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Books | The Guardian

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

Published: Wed, 22 Nov 2017 18:45:25 GMT2017-11-22T18:45:25Z

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

Prescribed reading: Five of the best books by doctors

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 16:54:24 GMT2017-11-22T16:54:24Z

As Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt wins a readers’ choice award, we recommend five other author physicians. Please add to our notes

Congratulations to Adam Kay, who has triumphed in the Books Are My Bag awards as readers’ choice of the year. This Is Going to Hurt, his diary of life as a junior doctor, was voted for by 40,000 fans. Kay joins a long tradition of author physicians. It makes sense, sort of – doctors and writers share a sense of focus; a detached, objective perspective; and a process of trial and error that hopefully resolves things. For those who enjoyed Kay’s book, here are five more medical reads by medics …

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The art of Terry Pratchett's Discworld – in pictures

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 13:14:05 GMT2017-11-22T13:14:05Z

The author’s ‘artist of choice’ Paul Kidby introduces some of the images he produced during their decades-long collaboration

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Top 10 books about mental hospitals

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 11:00:18 GMT2017-11-22T11:00:18Z

From the horrors of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to hopeful stories of recovery, here are some of the best books about these much feared institutions

Both real and fictional psychiatric institutions are often described in books as places filled with fear, manipulation and danger. Authors frequently take creative liberties to up the intrigue, and frighten their readers with tales of abuse, hauntings and corruption. Although these themes may have been closer to reality in generations past, one hopes that as a society we are progressing toward better treatment and better facilities.

I have worked in many mental health and addiction treatment facilities in my career as a psychotherapist, and my experiences in these places helped inform my first novel, The Blind. Its protagonist, Dr Samantha James, works at Typhlos, a fictional psychiatric institution in Manhattan that is suffering from overcrowding and underfunding. Despite feeling caught up in red tape, Sam is an intrepid clinician, doing everything in her power to reach and help her patients – something that is, happily, also a common reality. Typhlos acts as the backdrop for her journey, teetering on the edge of mental illness, and her experience is mirrored in the chaos of the institution itself.

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Helen Dunmore's final poems lead shortlists for 2017 Costa prizes

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 19:30:28 GMT2017-11-21T19:30:28Z

Inside the Wave, in which the poet reflected on her own impending death, joins diverse contenders in poetry, fiction, biography and children’s books

Helen Dunmore’s final poetry collection, in which the award-winning author contemplates her terminal cancer diagnosis and impending death, has been shortlisted for the Costa poetry award.

The line-up for this year’s Costas, which set out to reward the year’s “most enjoyable” books across novels, first novels, biographies, poetry and children’s books, is female-heavy, with 14 women on the 20-strong list.

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Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard review – the poison of patriarchy

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 09:00:15 GMT2017-11-22T09:00:15Z

In this brilliant book, the classicist charts misogyny from ancient Greece and Rome to today, and issues a clarion call that it is not women but power that must change

At the end of Mary Beard’s SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome of 2015, she describes taking her kids to the Colosseum in Rome, where she agrees to pay for them to be photographed with “chancers” dressed up as gladiators, buys them helmets and, “turning a blind eye to the cruelties of the modern world”, reassures them that “we do not do anything as cruel as that now”. Given the relentless, vicious misogyny to which Beard has been exposed, it is not surprising that, in her books on classical life and history, such personal moments are rare.

But this one speaks volumes. Beard is our most famous classicist, with a gift for bringing ancient Greece and Rome alive on the page like no one else. She is a writer of exceptional erudition and biting wit, and reading her is always a pleasure. This latest manifesto, Women and Power, originally delivered as two lectures, in 2014 and 2017, under the auspices of the British Museum and the London Review of Books, is no exception. Beard is consistently asking the same question: what is the relationship between the ancient past and today? In the Colosseum, she falters, finding it unbearable, as any mother might, to admit to her children that killing and torture are not long-lost memories ripe for play-acting, but rather the hallmark of the world they will inherit.

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman review – an enchanting prequel to Practical Magic

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 12:00:19 GMT2017-11-22T12:00:19Z

Hoffman displays her magic touch once again as she relates the witchy sisters’ family backstory in a novel set in 1950s New York

The almost supernaturally prolific American author Alice Hoffman has taken a busman’s holiday this year to pen a little fan fiction: a prequel to her own bestselling novel Practical Magic. The original book became the 1998 Hollywood romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as witchy sisters Gillian and Sally Owens. Now, in The Rules of Magic, set in 1950s New York, we are treated to the backstory of Gillian and Sally’s great-aunts, Frances and Jet.

