My squawk of the year goes to Christopher Moore’s “Sacré Bleu: a Comedy d’Art”. There are two types of Moore books: those set in safe surroundings, like his Pine Cove books or the Vampire novels; and the ambitious ones, like Lamb (an alternative New Testament) and Fool (the story of the jester from Macbeth). Sacré Bleu falls into the second category, but it is perhaps more daring than either Lamb or Fool, exploring the world of the Renaissance masters and offering a tale which explains just why so many of the great painters of the late 19th century suffered untimely deaths– and it wasn’t always due to syphilis. Why did Vincent van Gogh shoot himself in a field and then walk a mile to a doctor’s house? This is the starting point for Moore’s book, and it all has something to do with a particular shade of blue paint, and the sinister “Colorman” who has tempted artists with the blue for centuries.
Moore obviously has a great passion for Renaissance art – or fabulous editors – and it comes through in the story as he blends historical fact with hysterical fiction, with more time and respect paid to the factual than in anything else I’ve read of his. With Sacre Bleu, I came for the laughs and I stayed for the art history lesson.
Hereward L.M. Proops:
Squawk of the Year, eh? Blimey, that one came round fast. I know which book I ought to say was the best I read this year... Michel Faber's “The Crimson Petal and the White” blew my mind totally and absolutely. However, I'm going to throw a little curveball out there right now. My Squawk of the Year doesn't go to the best book I read this year but to the book which entertained me the most. That has to go to Robert E. Howard's“The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane”. This book reminded me why I write adventure stories and why I love stories of the weird and fantastic. Howard's stories of the dour Puritan swordsman are brilliantly atmospheric and pulse-poundingly exciting. Like all good short stories, none of them overstay their welcome and have no other aim but to entertain the reader. Robert E. Howard, the grandmaster of pulp adventure, certainly knew how to spin a good yarn but it is his ability to write convincing action that remains most impressive. Whether his heroes are engaging in a swordfight, a tavern brawl or a desperate struggle against a supernatural foe, he manages to make the action both believable and utterly absorbing. Thrilling stuff.
The book I'm about to gush about is no longer in print. Nor is it kindle friendly because of its formatting. So if my extolling of it prompts you to consider it, you're going to have to go second hand. I managed to pick up my copy for £12 but I've seen them offered for up to £70. Too much definitely, but this book is an artefact.
Jeff Noon's "Cobralingus". Noon takes classical texts and cuts them up. He lists a set of functions by which these texts may be mutated, be it by the gentle 'Decay', the more violent detonation of 'Explode', adding the stimulants by 'Drug', or the evolution of 'Release Virus'. What Noon does here is brilliantly take you through from the original 'Inlet' text, through a series of word manipulations (and even breaking words down into just letter fragments) into a wholly different final 'Outlet' text, but he shows you the steps in between and thereby lies the essential brilliance of the book. Some of the final products are graphically/typographic representations and arrangements of letters. Others are classical poem or prose narratives. You can follow the creative visions and linguistic processes of an author who explores the possibilities of language like no other contemporary writer. He breaks language down to the building blocks of its alphabetical DNA and then rebuilds a new creation. Any author/reader interested in how our language works should read this book.
A confession to start with – the ratio of books I’ve read to books I’ve reviewed seems to grow year on year. And in case I’ve got my mathematical terminology wrong, by that I simply mean that I’m reading plenty but reviewing less. Part of the reason for this is that epublishing has made it easier for writers to get their books in the marketplace but, unfortunately, has made some of them less attentive to the editing process. I’m only interested in positive reviewing and when a writer can’t be bothered to check his/her formatting, spelling, word choices, rhythms and all the other things which contribute to a book’s power, the book gets discarded. Life’s too short to persist with first drafts.
But there are still lots and lots of gems and my choice for my squawk of 2012 is from a short list of three: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize; Paul Fenton’s Punchline is a funny, intriguing take on the crime genre; but my selection has to be Abide with Me by Ian Arys.
In my review, I called it a ‘triumph’ and revisiting it for this exercise merely confirmed that opinion. It describes the actions and relationships of a bunch of characters in London’s East End from the point of view of one of their number, John. His voice is totally authentic and shifts subtly as he grows and learns some hard lessons. In the end, he’s a time-served criminal and yet his moral perspective is clear and compassionate. But the story transcends the usual critical clichés and terminology. This isn’t just a reading experience, it’s a life experience – as you read, you become part of the book’s dynamic. The achievement is so assured that it’s really hard to believe that, on top of everything else, it’s Arys’s debut novel.
My Squawk of the year goes to Phil Mac Giolla Bhain for Downfall. It's an account of Rangers FC's demise, and a piece of work that the mainstream media in Scotland is strangely shy about despite enormous sales. Though fans of Rangers wouldn't have been happy to see the book filling their stockings this Christmas, it's one that they should read if they appreciate truth.