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Books | The Guardian

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

Published: Sun, 21 Jan 2018 13:10:12 GMT2018-01-21T13:10:12Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2018

Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind’

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 09:00:16 GMT2018-01-21T09:00:16Z

Zadie Smith has been a vital literary voice since her first novel, White Teeth, became an instant bestseller. Here she answers questions from famous fans, including Teju Cole, Philip Pullman and Sharmaine Lovegrove, and a selection of our readers

Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, Feel Free, could be described as a tour through her enthusiasms punctuated with diversions. She writes with equal fervour about Jay-Z’s rapping, which “pours right into your ear like water from a tap”, as about Edward St Aubyn’s “rich, acerbic comedy”. Her early dislike of Joni Mitchell is used as a segue into a discussion of philistinism and taste. A booklet on early Italian masterpieces sparks an examination of the concept of corpses and the unthinkability of death.

Although the subjects may seem wide-ranging, she says, “they always seem very narrow to me. I’m very familiar with what I’m enthusiastic about, and it’s hard to see variety in your own tastes.” The only thing they all have in common is how passionately she feels about them. “I like to know I love something before I pitch it. For me, writing 3,000 words about something you don’t really like is a kind of torture.”

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Book clinic: where next for an Elizabeth Strout fan?

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 11:00:19 GMT2018-01-21T11:00:19Z

In the first of a new series, in which we answer your books queries, our expert recommends alternatives to the My Name Is Lucy Barton author

Q: Having loved Elizabeth Strout’s novels My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, I devoured all her books. Who can I read next in the same vein? Jane Flood, London

A: Alex Clark, artistic director for words and literature, the Bath festival

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What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories – review

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 09:59:17 GMT2018-01-21T09:59:17Z

Laura Shapiro’s account of how food shaped the lives of six notable women could do with spicing up a little

Between 1933 and 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt served revenge, cold or otherwise, up to three times a day to her philandering husband Franklin, a feat performed courtesy of her housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, who combined a quite stunning lack of talent when it came to the preparation of food with a self-confidence so varnished that when her stint in the White House finally came to an end, she proudly donated her papers, menus and all, to the Library of Congress (Eleanor, who’d hired her personally, would never give in to demands that she be fired). What kind of dishes appear on these menus, exactly? Tempting as it is to devote this review entirely to her ghastly recipes, I’ll simply note here that she once presented as a starter sticks of pineapple rolled in crushed peppermint candy.

Eleanor’s revenge sounds like something out of Roald Dahl – picture Mrs Twit, serving Mr Twit a plateful of wormy spaghetti – until you remember that when she was in situ she, too, had to eat these abominations. How, you wonder, did she get through the days? Did she struggle to swallow her lunchtime helping of jellied bouillon salad, or did her glee help to push it down? Historians have long depicted the ascetic Roosevelt as a woman who was completely indifferent to food. But the American journalist Laura Shapiro, who describes Mrs Nesbitt’s rank incompetence in her new book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, has other ideas. Away from the White House, she insists, it was a different story. On a trip to Beirut in 1952, the former first lady came over all swoony at the lamb she was given. In Paris, she even had a favourite restaurant, Les Porquerolles, on the Left Bank.

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How to Be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax review – can mindfulness conquer all?

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 09:00:16 GMT2018-01-21T09:00:16Z

The comedian and campaigner is an engaging champion of mental health, but self-care may not always be enough

Like many comedians, Ruby Wax possesses an extraordinary flair for depicting the ugliness of modern life. In her latest book, she underscores the tragic irony that, in the western world, each of us will be approximately three times more likely to die from overeating than undereating, and far more likely to die by our own hands than those of terrorists. Indeed, we become our own worst enemies, unable to think clearly, entrapped in a state of what Wax has aptly described as “brain fog”, lamenting that the average human now devotes some 100 hours monthly to their smartphone – roughly 11 years of our lifespan.

As a mental health advocate, Wax does not judge others harshly; in fact, she often lambasts herself, revealing her foibles as a spouse, as a parent, and as a personality. And she does so in charming fashion, describing, for instance, her marriage: “I chose Ed because he had Grade-A sanity genes and I felt that would break the chain of thousands of years of Wax madness in one fell swoop.”

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Must monsters always be male? Huge gender bias revealed in children’s books

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 00:04:06 GMT2018-01-21T00:04:06Z

A thieving duck in Peppa Pig is one of the few female villains in the 100 most popular picture books. An Observer study shows that, from hares to bears, females are mostly sidekicks

Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.

In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, carried out by this paper with market research company Nielsen, reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.

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With the End in Mind and From Here to Eternity review – how to banish fear and shame around dying

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 06:59:14 GMT2018-01-21T06:59:14Z

Two very different books about death, by Kathryn Mannix and Caitlin Doughty, look at how we can face our final days with practicality, adventure and joy

When John Keats was dying of TB in Rome, just 25 and far from family and home, he wrote a series of beautifully judged, empathetic letters of farewell that deal lightly (yet never falsely) with his physical suffering and his emotional anguish. From the shrinking circle of his life, from his frail body drowning in itself, he reached outwards towards the friends he was leaving. In his final letter, he wrote of living a “posthumous existence”; his last phrase becomes his eloquent, courteous and self-effacing goodbye before he exits the stage on which he has had such a small parcel of time: “I always made an awkward bow.” Dying as a performance, dying as an art and a practice, dying as something solemnly profound and sorrowful and at the same time as normal, natural; dying as physical and as spiritual; dying as the end of a whole world because, as Oliver Sacks wrote, when dying himself: “There is no one like anyone else, ever.”