Like all the females in the Owens family tree, Frances and Jet are witches descended from Salem escapee Maria Owens. More than 300 years ago, the teenage Maria was seduced and abandoned by Salem trial judge John Hathorne (real-life great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added a “w” in his name to deflect the inevitable question).

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Mythos review – the Greek myths get the Stephen Fry treatment

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 07:30:13 GMT2017-11-22T07:30:13Z

Fry’s retellings have stiff competition, are limited in selection and sometimes appear to be set in North London. But they have real charm

Ever since William Godwin persuaded Charles Lamb to retell The Odyssey as a novel for younger readers in The Adventures of Ulysses (1808), the myths of ancient Greece have been retold in contemporary prose by every generation. Most of these retellings were originally poetry – the epics of Hesiod, Homer and the philhellene Latin poet Ovid, the Athenian tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – in Mythos, Stephen Fry has narrated a selection of them in engaging and fluent prose. But do we need another version of the Greek myths in an already crowded market? Such treasured collections as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (1853), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942) and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths (1955) are still in print. Countless family car journeys are enlivened by Simon Russell Beale’s audiobook of Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths. So should a reader looking for an initiation into the thrilling world of the ancient Greek imagination choose Fry’s book?

People who enjoy Fry's media personality and particular style of post-Wodehouse English drollery are in for a treat

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Jennifer Egan and M John Harrison – books podcast

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 10:15:39 GMT2017-11-21T10:15:39Z

On this week’s show, we examine the writing life with a Pulitzer winner who is not afraid to experiment and a genre-busting author with his most radical collection of short stories yet

This week we welcome M John Harrison, who comes to the studio to discuss his most radical collection of short stories yet, You Should Come With Me Now. He tells us about grounding strange fiction in normality, baffling the reader and why writing weird fiction has got harder in the era of Trump.

We also hear from Jennifer Egan, who came to a Guardian Live event to talk about her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and her latest novel, Manhattan Beach. Her devoted fans quizzed her about time, technology and how the chronology of publication doesn’t always reflect the order in which novels emerge from the writer’s pen.

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Robert Winston wins fourth Royal Society young people's book prize

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 12:04:16 GMT2017-11-21T12:04:16Z

TV academic’s Home Lab, a collection of scientific experiments that can be carried out at home, won over jury of young readers

TV professor Robert Winston has proved he has the winning formula as a science writer for children by scooping the prestigious Royal Society young people’s book prize for the fourth time with Home Lab, a collection of scientific experiments that can be done at home.

Voted for by young readers, the book was described as “really cool” by six-year-old judge Mohammed, and “brilliant” by eight-year-old judge Faith. It was given the ultimate stamp of approval by 10-year-old judge Ella: “I liked it so much that I went out and bought a copy of my own with my pocket money,” she said.

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John Lewis plagiarism row gives Christmas sales boost to Mr Underbed

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 15:46:08 GMT2017-11-20T15:46:08Z

After Chris Riddell pointed out the similarity of the retailer’s seasonal TV ad to his picture book, demand for the latter has rocketed

Copies of Chris Riddell’s picture book about a friendly blue monster who lives under a little boy’s bed, Mr Underbed, have sold out in the days since the former children’s laureate accused John Lewis of “help[ing] themselves” to the story for their Christmas TV ad.

Riddell pointed out the similarities between his debut picture book, which was published in 1986, and John Lewis’s commercial, which features the monster Moz, last Thursday. “John Lewis help themselves to my picture book,” tweeted Riddell, adding: “The idea of a monster under the bed is by no means new but the ad does seem to bear a close resemblance to my creation – a big blue unthreatening monster who rocks the bed and snores loudly.”

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Leading writers donate work to crowdfunded charity book

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 07:30:52 GMT2017-11-21T07:30:52Z

Ben Okri, Carol Ann Duffy and Frank Cottrell Boyce are among the contributors to Alt-Write, an anthology of ‘creative reactions to uncertain times’

Ben Okri, Carol Ann Duffy and Frank Cottrell Boyce are among the contributors to Alt-Write, a new collection of writing from major authors intended to “debunk xenophobic myths and … help [readers] discover the natural human quality of empathy”.

