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Books | The Guardian

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

Published: Wed, 26 Apr 2017 23:32:28 GMT2017-04-26T23:32:28Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2017

The age of anxiety: what does Granta’s best young authors list say about America?

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 15:50:47 GMT2017-04-26T15:50:47Z

The US is in crisis - what about its literature? Michelle Dean reports on the list of American writers to watch this decade, which is as diverse as the country itself

It is a strange time to be making declarations about the nature of American writing. The country’s not exactly feeling well. And even before the events of last autumn, it used to be easier to know what people meant when they spoke of Great American Novels. They meant, chiefly, fat realist ones, usually authored by men. Philip Roth was the avatar of success in that model. He’d put America in the title, construct his characters around some kind of American archetype, and he was off and running.

Related: Granta’s list of the best young American novelists

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New William Gibson novel set in a world where Hillary Clinton won

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 14:27:54 GMT2017-04-26T14:27:54Z

Agency, by the famously prescient SF author, imagines an alternative US where voters have elected their first female president

Science fiction writer William Gibson is to use the dream of a Hillary Clinton win in last year’s US presidential election as the launch point for his next novel. Gibson, who coined the word “cyberspace” in his 1984 debut Neuromancer, will reimagine the world under a Clinton presidency in his next novel Agency, as well as London in the distant future.

Due out in January 2018, the novel will travel between two periods: one in present-day San Francisco, where Clinton’s White House ambitions are realised; and the other in a post-apocalyptic London, 200 years into the future after 80% of the world population has been killed.

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Top 10 terrible houses in fiction

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 09:15:28 GMT2017-04-26T09:15:28Z

Places you’d be desperate to avoid in real life provide a magnetic lure in books by authors from Dickens to Du Maurier and even Richard Adams

My novel, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times, tells the tale of a girl who travels through a dark forest and arrives at a big house. The forest is bad but the house is arguably worse – a false sanctuary inhabited by decadent aristocrats; boozy and boisterous, on the brink of turning nasty.

At some point when writing the story, I realised I was naively blundering into a long and noble tradition of books about terrible houses, much as I’ve naively blundered into many awkward, unfamiliar houses down the years. Maybe I love these places in fiction because I hate and fear them in real life.

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Void Star by Zachary Mason review – a technothriller with literary ambitions

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 13:00:37 GMT2017-04-26T13:00:37Z

Virtual hallucinations and tricksy Matrix-style visions dominate a 21st-century immortality quest

It’s late in the 21st century. New York City has drowned, and the reversal of Pacific currents means that Tokyo is freezing. In Saudi Arabia “the mullahs rule piously over blank infernos of sand”. There are armed drones and super-powerful AIs that have been designed for thousands of generations by other AIs, so that no human understands how they work. The rich have private armies and undergo yearly rejuvenation treat-ments at exclusive clinics. But James Cromwell, an inscrutable billionaire already more than 100 years old, wants more time. And someone unknown has sent him proof of a concept for an elixir of immortality. The question is, what does this party want in return?

Related: The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason | Book review

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Into the Water by Paula Hawkins review – how to follow Girl on the Train?

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 06:30:29 GMT2017-04-26T06:30:29Z

Her debut thriller was a phenomenon, but here an embarrassment of narrators and the clunky withholding of information is death to suspense

More accidents happen in the home than anywhere else, a fact to lend some much-needed plausibility to the overworked genre of domestic suspense, or grip-lit as it’s sometimes known. About 60 debut novels cross my desk every year (I chair the New Blood panel at the Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival), and for the last three or four years, the proportion of this subgenre has been rising.

Not a problem in itself: if the books were original, well written or thought-provoking, nobody would be happier than I. But sadly that’s not generally been the case. There have been notable exceptions, of course: clever, suspenseful reads such as Renée Knight’s Disclaimer or Ben McPherson’s A Line of Blood. Then there are the mega-sellers such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which all gave us interesting twists on the idea of the unreliable narrator.

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Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin review – the damage done by Silicon Valley

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 08:00:31 GMT2017-04-26T08:00:31Z

Taplin’s starting point is the music of Levon Helm and the Band, but the fight against the spoiled brats of Google, Amazon and Facebook is much bigger

In 2012, Jonathan Taplin took part in a public debate with Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit, about what the digital economy was doing to the creative arts. Taplin, who had once been manager of the Band, and was the producer of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent film of their farewell concert The Last Waltz, had a particular grievance about the fate of his friend Levon Helm, the Band’s drummer. Helm was suffering from cancer, but had been forced back on the road at the age of 70 to help pay his medical bills because the new culture of “free music and movies” had destroyed his income as a recording artist. Ohanian, clearly a little chastened by this tale, wrote to Taplin offering to help “make right what the music industry did to members of the Band”. He suggested a reunion concert or album, funded by kickstarter, and launched on Reddit.

Taplin’s reply, which he reprints here in all its eviscerating glory, points out that this plan won’t work because in the meantime Helm has died. Moreover, he tells Ohanian, “It wasn’t the music industry that created Levon’s plight; it was people like you.” He concludes: “You are so clueless as to offer to get the Band back together for a charity concert, unaware that three of the five members are dead. Take your charity and shove it. Just let us get paid for our work and stop deciding that you can unilaterally make it free.” Ohanian, unsurprisingly, did not respond.

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Neil Gaiman on American Gods, Norse Mythology and more – books podcast

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 10:24:24 GMT2017-04-25T10:24:24Z

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

Neil Gaiman is an author who needs (almost) no introduction: the mind behind much-loved novels including Neverwhere, Stardust and Coraline, all of which have been adapted for film, TV and radio. The latest to be adapted is American Gods, which starts on Amazon Prime worldwide on 1 May: a road-trip fantasy epic that follows ex-con Shadow Moon and his run-ins with gods – some old, some new – around modern America.

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International prize for Arabic fiction goes to Mohammed Hasan Alwan

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 17:00:11 GMT2017-04-25T17:00:11Z

A Small Death, the Saudi novelist’s historical novel about a Sufi mystic and adventurer, takes $50,000 honour for ‘striking artistry’

A historical novel about the life and adventures of an Andalusian adventurer and Sufi mystic has taken the most prestigious prize in Arabic fiction.

Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan won the $50,000 (£39,000) International prize for Arabic fiction for A Small Death, his fictional account of the life of Sunni scholar Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. The novel follows him from his birth in Muslim Spain in 1165 to his death in Damascus in 1240, taking in journeys from Andalusia to Azerbaijan, and his reflections on the violence witnesses in Morocco, Egypt, the Hejaz (now part of Saudi Arabia), Syria, Iraq and Turkey. A contentious figure in history, Ibn ‘Arabi has been declared the foremost spiritual leader in Sufism by some, but condemned as an apostate by others.

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Cannery Row may be sentimental but it is far from shallow

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 11:15:05 GMT2017-04-25T11:15:05Z

John Steinbeck’s story of kindness among eccentric unfortunates is full of jokes and fond nostalgia – as well as quiet profundity

Cannery Row is a “kind of nostalgic thing”, according to John Steinbeck. He wrote it, as he explained in a 1953 essay, “for a group of soldiers who said to me: ‘Write something funny that isn’t about the war. Write something for us to read - we’re sick of war.’”

If you like, you can take that statement at face value. First, it is a funny book, funny in a way that hasn’t gone stale in the 70 years since its first publication. Jokes about booze and sex and food tend to have a good shelf life. And Steinbeck’s ribald gags have a perennial joy about them, even when he’s talking about something as antiquated as the Model T: “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris.”

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Rebecca Swift obituary

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 14:02:03 GMT2017-04-25T14:02:03Z

The pioneering founder of an agency helping writers to get their work published

Rebecca Swift, who has died aged 53 of cancer, believed that anyone who writes and wishes to be edited and advised constructively and professionally should have the opportunity to do so. To this end, in 1996 she founded The Literary Consultancy (TLC) with Hannah Griffiths. It was the first of its kind – a manuscript assessment agency offering detailed editorial feedback to anyone writing in English anywhere in the world. Set up in Becky’s north London flat on a capital sum of £600, TLC never borrowed another penny.

From 1989 to 1995, Becky was a junior editor at Virago Press. At the time, the “slush pile” – that mountain of unsolicited manuscripts – was one of the first casualties of the editorial department: publishers no longer had the resources to read unsolicited manuscripts, which were returned to the writer with a standard note.

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Robert Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author dies aged 88

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 23:58:48 GMT2017-04-24T23:58:48Z

Book telling the father-son story of a motorcycle trip across the western United States was published in 1974 and quickly became a best-seller

Robert Pirsig, author of the influential 1970s philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has died at the age of 88.

Peter Hubbard, executive editor of his publisher William Morrow & Co, said in a statement that Pirsig’s wife Wendy had confirmed his death at his home in Maine “after a period of failing health”.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Lee Seong-Bok

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 15:00:08 GMT2017-04-25T15:00:08Z

Two quiet, wistful recollections of the past by a South Korean poet, for the final Translation Tuesday on the Guardian website

By Lee Seong-Bok and Yea Jung Park for Translation Tuesdays byAsymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

It’s been a pleasure bringing you weekly Translation Tuesdays at the Guardian since October 2015, but, as the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end. Today’s showcase will be our 76th and last on the Guardian website. Asymptote’s commitment to contemporary world literature remains as strong as ever: Translation Tuesdays will continue at our daily blog; I also invite you to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for our fortnightly newsletters to get our latest updates. Hopefully, we’ll be back one day! Until then, please enjoy these two prose poems by Lee Seong-bok, courtesy of Literature Institute of Korea. Wistful for lost opportunities, they are sure to evoke personal memories.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

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Elizabeth Gaskell: Charlotte Brontë's unlikely defender against prurient gossip

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 09:32:03 GMT2017-04-25T09:32:03Z

Where Gaskell was gregarious and conventional, Brontë was an introverted maverick – but the former did fierce, invaluable work to protect the latter’s reputation

Here are some reasons to hate Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë: it is moralistic and stultifying; it flattens Brontë’s brilliantly transgressive nature and confines her to a saccharine version of Victorian female victimhood. It is inaccurate, overemotional and, at times, libellous towards those she accused of attacking her good friend. You might also criticise Gaskell’s motivations: driven by opportunistic ambition to feed, vulture-like, on the carcass of Brontë’s reputation, rather than a true desire to investigate or memorialise.

You wouldn’t be the first to say so. Ever since its publication in 1857, Gaskell’s biography has been snarked at for its sins and failings. But there are reasons to cherish it, too: it is a loving defence of the value and power of women’s writing; a biography of a woman was revolutionary at that time; and it is a testament to the constraints placed on female writers and the ways they have found to move beyond them.

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The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John review – the Bloomsbury group laid bare

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 06:30:41 GMT2017-04-25T06:30:41Z

The letters of Augustus John’s first wife, who forfeited her art for child-rearing and a most unconventional marriage, make for wickedly entertaining reading

As Virginia Woolf whimsically calculated, the world became modern “on or about December 1910”. Sadly, that was too late for Ida John, an artistically gifted and boldly emancipated “New Woman” who died in 1907.

