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Preview: Books news, reviews and author interviews | guardian.co.uk

Books | The Guardian



Latest books news, comment, reviews and analysis from the Guardian



Published: Wed, 28 Sep 2016 14:13:43 GMT2016-09-28T14:13:43Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2016
 



Sebastian Faulks webchat – your questions answered on Hemingway, warfare and political apathy

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 13:05:50 GMT2016-09-28T13:05:50Z

The journalist turned bestselling author weighed in on his lookalike, the emperor Hadrian, making a living as a writer and the unlearned lessons of 20th-century wars

Thank you very much to everyone who sent in questions. I'm sorry my answers are rather serious but that was really dictated by the tone of what you asked! I am talking about Where My Heart Used to Beat at Henley on Saturday 1 October, and at Cheltenham on Saturday 8 October. On a lighter note, I also have a new book of parodies out in October. It called Pistache Returns. There are a few jokes in there.

alexwent asks:

As a reader more and more inclined to non-fiction, I very much enjoyed The Fatal Englishman. Have you ever thought of writing biography again, and which subject might you choose?

Thank you very much. The brief answer is no. I have grave misgivings about the whole question of biography, beyond a 30-page character sketch, a "schilling life", or a well researched newspaper profile. But I was asked if I would write a biography of the singer Nick Drake and I very much wish the request had come in time to make a fourth part of The Fatal Englishman, where it would have sat very well.

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Top 10 stories of hubris

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 11:12:34 GMT2016-09-28T11:12:34Z

From Michel Houellebecq to Simone de Beauvoir, novelist Tommy Wieringa chooses stories of men who have tried to reach beyond what is possible

I know a writer who stops reading as soon as he starts on a book. He does that, he says, because he doesn’t want his style to be polluted by others’. This is a hothouse plant, it seems, susceptible to diseases from outside. To me, it seems more advisable to contract as many of these infections as possible; Salter’s disease, Babel’s disease and more. They fortify your constitution and break the monotony of a so-called “style”, which is often nothing more than a mannerism. True style, Schopenhauer says, is reserved solely for those who have truly thought.

In A Beautiful Young Wife (translated by Sam Garrett), a successful, older microbiologist wins the heart of a woman who embodies the novella’s title. The tragedy of it is: she doesn’t make him any younger. Instead he makes her older. Standing at the mirror, he sees a beautiful young woman and a man who, at 50, wears the face he deserves.

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A northern powerhouse really is coming – in publishing

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 10:00:55 GMT2016-09-28T10:00:55Z

How can publishers reflect the diversity of modern Britain? Follow the independents and move north

When it comes to the economy, the government’s recently rebooted northern powerhouse may only be smoke and mirrors, but when it comes to the arts, the energy and drive in the region is palpable. Just look at Sheffield’s S1 Artspace or Manchester’s the Factory or come and see how Hull is already bustling in advance of its status as UK City of Culture in 2017. Now, with no fanfare and no need for expensive building projects, publishers are joining the party.

And Other Stories has been based in High Wycombe since we started in 2011, but we’re moving to Sheffield. And we’re not the only ones heading for the northern powerhouse: Tilted Axis is moving from London to Sheffield, and Saraband is moving from Glasgow to Manchester. And Other Stories is also joining the Northern Fiction Alliance, a group that brings us together with those already there: Manchester’s Comma Press, Leeds’s Peepal Tree Press and Liverpool’s Dead Ink Books, to showcase our authors’ work abroad.

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Google swallows 11,000 novels to improve AI's conversation

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 09:00:01 GMT2016-09-28T09:00:01Z

As writers learn that tech giant has processed their work without permission, the Authors Guild condemns ‘blatantly commercial use of expressive authorship’

When the writer Rebecca Forster first heard how Google was using her work, it felt like she was trapped in a science fiction novel.

“Is this any different than someone using one of my books to start a fire? I have no idea,” she says. “I have no idea what their objective is. Certainly it is not to bring me readers.”

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The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross review – into a Caribbean island’s sordid underbelly

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 10:00:55 GMT2016-09-28T10:00:55Z

A young police officer searches for his missing mother in a crime thriller from a highly original writer

When the Jamaican writer Marlon James won the Man Booker prize last year with A Brief History of Seven Killings he became internationally famous, yet his earlier two novels had marked him out as a writer of great originality and talent.

Jacob Ross is another writer who deserves a much wider audience. He has been a British citizen since the 80s but was originally from Grenada, and his first two books of short stories powerfully evoked Grenadian society. In Song for Simone he explored childhood. In A Way to Catch the Dust he dug deep into the psyches of a cross-section of Grenadians, most noticeably in “Rum an Coke”, a story about a mother who injects heroin into the neck of her son’s sleeping drug dealer. In 2008 he published his first novel, Pynter Bender, about a blind boy raised by women on a pre-independence Caribbean island still struggling with the legacy of slavery.

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‘Oh Excellent Air Bag!’ review – two centuries of laughing gas

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 07:00:58 GMT2016-09-28T07:00:58Z

This wonderful collection of writings on nitrous oxide features carnivals, dentists’ chairs, Humphry Davy in ecstasy and William James talking nonsense

It made me dance about the laboratory like a madman,” said Humphry Davy in 1799, after having inhaled from an oiled green air bag his first lungful of nitrous oxide, later known as laughing gas, and used in dentists’ chairs and maternity wards. A thrilling sensation coursed throughout Davy’s body, and he found himself “shouting, leaping and running” in ecstasy. So he might: aged 21, he had discovered the secret of happiness.

Believing his experience to have been “indescribable”, Davy invited his friends to try out the air bag and observe its effects for themselves. Luckily, these friends were men of the world for whom analogous experiences were close to hand. What took place in Davy’s Bristol laboratory turned out to be as much an experiment in language as in the expansion of consciousness, and he published the responses of his circle in Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, one of those books that belongs to the time before philosophy, literature and science were cordoned off from one another.

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Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel review – where have all the political musicians gone?

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 06:01:57 GMT2016-09-28T06:01:57Z

This is a triumphant oral history of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, a timely account of 1970s-80s musicians who fought against bigotry and Thatcherism

In the penultimate paragraph of this triumphant book, the writer and radio presenter Robert Elms casts his eyes back over four decades of British history, and comes to an equally triumphant conclusion. “Thatcher might have won elections, but culturally we won,” he says. “Look at Britain now: it’s a society where racism is absolutely frowned on; where gay marriage is accepted. It’s totally different from the Little England that Thatcher tried to hold on to.”

I read those words on the same day that police in Milton Keynes announced that they were looking for a man who had “racially insulted” a pregnant woman, before kicking her in the stomach and causing her to lose her child. My copy of Walls Come Tumbling Down had arrived just as reporters were being dispatched to Harlow, in Essex, to report on the murder of a 39-year-old man from Poland called Arkadiusz Jóźwik. And as I took in a story that stretches between the late 1970s and the end of the 80s, the Britain of 2016 – the Brexit vote, the years of resentment that fed into it, and the acts of hate that have happened since – inevitably blurred into what I was reading.

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Robert Gottlieb: the editor who changed American literature

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 16:19:12 GMT2016-09-27T16:19:12Z

The man who ushered classics like Catch-22 into the world, Gottlieb has reason to brag. But in his new memoir Avid Reader he prefers to downplay the editor’s role

Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, once gave an interview where he credited his editor with kicking his work into shape. After the interview ran, Heller got an irritated phone call. The caller was his editor, Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb told Heller to knock it off. “I felt then, and still do, that readers shouldn’t be made aware of editorial interventions,” Gottlieb writes in his new memoir, Avid Reader: A Life. “They have a right to feel that what they’re reading comes direct from the author to them.”

Gottlieb’s book is full of stories like that one. He is a very unassuming person, for an alleged legend – a characterization he laughs at to me, saying his daughter pokes fun at him for so often being called it. Yet beginning at Simon & Schuster in the 1950s and 1960s, flourishing at Knopf in the 1970s and 1980s, and with a brief but memorable detour to the New Yorker (as an editor), Gottlieb’s editing pen has touched the manuscripts of most of the important American writers of the 20th century – and several of the British ones, too. He did it, though, as much from behind the scenes as he possibly could. “I’ve given very few interviews,” he told me when I met him at his book-lined townhouse on New York’s East Side. He is only giving this one now, he says, because he needs to help the publisher sell his book.

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Ali Smith and HG Wells webchat – as it happened

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 13:11:44 GMT2016-09-27T13:11:44Z

Author and HG Wells fan Ali Smith answered your questions about the writer, including sharing her favourite Wells books, exploring his opinions on eugenics and women, and why his writing still resonates today

Thank you so much to Ali for giving her time, and to all of you for asking your excellent questions. Ali gives the last word to HG Wells:

"For the restoration and modernisation of human civilisation, this exaggerated outlawing of the fellow citizen whom we see fit to suspect as a traitor or revolutionary and also of the stranger within our gates, has to be restrained and brought back within the scheme of human rights." HG Wells, The Rights of Man. Last word to HG. Thank you everybody.

Our very own samjordison has a question:

This might be an impossible question to answer briefly, but could you say something about why you think Wells’s The Rights of Man remains so important...

Hi Sam
Right now they're working on dismantling the Human Rights Act again. The very notion of the dismantling of human rights is an obscenity. Look at the movement of 65 million people across the world. Then look up Shakespeare's speech for the play of Sir Thomas More, its description of refugees, and its final words: "Mountainish inhumanity". Think about Wells's long life and his visionary capability. The man who could see everything coming, and whose visionary acumen proves itself time after time. At the end, facing fascism, in the middle of the second world war, he began drafting what would become, after his death, the UN International Declaration of Human Rights. He was a man who learned from his own history. We have to be sure we don't act numbly and blindly towards ours.

Related: Celebrating HG Wells’s role in the creation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights | Ali Smith

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Graphic sex: intimate cartoon history of sex translated into English

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 13:29:06 GMT2016-09-27T13:29:06Z

The Story of Sex, a witty account that embraces everything from the earliest humans to the age of cybersex, has already been a hit in France

Ranging from Cleopatra’s invention of the vibrator to a Dutch shopkeeper’s accidental discovery of the existence of sperm, a comic book detailing the history of sex, which became a surprise hit in France earlier this year, is due out in English in October.

The Story of Sex takes in medieval impotence trials and the contraptions used to stop 19th-century schoolboys from touching themselves – as well as Cleopatra’s bee-filled calabash and the Dutch shopkeeper who discovered sperm after masturbating on his microscope. It was published in France in April and sold more than 20,000 copies in its first month on sale. Written by Philippe Brenot, a psychiatrist and director of sexology at Paris Descartes University, and illustrated by Laetitia Coryn, the comic-strip history has now been translated into English by Will McMorran, and will be published in the UK on 27 October by Penguin Press.

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Translation Tuesday: Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca – extract

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 15:00:38 GMT2016-09-27T15:00:38Z

In this excerpt from Suárez’s debut about the final project of a enigmatic mathematician, a colonel’s life is considered and mined for meaning

By Carlos Fonseca Suárez and Megan McDowell for Translation Tuesdays byAsymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

Today we present an extract from Carlos Fonseca’s dazzling debut about the demented final project of a brilliant mathematician. Recalling the best of Bolaño, Borges, and Calvino, Colonel Lágrimas is an allegory of our hyperinformed age and of the clash between European and Latin American history.

