“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.

“How To Find Love In A Bookshop” by Veronica Henry (2016)

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Where better place to look?

Where better place to look?

“He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago.”

There are few places quite as wonderful as a bookshop, from the enormous five-storey flagship branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, to the tiniest second-hand place in the sidestreets of Edinburgh. Hatchards, Daunt and its like are enormously influential places, so it’s no surprise that plenty of books exist about bookshops. Penelope Fitzgerald had a bittersweet bash, and Robin Sloan gave the environment a funny, fantastic airing. It’s Veronica Henry’s turn now, and she’s taken the magic of bookshops to a new level.

Emilia Nightingale has rushed back to England to be at the bedside of her father, Julius, who is dying. Her final promise to him is that she will return to the bookshop, Nightingale Books, that he has run for the last thirty years and keep it going in his memory. Unfortunately, she discovers that her father hasn’t had his eye on the ball, and the shop is losing money hand over fist. It might always have been full of people, but half the time they came in to chat with the charming and kind Julius, rather than buy anything. Emilia must decide whether to keep the shop open or sell off the property to the money-grabbing Ian Mendip who wants the land to expand his empire.

The small town, however, is full of residents who want the shop to stay, but few of them are quite what they seem. Sarah is the lady of the manor, looking forward to her daughter’s upcoming wedding and hiding a painful secret that she can’t tell anyone. Bea has moved to the countryside from London for a better life, but the monotony and boredom is driving her mad. Jackson has never read a book in his life, but now is determined to start so he can bond with his young son and prove to his ex that he’s capable of being a good father. June nurses heartbreak that is decades old. Thomasina is a chef crippled by shyness and desperate to talk to the cute guy at the cheese shop. And Dillon is contractually obliged to keep his place.

The fact that this book has so many characters does wonders for it. We learn enough about each of them to really feel for them and want them to find the happiness that they each seem to deserve. They’re not perfect, which makes them even more so. You learn to love these people despite their flaws. The stories weave together neatly and while Emilia is the central figure, she’s not the most interesting one, and the book soon spirals out from being her story to being the story of many. I love a book that reminds you that we’re all part of one another’s stories, and no one is going through this madness alone.

I only have issues with a couple of moments of characterisation. Thomasina is apparently shy, but this for the most part is an entirely informed quality, as every time we see her, she seems confident. Talking to a stranger in the bookshop and setting up a two-person restaurant in her own home are not the actions of a shy person. Indeed, the first major part she has in the book is reading at Julius’s memorial, a task that seems to immediately do away with the trait she’s most linked to. I’m also not totally sure how to feel about Jackson and his ex, Mia. Jackson supposedly was kicked out after becoming feckless and not helping out with their son, but later he’s shown to be paying maintenance without having been asked, and is desperate to take Mia back despite saying how much she’s changed. For such a nice guy, he can be a bit of a dick. He redeems himself by the end, though.

While it might just be because I’m a bit emotionally unstable at the moment anyway, I did shed a tear or two in the final chapter. As is only right in a book of this kind, there are happy endings all round, and they feel deserved. It’s a book that feels like a nap in front of the fire – warm, comfortable and familiar. As much as there is a lot of human love in the book, of all different kinds, it’s really a love letter to books and to bookshops. Books are so important, and anyone who doesn’t read them just hasn’t found the right one yet. Henry’s passion for the medium is highly pronounced.

A nice little addition is that every few chapters there’s a list of books recommended by one of the characters. Thomasina, for example, lists books about food, and Dillon gives us books with particularly notable servants. This is the kind of book that will only cause you to add further to your reading lists. Devour this book and give yourself some cheer.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

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chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.

“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.

“Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

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We've all been there.

We’ve all been there.

Click! … Here it was again.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a drink. If there’s a glass to be had, I’ve probably already had it. Up until my early twenties, I also remarkably got away with never having a hangover, which, if you’ve never experienced it, makes you feel powerful and godlike. However, I’m twenty-eight now, and while it’s an age that means I should know better, it’s nonetheless also an age in which my hangovers have become more pronounced than ever. But at least they fade, whereas the characters in this novel seem to be cursed with hangovers that never end.

George Harvey Bone is a man with a problem. He is hopelessly, uncontrollably in love with Netta Longdon. She, however, is far cooler in her affections towards him. Knowing how he feels, she makes use of him to provide money and drink for her and her friends, often the men she is actually intimate with. But Bone is weak and drunk, and love is powerful, and he believes that if he keeps on trying, he will soon be welcomed fully as “one of the gang”, and then he and Netta will run away together to start the perfect life he knows they can have.

