday lives.

I would like to give my special thanks to Chris Rhodes and James Casey of St Augustine’s, for their sterling support over the year; and to all at First Story for making this stellar anthology happen. Take note of the names of this group: I’ve no doubt we’ll be seeing them again.

So here is a selection of some of their work. We haven’t been able to fit all of it in. Take a look, read, indulge, think (as our final poem urges you to do) – and next time you’re on the bus, be careful – you might be sitting next to a god.

How to Academy: Courses for life; how to write YA fiction

Morning, I'm running a short, eight week course for the How To Academy in how to write Young Adult fiction. Have a look at the website, here.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Interview with Tishani Doshi in PORT

Tishani Doshi. Photo by Laurence Ellis for PORT
I've interviewed the poet, novelist and dancer Tishani Doshi, for PORT magazine. You can read the interview in the latest issue, or check it out on the PORT website here.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Laure Eve's Dream Collective

Debut author Laure Eve is collecting dreams. Here's one of mine from last week, on her blog, about being a soldier in the reign of William and Mary.

Friday, 28 June 2013

John Boyne's This House is Haunted: review

Mornin' all, I've reviewed John Boyne's new novel, This House is Haunted, for The Telegraph. Read it here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jane Austen and the ludic possibility of the ten pound note

Austen: good choice
If you look at who's currently on the British pound notes, you may find yourself shamefully turning to Google, as I did. Matthew Boulton and James Watt? They made steam engines. Sir John Houblon? He was the first Governor of the Bank of England. They're a pretty serious bunch. Economist Adam Smith, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, scientist Charles Darwin... They all remind us of power, empire, good works. When we use those notes, we think - that is what money is. It forms society.

So what about a little bit of playfulness on our banknotes? There has been a lot of sneering at the choice of Jane Austen for our tenners. I will leave aside, for the moment, the case for other women - there are myriad others, of course, but I intend to look at why we should celebrate Jane Austen.

Austen writes "romances", apparently. First of all, let us correct this misapprehension. The term romance has now been entirely degraded; helped by a vision of Austen as purely motivated by a kind of soppy, Barbara Cartlandish love in which all that is necessary is to get a man (and Bridget Jones hasn't really helped us in that regard), we now categorise Jane Austen in the same breath as Mills and Boon.

This is entirely, almost flabbergastingly wrong. Romance is what drives the novel. In French, novels are still called "romans." The structure of Austen's novels may have the teleology of marriage - but that is because, generically, their ancestors are the Jacobean and Regency comedies that went before her. She is using one of the deepest structures of fiction, and she makes it not a stricture, but something alive and eternal.

That's not to mention the economic and practical necessity that would beset a single woman in the Regency period. This isn't about love. It's about decisions that might mean the difference between wasting away in a garret, or having a real roof on your head.

Her novels are supremely intelligent, ironical, and well-structured; keenly observed and with an eye that deflates pretension. Her heroines live, love and sparkle, their shining sharpness cutting through the flim flam around them. They know what money is for. They know that too much of it is awful; they know that too little brings the wolf.

Paula Byrne's recent biography of Austen reassesses her life: gone is the reclusive, spinster maiden; in her place is a canny businesswoman with relatives who saw the French revolution and many wars; who knew how to negotiate her contracts; who had a deep understanding of people - and, more importantly, what motivates them. 

That is why she's a perfect choice to adorn a banknote. Not because she's a novelist that is beloved by millions. But because she understood the world, and she understood that the little scraps of paper that we pass to each other every day are heavily weighted with more than just a financial obligation. They are the difference between life and death. And she laughed at it all, a cool, clever glimmer in her eye.

So no more economists, no more scientists. Let's have a little Austen in our lives, and let's live, and love, like she did.