“I must create something,” Ida insisted in a letter to one of her female confidantes; all she asked was “a studio and ability to paint for myself”. But artistic creativity was still a male prerogative and when a teenage girl of her acquaintance said that she too wanted to paint, Ida could only ironically advise her to “be a man”. Ida defied her stuffy family to marry the raffish society portraitist Augustus John, after which her occupation turned out to be breeding. She came to think of herself merely as “a Belly” and thought she had the gooey consistency of a suet pudding. When Gus, as she called him, took up with a mistress named Dorelia, Ida in desperation agreed to cohabit with the minx-like newcomer in an Edwardian seraglio.

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Hostage by Guy Delisle review – held captive by every frame

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 08:00:42 GMT2017-04-25T08:00:42Z

This true story of a man’s kidnapping in Chechnya confirms Guy Delisle’s position as one of the greatest modern cartoonists

In 1997, Christophe André, a young Frenchman who was working as an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières in Ingushetia in the north Caucasus, was woken in the middle of the night by a gang of armed men. At first, he thought they’d come to raid the NGO’s safe: the next day was pay day and it was bulging with cash. But when they bundled him into a car and drove him over the border into Chechnya, he realised things were perhaps more serious than he had at first believed. The victim of a kidnapping, he would spend the next three months alone in a dark room, handcuffed to a radiator.

Three months, one room. This is, to say the least, extremely challenging territory for a cartoonist. Somehow, though, Guy Delisle – the French-Canadian artist who is best known for such award-winning travelogues as Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City – has turned André’s account of his weeks of hell into a gripping visual narrative. The days unfold monotonously, punctuated only by bowls of thin soup and the occasional trip to the bathroom. Of troubled Chechnya and its people we see almost nothing until the book’s final pages, when André makes a daring escape. But in the end, this is of no consequence. In Hostage, it’s the treacherous landscape of the mind that Delisle determinedly makes his own.

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Wellcome science book prize goes to story of a heart transplant

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 18:01:19 GMT2017-04-24T18:01:19Z

Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which tracks the journey of a heart from donor to recipient, is only the second novel to take the £30,000 award

A novel that “illustrates what it is to be human” has become the first translated book to win the Wellcome prize for science writing.

Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which tracks the journey of a heart from donor to recipient over 24 hours, is only the second novel ever to scoop the £30,000 prize, which is awarded to a work of fiction or nonfiction that engages with health and medicine.

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A publisher of one's own: Virginia and Leonard Woolf and the Hogarth Press

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 14:15:50 GMT2017-04-24T14:15:50Z

A century after the Bloomsbury luminaries took delivery of their own printing equipment, the legacy of their pioneering – and often dramatic – DIY operation lives on

“We unpacked it with enormous excitement, finally with Nelly’s help carried it into the drawing room, set it on its stand, and discovered that it was smashed in half,” wrote Virginia Woolf on the afternoon of 24 April 1917. That day she and her husband Leonard took delivery of the hand press that heralded the birth of their brainchild, the Hogarth Press. Their £19 purchase had been long awaited, one of three resolutions made while the couple took tea on Virginia’s 33rd birthday: they would buy Hogarth House in Richmond, find a hand press to do their own printing, and buy a bulldog and name him John.

The missing part needed to fix the press and render it operative arrived several weeks later and the first publication notice, painstakingly hand set by the Woolfs, was sent out in May. In tidy lettering, it bravely announced the imminent publication of a pamphlet titled Two Stories: one each by Virginia and Leonard.

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

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 14:00:21 GMT2017-04-24T14:00:21Z

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 quick, but unarguable endorsement for JG Farrell’s The Siege Of Krishnapur from ohehir:

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Poem of the week: In the Evening by Anna Akhmatova

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 09:12:48 GMT2017-04-24T09:12:48Z

Translated by the late Richard McKane, this strikingly love-deprived love poem is a fine example of the author’s intense focus on personal experience

In the Evening

There was such inexpressible sorrow
in the music in the garden.
The dish of oysters on ice
smelt fresh and sharp of the sea.

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Author Kuki Gallmann shot by raiders on her ranch in Kenya

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 11:36:58 GMT2017-04-24T11:36:58Z

Conservationist, whose memoir I Dreamed of Africa became a Hollywood film, left critically wounded after armed men ransacked a lodge on her estate

Author and conservationist Kuki Gallmann, whose memoir I Dreamed of Africa was turned into a Hollywood film starring Kim Basinger, has been shot by raiders at her ranch in Kenya.

The 73-year-old is reported to have suffered extensive internal injuries and is in “a stable, but critical” condition.

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Not just William: Richmal Crompton's adult fiction republished

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 15:43:59 GMT2017-04-20T15:43:59Z

Reissues aim to restore her darker stories of village intrigue for grownups to the popularity they once enjoyed

Richmal Crompton has long been overshadowed by her creation Just William, but the darker side of her imagination is set to be rediscovered, with several of her lesser-known adult novels coming back into print.

Although best known for her 38 books about the errant schoolboy William Brown and his gang of Outlaws, Lancashire-born Compton was a prolific writer for both children and adults, often publishing two books a year, as well as writing short stories magazines. “She wrote 41 adult novels as well as the Just William books,” her new publisher Harriet Sanders said. “They did very well at the time and display something that you see in other writers of children’s books … the clarity with which they are written.”

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Bill O'Reilly's publisher stands by him after Fox sacking

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 11:23:16 GMT2017-04-20T11:23:16Z

TV host and bestselling author who was fired on Wednesday after multiple sexual harassment claims came to light, retains support of Henry Holt

Fox News may have abandoned Bill O’Reilly, but the beleaguered TV host, who was sacked on Wednesday following sexual harassment claims, has found support from his publisher Henry Holt, which has promised to stand by the bestselling author.

Related: A timeline of Bill O'Reilly's downfall: another Fox News founding father exits

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Proust's complaint about neighbours' loud sex among treasures in French sale

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 17:04:41 GMT2017-04-19T17:04:41Z

Letter from ‘jealous’ author, as well as another by Gustave Flaubert defending Madame Bovary will be sold from collection worth an estimated €3m

A treasure trove of letters and diaries revealing the secrets of some of France’s greatest literary figures is about to go on sale in Paris. Correspondence and journals by Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust are among 230 lots to be sold alongside a rare first edition of Galileo’s Discorsi on 26 April.

Amassed by Geneva-based Jean Bonna, who has been described as the greatest collector of French literature in the world, the collection is a fraction of material acquired over the past 50 years. Bonna said he was streamlining his collection to concentrate on French literature. Admitting he felt “a little bit sad” to sell the Galileo, which is expected to make in excess of €700,000 (£585,000), he added: “It is a wonderful book, and the best copy I have ever seen, but it does not belong in my collection because it is a scientific book and not French literature.”

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Stella prize 2017: Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love wins award

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 09:40:34 GMT2017-04-18T09:40:34Z

$50,000 prize for Australian women writers goes to novel based on Marina Abramović’s performance of The Artist is Present

Heather Rose has won the 2017 Stella prize for Australian women writers for her novel, The Museum of Modern Love, based on the artwork of Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramović.

“It’s by far the biggest thing that’s ever happened in my career,” Rose told Guardian Australia.

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Bana Alabed, seven-year-old Syrian peace campaigner, to publish memoir

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 13:53:52 GMT2017-04-13T13:53:52Z

Dear World, which will recount the young Twitter activist’s experience of war and flight from her war-torn home, is scheduled for autumn release

A seven-year-old Syrian refugee whose tweets from war-torn Aleppo won her a global following is set to write a book. Bana Alabed’s Dear World will recount her experiences in Syria and how she and her family rebuilt their lives as refugees. Simon & Schuster plans to publish it in the US this autumn.

The self-declared peace activist took to the social media network that made her name to announce the news. “I am happy to announce my book will be published by Simon & Schuster. The world must end all the wars now in every part of the world,” she tweeted to her 368,000 followers.

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Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 15:00:09 GMT2017-04-11T15:00:09Z

Unpublished correspondence from the poet to her former therapist records allegation of beating and says that he told her he wished she was dead

Sylvia Plath alleged Ted Hughes beat her two days before she miscarried their second child and that Hughes wanted her dead, unpublished letters reveal. The two accusations are among explosive claims in unseen correspondence written in the bitter aftermath of one of literature’s most famous and destructive marriages.

Related: Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced | Sarah Churchwell

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X-Men illustrator faces backlash over alleged anti-Christian messages

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 13:22:07 GMT2017-04-11T13:22:07Z

Marvel distances itself from Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf after his images’ apparent reference to fierce religious and political divisions in his country

An artist who allegedly inserted political and religious messages into an X-Men spinoff comic has apologised, saying his career is over after fans complained about background images in the first issue of X-Men: Gold containing apparent antisemitic and anti-Christian references.

On Saturday, publisher Marvel said it would remove the artwork from future versions after readers in Indonesia claimed that some images contained coded messages referring to political and religious tensions in the country. They alleged Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf had sneaked in references to hardline Islamist opposition to Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the first Christian governor of the Indonesian capital in half a century.

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Colson Whitehead wins Pulitzer prize for The Underground Railroad

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 21:07:43 GMT2017-04-10T21:07:43Z

The acclaimed slavery novel has been rewarded alongside Lynn Nottage’s factory drama Sweat and Matthew Desmond’s nonfiction work Evicted

Literary blockbuster novel The Underground Railroad, which depicts the journey of a young woman escaping from slavery via a fantastical train system, has won the Pulitzer prize for fiction.

Related: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead review – luminous, furious and wildly inventive

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Bill Cosby's books among 'most challenged' last year at US libraries

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 16:49:56 GMT2017-04-10T16:49:56Z

The fallen star’s children’s series was deemed problematic by readers ‘because of criminal sexual allegations against the author’

Bill Cosby’s children’s book series was among the 10 most challenged books in US libraries last year, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

It is the first time Cosby, who was once a symbol for family values in the US, appeared on the ALA’s annual Most Challenged Books list.

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British 70s protest-music chronicle wins music book of the year

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 12:59:23 GMT2017-04-10T12:59:23Z

Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down, an exhaustive account of the Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge movements, takes the Penderyn music book prize

An exhaustively researched history of pop music’s impact on British political life during the 70s and 80s has won this year’s Penderyn music book prize. Walls Come Tumbling Down won its author Daniel Rachel the £1,000 prize at the Laugharne Weekend music and literature festival in south Wales, the prize’s home since it was first presented in 2015.

Walls Come Tumbling Down, subtitled The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2-Tone and Red Wedge, explores how revulsion at Eric Clapton’s drunken attack on “wogs” and “coons” at a Birmingham gig in 1976 provided the spark for a significant protest movement led by the British music industry.

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Enough David Foster Wallace, already! We need to read beyond our bubbles

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 12:09:48 GMT2017-04-21T12:09:48Z

Male critics have long expounded a literary canon that mirrors their own lives. Such narrow reading is not restricted to men, but their example is a caution

After centuries of being told by men what is good and what is bad, what is art and what is garbage, what is important and what is trivial, women have decided to fight against this with a form of writing that can best be summarised as “Ack! Men!” The latest entry in this medium is an Electric Lit essay called Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me, where a woman who was told by several men that she might enjoy the Infinite Jest author’s work explains that no, she does not enjoy it and this is interesting because, you know, Ack! Men!