—The editors at Asymptote

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My trans picture book was challenged – but the answer to hate speech is more speech

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 10:00:26 GMT2016-09-27T10:00:26Z

The co-author of I Am Jazz, about a transgender girl’s journey, explains how efforts to ban the book show exactly why it should be read

I am not the first person you’d think of to be writing a children’s book about a transgender girl. I am not a member of the LGBT community myself, nor do any of my three daughters identify as LGBT, as far as I can tell. But something changed for me when I became a mother: I began to feel a primal protective instinct over all children, and I became profoundly aware of what a huge undertaking it is to raise children in such a way that they grow up to be decent adults. For me, that meant teaching my girls from a young age to be aware of their societal privileges – namely, our presumed privilege as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied people – and what responsibilities come with those privileges.

I Am Jazz was written as much for my own kids as it was for transgender kids. For trans kids, it was an opportunity to finally see themselves reflected in, and validated by, a book. But for kids like mine, it was a chance to expand their empathy repertoire. That my friend Jazz Jennings would allow me to take part in sharing her amazing story was an extraordinary honour.

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Annabel Abbs: 'Ulysses and Finnegans Wake followed me round the house like hungry dogs'

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 09:00:22 GMT2016-09-27T09:00:22Z

The novelist explains how reading James Joyce’s knottiest work helped her compose a version of his daughter Lucia’s tragic life

I never intended to write a book. My parents were struggling, impoverished writers and I’d always vowed not to go the same way. But then I stumbled across Lucia Joyce, daughter of James and a dancer in 1920s Paris. I still didn’t want to write a book, but I wanted to know more about her life, her alleged affairs with Alexander Calder and Samuel Beckett, and why she spent the latter half of her life in a mental asylum. When I couldn’t find the answers in her biography, something happened that I still don’t fully understand. I felt a compulsion to uncover and fictionalise her story.

I discovered that many of her letters had been purposefully destroyed and this enraged me. At the time, I was intending to become a photographer, but instead I stopped my classes and bought or borrowed every book I could find on Joyce and his circle. Books spilled from every stair, towered from every table-top, squatted in trembling piles on every floor.

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Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter – but that rarely makes for great memoirs

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 07:00:20 GMT2016-09-27T07:00:20Z

After 18 albums, the star is publishing his autobiography. Precedent suggests he’ll be hard pressed to make his book match the quality of his music

In the brief foreword to his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes that his aim is to “shed a little light on how and, more important, why” he forged his improbable career as the last great rock superstar. In truth, we already have the evidence in the 18 albums he has released over 43 years. Do we need to know more? Music is a transcendental experience, and to explain its origins in cold print can rob the songs of their magic.

Related: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen – review

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The Arab of the Future 2 – terrifying school days in Syria

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 06:00:18 GMT2016-09-27T06:00:18Z

The second volume of Riad Sattouf’s acclaimed graphic memoir takes a darker turn as he endures school and his father is complicit in a terrible crime

In case you’ve forgotten, or didn’t discover it in the first place, volume one of Riad Sattouf’s acclaimed series of comics about his childhood in France and the Middle East, The Arab of the Future, came out in the UK last April. Having introduced us to his French mother, Clémentine, and his Syrian-born father, Abdel-Razak – and, of course, to the young Riad, a delicate boy with luxuriant blond hair – it took us on a series of journeys. First, we watched in horror (and a little amusement) as Abdel-Razak, a blustering Arab nationalist with powerful dictatorial tendencies, dragged his reluctant family to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. Then, when that turned out not to be quite so much fun as he was expecting, we cringed as he insisted they move to Ter Maaleh, the village near Homs, in Syria, where he grew up. I loved it, and couldn’t wait for its sequel – and now here it is, at last.

Volume two begins in 1984, when Riad is six and “still as gorgeous as ever”. After a brief stay in France, the family – augmented by the birth of Riad’s new baby brother – is living in Ter Maaleh once again, and no one seems very happy about it. Clémentine is isolated and lonely, while Abdel-Razak, for all that he still believes in the magnificence of Hafez al-Assad’s great project, is frustrated, none of his dreams – a huge house, a prestigious job – having yet come true. For Riad, however, the biggest blot on the horizon is neither his parents’ disharmony, nor the bewildering behaviour of his paternal relatives (his strange little cousins, who used to spend all their time killing imaginary Israelis, are still very much on the scene). Rather, it is the prospect of school that terrifies him – and no, not even the “magic” ruler his father has given him (look at it one way, and you see a Syrian flag; look at it another, and it becomes Assad’s face) can change that.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 15:00:00 GMT2016-09-26T15:00:00Z

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blog, and our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

To start, a good question from conedison:

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Interview with a Bookstore: Magers and Quinn in Minnesota

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 15:30:00 GMT2016-09-26T15:30:00Z

Complete with a ‘Heraldry and Chivalry’ section, Magers and Quinn is renown for its eclectic and extensive book range. Its booksellers share why they want a hot tub and their favourite regulars

  • Scroll down for the staff recommendations shelf

Magers and Quinn was opened in the summer of 1994, by Denny Magers, who has been the sole owner for 21 years. Before Magers and Quinn, he’d purchased a small antiquarian bookstore near the University of Minnesota that was not infrequently compared to the bookstore in The Neverending Story. Looking for more bookselling opportunities, Magers saw the space in the Uptown neighborhood and decided to open another store, Magers and Quinn Booksellers (his paternal and maternal family names). Magers and Quinn Booksellers has been Uptown’s favorite destination for reading material ever since.

What’s your favorite section in the store?

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'He has a real shot': Stephen King talks about his horror of a Trump presidency

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 13:05:40 GMT2016-09-26T13:05:40Z

The Shining author says Republican candidate’s campaign ‘scares me more than anything else’, adding that decline in reading has blunted voters’s ‘nose for bullshit’

Stephen King has said that listening to Donald Trump’s speeches “is like listening to a piano fall down stairs”, as he admitted that the Republican presidential candidate has a “real shot” of winning this November’s presidential election.

The horror novelist was speaking at the National book festival in Washington DC on Saturday, where he was being honoured by the Library of Congress for his lifelong work promoting literacy. King has long been an outspoken critic of Trump, putting his name to a statement opposing “unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J Trump for the presidency of the United States” earlier this year, and needling him regularly on Twitter. Earlier this month, he joked that “Donald Trump is actually Cthulhu. The absurd hairdo isn’t absurd at all. It hides the tentacles.” On Sunday, he added that “Texas may go for Trump, but they have a saying for guys like him: ‘He’s so low, he could put on a top hat and crawl under a rattlesnake.’”

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Poem of the week: Angela Leighton translates Leonardo Sciascia

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 11:20:02 GMT2016-09-26T11:20:02Z

Taking two turns at bringing the Italian poet’s Hic et Nunc into English, Leighton steers a fascinating course between strict and free renderings

Hic et Nunc (1)

I am a mutilated statue
at the bottom of clear waters.

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'Draw and you'll go to jail': the fight to save comics from the censor

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 14:00:03 GMT2016-09-25T14:00:03Z

From worried parents to policemen with built-in ‘Satan detectors’, underground comics have never lacked enemies. And for 30 years Neil Gaiman and his friends have fought back in the name of free speech

In 1994, Mike Diana found himself in jail near his home in Largo, Florida. Sitting alongside rapists, muggers and murderers, he spent four days waiting to be sentenced after his conviction at Pinellas County court. His crime? Making comics.

Diana was just 25 when he became the first person in the US to be convicted of “artistic obscenity”. The jury took 40 minutes to find him guilty on three counts: for publishing, distributing and advertising his comic series Boiled Angel.

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Truman Capote's ashes sold for $43,750

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 10:13:02 GMT2016-09-26T10:13:02Z

Auctioneer says that Breakfast at Tiffany’s author, always conscious of his public profile, would have loved to see his remains passed on in this way

The ashes of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote have been sold at auction in Los Angeles for $43,750 (£33,800).

Kept in a carved Japanese wooden box, the ashes belonged to the late Joanne Carson, wife of the former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. According to vendor Julien’s Auctions, Carson, who died last year, said that owning the ashes “brought her great comfort”. She and Capote were good friends, and the celebrated writer died of liver disease at her mansion in Bel-Air in 1984, at the age of 59.

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Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen – review

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 08:00:25 GMT2016-09-26T08:00:25Z

The singer’s candid memoir sheds light on his long-standing battle with depression and his drive to perform

When Bruce Springsteen first played London in November 1975, he was so angered by the hype surrounding the show – “FINALLY! London is ready for Bruce Springsteen” – that he stormed around the Hammersmith Odeon destroying posters and flyers. “My business is SHOW business not TELLING. You show people and let them decide,” he rails in this compelling and often painfully candid autobiography. The night’s performance – as ever, a barnstormer – sealed his reputation in a country he revered, “the isle of our heroes”.

Springsteen’s epic live shows, habitually three to four hours long, are part of his legend, his triumph. Why he submits to them, even now as a sixtysomething, is a mystery explained in Born to Run. There is the joy of performance – “life-giving, muscle-aching, mind-clearing, cathartic pleasure and privilege” – and a work ethic inherited from his blue-collar New Jersey upbringing.

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Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge – review

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 06:00:23 GMT2016-09-26T06:00:23Z

The Guardian writer’s vital study humanises the poor murder victims whose deaths went largely unnoticed

On the cover of Gary Younge’s new book, Another Day in the Death of America, there’s a full frontal of a smiling white American family. It’s a portrait of a 1950s American dream that stands in brilliant contrast to the reality of the country that is revealed beyond this cover. Take the story of 16-year-old African American Samuel Brightmon, who lived in Dallas. Having spent the evening at home with his family and a friend playing Uno (and cheating, “though not as egregiously as usual”), he offered to walk his friend part of the way home. When they passed a car with its headlights off but brake lights on they remarked on it but kept going. Not for long, however: a shot rang out, killing Samuel. “One minute we’re playing Uno,” his friend reflected, “10, 15 minutes later – boom.” Samuel’s wake was held on 29 November, the day he would have turned 17. No one has been charged with his murder: the working assumption being that this was just another case of mistaken identity.

Samuel is one of the 10 people known to have been killed by guns on 23 November 2013. That’s the day Guardian journalist Gary Younge randomly selected for this book, after which he spent 18 months unearthing the stories that lay behind these young lives and their premature deaths. It is a gripping account that leads the reader through places as disparate as the vast corn and soya fields of Michigan and the killing fields of Chicago, where gunfire is now so common that dogs are said to have stopped barking at it. It’s a journey through a deeply troubled America that will make its reader want to join the author in howling at the moon.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 35 – The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (1945)

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 04:45:21 GMT2016-09-26T04:45:21Z

The Austrian-born philosopher’s postwar rallying cry for western liberal democracy was hugely influential in the 1960s

“If our civilisation is to survive,” Karl Popper writes at the beginning of this passionate defence of freedom and reason, “we must break with the habit of deference to great men.”

The Open Society and Its Enemies, conceived in the 1930s, and completed in the 1940s, would become a key text of the 1960s, and its author a profound, sometimes thrilling, influence on a new generation of college students. Thus, a book inspired by the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938, but actually written in the secluded tranquillity of New Zealand’s South Island, became a rallying cry, on behalf of western liberal democracy, for the postwar renewal of the European tradition.

