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  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Jane Ray

    Tue, 01 Dec 2009 04:48

    Jane Ray won the Smarties Book Prize for her illustrations for The Story of Creation and has been nominated four times for the Kate Greenaway Medal. She lives in London.

    Jane's new book is beautiful version of Snow White retold and illustrated in six exquisite three-dimensional scenes, returning to the original Grimm fairy tale for elements of the story and giving her world a real sense of theatrical drama and romance. Six scenes tell the story of Snow White and each scene is three layers deep (so, for instance, you can peer through the woods to the house of the seven dwarfs). Swathes of red curtain and a wooden stage complete the theatrical effect.

    Findings by Kathleen Jamie

    At a talk I heard her give at the Edinburgh Festival a few years back Kathleen Jamie described these essays as sketches for her poems. I always enjoy people's sketch books and notebooks, sometimes even more than finished work -- it is possible to get a glimpse of the thought process, something fleeting, something in progress. Having said that, there is nothing unfinished about these essays. In subject matter they range from bird life, the sea and the wild lonely places, through to a study of the Edinburgh skyline and thoughts around illness and mortality. In treatment they all reveal Jamie's supreme clarity of observation and an extraordinary ability to listen. There is, running through this book, a stillness, a waiting, a quiet "paying heed" which focuses the mind and heightens awareness.

    Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

    I studied Tess for A level, loved it and love it still. As a teenager I was outraged to the point of tears by the unfairness of Tess's situation, and moved by descriptions of the natural world and the Wessex landscape. Hardy's descriptions of summer coming to the Frome Valley as a background to Tess falling in love are some of the most beautiful in English literature. And, in contrast, his descriptions of the workers labouring in the bitter winter fields give us a totally unsentimental glimpse of the realities of agricultural labour in England in the 1870s. The idea of pathetic fallacy that frames the novel, has stayed with me into adult life and informs the way I work on my illustrations.

    Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin

    Another collection of essays, this time exploring the concept of the wood, both the element and the place, and of our relationship with trees. Deakin takes us on a journey through groves and forests, orchards and gardens. He introduces us to the farmers, foresters, sculptors, poets, artists, naturalists and environmentalists who love, live and work with wood. We meet the birds and animals who live there -- the rooks and foxes, moths and badgers. It is a richly satisfying and atmospheric experience that takes you into the very heart of the woods.

    Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

    The contrast in Faulks' first world war novel between the erotisism of the love affair at its heart and the claustrophobia of the tunnelling under the trenches make this a breathless read. The contrast between tenderness and brutality makes each more extreme. It is a powerful and stimulating book, with much to say about the human spirit. Truly unputdownable. I read this almost at one sitting and was exhausted by the end.

    Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes

    This is an exploration of the relationship between a grandmother and her little grand-daughter, as they wait for a new baby to be born. Although it is warm and alive with the special aspects of this relationship, Figes also explores the darkness of childhood with special reference to her own complex history as a child forced to leave Nazi Germany before the war. Her own Grandparents were left behind and perished there and this tragedy haunts Figes. Through their conversations and the telling of fairy tales grandmother and grand-daughter glimpse each others worlds of innocence and experience.

    Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

    Richard Yates has until recently been something of a well kept secret outside America. I read this novel before the film came out, loved it and I couldn't understand how it had remained so relatively unknown. Yates's story of a young couple desperate to escape the confines of suburban living is a complete masterpiece, with tragedy at its core. The life April and Frank Wheeler live drives them apart and drives them mad as their hopes and ideals are eventually revealed to them as being without foundation. Yates describes their disintegration with compassion and understanding.

    The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

    This book, by the creator of The Moomins, is described on its cover as a literary gem and it is difficult to categorise it in any other way. Jansson writes about the relationship over a long summer, between a(nother) grandmother and her grand-daughter. Refreshingly unsentimental, it encompasses wonderful observations of the natural world, philosophy, religion, death and love. In describing the minutiae of mucking about on the Scandinavian island that is their summer home, it also deals with the truly big things in life. And the observations of the very young and the very old are sometimes closer than one might imagine.

    A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

    This is the story of the friendship between two survivors of the first world war, both working in and around an ancient English country church. One man is uncovering and restoring an historical wall painting, the other is searching for a lost grave. The story is about their return to a more normal life from the brutality of the trenches, through a connection with the landscape around them, through friendship and love. A novella, it has a perfection in its brevity.

    Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

    When I read the first few pages of this novel I remember feeling that writing as perfect as this almost negated the need for any other art form. Its rich language evokes music, describes colour and form, fear and love and memory. Seven year old Jakob Beer is a refugee, rescued from the Holocaust by Athos, a Greek archeologist, who smuggles him back to Greece and brings him up. The wonderful writing makes links between the child's apalling memories "rising in me like bruises", and the careful digging and sifting and uncovering involved in the work of the archeologist. This is a poetic and beautiful novel.

    Cider With Rosie Laurie Lee

    I realise in compiling this selection of favourite books, how many of them are centred on the English countryside and landscape. It has always inspired and sustained me. Laurie Lee's language here is so vibrant that you can smell the vegetation. I was about 12 when I first read Cider With Rosie and it was the first time that I had read a novel that was so close to poetry and so close to the experience of being a child. I have read it many times since and it is ingrained in my memory so deeply that I sometimes confuse my memories with Lee's.

  • Robert Crowther was born in Leeds in 1948. His father was a commercial traveller and the family moved many times around the north-east during Robert's childhood. He was interested in drawing from an early age, particularly detailed scenes packed with characters. After college, Robert worked as a freelance designer for Madame Tussaud's before becoming a full-time children's book creator. Father of two and grandfather of three, Robert now lives in Norfolk with his American wife, Nancy.

    Here are Robert's ten favourite books...

    The Crow Road by Iain Banks

    Iain Banks tells wonderful stories with great characters full of romance, humour and descriptions of the Scottish landscape. You're never quite sure what will happen until the very end of the book, but you are longing to know, which makes his books real page-turners. Espedair Street and The Steep Approach to Garbadale are two other favourites.

    The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin

    I like crime novels and have read most of the Inspector Rebus books. His character has become an old friend that you come to know well through all the different books. I never have the faintest idea who the murderer is, but the tales are just so engrossing. They are great to read late at night!

    A Kestrel for A Knave by Barry Hines

    A gritty tale of a young boy, Billy Casper, growing up in a poor South Yorkshire mining district. The toughness of life at school is brilliantly portrayed, as is Billy's love of animals, in particular, the kestrel hawk he trains from the nest.

    Collected Poems John Betjeman

    I studied Betjeman at school and can still remember odd bits of Greenaway, Trebetherick and East Anglian Bathe. He had an amazing gift of conveying scenes with a few well-chosen words.

    There after supper lit by lantern light
    Warm in the cabin I could lie secure
    And hear against the polished sides at night
    The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure (Norfolk)

    This still gives me a warm glow as I read it.

    Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley

    This book evokes perfectly the wartime atmosphere of life in London and Cornwall. The family of characters is vividly depicted and the story is full of humour and romance.

    Nice Work by David Lodge

    If I like an author, I tend to read all their books. This is a very entertaining tale about the meeting of a rather staid industrialist, Vic Wilcox, who is shadowed at work by Dr Robyn Penrose, a liberal academic. What I like about Lodge's books is that he reintroduces characters from previous novels taken from the academic and business world in Rummidge, a fictitious version of Birmingham.

    The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

    I think this is one of the cleverest children's books ever published. It is a brilliant graphic idea, which seems so obvious now that you think "why didn't I think of that?" Janet's illustrations are beautiful and there is amazing detail on the cards and letters inserted into the envelopes of the various nursery rhyme characters.

    War Game by Michael Foreman

    The beauty of Michael Foreman's illustrations is breathtaking and his use of watercolour is just so skilful. War Game tells the story of a football game between the English and German soldiers on Christmas Day. The words and pictures merge together superbly to tell this bleak, but uplifting tale.

    In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

    I love this book for its style. The colours used in the illustration are muted, contrasty and very unexpected. This is a very surreal dream fantasy of a tale, but a timeless classic.

    Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett

    A brilliantly illustrated book with clever cut-out features. This is a very original tale, illustrated in a unique way to tell of a mouse's phobias. A very funny book!

