Monday, 23 August 2010

D B C Pierre and J K Huysmans: Do Initials Make You A Hedonist?

D B C Pierre's new, manic, Huysmanic novel of decadence, Lights Out in Wonderland, is a catalogue of horrors and hedonism. I've reviewed it in the Daily Telegraph: click HERE to see it.

Against Nature (Penguin Classics) by J K Huysmans was a book I read when I was probably too young to understand it. I was thirteen, in my last year at prep school, and I'd just read The Picture of Dorian Gray (Penguin Classics). In it the hero is mightily affected by a nameless book; after some careful and dogged research, I unearthed it. I remember being dizzied by it; I haven't read it since, but some scenes from it stay with me even now: an English pub full of red-faced porcine boozers; the famous jewelled tortoise; the black supper. It was all good training, of course, for a writer of fantasy literature...

So is it any coincidence that D B C Pierre and J K Huysmans both use initials? Or that Huysmans shares the very same initials as J K Rowling? Joris Karl morphs very easily into Joanne Kathleen... Perhaps the latter is an incarnation of the high priest of decadence: or maybe J K R is an immortal, Huysmans expanded through the centuries.

Think about it: is there anything more hedonistic or truly expressive of decadence than a wizard? Pierre, in his novel, refers to hedonists as 'wizards'. I think something is afoot here. Perhaps Rowling's next novel will see Potter tire of wizarding life and retreat into a world of cloistered walls, jewels, magic beasts and perfumes. Or hang on, that's what he's doing anyway... Stand forth, J K, and reveal yourself! The world awaits.

Farundell by L R Fredericks: review

Farundell by L R Fredericks is a debut novel which pulls no punches. I've reviewed it for the Financial Times: click HERE for the link.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Hesiod's Calendar by Robert Saxton: review

One of the nicer things about being in the literary world is that one comes across, serendipitously, books that might otherwise escape one's notice.In the books cupboard the other day I found, published by Carcanet Press, Robert Saxton's version of Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days.

It is a brilliantly clear sonnet sequence, full of wisdom and humour. The sonnet has the formality and grandeur of dactylic hexameter, whilst allowing for an extra layer of charm. We have the whole ancient world spread out before us in musical language: 'the fragrant girl who stays / by her mother's side indoors, innocent of the ways / of Aphrodite - more bud than flower still ... Far away, in a jumpled heap / of legs, the octopus in its foreign / realm takes a bite of one foot so as not to starve.' Here is the familiar and the alien together, as Hesiod is at once someone we know ("Have good regard for measure in all you do") and someone whose mores we can wince at: ('choose a wife who's four years past puberty / and a virgin.') Simple lines evoke much: 'Elsewhere dreaming of a sheltering cave / or thicket, forest creatures on the run / panicked by snow, are desperate for sanctuary.'

Saxton's version (he has no Greek) is, to borrow a phrase from his own works, a yardstick to the stars of Greek myth - here the theogony develops at full tilt, from Chaos: 'no dream, no fear, no rain, / only an idiot swirl in a cosmic brew', through the birth of the Olympians and finally 'the stone that Cronus swallowed, now at Delphi.' It is accesible and intelligent, investing what can be a knotty, even dreary work with new vitality.

(Picture: Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau)

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon: review

...and also a link to my review in the Financial Times of Annabel Lyon's debut novel about Alexander the Great, The Golden Mean, told through the eyes of Aristotle.


Magical Metabooks

Here is a link to a post about my meta-book, on Philip Reeve's weblog The Solitary Bee.

Click HERE

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Standon Calling!

Festivals are safety valves: a controlled release of built up steam, allowing the populace to return to their quiet humdrum lives for the rest of the year. Or so it used to be. Once humans were happy with one day of wearing silly clothes, saying naughty things and drinking too much: now we seem to do it all the time. Now the darkness that surrounds us lights up constantly; now the jokes and jests and japeries run free.

So what is the function of the ‘festival’? Some people spend all year going to them, weekend after weekend in tent after tent (or teepee after teepee, or yurt after yurt if you are particularly flash (or flush)). I went to three last year, and only one this year; I now own more fancy dress costumes than I do real clothes (having managed to lose / destroy everything else). Now is the time for festivals to seep over into real life: now we must attend our jobs and our schools in soldiers’ uniforms and clown outfits, in shiny silver trousers and with glitter on our faces and ribbons in our hair. I can only hope that we are returning to the glorious days of the eighteenth century, when peacocks and pimps and fops and courtesans all jostled about in their finery and fripperies.

We do not need one festival a year any more, because life is becoming a festival. This can only be a good thing.