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The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1966-1989 – digested read

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 16:00:05 GMT2016-09-25T16:00:05Z

‘Saw Harold who showed me The Birthday Party. Suggested a couple of places where the pauses could be longer’

Ussy, Paris, Berlin, Tunisia

Dear Whoever,

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The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers – review

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 11:00:32 GMT2016-09-25T11:00:32Z

Two US scholars analysed bestselling books using an algorithm. Their findings don’t make for uplifting reading

If it is your ambition to write a bestselling work of fiction, you would be well advised to focus on certain topics and to avoid others. Among the topics you should focus on are, for instance, marriage, funerals, guns, schools, children, mothers and vaguely threatening technologies. Among the topics you should avoid are sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. You should also under no circumstances subject your readers to the universally despised topics of seduction and lovemaking. You can, if you wish, describe human bodies, but if you want this book of yours to sell, you’d better make sure that those human bodies are not “described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene”.

Will authors now write their books to conform to the algorithmic model for success?

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Richell prize: Susie Greenhill wins literary award for 'ecological love story'

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 09:08:18 GMT2016-09-28T09:08:18Z

Tasmanian author, whose novel The Clinking explores themes of extinction, snaps up award for Australian writers who have not yet published a book

An “ecological love story” is not a common genre, but this is how Susie Greenhill, winner of this year’s Richell prize, sees her novel The Clinking.

Greenhill, who was also longlisted for last year’s Richell prize, stood out among 428 entries in the second year of the award, which is offered to Australian writers who have not yet published a book.

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Banned Books Week launches with call to read books the 'closed-minded' want shut

Mon, 26 Sep 2016 08:49:26 GMT2016-09-26T08:49:26Z

Joining the annual celebration of the right to read, US author Jessica Herthel urges people to seek out ‘more information, more voices’ to protect diversity

The author of a children’s picture book chronicling the transgender journey of Jazz Jennings has urged readers to celebrate Banned Books Week this year “by picking up a book that some closed-minded person out there wanted desperately to keep out of your hands”.

America’s annual celebration of the right to read, which has been joined by authors and readers in the UK, kicked off on Sunday with a series of displays, events and readings across the US, focusing for 2016 on diverse books. According to the American Library Association, more than half of all banned books are by authors of colour, or focus on diverse communities.

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My parents at war: Jacqueline Wilson opens up about unhappy early life

Sat, 24 Sep 2016 23:03:18 GMT2016-09-24T23:03:18Z

Millions of children have been comforted by her books. Now the author reveals that her mother’s death has allowed her to be more open about her childhood

For a long time, Dame Jacqueline Wilson had no idea how sad she was as a child. “If you’d asked me as I was growing up was I happy, I’d have said yes, and been absolutely certain I was. If I was sometimes nervous or anxious, which I was, I would have thought it was my fault.”

Divorce, child abuse and parental neglect all feature regularly in her bestselling children’s books – but until now little has been known about how the writer’s own unhappy childhood has influenced her work. After the death of her mother last year, Wilson, 70, is marking the publication next month of her 105th novel, Clover Moon, by finally allowing her own family skeletons to come out of the closet.

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James Patterson calls off his fictional Murder of Stephen King

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 11:15:01 GMT2016-09-23T11:15:01Z

Thriller writer had been due to publish a book about an attempt on the horror master’s life, but decided against after learning of real-life threats

Bestselling thriller writer James Patterson has cancelled publication of his novel The Murder of Stephen King, belatedly deciding that he did not want to cause King and his family “any discomfort”.

King has dreamed up his fair share of deranged fans, from Misery’s axe-wielding Annie Wilkes who keeps her favourite author writing by chopping off his foot, to Morris Bellamy, the villain in his recent thriller Finders Keepers, who shoots his idol in the head. Patterson’s novel, which was only announced last week for publication in November, promised to feature “all of Stephen King’s greatest villains, rolled into one”.

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His Bloody Project's sales leave Booker shortlist rivals for dead

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 16:17:26 GMT2016-09-22T16:17:26Z

Popularity of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s murder story sets small Scottish publisher scrambling to meet demand

A little-known novelist with a tiny independent publisher in Scotland is enjoying an extraordinary sales rush after being shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s tale of murder in a remote Highland crofting community in the 19th century, is leading sales of shortlisted books by a significant margin, according to the most recent figures available. Its closest and far better-recognised rival is selling more than a third less.

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Philip Pullman among authors urging culture secretary to 'set new course' for libraries

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 13:30:12 GMT2016-09-22T13:30:12Z

More than 300 writers, including Malorie Blackman, Jackie Kay and Michael Holroyd, have written to Karen Bradley calling for action on crisis in library service

Malorie Blackman, Philip Pullman and Michael Holroyd are among the writers calling on the new secretary of state for culture, Karen Bradley, to recognise the “crisis” the public library service is going through and to “set a new course after years of decline”.

Libraries campaigner and award-winning children’s author Alan Gibbons has collected more than 300 signatories for an open letter to Bradley, including some of the UK’s top writers, from Michael Rosen to Jackie Kay, and from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Darren Shan. Bradley was appointed secretary of state for culture, media and sport in July, when she said that the sectors were “all areas which help to make life richer, drive the economy and promote the UK around the world”, and that she was “committed to making sure these sectors continue to thrive”.

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Robert Burns song performed as it originally sounded – video

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 06:00:42 GMT2016-09-22T06:00:42Z

According to the University of Glasgow, the Scottish poet’s songs were ‘tailored for the parlours of the middle classes’, and would have been performed in that setting on Baroque harpsichords, cellos and violas, rather than in a pub, accompanied by a violin or guitar. Here, musicians perform Burns’s 1795 song ‘Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?’

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Robert Burns songs re-recorded in their original, genteel context

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 05:59:42 GMT2016-09-22T05:59:42Z

Academics say arrangements for harpsichords, cellos and violas will not appeal to everyone, but that this is how they were meant to be heard

Cautiously warning that they may not be to everyone’s taste, the University of Glasgow has recorded a collection of songs by Robert Burns as they would originally have been performed.

According to the university, the Scottish poet’s songs, written in the late 18th and early 19th century, were “tailored for the parlours of the middle classes”, and would have been performed in that setting on Baroque harpsichords, cellos and violas, rather than their more usual airing today; in a pub, accompanied by a violin or guitar.

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Tim Flannery returns to the Great Barrier Reef after coral bleaching – video

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 20:15:20 GMT2016-09-21T20:15:20Z

The Australian conservationist travels back to the Great Barrier Reef with the Climate Council after witnessing extensive coral bleaching in the area in May. An estimated 30% to 40% of the previously bleached sections of the reef have now died, which Flannery attributes to ‘the burden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causing these unprecedented underwater heatwaves’
• Josh Wall was a guest of the Climate Council

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George Washington's 'racy' letter about a donkey goes on sale

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 15:30:24 GMT2016-09-21T15:30:24Z

Correspondence by future US president recounts news of breeding travails to the owner of a visiting ‘she ass’, and is priced at $35,000

A slice of “racy” agricultural correspondence from George Washington written a few years before he became the first president of the US and dealing with a “she ass” has gone up for sale.

The 1786 letter was written by Washington from his family estate, Mount Vernon, to the Maryland politician and lawyer Richard Sprigg. Sprigg had sent his female donkey, or “she ass”, to Mount Vernon for breeding purposes, and Washington writes to say that “I feel myself obliged by your polite offer of the first fruit of your jenny [female donkey].”

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Philip Pullman calls for UK to adopt EU plans to protect authors' royalties

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 13:30:21 GMT2016-09-21T13:30:21Z

His Dark Materials author has appealed for EU directive to be introduced in Britain, to block ‘unfair practices that currently prevent authors making a living’

His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman has welcomed a “badly need[ed]” new proposal from the European Commission that would protect authors who achieve unexpected success from missing out on royalties.

Pullman was speaking as president of the Society of Authors, which is pressing the UK government to adopt clauses from the new EU draft directive on the digital single market in order to “avoid unfair practices that currently prevent authors making a living from writing”. The Society highlighted the case of Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon, who has not received any royalties from the television and film adaptations of her Horrid Henry books, despite the series being broadcast in 44 countries with more than 1.5m DVDs sold.

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The banning of books in prisons: 'It's like living in the dark ages'

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 10:00:31 GMT2016-09-25T10:00:31Z

Dan Slater’s book Wolf Boys is the latest of many to be banned to American prisoners for reasons that seem capricious, illogical and vindictive

Dan Slater’s new non-fiction book Wolf Boys recounts the story of two Mexican-American teens in Texas seduced by the violent cartels across the border and the Mexican-born Texas detective who hunts them. It is grim and violent, yet it is a detailed and thoughtful look at American society and the war on drugs. It has also been condemned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Directors Review Committee, which declared Wolf Boys off limits to all Texas prisoners before it was even published this month.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark cites one page, which “contains information on how to conceal and smuggle illegal narcotics.” In other words, while the book shows the downfall of the two boys who cross over to the dark side - both are serving decades in the TDCJ system — it was banished for these two sentences on page 124:

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Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 14:30:05 GMT2016-09-23T14:30:05Z

Andrea Wulf’s victory in the Royal Society prize this week continues a trend that has seen female authors triumphing after many years on the margins

There wasn’t much fuss about Andrea Wulf’s gender when she won the Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize for her biography of Alexander von Humboldt. But her victory means that, just like the Wellcome book prize – won by Marion Coutts in 2015 and Suzanne O’Sullivan in 2016 – the Royal Society award has gone to a woman for the last two years.

Related: Andrea Wulf on a scientific adventurer 'chased by 10,000 pigs'

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The Horrid case of Henry: why authors need new rights legislation

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 16:30:16 GMT2016-09-22T16:30:16Z

The European Commission is looking to help authors who have lost the rights to their work. Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon explains why the new measures should be applauded

I applauded when I read about a new proposal from the European Commission that provides measures to enable writers to rebalance contracts when they haven’t been given an adequate share in the success of their work. The Society of Authors is encouraging the government to adopt these proposals into UK law as soon as possible. I couldn’t agree more. It’s no fun being a cautionary tale, but here’s what happened to me.

Related: Philip Pullman calls for UK to adopt EU plans to protect authors' royalties

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John Sweeney's top 10 books on corruption

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 12:00:11 GMT2016-09-21T12:00:11Z

From Macbeth to Robert Maxwell and Mussolini’s son-in-law, the investigative reporter and crime novelist picks his favourite books featuring ‘plot No 2 in literature’

The drive for power leads to deceit. Soon moral ruin comes in its train, then violence, then murder. This cycle of high hopes rolling down to hell in a handcart is probably plot No 2 in literature. (Plot No 1 being girl meets boy, etc.) Corruption of the soul, of the heart, of men, of power, of ideals and idealism has been at the dead centre of so many great books it’s kind of invidious to pick a top 10. Still, here we are.

My first thriller, Cold, touches on how too much veneration for God and soil – love of nation – can corrupt. The hero is an ex-IRA man, one of his allies an ex-Mormon CIA man wrestling with his religion. But events in modern Russia inspired it: things I’ve seen with my own eyes from Chechnya to Moscow, from Siberia to Sochi. It’s not about Putin, but while working as a journalist, I’ve met him and three of his critics: Anna Politkovskaya, Natasha Estemirova and Boris Nemtsov. They all got murdered, reason enough to dedicate Cold to their memories.