Not all passing can be gentle and not everyone can be brought to acceptance in the face of their own obliteration

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Consent by Leo Benedictus and Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit – review

Sun, 21 Jan 2018 08:00:15 GMT2018-01-21T08:00:15Z

Two literary writers bring both thrills and psychological nuance to the subject of stalking

There is a whole sub-genre of novels about stalking, out there in the land where literary criticism fears to tread. Straddling the realms of both crime and erotica, you can see why it’s such rich territory for popular fiction. With a handful of notable exceptions, though – Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, James Lasdun’s fascinating but morally wonky Give Me Everything You Have, Patricia Highsmith (of course) – few serious authors have taken on the subject. Now two have arrived at once, both ostensibly thrillers, but each more nuanced and interesting than you might expect.

After a surprise bequest makes him fabulously rich, the unnamed narrator of Leo Benedictus’s Consent decides to spend his time stalking women. “I do secretly follow strangers on the street,” he says in his creepily affectless voice. “I wait outside their houses and I listen to their conversations, if I can.” The victims respond in different ways to the narrator’s intrusions, but behind each encounter is the sense that women have been living with the reality that “being pestered for sex was just the burden that a woman carried until she carried children”.

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Being Ecological by Timothy Morton review – a playfully serious look at the environment

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 08:59:47 GMT2018-01-20T08:59:47Z

There are not too many ‘scary facts’ in this ambitious book, which draws on both Kantian philosophy and Star Wars to explain our relationship to the world

From the outset, Timothy Morton is very clear about the kind of book he isn’t writing. This is not another “confusing information dump, slapping you upside the head to make you feel bad”. What he terms “ecological information delivery mode”, heavy in “factoids” and accompanied by a “guilt-inducing sermon”, is counterproductive. Deluging readers with scary facts about global warming, which is what most environmental writers do, is “inhibiting a more genuine way of handling ecological knowledge”. To understand the true gravity of the current situation we need “to start to live the data”.

At the heart of this immensely ambitious book is a radical critique of how we know and relate to the world around us. Morton argues that our scientific age is characterised by an epistemological gulf between objects and data: “things are mysterious, in a radical and irreducible way”. Critical of a scientistic approach to knowledge, he believes the world can be grasped only by moving to a viewpoint that is both experiential and reflexive. The observer needs to be part of the equation: “Being ecological includes a sense of my weird inclusion in what I’m experiencing.”

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Videocracy by Kevin Allocca review – has YouTube really transformed our lives?

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 07:30:17 GMT2018-01-19T07:30:17Z

The video sharing website has brought us skateboarding dogs and beauty vloggers – what it hasn’t done is create a new world order

The most infuriating consequence of broadband internet is that people now consider it acceptable to send each other links to YouTube videos of people talking about things, rather than links to articles in which these things are explained. Compared with prose, video is a terrible way of transmitting ideas. Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s “head of culture and trends”, claims in this book that YouTube is “the largest database of culture in the history of humanity”. This makes me both laugh and shiver: in terms of sheer gigabytes, it may be true, but you don’t have to be a fusty old bibliophile to suspect that, say, the Library of Congress might be vastly superior. If aliens wanted to understand humanity, Allocca says, he’d give them YouTube. God help us all.

But of course “culture” ain’t what it used to be (it never is). Allocca’s book is breezy and packed with stories about fun viral videos, plus a lot of tech cliches about the virtues of “sharing” and “interacting” and “participating” and so on. He is right, though, to point out that YouTube is the home for some truly new forms of expression. It’s not all films of dogs on skateboards; there are comedy video game commentators, unexpected musical cover-version artists, people who make “supercuts” of, say, the way a weather presenter announces a certain word, or “ASMRtists”, who whisper and stroke fabrics in a way that makes some people’s spines tingle.

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12 Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson review – a self-help book from a culture warrior

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 08:59:09 GMT2018-01-18T08:59:09Z

The psychologist and internet celebrity with contentious views on gender, political correctness, good and evil, offers hectoring advice on how to live

The Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan B Peterson has, in recent years, become an internet celebrity, producing a slew of videos and interviews on all manner of political and social topics. He is acerbic, combative and openly contemptuous of his opponents, particularly Marxists and “Postmodernists”, for whom he harbours a special animus. He is an enthusiastic and prolific culture warrior, who has no truck with “white privilege”, “cultural appropriation” and a range of other ideas associated with social justice movements. His reluctance to call transgender people by their preferred pronouns (unless they ask him to) has earned him a reputation as a transphobe, and while his views have marginalised him within the academic community, they have bolstered his reputation in conservative circles.

Related: You are only ever as happy as your unhappiest child

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Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch review – everyday racism and a search for identity

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 07:30:08 GMT2018-01-18T07:30:08Z

A powerful hybrid of memoir, reportage and commentary considers so-called racial blindness, the draw of Africa and life as a black woman in Britain

‘England is an island but not I land,” say the Rastas. They may have been born in Birmingham or Bristol but they don’t believe they belong in the UK. The same feeling courses through every fibre of Afua Hirsch’s being. The daughter of a black Ghanaian woman and white English man, Hirsch recalls how, in going to work in Senegal as a young adult, she “had left Britain to leave being British”.

