Monday, 7 August 2017

Pea Green Boats: Summer Sale

Hello there! My books are in the Pea Green Boats Summer Sale: check it out here.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Review of The Liberators in Books for Keeps

I was absolutely delighted to see a review of my second novel, The Liberators, in Books for Keeps. This book came out in 2010 - a long time ago now, it seems. It was very well received, both by the reading public and by reviewers; and yet, about a year ago, it disappeared into the huge hinterland of out of print titles. I've long quietly hoped for a re-issue: I hope this review might help bring it back into the world. You can read the review here - and what is even nicer is that it was by a reader, who came across it, presumably, on the shelves of a library: in other words, the serendipitous delight brought by physical browsing.

I've learnt, I hope, a lot about writing, and specifically writing for children, in the last decade; but I do have a special fondness for this, my strange, dark, second novel. The themes of The Liberators - myth, financial crisis, excess, rioting, the role of art, the city as threatening space - are still relevant today, and I hope that it will continue to reach readers, in whatever form - whether it's a well-thumbed second hand copy, the excellent audiobook read by Tim Bruce - or perhaps even a new, shiny edition.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Workshops at Pickled Pepper Bookshop, August

I'll be doing some creative writing workshops in August, from the 7th-10th, at the wonderful Pickled Pepper Bookshop in North London. You can book here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Summer Reading 2017

1. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell

Volume 3 in the Dance to the Music of Time quartet, this third volume sees Nick Jenkins consummating his love for Jean, and also attending an Old Boys' dinner which descends into farce (initiated by the appalling Widmerpool.) The figure of Mrs Erdleigh, a tarot card reader, bookends the novel. Powell's long, arch sentences stretch are full of apt observations and wry, ironic moments.

2. House of Names by Colm Toibin

Toibin's spare prose - with nary a descriptive term in sight - is entirely suited to the echoing halls and rocky terrain of ancient Greece. Here he retells the Oresteia, telescoping the time scale, and really pulling out that terrible sense of uncertainty evident in Euripides's version, whilst also managing to hint at some of the grandeur of Aeschylus. Orestes, Clytemnestra, Electra, here become people, as buffeted by chance and questions as any of us.

3. Superpowerless by Chris Priestley
I read this to interview Priestley for Books for Keeps: it's a fine piece of work in which a teenage boy grapples with grief for his dead father by immersing himself in comic books. Priestley has an unerring way of entering the mind of an adolescent male, and there is plenty of drama, sorrow and joy. It is a companion piece to his Kafka-esque Anything That Isn't This, in terms of the way in which it delineates teen male psychology. Priestley's bold illustrations complement the text with energy and style.

4. Caught by Henry Green

This is a novel of the Second World War. It is surprising how little literature has entered into the collective mind regarding this war: we prefer instead to dwell on the First. This details the life of an upper middle class man who enters the Fire Service, and how rumour and sex bubble under the surface, whilst an apocalyptic inferno awaits around the corner. This isn't essential reading, but for Green enthusiasts it's an interesting curiosity.

5. The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald

I'd only read samples of Sebald's writing before, and I was entirely transfixed by this wonderful, erudite, surprising and labyrinthine work, defying genre and convention to make something entirely new. Inspired by Thomas Browne's complex writings, it spans centuries of history whilst Sebald goes on a walk along the Suffolk coast, returning always to the image of the silk worm and its connections with life and death. 

6. Back by Henry Green

Another Second World War novel, this sees the return of an amputee soldier who is placed in a tedious administrative job. There are Hitchcockian hints: his old love has died, and he runs into someone who looks almost identical to her, causing psychological distress and erratic behaviour. The seediness and exhaustion of life in the mid-40s is captured nicely - the suggestive remarks and the random couplings. Again, not essential, but if you're interested in the trauma of war, or how the novel developed during that time
, and particularly in the influence of Green on other writers, then it's worth a look. 


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World by John Man: review in Literary Review

I've reviewed John Man's book on Amazons, here, for Literary Review: you can read the whole thing in the lovely print edition.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

MISSING FAY by Adam Thorpe: review

Here's a link to my review of Adam Thorpe's latest novel, a mysterious, lucent piece of work, for THE SPECTATOR. Read it here.