This would not even merit a response – except that so many people assumed that it did. Women on social media responded with their own Ack! Men! chorus and some men, so delightfully oblivious, chimed in with things along the lines of: “Infinite Jest is actually a really important book and if you read it you would understand.” That obliviousness does indeed make one want to yell ACK! out the window and into the night, but hopefully we can find something else to say.

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Empty satire: the regrettable rise of blank-paged books in the Trump era

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 15:34:57 GMT2017-04-18T15:34:57Z

Donald Trump loves Reasons to Vote Democrat, a volume of white space that follows a number of liberal spoofs with the same content. I prefer less vacant jokes

It’s a product worthy of Reggie Perrin’s Grot shop – the store opened to sell tat in David Nobbs’s magnificent satire of modern life: a book called Reasons to Vote Democrat by Michael J Knowles, which contains only a smattering of words – title page, contents and chapter headings – in its 265 pages. The rest is blank.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” tweeted president Donald Trump as his recommendation sent Reasons to Vote Democrat up the bestseller charts. It isn’t the only blank book produced on the back of current divisions in US politics: Oregon Democrat Cylvia Hayes got there first, with Surprising Reasons to Think That Trump Will Be a (Bigly) Great President! – 150 pages, entirely blank.

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John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat is not for 'literary slummers'

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 10:40:18 GMT2017-04-18T10:40:18Z

This story of easygoing, thirsty paisanos was an immediate hit with readers who found the characters ‘quaint’, and made the author regret his creation

Tortilla Flat was the book that made John Steinbeck’s name – and his fortune. By the time it was published in May 1935, he’d managed to publish four other books, but they had been poorly received. He was in his 30s, close to the breadline, living in a house his father had given him and largely dependent on his wife’s paychecks.

And then the reviews started rolling in for Tortilla Flat. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “exceptionally fine”. “Not since the days of WW Jacobs making his charming characters out of scoundrels has there been a book quite like this one,” said the New Republic. The Spectator suggested that the book might make “a wet afternoon wetter for its readers”, as they cried both with laughter and sadness. The Saturday Review admired its “facile style and the whimsical humour underlying its sharp and clear-cut presentation of character”.

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Call me British, American, Jewish, Londoner – just don’t call me patriotic | Will Self

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 08:59:29 GMT2017-04-14T08:59:29Z

It is a delusional form of patriotism that lies behind the ‘populism’ of recent political upheavals

It must be a great feeling – at once warm and calming, a sense of profound belonging, of inclusion into the greater group, and through that to the very land itself. At the same time, it must be a rousing feeling – stirring, even – especially when certain key cues are introduced: flapping flags, largo music, marching men, a familiar profile on a reviewing stand. I can see for myself that the reaction is Pavlovian: the eyes water, the heart fills, the head swims. There must be a sense of justness – that you’re a component part of a great and ongoing historical development, one that can only progress towards a kind of civic perfection. Yes, it must be a great feeling, this patriotism of which people speak; and yet, for myself, I’ve never experienced it. My own compromised nationality may be to blame, at least in part – my father was British (at least to begin with), and my mother American. I was born in the old Charing Cross Hospital in central London, and for most of my life I’ve cleaved to my identity as a Londoner, rather than any other. My mother registered me as a US citizen at birth – but I never made any use of this status until after 9/11, when it became nigh impossible for those such as myself (with minor and very old convictions for drug offences) to get a visa on a British passport.

At JFK airport they questioned my citizenship with this fructuous question: 'Mr Self, are you an apple or a pear?'

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Plath's letters probably won't harm Hughes's reputation | Rafia Zakaria

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 15:25:19 GMT2017-04-12T15:25:19Z

Bardic men behaving badly, from Lord Byron to Robert Lowell, are traditionally excused – while women poets are written off if they step out of line

News: Unseen Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

While Sylvia Plath’s verse is peppered with allusions to the tempestuous domesticity of her marriage to Ted Hughes, he has retained his reputation. Beyond legal concerns, there are tricky factors to consider: the ambiguity of intimacy in general, the fragile and synergistic creativity of both poets, and the ultimate decision of the one who remained – Hughes – to destroy the last journal and correspondence of Plath, who didn’t. The sum of it all has been the calcification of two camps: those who do not see Hughes’s poetic genius as exculpating his behaviour, and the others who see it as exactly that.

Related: Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

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A pint of Sarah Perry, please: the literary food tie-ins we want to try

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 13:15:10 GMT2017-04-13T13:15:10Z

The novelist’s Essex Serpent is getting its own beer, which makes you wonder what other marketing opportunities books could offer

A rich, copper-hued bitter with “hints of roasted nuts and floral aromas” may not have been the first thing that readers thought of as they settled into Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. But her publisher Serpent’s Tale hopes an ale from East Anglia’s Saffron Brewery created to mark the book’s paperback launch this month will entice beer drinkers to imbibe the much-praised novel, too.

Books and beverages have a long, intertwined relationship. Who doesn’t love a pint, or tea – or a pint of tea – while reading? It is rare, however, for the delights created in the kitchens of authors’ imaginations to inspire real-life concoctions available in supermarkets. Which is sad, as novelists often have readers’s mouths watering; in fact, one cannot help but wonder why the grey suits in food and drink marketing haven’t turned to literature for delicious inspiration before.

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The new age of Ayn Rand: how she won over Trump and Silicon Valley

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 17:49:09 GMT2017-04-10T17:49:09Z

Her novel The Fountainhead is one of the few works of fiction that Donald Trump likes and she has long been the darling of the US right. But only now do her devotees hold sway around the world

As they plough through their GCSE revision, UK students planning to take politics A-level in the autumn can comfort themselves with this thought: come September, they will be studying one thinker who does not belong in the dusty archives of ancient political theory but is achingly on trend. For the curriculum includes a new addition: the work of Ayn Rand.

It is a timely decision because Rand, who died in 1982 and was alternately ridiculed and revered throughout her lifetime, is having a moment. Long the poster girl of a particularly hardcore brand of free-market fundamentalism – the advocate of a philosophy she called “the virtue of selfishness” – Rand has always had acolytes in the conservative political classes. The Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is so committed a Randian, he was famous for giving every new member of his staff a copy of Rand’s gargantuan novel, Atlas Shrugged (along with Freidrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom). The story, oft-repeated, that his colleague in the US Senate, Rand Paul, owes his first name to his father Ron’s adulation of Ayn (it rhymes with “mine”) turns out to be apocryphal, but Paul describes himself as a fan all the same.

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The riddle of Donald Trump: how a man of few words reached the pinnacle of power

Sat, 08 Apr 2017 10:00:01 GMT2017-04-08T10:00:01Z

From ‘bigly’ to tweetspeak – the US president’s vocabulary is ripe for satire

The Reader’s Digest used to run a feature called It Pays to Increase Your Word Power. The new wisdom – post-Trump and Brexit – is that it doesn’t. How Donald Trump has come so far with so few words – how he even managed to keep up conversationally with all those beauty queens – is a question I don’t expect ever to be solved. Which isn’t to say we haven’t been confronted with similar conundrums before. “The President of the United States has so singular a combination of defects for the office of a constitutional magistrate,” wrote the Atlantic magazine of Andrew Johnson in 1866, “that he could have obtained the opportunity to misrule the nation only by a visitation of Providence.” It is too early to say whether Trump will misrule the nation, and any such speculation is not the object of this article. Andrew Johnson, by all accounts, did have words and, on occasion, even eloquence. This doesn’t detract from the ugliness of his views, but it partially explains how he came by his opportunity. In the absence of anything resembling eloquence, what explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump?

Related: Trump’s rhetoric: a triumph of inarticulacy

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Don’t say divorce, say special relationship: the thorny language of Brexit

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 12:00:09 GMT2017-04-07T12:00:09Z

Using soap opera-style breakup metaphors to describe Britain’s EU departure is part of a cheapening of politics

Don’t call Brexit a divorce, said Theresa May recently. “I prefer not to use the term of divorce from the European Union because very often when people get divorced they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards,” she explained to parliament. And indeed, in her subsequent passive-aggressive article 50 letter to European council president Donald Tusk, she insisted Britain was the EU’s “closest friend and neighbour”, albeit a friend who was storming out of the EU dinner party because he didn’t like the number of foreigners among the guests. At the same time, the friend was whining over his shoulder that he really wanted a “deep and special partnership” in the future – a phrase repeated in May’s letter an embarrassingly needy six times.

May’s comment, however, did not stop everyone and their dog from continuing to call Brexit a divorce. It would necessarily be a “painful” divorce after 40 years of marriage, though some said the marriage had always been “loveless” and others hoped its ending could still be “amicable”. But what exactly is the change in our status going to mean, romantically speaking? It would certainly be accounted odd if a married couple were to get divorced just so they could then enter into a “deep” and “special” civil partnership.

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Can you judge a book by its odour?

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 16:14:44 GMT2017-04-07T16:14:44Z

Cocoa, wood, rusks – every book has a distinctive smell. And each smell says something about how and when it was made, and where it has been

What does it mean to experience a book? To a bibliophile such as Alberto Manguel, smell plays an important part. In a talk at the British Library this week, the one-time protege of Jorge Luis Borges and director of the National Library of Argentina said he was particularly partial to old Penguin paperbacks, which he loved for their odour of “fresh rusk biscuits”.

Audience members responded with their own sense impressions. Peter, a pensioner, said he experienced books as smelling of salt and pepper – “that dryness when you open the cupboard … with a touch of the sea”, while 46-year-old Donna confessed that she had recently bought a book for her young son partly because it “smelled of the rain”.

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Why Ruby Tandoh has been cooking up a storm

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 16:29:58 GMT2017-04-20T16:29:58Z

The 2013 Bake Off finalist has fired off a series of tweets attacking celebrity cooks including Tom Kerridge, Jamie Oliver and the Hairy Bikers. So why all the culinary jibes about fad diets?

At 8am on Easter Monday, Ruby Tandoh’s Guardian article urging a joyous, guilt-free attitude to food appeared online. The 2013 Bake Off finalist shared it on Twitter, then joyously fired off a series of tweets attacking a slew of celebrity cooks and diet-mongers. Tom Kerridge’s carb-cutting dopamine diet bestseller was “total bollocks”. Buying a co-written Hemsley sisters’ offering meant “half the fucking brain cells for double the price”. Joe Wicks was “bish bash boshing himself to a multi million £££ turnover”. Even the beloved Jamie Oliver, Hairy Bikers and Lorraine Pascale were accused of “swinging from ‘comfort food’ to ‘superfood’ and back again whenever the price is right”.

Jibes at culinary rivals are nothing new. Gordon Ramsay has sparred with Oliver and Marco Pierre White. Anthony Bourdain is a serial chef slicer. Delia Smith, queen of the 90s, slated Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson – both retaliated – and later MasterChef’s judges. Raymond Blanc bashed Bake Off although he then said sorry (criticised by him for “female tears”, Tandoh told him, “don’t be an idiot”, warming up for her post-series jab at “peacocking manchild” Paul Hollywood). Even cooking’s Queen Mum, Mary Berry, has said she wouldn’t eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and was seen as dissing Delia in noting that Smith “hasn’t had the advantage of having children [and so their feedback] like I have”.