An investigation into a nation’s identity and the barrister turned journalist’s lack of a sense of belonging, Brit(ish) is a hybrid of memoir, reportage and social commentary. But it is also a quest to articulate and complete a personal identity by looking to Africa for answers, and this has taken place down the ages.

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Lost Connections by Johann Hari review – too many drugs, not enough understanding

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 07:30:47 GMT2018-01-17T07:30:47Z

Part personal odyssey and part investigation, this rigorous if flawed study finds fault with contemporary treatment of depression and anxiety

When Johann Hari was 18 he took his first antidepressant. That morning he had visited a doctor and explained how, ever since he was small, he had battled with feelings of overwhelming sadness. When he wasn’t taking himself off to cry quietly, an anxious monologue would be running in his head. “Get over it,” it would say, “stop being so weak.” The doctor was reassuring, explaining that these feelings were to be expected since Hari was one of many people whose brain had depleted levels of serotonin. And so he prescribed some pills that would restore the balance. As Hari swallowed his first tablet, he says, “it felt like a chemical kiss”.

It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he thought of all the questions the doctor didn’t ask, such as: what was his life like? What was making him sad? What changes could be made to make life more tolerable? The push and pull between “reactive” depression (the kind that relates to our environment and life experience) and “endogenous” depression (where something goes wrong in the brain) forms the basis of Lost Connections, an eye-opening, highly detailed though sometimes frustrating investigation into the causes and cures of depression.

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Letter to Louis by Alison White review – the courage of care

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 07:00:18 GMT2018-01-16T07:00:18Z

Alison White’s admirable, beautifully written account of raising a child with cerebral palsy offers an essential insight into the lives of carers

There are many heartbreaking moments in this beautifully written book, but the first comes before it even begins. In a dedication to her son Louis, author Alison White says how she wanted to write it so that people would understand disability and caring, but also, “to be totally honest, I wanted to write something that would make people consider being Louis’s friend”. Beneath that simple plea lies the great fear of so many parents who nurse a severely disabled child through to adulthood: “What will happen when I’m gone?” It’s a measure of this unsentimental and clear-eyed account that White never labours this point, or any other of the myriad anxieties that accompany long-term caring. Instead, she just tells us what it’s like: and it is, in equal measure, admirable, uplifting, terrifying.

White’s story begins with Louis’s premature birth and an account of his time in an intensive care unit, where he comes close to death. When the story moves back to the later stages of White’s pregnancy and the catastrophic failure of a midwife to check White’s blood pressure at a vital moment, you are already primed to shout at the page: “Check her blood pressure, for God’s sake!” White goes into pre-eclampsia, a condition that can be fatal for mother and child, and Louis is later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

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The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton review – on a Roman road to ruin

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 12:00:51 GMT2018-01-20T12:00:51Z

An ancient route links Britain’s deep past and far future in an ecologically aware tale spanning thousands of years

Gregory Norminton’s fifth novel arrives after a gap of nine years and is very much the ecologically aware fiction you would expect of a contributor to Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine’s Dark Mountain project, the network of writers, artists and thinkers who believe that the conversations we are having about environmental collapse are too comfortable to encourage change.

The Devil’s Highway accounts for some thousands of years of human history in very slightly more than 200 pages, a feat of compression managed by three interwoven timelines, alternating chapter by chapter and linked through the presence of a real Roman road – the titular highway – which in our day can still be followed from Sunningdale in Berkshire, across the Blackwater river, to Silchester and beyond.

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The Wanderers by Tim Pears review – a hypnotic paean to rural England

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 09:40:18 GMT2018-01-20T09:40:18Z

The second instalment of Pears’s West Country trilogy, set in the run-up to the first world war, is testament to his uncommon skill

Last January The Horseman, the first instalment in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, introduced us to young Leo Sercombe, a Devon carter’s son with an exceptional affinity for horses. Set in the early 20th century, it is a gorgeously hypnotic paean to rural England, recreating in its myopic focus, languid pace and spare prose a way of being in the world that is all but unrecoverable to our hyperconnected modern minds. Unfolding slowly, it saves its punch for the final pages when Leo’s friendship with Lottie Prideaux, the local landowner’s daughter, at last brings disaster down upon him. The Wanderers continues the story of both Leo and Lottie, and with little in the way of conventional plot to drive the narrative, it is largely the question of whether they will find one another again, and how, and when, that pulls the reader along.

That it does so, without question, is testament to Pears’s uncommon skill. It is no mean feat for a writer to eschew the tyranny of cliffhangers, coincidences and plot twists, instead trusting the reader to stay with them for the sheer pleasure of the writing and the interest in the world conjured up. It requires unwavering confidence; a consistency of pace and vision that must be there from the outset, and must not falter; and something withheld, however subtly, that creates an itch to turn the page.

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A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey review – a journey into Australia’s past

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 08:59:19 GMT2018-01-19T08:59:19Z

A joyous car race across 1950s Australia becomes an examination of the nation’s crimes against its Indigenous people

I couldn’t have imagined that a car race could be so enthralling. The new novel from double Booker winner Peter Carey is built around the annual Redex Reliability trials in 1950s Australia, in which competitors had to sustain a certain average speed between stops or they lost points. The event became a contest between Fords and the Holdens manufactured by General Motors. It made heroes out of the drivers, who had to cover 10,000 miles around the country in 17 days, often on dust roads, through dried-up rivers and via creeks full of water, and above dizzy drops, in danger from flying rocks kicked up by other cars, and from kangaroos jumping into the road in the dark. They made heroines, too: the women who took part as drivers or navigators were often favourites with spectators and in the newspapers.