  • As the year begins to wind down, it is customary practice to look back over the year and pick out one's favourite books of the last 12 months. Here are some fiction titles that I've particular enjoyed. And, please, do leave a comment telling me what fiction titles you've enjoyed the most in 2009...

    2666 by Roberto Bolaño

    Praise for the work of Roberto Bolaño has been building for many years. With the paperback publication this year of 2666 the literary cult favourite went overground and, quite rightly, Bolaño was everwhere. A masterpiece.

    Ravel by Jean Echenoz

    Proof that even a very short novel can pack one helluva punch. A beautiful, powerful, restrained work by a French writer who deserves to be much more widely known.

    The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

    A charming, clever, if ultimately rather slight novel about poetry and rhyming, and writing and not being able to write, and not being much good at ryhming either! Narrated by the non-rhyming poet Paul Chowder who is writing (or, rather, not writing) the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry...

    Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

    J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, and one of his finest. Should have won the Booker Prize.

    The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

    Twenty years after his debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, singer-songwriter Nick Cave returned with the electrifying The Death of Bunny Munro. Much-talked-about, and with very good reason...

    Manituana by Wu Ming

    Clever and compelling historical shenanigans from the authors of 54 and Q.

    Beginners by Raymond Carver

    The book that may well change the way we read Carver forever. Or the book that might just make us realise how important editors can be!

    The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

    Günter Grass's classic gets a shiny new translation for its fiftieth anniversary.

    After -- Making Mistakes by Gabriel Josipovici

    Two novels -- yes, two -- from one of our very finest novelists. If you don't know Josipovici's writing, you are missing out on reading one of the best writers we have.

    Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

    A collection of linked stories from a writer widely -- and rightly -- praised for his precision, humanity and humour.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- David Vann

    Tue, 20 Oct 2009 05:02


    David Vann was born in Alaska and comes from a family of sinkers. His father sank a new cabin cruiser in Alaska, right in the marina, by forgetting to put in the drain plug when he launched. Vann's grandfather sank an old converted Navy cruiser on a lake in California. His uncle sank the same boat twice in Idaho. Vann himself sank in the Caribbean on his honeymoon, as chronicled in his best-selling memoir, A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. Every family has to be good at something, and Vann is hard at work continuing the tradition. Last year, he built a 52-foot aluminum trimaran for a nonstop solo circumnavigation for Esquire magazine and had to turn back because the boat was about to fold in half. He's also had run-ins with pirates in Mexico, which he wrote about for Outside magazine, and he's sailed by land from Florida to California for Men's Journal on a "Blokart", a tricycle with a sail (made in New Zealand, where Vann has residency).

    David's latest book is Legend of a Suicide. This is his Tuesday Top Ten:

    The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

    Proulx is a master stylist. Using Anglo-Saxon diction and meter (in the second paragraph, for instance, "hive-spangled, gut roaring" and "ham knuckle, buttered spuds"), she heaps up content. Sentence fragments and lists cut away everything grammatical, everything unnecessary. And this is appropriate for a protagonist learning to be a reporter, learning to write newspaper headlines. Quoyle is a fabulous creation, unwanted and unloved in a novel that finally is a love story.

    Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

    In my opinion, our greatest American novel of the last fifty years (despite Beloved's great scope and considerable claim), an heir to Melville and Faulkner. Takes a garbage genre, the western, and raises it to high literature. Offers no access to thoughts or feelings but tells character entirely through landscape and violence written as landscape. Borrowing from Faulkner, extends literal landscapes into figurative landscapes. As with Proulx's The Shipping News, I reread this book simply for the sentences, for their unlikely existence.

    The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

    Elizabeth Bishop is a great poet accessible to all. In her poem At The Fishhouses, she often chooses one fine detail to evoke a larger space. The sparse bright sprinkle of grass, for instance, creates a hillside. She was a painter as well as a poet, and she unifies her opening scene with silver moonlight, then emerald. We watch brush strokes and don't become distracted. Our attention is held by the shift in the quality of light, from opacity to translucence. This is theme developing, leading toward the moment we'll reach into "absolutely clear" water and taste it on our tongues, encountering a kind of knowledge.