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Lose the plot: why you should skip to the end of books

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 12:43:52 GMT2017-04-19T12:43:52Z

Authors feel betrayed if readers jump forward in their stories – but it may actually enhance appreciation of their work

Want to upset a novelist? Tell them you always read the end of a book when you are halfway through reading.

Not only will you be marked down as a philistine, you will be condemned as someone whose disregard for the order in which they intended their book to be read makes you unfit to read it at all. That, at least, was the reaction to my unwitting confession to this habit recently.

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

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 14:00:02 GMT2017-04-17T14:00:02Z

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.

First, an intriguing post from Rex Bowan:

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Poem of the week: Budapest 1944 by Howard Altmann

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 09:00:19 GMT2017-04-17T09:00:19Z

A tribute to two survivors, this poem resgisters both the Nazis’ unspeakable war crimes in Hungary and the blighted struggle for renewal in their wake

Budapest 1944
For my father

In the unswayable darkness
a tree shivers at night.
By the sweeping light of noon
an old grip holds.
At the shaking of the spirit
a half moon touches ground.

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Durga Chew-Bose: 'I don't really believe in writing as catharsis'

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 10:19:27 GMT2017-04-13T10:19:27Z

Too Much and Not the Mood is a lyrical collection of essays considering the human heart from many angles. She explains why she writes without a plan

“The best ideas outrun me. That’s why I write,” Durga Chew-Bose muses in the opening essay of her first book, Too Much and Not the Mood. The relatively slim volume is packed with 14 evocative pieces that evidence that chase – from her childhood growing up in Montreal to her 20s in Brooklyn.

Just as Joan Didion homes in on small physical details, Chew-Bose loves painstakingly specific descriptions. In the sprawling, 90-page essay Heart Museum – named after an emoji – colours are “shell-pink” and a “lathery shade of peach”; a glass window doesn’t shatter, it is “veined”.

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The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: No 64 – Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 04:45:02 GMT2017-04-24T04:45:02Z

This account of one man’s rejection of American society has influenced generations of free thinkers

On Independence Day 1845, an idealistic young American (Thoreau was just 28) turned his back on what he saw as his country’s depressing materialism, its commercial and industrial soullessness and took himself off to a life of solitude in a country cabin near Walden Pond, just outside Concord, Massachusetts. In his famous account of this experiment, Thoreau later wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

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Hanif Kureishi: ‘Britain’s middle class is more racist now than ever’

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 08:00:13 GMT2017-04-21T08:00:13Z

The My Beautiful Laundrette writer on Brexit Britain, collaborating with his sons and seeing his seventh novel as a B movie

The afternoon I meet Hanif Kureishi seems fittingly ominous, with dark skies and swirling wind a reflection of the political weather. Over in Westminster, Theresa May is busy triggering Article 50, and fulfilling the will of the British people (little did we know, of course, what further turbulence was to come, with the election called this week). Meanwhile, Kureishi and I set up shop in a jolly brasserie in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, with polished wood and a chequerboard floor; he sips a glass of red, I chug an espresso and, despite the day, there is something cheerfully European about the whole scene.

There’s also something about Kureishi that chimes with the mood of the times: laconic and deadpan in manner, he alternates between intense seriousness and comical flippancy; there’s a sort of throwaway, geezer donnishness to him. Here we are, he points out with relish, “the hated metropolitan elite”, as if it is chiefly a matter of naughtiness, of occupying the countercultural margins. But at the close of our conversation, when I ask him if there’s anything he would like to expand on, he becomes focused and exact: race, he says, is the thing he thinks and worries about the most. He refers to the Britain of his youth and early adulthood (he is now 62), which he memorably charted in early work such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and The Buddha of Suburbia; the waning of the racism of early multiculturalism and of the emergence of London, “a new idea”.

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Translating Agatha Christie into Icelandic: 'One clue took 10 years'

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 12:00:01 GMT2017-04-04T12:00:01Z

The author explains how rendering the great English thriller writer into his own language taught him how to write fiction himself

I was 17 when I started working on my first Icelandic translation of an Agatha Christie novel. I had been reading her books for years and had already translated a few of her short stories for Icelandic magazines, but I was astonished when her publishers offered me the opportunity to translate a whole novel. I was even more delighted when they agreed to let me start with Endless Night (little did they know that my suggestion was because it contained far fewer pages than any other Christie novel I had come across).

I would never have guessed that 15 years later I would be writing myself, and have 14 translated Christie novels to my name. Through college, law school, and even when I had started full-time work as a lawyer, I never stopped translating her. Each new title was another chance to immerse myself in her writing and to learn from her as much as I could. And translating her gave me the confidence to write a novel of my own. Christie was not just an inspiration for my writing, but a support.

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The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer by Dr Bertil Marklund – digested read

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 16:00:17 GMT2017-04-23T16:00:17Z

‘Use the Swedish concept of lagom and you will live 10 years longer – if you don’t die first’

Here in Sweden we’re getting a bit fed up with our neighbours. For the last few years, it’s been Danish hygge this and hygge that, or Norwegian “back to the land culture” and, “Sorry we are so much richer than you because we’ve got huge oil reserves.” So my publishers and I thought we should try to put Sweden back on the map – and earn ourselves a few krona into the bargain.

Related: Fancy a beer outside? There's a Scandi word for that – and so much else

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Dava Sobel: ‘If you enjoy detective mysteries, you would love rummaging through archives’

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 09:00:09 GMT2017-04-22T09:00:09Z

The author on the researching the lives of pioneer female astronomers who worked at Harvard Observatory

Many of my writing days are research days. While working on The Glass Universe, such days typically began early enough to catch the 7am bus from Northampton, Massachusetts, where I was living while teaching at Smith College, to Boston’s South station – a trip of two to three hours. Then I took the T Red line a few stops to Harvard Square in Cambridge, walked to the Pusey Library, and down to the basement headquarters of the Harvard University archives. The enchanted reading room, where visiting scholars gain access to the vast holdings of historical materials, opens at 11am, and stays open for only five hours a day, five days a week. To make every available moment count, I ate a series of snacks en route so I wouldn’t need to break for lunch. (Food and drink are anathema in the reading room, ditto mints and gum.) On good days, I did not even break to go to the ladies’.

Archival research strikes some people as boring or burdensome. You occasionally hear writers bemoaning the time they spent “toiling in dusty archives”. But in truth, it’s great fun. If you enjoy crosswords or detective mysteries, you would thrive on rummaging through archives. One never knows what treasures will emerge from the numbered containers that the archivists deliver to one’s table. For example, although I had a good idea of what I’d find inside the two boxes labelled “HUGFP 125.2 Annie Jump Cannon Diaries,” I was stunned to discover a tattered trove of small volumes – some gilt-edged and leather-bound with lock and key, others plain as pocket memo pads – bearing the handwritten reminiscences from a 45-year career at the Harvard Observatory. The original correspondence files proved just as engrossing as the diaries. The philanthropist Catherine Wolfe Bruce, though she lived in a New York City mansion and made charitable contributions for amounts such as $50,000, showed an endearing frugality in her use of the blue notepaper monogrammed with her deceased brother’s initials.

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Primo Levi’s If This is a Man at 70

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 09:59:11 GMT2017-04-22T09:59:11Z

Ahead of a public reading, Philippe Sands explores the lessons of Levi’s humanity-filled holocaust memoir

I was 19 when I first read If This Is a Man, and the book filled a gap created by the shadows cast across an otherwise happy childhood home by Auschwitz and Treblinka: my maternal grandparents, rare survivors of the horrors, never talked about their experiences or those who were disappeared, and in this way Levi’s account spoke directly, and personally, offering a fuller sense of matters for which words were not permitted. His has not been the only such book – there are others, including more recent works such as Thomas Buergenthal’s A Lucky Child, Göran Rosenberg’s A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, and Marceline Loridan-Ivans’s But You Did Not Come Back – but it was the first. He was a messenger of detail, allowing me to see and feel matters of dread and horror: waiting for a deportation order; travelling in a cattle cart by train; descending a ramp for selection; imagining what it must be like to know you are about to be gassed and cremated; struggling for survival surrounded by people you love and hate.

Levi’s voice was especially affecting, so clear, firm and gentle, yet humane and apparently untouched by anger, bitterness or self-pity. If This Is a Man is miraculous, finding the human in every individual who traverses its pages, whether a Häftling (prisoner) or Muselmann (“the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection”), a kapo or a guard.

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The Shortest History of Germany review – probing an enigma at the heart of Europe

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 08:00:06 GMT2017-04-24T08:00:06Z

James Hawes’s brief yet rewarding history of Germany examines its place in a continent in the throes of upheaval

In AD843, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire like mafia bosses parcelling out territory. Louis received the land we were to later call Germany. A large part of it had been in the Roman empire, lying behind the Limes Germanicus, the great wall the Romans built to keep out the barbarians to the east. Cologne, Stuttgart, Vienna, Bonn, Mainz and Frankfurt, all the greatest cities of the future West Germany and Austria, with the exception of Hamburg, grew up within or in the immediate shadow of Rome’s western empire.

Louis knew where his kingdom began – Germany began at the Rhine, of course. He knew, too, that at its heart were territories that were now Catholic lands and had once been part of the Roman empire. But where did Germany end? He wasn’t sure, nor was anyone else. The Treaty of Verdun, which managed the partition, simply assigned Louis “everything beyond the Rhine”. It left open the question of where “everything” stopped. Did Germany end at the Elbe, where Charlemagne’s rule had stopped, or could it go on into the Slav lands to the east, whose rulers had paid tribute to Charlemagne?

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East London review – a journey through a smartphone lens

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 06:30:04 GMT2017-04-24T06:30:04Z

Charles Saumarez Smith’s ‘connoisseur’s’ tour of the East End is enjoyable but unashamedly whimsical

Who will admit to being a gentrifier? Who will confess to being part of that rent-inflating urban scourge, over which so many hands are wrung, that lays a plague of artisanal bread and absurd beards upon the land, which like the enclosures of yore sends widows and orphans and honest craftsmen weeping into exile? Who will sing that they’re glad to gentrify?

Charles Saumarez Smith, that’s who. The secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, owner of a double-fronted Georgian house in Stepney – before that a terrace house in Limehouse, bought in 1982 – lets you know in the very first sentence of his book on east London, with lack of cant, that he is not your traditional cockney diamond geezer.

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Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon review – summoning the spirits of Epping Forest

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 11:00:11 GMT2017-04-23T11:00:11Z

A cast of highwaymen, psychics and joggers populates Will Ashon’s glorious foray into the London woodland

Ten years ago, you couldn’t walk 10 paces in Hackney or Peckham without bumping into a flâneur botanising the tarmac, but as London continues to gentrify even the psychogeographers are being moved out. Many London writers now seem more interested in the edge of things than the centre.

One such is Will Ashon and his first work of nonfiction, Strange Labyrinth, is an anarchic hymn to the scruffy edgeland of Epping Forest, the ancient wood that sits on the boundary between London and Essex. The forest was “saved for the nation” by the Corporation of London in 1878, “in effect making it the UK’s first national park”, but what was once a cockney paradise is now attractive mainly to dog walkers, joggers, doggers and cruisers.