Monday, 24 June 2013

A Child in Time: My favourite children's books

PW, about to write something.
Hello there. I've written a piece for The Telegraph about my favourite children's books, for their Child in Time series. You can read it here.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

New issue of PORT magazine - The Golden Age of magazines

Well hello. There's a new issue of PORT on the stands, and it features a big piece about magazine editors. We're entering a new golden age, with new titles springing up, and quality and culture getting better. Oh, and my interview with the writer Tishani Doshi is also in there. Go and buy it, you know you want to.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas: or, why real books are best

At my school, Lancing, you were assigned a tutor, whom you would meet once a week for half an hour or so to talk about non-academic subjects - your personal development, your career choices, or anything that was on your mind. I had one of my Greek teachers - a deeply spiritual man who decided that he wanted to become a monk on Mount Athos. In order to do this, he had to give away all his worldly possessions. And so he gave me some of his books.

One of them, Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu, I've had knocking about my various abodes since he presented it to me. It's an Oxford Classics paperback, with a mysterious painting on the cover by Judith Millais, showing a woman putting a finger to her lips. I've only just got round to reading it - a mere fourteen or so years later - and boy, was I pleased to have done so.

It's a wonderful book - part Gothic horror, part romance, with a good dose of morality and humour. The story concerns a young woman, Maud Ruthyn, the heiress to a fortune, who at the death of her father is put into the care of her Uncle Silas, about whom there hang many rumours - that he killed a man, that he is dissipated and criminal. If Maud dies, then Silas becomes the sole heir to her princely fortune.

The danger mounts steadily, and appears in surprising and intriguing forms: a vicious French governess; a brutish son. Le Fanu expertly creates a sense of claustrophobia and mounting hysteria. It's not just a physical battle, though, that Maud must endure: it's a moral one.

When I finished the book, I thought about who had given it to me, and I thought about his story, and why he'd read it in the first place. It is an extremely spiritual novel - it perhaps describes the battle of the soul to win goodness, and ends with a resounding paean to God. It must have meant a lot to him.

And now, it does to me too - not just the text of the book, but the physical book itself. After a party at my house, it's received a wine stain, and it's crumpled and the pages are bent back, but it is still itself, and it contains a hoard of other stories around it.

One day, who knows, I may give it to someone else. And they will have it by them, and think about me when they read it, on into the future, and the book will continue acquiring layers of meaning until the day when it falls apart.

That, you see, is what you don't get with an ebook. Real books are part of us, part of our stories. And that is why they will survive, adding links into the chain of our greater narrative.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Memory and the curriculum

Homer: He knew things by heart
As usual, there has been a lot of hoohah about Michael Gove's new curriculum. He wants to get rid of coursework and return to single exams, marking a return to apparently "oldfashioned" practices.

And why not? There was a predictable reaction on Twitter, including a remark from one writer who sputtered angrily that there was no such thing as a profession that required remembering and "regurgitating" facts. I think that use of the word "regurgitating" is key, because it suggests a misunderstanding of what remembering is.

Memory is the key to knowledge, which in turn leads to wisdom. You cannot know a subject unless you have memorised certain facts about it. I remember being at law school - you cannot absorb case law and statutes by accident. The only way to do it is to sit down and learn them, by rote. And why shouldn't pupils be taught how to do this? It only puts more unfair advantages onto the products of schools where rote learning is encouraged - ie, the public schools. There is a reason why private school children are over-represented in the legal profession - and it's not just because of parental background and encouragement. It's also because from the very beginning pupils are encouraged to memorise, to learn, to absorb, to be tested.

You can only truly know something if you have memorised it. I remember the heady days of my final exams, when I knew Virgil, Shakespeare, Homer, inside out. The Aeneid came alive inside my head: a vast, echoing chamber of beautiful imagery and striking scenes, linking together with all the other things that I'd had to con by heart. Things collide: you see shapes and patterns, you become aware of greater structures. You know things. A poem, learned by heart, is a poem understood.

We've forgotten what it is to be learned - learned in the law, learned in a subject. That means memorising things. It means being able to know, without looking it up, where to find something. If I didn't know Latin grammar off by heart, I wouldn't be a very good Latin teacher.

