Sunday, 23 December 2012

Books of the Year 2012

Yuletide be here again, and with it the inevitable lists. I'm not going to do separate ones this year: here they all are, in time for any last minute Christmas shopping that you may be doing. Of course I've already done mine. Naturally. I won't be wandering the shops on Monday. At all.

Here goes:

Alan Garner: matter of Britain
Fiction of the year 2012

Boneland by Alan Garner is a very strange book, but also a very compelling one. It rounds off the story begun by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in an intelligent and insightful manner. Highly recommended. Another literary offspring is Andrew Motion's Silver, which takes up the tale of Jim Hawkin's son as he returns to Treasure Island. It's a beautiful, glossy creature, and enthralling. Back in Tudorland we find Hilary Mantel on tingly form in Bring up the Bodies: I may be the only person in the world not to love it as much as I loved Wolf Hall, but it's still head and ruff above the rest. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs is an elegant novella about imprisonment; and Deborah Levy's Swimming Home is a spookily brilliant middle-class holiday novel with a twist. Finally, Ali Smith's Artful is a dazzlingly engrossing semi-fictional meta-fiction, if there can be such a thing: her quicksilver mind and lightning connections will leave you gasping for more.

Non-fiction of the year

I've read no new non-fiction this year at all. A Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers came out a while ago, but it's worth a mention - a charming, lively and enchanting account of the things that make up our conception of the unicorn. I was intrigued to learn that certain herdsmen induce their animals to grow one horn, and make them the leaders of their herds - this gives them greater power. Our horsey, gentle, mystical creature arises from a fascinating mishmash of real animals and legends. City of the Sharpnosed Fish by Peter Parsons also came out a while ago, but is a very enjoyable study of the papyrus fragments that came out of Oxyrhyncus and which don't, on the whole, contain new poems by Sappho, but do show a rich and detailed picture of ordinary life in a Hellenistic Egyptian city. Oxyrhyncus had such a hold on the imagination that the novelist Ronald Firbank wrote a scene in which Professor Inglepin reads a new Sapphic fragment: "In plain English," the professor said with some reluctance, "It means: Could not [he wagged a finger] Could not, for the fury of her feet."

Antigone at the National
Orpheus: The Song of Life by Anne Wroe is as beautiful to read and magical as its subject, whilst The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deustcher is an account of how language is how it is which will leave your brain fizzing with delight and joy.

Poetry of the year

Antigonick by Anne Carson is my overall book of the year. It's absolutely marvellous: spooky, finely-tuned and compulsive, a version of Sophocles' Antigone which powers on like a lit fuse. Sidereal by Rachel Boast  is an extraordinary debut: considered, careful, rich and multilayered, with many striking images: "Behind the house the dark rooms / in a shape called forest." Almost Invisible by Mark Strand is a series of haunting, witty and wise prose poems.

Classics of the year

Loving, Living and Party Going by Henry Green is a new source of celebration for me. These three novels are so rich, and with a sideways approach to language which compels and grips.  Party going in particular is almost indescribably good: dense yet vivid, it takes place in the confines of a railway station whilst all around the fog whirls. Green should be up there with Evelyn Waugh in the pantheon: but he's also one of those writers that I will now keep as a secret favourite, to be savoured often. The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice is an obscure radio play which is an adaptation of the line "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." A strange, dreamy experience. Another obscurer couple of classics which I have rediscovered are Craven House by Patrick Hamilton, a gas-lit study of hypocrisy in a boarding house, and The Violins of Saint Jacques, Patrick Leigh-Fermor's only novel, which tells the splendid tale of a Caribbean island ripped apart. I was reading Edmund Gosse's Father and Son in a crowded pub when someone said it must be a terribly gloomy book because of the grim photograph on the cover: how wrong could he have been. This is a seminal memoir of a youthful spirit breaking out. A special mention should also go to Robert Aickman's banjaxed ghost stories in The Unsettled Dust.

I've been re-indulging in a lot of drama this year: The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, which I didn't get to see at the Donmar, so read instead - boisterous fun. There are some lines in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi which still have the power to make me stand and stare; and of course, every time I read William Shakespeare's Macbeth it's like being doused in flame and blood.

