Author Archives: Jonathan Beckman

Mountain Duel

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

W P Wiles’s The Last Blade Priest is set in a vivid fantasy world where the traditional and the progressive clash. The novel flips between two perspectives, those of Inar, a master builder for the conquered kingdom of Mishig-Tenh, who has the ability to see and manipulate minerals in stone, and Anton, a Blade Priest […]

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Soul Sisters

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘To the consternation of her mother …. the tastes of Elisabeth de Gramont ran less to claret than to communism, feminism, and sapphism,’ writes Selby Wynn Schwartz in her bold debut novel, After Sappho. Such an (un)holy trinity permeates a book that begins with the sixth-century-BC songs of the famous Greek poet who lived on […]

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One-Man Battalion

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Werner Herzog’s magnificent debut novel tracks the long campaign of Hiroo Onoda, the intelligence officer in imperial Japan’s army who for twenty-nine years after the end of the Second World War evaded capture on Lubang, a tiny Philippine island. Onoda surrendered only in 1974, when his former commanding officer travelled into the jungle and ordered […]

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Ghost Notes

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In her debut novel, Briefly, a Delicious Life, Nell Stevens imagines what happened in the winter of 1838–9, when Frédéric Chopin and George Sand stayed together in a Mallorcan monastery. This premise is made even more tantalising by the presence of a passionate, resentful ghost called Blanca, the novel’s narrator, who lives in the monastery […]

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Growing Pains

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Child narrators of adult novels are high-risk and high-reward creations. It is nearly three decades since Roddy Doyle won the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The wit and power of that novel have to do with the fact that its hero is ten years old and has a constantly surprising and entirely […]

Fishy Business

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The worst thing that can happen to a writer of science fiction and fantasy is to have what one does taken seriously. The genre is at its most anarchic, freewheeling and purely enjoyable when it is allowed to flourish in the cheap seats. When critical acclaim from the smarter quarters of the literary world does […]

Songs in the Key of Life

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The boom in prose writing by contemporary poets has been one of the most surprising and welcome recent developments in literature. There’s nothing new about poets venturing out of verse, of course, whether as writers of prose poems or as moonlighting novelists. But there does seem to be something distinctive in this body of recent […]

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Hello, Oppression

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is fifty years since Goodbye, Ramona landed like a bomb in a Catalonia fighting to break free from the Franco dictatorship, which lasted from 1939 to 1975. It was Montserrat Roig’s first novel, published when she was twenty-five. It is a devastating story of oppression and confinement. Three generations of middle-class Barcelona women of […]

Londinium Calling

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1848, workmen digging foundations for the London Coal Exchange uncovered what came to be known as the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths. Dating from around AD 150, the villa complex was perhaps the finest example of Roman building ever found in the capital; such was the stir it created in Victorian London that the […]

The New Bostonians

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Atticus Lish had an early introduction to the writing life. His father, Gordon Lish, is an editor famed for his meticulous editing of Raymond Carver’s short stories. As a nine-year-old, Atticus wrote a piece of prose that ended up quoted in family friend Don DeLillo’s novel The Names. Yet thereafter, Lish appeared to do everything […]

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Calcutta Chronicle

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Madhabi Mukherjee, remembering the director Satyajit Ray long after he gave her the central role in The Big City, said that he was as ‘magnanimous as the sky, and as serious as a mountain’. She likened him to a landscape because he began his career with an almost pantheistic account of childhood in rural West […]

Bee’s-Eye View

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘They haven’t got no noses,/They haven’t got no noses,’ sings the dog Quoodle in G K Chesterton’s poem ‘The Song of Quoodle’. ‘And goodness only knowses/The Noselessness of man.’ Quoodle is exulting in the superiority of the canine sense of smell over that of humans, though actually ours is pretty good: in tests involving the […]

My Kingdom for a Hoe

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Topo-biography is not yet ‘a thing’, as far as I know, but perhaps it ought to be. A trip to Corsica twenty years ago left me, I felt, with a stronger understanding of the mindset of Napoleon. Because Corsica is hell. Not the people, you understand, but the landscape: an endlessly rocky terrain punctuated by […]

Blast Furnaces, Black Pudding & Bede

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Brian Groom’s answers to the questions ‘Where is the north?’ and ‘What is a northerner?’ allow him to avoid clichés about Hovis land and hills and to include the northern diaspora. He skilfully uncovers the North’s outwardness – the confidence to roam worldwide with goods and inventions, and to explore, settle and trade. In 1911 […]

What Women Really Want

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is an iron rule that revolutions (French, Russian, sexual – take your pick) let down women. The blokes leaping the barricades generally pay lip service to equality, but always make sure to keep a sharp eye on their self-interest. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, women welcomed a revolution that would release them from the shame that attached to extramarital sex and the irrecoverable loss

Southern Comforter

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The night before Gone with the Wind’s Atlanta premiere in 1939, there was a ball at a plantation. Dressed as slaves, the children of the black Ebenezer Baptist Church choir performed for an all-white audience. They sang ‘There’s Plenty of Good Room in Heaven’; the actress playing Belle Watling, Rhett Butler’s tart with a heart, wept. The scene is already striking: a painfully literal example of the mythologising of the South for white consumption, redefining slavery as harmless and the slaves themselves as grateful. Yet Sarah Churchwell finds a jaw-dropping detail: ‘One of the little Black children dressed as a slave and bringing a sentimental tear to

On the Trail of the Cailleach

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The British Museum’s recently opened exhibition on female ‘spiritual beings’ – goddesses, demons and entities in between – revels in the diversity of such figures, whether in the form of ancient clay statues or a modern icon of the goddess Kali. If the museum had hosted a similar exhibition in the middle decades of the […]

All the King’s Magi

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Magic is like pornography. It is hard to define but we know it when we see it. It is also a very serious subject which often attracts interest that isn’t exactly scholarly. And – which is a problem for books like this one – by its nature, it is a subject that overpromises and underdelivers. […]

Terrors of the Sky

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

How do you like your dragon these days? Tough or tender? Whatever your preference, you are likely to find the right one for you in The Penguin Book of Dragons. The book is dedicated to Gary Gygax, the creator of the game Dungeons and Dragons, and one of a group of modern dragon makers who have help ensure the enduring popularity of this particular monster (the others are J R R Tolkien and George R R Martin). However, those expecting here the kinds of

While My Bamboo Buzzer Gently Weeps

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Three cheers for marginalisation! True, being cold-shouldered prevented the various female, minority ethnic and non-Western composers that feature in Kate Molleson’s new history of 20th-century music from fully accessing the fruits of the Western musical-industrial complex. But on the plus side, prohibiting them from accessing the fruits of the Western musical-industrial complex made most of […]

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