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Love and Rockets to Wonder Woman: 20 comics and graphic novels to look forward to

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 13:47:39 GMT2016-09-20T13:47:39Z

From the return of an underground classic to the rebirth of a superhero, here are some of the titles to pick up in late 2016 and early 2017

Exits by Daryl Seitchik (Koyama Press, September)
Seitchik follows up her Ignatz award-nominated Missy comics with a debut graphic novel focusing on mirror-store clerk Claire Kim, who hates herself and the world she lives in. Claire spends her days showing customers their reflections while dreaming about erasing her own: a wish that ends up coming true. ZA

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Mon, 19 Sep 2016 15:00:48 GMT2016-09-19T15:00:48Z

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blog, and our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

There Vesca had two very fine suggestions. First, The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards:

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Poem of the week: The Learn’d Astronomer by Michael Robbins

Mon, 19 Sep 2016 10:35:57 GMT2016-09-19T10:35:57Z

Recalling the intense passions of teenage years with seriousness worn lightly, this poem finds room for both the throwaway and the infinite

The Learn’d Astronomer

How long must we hymn the twinkling stars
before we admit they are no more distant
than the glow-in-the-dark stickers adorning
the ceiling of my first girlfriend’s boudoir?

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Old book, new look: why the classics are flying off the shelves

Sat, 17 Sep 2016 11:00:47 GMT2016-09-17T11:00:47Z

Sales have risen 10%, thanks to TV adaptations and clever marketing. As four publishing houses unveil new looks, John Walsh investigates the battle for new readers

Imagine you have a sudden burning desire to read David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’s favourite of all his novels. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, you could read it for nothing online but, correctly reasoning that it would be tedious to scroll through 600 pages on a screen, you go to a bookshop. There you find that David Copperfield is available as an Everyman Classic hardback, a Penguin Classic paperback, an Oxford University Press paperback and a Vintage Classic paperback, all designed in pleasing formats, heftily branded and with paintings or artful imagery on their covers, along with introductory essays by university professors, a chronology of Dickens’s life and a scholarly trove of explanatory notes.

Which do you choose? Why that one? Because it has the most beautiful cover? Because it looks more “collectable” for your library shelf at home? Because the colour scheme matches the decor of your living room? Because the introduction is by Professor John Sutherland, say, rather than Norman Carpet from Nowheresville? Think carefully before you choose, because British publishers are putting lots of money and energy into guessing what the new generation of classics buyers wants. This year, the four major contenders – Penguin, OUP, Everyman and Vintage – are experimenting with radical new looks, designs and branding strategies, in the hope of snaring their long-term loyalty.

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Mary Stewart’s forgotten novella is the perfect celebration of her centenary year

Sat, 17 Sep 2016 07:00:42 GMT2016-09-17T07:00:42Z

Stewart’s 1968 novella, The Wind Off the Small Isles, has been out of print for more than four decades – it publication is a potent reminder of her genius

Fans of Mary Stewart, who would have turned 100 today, may not be pleased to learn that she consigned a sequel to her beloved romantic suspense novel Touch Not the Cat to the shredder. But they will be able to comfort themselves with the imminent release of a long lost novella from the bestselling novelist, who died in 2014 at the age of 97.

Stewart was the pioneer of romantic suspense, topping charts on both sides of the Atlantic with stories of clever, attractive heroines in danger, from 1955’s Madam, Will You Talk?, set in Provence, to 1964’s Corfu-set This Rough Magic. Her 19 adult novels also included the Merlin series, which follow his life in fifth-century Britain. The Wind Off the Small Isles, a 1968 novella that has been out of print for more than four decades and which will be republished by Hodder & Stoughton next week to mark today’s anniversary, was described by Stewart as “a kind of coda” to her romantic novels and a “bridge” to her historical writing.

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How Alan Moore transformed the way I saw comics (and house plants)

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 17:09:15 GMT2016-09-16T17:09:15Z

Moore always insisted on seeing himself as an artist – someone willing to try new subjects, experiment with new forms and work with new people

I don’t know if Alan Moore was the first artist who I really thought of as an artist. But Moore, who announced his retirement from making comic books this week, was the first person on the strength of whose name I was willing to pay more money than I should have.

Way back in the mid-1980s, I was in high school and Moore, with artists John Totleben and Steve Bissette, were in the middle of their classic run on Swamp Thing. My younger brother and I had come on board about halfway through, and were trying to collect all the back issues. Our local comics shop – a stereotypically seedy establishment that would go out of business a couple years later after failing to pay sales tax – had a copy of the first famous issue of Moore’s run, The Anatomy Lesson. It was $20 – which seemed a fortune for us at the time. We’d come into the store and stare at it, week after week, with a not un-Moore-like mixture of longing, despair and desperation. There was no trade graphic novel collection of Moore’s run, yet, as far as we knew pre-internet, so if we wanted to read the story, this was pretty much our only option.

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John le Carré and I worked for years on his biography. Why is he telling his own story 12 months later?

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 09:00:07 GMT2016-09-16T09:00:07Z

David Cornwell’s memoir was published within a year of my book. Is he reclaiming his stories?

He’s trying to wrest back control of the agenda,” said my editor, on hearing the announcement that David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, was writing a memoir, only days before the publication of my John le Carré: The Biography. Several people have suggested to me that to bring out such a memoir – The Pigeon Tunnel, published last week – within 12 months of the publication of my book is an “unhelpful” act on his part – even, perhaps, an unfriendly one.

A degree of disgruntlement on his part would not be surprising. Though my biography was written with my subject’s cooperation, it would be disingenuous to pretend that there was no strain between us during the four years I spent writing his life. I don’t think that I should have been doing my job properly if there hadn’t been: I saw it as my job to uncover the truth, however painful that might be. “I’m not sure how much more of this I can stand,” David said to me after one session. I can only imagine how hard it was for him to have a comparative stranger explore every room of his life, from attic to basement, to expose his mistakes and quarrels, and to probe his sore spots. “I think our continuing relationship is an achievement in itself,” David wrote to me in 2014. So it is only right that I should acknowledge his generosity, his tolerance and his continuing sense of humour. There were some tense moments during those four years, but there were also a lot of laughs. “I know it’s supposed to be warts and all,” he said to me at one point, “but so far as I can gather, it’s going to be all warts and no all.”

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Against the wall: from Mexico to Calais, why the idea of division is taking hold

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 07:00:05 GMT2016-09-16T07:00:05Z

Fortifying the Mexican border has become central to Donald Trump’s election campaign, while Brexit has led to plans for a ‘great wall of Calais’. Andrew Solomon looks at why have walls taken on such symbolic power – and at what cost?

In August, Donald Trump went to Mexico to meet with President Peña Nieto. The question of why the Mexican leader set up this meeting baffled his few supporters and his many foes, but immediately after a supposedly cordial encounter at which Peña Nieto supposedly voiced Mexico’s concerns about Trump’s racism, the Republican candidate crossed the border to Arizona, where, within hours, he was repeating his tagline. To great applause, he declared: “We will build a great wall along the southern border, and Mexico will pay for the wall. One hundred percent.” Asked in another interview about other foreign visits he might make to inform his policies, he proudly said: “I’ve got no time to travel – America needs my attention now.” But can you pay attention to America while ignoring everywhere else? Except in the most literal sense, no country is an island.

Such provincialism is not exclusive to America. In May, two months before he was announced as the UK’s new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson won a prize for the best rude limerick written about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He had previously referred to Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan president”. This smug, ungenerous rudeness might play well to some audiences at home, but it bespeaks a frightening disregard for the psychic intimacy that statecraft ordinarily requires.

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Why Vahni Capildeo deserved to win the Forward prize

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 16:00:15 GMT2016-09-22T16:00:15Z

Forward prize founder, William Sieghart, applauds a fresh new voice in poetry

There is nothing accidental in a good poem. Those at the 25th Forward prizes on Tuesday could not ignore the hungry, concentrated listening that filled the Royal Festival Hall. Vahni Capildeo was about to read from her collection, Measures of Expatriation.

Related: Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo wins 2016 Forward prize for poetry

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What Will Remain by Dan Clements review – vivid accounts of army life

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 14:30:23 GMT2016-09-21T14:30:23Z

These stories owe a great deal to Hemingway, and if they don’t quite live up to Papa’s example they are still vivid, affecting records of soldiers’ experience in Afghanistan

First, a declaration of interest. I published a short story by Dan Clements a few years ago as part of the Galley Beggar Press ebook Singles series. You may see evidence of bias in the fact that I think his first novel What Will Remain is by some distance the best so far on the Not the Booker shortlist.

I think that this book’s connected stories about army life in Afghanistan – and what happens on the return home – are vivid and real and clearly born of the hard-won experience of Clements’s own time in the Royal Marines. They have emotional, almost physical heft; the descriptions of the Afghan terrain, and the mental landscapes of the various soldiers, seem real to me. The book is shot through with moments of genuine insight and intimacy – as when a soldier steps outside his air-conditioned pod into the strange “nighttime city smells” of Kabul and gets the “sudden dumb feeling” that he is on holiday.

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The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel review – a very overheated tale

Wed, 14 Sep 2016 11:41:00 GMT2016-09-14T11:41:00Z

This story of dark passions in a sun-scorched small town addresses some heavy questions but cannot bear their weight

Tiffany McDaniel’s debut sees a satanic presence turn up in small-town America and apparently unleash chaos; a familiar idea to anyone who has watched the TV series Fargo. But there are important differences – as the title suggests, The Summer That Melted Everything is takes place in the hot season in Ohio, rather than Fargo’s wintry setting. More crucially, McDaniel’s novel doesn’t have the warped charisma of Billy Bob Thornton to pull you through when things get a bit silly. And because McDaniel’s book starts getting silly in its first paragraph, that’s a big problem.

Here is the initial offending item:

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The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote by Dan Micklethwaite review – a touch of manic pixie dream girl

Wed, 07 Sep 2016 12:08:44 GMT2016-09-07T12:08:44Z

It’s not often that a book comes along with a review built into the title, and if you think I’m going to be able to let this one pass by without making the obvious comment, you’ve got another think coming. The temptation to riff is all the stronger because the title accurately reflects the book’s contents.

First, the legend. That titular heroine’s real name is Donna Crick-Oakley, as Micklethwaite insists on repeating in the early chapters, spelling out the full name every time his focus lands on her. Which is just about every other paragraph. And adds to the strangeness of his staccato delivery. Yes. This book is full of short repetitious sentences. That could really actually just be one longer sentence. And that sometimes give the book a clever-clever air.

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Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne review – trouble in Israel

Wed, 31 Aug 2016 07:00:30 GMT2016-08-31T07:00:30Z

A perceptive depiction of the fragility of life in an embattled land gets drowned out by strident politics, in the first of this year’s Not the Booker shortlist

The shortlist in full

Researchers recently published research showing that literary fiction improves “empathy”. It all seemed a bit odd – not least because the study seemed to be about reading people’s eyes rather than the inside of their heads, which is surely where literary fiction goes. But I’d challenge anyone to deny that a good novel can provide emotional insights. And Chains Of Sand would be a fine book to back up that challenge.

This is a book that offers both perception and understanding, an achievement that matters all the more because Jemma Wayne’s subject is one that is often misunderstood and misrepresented: the state of Israel. Her narrative follows two young men and various associates as they try to work out their place in the country, and their own equally confused feelings about this complicated society.

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The Not the Booker prize 2016 shortlist revealed: time to get reading!

Mon, 15 Aug 2016 10:15:43 GMT2016-08-15T10:15:43Z

Our longlist of 147 contenders has now been narrowed to six novels, all of them from indie publishers. Now help us choose the winner

The votes are in – record number of them. More than 1,500 have been cast in this year’s competition. That’s impressive enough in itself – but even more so when you consider our rules and that more than 1,500 reviews have also been written, and more than 1,500 second preference votes also cast. So despite the really very modest prize on offer, our uniquely democratic judging process (any reader can help decide) seems to be attracting growing interest.