Children's Books of the Year

The Changeling by Philippa Gregory is a perfect young adult confection, featuring a devilishly handsome young monk and a beautiful, disinherited aristocrat. Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass is as zany and inventive as any of her books, whilst Eva Ibbotson's The Abominables is a swan song for a fine talent. Black Arts by Prentice and Weil is an intelligent thriller set in an Elizabethan London throbbing with spirits, whilst Philip Reeve's Goblins! is a delightful take on the orc-and-sword fantasy.

Caroline Lawrence's The Poisoned Honey Cake is a joy, instructive and witty about ancient Rome; and no boy worth his salt will be able to put down Atomic! by Guy Bass, a comic book mash up throbbing with kinetic energy. More eerie and strange is Fright Forest by Marcus Sedgwick; Kate Saunders' The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop is a hilarious and clever fantasy featuring a giant talking cat - and talking wallpaper.
My book of the year, though, is threefold - I can't choose between them.  Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher is a blackly brilliant fantasy containing Dr Dee, fairies, time travel and a genie; Maggot Moon by Sall Gardner is a striking and bold young adult novel; and The Diviners by Libba Bray is simply marvellous, featuring quite the best heroine to be found in young adult fiction and beyond, a gin-swilling flapper with psychic powers.

Bummer of the year

The time I spent reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's godawful memoir A Death in the Family is time I would dearly like back. How a book like this can be hailed as a masterpiece across so many countries and yet read like such a draining nightmare is beyond me. It's about as much fun as sticking red hot needles into your eyes whilst somebody drags their nails down a blackboard.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Brothers Grimm and pantomime

Hello, I've written a festive piece for The Telegraph about the Brothers Grimm, pantomime and fairy tales. Check it out here.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Issue 8 of PORT

It's time for issue no 8 of PORT magazine - a bumper one (and I now know that "bumper" comes from the word "bumper", a drunk, the idea being that a bumper can be both a drunk and something that you drink from, in the same way that a reader is both a thing read and one reading.) I've written a short piece about Glenn Gould which is in the mag; also check out the excellent cover piece about Will Ferrell.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Audiobook of The Liberators - a perfect Christmas present

Christmas is almost upon us - and what better present to give to your children than a fine audiobook of The Liberators? It's read beautifully by Tim Bruce, and it's a lovely way to while away seven hours or so in the car. You can also download it, as well as buy the CDs.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

First Story at St Augustine's

Another fun session at St Augustine's this week: we looked at the idea of superfluous immortals, using a poem by Sean O'Brien called, er,  'Protocols of the Superfluous Immortals'. I came up with this:

Fire from heaven

Some days, I like to walk to the
Shops. I buy a pack of cigarettes,
Enjoy the spark of fire.
So easy, it is, now.

What I gave to them.
I watch them, squandering.
I shuffle past some kids,
Kicking a ball about.

I see their smirks.
If only they knew
That once I flew to the
Side of Zeus' throne

And tore the flame of
Knowledge from his
Sleeping fingers.
I fell through space

My limbs so cold
To bring to rough-shod men
The tongues of living thought.

And for that gift
Zeus chained me to a cliff.
An eagle, razor-beaked,
Ripped out my liver, every day.

Agony, it was. Agony
I cannot tell. It filled the
World and the world did not

Now, set free, I pass the
Years by slipping through the
Streets, gazing at you for whom
I died and died again.

I flick my cigarette away.
The boys laugh.
'Move over, grandad!'
I crush the butt. I cough. 

I take my ravaged body
Away, and overhead an eagle
Shrieks a lonely song.
My eyes burn.


The Changeling at the Young Vic: Lunacy and Lust

I’ve had a few Jacobean treats this year already – Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, cloistral and masque-like, at the Old Vic; a febrile Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Barbican; an almost perfect King Lear at the Almeida, and now The Changeling at the Young Vic.

It’s a harrowing play, its tale of lustful murders and lunacy spilling its guts everywhere. A collaboration between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, it sees Beatrice-Joanna fall for the seemingly upright Alsemero. The only problem is, she’s betrothed to another; naturally, the only sensible thing to do is to get the man she hates with all her blood, the disfigured and corrupt De Flores, to kill him. As counterpart to this is a subplot involving a young gentleman who inveigles his way into a lunatic asylum – as a patient – so that he can sate his lusts on the beautiful wife of the doctor.