But Bone has a slight problem that might ruin everything. Every now and then, he slips into what he terms a “dead moment”. These can last hours or days and when he surfaces from them, he can never remember what happened in them. What he doesn’t realise is that in these moments he doesn’t seem to want happiness with Netta – he wants her dead. Bone is living two lives; one in which he worships her, and another in which he wants to kill her for treating him like she does. Which Bone will win out?

Set among the pubs and bars of London and Brighton, on the eve of the Second World War, the novel takes us to the seedy underbelly of society, where the unemployed rub shoulders with failed actors and everyone is three sheets to the wind. George Bone is a pitiful protagonist, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him. We’ve most of us been in a position where we love someone who has no desire to reciprocate our feelings, and often we know what fools we’re making of ourselves, but there are few people to fall in love with that are crueler than Netta.

While readers can see how hideous she is – beautiful but poisonous – Bone seems aware of it too, but is unable to help himself, though that’s probably due to the amount he’s drunk throughout the novel. You find yourself rooting for him, even in his “dead moments” when he is overcome with murderous rage and forgets the real world. He’s sympathetic, sure, but also fairly pathetic. As the novel progresses, you get caught up with his desire to kill as Netta becomes more and more vile, and her friends even more terrible. It all culminates in a tragically bittersweet finale where Bone has to come to terms with reality.

The threat of war coming up fast is never far away from any of the characters minds and, by the time the novel ends, Britain is at war with Germany at last. It’s a novel of worry and social inequality, about wanting and hoping, and life failing to deliver time after time. It’s darkly comic, and said to be Hamilton’s finest novel, but I’ve nothing to compare it with. It stands out though, and is definitely one to read if you have any feelings at all. It’s going to play havoc with them all.

“Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan (1997)

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Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

“The beginning is simple to mark.”

My sister bought me this book without having any idea what it was. It was in a shop where a particular stand had all its books wrapped in brown paper, with keywords written on the outside to give a taster of what was inside. I believe these are done all over the place now, presumably to counteract the notion of judging books by their covers. Thus, it was a surprise to both of us as to what the book actually was inside the packaging. Fortunately, she knows me well, and the keywords aligned to give me a book I enjoyed, by an author I’ve read a couple of times before, Ian McEwan.

In this story, Joe Rose has his entire life changed by one, single moment. While he and his partner of many years, Clarissa, are having a picnic, they are interrupted by an out-of-control hot air balloon, with a man stuck in the ropes. Without thinking, Joe runs to help, along with several other people who happen to have been nearby, including farmhands and a passing doctor. The men try and bring the hot air balloon down and save the boy in the basket, but the winds are too strong and one by one they let go, until just one man is left clinging on, until the dreadful moment where he falls and dies.

Joe is overwhelmed and while checking the body on the off chance for its survival, he is followed by another one of the rescuers, Jed Parry, who asks him to pray with him. Joe politely declines the offer and returns to Clarissa, but later that night, Joe gets a phone call from Parry, informing him that he loves him, and he knows the feeling the reciprocated.

Thus begins a tale of pure obsession, as Parry continually tries to contact Joe, tells him how much he loves him, and begs him to stop playing games, leave Clarissa, and admit his returning feelings out loud. After the phone calls come letters, and then Parry is outside the flat at all times. As much as Parry is obsessed, Joe too becomes fixated on Parry, wondering what exactly he wants and how to get rid of him. But how much of it is real, and how much of it is in Joe’s head? As tensions rise, Joe has to struggle with the loss of his rationality, sanity and Clarissa while Parry continues his renlentless pursuit of the object of his affections.

McEwan often seems to like taking a very small moment and dissecting it to its absolute fullest. The first two chapters, indeed, are very minutely detailed. The first spends a number of pages discussing the moment that Joe and Clarissa first notice the balloon, and the second seems to be almost entirely about the fall of the dead man. While this is not exactly a fast book by any means, the pacing works for it and it’s so tense because of it. You can almost hear Joe’s mind unspooling as he struggles to cope with this sudden interruption to his daily routine.

I don’t know if the book is has ever really been considered a thriller, but it definitely is one, keeping you on tenterhooks throughout as you start to wonder which one is the more deranged, Joe or Parry. The novel is mostly told from Joe’s viewpoint, but one chapter slips into the third person to detail Clarissa’s day, and another four take the form of letters to Joe – three from Parry, one Clarissa.

Ian McEwan is a great writer, who takes ordinary people and thrusts them into difficult situations, as all good books should, and this is definitely one that has something wonderfully haunting about it and will linger in your mind for some time.

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