Carey’s parents ran a motor business in Victoria, where the book begins: as a boy he followed the trials

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The best recent crime novels – review roundup

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 14:00:16 GMT2018-01-18T14:00:16Z

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld; Dark Pines by Will Dean; Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes; Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan; The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor

Set in the snowy mountain forests of Oregon, The Child Finder (W&N, £12.99) is the second novel from bestselling American author Rene Denfeld. Naomi, the eponymous investigator, is asked to track down eight-year-old Madison Culver, who disappeared three years earlier during a trip to cut down a Christmas tree and is generally assumed to have frozen to death. Single-minded Naomi – herself once a missing child, now with only vague memories to help her solve the mystery of her origins – is determined to find Madison, come what may. The narrative alternates between Naomi’s search and Madison’s experience of being locked in the cave-like cellar of a remote cabin. Her coping mechanism is to reinvent herself as “the snow girl”, putting herself into a fairytale to deal with the trauma of being wrenched from her family by a predatory stranger she knows only as “B”. Given the subject matter, Denfeld’s lyrical writing can, on occasion, be discomforting, but the sense of physical and psychological isolation is palpable in this moving exploration of loss, hope and human resilience.

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Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado review – powerful debut collection

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 12:00:13 GMT2018-01-18T12:00:13Z

Horror, science fiction and fairytale merge in these short stories from a writer of rare daring

“How much to get that extra stitch?” the narrator’s husband asks in the labour room as his wife is sewn up after a difficult birth. “You offer that, right?” “The husband stitch” – the term for an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening when repairing an episiotomy – is considered a dark joke from the battlefield of birth, but has been attested to as part of the violence visited on women’s bodies during labour. It’s also the title of the standout story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, a finalist in last year’s US National Book awards: a tense, seductive fairytale about rumour and silence, sex and power, autonomy and being ignored.

The narrator begins as a bold girl in the tradition of Angela Carter: “This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them ... It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want, what plays on the inside of my eyelids as I fall asleep.” She takes this young man as her husband, offering him her whole self – all except the mystery of what lies beneath the green ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. “Why do you want to hide it from me?” he asks. “I’m not hiding it,” she replies. “It just isn’t yours.” The ribbon becomes a locus for desire, aggression, control; their child had accepted it as part of his mother, but when he sees the father’s angry attempts to pull at the ends must also be warned away. “Something is lost between us, and I never find it again.” There is only one possible ending: just as Chekhov’s gun must be fired, this ribbon must eventually be untied.

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Sourdough by Robin Sloan review – infectious zest for life

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 12:00:00 GMT2018-01-17T12:00:00Z

Magic, science, technology and, above all, baking – this charming tale of hipsters and foodies is set to rise as fast as its bestselling forerunner

Live sourdough starter is more a pet than a cooking ingredient, demanding loving nurture and regular attention. As US author Robin Sloan’s follow-up to his bestselling debut Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore demonstrates, it can also become an obsession. Lois, his young protagonist, works at a tech startup in San Francisco, programming robot arms alongside her mostly male colleagues – “bony and cold-eyed, wraiths in Japanese denim and limited-edition sneakers”. They have no time to eat properly, subsisting on a nutritive gel named Slurry. Lois fails to thrive until a takeaway leaflet for Clement Street Soup and Sourdough flops through the door of the flat she’s hardly ever in. The vegetarian sandwich and spicy broth she orders must be full of friendly bacteria; it quickly clears up her chronic stomach pains.

Alas, visa issues mean the brothers behind Soup and Sourdough must abscond; before departing, however, they present their favourite customer with a CD of music beloved of their (fictional) Magz community – women wailing “that life was tragic, but at least there was wine in it” – and a ceramic crock of what they call their “culture”. Though the brothers hastily amend the word “culture” to the more correct “starter”, what they really give her is a corrective to the grey tech world sapping her soul.

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar review – whirlpools of desire in Georgian London

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 09:00:49 GMT2018-01-17T09:00:49Z

A mermaid is a perilous catch, and so is a courtesan, in this vibrant debut of fantasy and illusion

Roll up, roll up, a true wonder is on display: a mermaid magicked out of words. The author of this debut set in Georgian London gulled me, by the zest of her writing and sustained authorial sleight of hand, into forgetting for a second that they do not exist. Witness the briny blast of ozone coming off the page in this letter from one Captain Tysoe Jones: “She had been caught up in the Nets of a fishing-boat, which mistook her at first for a school of Herring, so vast and glinting was she. They hauled her aboard all silver & shining, but no sooner had they done so, then she burst the Net and sprang out again.”