I’m happy to say that – as far as I know – it has been a relatively orderly and respectable process this year. There have been a few accusations of entryism and outside pressure, but it wouldn’t be a proper election without some controversy, and I’d say we’re doing much better than most. Not least because we know have an interesting and unusual group of books to consider. Here’s our current top six, chosen from the 147 books longlisted, ranked by number of votes:

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Tiffany McDaniel: 'The novel was there saying, "Let me out!"'

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 17:36:36 GMT2016-09-22T17:36:36Z

The author of The Summer That Melted Everything explains how her debut was forged during a fever of writing, when she finished a novel in eight days

Tiffany McDaniel starts all of her books as her readers do – with the title and the first sentence, nothing else. Her debut novel, The Summer That Melted Everything begins with a line as tantalising as the story itself: “The heat came with the devil.” Set in a blistering heatwave in 1984, the book is narrated by Fielding, the son of small-town lawyer Autopsy Bliss, who takes out a newspaper ad to invite Satan to Breathed, Ohio, just to see if he exists.

Instead of a cloaked reptilian figure, the devil seems to come in the form of a small, black boy: Sal. This odd child talks in parables, appears to watch humanity with sad weariness and somehow instigates tragic events wherever he goes. When the town begins to turn violently against him, the Bliss family must consider whether they are sheltering Lucifer himself, or merely harbouring a traumatised child.

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Amos Oz on his novel Judas – books podcast

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 16:28:33 GMT2016-09-23T16:28:33Z

The Israeli novelist Amos Oz talks about prose, poetry and politics in his latest novel, Judas

The novelist Amos Oz has been exploring the complexities of the Israeli experience in a career that stretches back more than 50 years. His latest novel, Judas, examines betrayal and belief in a multi-layered story that moves between Christianity’s early days and 1950s Jerusalem.

When he came to discuss the novel in front of a Guardian Live audience, Oz explained how he started reading the gospels as a teenager and his rage at the inconsistencies at the heart of the Judas story. The wide-ranging discussion included the dangerous appeal of fanaticism, the contested line between reasonable criticism of Israel and antisemitism and his hopes for peace.

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Charlotte Mendelson: ‘I live for the moments when something comes into verbal focus’

Sat, 24 Sep 2016 08:59:01 GMT2016-09-24T08:59:01Z

The author describes her best distraction techniques, the odd people she meets in the British Library, and the occasional triumphs of a typical working day

There’s no magic to it. I rise at dawn to answer the correspondence of my grateful fans, then it’s 1,000 words long-hand daily, including Christmas and birthdays, a trek with the dogs over the Downs, a simple three-course dinner brought to my study door while I edit, then to bed, exhausted by my sheer creativity. With my old platinum Graf von Faber-Castell and a ream of cream archival, I can work anywhere: the green room at Hay, poolside at the Colombe d’Or. One has to in this business. It’s a vagabond life.

If this were true I’d hate me too. Pinning down one of my real-life writing days is trickier. Ignore the 20 weeks a year taken up with clashing school holidays; imagine that the endless hiccups of family life, the ceaseless mending, buying, exchanging, meeting, delivering and, most outrageously of all, feeding, that one’s dependents require, have been dealt with by employees of the Society of Authors, at night. And let’s exclude all the other work: teaching creative writing, or privately mentoring new novelists; writing introductions or articles; events. Say we’re face to face with that miracle: a clear day.

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Bureaumancy: a genre for fantastic tales of the deeply ordinary

Fri, 12 Aug 2016 16:00:05 GMT2016-08-12T16:00:05Z

Perhaps because of their own deskbound lives, many novelists have been able to find the outlandish stories filed away in the drabbest corners of modern life

There’s nothing wrong with being a bureaucrat. So you’re a tiny cog in a machine made of abstract rules, paperwork, and the broken dreams of those who do not understand either. So what? You’re just misunderstood. Without you, nobody would know where to file their TPS reports. Nobody would even know what a TPS report is.

But writers understand. As species of personality go, the writer and the bureaucrat are closely related: they’re deskbound creatures who enjoy the comfortable certainties of Microsoft Office and dazzling us with wordcraft, be it small-print legalese or the impenetrable prose of literary fiction. Of course, Kafka understood the true power of the bureaucrat because he was one – and thus portrayed bureaucracy as a looming, all-powerful presence. The wonderful Douglas Adams imagined an entire planet faking the apocalypse just to get all its middle managers to evacuate in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, hell itself is one endless system of bureaucratic red tape, where doomed souls are made to sit through every last codicil and sub-paragraph of the rules pertaining to Health and Safety – all 40,000 volumes of them.

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My hero: Elie Wiesel by David Miliband

Sat, 09 Jul 2016 13:00:02 GMT2016-07-09T13:00:02Z

The writer and Holocaust survivor fought for justice, defending persecuted people of all races and religions. He taught us that the word ‘refugee’ need not be unpopular

I met Elie Wiesel only once, in his New York office two years ago. He had joined the board of directors of the International Rescue Committee in 1985, and continued on our board of overseers. As the new president and CEO, I wanted his advice.

Wiesel remained doughty, passionate, inspiring. “I am a refugee but the word refugee is not popular,” he told me. “But everyone likes the idea of refuge. Fight for refuge. We all need refuge.”

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Poster poems: madness

Fri, 02 Sep 2016 15:00:05 GMT2016-09-02T15:00:05Z

From the insanity found in modern politics to the genuine tragedies of mental illness, this month we want your prose to help us find sense in the world

We live in a mad, mad world. If you don’t believe me, just watch the news tonight to see the full gamut of insanity on display. From low tragedy to high farce, politics, economics and celebrity culture all seem to be locked in a downward spiral of lunatic proportions. It’s enough to drive a poet to despair.

Mind you, this is no new thing. In the 18th century, a poet like Christopher Smart could be driven to the asylum by virtue of religious experiences that were at odds with the dictates of the rational fashion of the time. His contemporaries considered that, by virtue of their resistance to reason, the insane were a danger to society and should be held in isolation – so it was with Smart. During the six years he spent in mental health asylums, he wrote most of his very best poetry, including the wonderful Jubilate Agno, which sees the poet turn inwards for his inspiration, ignoring the bedlam of his surroundings and making poetry of Orphic power.

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The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS – review

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 10:00:31 GMT2016-09-25T10:00:31Z

Raymond Tallis’s sparky, secular new essay collection offers a biting defence of state-funded health care

Raymond Tallis is that under-represented phenomenon in British culture – a serious polymath. For 40 years a consultant NHS physician and medical researcher, he is also a poet, a novelist and a philosopher, and he has written on matters as various as post-structuralism, Parmenides, epilepsy and hunger. In this collection of sparklingly intelligent essays, he brings his voracious mind to bear on, among other deep matters, God, consciousness and the NHS.

Strange bedfellows, you might say of topics rescued from potential tedium by Tallis’s often wickedly witty and subversive prose. He defends the essay form against any charge of magpie trivialism, and makes good his claim by exploring these seemingly disparate subjects with a passion that reveals their interconnected relevance.

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Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts – review

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 08:00:29 GMT2016-09-25T08:00:29Z

Christopher de Hamel sheds light on the world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts in this sumptuous and readable book

A remote town in southern Italy, Rossano, is home to a sixth-century Greek manuscript illustrating the life of Christ. The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis – 185 pages of purple-dyed vellum – gleams with gold whorls and Byzantine interlace. Each year, with great solemnity, the cathedral authorities turn a page for public view. (Page 18 was on display when I visited in 1988; we shall be dead before the last page.) Strikingly, in the Last Supper scene, the disciples are shown eating with their fingers at a low, eastern-style table. In Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem at that time, tables neatly laid with plates and rolls of bread were not known. (Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper was anachronistic.)

According to manuscript historian Christopher de Hamel, Rossano’s gospel book was kept in a box in the archdeacon’s bedroom until 1889, when a classicist from England arrived to buy it. (The deal was vetoed at the 11th hour after the cleric pitched too high.) Might-have-been moments in the lives of manuscripts are familiar to De Hamel, who for 25 years worked for Sotheby’s. Of the 12 manuscripts investigated by him in his delightful, absorbing book, only one – the medieval Hours of Jeanne de Navarre – is preserved today in the country where it was created. Dealers and collectors of one stripe or another have sent calligraphic masterworks to places far from home. “Manuscript migration”, De Hamel calls it.

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Hero of the Empire: The Making of Winston Churchill review – gripping

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 06:30:27 GMT2016-09-25T06:30:27Z

Candice Millard’s account of the young Churchill’s daring involvement in the Boer war sheds light on the politician and the conflict

“There has been a great deal too much surrendering in this war,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1899. He was only 24 at the time but the war in question, against the Boers, was the fourth he had attended. (He had also written and published two books.) He had narrowly escaped being shot in Cuba. He had reported on the war in Sudan. On British India’s north-west frontier he had gone into battle against the Pashtun, making himself conspicuous on a white pony bought, as he candidly told his brother, because it would “attract attention” if he rode about on it “when things looked a little dangerous”.

Attention, according to Candice Millard, was what Churchill was after. He was already aiming for the highest political office. To achieve it, he needed first to cover himself in military glory. “This is a pushing age,” he wrote to his mother, and push he diligently did. Bystanders were repelled and impressed. “I don’t like the fellow,” wrote Lt Gen Sir George White, “but he’ll be prime minister of England one day.” Churchill believed he was entitled to the best of everything. Aged 15, after a train journey, he wrote, “I won’t travel 2nd again, by Jove.” He lost his first election but, lacking a parliamentary seat, he spoke out for war from the steps of his birthplace, Blenheim Palace.

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The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray review – one way to stop us eating so much meat

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 07:00:02 GMT2016-09-23T07:00:02Z

Gray has written a charming and eye-opening book about her year spent eating creatures only she had killed. She points the way to a reduced-meat future

If I ate only animals I killed myself, I would live on a rather uninspiring diet of clothes moths and the occasional mosquito. But then I haven’t learned to stalk and shoot and fish, unlike Louise Gray, an environmental reporter who followed the example of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and decided to eat only what she had personally murdered for a year.

In her very likable and often eye-opening book, Gray, “a farmer’s daughter”, spends a surprising amount of time describing visits to various abattoirs, in order to depict exactly what happens when you don’t kill your own food. Dressing for her first visit, she reports wryly, “I wore a new blouse from Topshop with startled fawns on it.”

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Far & Away by Andrew Solomon review – how travel makes you modest

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 14:00:13 GMT2016-09-22T14:00:13Z

Stylish essays, written over 25 years of travel across seven continents, explore moments of transition and argue the importance of understanding the ‘other’

What most of us remember from our early childhoods are fleeting images that leave faint trails, later to be recaptured by smells or sounds. For Andrew Solomon, there was one extremely vivid early memory, and it formed him. He was in a car, aged about seven, when his Jewish father told him about the Holocaust. The small boy gradually made sense of it, then two thoughts came to him: he decided that he would never allow himself to be “helpless, dependent or credulous”; and that, since the Jews had not escaped their persecutors in time, he would seek safety in leaving “before the borders were closed”. Since some Jews had been saved by non-Jewish friends, he would also make it his business to have “broad affections”.