Okri is contributing his poem Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written after the disaster, Cottrell Boyce has written a “fable about the lost”, The Burning Bush, and Duffy is donating her poem History to the anthology. Aimed at young adults, with all profits to go to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the anthology, subtitled “Creative reactions to uncertain times”, will feature work from 50 authors and illustrators who also include Benjamin Zephaniah, Piers Torday, Michael Rosen, Chris Riddell, Sarah McIntyre, Celia Rees, Philip Ardagh, Alex Wheatle and Jackie Kay.

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Watership Down author's personal library reveals precious treasures

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 13:39:30 GMT2017-11-20T13:39:30Z

Richard Adams’s books, going to auction in December, include a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma, Shakespeare’s Second Folio and Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The vast library of the late Richard Adams, which ranges from a rare copy of Milton’s epic poem Lycidas to a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma, is to be sold at auction next month.

Running to thousands of books, the Watership Down author’s collection includes a rare copy of the Shakespeare Second Folio of 1632, Boswell’s Life of Johnson and a Bible that once belonged to Charles II. Adams, who died last year aged 96, also owned a host of first editions by 19th-century English novelists including Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope.

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Riddley Walker's post-apocalyptic Mr Punch

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 11:22:20 GMT2017-11-21T11:22:20Z

Deeply rooted in British culture, the anarchic puppet unsurprisingly caught the eye of American author Russell Hoban, and he gives him disturbingly vivid life

Riddley Walker is an unusual book, written in a strange dialect, set in a mysterious, post-apocalyptic world and full of brutal, surprising and unsettling events. So it’s all the more striking that one of the very weirdest scenes in the book describes something familiar to most contemporary British readers: a Punch and Judy show.

The performance is odd from the start. Punch is hiding, speaking in a voice “salty and sharp like a game cock wud talk” and raining down innuendo. “What a beauty,” he cries and a “hy little woman’s voice” replies: “Cor! What are you going to do with that great big thing Mr Punch?”

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Bantam by Jackie Kay review – home truths from a goddess of small things

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 07:30:52 GMT2017-11-21T07:30:52Z

Jackie Kay depicts a world of grief, joy, love and humour in the sparest terms

This collection is a pick-me-up – fresh, upbeat and sympathetic. The tone is partly a matter of temperament. Jackie Kay writes about the past with uncommon spirit. She makes you realise how often poetry that looks backwards is written with a dead hand, how often, in memorialising verse, the unsmilingly elegiac obtains. She, by contrast, is loving, non-reverential and interested in the human predicament – in being quick not dead. Remembering the novelist Julia Darling in Hereafter Julia she exclaims: “Why – even dead, Julia, you’re still the life and soul.” And if you read the Guardian obituary Kay wrote about her friend, this is confirmed as she quotes Darling declaring she was “in no pain unless she tried to dance the hokey cokey”.

When Jackie Kay closes one door, she opens another. There is a long poem, Threshold, about life’s doors and the collection can be considered in terms of its exits and entrances. She holds open a door into Scotland, imagines friends and refugees in a “building of pure poetry”. But having your heart in the right place would be no good were your pen to stray. Hers does not. Her poems are clear, skilfully engineered, and Threshold ends in an exuberant outbreak of foreign tongues before settling down into: “Wan patter is naer enough.” I am intrigued by the way Scottish dialect dresses – sometimes redresses – its subjects. How successful the national costume proves. Take A Day Like Today, which describes the sort of duff day that might seem past redemption. It begins: “If every there wis a day/A doon about the mooth day…” One wonders why “doon about the mooth” is so much perkier than “down in the mouth”. In plain English, the poem would be plainer, the day less worth recording. Perhaps it is the taste – the trace – of Burns, bracing as malt whisky.

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Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard review – from cotton buds to sex as cannibalism

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 09:00:54 GMT2017-11-21T09:00:54Z

The second volume of the bestselling author’s seasonal musings meander between the laughable and the sublime

In Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard mused on whatever came to mind during his (now ex) wife’s pregnancy with their fourth chid, Anne. Winter, the second in a quick-fire seasonal quartet published in Norwegian two years ago, repeats the formula for the run-up to her birth early in 2014, with 60 prose pieces between two and five pages long on everything from cotton buds to the 1970s and “hollow spaces”.

It’s an enterprise that is catnip to parodists. A piece on Conversation starts by informing us that “a great deal of interpersonal communication takes place outside language”. Chairs begins: “A chair is for sitting on.” The excuse for such statements – that their addressee is in utero – doesn’t survive literal-minded scrutiny, but they’re only a springboard in any case: Sugar starts by saying it “consists of tiny white crystals that crunch between the teeth” and ends by using it to explain the populist Progress party’s rise to power in Norway.

