Boyd Tonkin: Animal magic from pen to page

The week in books

If the usual post-prandial word-games drag this Christmas, why not try the one that involves re-locating classic works of fiction in humdrum corners of this sceptered isle? Would readers feel quite the same thrill about One Hundred Years of Solihull, or Hove in the Time of Cholera? East of the capital, you might encounter Heart of Dartford and Sacred Ongar; west, The Ealing Art, Time's Harrow, Maidenhead Revisited and The Human Staines. Go further north, and you discover that chilling fable of totalitarian golf in Scotland, Darkness at Troon.

The comics artist and graphic novelist Bryan Talbot trumped all such bids in 2007 with his inspired visual-verbal journey into the industrial and cultural past of the city on the Wear, and in particular its links with the life and work of Lewis Carroll. He entitled it Alice in Sunderland. For all its celebrity fan-base, graphic fiction (or dramatised history, in this case) still tends to slip between the cracks of critical judgement. So Alice in Sunderland still lacks sufficient recognition as one of the landmark British books of the past decade.

Talbot, best known before for his Luther Arkwright SF strips and books, first showed the extent of his ambition in the mid-1990s when he lent his gift for nuanced graphic narrative to the aftermath of child abuse in The Tale of One Bad Rat. Now he returns with a follow-up to Grandville, his richly imagined and beautifully drawn "steampunk" fantasia of late 19th-century England as an occupied colony of imperial France. Just as beautiful to behold, just as mind-bogglingly inventive, Grandville Mon Amour (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) gives us another Holmesian tale of conspiracy, detection and pursuit.

Talbot's alternative universe surely owes a debt to to the pioneer novels of steampunk: Keith Roberts's Pavane and (perhaps my favourite work of his after Lucky Jim) Kingsley Amis's The Alteration. In this version of a modified past, not only does the mighty post-Napoleonic republic ruled from "Grandville" (Paris) still hold sway over its rebellious satellite, nominally independent again but rocked from time to time by outrages committed by the police-labelled "anarchists" of the British resistance to trans-Manche hegemony. Its inhabitants take on animal form, gloriously depicted by the artist, from bulldog politicians and walrus brigadiers to frog pawnbrokers and the sex kittens and seductive piglets in the plush gas-lit brothel run by that blowsy sharp-tongued hippo, Madame Riverhorse. Talbot tips his titfer to the Alice books, and Tenniel's visualisation, but this work – though huge fun – is not one for the kids.

In his sequel, the canine psychopath Edward "Mad Dog" Mastock has cheated the guillotine at the Tower of London (guarded by its sinister, Gatling gun-toting ravens). With a crazed killer on the loose, Inspector Archie LeBrock of the Yard must badger away at the clues, abetted by the twitching intellectual whiskers of his sidekick, the dapper detective Roderick Ratzi. Meanwhile, the Angry Brigade still plots to avenge the infamous Brick Lane Massacre, and puppet President Drummond faces his inauguration at Westminster with dark secrets still unexposed.

Talbot plays with colour, angle and perspective just as gleefully as with the facts of history. The look of Belle Epoque Paris merges with the naughty-nineties London of Whistler, Wilde and Conan Doyle. In proper steampunk fashion, ironclad airships and mechanical robots coincide with fuggy Victorian pubs and Toulouse Lautrec-style poster art. Familiar icons and stories pass through the looking-glass of a strictly logical fantasy.

It hards needs saying that this gorgeous fabrication will answer to anybody's need for a gift with dash and panache to spare. More to the point, this season it proves what the printed volume – something of a steampunk hangover itself, if you credit much of the current punditry - can still achieve. A Kindle reader would turn Grandville Mon Amour into an enfeebled travesty of itself. The iPad would capture its radiant tones and dense textures better, but as a poor substitute for the real thing. This book needs to be a book, not some fuzzy, scaled-down app.

Kids' poetry survives the idiots

As a parable of the hi-jacking of noble causes by malevolent thuggery, this sounds almost too perfect – worthy of Dostoyevsky. Alas, it is true. During last's week student-fees demo, vandals (in no sense "protestors") tried to wreck the Christmas tree (right) that stands, a gift from the city of Oslo since 1947, in Trafalgar Square. The knuckleheads failed, but did destroy the banners around it. They carried specially commissioned poems (from a Poetry Society project) by schoolchildren in Norway and England on the tree's theme of peace. Thankfully, I can report a happy ending. The banners were restored on Wednesday, and will stay up until Twelfth Night.

A hypnotic hit from Stockholm

Take assorted editions of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy; add Jo Nesbo's The Snowman, and Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin: the 1947 novel that that has turned into one of the year's most enduring hits. Together, these novels in translation account for six – or fully 30 per cent – of the paperback top 20 in this most ruthlessly commercial of weeks for the British book trade. In 2011, which fresh imports will match their dazzling performance? Since the world seems to turn around Stockholm, I would keep a close eye on The Hypnotist by Swedish thriller writer Lars Kepler. Well, not quite "writer": Lars Kepler is the pseudonym of married couple, and established authors, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. The latter's bio-novel of Ingmar Bergman, The Director, appeared here in 2008. Their double act aims to emulate the popularity of their compatriots Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, not to mention our own "Nicci French": ie Nicci Gerrard and the - half-Swedish - Sean French.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?