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Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently by Beau Lotto review – why we need brain control

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 11:00:12 GMT2017-04-22T11:00:12Z

A neuroscientist argues that all experience occurs in the brain – and that the brain is deluded

Beau Lotto is a gung-ho neuroscientist. “[The] great minds of history,” he says, “had theories, but now neuroscience has an answer.” The latest research has, it seems, established that everything you experience “takes place in the brain” and that “you never, ever see reality!” (Lotto loves his italics and exclamation marks.) Your brain may be beautiful, but “what makes it beautiful is that it is delusional” and you should therefore get shot of your inhibitions and summon the courage to “deviate!”

Perhaps we should back up a little. Early in the book, Lotto mentions a French scientist called Michel Chevreul who started working at the Gobelins textile factory in Paris in the 1820s. Chevreul had to deal with complaints about coloured yarns that seemed to fade after being woven into tapestries, and his patient chemical analyses did not get him anywhere. But then he shifted his attention from the science of dyestuffs to the psychology of perception, and he was on the way to a solution: colours, he discovered, change their appearance when looked at side by side.

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We Know All About You by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones review – the dangers of our surveillance society

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 08:00:08 GMT2017-04-22T08:00:08Z

A readable history of snooping in Britain and US argues that private spying organisations have done as much harm as the state

When the US government contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of the global eavesdropping operation being run by the National Security Agency, GCHQ and their partners in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many people spoke, aghast, of the way in which the 21st century appeared to have ushered in a new age of surveillance.

Yet spying on a mass scale has of course been with us for as long as governments have been skittish about foreign powers or uncertain about the loyalties of their own citizens. When Oliver Cromwell established the Post Office as a state monopoly in 1657, he did so not because he wished to improve England’s communications, but because the opening of mail was considered to be “the best means to discover and prevent any dangerous and wicked designs against the Commonwealth”.

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Irresistible by Adam Alter review – an entertaining look at technology addiction

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 14:00:17 GMT2017-04-21T14:00:17Z

This examination of today’s tech-zombie epidemic is worth putting your phone down for – at least for a while

Are you addicted to technology? I’m certainly not. In my first sitting reading Adam Alter’s Irresistible, an investigation into why we can’t stop scrolling and clicking and surfing online, I only paused to check my phone four times. Because someone might have emailed me. Or texted me. One time I stopped to download an app Alter mentioned (research) and the final time I had to check the shares on my play brokerage app, Best Brokers (let’s call this one “business”).

Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.

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Jihad and Death by Olivier Roy review – the global appeal of Islamic State

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 06:30:11 GMT2017-04-21T06:30:11Z

A bravura account asks whether recent terrorist atrocities represent the radicalisation of Islam or nihilism in search of an alibi

Are the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad responsible for modern jihadism, or does the terrorists’ ignorance of their religion show that Islam is cover for inner disquiets that make more sense to the psychologist than the imam? Last July’s lorry massacre on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was committed by an unstable libertine who had only recently discovered jihadism. What, if anything, did his actions have in common with the riots that followed the death in police custody of Adama Traoré, a young man from a Malian Muslim family, in a depressed Parisian suburb, also last summer? Do they testify to the inexorable advance of radical Islamist ideology, or the seductive power of any false cause for modernity’s losers?

Related: Who are the new jihadis? | Olivier Roy | The long read

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The Enemy Within by Sayeeda Warsi review – a thrilling and satisfying polemic

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 08:28:12 GMT2017-04-20T08:28:12Z

The first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet makes a powerful case against the government’s anti-terrorism policy

Sayeeda Warsi’s father arrived in northern England from Pakistan with less than £3 in his pocket and built a £2m-a-year bed-manufacturing business. His daughter qualified as a lawyer and became the first Muslim woman to be a member of the cabinet. Despite all this, she has been subjected to the insult of being perceived as “the enemy within”, and finds herself wondering whether the UK will still be a home for her grandchildren. It is this personal stake that gives her forthright and intelligent book its sense of urgency. By tackling the “Muslim problem” head on, Lady Warsi has added to her accomplishments the feat of speaking truth to power.

She argues that the 7/7 bombing became the basis of bad policy, extending pre-charge detention; terrorism in the name of Islam was treated differently from others forms of terrorism. By replacing multiculturalism with British values as the yardstick by which Muslims were measured, the path was set for the present state of disengagement between government and community. “In an attempt to build a more cohesive and resilient society,” she laments, “we demanded that ‘the Muslims’ join what we believed we stood for rather than jointly charting a route to what we wanted to be”.

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London’s Triumph by Stephen Alford review – merchant adventurers and Tudor boomtime

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 06:30:20 GMT2017-04-20T06:30:20Z

This fresh account of the rise of the English capital as a global metropolis never loses sight of the city’s searing inequality

Inside Samuel Pepys’ favourite church, St Olave’s on Hart Street, stand monuments to aldermen, mercers, knights of the realm and directors of the East India Company. Out in the churchyard, via a gateway studded with stone skulls – “like a jail”, wrote Dickens, who renamed the place St Ghastly Grim – are the plague victims. They lie alongside “a man blackamore”, found dead in the street in 1588, and two African maidservants of a Jewish-born Portuguese physician. Interred here, too, are the scant remains of an Inuit baby, who perished within weeks of being taken from Baffin Island, Canada, by the explorer Martin Frobisher. Here, in microcosm, is Tudor London, a city of commerce, immigration, adventure, disease, celebrity, curiosity, money, power and risk. As Stephen Alford makes clear, “London was both a triumph of riches and a triumph of poverty.” This is a book about travel, trade and the rise of London as a global metropolis, but it does not neglect the churchyard.

In 1500, London was marginal and underwhelming. Paris had more people; Antwerp had bigger markets; Augsburg in Bavaria had the bankers and Florence the art. London didn’t even have a bourse. A century later, the city was booming. Her population had quadrupled and her river teemed with ships full of caviar, tobacco and silk. She had a Royal Exchange and a global reach. In Arctic waters seamen encountered islands called Cape Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Foreland and Charing Cross, which was just south of West England. “Not an infant of the curtailed skinclipping pagans but talk of London as frequently as of their Prophet’s tomb at Mecca,” wrote the satirist Thomas Nashe in 1599. Such a statement could not even have been conjured at the beginning of the century.

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Move Fast and Break Things review – Google, Facebook and Amazon exposed

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 06:30:15 GMT2017-04-17T06:30:15Z

Jonathan Taplin reveals how just three companies subverted the internet’s utopian ideals

The internet, defined as the network switched on in January 1983, is now 34 years old. When it began, it was a gloriously decentralised, creative, non-commercial system that evoked in many of its early users utopian hopes about liberation, empowerment, creativity and sticking it to The Man. In those heady days, only a few sceptics wondered how long it would take for capitalism to get a grip on it. Now we know: it took only 21 years.

Opinions vary about the timing, of course. For my money, the critical year was 2004, the year Google had its IPO, Facebook was launched and the business model that became known as “surveillance capitalism” really got a grip on the network. This is the model that provides supposedly free services to users in return for “consent” to mine and exploit their personal data and digital trails in order to target adverts at them.

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Che, My Brother by Juan Martin Guevara review – the making of a revolutionary

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 06:30:24 GMT2017-04-16T06:30:24Z

A sibling’s affectionate account of the formative years of Che Guevara offers a compelling insight

One could argue that sufficient ink has been expended on Che Guevara. Those who fought with him, including Fidel Castro, have written memoirs, and there’s a definitive biography by the reporter who located Che’s body, Jon Lee Anderson. But, as Anderson himself says, wherever there is revolt or resistance, there is still that face: of the hero-revolutionary Bolivian nuns called “San Ernesto”. And there still exists an insatiable desire for more about the man behind the T-shirt or poster, especially when it comes from his family.

Ernesto Guevara, “El Che”, was 15 when his younger brother Juan Martin was born, about to set off on the first of his adventures, by electrically powered bicycle, then motorbike, then the boat Granma, on which he sailed from Mexico to help ignite and lead the Cuban revolution.

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A Gift from Darkness review – harrowing account of a Boko Haram kidnapping

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 09:00:07 GMT2017-04-24T09:00:07Z

Patience Ibrahim and co-writer Andrea C Hoffmann craft a vivid and valuable account of trauma and survival

This harrowing book, subtitled How I Escaped With My Daughter from Boko Haram, tells the story of newly pregnant 19-year-old Nigerian Patience, whose husband and mother were murdered by militants. One day, she is kidnapped by Boko Haram and her ordeal is recounted in unflinching detail: the beatings, rapes and torture meted out to her and fellow prisoners and how she escaped and survived with her baby daughter, Gift. The book is co-written with Andrea C Hoffmann, a journalist and expert on victim traumatisation, and switches between Hoffmann’s account of visiting Nigeria, the challenges of interviewing Patience about her painful past and vivid accounts from Patience herself. Translated by Shaun Whiteside, this is a valuable document, contributing raw experience of terror, trauma and recovery, as well as insight into the techniques of telling the most traumatic of stories.

A Gift from Darkness by Patience Ibrahim and Andrea C Hoffmann is published by Little, Brown (£13.99). To order a copy for £11.89 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists review – a passionate project

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 12:00:12 GMT2017-04-23T12:00:12Z

Donna Seaman resurrects forgotten artists and their work in inspiring fashion

In this passionate book, Seaman (daughter of artist Elayne Seaman) asks why seven American female artists – Louise Nevelson, Gertrude Abercrombie, Loïs Mailou Jones, Ree Morton, Joan Brown, Christina Ramberg, Lenore Tawney – respected and celebrated in their lifetimes, have been forgotten or nearly so. Seaman resurrects and reanimates. The women come to life here; grouchy, impish, shy, confident, introspective, scrounging and childish. Seaman also provides multiple interpretations of artworks, creating dialogues and instigating conversations that have for so long been missing and discusses how the gender of these accomplished artists led to society forgetting them. This is an inspiring and beautifully written book that will encourage the reader to research further and discover more.

Identity Unknown by Donna Seaman is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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Gone by Min Kym review – moving memoir of a former child prodigy

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 10:00:11 GMT2017-04-22T10:00:11Z

The story of the gifted virtuoso who grew up to international stardom – and then her beloved violin was stolen

In Gone, Min Kym’s memoir about her life as a violin soloist, she relates a possibly apocryphal legend about the French violinist Ginette Neveu, who was touring when her plane crashed into a mountain. She died, as did everyone else in the plane. In the wreckage, Neveu’s corpse was discovered with her beloved Stradivarius still gripped in her hand. Kym, like Neveu, was a child prodigy who grew up to be a brilliant professional musician; also like Neveu, Kym played, and loved, a Stradivarius, one of just 449 in the world. But Kym lost her Stradivarius when she was 31 years old, a loss so terrible it left her unable to play the violin.

From age six, Kym hadn’t gone a day without practising. When she started learning to play the instrument, she “felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time”. Even then, she says, “I knew I could play anything. Anything. This was not arrogance – I was a shy child, reluctant to come forward, to give voice, to take centre stage – but more simply that I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element.” Others agreed. Kym’s chronicle of childhood glitters with the wunderkind’s starry achievements: the first this, the youngest that. Concert soloist at 10 years old. Youngest pupil ever at the prestigious Purcell School. When she was 12, Kym was playing professionally in five to six concerts a year; at 13, she had her debut concerto with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. She performed with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, won prizes, played in Madrid, Seoul, Bologna and Seville.