Related: Against the wall: from Mexico to Calais, why the idea of division is taking hold

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The Good Immigrant review – an unflinching dialogue about race and racism in the UK

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 07:00:43 GMT2016-09-22T07:00:43Z

A successful sportsperson is a ‘good’ immigrant; only some minorities are considered ‘model’. These essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, cast a sharp light on ‘othering’ in the UK

According to its editor Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant is “a document of what it means to be a person of colour” in Britain today. In 21 essays by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers working across literature and the media, the book highlights the standards by which immigrants – first or second generation, refugees and asylum seekers – are either accepted into, or judged to be apart from, a dominant culture determined by whiteness.

It’s a kind of unspoken deal at the heart of multiculturalism that immigrants are perceived to be “good” or “bad”. A black or Asian Olympic gold medallist or the winner of a reality TV programme is considered a “good” immigrant by a host nation wanting sporting success or culinary entertainment. “Bad” immigrants are “job-stealers” or “benefit-scroungers” or, worse, potential terrorists. Sparked by a disgruntled comment below an interview in the Guardian, Shukla’s crowdfunded editorial project emerged from the “constant anxiety we feel as people of colour to justify our space, to show that we have earned our place at the table”. Against the unspoken backdrop of post-EU referendum hostility towards “foreigners”, Shukla points to “the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day”.

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The Senecans by Peter Stothard review – at the court of Margaret Thatcher

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 06:30:43 GMT2016-09-22T06:30:43Z

This stylish memoir from the former Times editor recalls the politics of the 1980s through the prism of ancient Rome. Parallels between Thatcher and Emperor Nero are plain to see

In the election summer of 1987, five men met in a Wapping pub, the Old Rose. Not to conspire, but to read Latin, namely the works of Seneca, which they had rescued from a skip. In their normal lives, they were Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of Margaret Thatcher’s court: speechwriters, journalists, lobbyists and commentators. Every day they played out for real the ethical contortions and political survival tactics urged by Nero’s philosopher-tutor before, in his case, it became too hot in the imperial kitchen and he bled to death in a steam bath.

It was “merely a trapdoor of time” that separated these men from ancient Rome. They are all dead now, except their present spokesman, Peter Stothard, former editor of the Times and then the TLS, who allows his memories of the Wapping years to be dredged up in a year of interviews with a mysterious young researcher and muse, “Miss R”. To her, the Thatcher era is as antediluvian as a double-breasted suit or a handwritten letter, as fossilised as the prehistoric parrot, Palaeopsittacus georgei, found in Walton-on-the-Naze, near Stothard’s childhood home, along with “bungalows, breakwaters, bingo” and “beaded net curtains”.

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Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen review – inside the mind of the Boss

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 10:59:25 GMT2016-09-21T10:59:25Z

This highly anticipated memoir is as rich in anecdote as it is in anguish. From shameful behaviour to life in therapy, the musician lays out his search for meaning

Several days into a late-summer road trip across the US, a man in his early 30s stops at dusk to observe a fair taking place in a small Texas town. A band is playing. A couple dance. “From nowhere,” the man recalls, “a despair overcomes me … right now, all I can think is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I do not engage, and if and when I do, my terms are so stringent, they suck the lifeblood and possibility out of any good thing, any real thing.” A few days later, having reached home, he places a call. Bruce Springsteen is making his first appointment with a shrink.

Related: Bruce Springsteen says years of depression left him 'crushed'

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Hero of the Empire: The Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard – review

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 07:00:19 GMT2016-09-21T07:00:19Z

Churchill made his name as a daring journalist and soldier in South Africa in 1899-1900. It began a relationship between statesman and imperial moralism that lasted 60 years

“This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills,” Winston Churchill would say. “Nobody expected to be killed.” Thus he described the brutal colonial conflicts of his youth, often against tribes in Africa who were woefully deficient in modern, mechanised instruments of death.

Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire is a fluent and readable account of Churchill’s early life as a buccaneering, attention-seeking journalist and soldier. It is focused on 1899-1900: the later statesman, with characteristic bombast, declared that this year laid “the foundations of my later life”.

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A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway review – God versus oppression

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 06:30:19 GMT2016-09-21T06:30:19Z

The former bishop is excellent on the crisis we face today, but has too narrow a concept of religion and too obvious an agenda about true believers fighting state power

As a history of religion this book is ill‑conceived. As an informed reflection on the state of faith in the western world in the 21st century, written by someone who has plenty of experience (Holloway is the retired bishop of Edinburgh and primus of the Scottish Episcopal church), it is insightful and intelligent. But it is as a history that it announces itself, and that is how it will be judged.

The task of writing a “little history” of religion is an ambitious one. Religion is by its very nature big, arguably almost as big as humanity itself. The term itself has been endlessly debated: what counts as a religion? How is it different from magic, philosophy, superstition? And where does it sit, in human society, between aesthetics, metaphysics, economics and politics? Holloway approaches his task as if Mary Douglas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Émile Durkheim and Keith Thomas had never been born. This history is “little” not in the sense of being compact, punchy or condensed, but in the way that you might say “that’s a nice little house”, or “I’ll just have a little cup of coffee”.

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Speaking Out by Ed Balls; The Long and Winding Road by Alan Johnson – review

Mon, 19 Sep 2016 07:00:40 GMT2016-09-19T07:00:40Z

The lives of two former Labour ministers are tales of transformation: the warehouse assistant who became home secretary and the political bruiser who wound up on Strictly

Although they both served successive Labour governments, it would be hard to think of two politicians more different than Ed Balls and Alan Johnson. Balls, a middle-class product of Oxford and Harvard, was a bright, driven, occasionally intimidating presence throughout 13 years of Labour government. For much of that time he was a backroom boy at the frenetic court of chancellor Gordon Brown, ending up as education secretary in Brown’s cabinet.

Johnson, by contrast, was the orphaned child of an impoverished single mother, who started his working life as a warehouse assistant in the Hammersmith branch of Tesco, rising by some almost miraculous process, via the postal sorting office at Slough, to hold five cabinet posts.

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A Fiery & Furious People: A History of Violence in England – review

Mon, 19 Sep 2016 05:30:38 GMT2016-09-19T05:30:38Z

James Sharpe’s sweeping history of violence puts our fears about crime into perspective

No recent moment has better captured the warped place of violence in modern political discussion than an exchange between Newt Gingrich and a CNN journalist during the Republican national convention. Donald Trump had referred to “poverty and violence at home”, but the journalist pointed out that violent crime across the US has, in fact, progressively declined. “The average American does not think crime is down,” said Gingrich.

“People feel more threatened,” the journalist insisted, “but the facts don’t support it.”

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Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper – review

Sun, 18 Sep 2016 06:00:09 GMT2016-09-18T06:00:09Z

A hugely absorbing life of Elizabeth Jane Howard highlights the contrast between her wise novels and her doomed relationships

There were certain things in her long life that Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2014) couldn’t help, such as an unsupportive mother, an abusive father, a propensity for illness, a chronic shyness, and a posh background (used as a stick to beat her with by her third husband). These ordeals found their way into a body of work that would in time become one of the most beloved in 20th-century English fiction. She knew suffering, and transformed it. Yet her most defining characteristic could not entirely be blamed on the stars. Howard was in her mid-50s when she met a therapist who told her, “You are a bottomless pit of neediness”, and suddenly the life that Artemis Cooper has been recounting in this hugely absorbing biography falls into place – almost every romantic misfortune in it explained.

Related: Elizabeth Jane Howard, 1923-2014: an appreciation

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Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation by James Stourton – review

Sun, 18 Sep 2016 05:30:09 GMT2016-09-18T05:30:09Z

An astute study of the broadcaster and art historian reveals a complex individual ashamed of his privileges

Kenneth Clark aged into a monument, as venerable and as archly defensive as the castle in Kent where he lived with his antiquarian library and his private museum of paintings. When his televised Grand Tour of the European Patrimony earned him a life peerage, he was nicknamed Lord Clark of Civilisation (which an envious colleague altered to Lord Clark of Trivialisation). Retiring to a custom-built bungalow modelled on a Japanese imperial pavilion, he moaned that he had dwindled into Lord Clark of suburbia: his new home in the castle grounds was so déclassé that you could hear the traffic.

Onlookers wondered whether Clark might be more or less than human. His brain, someone said, was hard and cold as a diamond; other sceptics likened him to a snooty emu, or claimed that he had the profile of a marine iguana. Lifelong friends confessed to finding him unknowable: Henry Moore felt he was always on the other side of a “glass wall”.

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Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School – review

Sun, 18 Sep 2016 07:00:11 GMT2016-09-18T07:00:11Z

Stuart Jeffries’s story of the Marxist intellectuals behind modern critical theory makes invigorating sense of weighty philosophies

A fractious Europe, a failing currency, a challenged economy, populist parties on the rise, a divided left, migration from the east, an atmosphere of fear combined with social and sexual liberalism. The parallels between Britain today and Germany in the 1920s may well make this a compelling moment to revisit those postwar German thinkers who gathered in what was known as the Frankfurt school for social research – something akin to a Marxist thinktank, though one whose policy papers and brilliant books fed future generations as much or more than their own.

Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, together with the close, but formally unattached Walter Benjamin, and from the 1970s Jürgen Habermas, were the core constellation. With the rise to power of the Nazis, the school’s Frankfurt headquarters had to be abandoned. Double persecution, as Marxists and Jews, began in 1933. Adorno, a brilliant musician as well as theorist, went to Oxford first to study with Gilbert Ryle. The school itself moved briefly to Switzerland and then the US, settling in what novelist Thomas Mann called “German California”. Despite their unchanged stance on capitalism, some of them were recruited for wartime intelligence work in the battle against the Nazi regime.

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The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey – review

Sun, 18 Sep 2016 06:00:09 GMT2016-09-18T06:00:09Z

Gillian Tindall’s dizzying history of London’s transport tunnels works best when it reaches Crossrail and the present day

Has there ever been a book subject like Crossrail? So unexpectedly dramatic! Loved at conception, despised by some, complex, overstretched, noticeable, public, and at the same time deeply, deeply underground. Although the name first appeared in a study published in 1974, Crossrail was given royal assent in 2008, and the real action began when work commenced in May 2009. If you’re a Londoner, you’ve seen the hoardings, you’ve heard the clanking, and now: time for the book. Gillian Tindall’s attempt to find drama in the great infrastructure project of our time cannot rely on splintering disasters, like the collapse on the Metropolitan works in June 1862. But neither is this simply a story of tunnelling in the dirt. Tindall is interested in excavation into both the layered soil of the city and London’s past.

Crossrail has already changed the face of London. That fun little wart called the Astoria was excised in 2009 – “the first indication that Crossrail was for real”, according to one professor of planning. While she gazes at the muddy pit of Crossrail work at Tottenham Court Road, Tindall spies workers moving cautiously, like “well-drilled demons in suits the colour of fire”, as they tear away layers to reveal, once again, just how much of the city is built on what Tindall calls the “vestigial human matter” that can be found throughout. (Enjoy your dinner at Morito tonight; you too, my fellow Londoner, will be vestigial human matter some day.)

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'History can no longer be viewed in splendid isolation': what is a global historian?

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 15:00:23 GMT2016-09-21T15:00:23Z

What is ‘global history’ and how does it alter how we examine past events? And is writing history becoming more globalised?

By Serge Gruzinski for Public Books, part of the Guardian Books Network

If the past is still required to understand the present, then approaching the past globally is an absolute necessity. But what does it mean to “think globally” today? What does a truly global history look like?

