“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“The Improbability Of Love” by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

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improbability“It was going to be the sale of the century.”

I’ve never been one for art. I’ve been to several of the country’s most impressive and important galleries in my time, but I’m generally never left feeling how I think I should. Art very rarely makes me feel what other people seem to feel when they look at paintings. I can tell when something’s good, and it’s that old adage of “I know what I like”, but paintings and sculpture don’t really fill me with emotion. I’ve known people who get it, and this book has perhaps nudged me a little closer to intending to visit a gallery soon. The Improbability of Love is, as you may have surmised, set within the art world and the gilded, wealthy corners of creative society, and it’s rather swanky, as you may imagine.

Annie McDee is struggling in her new life without Desmond. She’s now found herself in an antique shop looking for a present for a man she knows she shouldn’t be dating. Tucked away behind a rubber plant, she sees a painting that strikes her as particularly beautiful. She buys it, but she has no idea that she’s just acquired a genuine Watteau; a painting that has passed through the hands of everyone from Voltaire to Hitler and stuns anyone who sees it. Annie has other things to worry about; her new job as a personal chef, her mother’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism, and the fact she’s caught the eye of a young museum guide called Jesse. But she’s desperately uninterested in opening up her heart to let someone else in.

Soon, however, with her painting in tow, she is plunged into the art world, which is populated by arrogant critics, penniless nobility, ruthless art dealers, desperate Russians, kind restorers, and more millionaires than you can shake a stick at. When Rebecca Winkleman is asked by her father, the wildly successful art dealer and Auschwitz survivor Memling, to track down a painting that he’s been missing for years, she finds herself also on the trail of The Improbability of Love, unaware that it’s owned by her new chef. Elsewhere, the mad, fame-and-fortune-hungry Barty has to convince a Russian oligarch to foster an interest in art, Earl Beachendon must find an artist willing to sell his works to the museum or his career is over, and poor Jesse must try not to let his feelings for Annie overcome him.

If only paintings could talk… And fortunately, here, they can. Of sorts, anyway, as the book is interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the painting itself, allowing us to learn about its history and meaning. You can certainly say it’s had an interesting life.

I did wonder if I was going to like this book. It’s one that seemed to have had a lot of publicity and table space in bookshops, which is either a sign that it’s really good, or that they’ve got a lot of them to shift. But actually, yeah, I did. I love the worlds of the fabulously wealthy (wouldn’t you love to have so much money that money stopped mattering?) and it’s fun to see how they spend their millions and billions on too much food, old paintings and extravagant houses. Mine would all go on books and good wine

Something odd is going on in here, though. While the characters are all interesting, three-dimensional and broken in their own ways, the real hero of the book is the painting itself and, to a lesser extent, all art. Much is made of the fact that act can instill emotions in us, change the way we feel, and make us feel things we didn’t know were possible. It’s a book that has inspired me to trek up to London specifically to go peruse another gallery. Maybe art lovers will get even more out of this book, being able to picture the paintings in question and knowing how the fictional ones would look. I mean, I can tell a Klimt from a Caravaggio, but I’ve never been overcome by emotion for a painting. Do I need to try harder?

The look is great, and somewhat unique thanks to the inclusion of the painting’s monologues. The painting is rather funny as a character, full of snobbery and disdain for its new owner, in the beginning at least. The book as a whole is gripping, and we bounce between characters, getting inside everyone’s heads and finding out what a dark and twisted place the world is when there’s this much money at stake. Hannah Rothschild is also great at having you think you know where a plot thread is going, only to twist it at the last moment. A really fun romp through an unfamiliar world.

“Jude In London” by Julian Gough (2011)

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jude“I left the iceberg behind me and swam toward England.”

My knowledge of Irish literature is scant. When I visited the Writer’s Museum in Dublin last year, I found myself facing the facts that I haven’t read much that’s come out of the country, mostly because I immediately think of James Joyce and the bits of Ulysses I read at university, which sends that part of my brain scurrying away beneath a desk and hoping no one mentions Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll probably get around to some of the less terrifying ones in time. I bring this up because the hero of today’s novel, Jude, is an Irishman, and there’s some suggestion that this book is an updated version of Tristram Shandy, but I’ll have to take the word of other reviewers for that.

The book opens with Jude clinging to an iceberg in the Irish Sea, floating towards Great Britain where he hopes to find the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with, Angela. It’s worth noting this early on that this book is actually a sequel, so I assume the first book gives detail as to how he’s got into this situation. However, the book does nicely open with a recap on what we’ve missed, including the details that after an accident, Jude has had reconstructive surgery so that he looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, except he has a fully functioning penis as a nose. Oh yes, it’s that sort of book.

Anyway, Jude washes up on the shores of England (or Wales) and then begins his journey to London to find Angela. But things aren’t as simple as just tracking down the love of his life. Along the way he saves the universe, stars in a porn film, chases a monkey, gets mistaken for an artist, kills the Poet Laureate, and comes close to finding out who abandoned him in an Orphanage eighteen years ago. He also finds himself in conversations about Irish literature, comparing them to famous superheroes, and a lengthy but brilliant explanation of the credit crunch using goats.