It's true if you're a doctor or a teacher or a taxi driver. All jobs contain a certain amount of memorising, whether it's a technique or a protocol or whatever. To suggest that memorising leads to "regurgitation" is simply wrong. It leads to broader, deeper understanding; to insight; and within your chosen field, to success. That's why I think Michael Gove is right. We should return to unlocking the potential of things that are greater than any computer, any search engine: that is, our own human minds.

***UPDATE: A rejigged version of this piece is now on the Telegraph website, here.****

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Judging the Costa Children's Book Award

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears - I have an announcement to make. This year I have the extremely exciting privilege of being a judge on the Costa Children's Book Award, which last year was won by the excellent Sally Gardner, for her book, Maggot Moon.

I look forward to sampling all the wonderful children's books that are out there, and to the rigorous judging process itself. My fellow judges are Emma Kennedy, the writer, and Jo Anne Cocadiz, who is children's buyer at Foyles. Let the entries commence!

The Costa Book Awards website is here.

Tips for Pippa Middleton as Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair

Pippa Middleton: Editrix extraordinaire
As a contributing editor myself, I know a few things about the game, and so I thought I’d give Pippa Middleton some friendly tips as she faces up to her new role as a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair.

1) You will be expected to contribute. This means that you will be writing a piece of what I call “writing” every so often, depending on the terms of your contract (this is the gold plated paper that you signed, over which Graydon Carter was looking so pleased).

2) You will also be expected to edit. My top tip for editing is to read the “piece” through carefully, and mark anything you’d like changed or deleted or even added in! Everyone has their own idiosyncracies, but mostly you can use a red pen, or a pencil (you can rub out the marks more easily with a rubber.)

3) When writing a piece, I find it useful to use my familiar mascot, an Apple laptop. This isn’t compulsory of course – you may find that a PC works just as well. Or perhaps a member of staff could type your thoughts up on your typewriter. Remember, though, to convey the writing to the office (the place where all those people sit looking angry and staring at computers). These days, it can be done simply by using email, which is an advanced, electronic form of carrier-pigeon. Just press a button, get your sister to marry the heir to the throne, and ping! Off it goes into one of the world’s best known and prestigious magazines. Just like magic.

4) A deadline is not actually a dead line – imagine that! No, it’s a date for handing in your “piece”. I find it useful to mark these in my diary so that I don’t forget them. And don’t book any routine dinners the night before or you may find your hangover gets in the way!

5) Finally, you have to get paid. This is harder than it sounds (no joke.) Some magazines don’t pay at all, even after you chase them for ages; others will give you the equivalent of a packet of Smarties. But if you’ve already signed the aforementioned contract, then the money will just whoosh into your account every so often. Remember  – those fascinators won’t buy themselves!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

June Literary Review out now

What ho! It's that lovely time of the month again - the day Literary Review drops through your letterbox. Yes, the June issue is out now - and guess what? There's something really exciting in it - yes, that's right, it's a lost novel by James Joyce! Oh, no, sorry. It's not. It's my biannual children's round up. Still, that's fun, isn't it?

It features reviews of: Melvin Burgess' The Hit, Gillian Cross's After Tomorrow, Piers Torday's The Last Wild, Audrey Niffeneger's Raven Girl, Terence Blacker's The Twyning, Mary Hooper's The Disgrace of Kitty Grey, William Sutcliffe's The Wall, and F E Higgins's The Phenomenals: A Tangle of Traitors.

I'd suggest that you go and buy it now. Not to mention for the other toothsome treats in the mag.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Breakfast with Oksa Pollock

A fine start to the day: breakfast with the authors of the internationally best-selling children's book series about a girl called Oksa Pollock. In an underground room at the Covent Garden hotel, we ate quail's eggs benedict, bacon sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and miniature blueberry muffins. The book is published in England by Pushkin Press, who are also launching their first children's list this year.

