26 October 2009

Book of the Week (35): "Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Death and Dementia" illustrated by Gris Grimly

It’s tough to re-imagine a classic. Even tougher when that classic has images already firmly established in the popular imagination. Artists as diverse as Aubrey Beardsley, Édouard Manet, Gustave Doré and John Tenniel have illustrated versions of the Gothic and grim stories. Filmmakers too have tried to put Poe’s words into images – the British Hammer Horror series being particularly fond of filming them (often starring Vincent Price). The Alan Parsons Project made a concept album based on them, The Simpsons TV show has referred to Edgar Allan Poe at least four times in different episodes and more books than there’s room for here have referenced either Poe or one of his stories. So how do you approach such a well-worn subject and make it fresh? The answer, according to Gris Grimly, is to turn up the gruesome button and re-create the stories as half-text half-graphic novel.

Having wondered whether a name such as ‘Gris Grimly’ could in fact be real (hmm...), and then subsequently pondered if, having been born with (or created) such a name, illustrating Poe was a foregone conclusion (and working with Neil Gaiman – they collaborated on The Dangerous Alphabet) I checked out his website – well worth doing, though quite adult (bet that put you off...) – and found that maybe it was. Though whether sent by fate or accident it has to be admitted that this is a match made in Heaven (or possibly Hell, of course).

Gore, blood, dismembered limbs, misery, corpses, coffins and madness – they’re all here; in the words of Poe and in Grimly's gloriously anarchic and bloody illustrations. If you have a taste for the macabre, love being scared, and think Darren Shan is ideal bedtime reading, go and find a copy of this – you’ll relish every page.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

  • More Poe – the complete Tales of Mystery and Imagination are fabulously chilling reading. Look out for the ones illustrated by other authors too – the one by Arthur Rackham is brilliant.
  • Or some Darren Shan? The closest to this in terms of splatter is undoubtedly The Demonata, starting with Lord Loss.
  • Or more classic illustrated horror? Try The Tomb of Dracula by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colan.

16 October 2009

Book of the Week (34): "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood" by David Benedictus, with decorations by Mark Burgess

Like everyone else I know, I was secretly wanting not to like this book. Self-righteous indignation is so much fun, after all. How could they have allowed such a thing?! A sequel to Winnie the Pooh? Outrageous! And yes, having read it I am still slightly outraged at the very idea of the thing (who do these people think they are?... Winnie the Pooh is MINE and I haven't authorised this...) But I have to confess, grudgingly, that Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is lovely.

Christopher Robin is back home from school for the summer, just a little bit more grown-up than last time we saw him. But the friends he is reunited with in the Hundred Acre Wood have not, fortunately, grown up at all. Everyone we remember and love is there - Kanga and Roo, bouncy Tigger, Rabbit and Owl (WOL), Eeyore, Piglet, and, of course, the "silly old bear" himself, Winnie the Pooh. Over the summer they learn to play cricket, Owl tries to write a book, Rabbit tries to organise a census, and together they manage to find a solution to the drought that has left them all hot and uncomfortable, especially their new friend Lottie, an otter, the latest addition to the group.

Return... has some good and very AAMilneish jokes, it has very sweet, tender moments too, and much of the tone feels just right and wonderfully familiar. The pictures too, with just an occasional quibble, are very much of a piece with Shepard's originals, and they help to make us feel at home in this book too.

Inevitably not everything about it is perfect, not every word is on target, and however sweet it lacks the imaginative originality of Milne's books; but though it invites comparisons to the Milnes, that's hardly a fair measure of success (yes, it may be found wanting when seen against the Milnes, but really, what wouldn't?). A brave endeavour, and a delightfully successful one on the whole. There can't be many who would not be charmed by this book. (Yes, Eeyore, even you...)

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

12 October 2009

Book of the Week (33): "The Bride's Farewell" by Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff’s first novel, How I Live Now, burst onto the scene to a shower of praise, winning a multitude of awards and establishing Rosoff as a major voice in the teen literature market. Her new book, The Bride’s Farewell is written in the same assured hand and with the same attention to detail, but instead of taking place in the present or near future, as in her previous novels, it takes the reader back in time to join a Victorian spirited heroine on a journey that will change the course of her life.

Pell used to think that she'd like to marry Birdie, the boy next door, with whom she shared many childhood hours at both work and play. But when the time comes, Pell realises that all that Birdie can offer her is a miserable future as a housebound mother and wife, and so she steals away on the morning of her wedding, accompanied by her loyal horse Jack and, to her displeasure, her mute younger brother Bean. She leaves behind a drunken fundamentalist father, a broken mother and a handful of sisters who she assures herself will get by without her.

Pell's bid for freedom takes her on a treacherous path. She loses both her companions early on due to a swindling horse trader, and is reduced to near starvation as she scavenges on her way to reclaim all that was lost to her. Enter Dogman, a dark and brooding poacher, with whom she develops a relationship of sorts until she is ready to face the road, and the consequences of her actions, again. As I read the book I was constantly reminded of both Thomas Hardy, the late-19th century novelist, famous for his vivid descriptions of rural England and the doomed characters inhabiting it; and, in the character of Dogman especially, D.H Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors, better known as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Bride’s Farewell captures the Victorian countryside beautifully, in all its glory and misery.