Friday, 16 June 2017

THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN BLAKE by Philip Pullman: review, Times Literary Supplement

I've reviewed Philip Pullman's first graphic novel, THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN BLAKE, for The Times Literary Supplement. Check it out here.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Revenge Tragedy Talk at Harrow

Last week I gave a talk on Revenge Tragedy at Harrow. Happening on the school from the road is rather a wonderful experience: as if, turning a corner, you've left London and slipped into another world.

My lecture was, specifically, on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi. Revenge tragedy is such a fascinating concept: two people on a stage; one wrongs the other, and then everything spirals out from there. I looked at the origins of the genre, from the House of Atreus' first crimes to their absolution in Orestes; and at the threads that bind Orestes to Hamlet (with a sideglance at Titus Andronicus - and those poor Goths baked in a pie.) I discussed how Hamlet's attitude to revenge is very much linked to memory, and whether he really wants his revenge; and then looked at how The Duchess of Malfi isn't really a revenge play at all. There was plenty more to discuss, and meat (quite literally) for myriad articles.

I note now the aptness of talking about revenge at Harrow: the school of Lord Byron, whose heroes, moody, implacable and aware of their own villainy, can be seen as logical extensions of the revenger. And his links to vampires make it even more fitting: the vampire as revenant, seeking revenge from beyond the grave. Next time...

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Note on Hermes and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man

The caduceus: two snakes

The rod of Asclepius: one snake
I have in the past couple of years discovered Robertson Davies: author of gripping, humorous, intelligent novels that deal with the human stage. They tend to feature cultured professional men observing increasingly bizarre situations. The Cunning Man sees a doctor trying to reinstate a kind of Paracelsian philosophy into medical practice. He refers often to Hermes and the caduceus as the symbol of medicine, and uses the two serpents symbolically to aid his own practice. He is, of course, wrong.

It's interesting how easily a mistake can become embedded into a culture. Many have noted that the statue of Eros in Piccaddilly is actually Anteros. That kind of mistake is easily forgiven - who on earth has heard of Anteros?

But Hermes has got nothing to do with medicine. His caduceus, or staff, has two snakes entwined around it; somehow it has become associated with the medical profession in America. It does not seem all that appropriate for a god who ushers the dead into the underworld to be the symbol of the profession. It all rests on a simple error of sight: the staff of the god Asclepius, the god of healing, has one serpent entwined around it - an ambiguous symbol, of course; but what a difference a snake makes.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Decline and Fall: a note on the recent BBC adaptation

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall was one of the first "grown up" novels I read, a recommendation from my prep school headmaster, who was never one not to stretch an imaginative reader. I loved it, of course, though I had no idea what were the dubious sexual indiscretions Captain Grimes had really been "in the soup" for - I just thought he was a cad.

The recent BBC adaptation, starring Jack Whitehall, was beautifully rendered, and successfully captured the meek nature of Paul Pennyfeather set against the grotesques who people his world. It struck me though that the novel's central image of the big wheel at Luna Park was placed in the wrong mouth. The adaptation gave it partly to the criminal butler, Solomon Philbrick (and I can see why it was dramatically necessary to do so), and partly to Peter Beste-Chetwynde; but Waugh gives it to the architect Otto Silenus, in whose mouth it sits much better:

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the centre, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

This circular imagery is very common to Waugh: people end where they begin, as Paul's career ends where it began, pointlessly.

Finishing the series on Pennyfeather's resurrection and a new Bollinger outrage was a good idea; but it lost the deep poignancy of Waugh's final scene in which Peter, having newly inherited his uncle's title and become the Earl of Pastmaster, comes into Paul's rooms at Scone College: it's apparent that the young man, whose interest in making cocktails at first seemed so charming, is now fast on the way to becoming an alcoholic:

"You drink too much, Peter."
"Oh damn, what else is there to do?"

One of the only truly close relationships in the novel, between the fatherless Pennyfeather and the fatherless Peter, also remains broken: "So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair," where he reads about the "ascetic Ebionites", and Peter, presumably, dashes off into the drunken night. I think the adaptation suggests that Paul has learned from his time in the centre of the wheel: Waugh  suggests that he doesn't; as if, in fact, he has woken from a dream, or as if his "shadow" has returned to his real body (there is a mysterious passage half way through the book where Waugh talks of a moment when Paul becomes "real", and his "shadow" flits off into the second half.) Round and round and round goes the world; with nobody any the wiser.