Related: Guide to pleasures of late Georgian London acquired by Wellcome Collection

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The Light Jar review – thoughtful and empathetic

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 08:00:19 GMT2018-01-16T08:00:19Z

Lisa Thompson brings bags of empathy to a deftly plotted tale about an 11-year-old suddenly left to fend for himself

Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy, about a troubled 12-year-old with OCD investigating the disappearance of a toddler, was one of 2017’s bestselling children’s debuts. Her follow-up, The Light Jar, is another mystery/thriller wrapped around psychological themes. Nate’s dad ran off with a colleague when he was six. Now 11, Nate and his mum are bedding down in an abandoned cottage, on the run from Gary, her emotionally abusive boyfriend. When his mother fails to return from a shopping trip, Nate must fend for himself – and convince Kitty, a girl who lives in the neighbouring stately home, that he has not been abandoned.

Domestic abuse is tricky territory for young readers (this is a “middle-grade” novel, as Americans have it), and there are moments here when Nate – and Kitty’s – predicaments feel almost unbearably bleak. There is a terrifying passage in which Nate has a panic attack in an enclosed space, and we come to understand his attachment to a jar filled with fairy lights that he keeps by his bed.

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Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone review – an action-packed adventure

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 09:30:01 GMT2018-01-13T09:30:01Z

Ice Queen meets Fur tribe in a warm and exciting tale about the magic of wilderness

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel begins with a memorable image: a girl crouches, frozen, under the glass dome of a music box, unable to move or speak, witnessing horrors in a winter palace, determined to escape and regain her unique voice.

Best known for her Dreamsnatcher trilogy, Elphinstone’s latest novel is an action-packed adventure and a truly magical tale (in both senses), set in the icy north. Erkenwald is a land of mountains, forests and glaciers; it is home to polar bears, eagles, whales and wolves, as well as to the Fur, Feather and Tusk tribes. In Elphinstone’s well-orchestrated mythology, the North Star, a Sky God “carved from stardust”, breathed life into the land that still retains traces of the magic of its creation. But “darkness can come to any kingdom and so it came to Erkenwald”.

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Star in the Jar review – magical story of loss and sibling love

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 09:00:15 GMT2018-01-09T09:00:15Z

Sam Hay’s warm-hearted tale explores the wonders of the night sky

Full of encouragement to look up at the night sky with little children during these long dark evenings, Star in the Jar is about a small boy who loves collecting precious things – “Tickly treasure. Glittery treasure... even litter bin treasure” – and one day stumbles upon a real star.

Popped in a jar for safekeeping, the star never leaves the boy’s side, even brightening up a trip to the toilet. But as night descends, the star longs for home. Sarah Massini’s rich, characterful illustrations show the boy’s celestial friend growing limp as it gazes up from a window ledge to read a constellation spelling out “lost, one small star”. And so the boy and his big sister, the story’s narrator, must figure out how to return their latest treasure.

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I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan review – uplifting and empowering

Mon, 01 Jan 2018 08:00:04 GMT2018-01-01T08:00:04Z

This debut novel about a coming-of-age British Muslim teenager is fresh and funny, while also tackling serious issues

Early in 2015, three Bethnal Green schoolgirls fled to Syria to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State. I Am Thunder is a response to that event, written by secondary school teacher Khan to explore the lives of young British Muslims.

His 15-year-old protagonist, Muzna, dreams of being a writer; her friend’s response, that “you don’t hear of many Muslim authors, do you?”, seems only too fair considering the dearth of non-white voices in UK publishing. Muzna feels invisible; her life is a jumble of teenage angst, stifled by loving but controlling parents and the sharp edge of racism everywhere.

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Margaret Atwood: ‘I am not a prophet. Science fiction is really about now’

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 11:00:50 GMT2018-01-20T11:00:50Z

The TV adaptation of her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale captured the political moment. Ahead of a new series, Atwood talks bestsellers, bonnets and the backlash against her views on #MeToo

“It was not my fault!” says Margaret Atwood of 2017. But it was certainly her year. Now, just a few weeks into January, she is already making headlines with typically trenchant comments on the #MeToo movement. And, of course, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale returns this spring: she has read the first eight scripts and has “no fingernails left”. While the world – and Gilead – show no sign of getting any cheerier, Atwood is seemingly unstoppable. In March the New Yorker crowned her “the prophet of dystopia” and the TV adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace has orbited her into an international stardom seldom experienced by novelists. Atwood was a consultant on both productions, and has cameo performances in each: as one of the aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale, slapping Elisabeth Moss’s Offred round the face, and as “Disapproving Woman” (the sign on her trailer) in Alias Grace. She will be on set in Toronto for the second season soon, again as a consultant, but not in a nasty aunt outfit this time. “Once was enough.” She has very much been cast to type. “Sometimes I pretend to be a scary old lady,” she confesses over coffee. “Yes I do,” she drawls menacingly. It is a complete coincidence that her near-future dystopia and her historical novel based on a real 19th-century murder have come at the same time, she says. “But they do have something in common: bonnets. So many bonnets.”

“I’m not a prophet,” she says. “Let’s get rid of that idea right now. Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.” She is, however, “sorry to have been so right”. But, with her high forehead and electric halo of curls, there is something otherworldly about Atwood. Dressed in one of her trademark jewel-coloured scarfs and a necklace of tiny skulls, she cuts a striking figure outside the cafe in Piccadilly where we are huddled.

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Jeanette Winterson on Accrington: 'I love the north; our energy, toughness, humour'

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 14:00:00 GMT2018-01-20T14:00:00Z

The author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit reveals how the town where she grew up helped to mould her and her writing

I was born in Manchester. If I had been brought up there, with my biological mother, that would have been a different life. I can imagine it, but I am a fiction writer, and I like to imagine other versions in other lives.