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Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx review – on the bumpy road to Dignitas

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-04-21T09:00:14Z

The sense of an ending hangs over this humorous, compassionate novel about a fractious family taking a last road trip together

It takes chutzpah to argue with Tolstoy but, four novels into his career, Edward Docx has mustered sufficient confidence to take issue with the master. “I’m not sure Tolstoy had it right. All families, happy or sad, conceal a great deal of dark matter. Something greater than the known physics or chemistry, something that must create the dark energy that holds them together or pushes them apart.”

Docx has earned the right to his opinion: his 2007 Man Booker long-listed novel Self Help was a dark-hearted family drama partly set in St Petersburg that deliberately courted comparison with 19th-century Russian epics. In that book, a pair of half-Russian twins were summoned home to deal with the unexpected death of their mother. Let Go My Hand features a part-Russian narrator named Louis and his elder twin half-brothers, who drive across Europe to deal with the death of their father: the twist being that Dad isn’t actually dead yet, but intends to be in the very near future.

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Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore – generous and contemplative

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 11:58:19 GMT2017-04-24T11:58:19Z

Reflections on mortality – filtered by the poet’s experience of illness – run through this wide-ranging and consummate collection

Helen Dunmore is a much admired and widely read novelist, but she began her writing career as a poet. Many of the strengths of her fiction were already present in her early collections of poems – for example, the capacity to render the physical world as a tangible presence, or her dramatic grasp of how character begins to disclose itself, or the ability to let a story seem to tell itself rather than be explained. She remarked in the early 90s that she was trying “to do without scaffolding” in her poetry, and successive volumes have demonstrated the developing success of that approach.

The central subject of Inside the Wave is mortality, seen through Dunmore’s experience of cancer. She has made it known that the prognosis is poor. “Pain is yards away / Held off like bad weather”, but the beauty and fascination of the world are undiminished as the continuity of living and dying becomes apparent. There is a tree at the window, or fishermen are seen returning to shore with their catch. There is “the rock where the seaweed clings / And the red anemone throbs in its crevice / Through swash and backwash”. In “The Underworld”, Dunmore notes:

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor review – an aftermath in elegant slow motion

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:00:07 GMT2017-04-23T08:00:07Z

In the author’s first novel for seven years, formal experimentation gives way to a delicate, subtle study of the effects of a disappearance on a village’s inhabitants

Jon McGregor has been quietly building a reputation as one of the outstanding writers of his generation since 2002, when he became the youngest writer to be longlisted for the Booker prize with his debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, published when he was 26. Reservoir 13 is only his fourth novel, but it confirms his gift as a poet of ordinary lives and his skill in taking risks with form and style.

After the experimental narrative of 2010’s Even the Dogs, a story of drug and alcohol addiction told in fragmented bursts by a series of urban ghosts, Reservoir 13 may seem, at first glance, a more conventional and pastoral novel. This could come as a relief to those who felt the stylistic devices were too much to the fore in its predecessor. But Reservoir 13 offers its own subtler experimentation; a short way into the book, it becomes clear that McGregor has succeeded in pulling off one of the most difficult tricks in fiction – a true ensemble piece of storytelling.

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Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout review – masterful chronicler of small-town America

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 06:30:06 GMT2017-04-23T06:30:06Z

With her gentle gift for unmasking human vulnerability, Elizabeth Strout has a touch of John Steinbeck and Anne Tyler

For years, I didn’t read Elizabeth Strout. If I’m honest, I was put off by the titles, which seemed to be snatched from the noticeboard of a particularly cultivated old people’s home: Amy and Isabelle was her first novel, published in 1998, and this was followed by Abide With Me in 2006, Olive Kitteridge two years later and The Burgess Boys in 2013.

I watched the HBO miniseries adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, starring Frances McDormand, and I sort of loved it but wasn’t sure it was worth four whole hours. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that it took me longer than it should have to discover Strout’s writing. It was only with the publication of My Name Is Lucy Barton last year that I eventually started reading her.

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The President’s Gardens review by Muhsin al-Ramli – love, death and injustice in Iraq

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 06:30:06 GMT2017-04-22T06:30:06Z

An affirmation of the importance of friendship amid oppression, this vivid epic of life in a war zone is woven from the true stories of those who live there

Since 1980, the people of Iraq have suffered almost ceaseless war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions and conflict-related illness. The President’s Gardens, published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren, at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi perspective.

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This novel belongs to Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose life is narrated in the most detail and the discovery of whose head in a banana crate opens and closes the novel in 2006. Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq “the Befuddled” and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, are also essential to the story.

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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle review – welcome to the great nowhere

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 14:00:29 GMT2017-04-20T14:00:29Z

Grief haunts an eerie puzzle box of a story in the second novel from the Mountain Goats frontman, set in the long-gone era of VHS tapes and dial-upWe live in an age when much of the fiction we consume is purpose built to not add up. In novels such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla sequence, TV shows such as The OA, Westworld and True Detective, and an increasing number of Hollywood film franchises, we encounter self-consciously labyrinthine and reflexive meta-narratives that end, when they can be said to end at all, in irresolution, deferral and ellipsis. JJ Abrams, the producer and co-creator of Lost who has helped to mainstream the idea of narrative as an endlessly open puzzle-box of allusions and intimations that simultaneously invites and resists exegesis, calls this style “the mystery box”. Part of the allure of such narratives is the participatory element: facilitated by social media and online fan forums, every reader and viewer who so desires has the chance to posit themselves as critic, theorist, prophet and de facto co-writer. When stories don’t add up, the speculation can go on for ever.John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester, very much fits the contemporary puzzle-box aesthetic. In other respects, it is strikingly and enchantingly out of time. It is set in the late 1990s, in those final few years before civilisation went permanently online. References abound to clunky, unintegrated tech – VHS tapes, basic “burner” cellphones and the laboured gurgle of dial-up home internet – and serve to remind us how quaint the pre-2000s now seem. We are in the town of Nevada, Iowa; the main character is Jeremy Heldt, an unprepossessing video store clerk in his early 20s and an  inveterate homebody. Jeremy seems like something of a slacker, but what looks like passivity is only the ceaseless forestalling of unprocessed grief. Jeremy lost his mother in a car crash as a teenager, and since then, he and his father Steve have remained in a kind of permanent holding pattern. Darnielle de[...]

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The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks review – a dark, enchanted debut

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 11:00:25 GMT2017-04-20T11:00:25Z

Set in the aftermath of the first world war, this is a twisted fairytale populated by wounded servicemen, establishment radicals and a ‘discount Aleister Crowley’It’s 1923. Lucy Marsh and her friend Winifred, mid-teenagers from an enclave of dying pubs and dead industries in north-east London, find themselves effectively sold into prostitution by their families. Once a week in Epping Forest they meet with and service four bizarrely wounded ex‑servicemen who have given arms, legs, hands and faces for their country in the recent world war. Lucy isn’t sure if they’re named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or if the characters in the story were named after them. The “funny men” seem as decent as they are damaged, puzzled to the point of inarticulacy by the things that have happened to them. But though they’re shy they know what they’ve lost – homes, wives, children, physical comfort, any sense of themselves as welcome in the society that sent them to fight – and they know what they want, at least from Lucy and Winifred.Xan Brooks’ first novel quickly normalises both the bizarreness and the unspoken brutality of the situation. Much of this depends on Lucy’s adaptability: throughout, she treats her clients – and indeed everyone she meets – with a kind of bemused generosity. The reader is less tempted. The funny men subsist on the charity of “the Pink Earl”, an establishment radical, and his vile son Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, whose 5,000-acre estate “rolls out on either side of the river Lea”. Their holdings include “a sugar estate in Jamaica, 12 London townhouses and an ongoing stake in the British South Africa Company”. Despite this, both conceive of themselves somehow as socialists; in addition the son presents himself as an experimentalist of human beings, a force for modernity and change. He surrounds himself with a permanent carnival of jazz musicians, confused interwar intellectuals, a “discount Aleister Crowley” who has somehow failed to monetise the ability to conjure genuine flames from his fingertips, and a female north African camel cal[...]

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An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. by Jack Robinson review – Stendhal reincarnated

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 08:30:16 GMT2017-04-19T08:30:16Z

A playful novel imagining the French novelist in contemporary life – every sentence is a delight

About a third of the way through this novel we read the following, a scene set in a hotel restaurant. The narrator has pulled up a chair to join two characters, a man named Beyle and a woman named M.:

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The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan review – an epic journey into the deep south

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 06:30:13 GMT2017-04-19T06:30:13Z

This multigenerational saga, shortlisted for the Pulitzer and now the Baileys prize, explores Darwinism, horse racing and the legacies of slavery

This novel is about horse racing the way Moby-Dick is about a whale; it has a similarly expansive scope, spiritual seriousness and density of grand themes. Shortlisted for the Pulitzer and now the Baileys prize, Morgan’s epic work builds to a climactic series of dramatic race scenes featuring a star filly named Hellsmouth. Along the way, Morgan wrestles with subjects including the history of Kentucky, slavery and its legacies, the iniquities of American healthcare, Darwinism, geology and relations between the sexes. In the maximalist stakes, Morgan’s novel is a muscular, confident entry.

For the first 200 pages, the book appears to be a conventional multigenerational saga set in the American south. The Forge family are corn famers: in the opening section, hot-headed young Henry Forge, classically tutored and prone to trading arguments in Greek or Latin with his tyrannical father, develops a rebellious ambition to transform their farm one day into a thoroughbred breeding business. “I won’t have you throw everything away for a heap of rhinestones,” rages Henry’s father, when his son blurts out his dream. “There is no need for improvement, Henry, only adherence to a line that has never altered, because it’s never proven unsound.” The story that unfolds will reveal the faults in that Forge line, and an unsoundness at its very heart.

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He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly review – creepy, tangled and disturbing

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 06:30:21 GMT2017-04-18T06:30:21Z

Kelly’s latest thriller, about a couple who witness a horrific act, will keep you guessing until the end

“It’s going to be a classic he said/she said, textbook case decision by jury,” says a reporter in Erin Kelly’s new thriller. “Half the female jurors are already in love with him... It always sounds convincing until the defence cross-examine the victim and they shredded her.”

Kelly’s He Said/She Said hinges on the alleged rape of Beth Taylor, but the incident is described largely from the perspectives of Laura and Kit, a young couple who have travelled to Lizard Point in Cornwall to watch the 1999 total eclipse of the sun. Eclipses are Kit’s passion, and this is the first he is sharing with Laura. But the experience pales beside what they encounter next: rounding a corner, Laura stumbles upon a couple having sex, the woman’s face contorted, desperate with fear. They call the police and end up testifying as witnesses in court, a decision that, 16 years later, results in them living in fear, hiding their identities.

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor review – a chilling meditation on loss and time

Sat, 15 Apr 2017 06:30:18 GMT2017-04-15T06:30:18Z

The rural village, the missing girl, the search for a body … then life goes on, as an archetypal story is rekindled with explosive results

Why is it always a girl who’s missing? What is it in that archetype that tugs at us in some deep place – readers and viewers, male and female alike – when yet again the quest begins with news of someone’s daughter who hasn’t come home, or a glimpse of a girl in some place that’s much too lonely, glancing back nervously over her shoulder? We can’t imagine being hooked so easily if the paperback thriller or crime drama began with a missing boy, and the idea of his disappearance wouldn’t transform with the same inevitability into the idea of the boy’s death, the image of it.