A final note: I also must speak in defence of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; who in the adaptation is presented as a slippery fellow who'll betray Paul at the first moment. In Waugh he is at least honourable - though he does end up being Margot's lover.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology & Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths

I've reviewed Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and The Norse Myths by Carolyne Larrington for The Times Literary Supplement - read it here (behind a paywall).

In Memoriam: Jeremy Lewis

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Jeremy Lewis, publisher, journalist and biographer. Jeremy was a familiar and welcoming sight on the literary circuit: at launch parties he would hove cheerily into view, canapé in the act of being eaten in one hand, second or third glass of wine in the other, anecdote at the ready.

I knew him from my time at Literary Review, when he would come into the office on occasion as our Editor-at-Large, invariably wearing his blue corduroy jacket; once he appeared rather dazzlingly in a very smart seersucker. If ever the phone rang (which, at Literary Review, was not very often) he would leap up, alarmed, and look round for assistance, to a cry of "Help!" This would extend to computers, which he regarded with mild horror: he would refer to the Microsoft Office icon as "the Henry Moore sculpture."

 He would indicate his approval of a submission with a "rather good, I thought"; his disapproval was shown with a hand to the mouth, in imitation of a yawn, and a waggling of his immense eyebrows. He was an acute observer, picking up the tiniest details of dress or habit, which made his work involving and vivid; he was a brilliant raconteur, and would hold us all mesmerised with his accounts of increasingly absurd adventures in which he, invariably and self-deprecatingly, was the butt.

Even in 2005, when I began at the magazine, he mourned the passing of the old way of publishing life: the long lunches and the bibulous evenings. Though we still managed the odd roustabout, it felt as if we were at the end of a span of time that would never be imitated. No longer would publishers tumble out of darkened restaurants at 4pm, hilarious with wine and good writing: what he called the "Perrier" world had already taken over.

Jeremy was always very kind to younger writers, offering advice and cheery goodwill: his writing was warm, humorous and tinged with a clear-sighted knowledge of human folly. We all loved him in the office, and I will miss his presence hugely.


Latin graffiti in Cambridge: "Locus in domos loci populum"

Romani ite domum: Life of Brian
I've written about Google Translate and Latin before (see here); I never thought the day would come when the hapless machine would be used by protestors in Cambridge to get their message across. As reported by the BBC here, a series of new houses has been spraypainted with the words "Locus in domos loci populum."

Strung together, these words are meaningless. The culprit? Google Translate. If you type "local homes for local people" into the search engine, it churns out "Locus in domos loci populum."

I've been trying to think how to turn the phrase into Latin, but haven't yet been able to come up with much. It's hard to get idioms right: English into Latin translation requires some sure-footed sideways thinking.

What still remains interesting is why these protestors felt that Latin - or rather some approximation of it - might be useful as a tool of protest. Who says Latin is dead? 


Monday, 20 March 2017

Friday, 17 March 2017

Reading at Royal Holloway Boiler House

Photo taken by Eng Soc at RH
Last night I performed a reading from my work at the Boiler House, Royal Holloway University, for their English Society. I very much enjoyed reading from The Double Axe: the first chapter, in which Stephanos kills a white hind and the curse is activated; and also a selection from The Liberators, in which Ivo Moncrieff is confronted by Julius Luther-Ross. There was enough time too to read the moment in The Other Book when Edward lays a dead raven on a tomb; and for the swan chase in The Broken King. It was a real pleasure to be able to read to the students, who asked pertinent and intelligent questions; and also to hear some of them reading out their own work afterwards.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Philip Womack opens new library at Lancing College Prep Worthing

A few weeks ago I took the train down to the South Coast from London - something which I used to do, back and forth, a lot when I was a teenager. It's always a marvel seeing Lancing College rising out of the South Downs, its Gothic spires reaching into the sky. I was very pleased to have been asked to open the new Library at Lancing College Prep, Worthing. There is a news article about it on the school's website, here.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Interview with Christopher Edge for Books for Keeps

Christopher Edge

I chatted to author Christopher Edge for Books for Keeps about his new book, The Jamie Drake Equation. Read it here.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Hame by Annalena McAfee: Review in Literary Review

I've reviewed Annalena McAfee's new novel, Hame, in this month's Literary Review. Go forth and find a lovely print copy of the mag.

