Archive for March, 2013

March 28, 2013

Celebrate 150 years of the Tube

by Andre

Since 1863, vast, silent crowds of people have been heading underground every day to read a book (and maybe go to work). So the 150th anniversary of the London Underground – and the 80th anniversary of Harry Beck’s iconic map – is a good opportunity to pick up some top Tube books here at the Riverside for your Jubilee or Northern Line journey over the road. The Penguin Underground Lines series deserves its own platform announcement: 12 short books for each Underground line from authors ranging from John O’Farrell to John Lanchester, Lucy Wadham to Peter York. They’re just £4.99 each and there’s also a box set for real Tube buffs. We’ve also got new books about the history and the design of London Underground, as well as the poems and 150 years of odd facts. Click on the images above for our gallery of Tube-related titles for the birthday celebrations.

March 24, 2013

David Bowie Is: V&A exhibition catalogue

by Andre

DAVID BOWIE ISMuseum exhibition catalogues are probably purchased more out of a sense of self-improving duty rather than pure pleasure, but the accompanying volume to the V&A’s blockbuster Bowie exhibition (until 11 August) is essential reading for fans – and it seems everyone’s a fan since the surprise comeback – of the man who defined an era with his avant-garde refashioning of pop. Far more than mere nostalgia, the exhibition is a visual and aural celebration of the Starman – the 1972 Top of the Pops costume is framed by footage of that memorable performance – as well as an exploration of the concept of ‘inner space’ (JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition from 1970 is one element that gives the exhibition its wider cultural context). Bowie soaked up so many influences it’s almost worth an exhibition in itself: at the V&A we get to see the cut-up lyrics inspired by William Burroughs (there’s a photo of their meeting), the Diamond Dogs tour designs based on 1984 (Sonia Orwell refused permission for an official 1984 show) and the photo of Little Richard he kept from a young age (an early clue to Bowie’s flamboyant theatricality).

The hype surrounding this exhibition is justified by its bold, non-chronological design and the access the curators had to Bowie’s extraordinary archive: the book and the museum show allow us to gaze at such items as his Berlin house keys, the legal letter changing his name from David Jones and the singer’s sketches and hand-written lyrics, as well as an array of outlandish costumes that provoked family arguments during 1970s editions of Top of the Pops. The book is a lavish, visually stunning companion to an exhaustive, eye-popping exhibition that chronicles Bowie’s reinvention over five decades and definitively captures this alien pop icon’s pioneering performances and his enduring influence on contemporary culture.

March 21, 2013

James Herbert 1943-2013

by Andre

James Herbert 1943-2013It was just six months ago that I was watching James Herbert talking animatedly with his readers at a bookshop event, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s close at hand and his family enjoying the outing as much as the author, so it’s sad news to hear of his sudden death at home in Sussex at the age of 69. Apart from a curvature of the spine that meant he needed to walk with a stick (he blamed it on decades of writing novels with a pen), he seemed in reasonable health and was relishing the discussion of his latest novel Ash – out in paperback this week – which is as wild and shocking as any of his books from a 40-year career. The audience had to keep shushing Herbert as he excitedly revealed the diabolical plot details involving the royal family (an OBE in 2010 hadn’t made him entirely respectable).

James Herbert – or ‘Jim’ as this working class, East End boy was known – was an unliterary figure; he could hardly be anything else given the subject matter of his gruesome novels. But while the horror genre has faded Herbert’s work endures, in large part because he was a great storyteller rooted in the contemporary who kept you coming back for more with overwhelmingly terrifying visions and truly evil monsters, rather than cheap scares. The grisly scenes from The Rats, The Fog and The Magic Cottage were discussed feverishly by schoolboys; Sepulchre’s outlandish tale of sacrifices to a serpent god was so intoxicating and horrifying, I remember not bothering going to school that day.