And one shining example of the new breed of festival is Standon Calling. Held at Standon Lordship, and organised by Alex Trenchard, this started not as a festival per se, but as a birthday party (its raison d’etre is celebratory; this permeates the fields and tents, a beneficent miasma, even now). This year there were more people than ever. Murder and detection was the theme, which spurred on many a marvellous costume: tweed-heavy Sherlocks and cartoonish Scooby Doos, white-faced zombies and grim forensic officers. An entire Cluedo board paced patiently around in pairs: I saw Colonel Mustard with the Study by the Lead Pipe. Sinister white-suited agents padded around, putting up tape around suspicious bodies: they descended upon the Cluedo people and surrounded them. A grim reaper stalked the alleys; two people maneouvred through the crowds in a cardboard coffin. Most interesting were those who had either misunderstood the theme or completely ignored it: the fat man in tiny blue shorts, or the huge, peeling banana. Although perhaps the blue-shorted man was showing that he had nothing to hide; and maybe the banana had once killed someone who’d slipped on it. Who knows.

Of the bands that I saw, the black suited and white-lighted Metronomy played like they knew everybody in the crowd and like the crowd knew all their bladed, shiny songs. I wanted to be friends with geeky, sweet CasioKids who electro-popped into the night. Marthas and Arthurs, feathers in their hats and skirts held up by safety pins, gently eased me into Saturday morning, strumming softly and melodically on guitars (and strange instruments whose provenance I know not). Three Trapped Tigers were roiling, addictive, pounding. I’d never heard of Revere, but they played so hard they knocked over their stands and dropped their guitars and they were all sweating very very hard. I at least was impressed by their passion. Hook and the Twin had a technical error which alas made them halt, but the three songs they played were beat-filled and frenzied. I was under the impression that I had seen British Sea Power, but the band that I saw turned out to be a rockabilly band. I missed Etienne de Crecy, but I heard the music coming up through the ground and wished that I could have been there. As ever my favourite haunt was the cattle shed, known mysteriously as Camp Alcatraz. On Friday night we stayed in there till dawn: it started raining, but nobody noticed.

I had to leave on Sunday, which was a shame, as Buena Vista Social Club (whose average age must be about 100) were playing. I’m sure they were brilliant. But I take with me the glitter (quite literally: I still have some on my face, three days later) and the music (thank you iTunes), and I will make sure the festival infiltrates through the rest of the year. Which you must all do too.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Kehua! by Fay Weldon: review

Tuesday morning: I have returned from a marvellous weekend at Standon Calling (an account will follow) to find that my Fay Weldon review was published on Saturday. It is a weirdly wonderful book, Kehua, broiling and burning with plots and subplots and things that fit together and things that may or may not be true. I've actually only read one other Weldon, She May Not Leave, which I reviewed about four years ago in paperback format, and also found sleekly alluring. The reviewers' lament is that one never gets to read very much that one wants to read; I will however be salting away a couple of Weldons for future rainy Sundays. (To buy the books click on the titles.)

To read the reviews click HERE for Kehua!
And point your mouse HERE for She May Not Leave

Friday, 6 August 2010

Boxer, Beetle, Beauman

Parties in dirigibles, parties in swimming baths... and now parties in boxing rings, for last night heralded the bright new dawn of Ned Beauman's debut novel, Boxer, Beetle, which has already drawn exuberant praise from reviewers. Plastic beetles pointed the way along the street; under lights so bright we were practically photosynthesising, we stood around an actual boxing ring in Hoxton (in 'London's trendy Hoxton', I should write) and drank wine. Girls in leggings and dresses, boys in cardigans and multicoloured shoes: yes, this was The East. Ned Beauman himself, a ganglyish, soft-voiced chap, gave an excellent speech from the boxing ring. He challenged us all to a fight, and offered half his royalties if he were beaten. Nobody took up the offer: although two of the guests were later seen making an attempt at cagefighting (I think). Beauman also spoke eloquently about the mental landscape around the book, and its place in 'experimental' fiction; in particular he took exception to Gabriel Josipovici. 'Asking what happened to modernism is like asking what happened to punk,' he said. Beauman goes, at a tender age, to be a writer in residence somewhere in Germany. I await his next pronouncement (or tome) with anticipation.

I have spent the last two weeks holed up in Yorkshire, scribbling away at one book or another. Let us hope that good news will follow soon. Whilst there I met the poet Edward Barker, who sent me a poem called The Reader by Richard Wilbur, about an old lady looking back at books she's once read. I urge you to seek it out. It ends:

'Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through'.


Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Children's Picture Books Round Up

And finally - a link to my round up of children's picture books for the Telegraph's summer reading special. I love Joel Stewart - his marvellous book Tree Soup: A Stanley Wells Mystery came out a couple of years ago and is well worth a look. Here I'm reviewing his new book, Have You Ever Seen A Sneep?, written in conjunction with the illustrator Tasha Pym. Also under review are new books by Julia Donaldson and children's laureate Anthony Browne. My particular favourite was Dog Loves Books by Louisa Yates - a charming fable about reading. Reminded me rather of my childhood love of reading - I certainly wanted to set up my own bookshop. In fact it remains a fantasy.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe: review

And here too is a link to my review of Jonathan Coe's new novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Now normally I hate books with titles like that - Salmon Fishing in Yemen, The Something Life of Somebody Something, and so on - but this one is a cut above.


Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor: Review

Here is a link to my review of Joseph O'Connor's new novel, Ghost Light, which is about the playwright John Synge's affair with an actress. It is a beautiful novel. I've never actually read or seen any Synge, but the novel certainly made me want to.