The stage set was like a school gymnasium, with a blue mattress and a net that served as a sort of membrane between our world and the world of the stage, as well as a means of seeing ghosts and spying on others. The setting was a modern European one – perhaps a dictator’s house – all neat uniforms and tottering high heels. The lunatic asylum was like something from a futuristic nightmare: cages, unshapely figures, screaming.

We first encountered Beatrice (played with brash passion by Sinead Matthews) on her knees, praying, and Alsemero (a brisk Harry Hadden-Paton), believing her to be a shining light of virtue - or at least convincing himself that his sexual feelings were noble -  falling for her and offering his hand on the spot.

But, just as the castle hides dark places where murders happen, all of the characters hide darker parts of themselves. And Beatrice is not capable of knowing the meaning of words like honour and virtue, though she bandies them about with vim. She hides a serpent in her bosom – and links her fate, as tightly as the bounds that chained Prometheus to a rock, to De Flores. Everything will fall apart: nothing virtuous can live, nothing pure, nothing bright; Daiphanta the maiden, perhaps the only pure thing in the text, will suffer as surely as the corrupted murderers; the paranoid doctor's wife, who  remains chaste (in the sense that she doesn't succumb to temptation) is still married to the doctor at the end.

The play had an insane, rushing momentum. Characters shifted in and out of the subplot – De Flores rising from a cupboard in the mad scene; Piracquo doubling as the doctor, Alibius; the counterfeit madman Antonius ("Tony") as Piracquo’s brother. At first I thought these were a heavy-handed way of drawing comparisons between the court and the madhouse; but as the play progressed I saw the sense (hah) of it. In this production, everything is mad and leads towards madness. There is no room for folly here.The final scene showed this perfectly, with Alsemero all but gibbering his lines and hopping about like a madman - the relatively trite lines about "change" sucked into the whirl of the ending, and showing that, in fact, there was no change; the Duke weeping on the floor; and Beatrice and her lover, De Flores, those “twins of mischief”, dead and defiled.

The cast were superb, treading the line between tragedy and comedy with a surefootedness; although, occasionally gabbling their lines at the end, it seemed fitting, as if nothing could stop this terrible breaking apart.  The scenes in the mental asylum were brutally uncomfortable; the dance of the madmen was cleverly superimposed on the wedding of Beatrice and Alsemero, shading into a hilarious dumb show.

This is a steam-train of a production, full of weird lights and clever touches; aware of the magnificent horror of this play as well as its ridiculousnesses and excesses. And there is a sex scene in which food is put to usages I’ve never seen before.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Artful by Ali Smith: review

Ali Smith (photo from Telegraph)

I've reviewed Ali Smith's intriguing Artful, for The Telegraph. Read it here.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dec / Jan Literary Review Children's Round Up

I've done my biannual children's round up for The Literary Review. It features:

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Scramasax by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
The Traitors by Tom Becker
The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher
The False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen
The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders
Phantom Pirates by Daren King
The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompson
Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pulllman

It's in the Dec/Jan issue of Literary Review,which is packed with other fun things - a piece by Edmund de Waal on Michael Cardew; a poem by Alice Oswald; the Bad Sex in Fiction Report, of course; and the usual selection of thought-provoking and witty articles.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

20th Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award

Nancy Huston
To the (reaches for thesaurus to avoid saying "aptly") appropriately named In and Out Club in St James, for the Annual beano that is the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It's been much in the press recently, as there are a few people who sneer rather loftily at it, claiming that it is a bullying, prudish event which should be banned. To those Puritans, I say with Cavalier disregard, that why shouldn't there be a little more joy in the world every year? The novelists chosen are all excellent, and know they are so; this is more like the impish little child in the corner of a painting sticking its tongue out than a bullying example of English prudery. If anything, the sexual passages in question are celebrated. There is always room for a bit of satyrical rompery in December; the gaiety of the nation would be less without it.

Anyway, the In and Out Club was, er, sorry, heaving with literary types who applauded as the passages were read out. Craig Raine's in particular drew gasps; the winner was Nancy Huston for her description of the sexual act as performed under an infrared camera.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Beautiful Classics for Christmas

I've done a round up of beautifully produced classics for Christmas for The Telegraph, which you can read here. It was a bit truncated, so I've pasted the full version below.