From his 1974 debut The Rats, Herbert seemed to have a horrible gift for tapping into our deepest fears with visceral prose, and his advertising background undoubtedly helped him become Britain’s premier horror author. He designed his own book covers and forced his publisher to pulp a print run of one title because he hated the font. Pan Macmillan said his 23 books have been translated into 33 languages and sold 54 million copies; in sales terms, only Stephen King can rival this grand master of horror. Perhaps my favourite Herbert is Fluke: the story of a dog who thinks he’s a man, or a man who thinks he’s a dog. It isn’t horror but it’s as gripping as any of his chillers – and it’s a book with which Herbert will live on as one of our most popular authors.

March 14, 2013

The Daylight Gate: Jeanette Winterson

by Andre

Now in paperback – £7.99

She turned her hand to science fiction in The Stone Gods a few years ago and now Jeanette Winterson has embraced horror in this devastating short novel about the Pendle witch trials. Winterson was commissioned by the publishing imprint of Hammer Films to portray the brutality and bigotry unleashed against women and Catholics in Lancashire in 1612, when witchcraft and popery were twin evils in the eyes of King James I.

Winterson’s fans and horror aficionados alike will enjoy this humane and at times shocking story, an unflinching portrait of the suffering and indignity meted out to a family whose poverty and disregard for authority make them easy targets. She heightens the horror by depicting the diabolical in a gripping imagined version of events featuring witchcraft, animal familiars and paranormal visions, as well as a love triangle with human souls at stake. Winterson focuses on the strangely youthful widow Alice Nutter, though her short novel has several memorable characters and she boldly works familiar names into the story, including Shakespeare and the occultist and mathematician Dr John Dee. The Daylight Gate is an unremitting, elegantly crafted tale written in a spare prose style that will haunt you – at least until you pick it up and read it again.

March 12, 2013

Crime & Guilt: Ferdinand von Schirach

by Andre

Ferdinand von Schirach CRIME & GUILTLike John Mortimer’s Rumpole, the unnamed lawyer in Crime & Guilt is a defender of the underdog. In this case, though, the underdog is always guilty, usually of a terrible crime and sometimes of a bizarre offence such as planting pins in shoes. Either way, the build-up to the crime is always described in calm, efficient prose from the perspective of the seasoned lawyer steeped in the quiddities of the legal system.

The book is a compendium of two volumes that were huge in von Schirach’s native Germany. A defence lawyer himself, the author draws on his experience to reveal the human story behind these fictional crimes and the deracinated individuals – abuse victims, long-suffering carers, the psychologically traumatised – who were sometimes driven to kill. Crime & Guilt is both terrifying and engaging as the unnamed lawyer details grisly crimes and considers the nature of justice in a legal system where a violent murder has to be explained and considered before punishment can be dispensed. It’s not your typical genre book, though the subtle suspense and keen psychological insight are coldly compelling: these crimes may be fictional yet von Shirach’s personal casebook has clearly informed his chilling prose.

March 7, 2013

Richard III: biographies and classic crime

by Andre


The surprise reappearance of Richard III, dug up in a Leicester car park, is a timely opportunity to try and disinter the truth about a king portrayed as a Machiavellian villain by Shakespeare. “We have to concede the curved spine was not Tudor propaganda, but we need not believe the chronicler who claimed Richard was the product of a two-year pregnancy and was born with teeth,” as Hilary Mantel said in her (unfairly) infamous lecture on royal bodies. “The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity.” If you want to learn more about the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, there are a pair of updated historical biographies that feature the car park dig: David Baldwin’s Richard III and – not so snappily titled – The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA: The Book that Inspired the Dig by John Ashdown-Hill.

Perhaps the most enjoyable piece of historical revisionism for Richard III, though, is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a unique and classic crime novel in which a bed-ridden Inspector Alan Grant decides to investigate the real facts behind the murderous ‘hunchback king’ after seeing a contemporary portrait of Richard. Could such a sensitive, noble face really belong to one of the most infamous villains of history? It’s a fascinating premise for an exquisite crime novel which, 62 years since publication, is more inventive and adroit in its plotting than almost any modern genre author can manage.