The Oksa Pollock series has been translated into 26 languages already, and English is its 27th - as the authors, a pair of delightful ladies called Anne Pilchota and Cendrine Wolf pointed out, it is a dream for them, as the series is set in London. It concerns a young girl who discovers that she has magical powers; and that her family has been exiled from a magical, parallel realm.

The book was initially self-published (there are echoes here of the Eragon series), with the authors hawking their novel around bookshops in a wheelbarrow, although the novels had arrived at the Covent Garden hotel via more conventional means.

Bienvenue, Mlle. Pollock, et bonne chance!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Emerald Fennell's Shiverton Hall: review

Emerald: blood-chilling
My chum Emerald Fennell’s debut, Shiverton Hall (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 249pp) takes its cue from the lineage of horror films, with shades of It, as a poor boy from North London receives a strange offer of a scholarship. He must battle not only with human evil, in the form of snobbery, but also with the supernatural forces that cluster around his new abode. All in a day’s work, naturally. A classic setting – an old country house, now a school – gypsy curses and imaginary friends coming to life provide an atmospheric backdrop to a blood-chilling story that’s perfect for reading under the covers.

The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann's crazy fairy tale

I went with the lowest of expectations to see The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann's film version of F Scott Fitzgerald's book. I'd read a number of so-so reviews, and had been given personal recommendations ranging from the indifferent to the positively dismissive.

We saw it at the Dalston Rio, a cinema swathed like a theatre, where Gatsby cocktails (well, cocktails labelled with character names) were on sale. I went in, armed with a "Gatsby" - a gin and tonic (large) - prepared for the worst.

And in a sense my feelings, and those of the world, were confirmed. What this is, is  Fitzgerald if Walt Disney had taken the helm. Leonardo di Caprio is a fairy prince offering vast wealth and pleasure; Daisy is the princess trapped by an evil wizard or king, who  trips out at night to the other realm, wearing out her dancing shoes.  When you first see di Caprio, and he all but fizzes with magic dust, my yelps of laughter could be heard throughout the cinema. How long would it be, I wondered, before they all broke out into song? The princess will never be tempted by the empty promise of magic; she will retreat into the apparent safety of her prison. And so she does.

It was strange, too, to make Nick (a jug-eared Tobey Maguire) into such a cypher. In the novel there are at least hints of his character; here he was simply, totally, in love with Gatsby, a vehicle to transmit the truth behind the glamour. And Jordan Baker, such a brittle, malevolent presence in the book, here just loomed about looking like she was permanently embalmed. But then, with the personality of Gatsby exploded from a few lines (all that is needed in the book) into the fleshy-faced persona of Leonardo di Caprio, there wasn't much room for anything else.

There were some lovely touches: those parties! Nick being left on his porch in nothing but his underwear; also when Gatsby fills Nick's house with flowers, awaiting Daisy. "Do you think it's too much?" he asks Nick. "I think it's what you want," is the answer. Gatsby agrees. Of course it is.

The problem is that Luhrmann has made a fairy story out of a fable. He's taken a morality tale rooted in realism and transported it to the realm of fantasy; by trying to inject it with some historical resonance (the Wall Street crash, etc.) he in fact simply makes it more unreal. All that tinsel and glitter fades the moment you've seen it: like fool's gold, or a fairy's spell at dawn; behind the glamour, there is nothing but an empty promise.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Marcel Theroux interview for The Telegraph

Theroux: gentle
On this wet and cold May morning, warm yourselves up with my interview with Marcel Theroux. We talked Dr Johnson, doppelgangers and eternal life. His new novel, Strange Bodies, is out now. Read the interview here.

Friday, 26 April 2013

C S Lewis biography by Alister McGrath

I've reviewed Alister McGrath's new biography of C S Lewis, author of a now ignored epic poem called Dymer - oh, and something called the Narnia series. Read it here.

