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 clich├ęd 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.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Katie Kitamura and other young novelists

Kitamura: mythic
Morning all; I've interviewed Katie Kitamura about her new novel, Gone to the Forest, for The Telegraph. Check it out here. There are four other young novelists too, who all look set to make a splash in 2013.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Annabel Lyons' The Sweet Girl: review

Aristotle: Pythias' father
Morning: I've reviewed Annabel Lyon's The Sweet Girl for The Telegraph. I did her first, The Golden Mean, for The Financial Times. Both are vivid and powerful in their own way. The new one concerns Pythias, the daughter of Aristotle, who is left to a distant cousin in a will.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

More notes from the underground: What people are reading on the tube

A while ago, during the course of my working day, which can tend to take me across London several times, I did a totally non-scientific semi-survey of what people were doing on the tube. I discovered that they were mostly still reading real books; and in this time of uncertainty in the book world, I felt it was time to have another look.

I know that I am biased. I think e-books are really quite pointless, unless you want to carry around a hundred books at a time. I admit that they have their uses as textbooks and teaching aids; but replacing a bookcase, a library, a bookshop with empty space is something too horrifying to contemplate. A book is a friend, a totem, a signifier of so much in your life: when I think of the way that I carried around with me my copies of Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King when I was ten or eleven, as if they were my teddy and I was four; I can't imagine anyone doing that with a Kindle. You cannot fall in love with an electronic device. They break, are outmoded; your favourite paperback will be with you for ever.  I have dutifully noted everything I saw today, and we can draw our own anecdotal conclusions from it. Know that Jasper Fforde, in particular, should be happy, if nothing else.

Early this morning, on the snazzy, hipsterish overgound from Whitechapel to Canada Water, I saw a - you guessed it - hipster reading Slaughterhouse 5 on the platform; near him was a woman in her 30s, engrossed in a Jo Nesbo. The hipster looked pretty deep into his Vonnegut. I hope he had been up all night but he was probably just on his way to work.

I switched from the cool orange line to the silvery, ultra-modern Jubilee; and as if in concord with the line's spirit, a woman was reading that most modern of hits, The Hunger Games - the adult version, of course. A young man was peering, carefully, at a large hardback, which turned out to be Putin's Oil by Martin Sixsmith: it took me a long time to find that out, as one of the problems with looking at what people are reading is that it's very hard to conceal the fact that you are trying to look at the books, and asking people what they are reading on the tube is tantamount to saying, "Hello, I like cheese!" and dancing around playing Imagine on the recorder. There was a middle-aged lady reading a self help book; and a girl with orange hair perusing a Batman graphic novel. I mean comic. No, graphic novel. This was at around 830 in the morning.

On the Jubilee Line from Green Park to Waterloo, a man had a yellow paperback peeking out of his pocket, which I hope against hope was a Gallimard. In the same carriage, another chap was ensconced with The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson - he loved it so much that he didn't even stop reading when he walked off the train. There were plenty of Metros and Time Outs; and only one, paunchy buffer, flicking at his tablet. This was at 1030.

On the train from Waterloo to Clapham Junction there were hardly any people, let alone books; on the way back from Clapham South on the Northern line, there was the first of a brace of women reading the latest Jasper Fforde, and sitting opposite her, a woman reading Ali McNamara's From Notting Hill to New York Actually, which happened to have a quote from Katie Fforde on it, who is Jasper Fforde's cousin, so if you are a Fforde, then you are in luck. A woman at right angles to the Ffordes was engrossed in Psychologies magazine; there were no Kindles.

When I switched at Kennington to the Charing Cross line, I stalked a lady clutching a paperback to see what it was; after the police had been called and explanations made, I saw that it was a Tim Winton. I don't know who he is. Someone in the next carriage was, alas, reading The Guernsey Potato Peel and Yawn Society; at Waterloo, a woman reading a book called The Village climbed on. This seems to be the book group line.

The horrible, touristy, gaspy Piccadilly line yielded fewer results. There were plenty of cross people in puffa jackets poking at their phones. A girl with a Kindle got on at Piccadilly; there was a woman reading The Guardian, angrily. That is all I have to say about the Piccadilly line.

Later, on the way up to Kings Cross on the hated blue line, I saw something to make me feel better: a lady holding a battered copy of some Sherlock Holmes stories - she was reading The Speckled Band. Here was the other Jasper Fforde - of course, it may have been the same person, which is a coincidence that Fforde himself would approve of, but I doubt it. My favourite person of the day was also on this carriage: a young man in a red jacket and a stripy bow tie, reading a fat paperback by Neal Stephenson, who I see writes historical epics. Kudos to you red jacket man. This was quite the carriage for real-book-ophiles: a blonde with a book by someone called Edwardson; a man reading one of those In the Merde books: and then someone had to spoil it all by coming on with a beanie and firing up his damned Kindle.

Homeward bound, from Kings Cross to Whitechapel on the old-maidenly Hammersmith and City line, was heartwarming. There were two youngish men, both reading battered paperbacks, so intently that I could not see the spines or the covers; they hardly looked up. One finds oneself, on this exercise, wishing that they would; but it's nice to think that they are so mesmerised. And further down was a girl reading a proper, jacketless, black-bound hardback; I wanted to shake her hand. There was only one Kindle.

So there you go. A broad spectrum of lines; a broad spectrum of books; hardly any electronic devices. Of course it's entirely possible that there were carriages full of them on either side of me. Maybe I have radar for book people. But maybe what I thought about, when Kindles first appeared, is true: that people will buy them, or get given them for Christmas; download a hundred books; and then, gradually, put them away, and return to the tangible charms of their beloved paperbacks.

Who knows. All I know is that I'd rather see a carriage full of dog-eared tomes than bland, grey devices. Think about this: in science fiction films, there are no books in any of the ships, ever. And what are people like in science fiction films? Generally, very dull indeed. Go into a house with no books, and you will see what I mean.

Here's to the real book, and its continued future, which, from my brief delve underground, looks to be relatively secure. (Oh, and just for the record, I had a Vintage paperback of John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning - which, bizarrely, I only seem to read on public transport.) Let the campaign for real books begin.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon wins the Costa

What ho! My first piece of the year: a short article about Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon winning the Costa Award, for The Telegraph. Check it out here.