    The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

    Every sentence in O'Connor is about character. In Everything That Rises Must Converge, for instance, Julian is a model for what a divided protagonist can be: he can never speak of the old family mansion without contempt nor think of it without longing. As in Faulkner, O'Connor's characters are driven by race and class, many of them longing for a return to the Old South, but in O'Connor, the battle is more desperate and vicious. She's the writer that every American short story writer has to contend with.

    Beloved by Toni Morrison

    This is the novel declared the greatest American novel of the last 25 years. Not only does she extend literal landscapes into figurative landscapes, she also uses ghosts and other doubling as a way to reveal the stories behind her characters. Truly epic in scope, and gorgeous in every sentence.

    The Riverside Chaucer

    All of Chaucer's works in Middle English, with extensive notes. Everyone should memorize the opening 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales, because this is the beginning of literature in English after the collision of Old English and French. These lines show our language at the most beautiful it ever was or will be. The Germanic sounds not yet gone silent, the French vowels not yet shifted and made smaller. A remarkable event, two languages collided together, not just one borrowing from the other. A double lexicon, double metrical heritages, two ways of speaking and imagining, two class structures. All that was possible lives in Chaucer, and since then we have steadily turned the language into a doormat.

    Beowulf: A Student Edition edited by George Jack

    This edition in Old English is the most accessible, I think, because there are vocabulary notes beside every line. This is the easiest way to read our oldest English epic in the original. And why read Beowulf? Not only because of the uneasy relationship to Christianity and the look into an earlier culture, but also because the poetic line shows a different way of conceiving of experience and story. Hronrade is a whale-road, for instance, a name for the sea, and the syntax is different: Often Scyld Scefing, enemy bands, many peoples, took away mead benches, terrified earls. Beowulf offers a link to how we imagine story and self, people and place.

    The Aeneid by Virgil

    Maybe it's because I'm American, and our empire is corrupt and dying, but this epic which calls into question the founding of Rome seems particularly relevant. Most beautiful in the original, because a Latin sentence is far more flexible than an English sentence (mostly because of declensions but also because of poetic conventions and sound), but there are many great translations. The abandonment of Dido, Turnus in the end: there are many dramatic moments here that still feel current.

    The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

    Can there be a better subject for a novel than the fall of aristocracy and the rise of the middle class? Ornate but not burdened, lovely and elegant, this one can make you want to hand all your money back to the aristocracy. Like rare birds. Maybe we should keep them.

    The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

    Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins played in the movie based on this novel, and they are truly great, but the movie fails anyway, because this novel does something a movie can't. The final crisis is a slip in narrative voice, a dissolution of syntax and diction as the butler admits his heart is breaking. This elegant and subtle voice, in its great formality and distance, allows the exploration of all that is most private in us, and its look back on a life wasted really is heartbreaking.

    Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

    In the title essay, Baldwin combines three portraits -- of his father, of himself, and of Harlem in the 1940s -- to devastating effect. A great short story writer, also, he builds to a scene in a diner in which he realizes he could have been murdered and also that he was willing to commit murder. His analysis of race and rage takes as its target, finally, his own heart -- and because of this I've always thought of the personal essay as having this aim -- but it is no less an indictment for that. Perhaps because he was the ultimate outsider, black and gay and an ex-pat, his portrait of America is still true in nearly every respect.

  • Today's Tuesday Top Ten is a bit of a cheat! This is The Sunday Times Bestseller List from September 27th. It is always interesting to see what books are doing well "in the charts". There are no real surprises, but I was amazed to see that Andrea Levy's Small Island is still proving such a favourite with so many readers...

    Once In a Lifetime by Cathy Kelly

    Closure of a department store threatens those connected to it...

    The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

    A couple struggles to contend with the husband's time-travel...

    Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer

    Based on the life of Mallory and his infamous attempt to climb Everest...

    Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

    Mother and daughter travel across USA to escape an abusive husband...

    Keeping the Dead by Tess Gerritsen

    Rizzoli is on the trail of a killer who preserves his victims...

    Doors Open by Ian Rankin

    A self-made man attempts to commit the perfect crime...

    The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah

    Man confesses to a murder of a woman who is very much alive...

    Small Island by Andrea Levy

    Award-winning novel on Jamaican immigrants' travails in post-war England...

    Just After Sunset by Stephen King

    Thrilling stories about relationships, with King's trademark twists...

    Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

    Religion and science collide in the secretive Vatican underworld...

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