As ephemeral e-books continue to flourish on the screens of their ugly readers, could we be seeing a return of a need for the haptic? Psychologically it makes sense: one doesn’t feel that one owns an e-book (in fact, legally, you don’t – you only have a licence to it); a beautifully produced book, however, not only belongs to you, but to future generations. Publishers have responded to this deep-seated hunger in time for Christmas with a selection of gorgeously bound classics which are full of grace and charm.

Published earlier this year, in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, was a series of books with starry designers. Iris Murdoch’s strange and beautiful The Sea, The Sea (Vintage Classics, £9.99, 608pp) is a stand-out, with a bold, swirling, abstract cover by Zandra Rhodes, throbbing with allure and conflicting emotions. There’s also a striking geometric cover for Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (Vintage Classics, £9.99, 288pp) by WilkinsonEyre Architects, which encapsulates the tick-tock precision of the book’s relentless, uncomfortable strength.

Penguin Classics don’t disappoint with their compact cloth-bound editions: they fit in your hand (or man-)bag, and are a serious treat to hold and contemplate. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (Penguin Classics, 1276pp, £18.99) is the dark green of the waters around that fabled isle; on its cover are crimson venetian masks, reminding us of the layers of deception and glamour that inhabit this most wonderful of romances. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (Penguin Classics, 1231pp) is a more serious black, with scarlet birds poised between vertical lines – souls trapped, yet singing.

Small publisher Alma Books has concoted an elegant selection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, with illustrations of spindly, flapperish characters set against raised gold lettering that capture the books’ jazzy brilliance: The Great Gatsby (Alma Classics, 256pp, £6.99) has that ominous motor car, a memento mori amongst the brightness. A 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Heinemann, 320pp, £18.99) has a simple cover with elegant endpapers repeating the colours, gentle yet powerful as its contents.

If you want something both affordable and essential, you could do a lot worse than the Complete Jane Austen (Wordsworth, 1440pp, £11.99), which looks fabulous and would delight the eyes of any family, fortune-seeking or not. More Christmassy are two editions of Charles Dickens: a splendid A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books (Everyman, £10.99, 456pp), which has an introduction by Margaret Atwood, and Dickens at Christmas (Vintage Classics, 592pp, £15), both of which exude jollity. You can practically taste the mince pies.

For the fashionable there are some stylish tomes: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (Virago, 448pp, £12.99) and Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare (Virago, 288pp, £12.99) are so sophisticated you can only read them with a cigarette holder and a martini; the latter is introduced by this year’s paramount novelist, Hilary Mantel.

Go into any Waterstone’s and you’ll see a selection of everybody’s favourite novels, bound in leather and shrink-wrapped in plastic so that you can’t look inside and spoil the pages. These are the sorts of books that are both wonderful presents and lasting reminders of the pleasures they bring: Barnes and Noble’s leather-bound classics, which include Sherlock Holmes, C S Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Bram Stoker and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, are so beautiful that you’ll want to buy one just so that you can unwrap them. They only cost £15, which, if ever there were a snip, would certainly be one. You’ll want to keep them for yourself, to be read by the fire with a glass of mulled wine and a paper hat on your head.You might even stay awake until dinner.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Phoebe Dickinson: "My Eye" at Blanchards

Hidden somewhere behind the King's Road is an unexpected wasteland of industrial warehouses; even more unexpected is the appearance of an antiques shop, Blanchards, where the artist Phoebe Dickinson had her show last week. Amongst a junkish landscape of pipes and vast vats glistened a series of works of depth and beauty. I've seen her work before, but seeing them all together was a marvel.

Dickinson is a portrait artist of great talent, with an ability to experiment between styles: all of her paintings have a mature, rich quality to them which belies her years. There were some other, more playful things on show: a beautifully executed seahorse, and a wonderful little mouse in what appears to be a Genghis-Khanesque tunic. There were nudes that were almost impressionistic. A "Cabinet of Curiosities" took centre stage, filled with enchanting objects; the odd landscape sparkled lushly up from the walls. She is a painter who is unafraid to be traditional, and yet at the same time imbues her work with a lively, modern freshness. The show has finished now, alas, but do keep your own eyes on Phoebe Dickinson. Look at her website here. I also particularly enjoyed the wine table (not made by Phoebe) which has two little depressions where you can keep the bottles; presumably for ease of access - and so that you don't knock them over in your cups.