In Jon McGregor’s new novel the missing girl’s name is Rebecca Shaw and she is 13 years old. Rebecca’s family are on holiday in a village in the Peak District, staying in a barn conversion; they have come for the New Year. “When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body warmer, black jeans and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall, with straight, dark-blond, shoulder-length hair.” The smallness seems part of the drama, too, doesn’t it? Big girls don’t go missing half as often. And the white hooded top, perhaps even the blondness: if this was a film or TV show, that whiteness would be a flash of light between the trees, a brief half-glimpse of something pure and unspoiled, which – the viewer’s already agonised, ahead of the plot – must be brought down and dirtied, crossed with darkness.

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Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou review – a picaresque tour-de-force

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 14:00:00 GMT2017-04-14T14:00:00Z

A Congolese orphan struggles to escape desperate circumstances in a novel whose ebullient humour has an undertow of griefAlain Mabanckou, a writer of ferocious wit and fearless inventiveness, has won acclaim for novels such as Broken Glass, African Psycho and Black Bazaar, which span the Congo-Brazzaville of his birth and the black communities of Paris, where he moved in 1989. In 2012, he won the Académie Française’s grand prix for a lifetime’s achievement. That same year, this UCLA professor returned to his home town of Pointe-Noire, on the Republic of Congo’s equatorial coast, after an absence of 23 years. The memoir The Lights of Pointe-Noire was one fruit of that bittersweet return. His latest novel, Petit Piment, which was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, is another. Its English translation as Black Moses, by Helen Stevenson, is justly longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International prize.The novel is dedicated to all those “wanderers of the Côte Sauvage” – Pointe-Noire’s urban beach – who told the author “pieces of their life story” during his stay in the port city. Its ebullient humour recalls Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, Mabanckou’s fictionalised autobiography of growing up in the 1970s under a Marxist-Leninist regime. Yet unlike in that buoyantly mischievous child’s-eye satire, the laughter here has an undertow of grief, outrage and survivor’s guilt. Continue reading...[...]

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See What I Have Done review – Lizzie Borden case reimagined in grisly detail

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 21:15:06 GMT2017-04-26T21:15:06Z

Australian author Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel is a vivid, claustrophobic retelling of the infamous 19th-century axe murders

Lizzie Borden may have been acquitted for the 1892 murder of her father and stepmother but popular consciousness still brands her as guilty. Borden has been immortalised not only in nursery rhyme – “Lizzie Borden took an axe / Gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one” – but in a ballet, an opera, a podcast, a television miniseries starring Christina Ricci, and a host of other cultural products. Even the house in Fall River, Massachusetts, in which the family lived and where the gruesome murders occurred, is now a bed-and-breakfast museum – yes, people actually spend money to sleep over at the scene of the crime.

The Australian author Sarah Schmidt is one of them. The writer spent more than a decade obsessed with Lizzie, after the latter started appearing in her dreams. Unable to shake either the dreams or the subsequent fascination with this might-have-been murder, Schmidt began to write what would eventually become her debut novel.

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All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg review – a New York heroine you can relate to

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 08:59:44 GMT2017-04-25T08:59:44Z

A wickedly funny and honest portrayal of love, ambition, sex – and the city

Jami Attenberg’s fifth novel is her best yet. It’s a super-smart, often extremely funny, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of a 39-year-old, single, child-free heroine in New York City who’s taking her very best shot at living life on her own terms.

Andrea is far from perfect and far from living the dream, whatever that is – as this novel cleverly demonstrates, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side – but she’s all the more understandable because of it, and, thanks to her dislike of cocktails with “fruit wedges”, all the more likable too. Attenberg’s episodic approach – chapters flit between subjects, from friendship, family, sex and ambition, the chronological narrative winding through them, sometimes to the fore, sometimes in the background – may give the impression of something insubstantial, but the end result is actually the opposite. As angry, sad and raw as it is astute, hilarious and hopeful, All Grown Up puts other novels in this vein to shame.

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The Bagpiping People by Douglas Dunn review – stories of amiable Scots melancholy

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 15:00:18 GMT2017-04-21T15:00:18Z

This collection of short stories by the poet tells of ruffled lives and people leaving their disapproving villages for Glasgow and beyond

The poet Douglas Dunn also writes wonderful short stories, some of which are collected together here. The “bagpiping people” of the title story are a Scottish Traveller and his family who make money from playing the pipes to a captive audience waiting for the ferry across the Clyde, but of course the name also refers, a little ironically, to the Scots who are the subject of all the stories. Dunn writes beautifully about the self-awareness of the Scots, having to perform their ethnicity for tourists. In “The Canoes” a group of friends act out the expected “courtesy, our soft-spoken and excellent good manners and clear speech” for a young couple, in the hope of funding an evening in the pub. These are quiet stories of “amiably melancholic” men and women who push against expectations of conformity in their disapproving village communities, finding more exciting relationships in Glasgow and beyond. A recurring motif is the neglected garden that signifies “a demoralised resident within”. These tales of disturbed or merely ruffled lives consistently engage and entertain the reader.

The Bagpiping People: Selected Short Stories is published by Turnpike.

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The Walworth Beauty by Michèle Roberts review – London across the centuries

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 11:00:13 GMT2017-04-21T11:00:13Z

This sensuous ghost story flits between Victorian prostitutes and a modern-day flâneuse

Part time-slip novel, part ghost story, Michèle Roberts’ latest book flits butterfly-like between 1851 and 2011 to link a man and woman with very different attitudes but perhaps twin souls. Madeleine has been unwillingly retired from her university job teaching literature. A self-confessed flâneuse living in a poky Thames-side flat in the heart of the City, she moves to south London on a whim, settling into a basement in a quiet backwater, Apricot Street. Not far away is the ancient Cross Bones cemetery where “Southwark geese” – prostitutes – are reputedly buried. A critical reader of Victorian social scientist Henry Mayhew, Madeleine is fascinated by the area’s dingy past.

With any dual narrative, there’s always the risk that one story will prove more compelling than the other. The one about Madeleine, who, like Roberts, is half-French, initially seems the more intriguing: a sixtysomething single woman navigating the 21st-century city with great pluck. With a gay best friend and a taste for red wine, she’s gallant, curious, adventurous and frequently lonely. Joseph Benson, the man who frequents Apricot Street a century and a half earlier, seems that archetypal Victorian creep, the do-gooder whose mission to improve the lot of fallen woman is compromised by his own prurience and hypocrisy.

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My Very Own Space by Pippa Goodhart review – a fun bunny tale

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 09:00:44 GMT2017-04-25T09:00:44Z

This action-packed story of a rabbit craving his own space will resonate with children wanting a bit of hush

There’s a telling dedication at the beginning of this new book from Pippa Goodhart, the British author best known for her Winnie the Witch series. “For my own little sister, Jo Eddleston”, it reads, “with whom I used to share a bedroom, with lots of love”. It sweetly encapsulates the spirit of this tale about personal space, featuring little rabbit Jack, who gets cross because he wants some peace, but soon craves the companionship of others.

It’s a story light on words yet bustling with action. From the perky rabbits squished like sardines on to the front cover, to the whirligig opening spread of singing, sneezing, strutting bunnies, you can see why Jack’s in pursuit of a quiet corner. “SHUSH!” he cries in the first line, “I want to look at my book!”

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Picture books for children reviews – penguins, pythons and presidents

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 07:00:24 GMT2017-04-16T07:00:24Z

This year’s Easter treats swap chocolate eggs for philosophy, and fluffy chicks for JFK, but are no less touching or hilarious for itThis Easter, publishers seem to be overlooking fluffy chicks and chocolate eggs in favour of other celebratory wild​life​. But when I took a look at of Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis (Walker £11.99) I wondered at first why anyone would bother to send me a picture book in a foreign language. Then I took a second look. This story is written in “bug language”, an idea that borders on lunacy but is in practice a joy and a quirky triumph. It is enormous fun reading this book aloud and trying to decipher exchanges between talkative insects. The illustrations are as clear as the language is alien. We witness the exuberant construction of a tree – or plant – house that, after a while, sprouts a gladdenboot. A what? A flower, silly. It is a refreshing change from the worthily educational: only the most duty-bound parent could be bugged by this (for ages four and up).Every dog you could imagine is contained within the covetable, cloth-bound pocket book Dogs by Emily Gravett (Two Hoots £7.99). It is a book of contrasts that depends for its success on the wonderful skill and humour of the drawings. These are not fantasy dogs – they are based on shrewd, exact and affectionate observation. When she writes: “I love stroppy dogs… and soppy dogs”, she has a huge frowning boxer and a little fluffy cur with a pink ribbon round its neck. Her barking dog is a tiny tearaway and her non-barking dog looks cowardly and so on – exactly as such dogs do. Even her sleeping dogs you would not want to let lie. A disarming pleasure to read (ages two and up). Continue reading...[...]

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas review – racism and police brutality

Sat, 08 Apr 2017 08:30:34 GMT2017-04-08T08:30:34Z

An outstanding debut stages the debates convulsing America in the story of a teenager who testifies after a shooting

“Girls wear their hair coloured, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail. Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms ...” Then gunshots shatter the music. Fleeing from the party, 16-year-old Starr is led to apparent safety by her friend Khalil. Shortly after, their car is pulled over by a police officer. What happens next crystallises the Black Lives Matter movement and indeed, the whole debate about race in America. The unarmed Khalil is murdered – shot at point blank range by the man Starr refers to from this moment on as “Officer One-Fifteen”. Starr is the only witness to the crime and her 16-year-old shoulders have to bear the ferocious outrage of her race and community.

There's a chilling scene where Starr witnesses a police officer force her father to lie on the ground as he searches him

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Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls review – a real inspiration

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 07:59:46 GMT2017-04-04T07:59:46Z

From activists and lawyers to pirates and inventors, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo present young readers with a lifetime’s supply of brilliant female role models

Children’s nonfiction books about women’s lives are a long overdue trend, and this empowering, resolutely “anti-princess” storybook is a very welcome addition. Initially funded by a $1m Kickstarter campaign, the authors wrote it in response to the gender stereotyping they found across children’s books and media.

One hundred extraordinary women are profiled in mini biographies alongside striking full-page portraits by female artists. Countries from across the globe are represented, with around a third of the women from the US. Elizabeth I, Ada Lovelace and Jane Austen lead the British entries, which do feel a little predictable – my daughter fruitlessly scanned through for JK Rowling; the most recent entry is Margaret Thatcher – but this is a minor gripe.

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The literary tomboy is dead – or is she?

Mon, 03 Apr 2017 09:13:48 GMT2017-04-03T09:13:48Z

From Shakespeare to Enid Blyton, fiction about girls who defy ‘feminine’ stereotypes has itself been pretty stereotypical. But that may be changing

“I shall only answer if you call me George. I hate being a girl. I won’t be. I don’t like doing the things that girls do. I like doing the things that boys do.”