Twenty-two miles north in Accrington is where I grew up; I have written about that in the hall of mirrors that is my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and in the clear glass version that is the sort-of memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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Gail Honeyman: ‘I didn’t want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim’

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 11:59:28 GMT2018-01-12T11:59:28Z

The Costa award-winning debut novelist on the kindness of Glasgow and becoming a full-time writer in her 40s

Gail Honeyman arrives in London trailing a wheelie-case, having travelled from Glasgow on a plane that was supposed to leave at 7am, but was delayed by the freezing weather. As we take the escalator up to liberate her of the case for a photocall, we muse on the peculiarity of a –7C ground frost stranding a plane which regularly flies at air temperatures of –40C.

In ways that only those who have found themselves sucked into her award-winning debut novel will truly understand, this is an Eleanor Oliphant moment: it enfolds a stressful experience, stoically borne, in the beady intelligence of a woman who is rarely seen in public without a trolley-bag. The comparison has less to do with Honeyman herself than with the capacity of her writing to make everything seem a little bit strange, slightly dislocated from its face value.

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Nikesh Shukla and Julia Kingsford on The Good Agency, plus Tony White - books podcast

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 16:16:31 GMT2018-01-16T16:16:31Z

Subscribe and review: iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, Audioboom, Mixcloud & Acast and join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter

After co-founding the Jhalak prize for non-white writers, and editing the hugely successful essay collection The Good Immigrant, author Nikesh Shukla teamed up with his agent Julia Kingsford to propose a radical solution to the UK’s monocultural publishing industry: The Good Agency. Their plan for a literary agency for under-represented authors – overlooked because of their their race, class, disabled status or sexuality – was greeted with a passionate public response, and almost £600,000 in funding from Arts Council England. So what are they going to do with the money? Shukla and Kingsford came in for a chat about their plans and hopes for the future.

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Kamila Shamsie: ‘It took me 17 years to get round to War and Peace’

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 10:00:49 GMT2018-01-20T10:00:49Z

The author of Home Fire on how she was transported by Midnight’s Children and by a flying car – and why she turns to Michael Ondaatje for comfort

The book that changed my life

A novel called All Dogs Go to Heaven by Beth Brown, which I read when I was 11, and which persuaded my best friend and me to co-write a novel about our (recently departed) pet dogs. I haven’t stopped writing novels since.

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Emma Glass: ‘I hope my book will help people find the language of the ordeal’

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 09:00:16 GMT2018-01-11T09:00:16Z

Peach is a startlingly unusual account of sexual violence – but the author explains why it could not be more told conventionally

Emma Glass didn’t set out to write a rape revenge story; when she started her debut Peach, she didn’t know what kind of novel she wanted to write. But 10 years ago, as she sat in a creative writing class, she could see what she did not want: the teacher (“a writer who’s quite successful in the UK with fantasy novels”) was leading a class of 20, who all “seemed to have ideas for really high-concept novels”, she recalls. “I guess that’s where stories start, but for me that’s not where the story started.”

Glass was reading Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, and was “fascinated with how everyone’s reading of those books is highly different, because the focus is on the language and not necessarily the story”. Stuck, she was going in circles late one night, listening to music, and Peach “literally started with a beat”. She had “an image in my mind of a frustrated or sad person and I identified that person as a young girl, and it really started from there.” That pulse can still be felt in the first line of Peach: “Thick stick sticky sticking wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hand against the wall.”

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Book clinic: what would you like to ask our experts?

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 12:00:22 GMT2018-01-19T12:00:22Z

In our new weekly series you can ask experts in the books industry any questions you want answered

From Sunday 21 January the Books pages of the New Review section of the Observer will include a new service for readers.

Book Clinic will be a new weekly series where we will turn to experts in their field to answer any book, reading or publishing questions you may have. For example:

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Put the kettle on: does a cuppa beat writer’s block?

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 06:00:15 GMT2018-01-19T06:00:15Z

Research suggestions that drinking tea might help creativity have received endorsement from a number of successful novelists. I’ll drink to that

Being British, we have all seized on a report about how drinking tea improves creativity. The researchers – led by Yan Huang, from the Psychological and Cognitive Sciences Department of Peking University – recruited 50 students, who were assigned to two groups and given either tea or water to drink. The students were then given tests, the first being to build an “attractive” design with toy blocks, the second to come up with a “cool and attractive” name for a new ramen noodle restaurant. (“An example of a name that received a low innovativeness score is Ramen Family, and an example of a name that received a high score is No Ramen Here.”)

Related: From antioxidants to iron absorption: how to make the most of your cup of tea

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DC is not kidding around with Hanna-Barbera reworkings for adults

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 13:07:32 GMT2018-01-18T13:07:32Z

If recasting Snagglepuss as a gay playwright in the 50s or putting Wacky Races in a Mad Max-esque fight sounds unlikely, it’s only the latest – suprisingly successful – reinvention from the comics giant

Heavens to Murgatroyd! Who could have thought that Snagglepuss, that bright pink mountain lion beloved of Saturday morning cartoon shows would one day be reimagined as a gay playwright in the 1950s in a serious, adult comic book? Or, for that matter, that such a reinvention would work?

