Sunday, 29 March 2009

Book of the Week - Francesca Kay, An Equal Stillness

Posting a little late in the day this week, but still Sunday in my current timezone! Francesca Kay grew up in South-east Asia and India and has subsequently lived in Jamaica, the United States, Germany and Ireland. She now lives in Oxford with her family and works in British-Irish relations. Her first novel, An Equal Stillness, is a biography of fictional female artist Jennet Mallow, whose life spans the great decades of war, social revolution and personal and artistic liberation. Kay has admitted a great admiration of Barbara Hepworth, who presumably is the inspiration for this work of fiction. The novel has been reviewed widely, and while one or two reviewers have been unconvinced, the consensus appears to be that this is an unusually good first novel from a talented writer. The author should not be confused with the children's poet of the same name.

"Jennet Mallow is born in Yorkshire in the 1920s but her interest in art and creativity alienates her from her family, her father who is a priest, her conventional sister and her emotionally stunted mother. Jennet moves to London in search of a more exciting life and finds it in her new environment and in the handsome and enigmatic figure of the painter David Heaton. When Jennet falls pregnant, her parents more or less force the two to marry. In the postwar austerity of the 1940s, the young couple struggles to make ends meet and Jennet finds that her home life is gradually eroding everything she has fought to achieve. Aware that David is becoming increasingly reliant on drink and tired of the dank and drab bedsit in which they live, Jennet suggests they move to Spain. There, the bright blue skies, warm air and sunlit beaches give the couple and their children a new lease of life. Jennet begins to paint again and an agent takes an interest in her work. But as Jennet's own career begins to take off, her relationship with David sours and the two enter a destructive spiral with tragic consequences."

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Book of the week and bibliography - Saul David, Zulu Hart

Zulu Hart is the first novel from historian/broadcaster Saul David. David has previously published a very well received history of the Zulu Wars, and we can therefore assume that the historical detail of the novel is likely to be accurate. On top of this has been introduced a back story featuring a young man with a mysterious background attempting to make a career in the army. The book could fairly be described as a page turner – it moves very quickly, and tends to take a simple approach to characterisation. The characters tend either to be very good or very bad, and have little depth. The author in his afterword draws attention to the Flashman novels as inspiration, but does not mention at all the very collectible Simon Fonthill novels of John Wilcox, with which this book seems to have much more in common. The novel has been heavily promoted, and is widely available. It is unlikely to feature on any prize lists, but would be a good holiday read. In addition, it will probably be the first in a series and may have value in the future if the series is successful.

“George Hart is the bastard son of a pillar of the British military establishment and a half Irish, half Zulu actress. Bullied at school for his suspiciously dark skin and lack of a father, Hart soon learns to fight – and win. At eighteen, his world is shaken by his mother’s revelation that his anonymous fathr is willing to give him a vast inheritance – provided he can prove himself worthy of the prize as an officer in the King’s Dragoon Guards. At a time when racism and prejudice are rife in Victorian society, Hart struggles to come to terms with his identity. Forced to leave the army, he decides to head to South Africa, and a fresh start. But George Hart has soldiering in his blood, and once in Africa the urge to serve again is strong. Yet now he is caught between two fierce and unyielding forces as Britain drives towards war with the Zulus. Hart must make a choice – and fight for his life.”


Zulu Hart (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2009)
Hart of Empire (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2010)

Churchill's Sacrifice of the Highland Division: France 1940 (Brassey’s, London, 1994)Mutiny At Salerno: An Injustice Exposed (Brassey’s, London, 1995)The Homicidal Earl (Little Brown, London, 1997)
Military Blunders: The How and Why of Military Failure (Constable and Robinson, London, 1997)
Prince of Pleasure (Little Brown, London, 1998)
The Indian Mutiny: 1857 (Viking, London, 2002)
Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (London, Viking, 2004)
Victoria's Wars: The Rise of Empire (Viking, London, 2006)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Book of the week and bibliography - Richard Milward, Ten Storey Love Song

Ten Storey Love Song is a second novel from, Richard Milward, an English writer born in Middlesbrough in 1984. His debut novel Apples was published by Faber and Faber in 2007 to great acclaim. Both Apples and Ten Story Love Song deal with growing up in Middlesborough, against a background of drugs, alcohol and sex and general excess. They are probably not for the easily shocked.

Milward has achieved success as an author early – his first book was written when he was only 19. He was raised and schooled in Guisborough, Cleveland and studied Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Art at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. He cites Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh as the book that made him want to write, and he has been compared to Welsh in terms of the ground he is covering, albeit dealing with a new generation. He has also said that Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan and Hunter S. Thompson are influences.

Love Song is written as a single 286 page paragraph, and opinions have been divided as to whether or not this is helpful. However, previous novels which have taken unusual approaches to punctuation have on occasion done very well – The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (full stops only) springs to mind. Both Apples and Love Song are published in paperback only by Faber & Faber. First editions of the former are surprisingly difficult to find; the latter can be found easily.