Oundle Literary Festival

I'm very much looking forward to visiting Oundle for their Literary Festival on the 6th March. More details here.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Burning Ground by Adam O'Riordan: review

I've reviewed Adam O'Riordan's debut collection of short stories for the Financial Times. Read it here.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Tomi Ungerer

I reviewed the new Phaidon edition of some of Tomi Ungerer's picture books for The Times Literary Supplement. The piece appeared in the Christmas Double issue, out on the 23rd December, and still out this week.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Books of the Year 2016

It's been a bookish year for me, quite literally, as February saw the publication by Alma of The Double Axe, my re-imagining of the Minotaur myth; and May brought the final volume of my Darkening Path trilogy, The King's Revenge, published by Troika. These were my fifth and sixth novels for children, respectively, and I have been working on the next ones too. There has still, somehow, been time for reading, though I have been not doing as much reviewing.

Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void is full of wickedly clever sideswipes at the banking crisis; set in Ireland, it's both exciting and stimulating. I also enjoyed Meg Rosoff's Jonathan Unleashed, which sees a young man seeking love in New York - only his life is quietly influenced by his dogs.  Susan Hill's The Travelling Bag was full of terrifying revenants: the final story being very finely conceived and executed, reminiscent of the weirdness of Robert Aickmann. 

Non Fiction

I haven't read much this year, on account of still being embroiled in Robert Tombs's epic history of the English, and Norman Davies' enchanting accounts of lost kingdoms; not to mention my never-ending engagement with Pepys; but I have been very much enjoying Frances Wilson's lush biography of Thomas de Quincey, Guilty Thing; and Edmund Gordon's life of Angela Carter is visceral and lively. Published recently in paperback was Peter Stothard's Alexandria: The Last Days of Cleopatra, a magnificent memoir cum biography cum travelogue about how things work, how history is made, and how reflections occur through time.


The publication of Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI brought this flawed but beautiful version to light. Somehow both solid and shadowy at the same time, it inspires new life into the Augustan visions of Virgil, and resonates with our inevitable fate. Alice Oswald's Falling Awake plays with form in its attempts to represent time itself: the verse brims with taut, beautiful imagery.


I had a George Eliot year, beginning with Middlemarch, which must rank amongst one of the best novels ever written. Psychologically acute, expansive,  witty and intelligently observed, moving like a symphony with grand moments, intimate ones, gentle ones and tragic. I followed it with The Mill on the Floss, which physically moved me to tears as the great flood sweeps away the mill and its inhabitants. This was somewhat lightened, fortunately, by Silas Marner, the story of an old man given new life by a child. I'm now girding my loins for Romola, which has been eyeing me from the shelf for ages.

I have also been rediscovering Aldous Huxley, reading The Genius and the Goddess, a wondrous novella about memory and narrative; and Time Must Have a Stop, about a young man's coming of age in Italy. Both reissued by Vintage in smart new covers.

And I finally read Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, with its latent power and mystery: a fragmented, urgent masterpiece about love and honour. A disappointment, however, was Wyndham Lewis's The Revenge For Love: a novel about appearances and reality, a savage satire against all its characters, and with a Peake-esque artist's eye for the visual; but the overall sense is one of almost impenetrable

Children's and Young Adult Fiction

It's been an all round excellent year for children's fiction. Ruta Sepetys's Salt to the Sea is a masterpiece of its kind, brutal and tender and poignant, telling the story of a band of refugees racing to reach a ship. Based on a real-life humanitarian disaster in the Second World War, it's harrowing and gripping. 

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel sees a boy given a terrible choice: accept his new brother with congenital defects, or receive an entirely new one, free of faults. It's a knotty, nerve-racking read; similarly, Peadar O'Guillin's debut The Call is a dark fantasy that promises very well for his next work.

For younger readers, I have already mentioned the sweetly brilliant debut of Sylvia Bishop, Erica's Elephant, in which a young girl must rescue a pachyderm from officialdom. Another debut, Lucy Strange's The Secret of Nightingale Wood, stood above the crowd with its assured prose and tender narrative. Piers Torday's There May Be a Castle both thrills and plays with conventional assumptions about children's books. I also admired A F Harrold's haunting A Song From Somewhere Else, in which the other spills into the everday; and I can't not mention the latest installment in the brilliant Lockwood series by Jonathan Stroud: The Creeping Shadow is a huge, highly enjoyable delight.