Friday, 12 April 2013

James McAvoy in Macbeth: review

Macbeth is a bloody play, there's no doubt about that. From the opening speeches - "What bloody man is that?" - and the captain's gory image of his "gashes" crying for help, all the way through to the usurping, murderous King's end, it's not one that lets violence happen offstage.

But it is also a play that contains poetry, and stillness, and contrast; and in this, Jamie Lloyd's relentless production at Trafalgar Studios was a touch lacking.

The action took place in a claustrophobic, bare, post-apocalyptic setting in the round, with the actors frequently breaking out of their space into the audience - James McAvoy's furious Macbeth entered rushing on his knees, whilst the porter addressed a puzzled playgoer. The setting played on the "tale told by an idiot / full of sound and fury / signifying nothing," as we were treated to something almost Beckettian in its starkness; and yet the players were constantly rocketing about the stage, spitting and screaming as if they were always on the point of death.

Everybody was covered in blood, most of the time, which (as my companion, who hadn't seen the play before) didn't do much to help identify who was who. Because of the constant barrage of decibels and speed of the speeches, the sense and beauty of the poetry was indeed reduced to sound and fury.

The production borrowed tropes from horror films: masked murderers, a zombie-like Banquo's ghost, severed heads and trapdoors (which sometimes tipped into absurdity.) And that is a problem of genre, because Macbeth is not a horror film, and reducing it to a simple matter of gore piled upon gore robs it of any sense of grandeur.

For we never got a sense that Macbeth thought about his actions. James McAvoy is an engaging actor, and clearly enjoyed strutting about the stage, packing the performance (quite literally) with some guts; but he was a psychopathic Macbeth, one for whom violence is all, not one who equivocated. Similarly, Lady Macbeth was so insane from the beginning that when she did go nuts you hardly noticed. The text was cut up too: the shock of the prophecy about Dunsinane wood was immediately spoiled by a cut in to the English soldiers being ordered to pick up trees.

Mark Quartley's Malcolm was a welcome point of calm(ish); and Jamie Ballard's Macduff produced the most emotional moment in the play, with Shakespeare's devastating line - "All my pretty chickens?" He showed a father's sheer grief and terror at the death of his family beautifully. If only he hadn't spoiled it all by screaming his revenge.

The largely young audience clearly enjoyed this Macbeth, and I suppose if enough teenagers go away thinking, well Shakespeare isn't that bad after all, then that must be positive. But I can't help wishing that the matter of the play had been allowed to breathe a little more, that the poetry had been allowed to sing. Macbeth himself becomes a poet, after all: "Light thickens / And the crow makes wing to the rocky wood." Yes, this is a play of seething terror and blackness: but blackness, in order to function properly, needs light.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Donald Antrim review for The New Humanist

Happy Easter one and all, and for your weekend reading, I give to you: my review of two Donald Antrim novels, The Hundred Brothers and Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World. Read them here.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Lady Vanishes: Mystery on the Orient Express

Middleton and Hughes: She's over there!
Smoke, elegance, cigarettes; mysterious plots and evil doctors; imperturbable baronesses and suspiciously burly nuns. Nope, it's not some new Soho nightclub: I finally caught up with the BBC's fine remake of The Lady Vanishes.

The shuttling train provides the perfect acoustic drumming backdrop to a mystery. It's almost as if trains were built for such things: like that other hamaxostichian (ok, I’ve run out of words for train and have fallen back on the classics) mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, this made great play of the claustrophobia and disruption that railway journeys can cause.

Tuppence Middleton was Iris, the not-so-sweet ingenue who suspects something has gone awry; Tom Hughes the dashing young man who comes to believe her. The suggestions of sleazy opulence were nicely done: the beginning, with  Iris's friends (a charming Emerald Fennell, and a brilliantly boozy Daisy Lewis) providing a raucous backdrop to a seemingly idyllic Balkan holiday.