“Spanning one dynamite paragraph, "Ten Storey Love Song" follows Bobby the Artist's rise to stardom and horrific drug psychosis, Johnnie's attempts to stop thieving and start pleasing Ellen in bed and Alan Blunt, a forty-year-old truck driver who spends a worrying amount of time patrolling the grounds of the local primary school. Bobby - the so-called 'love child of Keith Haring and Basquiat', cooped up in a Middlesbrough tower block - works on his canvases under the influence of pills-on-toast, acid-on-crackers and Francis Bacon. When Bent Lewis, a famous art dealer and mover-shaker from that London appears, Bobby and friends are sent on a sweaty adventure of self-discovery, hedonism and violence involving a 2.5cm-head curved claw hammer. A love song to a loveless Teesside, "Ten Storey Love Song" is a ferocious slab of concrete prose peppered with beauty and delivered with glorious abandon.”


Apples – Faber and Faber, 2007.
Ten Storey Love Song – Faber and Faber, 2009.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Book of the Week - Samantha Harvey, The Wilderness

The Wilderness is a first novel by Samantha Harvey, who was born in Kent, England in 1975. She has an M.A. in philosophy and an M.A. with distinction from the Bath Spa Creative Writing course in 2005. In addition to writing, she has traveled extensively and taught in Japan and has lived in Ireland and New Zealand. The Wilderness is a book which tackles the topic of Alzheimer's disease, and has attracted considerable attention both within the UK and internationally - it will be published late this year in French, German, Dutch and Hebrew. Sounds like a book with potential for the prize lists later in the year. Signed copies are available if you look around.

Jake Jameson is a sixty-five-year-old architect who is on the cusp of retirement. One evening he’s sitting alone in the office, staring down at an architectural drawing. He can’t quite figure out what he’s supposed to do with it. Suddenly he remembers a word, one for which he has been trying for days to recall; entropy - for him the single most interesting theory that exists, a theory that says everything loses, rather than gains, order. This idea underlies this story of a man whose memories are slowly eroding. As Alzheimer’s begins to wear away his sense of identity, Jake builds stories around his life that inform his feelings of blame and responsibility - only to have the stories disintegrate faster than he can capture them. As the plot keeps shifting and the facts unravel, little mysteries start to form: What was the problem with the missing letter “e”? What was behind the mythologies that his Jewish mother told him as a child? Where is his daughter Alice? What happened to her? Eventually we realise that even Jake’s clearest memories may not be true. He is the flawed witness to his own past, the ultimate unreliable narrator. Yet in the end we are left with a clear and moving portrait not only of a sympathetic man but also of a heartrending disease as seen from the inside out.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

New Booker Prize edition from Oak Tree Fine Press

Oak Tree Fine Press have released the latest edition in their First Chapter series of Booker Prize winning novels, in aid of children living with or effected by HIV/AIDS. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize in 2004, and is accompanied by a signed print of Death and Life by Gilbert & George. The print is also available separately in a larger signed edition of 30 copies. This is a beautiful series of editions for any keen collector of the Booker Prize, and print itself is very attractive and collectible.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Book of the Week - Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

Jonathan Littell (born 10 October 1967 in New York) is a bi-lingual (English / French) writer living in Barcelona. He is a dual citizen of the USA and France and is of Jewish background. His first novel written in French, Les Bienveillantes (2006), won two major French awards, the 2006 Prix Goncourt and the grand prix du roman of the Academie Francais. It is just about to be pulished in the UK under the title "The Kindly Ones", shared with one of the wartime novels in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Musuc of Time. he book has attracted substantial praise, but has also proved controversial as a result of its approach to the holocaust from a Nazi perspective. Nonetheless, it is an important novel - the British historian, Antony Beever, reviewing it in the The Times called it "a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come." A signed copy of the UK first edition (just about to be released) should be a good investment.

"Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." So begins the chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France. Max is an intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music. He is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat. Through the eyes of this cultivated yet monstrous man, we experience in disturbingly precise detail the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. During the period from June 1941 through April 1945, Max is posted to Poland, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus; he is present at the Battle of Stalingrad and at Auschwitz; and he lives through the chaos of the final days of the Nazi regime in Berlin. Although Max is a totally imagined character, his world is peopled by real historical figures, such as Eichmann, Himmler, Göring, Speer, Heyrich, Höss, and Hitler himself.

A supreme historical epic and a haunting work of fiction, Jonathan Littell's masterpiece is intense, hallucinatory, and utterly original. Published to impressive critical acclaim in France in 2006, it went on to win the Prix Goncourt, that country's most prestigious literary award, and sparked a broad range of responses and questions from readers: How does fiction deal with the nature of human evil? How should a novel encompass the Holocaust? At what point do history and fiction come together and where do they separate?”