Tag Archives: Costa Book Award

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes – Mary & Bryan Talbot

DotterI happened to be in my local library the day the category winners for the Costa Book Awards were announced.  I had no idea which books might triumph in their categories as I had only read Life! Death! Prizes! by Steven May which was up in the novel category and subsequently missed out to the  seemingly unbeatable Hilary Mantel.  But only hours before the category winners announcement on 2nd January, I was browsing the shelves and noticed a lovely little display celebrating the Costa nominees, resplendent with brand new copies of all the nominated books.  Imagine – books with virgin spines, just asking to be cracked and you don’t even have to pay for them to do it!  Having just made my reading resolutions for 2013 I decided against borrowing any of the narrative novels on offer, but snatched up the two graphic novels.  Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart was shortlisted in the novel category and Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary Talbot and illustrated by her husband Bryan Talbot was shortlisted and eventually won in the biography category.  It’s almost unheard of for a graphic novel to win a mainstream award, so it’s already a double win for them.  Will it go on to win the overall Costa Award tonight?

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is beautiful before you open it.  The hardback has a lovely silky feel to it.  The cream cover featuring the pencil drawing of a little girl, the old typewriter font for the title and the splash of colour used for the author names made me want to dive in immediately.  It doesn’t disappoint.  As an aside, let me mention that ever since she’s seen the cover of this book, my 6 year old has insisted on having similar plaits in her hair when she goes to school and it does make her look so cute!

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes tells two coming-of-age stories connected by James Joyce.  imgres-7Mary Talbot’s father was an internationally renowned Joycean scholar, married to his research.  Lucia Joyce was the daughter of the famous Irish author destined for an early life of instability as her family moved frequently before his work found acclaim.  imgres-5The stories of their formative years are intertwined with Joyce as the link.  Joyce and his wife had a profound affect on Lucia’s future as a dancer and independent woman and Mary Talbot’s father was so engrossed in his work as a Joyce expert that he often paid little attention to his daughter and certainly struggled to understand her.imgres-1imgres-6

This story is not just about how James Joyce affected the lives of these two women, it is also about the experiences of being a women at two different points in the twentieth century.  Lucia was born in 1907 and lived in bohemian surroundings, growing up with writers, poets and philosophers as constant visitors.  imgres-4She was a young woman living in Paris in the 1920s when many women were breaking the expected female mould.  Mary Talbot was born in the north of England in the 1950’s so grew up at a time when women were breaking the mould again.  Their story shows that despite the times it was still difficult to break that mould.

The illustrations that accompany the story are drawn by Mary’s husband Bryan who has illustrated many comics and graphic novels over the years.   The drawings bring his wife’s words alive, are fabulous to look at and full of animation.  Mary’s story is in sepia and Lucia’s in grey and white.  Mary’s story features splashes of colour at particularly emotional points which brings energy to the drawings and serves to highlight certain points.

I know graphic novels are not to everyone’s taste, but I love reading one every now and again, after all, pictures can tell a story equally well as words.  Although the narrative is sparse in a graphic novel, the reader is left to imagine parts of the story based on the pictures and I think this is good exercise for the brain!  It would be great if Dotter of her Father’s Eyes claimed the overall prize tonight at the Costa Awards but Ms Mantel is a force to be reckoned with, however you just never know with these things…

Images from Jonathan Cape and Mary & Bryan Talbot

Pure – Andrew Miller

There is a lot of heavyweight historical fiction around, trying to recreate the minutia of the chosen period.  Sometimes, it can feel like wading through an encyclopedia before you glimpse the plot.  This is absolutely not the case with Pure by Andrew Miller.  When he won the Costa prize earlier this year with this his 6th novel, Miller told the Telegraph “I think novels are at their best when they are rooted in the physical,” well, he certainly managed this with Pure.  Set in pre-revolution Paris, it tells of a young, but not too young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte (or oftentimes just referred to as “the Engineer”), who takes on a possibly career-defining job sanitising an overflowing cemetery in the Les Halles district.  The cemetery of Les Innocents is so full it has not accepted new bodies for 5 years and those interred there are overflowing into neighbouring cellars.  This is where the “physical” aspect of the book comes in.  The stench from the cemetery is such that it penetrates everything in the district, the very breath of the people living nearby smells of death and decay.  As the clearance begins, we witness the sounds of the horrific work the gangs of men create; bones crunching, spades digging the earth and fires crackling to purify the air.  Miller is not only able to evoke brilliantly these physical attributes of the cemetery clearance, but descriptions of other parts of the Engineer’s life in Les Halles are so vivid you can almost taste the bland food served by his landlady and smell the fish market.  Jean-Baptiste is not confident in his ability to complete this job, he is filled with self-doubt, it almost takes a knock to the head to focus his thoughts, finish the job and move on.  He is helped in his task by an ensemble of characters, who, unlike in other historical fiction, do feel real, with the same concerns for survival as the rest of us.