DC Comics has embarked on the curious little experiment and, in Hanna-Barbera Beyond, given old characters a contemporary makeover. The scheme has seen Wacky Raceland drop Dick Dastardly, the Anthill Mob and the rest into a Mad Max-esque fight for survival in a postapocalyptic wasteland; the Flintstones remade into a satirical poke at the American Dream and Scooby-Doo rebooted as a “smart dog” with an implant that allows him rudimentary communication skills in a near-future where a paranormal Armageddon has unleashed the undead on the world.

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Shelf effacement: how not to organise your bookshelves

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 14:20:05 GMT2018-01-16T14:20:05Z

A new trend to ‘coordinate’ the look of your library by turning the spines to face inward defies good sense. But apparently it’s catching on

Talk about spineless: the new trend in home decor is backward-looking – literally. If you’re in search of a storage solution that won’t mar the boring – sorry “neutral” – look of a beige colour scheme, simply turn your books spines in, pages out.

Back in October, design blog Apartment Therapy shared one of these backwards bookshelves on its Instagram account, with advice for emulating the look. (“Books don’t match your decor? Don’t fret … Flip them for a perfectly coordinated look.”) US morning show Today called it “a beautiful thing to try”, and, naturally, it’s all over Pinterest.

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

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 15:00:02 GMT2018-01-15T15:00:02Z

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

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

Let’s start with some remarkable last words, courtesy of playitagainstu:

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The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list

Sun, 31 Dec 2017 08:30:25 GMT2017-12-31T08:30:25Z

After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, Robert McCrum has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing

1. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
An engrossing account of the looming catastrophe caused by ecology’s “neighbours from hell” – mankind.

2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
This steely and devastating examination of the author’s grief following the sudden death of her husband changed the nature of writing about bereavement.

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The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

Mon, 17 Aug 2015 09:11:54 GMT2015-08-17T09:11:54Z

After two years of careful consideration, Robert McCrum has reached a verdict on his selection of the 100 greatest novels written in English. Take a look at his list

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

A story of a man in search of truth told with the simple clarity and beauty of Bunyan’s prose make this the ultimate English classic.

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Best books of 2017: indie publishers on their favourite books of the year

Fri, 29 Dec 2017 08:00:24 GMT2017-12-29T08:00:24Z

India’s answer to Lear, a teen tale set amid the London riots and the first great book on grime. Experts pick 2017’s smartest, oddest and most overlooked reads

Co-director, Tramp Press

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'If you're looking for Nordic angst, forget it!': your favourite books of 2017

Thu, 28 Dec 2017 11:30:15 GMT2017-12-28T11:30:15Z

From mind-bending typography to birdsong, from short stories to long lives, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads

This brilliant, Man Booker-shortlisted first novel has been described as a noir, and it has echoes of southern gothic. A violent act precipitates the final conflict. Love Carson McCullers? Look the other way when you read Cormac McCarthy? You’ll love this!

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2018 in books: a literary calendar

Sat, 06 Jan 2018 09:00:09 GMT2018-01-06T09:00:09Z

Essays from Zadie Smith, Arnhem from Antony Beevor and novels from Julian Barnes, Sarah Perry, Pat Barker, Rachel Cusk … and Bill Clinton. Place your book orders now

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Trapped in Yemen: Dave Eggers on one man’s astonishing fight to get home to America

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 08:00:46 GMT2018-01-20T08:00:46Z

On a business trip to Yemen in 2015, Californian Mokhtar Alkhanshali was stranded when civil war broke out. Abandoned by his government and the airport bombed, he was forced to find his own way home …

In the spring of 2015, I met Mokhtar Alkhanshali outside the Blue Bottle Coffee headquarters in Oakland, California. He had just returned from Yemen, having narrowly escaped with his life. An American citizen, Mokhtar was abandoned by his government and left to evade Saudi bombs and Houthi rebels. He had no means to leave. The airports had been destroyed and the roads out of the country were impassable. There were no evacuations planned, no assistance provided. The United States state department had stranded thousands of Yemeni Americans, who were forced to devise their own means of fleeing a blitzkrieg – tens of thousands of US-made bombs dropped on Yemen by the Saudi air force. The way Mokhtar escaped was brazen and astonishing, but was only the last in a series of remarkable leaps of courage and self-invention that Mokhtar had made in a few short years. He had grown up poor, in a Yemeni-American family of nine living in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district – in many ways the city’s most troubled neighbourhood. While trying to get a college degree, he took a job as a doorman in a residential high-rise called the Infinity. It paid adequately but he was uninspired, and he spent his days vibrating, expecting great things of himself but unsure what shape his dreams would take.

One day a friend told him that across the street from his desk at the Infinity was an enormous statue of what appeared to be a Yemeni man with his hands raised overhead, drinking from a cup of coffee. This seemed to be the kind of sign he was looking for. It turned out that the statue was the old symbol of Hills Brothers coffee, their headquarters having been in downtown San Francisco for decades. The statue began a feverish journey of discovery, on which Mokhtar learned that coffee had first been cultivated in Yemen, and that for centuries the port of Mokha was the centre of the world’s coffee trade. The Yemeni coffee trade had fallen on hard times, though – it was known now for its unreliable quality and the few remaining farmers still growing coffee were largely aimless and impoverished.