Though it is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic — if confusing — subfields in the discipline, global history is not easy to define. The first question might be whether such a history is even new. In antiquity, Western historians explored the past of their known world: a world, to them, surely as vast and contradictory as our own today. Many of their Muslim and Chinese colleagues did the same. Is today’s “global” history really more universal than a simple “world” history, whether from a contemporary historian or an ancient one? Or is it just a marketable label to sell old history in a competitive and crowded era?

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The Trees review – environmental dystopia with an unlikely hero

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 07:00:27 GMT2016-09-25T07:00:27Z

Ali Shaw’s third novel is intriguing and imaginative but his characters are not always convincing

One night, while Britain sleeps, trees burst through the ground, demolishing houses, roads and cities, obliterating modern infrastructure and reclaiming the land as forest. Life is destroyed along with everything humans have come to rely on, from mobile phones to readily available food.

The protagonist, middle-aged former history teacher Adrien is home alone while his wife, Michelle, attends a conference in Ireland. He is not a likely survivor of this pastoral nightmare. But a serendipitous meeting with nature-loving Hannah, her quietly stoical son, Seb, and a Japanese-American teenager – who just happens to be trained in capturing and killing wild animals – instigates a quest through the woods. First, they go in search of Hannah’s brother and then across the Irish Sea to find Michelle. Along the way, they meet fellow survivors – clergymen, fishermen, lawyers – as the dissolution of civilised society rapidly becomes apparent.

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Children’s books roundup: the best new picture books and novels

Sat, 24 Sep 2016 10:00:02 GMT2016-09-24T10:00:02Z

Back to school with a fairy-vampire, plus funfairs, foxes, babies and racehorses

This September eases young readers back into school and the cool of autumn with whales, wolves, foxes, fairy-vampires, alien funfairs, grief and mechanical hearts. For picture-book fans there’s a long-awaited sequel from award-winning illustrator Benji Davies: The Storm Whale in Winter (Simon & Schuster). Noi, who once saved a stranded baby whale, lives by the sea with his fisherman father and six cats. One winter the sea freezes, and Noi finds his father’s boat abandoned; now it is the little whale’s turn to help him. Intensely atmospheric, full of biting cold, tender detail and warm light, this is a book to cuddle up with.

There’s another kind of ocean in A Child of Books (Walker), a collaboration between Oliver Jeffers and typographic artist Sam Winston. A girl sails a raft across a sea of words to the home of a small boy. She guides him into a world of stories full of “forests of fairytales” and “clouds of song”. Trees, rocks and caverns are formed of text from children’s classics; a limited, almost monochrome palette gives way to sudden soaring colour in this gorgeous homage to the power of the written word.

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The best recent crime novels – review roundup

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 14:00:05 GMT2016-09-23T14:00:05Z

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid; Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman; Blood Wedding by Pierre Lemaitre; Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds; Blackwater by James Henry

Val McDermid’s 30th novel, Out of Bounds (Little, Brown, £18.99), is the fourth to feature DCI Karen Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s historic cases unit. When a teenage joyrider ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test reveals a close familial match to the perpetrator of an unsolved murder that took place in 1996. Discovering the killer’s identity should be a fairly easy task, but, the boy being adopted, Pirie and her sidekick, the doltish but earnest DC Jason Murray, find themselves in a maze of red tape. Pirie, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her partner, also becomes involved unofficially in the case of Gabriel Abbott, a lonely obsessive who has been found shot dead. DI Alan Noble, in charge of the case, believes it’s suicide, but Pirie thinks there might be a link with the death of Abbott’s mother, 22 years earlier, in a presumed terrorist attack. McDermid’s expertly juggled plotlines and masterful handling of pace and tension tick all the best boxes, but what makes this book a real cracker is Pirie herself – grieving, insubordinate and dogged in her pursuit of the various culprits.

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Sex & Death edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs review – short stories about our beginnings and our ends

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 08:00:03 GMT2016-09-23T08:00:03Z

Death appears suddenly and forcefully in this collection of new and unpublished works – while actual sex is more elusive

Isn’t it true that everyone has his own collection of stories?” asked Julio Cortázar in a 1971 essay on the short story. As with poetry, short-story collections have something of the mixtape about them, and any enthusiast of the form will, from time to time, compile an imaginary, ideal anthology. The form’s brevity allows for a variety of tonal and stylistic shifts along the length of an anthology, and if the selection is judicious, a standard of excellence can be maintained throughout. For that reason, some readers find anthologies a more rewarding way to engage with short stories than single-author collections, which, rare instances aside, flag sooner or later; it’s hard enough for a writer to produce a single great short story, never mind a dozen of them. 

Related: Sarah Hall: sex, death and the short story

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The Wonder by Emma Donoghue review – a thrilling domestic psychodrama

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 06:30:02 GMT2016-09-23T06:30:02Z

Miracle, fraud or medical anomaly? A gripping investigation into an Irish girl’s fasting by the writer of Room

Emma Donoghue will probably always be best known for her 2010 bestseller Room, a child’s-eye view of confinement and escape prompted by the horrific Josef Fritzl case in Austria, which she adapted for the screen last year. More commonly, though, she reaches further back into the historical archive for inspiration, breathing imaginative life into biographical footnotes – a 19th-century American murder in Frog Music, a scandalous Victorian British divorce in The Sealed Letter – to create novels and short stories that are refreshingly revisionist about class, gender and sexuality.

Related: Emma Donoghue: ‘I’ve ended up having a family and being a lesbian.'

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All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan review – a modern-day Irish tragedy

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 08:00:44 GMT2016-09-22T08:00:44Z

This is an extraordinary portrait of adultery, loneliness and betrayal in a closed small town communityAt first glance, it may seem that Donal Ryan is returning to the well-proven territory of the 2013 Guardian first book award-winning, and Man Booker-longlisted, The Spinning Heart, or his much-praised The Thing About December of the same year. But as All We Shall Know progresses, we watch with growing fascination as he expands, not only his emotional range, but also his social sphere. The book builds on those earlier works to establish Ryan beyond dispute as one of the finest writers working in Ireland today.The novel is narrated by Melody Shee, whose mother (a woman who “always smelt of French perfume and expensive leather”) made it a marriage-long project to undermine her mild, working-class husband (whose own characteristic scent is a mixture of “sweat, and something sharp and heavy, bitumen maybe”). This steady attrition drives a wedge between Melody and the father who not only adores her but is also the moral foundation of her world. “I appraised him coldly. What was he good for?” she says – and later, in her own marriage to a working man named Pat, she turns the same judgmental gaze on her own husband. “All you are to me is a tenant, I’d say to Pat. And he wouldn’t answer. A tenant who pays no fucking rent. And he’d open his wallet and throw whatever was in there at me.” Continue reading...[...]


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40 Sonnets by Don Paterson review – playful poems from a master

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 09:00:22 GMT2016-09-21T09:00:22Z

Extraordinary, beautiful or funny – these poems from an expert in rhythm and rhyme stay with you

A few days ago, I played a little trick on the internet, asking people to name and date a sonnet, whose first few lines I gave as: “Whenne I was ruined by Love, I tooke a Vow / That if I loved againe, I’d love the lesse; / Soe when I spoke love, spoke it to excess, / As Love will make its mirror anyhowe.” What I had naughtily done was antiquate the spelling, for this is “A Vow”, the 17th sonnet in Paterson’s collection, off which an early 17th-century steam rises so powerfully that I couldn’t resist the joke. And I think this is precisely the effect he was after: there’s only one clue to the fact that the poem is modern: the later use of the word “lift” to mean what Americans call an elevator. (And an indirect one: a glancing reference to the speed of receding galaxies.)

But the main point of “A Vow” is that it is a beautiful poem and, once untangled (as in any good metaphysical poem, the language is concentrated, like an artful knot), it spoke to me directly, as if someone had beamed it into my head. It works in two ways: as a literary exercise and as genuinely meaningful verse.

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The Trespasser by Tana French – review

Tue, 20 Sep 2016 05:30:52 GMT2016-09-20T05:30:52Z

Dublin detective Antoinette Conway returns in French’s absorbing tale of a murder that looks like a lovers’ tiff

There’s more than a little of the noir about Tana French’s latest, The Trespasser. Set, like her previous thrillers, among the detectives of Dublin’s murder squad, perhaps it (hard-)boils down to the fact that her protagonist this time, detective Antoinette Conway, manages to fizz with contempt for the world around her, bristle with toughness and sink regularly into poetic gloom all at the same time.

“The case comes in, or anyway it comes in to us, on a frozen dawn in the kind of closed-down January that makes you think the sun’s never going to drag itself back above the horizon,” says Conway, the only female detective on the Dublin squad, dealing with the cruel practical jokes of colleagues who want to see the back of her, and lumbered with straightforward domestic violence cases when she wants to be on the trail of psychotic serial killers.

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The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee review – obscurely compelling

Sun, 18 Sep 2016 11:00:15 GMT2016-09-18T11:00:15Z

JM Coetzee’s engaging new novel sets passion against rationality but are we missing some deeper meaning?

JM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction.

The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans were treated as objects to be measured, ordered and controlled. As Simón put it: “You know how the system works. The names we use are the names we were given there, but we might just as well have been given numbers. Numbers, names – they are equally arbitrary, equally unimportant.”

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Feeding Time by Adam Biles review – a dazzling and darkly funny debut

Sat, 17 Sep 2016 11:00:47 GMT2016-09-17T11:00:47Z

A playful tale of late-life trauma in an elderly care home fizzes with poignant humour

The question of what it is like to live in a care home in old age is one most novelists avoid. Those brave enough to test their imagination have produced wildly contrasting results, from the wacky escapism of Jonas Jonasson’s feel-good hit The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Walked Out of a Window and Disappeared to the grisly verisimilitude of Helen FitzGerald’s 2015 thriller The Exit, pitched not so far away from terrifying news stories of perilous, unsanitary facilities staffed by the undertrained and underpaid.

Adam Biles steers a path somewhere between these chalk-and-cheese predecessors in his dazzling and darkly funny first novel, which opens without any hint of the weirdness that awaits. It tells the story of Dot, a retired teacher selling up to join her husband, Leonard, at Green Oaks, a residential home recently purchased by a cost-cutting contractor with its fingers in school catering and – grimly – waste disposal.

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Transit by Rachel Cusk review – a triumphant follow-up to Outline

Sat, 17 Sep 2016 07:00:42 GMT2016-09-17T07:00:42Z

Divorced and making a new start in London, a creative writing teacher is immersed in the lives of others in this radically inventive novelRachel Cusk’s new novel is tremendous from its opening sentence. “An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future.” How inspired and witty, to begin with a spam email – and carrying a message that sounds as momentous as if it might have come from the oracle at Delphi. The “movements of the planets” represent “a zone of infinite reverberation to human destiny”; the portentousness is absurd, and stirring. The email is obviously generated by a mere algorithm, as the narrator grasps at once; she isn’t fooled. And yet, because it’s positioned there at the very entrance to the novel, we also know that the prophecy speaks to her sensibility, it really does open up the future for her. Messages from Delphi, after all, were pretty generalised, as if they were generated randomly.Cusk is always an exciting writer: striking and challenging, with a distinctive cool prose voice, and behind that coolness something untamed and full of raw force, even rash. One never feels her writing is trying to be liked, and in the past her memoirs of motherhood and of divorce have been both loved and hated by her readers, because of what’s abrasive and singular in them. In her last novel, Outline, about a woman teaching creative writing in Greece, and now in Transit, where the same woman, Faye, is back in London, making a new life for herself after a separation from her husband, she has developed a radically new novel form that works triumphantly, I think, with just what’s distincti[...]