That idyll, though, is a locus amoenus where trouble will happen. When Iris decides to travel home alone, things start to seem a little loopy: at the train station, she has a fall - but was she pushed, or did she faint? Middleton did a good job of Iris' breathless confusion, moving into semi-hysterical conviction. Reflections, smoke, and, most importantly, other people's prejudices and selfishnesses, all conspired to throw her off the scent. Rather than finding herself on this exotic journey, Iris comes very close indeed to losing herself.

It's a gripping, smooth production - and very pleasing to see Julian Rhind-Tutt playing a cad for once.
And one thing the film certainly made me wish for enormously is the return of a dining car - complete with in-car-pianist. It would make a welcome change from the usual mobile phone conversations...

Friday, 15 March 2013

Home Fires by Elizabeth Day: Party

Miss Elizabeth Day
To Lincoln's Inn Fields, for the launch of Elizabeth Day's novel, Home Fires - her second, and a lovely, moving read it is too. The party took place in an officer's mess - perhaps in homage to the military theme, Elizabeth Day was in a striking red dress - and was attended by various literary types (I got told off for having a copy of Wuthering Heights in my pocket, and the London Review of Books in the other), including biographer Andrew Lycett, and novelist Sadie Jones; also present was Molly Oldfield, whose book, The Secret Museum, is hotting up displays all over London.

Home Fires looks at grief and loss: it starts with the burial of the Unknown Soldier, seen from a little girl's perspective. It's written with great clarity and intelligence, and I suggest that you go out and buy it - although as Elizabeth herself said, "it's not a beach read." Go! Buy!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Robin Robertson's Hill of Doors

Bacchus is, naturally, my favourite divine being (see The Liberators): so I was well pleased to see him play such an important part in Robin Robertson's excellent Hill of Doors, which I have reviewed for The Telegraph, here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Sebastian Faulks to write P G Wodehouse novel: Woe is me

Neither Bertie nor Jeves are happy about this
As I marmited my toast this morning, the unwelcome news came that Mr Sebastian Faulks is to write a new P G Wodehouse novel. This naturally produced the sorts of qualms in my heart that the voice of one of my mastodonic aunts does. Here is my reaction, on that jolly old p., The Telegraph.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Tripping up at the St Petersburg Ball

PW at home
It is not often that you find yourself galloping through a ballroom with a large transsexual in a pink dress whilst a dancing master in a frock coat calls out the steps. But that is what I found myself doing on a recent Saturday night in Marylebone’s Landmark Hotel.
It was the St Petersburg Ball, an annual event, now in its 19th year, in aid of the Children’s Burns Trust. The patron is Prince Michael of Kent  - who has strong Tsarist blood, being a cousin, twice removed, of Nicholas II.  There was also a young Tolstoy present. The idea is that it’s 1812, and we’re all at the ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Ideally facing less bloodshed.

I had managed to find a perfect green frock coat with a red and gold collar, which was only a little bit frayed, and a gold and silver waistcoat. “Are you going as Adam Ant?” asked an unkind friend.

When I was at school, if anyone mentioned ballroom dancing it was tantamount to standing on your head and talking in tongues: everyone ran a mile. But it’s one of those things – ballroom dancing, that is, not standing on your head - that in later life you wish they’d made compulsory, like those lessons when they taught you how to wire a plug. Although, to be fair, I haven't the least idea how to wire a plug these days.
As it turns out, the dances are relatively uncomplicated. You only have to pass the lady to your right, do a pas de bas, find another lady, pull her backwards whilst rotating two and half times to your left, all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. That sort of thing. And all of this whilst several terribly grand ladies glare at you because you’ve accidentally trod on their chihuaha. Note to grand ladies: leave the chihuaha at home.

