Book Review: The Book of Alexander

The Book of Alexander, by Mark Carew, is a slow burn that is well worth persevering with. What may in the first half feel protracted is shown to be necessary to reel the reader in. Once the pace picks up sinister elements add to the tension. The trope of unreliable narrator is harnessed masterfully.

The story opens with a personal investigator being contracted to observe and write a report on a young arts student by the father of his girlfriend. Having ascertained where the young man lives the PI gains permission from a business opposite the house to use a disused showroom as his observation base. He watches. He follows. He makes notes on what he sees. As the days pass the reader will become aware of a growing number of inconsistencies in the narrative. Although somewhat discombobulating this will likely be accepted until understood for what it is.

The student, Alexander, socialises with beautiful women. They visit his house and the PI grows intrigued by what is happening inside each room. Eventually he gains entry and the reader learns of Alexander’s art project. Aspects of the backstory that have already started to shift become ever more unstable.

“The happy couple, and they did look happy, passed at a good distance from where I stood, partially hidden as I was behind a lamppost in the side street. I could see their faces, Melanie still wearing her trademark blue beret. I gave them a one-minute head start, enough time for them to cross the river and reach the other side, and then I climbed out of the car and followed them.”

Who is the PI? Who is Alexander? Who has asked for the report being written?

As the answers to these questions are revealed more complex mysteries bubble to the surface. Alexander wishes to reveal to his subjects how other’s see them. He asks that they observe themselves as a third party would. He is most interested in understanding himself in this way. He acts out roles to observe their effect.

His art is at times destructive. There are also suggestions of a more sinister history. Human skulls are mentioned as is an acquaintance who survived a fall from a great height. Parental support may be welcome but is not always benign.

From a gentle, at times sluggish beginning this tale develops into a disturbing, self-reflective chiller. The shifting perspectives demonstrate how filtered any observation of people will be. Alexander seeks subjects for his art. Readers may find themselves captured by his gaze.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).

  

 

 

Book Review: Randall

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Randall, by Jonathan Gibbs, imagines a world where Damian Hirst dies before he becomes Britain’s most eminent artist provocoteur. That throne is captured by Randall, a conceptual artist whose controversial work causes outrage amongst his closest friends as well as the art establishment and public.

The book is largely written from the point of view of Vincent, a city trader who meets Randall at the opening of his degree show at Goldsmiths in 1989 and ends up joining his circle of closest friends. From the beginning of the tale, set in 2014, we know that Randall is now dead. His widow, Justine, has contacted Vincent and asked him to fly to New York as she has something to show him. This turns out to be a series of recently discovered artworks that have the potential to turn their world upside down.

Vincent has been writing a book about Randall’s life which is presented between the present day chapters. Thus the reader learns of Randall’s rise through the national and then international artworld, and of his views on what is regarded as art. It is challenging, enlightening, amusing and somewhat poignant. Randall took his work seriously whilst mocking those who admired what he produced. He shocked for effect yet whatever he created was considered brilliant. He demanded that his admirers consider what their behaviour towards him illustrated about themselves.

The monetary value of a work of art isn’t based on the initial purchase cost but on its resale value. Art collectors are investors, traders. A piece becomes a part of their collection, its initial raison d’être serving only as an advertisement. Randall made things that looked like art and collectors snapped them up. Does what is considered art even exist or is it what fits with the accepted aesthetics of the time? Art connoisseurs can be somewhat smug, particularly when confronted with those they consider lacking in art appreciation. Randall recognised this and did what he could to rattle the gilded cages of their world.

“When it’s is the studio, it’s still part of the artist. When it’s in the gallery, it’s a commodity”

Vincent’s memoir offers insight into the art world and a somewhat possessive view of a friend. In the background are other artists from Randall’s circle who have different yet also close relationships with the man. Such is the nature of friendship but in presenting it in this way the reader is challenged to consider how well anyone can know another however close they may be, or wish to to be.

Vincent suggests that Randall despised those he relied upon for his fame and fortune, and that he often treated his friends little better. As the reader learns of the artist’s relationship with his wife and son this picture is revealed as somewhat skewed. Perhaps, as with art, each person sees only their own interpretation, coloured by what they are educated to expect.

The writing is deft and provides a fascinating, original and highly readable story. Then there is the ending. This left me wondering if the author had played me as his protagonist was wont to do. Either it is clever and I am not, or this questionning is the point. However I choose to interpret, I am frustrated that I could not complete the circle. Despite my lack, this is a recommended read.

Book Review: Place Waste Dissent

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Place Waste Dissent, by Paul Hawkins, presents the reader with a monochrome kaleidoscope of imagery overlaid with the bleak poetry of personal experience and anarchy. Using a scrapbook of cut up photographs, legal notices and rough typed words it documents the events of the Claremont Road protests against the proposed M11 link road in east London in the early 1990s.

In the wake of compulsory purchase orders, the derelict properties were inhabited by squatters and other protesters against the government imposed demolition of homes to make way for roads. The lengthy dispute brought to the public attention how radical dissent could not be easily subjugated. If law and order are to be maintained there must be a willingness to comply or a fear of the consequences. Those who have nothing to lose are difficult to control.