It’s not difficult to spot the metaphor in this book, the idea that France itself needs a fresh start, needs purifying and demands revolution.  The wind of change is blowing in Paris, there is a stench of the “old” in the air, the city needs to be cleansed while its inhabitants consider and trust the future.  Even the Engineer’s name, Jean-Baptiste, suggests one who purifies, gives new life and absolves sins.   There is a whisper of subversion as slogans are scrawled around the neighbourhood referring to a character called Beche who will bring violence to the city.  Beche is French for “spade” and is the nickname given to Jean-Baptiste by his closest friend in Paris.  Even the doctor studying the disinterred bones hints at revolution – he is Dr Guillotine, his character is one of the most friendly and likable, which is slightly ironic considering the horrors caused by the machine with his name during the revolution a few years later.

A good book stays with you for a few days or weeks after you’ve closed it for the last time and moved your bookmark elsewhere.  I find myself wondering what is likely to happen to Jean-Baptiste and his lover, Heloise, once the revolution starts.  It is conceivable that as an intellectual and an ex-prostitute both might fall victim to madam Guillotine.  I find myself creating an alternative future for them…that really is a sign of a good book!

My bedside table

How do you open a blog?  It’s difficult to know how to start and what to write about first.  I want this to be the place where I record my general ramblings about the books I read and love.  They are such a huge part of my life.  Therefore where better to start than with the books I am reading at the moment.

So, what does my bedside table say about me?  You wouldn’t know it by looking at the picture, but I have recently culled some books from my bedside table.  So in its current state, what can you tell?

Well, the tissues and paracetamol suggest that I have been unwell recently – this is true.  Two days on the sofa last week, first time in a long time.  I am on the mend but haven’t cleared away the things that kept me going.  The framed drawing of me was made at school for last year’s Mother’s Day by Little FictionHabit 2 (LFH2).  I couldn’t possibly put it anywhere else.  The old copy of the Guardian’s G2 has a crossword in it that I’ve not done yet, so I’m saving it!

Now to the books; they suggest that maybe I am incapable of putting books back on the shelves once I’ve completed them, therefore I must be a slovenly sort.  Maybe they suggest that I over-commit myself when it comes to reading, that I probably never finish what I start, or am indecisive and therefore keep piling more and more onto the table in the hope that something will jump out at me?

The last two points are not really true of me.  I nearly always finish what I start to read.  Mr Fiction Habit says that life is too short to read a book you are not enjoying.  He is right to a certain extent, but I very rarely pick up a book I don’t enjoy in some way.  There have also been times when I have been unconvinced by a book in the early chapters only to be blown away by the end.  I am also generally decisive about what to read next.  This is helped to a certain extent by the fact that I am a member of 3 bookclubs.  My reading matter tends to be chosen for me!  It is in this respect that I am perhaps over-committed!  I do find time to read my own choice of book, but probably not often enough.  I am reluctant to give up any of my bookclubs though, as they are made up of 3 very different groups of friends and I have been introduced to all sorts of writers because of them.

So let me run through the piles of books and attempt to explain why each of the books is on my bedside table.

The top book is the one I am reading at the moment.  Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road.  This is the sort of book that most people read in their late teens or early 20s almost as a set text to growing up.  I never got around to it then, but it was recently chosen by one of my bookclubs under the theme “classic road trip books”.  This book certainly falls under this banner.  I haven’t finished it yet, so I may write about it at some point.  Under that book are 4 books I got for my birthday last week.  Pure by Andrew Miller, the recent winner of the Costa award, is a saga set in pre-revolutionary France.  Having recently read A Tale of Two Cities I am intrigued to read this view of that time period in Paris. The London Train by Tessa Hadley is a story of two lives connected by a train journey.  Unfortunately this isn’t a copy with the lovely original linoprint cover.  Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson will be my first attempt at reading a book by this author.  I have found her fascinating to listen to when I’ve heard her interviewed on the radio and am looking forward to starting this memoir of her childhood.

The last book is the only one of the 4 new books that I have actually finished.  In fact I almost had it done by the end of my birthday.  It is a beautifully illustrated tome called Habibi by Craig Thompson.  This is a graphic novel with the most divine illustration, that you can spend hours looking at a page and still find more to look at.  I have read a couple of graphic novels before; Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds being the one I remember most fondly.  I began reading the weekly installments of this story in the Guardian when it was serialised prior to publication, and then received the book one Christmas.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lent it to someone who hasn’t returned it and of course I now don’t recall who the borrower is.

Habibi, however, is in a different league altogether.  In fact I want to witter on about it so much now that I’m likely to hijack this post if I’m not careful.  I will write something about it in a future post.

Let me tell you about the other pile of books another time…