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Forward Prize 2016: The Felix Dennis prize for best first collection – roundup

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 16:00:24 GMT2016-09-16T16:00:24Z

Every Little Sound by Ruby Robinson, Tonguit by Harry Giles, Wife by Tiphanie Yanique, Disko Bay by Nancy Campbell, Distance by Ron CareyRuby Robinson’s Every Little Sound (Liverpool University, £9.99) is an intelligent and disturbing debut that explores how family affects both our sense of self and our intimate relationships. Composed of free verse and occasional prose poems, it is stylistically original in its diction and syntax as speaker and poet grapple to render experience. It often gives rise to a surreal quality that appears menacing: “And what use am I, / half‑witted, unpicked, flaked / out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair, / scooped-out heart crazed on the floor, / racked with side effects?”Mingling English, a “mongrel and magpie” Scots, and Orcadian, Harry Giles’s Tonguit (Freight, £8.99) begins with a bold ars poetica. “Brave” energetically lists the reasons why the speaker sings, and captures the Scotland he sings of: “whit wants independence fae Tories”; “whit cadna hink o a grander wey tae / end a nicht as wi a poke o chips n curry sauce”; “whit dreams o bidin in London”, and so on. “Tonguit” means “tongued” and is pronounced “tongue it”: the poem never loses sight of its performance. In a number of works, Giles transforms found texts – from a “sampling of every mention of death” in Game of Thrones to an adaptation of a speech by David Cameron. This is an unusually adventurous and promising collection. Continue reading...[...]


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The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster review – superhero dreams of escape

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 16:00:24 GMT2016-09-16T16:00:24Z

A bedridden boy’s fantasies and nightmares are packed with adventures and emotion

Life isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs for 11-year-old Joe, hero of Stewart Foster’s wonderful novel. Joe suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency, a genetic condition that means he has no resistance to infection. Even something as seemingly harmless as an ordinary cold could kill him. So he is condemned to live in a sealed hospital room, breathing filtered air, his vital signs constantly monitored, his visitors wearing surgical masks and overalls.

That’s not the only duff card life has dealt him. His parents have died in a car crash, leaving him with only one relative, his older sister Beth, although luckily she is loving and loyal. Joe also gets on well with the staff who look after him, particularly Greg the nurse. In fact, Joe seems happy enough when we first encounter him, still hoping for a cure, watching superhero movies on DVD to get through the days, Skyping regularly with his friend Henry, another “bubble boy” in the US.

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett review – breathtaking, perceptive and poignant

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 06:30:04 GMT2016-09-16T06:30:04Z

An adulterous affair brings two California families uneasily together in this story set over five decades

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.

Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.

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Stardust Nation by Deborah Levy review – an unsettling exploration of memory and identity

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 09:00:07 GMT2016-09-16T09:00:07Z

This graphic novel examines the thin membranes that divide individuals and the messy intersections between identity, repression and depressionDeborah Levy is a novelist, playwright and short story writer whose work explores memory and the messy intersections between identity, repression and depression – the people we are, the people we think we are and the chasm that can lie between. Her two most recent novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk have been, among other things, powerful investigations of identity under threat. They are populated by characters who can’t seem to fully catch sight of themselves or each other. Stardust Nation, a graphic novel adapted from one of her short stories in collaboration with the illustrator Andrzej Klimowski, is a troubling crystallisation of many of these ideas using the graphic form.Tom Banbury is a high-flying advertising executive; alcoholic but successful, he relies on “a slight shamanistic edge”. As he puts it, “it is our job to crash into the unconscious of the consumer and broadcast a number of messages that end with ‘buy this product’.” Unfortunately for Tom, as we begin the story, we learn that his colleague and friend Nick Gazidis has “somehow extended his brief as Head of Finance and crashed inside ME”. What this means is that Nick has absorbed traumatic memories from Tom’s past and is repeating them back as if they were his own. This is not the first time Levy has explored the thin membrane between characters in her work – in Hot Milk she writes about a mother and daughter, th[...]


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Mount! by Jilly Cooper review – daft, boozy joy

Thu, 15 Sep 2016 11:00:41 GMT2016-09-15T11:00:41Z

A whirlwind of parties, hairdos and horses hails the return of one of fiction’s most lusted-after characters

There is a single word, about three quarters of the way through this book, spoken at the heights of ecstasy by a 59-year-old man to a 30-year-old woman, that is so appalling, so extraordinary and so unutterably Jilly Cooper you can’t imagine anyone on the receiving end of it not immediately dissolving in horrified laughter, kicking the offender out of bed, and calling the OED.

Unless, of course, the man in question was Rupert Campbell-Black.

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Jerusalem by Alan Moore review – a magnificent, sprawling cosmic epic

Thu, 15 Sep 2016 06:30:35 GMT2016-09-15T06:30:35Z

Brilliance and bafflement collide in this almost visionary tale of recovered memories, art and madnessSomewhere in this sprawling behemoth, this teeming leviathan, this pythonic mammoth of a novel there is a very good – even visionary – book struggling to get out. Notoriously, it runs to more than 600,000 words and is longer than the Bible. None of this will deter Alan Moore’s legions of fans, though I suspect that many of them may indulge in what Sir Walter Scott once referred to as the “laudable practice of skipping”.The plot is simple enough. We open with Alma Warren, an artist and eccentric, whose brother Michael once nearly choked on a cough sweet and miraculously came back to life. Many years later a bonk on the noggin has allowed him to access the memories of what happened when he was between life and death. He is worried that he is going mad, which seems to be something of a family tradition, going back at least as far as his great-great-grandfather Ernest Vernall. Alma uses Michael’s memories or hallucinations or epiphanies as the inspiration for a series of paintings, and on the night of the private viewing, various lives converge en route to the gallery in Northampton district the Boroughs. There is a heroin-addicted prostitute looking for a client, a middle-aged poetaster still living with his mother, a predatory monster, a bewildered boy, a compromised council official, someone who works with refugees, a car crash. Some chapters fill in the Vernall family history; others deal wit[...]


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The Empress and the Cake review – a mitteleuropean nightmare

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 11:00:57 GMT2016-09-28T11:00:57Z

An old Viennese woman with a strange obsession and her sinister housekeeper ruin a young woman’s life in this disturbing story by Linda Stift

An unnamed young woman is invited by an elderly one to share a cake – known in Austria as Gugelhupf – and a nightmare begins. The older woman, Frau Hohenembs, has noticed scars on the younger woman’s knuckles: an identifier of bulimia, caused by the teeth as the hand reaches down the throat to stimulate the gag reflex. Frau Hohenembs, in the present day, bears a striking resemblance to the 19th-century Empress Elisabeth, and she and her sinister housekeeper, Ida, draw the narrator into their lives, implicating her in increasingly bizarre situations: the blowing up of a statue of the empress in a Viennese park; the theft of a 19th-century cocaine syringe, in whose use the narrator is then instructed. She is even forced to enter an Empress Sissi (Elisabeth’s nickname) lookalike competition.

This is, in short, one of the oddest novels I have ever read, and also one of the most disturbing. The erosion of the narrator’s will is horrifying to watch, although at times what we are seeing is so freakish that the most appropriate reaction is a shocked kind of laughter – the trip the three of them take to a sex museum being a memorable example.

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Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote review – chilling thrills by the sea

Sun, 25 Sep 2016 11:59:00 GMT2016-09-25T11:59:00Z

A woman suspects her husband’s involvement in his first wife’s death in this absorbing debut thrillerThe hazardous sea ebbs and flows throughout this gripping debut psychological thriller. One day, 29-year-old Zena is discovered drowned close to the holiday home she has been sharing with her lover, Tom – but was her death an accident or murder? After hearing rumours that make her “unsettled, disturbed inside”, Tom’s new wife, Carmen, decides to discover the truth. Emphasising the gap between appearance and reality, surface and depths, Heathcote skilfully ramps up the dramatic tension: Tom is a man “trained to conceal his true feelings, to put on a veneer”, but his violent temper must sometimes storm to the surface. Despite some strained plot twists, this is an immersing story, reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and the dead Zena exerts a powerful force. The “hidden currents” that keep us submerged in Undertow are not only those of the sea, but the fear and suspicion that swell catastrophically through the most intimate relationships.Undertow is published by Quercus (£12.99). Click here to order it for £10.65 Continue reading...[...]


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No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa review – rage and shame in Syria

Sat, 24 Sep 2016 08:00:00 GMT2016-09-24T08:00:00Z

Aleppo becomes a central character in this sad, beautiful portrait of a family psychologically scarred by war and tyranny

Were Syrians wise to revolt? Aren’t they worse off now? Such questions misapprehend the situation. Syrians didn’t decide out of the blue to destroy a properly functioning state. The state had been destroying them, and itself, for decades. In No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Khaled Khalifa, poet, screenwriter and Syria’s most celebrated contemporary novelist, chronicles this long political, social and cultural collapse, the “incubator of contemporary demons”.

The story stretches back to the first world war and forward to the American occupation of Iraq, but our narrator’s “ill-omened birth” coincides with the 1963 Ba’athist coup. The regime starts off as it means to continue. The maternity hospital is looted and emptied of patients. The schools and universities are purged; only pistol-toting loyalist professors survive. Public and individual horizons shrink as the president’s powers grow through emergency law, exceptional courts and three-hour news broadcasts covering “sacred directives made to governors and ministers”.

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Conclave by Robert Harris review – a triumphant Vatican showdown

Sat, 24 Sep 2016 06:30:25 GMT2016-09-24T06:30:25Z

The pope is dead and cardinals are gathering to elect his successor in this portrait of power, corruption and deceit

I am about to use a word I have never knowingly used in any review of any book ever. During my 25-odd years of writing about books I have done my best to avoid cliches, slipshod summaries, oracular pronouncements and indeed anything else that might appear emblazoned on a book jacket. Nonetheless, there is only one possible word to describe Robert Harris’s new novel, and it is this: unputdownable.

Related: Robert Harris: ‘MPs should elect the Labour leader as cardinals elect the pope’

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Bernard Bergonzi obituary

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 12:36:39 GMT2016-09-27T12:36:39Z

Poet, literary critic and professor of English at Warwick University known for his work on TS Eliot, HG Wells and Gerard Manley HopkinsThe poet and critic Bernard Bergonzi, who has died aged 87, was long associated with the teaching of 20th-century English literature at Warwick University. His books shed new light on the English writing of the first world war and the 1930s, and on developments in criticism since the 60s, which he largely disliked. Monographs on HG Wells, TS Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Arnold and Graham Greene showed Bergonzi at his sensible and lucid best.Though principally known as a critic, it was as a poet that Bergonzi began to find a place in the English literary scene in the early 50s. Within a year of beginning research on the early writings of Wells in 1958, he was appointed assistant lecturer at Manchester University. A full lectureship soon followed. He published two books while at Manchester: The Early HG Wells (1961) and a study of the literature of the first world war, Heroes’ Twilight (1965), in which he gave innovative attention to David Jones and the nearly forgotten Henry Williamson. In the following year he was appointed senior lecturer at Warwick, where he remained until he formally retired in 1992. He became professor of English in 1971 and served as pro-vice-chancellor from 1979 until 1982. His career was closely tied to [...]


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