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‘It was an electric time to be gay’: Sarah Waters on 20 years of Tipping the Velvet

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 12:00:51 GMT2018-01-20T12:00:51Z

At 28 years old, Waters spent an exhilarating year writing a groundbreaking lesbian romance set in Victorian England. Two decades on, she marvels at her daring

“What’s it about?” people sometimes asked me, when they had heard I’d written a novel – and I always had to brace myself, slightly, to answer. There was the awkwardness of explaining the rather risque title. There was the fact that I outed myself the moment I began to reveal the plot. And then there was the plot itself – because, oh dear, how lurid it sounded, how improbable, above all how niche, the tale of a Victorian oyster girl who loses her heart to a male impersonator, becomes her partner in bed and on the music hall stage, and then, cruelly abandoned, has a spell as a cross-dressed Piccadilly prostitute and the sexual plaything of a rich older woman before finding true love and redemption with an East End socialist.

I had hoped that lesbians might like it – and was thrilled when, very quickly, helped along by word of mouth, Tipping the Velvet began to find enthusiastic gay fans. But the success of the novel among straighter readers took me by surprise. Some were drawn to it, I’m sure, as a racy curiosity. One New Zealand bookshop kept its early copies shrink-wrapped, with a “Restricted to persons aged 18 and over” sticker on them. And when, in 2002, the novel was adapted by Andrew Davies for the BBC, the story was sold to viewers, and promoted by tabloid newspapers, largely on its titillation value. But the fact that it had been adapted in the first place was a sign of how things were shifting, and Tipping’s 20-year career has coincided almost exactly with enormous changes in the lives of British lesbian and gay people, who now have equal rights with heterosexuals as partners, parents and employees, and enjoy a mainstream cultural presence I wouldn’t have believed possible back in 1998.

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Fire and Fury: could a book bring down a president?

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 12:31:21 GMT2018-01-19T12:31:21Z

Gossip, plots, revenge ... Michael Wolff’s scandalous White House exposé is just the latest in a long line of political tell-alls

We seem to be living through a golden age for the political tell-all. After all, there is so much to tell! As politics careens from one car wreck to the next, it is irresistible to hear from the people at the wheel how it felt as the next pile-up lurched into view. And they can’t resist explaining to anyone who wants to listen why it was always someone else’s job to slam on the brakes.

Tim Shipman’s All Out War, which spilled the beans on the Brexit campaign and its chaotic aftermath, set a pretty high bar for tales of skulduggery, rage and epic incompetence. The drama is rich, and so too is the comedy: look out Boris, Michael is behind you! Fall Out, Shipman’s follow-up, which takes us inside the botched general election of 2017, has even more spectacular moments of meltdown. Here we are on election night at Tory campaign HQ, just after the exit poll has been announced: “There was incredulity … Shortly afterwards, the deathly stillness was broken by the sound of retching.” Now we have Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which exposes what life is like inside Trump’s White House. Already some of the political world described by Shipman seems to belong to a quainter and gentler time.

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Elena Ferrante to become Guardian Weekend's new columnist

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 12:34:29 GMT2018-01-18T12:34:29Z

Author of bestselling Neapolitan novels says she was keen to test herself with the ‘bold, anxious exercise’ of writing regular pieces for the magazine

Elena Ferrante, the bestselling Italian novelist of the highly acclaimed Neapolitan series, is to write her first ever regular newspaper column, in the Guardian.

The pseudonymous author’s return to writing, a year after an investigative journalist controversially claimed to have revealed her real identity, will be welcomed by fans anxious to see her next move. Ferrante has always said that her anonymity was important to her work, freeing her from the “anxiety of notoriety”.

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Elena Ferrante: 'I loved that boy to the point where I felt close to fainting'

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 07:00:45 GMT2018-01-20T07:00:45Z

In the first of a new weekly series, the novelist recalls her first love

Some time ago, I planned to describe my first times. I listed a certain number of them: the first time I saw the sea, the first time I flew in an aeroplane, the first time I got drunk, the first time I fell in love, the first time I made love. It was an exercise both arduous and pointless.

For that matter, how could it be otherwise? We always look at first times with excessive indulgence. Even if by their nature they’re founded on inexperience, and so as a rule are not very successful, we recall them with sympathy, with regret. They’re swallowed up by all the times that have followed, by their transformation into habit, and yet we attribute to them the power of the unrepeatable.

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Stalingrad author Anthony Beevor speaks out over Ukraine book ban

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 15:10:46 GMT2018-01-19T15:10:46Z

Historian says prohibition of his book, over passage detailing wartime murder of Jewish children by Ukrainian militia, is ‘utterly outrageous’

Leading British historian Antony Beevor has described a Ukrainian ban on his award-winning book Stalingrad as “utterly outrageous”.

The bestselling history, winner of the 1999 Samuel Johnson prize, tells of the battle for the Russian city during the second world war. A Russian translation was one of 25 titles included on a banned list issued by Ukrainian authorities last week, alongside books by authors including Boris Akunin and Boris Sokolov.

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Margaret Atwood faces feminist backlash on social media over #MeToo

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 18:36:05 GMT2018-01-15T18:36:05Z

The Canadian author’s defence of due process for those accused of sexual misconduct sparked online ire

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is facing a social media backlash after voicing concerns about the #MeToo movement and calling for due process in the case of a former university professor accused of sexual misconduct.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Atwood said the #MeToo movement, which emerged in the wake of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, was the symptom of a broken legal system and had been “seen as a massive wake up call”.

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