Luckily, at the first (and only) practice I went to before the ball, we had the services of the excellent Stuart, a dancing master who was probably born, spiritually speaking, in the Nineteenth century. His mission was to transform a bunch of malcoordinated twenty-first century types into elegant exemplars of the balletic arts. Harder than it sounds. Stuart glides; I trip. Stuart effortlessly turns as if he’s as light as a souffle; I stumble and clod-hop. Stuart, meanwhile, offers advice to the ladies: “There’s a simple way of getting rid of an unwanted suitor,” he says, and demonstrates driving a stiletto heel through someone’s foot.
The night arrived. So did I, terrified of the stilettoes, and was announced to the waiting crowds as “Mr Philip Wannock.” There were gorgeous embroideries, dainty jewelled shoes, finely stitched cloaks; and the women looked wonderful too, including the two lofty transsexuals, who swept along in trailing gowns, adding some fearsome glamour.

After dinner, we got down to the business of dancing, which, lubricated by generous top-ups of vodka, seemed to flow as if we’d all been doing it since we could walk. There is nothing quite so beautiful as a line of glittering men and women, bowing and curtseying and whirling in time to music (played by the brilliant British Imperial Orchestra), like a flock of well-dressed birds, all orange and pink and gold. My waltzing skills being not quite up to scratch, I was happy to be mostly led by my partner: suffice it to say that I think they made those dances so energetic on purpose. After a few twirls, I was so dizzy I’d have gone along with anything.

Those guests who popped outside for a cigarette would have been treated to the sight of me and a girl polka-ing crazily up and down the street in front of the hotel; back inside, not a few barked shins meant that the waltzes  were characterised by yelps and squeals amongst the elegance. When I came off the floor, grinning madly with my lady in tow, Stuart tapped me on the shoulder, eyebrows raised. “It’s wise,” he said, “not to leave your partner looking like she’s just raced the nationals.”

It was a fine, thrilling night, in aid of an excellent charity: and I’ll certainly be polishing up my pas de bas. Who knows when I might next need them?

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard: review

Homer reading: This is what classics is like
Salve! I've reviewed Mary Beard's collection of, um, reviews, for The Daily Telegraph. Read it here.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Jim Crace's Harvest: review

Hello there on this penultimate Februarial day: I've reviewed Jim Crace's new novel, Harvest, for The Telegraph. Digest it yourselves here.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O'Porter: Pink Party

Head pupils: O'Dowd and O'Porter
To the basement of an art gallery in trendy London's trendy East trendy London (is that enough trendies?). The walls were white, and ready to be graffitied, for it was the launch of Dawn O'Porter's teen novel, Paper Aeroplanes, which is set in the 90s. 1994 was the year of my musical awakening, so I was mightily pleased to hear Greenday's Dookie on the soundtrack; accompanied by Wotsits, Wham bars and rosé champagne we all got down to merrily defacing the wall with felt tip pens. I kept fearing that the headmaster would walk round the corner and bust me (my inner goodie goodie) so wrote some Catullus; alas such was the exuberance of the night that I got it slightly wrong, which I suppose is what a graffiti artist would do anyway. It was pleasing to see so many Romani eunt domuses, though.

Also eating Wotsits was O'Porter's husband, Chris O'Dowd, proudly sporting a Head Boy badge. The singer Kate Nash was present, looking remarkably gothic; the tv presenter Cherry Healey, wearing some very large glasses; Derren Brown's boyfriend, who allegedly drew a penis on the wall and then left.

The book comes out in May: it's a touching, truthful tale of becoming a teenage girl. There was a copy of Cosmopolitan and a tampon in the goody bag. Not quite my target market, but I'm sure there will be loads of girls out there who'll find much to enjoy. Now, excuse me, I've got to meet someone behind the bike shed. Someone's selling Wotsits on the cheap.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Ray Winstone introduces new issue of PORT magazine

Here's Ray Winstone introducing the new issue of PORT magazine, which Daniel Day-Lewis has guest edited. I've got an interview with the Kes actor Dai Bradley in it: it comes out in March.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Fan trailer of The Other Book

It's lovely to find out that someone, somewhere loves your book - as I imagine does higuarshi9, who has made a great fan trailer of The Other Book, on Youtube. You can watch it below:

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon: A worthy contender for the Costa Awards

Sally Gardner: A worthy contender
So Hilary Mantel won the Costa Prize; for which I do not begrudge her - Bring up the Bodies is a fine novel. But there was one book on the list that I thought deserved a look in.