The plot itself is thin, but that’s not why anyone’s here. We’re here for the sheer strangeness of the novel. It’s well written, and you find yourself pressing on because you can’t imagine where on earth it’s going to go next. I don’t think Gough himself knows. While Jude’s situations are, frankly, unbelievable, you can’t really stop yourself from reading them. It’s sharply satirical – there’s probably a lot about Irish culture that I don’t get – and delights in messing around with surreal jokes, curious construction, and general piss-taking. I particularly enjoyed seeing him arrive early at the Tate Modern and decide to tidy up, which includes making a messy, unmade bed, and cleaning out an enormous fish tank with a dead shark in it, with a long piss in a handy urinal afterwards.

If you like a book you can understand, give this one a miss. If you like something rambling, funny and strange, then there are few books that fit the bill better. Odd, but satisfying.

“The Art Of Destruction” by Stephen Cole (2006)

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art of

Creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin.

“The darkness plays tricks on you, down here.”

The modern Doctor Who books have become so hit and miss for me lately that when I approach one, I now do so with the caution of a bomb disposal squad. In particular, I wondered about this one as it features Rose who, at the time, I loved, but she has sort of faded for me since characters like Donna and Amy who I found more interesting and engaging. Nonetheless, I pushed on and found a genuinely good story.

The action takes place in Chad, Africa in the year 2118. Africa (there’s a lot of generalisation about the continent within the novel, and very little mention of the fact that there are actually 50-ish countries there) still seems to be poor and much of the land that was before seen as unusable has now undergone tests to grow food for the starving millions around the world. While there have been some successes, and genetic manipulation has come a long way, there are still troubles. A team is now working beneath an active volcano, trying to grow edible fungi.

The Doctor and Rose drop in having picked up on some alien activity, and it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Humans and assorted wildlife are being consumed by apparently living gold and turning into statues that seem determined to protect the caves beneath the volcano. Add to that an alien antiques expert, the beautiful but hidden haul of a race of artists and the incoming threat of more aliens with a score to settle, and things are about to get really messy.

Stephen Cole also wrote the Ninth Doctor novel The Monsters Inside which I read a few years ago and really enjoyed. He is one of the better writers for Doctor Who novels, unlike others. The Doctor seems far more like himself here, as if Cole has got a better grip on a character. It’s also nice to see Rose back again, despite her no longer being my favourite companion. The novel plays up the idea that Rose is the one person that the Doctor fell in love with, for whatever reason, and it isn’t a worse novel for it. The aliens are interesting, the whole concept is smart and original, but it does fall down with, as mentioned above, its continual obsession with the idea that Africa is a country rather than a continent. Also, simply because of the difference in medium, the aliens within will never be as clear or as terrifying as those on the television. Still, there are some funny gags, a lot of action and it feels like it could have been an episode in season two quite easily.

My faith in the Who books is redeemed. For now.

“The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

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bookshop“In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.”

I’ve covered elsewhere my love of bookshops, but if you haven’t read that post (and you should, because it’s bloody marvellous) it’s probably a given that I have a fondness for them. There’s nothing more enjoyable than browsing the shelves of a bookshop, hundreds and thousands of new worlds sealed up in paper and ink, ready for adoption by a hungry reader.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Bookshop, we get the tale of middle-aged widow Florence Green who has decided that her small seaside town of Hardborough could really do with a bookshop. She purchases the building – a house that has been empty for seven years due to damp and a resident poltergeist – and despite various objections, begins running the only bookshop and lending library in the area.

As her success grows, so does her animosity with some of the other residents, not least the social climbing Mrs Gamart, who believes that the building should have instead been used to house an Arts Centre. However, others are far more willing to give their blessing, including young Christine Gipping and reclusive Mr Brundish. With their encouragement, Florence sets out against the struggles to make the best of the situation and inject a little bit of culture to the sleepy town.

This is a book about that peculiarly British issue of class. Florence is not a member of the high society, and perhaps that is why she is looked down upon by those who are. In fact, those who oppose the bookshop are the same ones who claim to be cultured, fighting tooth and nail to show that they are more cultured than everyone else by knowing what is best for the town in the fields of art and literature. The lower orders, who care little for social standing but rarely read, are much more supportive.

Florence is a magnificent character. I imagine that the late fifties were not the easiest time for a woman to make it on her own – the following decade would do much for equality – and perhaps this adds to the views of her detractors. However, through correspondance with her solicitors and bank manager, it is made clear that Florence can hold her own and has a core of steely determination. She will not be beaten back, not by inspectors, lawyers or ghosts, and she will fight against the vile people around her to do what she thinks is right.

It’s a charming, if emotionally poignant and gut-wrenching, story that shows a nasty side of human nature, and what happens when a force for good comes up against them. One for the ages.