These lines in Five on Treasure Island introduce George Kirrin, one of the most famous tomboys in fiction. Enid Blyton’s novel, opening the bestselling Famous Five series, was published in 1942, when expectations of how women should behave were clear-cut and constricting. With her short hair, love of sailing and climbing and insistence on being addressed as “Master George”, she was the opposite of her doll-loving cousin, Anne – whose brother’s description of her as “a very good little housekeeper” in Five Go Off in a Caravan is a source of personal pride.

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Waterstones children's book prize goes to 'mesmerising' debut adventure story

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 19:00:34 GMT2017-03-30T19:00:34Z

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars praised for ‘good, old-fashioned storytelling’ that recalls Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

A novel inspired by childhood travels to the volcanic island of La Gomera and the traditional stories of the Canary islands has scooped the Waterstones children’s book prize for a 27-year-old poet and playwright.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut The Girl of Ink and Stars was named overall winner of the prestigious award by children’s laureate Chris Riddell at a ceremony in the bookselling chain’s flagship store in London’s Piccadilly.

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Scarlett Thomas: Why I was wrong about children’s fiction

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 11:00:31 GMT2017-03-24T11:00:31Z

Once, I banned my students from writing them. Now I see the magic and joy in children’s stories

It was a mild early summer’s day, with buttercups everywhere. I was map reading and my partner was driving. We were somewhere in West Sussex, on a country road because I couldn’t cope with the harsh rush of the motorway. I’d recently been ill, and felt strongly that I never wanted to re-enter the normal world, with its clattering trucks, fluorescent litter, hashtags and memes. For the last few weeks I had only been able to read PG Wodehouse and Dodie Smith. So I felt happy in the simple nostalgic calm of the English countryside, with hamlets called things like Old Wives Lees and roads called Frog Hole Lane.

And suddenly, just off the A272, was a place called Dragon’s Green.

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Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault review – the ‘Bloomsberry’ girls

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 09:00:01 GMT2017-03-21T09:00:01Z

This clever picture book imagines the secret world of the young Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa. And doesn’t shy away from tackling depression

The novelist Virginia Woolf once described the bond she shared with her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, as a “close conspiracy”. When she took her own life in 1941 she left two suicide notes behind: one for her husband and one for her beloved Vanessa.

Now with beautiful splashes of colour and witty, uplifting text, the Canadian duo Kyo Maclear and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault imagine the secret childhood world the sisters created, while delicately exploring the theme of depression, in this exceptional picture book for ages 4+, finally published in Britain after its acclaimed release in Canada in 2012.

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Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel review – heat, dust and dinosaur bones

Sat, 11 Mar 2017 09:30:30 GMT2017-03-11T09:30:30Z

Two paleontologists chase the elusive ‘rex’ as their children fall in love in a fast-paced, warts-and-all western

This breakneck palaeontological western is perhaps best not judged by its cover. A jigsaw dinosaur skeleton seems to welcome younger readers, despite the tagline’s warning that “Love lies buried”; this makes the appearance of sexual attraction (“I felt myself stiffening between my legs”)on page nine slightly disconcerting. But for a reader mature enough to handle the pungent, realistic detail of 19th-century life, it’s a fascinating, fast-paced, rich and provocative novel.

Appropriately, its author specialises in adventure that takes place on boundaries and frontiers. Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing trilogy, with its cast of migrating bats, has been compared to Watership Down, selling over a million copies worldwide. In steampunk vein, he has written about thousand-car trains crossing Canada in The Boundless, and 900-ft airships crossing the Pacific in Airborn. Now he has turned his hand to the secrets of prehistory.

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Gina Pollinger obituary

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 15:27:32 GMT2017-04-26T15:27:32Z

Leading literary agent who guided Nobel- and Booker-winning novelists, and paired Roald Dahl with Quentin Blake

In 1961, in a lift in Rockefeller Center in New York, a British editor working for Simon & Schuster met a young literary agent. The editor was Gina Conquy; the literary agent was Murray Pollinger, visiting the city on a business trip. This meeting was to have consequences far beyond the personal: from it there resulted not only a long-lasting marriage, but also the forging of a literary agency that discovered and nurtured some of the most successful British writers of the second half of the 20th century.

The profession of literary agent was still a relatively new one at the time of that meeting. Murray had been born into it: his father, Laurence Pollinger, had been the agent of, among others, DH Lawrence, Graham Greene and John Masters, the novelist who wrote about the British in India. Murray worked with the family firm until he set up on his own, running the business from a tiny office in Garrick Street, London. Gina, who has died aged 81, could not have been bettered as a choice of spouse: she had extensive editorial experience and was prepared to take the long view. She also had the necessary warmth and tenacity to guide the neophyte author into the sunny uplands of publication.

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Topsy-turvy: how Mr Men got mashed up with Doctor Who

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 15:10:58 GMT2017-04-25T15:10:58Z

Adam Hargreaves, son of Mr Men creator Roger, discusses the latest expansion of the cartoon universe – into the realm of the Timelord

Adam Hargreaves remembers exactly when his Dad, Roger, first created the Mr Men. Then seven years old, the curious young boy asked the kind of question young boys often ask: “Daddy, what does a tickle look like?” So Roger started sketching, perhaps not realising that he was founding a globe-spanning, £28m empire that would be going strong decades later. That first book, Mr Tickle, was published in 1971. “I think he started to realise he was on to something,” chuckles Hargreaves Jr.

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Hot guys wanted: Chris Evans, Tom Hardy … who's next for CBeebies Bedtime Stories?

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 14:25:58 GMT2017-04-24T14:25:58Z

As the BBC’s parental-respite service continues its fine tradition of giving mums something pretty to look at, we ask who can follow Captain AmericaChris Evans is going to read a CBeebies Bedtime Story soon. Actual Captain America, from all three thousand Captain America films, will sit down and lull the nation’s toddlers to sleep with a sonorous reading of Even Superheroes Have Bad Days by Shelly Becker and Eda Kaban on 10 May.Admittedly this is probably more interesting to parents than toddlers. My two-year-old, largely speaking, doesn’t care about the box office grosses of the people reading stories to him. He’s over the moon if they happen to be softly spoken and sincere like Nadiya Hussain from the Great British Bake Off, and actively less over the moon when, say, David Hasselhoff ends up bellowing a broken assembly line of words that sound as if they’ve been phonetically translated from Esperanto on cue cards held slightly too far away to be comfortably read. Continue reading...[...]

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Novel recipes: Potted beef from The Wind in the Willows

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 13:36:00 GMT2017-04-20T13:36:00Z

Warm weather means picnics, so Kate Young recreates a recipe enjoyed by Ratty and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s tale

  • Scroll down to read the recipe

‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater——’

‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

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Jane Eccles obituary

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 15:27:59 GMT2017-04-18T15:27:59Z

My wife Jane Eccles, who has died of cancer aged 58, was an artist who worked widely in the world of illustration, from magazine editorial work and advertising to books for many publishers.

She wrote and illustrated Maxwell Monster, in 1991, and increasingly specialised in illustrating books for children. Jane forged a fruitful relationship with the publisher Macmillan, for whom she filled the pages of children’s poetry and joke books with her warm and witty drawings.

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Jackie French: 'To be a woman in power now, you need to be better than men'

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 03:16:12 GMT2017-04-18T03:16:12Z

The prolific Australian author talks about her new novel, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and writing women into history

Australian author Jackie French stopped counting how many books she’d written after she reached 100 – and that was 13 years ago. Her latest novel, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies (released concurrently with Millie Loves Ants, her latest children’s book), is first in a series that examine women’s changing roles in the 20th century.

Beginning in 1902, the novel follows Sophie Higgs, an Australian heiress of a corned beef factory, who attends a London finishing school for young women. The mysterious Miss Lily believes that a woman’s power lies in her ability to influence men. Under her tutelage, Sophie begins an extraordinary adventure across the Western front, and into the drawing rooms of powerful men.

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Teenage fiction reviews – the rocky road to self-knowledge

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 09:00:27 GMT2017-04-16T09:00:27Z

Racism and homophobia, death and dementia, amnesia and ancient history – all dilemmas for young heroes

Themes emerging from this selection include seizing the day, making history and developing survival strategies.

Starr, the inspirational narrator of Angie Thomas’s passionate and uncompromising The Hate U Give (Walker £7.99) has two identities as a young black woman, one of which fits more easily into life at her almost entirely white private school. Having witnessed the death of her two best friends makes Starr older than her years, and her regular teenage path of dating, basketball, studying and sleepovers is dotted with landmine-like dilemmas. Should she speak out about the latest shooting by a police officer? Should her family move to the suburbs? Can they stay true to their community and escape the worst effects of gang culture? Can her white boyfriend ever really understand her life? Starr and her many readers will keep asking the big questions.

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Fiction for 8- to 12-year-olds reviews – cyborgs, sisters and a girl called Owl

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 08:00:26 GMT2017-04-16T08:00:26Z

Film directors Sylvain Chomet and Bobbie Peers give a fantastic spin to the challenges of the tweenage years, alongside vlogging cats and talking fish

Picture books for key stage 2 readers require a balance of graphics and grist – too cute and you’ll insult their sense of maturity. Dancing across the divide from picture- to text-led is Abby Hanlon’s anarchic Dory Fantasmagory (Faber £6.99), for the very youngest in this range.

Poor Dory: nobody wants to play with a kid sister whose imagination is matched by her pestiferousness. Hanlon’s cartoons add devilment to the narrative, mostly set in Dory’s imagination. Her siblings make up a baby-stealing bogeywoman to scare her; Dory responds by darting Mrs Gobble Gracker with sedatives. Very funny.

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Francesca Segal: ‘I think there are multiple awkward ages’

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 10:00:10 GMT2017-04-23T10:00:10Z

The award-winning novelist on life’s transitional stages, and her father – the man who wrote Love Story

Francesca Segal was born in 1980 in north-west London, where she lives today. Her debut novel, The Innocents, won the 2012 Costa first novel award and the Betty Trask award. Her new novel, The Awkward Age, tells a story about reconstituted families and the lengths to which parents will go to ensure their child’s happiness.

The Awkward Age is about a fifty-something couple on their second relationship, cohabiting with their two teenage children. What appealed to you about this scenario?
I thought it was rich with tension and comic possibilities. It’s what more than 50% of families in this country look like. And that noble lunacy of constructing two halves that were never designed to fit together – it’s beautiful, sad, touching and intriguing.

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Richard Ford: ‘Who needs friends?’

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 08:00:08 GMT2017-04-22T08:00:08Z

Is friendship really all it’s cracked up to be, asks the US novelist

And if they ever put a bullet through your brain, I’ll complain. It’s friendship, friendship, just a perfect blendship … Cole Porter

The jury’s out on friendship. It’s not the cynical and acrimonious age of Trump that brings friendship to my mind (though can you imagine our president ever, really having a friend?). It’s me. I’ve been brooding about friendship. Now and then, don’t we need to think hard about our presumed institutions? “A friend is the hope of the heart,” Emerson wrote. “A masterpiece of nature.” I’m not sure. “I sometimes wonder,” Philip Larkin wrote to his girlfriend, “if anyone can do anything for anyone.” You know something sceptical’s afoot when you find Larkin on your bedside table instead of Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld.

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