A tender friendship between two boys; a dyslexic hero; self-sacrifice; propaganda. These are the ingredients of Sally Gardner’s moving young adult novel, Maggot Moon.

Young adult fiction is a tricky area: many see it as a form of escapism, a clichéd place inhabited by sexy vampires who rip their tops off every other minute, and pale heroines whose only worry is whom they should marry (hello to you, Stephanie Meyer). A way, in other words, for teens to avoid serious adult fiction.

Maggot Moon is not at all like that. It engages with complex, fascinating ideas in an original manner, and the writing is full of beautiful images. The voice of its narrator, Standish Treadwell, is absorbing and striking. He is a teenage dyslexic whose family lives in Zone 7, in a city that is never named (but feels like London). The year is sometime in the 1950s, and a totalitarian Motherland is in control of everything. We are in an alternative dystopian England. The term “dystopia” is bandied around a lot in the young adult world, but here it is essential to the book: the country itself doesn’t function, suppressing and eliminating everything that goes against its ideology. Here someone like Standish – a “dyslexic” – is seen to be odd, even a threat.

Which, as it turns out, he is, to the Motherland at least – for this apparent outsider will uncover a conspiracy that is attempting to deceive the entire world. Standish, the apparent freak, will, in an act of simple but glorious rebellion, set in train events that will bring the country back into a functioning regime once more. The story has its roots in the ritual of folklore. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think of the narrative as a form of the kind of renewal found in the King Arthur cycles – someone must die to make the country live.

The book’s appeal is therefore manifold. Teenagers will find Standish’s askew relationship with the world attractive; adults will find it just as gripping, since it takes its nourishment from such deep wells of storytelling. It also deals with a male friendship that blossoms into love in a touching, believable manner, which is a brave and timely thing to do.

The final message of the book, though, is the one that resounds the most. The world that we inhabit seems to be operated by leviathans that exist out of our reach: whether they are uber-rich individuals, tax-avoiding corporations, or hapless governments, the ordinary person seems to have very little real power (although we are given the illusion of it through social media and consumerism.) Maggot Moon shows that it is possible to have a powerful impact as a single person.

It may not quite be a revolutionary call to arms – but it is a call to think, to question; and to the lonely soul, making its way on this hostile planet, it gives the best thing of all: hope.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne: review

It's the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: I've reviewed Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen for The Telegraph. Put on your bonnet / cocked hat and read it here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

First Novel by Nicholas Royle: A thrilling metafiction if ever there was one

Royle: meta-tastic
Hello all: I've reviewed Nicholas Royle's excellent First Novel (actually his seventh) for The Telegraph. Check it out here.

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Dream Dealer by Marita Phillips

Sometimes a book comes along that stands out from the crowd with its intelligence, style and subject matter. Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon is one - and it's gone on to win the Costa Prize. Another, which has been around for a while and yet hasn't received the attention it deserves, is Marita Phillips' The Dream Dealer, published by a small imprint, Neve Press.

It follows Finn, a lonely boy with only a pet mouse, Hercules, for company, whose mother is missing. A sinister figure known as the Dream Dealer arrives at the school gates one day, selling "Ice-Dreams", which put you in "a large multi-coloured bubble." The children become addicted to the visions they receive; the Dealer has a more sinister purpose, accompanied by a weird Earth Imp. Phillips' writing is elegant and full of striking images; the book draws you in gently, wrapping you completely in its imagined world. It's aware of myths and the power of myth-making; and, crucially, of how dreams are important, but ultimately are only dreams. It is reality and its relationships which are the more beautiful. A fine, darkling book which will charm and intrigue.