The book opens with the story of Dolly Watson who had lived at 32 Claremont Road for her entire life. She had survived the blitz, although the experience had left her fearful of fire. At the time of the protests she was all but housebound, unable to climb her stairs. She got by on a morning sherry, porridge, tea and a 40 a day smoking habit, neighbours doing the little shopping she required. After all that Dolly had seen and experienced throughout her long life she saw no reason to leave her home. The arrival of the squatters and protesters added colour, the grandchildren she had never had.

Interspersed with the personal stories of a few of the Claremont Road occupiers, many of whom spend their days high on drink and drugs, are snippets from the summons, threats and surveillance operations that were enacted in an attempt to drive the troublesome individuals out. None of it worked. When the police stepped up the measures they were willing to use to force evictions, so too did the residents. They chained themselves to pipes, walls and each other. By the end the houses were being demolished around them, great chunks being removed with protesters still attached.

Fascinating though these details are, it is the strength of the presentation that gives this book its edge. It is performance art on the page, an installation with time as the third dimension rather than space.

The work is full of static and flux. Although the stories of Dolly, and a young girl they call Flea, are poignant, many of the protesters are far from admirable in the way they live their lives. This is presented raw. What comes across is that these are people who have fallen through the cracks created by a society which values corporate success over caring for those who are less able to cope, or who are unwilling to become cogs in the mechanisms that keep the privileged in power.

Dolly remembers the unemployed of 1907, those left homeless by the war, the endless fighting in far away places throughout her lifetime. The arrival of the squatters did not surprise her:

“they did that everywhere in London after the war, they had to live somewhere and it’s the same today…”

Running roughshod over the needy, blaming them for their predicament, will not make them go away. The poor have always been amongst us, they have nowhere else to go. This book is a timely reminder that it only takes a few determined individuals to tear down the facade of order. Injustice breeds discontent. This powerful work documents how damaging that can be for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

 

 

 

Film Review: The Silent Waiting Room

Yesterday I was offered the opportunity to review a newly released, independent, short film. As I watched a run-through to see if I would be interested, it quickly became clear that this was not just a film but a work of art. Yes, I wanted to review it. My concern was that I should do such a creation justice.

‘The Silent Waiting Room’ was conceived, written and directed by Jack Ralls, who was also largely responsible for the editing. This talented young actor has appeared alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s crime drama, ‘Sherlock’. He has also been a knight in ‘Merlin’ and has had roles in ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Casualty’.

In this short film he plays Jerry, one of four friends living out their afterlife through silent movies which allow them to to re live their golden years as actors. Jerry, however is drawn to his wife, Grace, still in the living world, thus breaking the facade of the romantic play in which they try to continue.

The film is presented in black and white with an accompanying, hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. It makes use of techniques from the hey day of silent films, with clever use of light, shadow, flickering celluloid and stills, artfully employed to evoke the appropriate atmosphere and emotion.

A chase scene makes use of classic, humorous techniques, with protagonists running through a variety of settings including fields, parks, streets, and steps; going unseen when a back is turned, hiding an implausible number of people in a basket. The locations, which are all in and around Bristol, are cleverly juxtaposed to facilitate flow and variety, with characters moving too and fro seamlessly.

In such a short space of time the film offers menace, threat, humour and pathos. The most moving scenes are when those in the afterlife visit the still living, their now elderly partners who are still to join them. The juddering, merging of black and white with colour works perfectly, treasured photographs explaining who is who.

Although I guess I could see it coming, the denouement still had me in tears, not something that I succumb to easily. What a lovely thought that the frail and elderly may return to their prime and join those they love, that death is another beginning.

The whole idea behind this film appealed, that there is an afterlife where we may meet up with friends and loved ones to have some fun. In this life we are well aware of the feelings of loss that a death produces, it was interesting to consider that those who go before us may also feel bereft until we join them.

Jack Ralls was obviously key in the making of this film, but there were many others who provided the talent required to bring this project to life. None of the actors, artists, musicians or supporting crew should be overlooked. When a work that is so aesthetically pleasing is brought to my attention I realise how much I take for granted when being entertained. Art such as this deserves wider recognition and appreciation.

Have I piqued your interest? If so then get yourself a cup or glass of your favourite beverage, settle yourself on a comfy chair, and indulge in fifteen minutes of pleasure. This sublime film should be seen and shared, enjoy.

 

Book Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, is neither pure prose nor a graphic novel. It is a story with pictures, unlike any other that I have come across before. Both the language and artwork are dark, rich and deep; evocative of the Scottish islands in which the tale is set. It moved me in a way that unsettled yet delighted; brutal, mystical, a parable for our time.

I do not read e-books. I have no problem if others choose to consume their literature in this way but, for me, there is something special in holding a physical book. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain is a thing of tactile beauty, a book that deserves time and appreciation for so much more than the tale which it tells. Some pages have few words, the artwork saying all that is needed to draw the reader in. Other pages paint the pictures with prose that is sparse yet efficacious. The occasional use of comic strips is effective proof that this medium should not be casually dismissed.

The book is a story of two men on a journey, strangers travelling to a cave filled with cursed treasure to which only one knows the way. It is a tale of greed and survival, but conveys so much more. At its heart is loss, a tragedy, a desire for revenge, and the ultimate shallowness of achieving that for which we yearn.

It will not take long to read, but expect what unfolds to remain as the contents are pondered over time. It is a book that should be read, reread, flicked through and discussed with others. It has touched me in a way that few books do, an assault on the mind and the senses, powerful, harsh, but above all alluring.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.