Pell’s affinity with, and deep understanding of horses is convincingly described, and although I am not a horse person myself, I could see the attraction when looking through Pell’s eyes. Pell herself is a great proto-feminist character, and I found myself rooting for her all the way. My only disappointment was the matter-of-factness in which Rosoff treated Pell and Dogman’s relationship. While it was a bond between two none-too-communicative outsiders, I expected Pell’s emancipation to also have a sexual or emotional aspect to it which I felt was underexplored in the novel. Nevertheless,
The Bride’s Farewell is a compelling historical novel, obviously written through modern-day eyes, but without compromising on the period details which lend it depth and integrity. Fans will not be disappointed.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • If you haven't read all of Meg Rosoff's other books, try her first, How I Live Now; and then go on to Just in Case and What I Was.
  • I mentioned Thomas Hardy and D.H Lawrence, and therefore I recommend checking out their novels, many of which belong to the cannon of great European literature. My favourites are Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, though Lady Chatterley’s Lover is also a good racy read which I very much enjoyed in my late teens.

08 October 2009

Guardian Children's Fiction Prize

Well, after the Forward Prize for poetry (to Don Patterson), and the Booker (to Hilary Mantel) and the Nobel (to Herta Müller), all announced in the last 24 hours, it's only fair that we get at least one big children's book prize announcement tonight too. And so we do. The winner of the 2009 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize has just been named a few moments ago, and I'm absolutely delighted to say that the book the judges have chosen is Exposure by Mal Peet.

A great choice. Chosen from a strong shortlist - alongside it were Terry Pratchett's Nation, Morris Gleitzman's Then and Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road - Mal's re-working of the Othello story is a terrific teen book - pacy, clever, impeccably written. (I know I've mentioned in an earlier post how much I loved it...)

I should mention one quibble only - I'm currently reading Marcus Sedgwick's longlisted Revolver and rather baffled that it didn't make the shortlist... But of the ones I've read those that did are all certainly fine books, I think, and Exposure is a very worthy winner. Huge congratulations to Mal!

[Exposure is included in the forthcoming U Teen B G, enthusiastically recommended by Patrick Ness, one of the Guardian judges and last year's winner.]

06 October 2009

Book of the Week (32): "Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers" by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh

There are good graphic novels, and there are great ones. As soon as I finished this one, I re-read it. Several times. Alan Moore, who doesn’t usually write reviews, called it “wonderfully imaginative and stylish”. Originally published in instalments in the award winning anthology Sturgeon, Salem Brownstone will surprise and delight in equal measure. But what is it? Supernatural Thriller? Gothic Noir? Gritty Romance? John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh’s witty narrative contains elements of all of these.

Salem never really knew his father, but is all too happy to pocket the keys to the family mansion when his father dies an untimely death. He is looking forward to drinking away the inheritance. But along with the keys come a part in a crucial battle with beings beyond this world, intent on destroying it. A good thing that Dr Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights is parked across the way, and the gorgeous (and frighteningly flexible) Cassandra is on hand to help, although she seems to know more than she lets on. Who is one-eyed Lola Q? What has happened to Lorelei, the singer who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances? What do the terrifying Shadow Boys want with his father’s scrying ball? Each answer only seems to raise even larger questions.

We journey with the witty, wisecracking Salem into a darkly gothic otherworld where nothing and no-one is what they seem, as he discovers just how much he mattered to his father, and decides that just maybe he should matter to himself. The beautiful drawings of Nikhil Singh recall Dorian Grey channelling Aubrey Beardsley, and reward repeated reading with compelling details; every character is sharply drawn and suggestive, and the narrative and drawing style move between several different worlds with fluid ease. As the stakes mount ever higher, and everything seems to be falling apart, I was willing Salem and his newfound associates on. The ending is delightful and unexpected, leaving open the possibility that there is more to come. I certainly hope so.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

03 October 2009

Book of the Week (31): "The Death Defying Pepper Roux" by Geraldine McCaughrean

"On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realising it was the day he must die. His heart cannoned like a billiard ball off some soft green wall of his innards. This had to be the day everyone had been waiting for – and he was terrified he
would disappoint them, make a poor showing, let people down."

Thus begins Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest book, The Death Defying Pepper Roux, and with an opening paragraph like that how could you not want to read on?

When Pepper is born his Aunt announces that she has had a visit from Saint Constance in a dream. The saint’s message is clear (she has very good diction): Pepper will be dead by the time he is fourteen. And so Pepper grows up being taught the words of the funeral service, having to go to confession every other day and having to stay at home (there’s no point in wasting a good education on him if he won’t live to use it).

Then, on the day of his fourteenth birthday, life takes a surprising turn and Pepper finds himself leaping from one adventure to the next, with barely time to take a breath.

This is a terrific book and I defy anyone to read it and guess what’s coming next. Geraldine McCaughrean has a style all of her own and she is mistress of the magical power of similes to enrich a story.

My advice? Suspend your disbelief and join Pepper for the journey of a lifetime!

Recommended by Laura Hutchings