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Joseph Banks: botanical work on Cook's voyage finally makes it to print

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 17:00:35 GMT2017-11-20T17:00:35Z

Life-size prints of hundreds of plant specimens collected by the British naturalist come together in Florilegium

The publishing deadline was missed by more than 200 years, but finally the work of one of the great men of the Enlightenment has been printed and distributed, sharing with the world the detailed botanical work of Joseph Banks on his journey aboard James Cook’s Endeavour.

Cook’s mission when he left England in 1768 was ostensibly to chart the transit of Venus – a measurement that would allow the estimation of the distance from the Earth to the sun, which would aid navigation. However, Cook had been instructed to attempt the “discovery of the southern continent so often mentioned”.

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Sri Lankan civil war novel takes DSC prize for south Asian literature

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 13:18:29 GMT2017-11-20T13:18:29Z

Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage takes the $25,000 award with a novel ‘exploring the tragic heart of war with quiet eloquence’

A novel that condenses the horrors of the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war into an intimate love story has won the 2017 DSC prize for south Asian literature, the region’s richest book prize. Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage beat four shortlisted rivals to win the $25,000 (£19,000) award presented at the Dhaka literary festival in Bangladesh.

Announcing the winner, Ritu Menon, chair of judges, praised the novel for its “intensity and rich detail … exploring the tragic heart of war with such quiet eloquence”. She added: “It is also a testament to the redemptive power of love, and to the human spirit’s capacity for hope.”

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Small indie publishers report booming sales

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 11:23:41 GMT2017-11-20T11:23:41Z

In a sector that has struggled elsewhere, figures for 60 of the smallest players in the UK industry show sales up 79% in the last year

Independent publishers have unleashed a boom in sales, according to new research. Latest figures from Inpress, which works with 60 of the smallest players in the books industry, revealed sales up 79% in the last year – a performance hailed by Inpress managing director Sophie O’Neill as phenomenal.

“It’s down to a mix of really good books such as Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You from the feminist Silver Press,” O’Neill said, “and Dead Ink’s crowdfunded book Know Your Place – which is like The Good Immigrant except about class – and great attention to detail.”

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Dawn of the New Everything by Jaron Lanier review – memoirs of a tech visionary

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 07:30:23 GMT2017-11-20T07:30:23Z

Jaron Lanier is both cheerleader and doomsayer in a highly personal story of virtual reality

Two years ago, I stood on the precipice of the World Trade Center. I watched the birds wheel hundreds of feet below my toes, as yellow cabs fidgeted in the squinting distance beyond. Eventually, I took a step on to the rope that lolled between the Twin Towers, feeling its eager push on the soles of my feet while the wind bothered my cheeks (although not my eyes, which were shielded from the desk fan’s gust by the virtual reality headset visor).

That the vignette – created to promote the film The Walk, a dramatisation of the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 dance between the towers – was fabricated in VR and not earnest has made no difference to the strength of its imprint on my memory. It was earnestly terrifying (more than half of the people who tried it, I was told by the software’s creator, are unable to take the physical step out on to the virtual rope). Such is the mind-cheating power of VR, a medium that, if Facebook and all the other heavily invested mega-corps are to be believed, stands on the precipice of its own moment.

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Doctor's diary This is Going to Hurt wins public vote for book of the year

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 20:00:00 GMT2017-11-21T20:00:00Z

Adam Kay’s firsthand account, first published as a rebuke to the health secretary during the dispute with junior doctors, takes readers’ choice award

A doctor’s irreverent and heartbreaking diaries, published as a rebuke to the government in the pay dispute with junior doctors, has been voted the nation’s favourite book of the year. Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt came top in a poll of readers to win the Books Are My Bag readers’ choice award.

Voted for by 40,000 members of the public through bookshops, Kay’s book saw off competition from 2017 Man Booker prize winner George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo and Philip Pullman’s hotly anticipated La Belle Sauvage.

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‘It’s Peter Pan for grown-ups’: play by Barrie is back on stage

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 00:05:46 GMT2017-11-19T00:05:46Z

Rare revival of the author’s play Dear Brutus will drop adults into a Neverland-like world

Neverland, the magical place made famous by JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, will be closer than you think this Christmas – not just for lost boys but for grown-ups as well. The enchanting garden in Scotland that gave Barrie the idea for his classic children’s story also later inspired him to write another play, this time placing a group of fictional adult characters alone in a beautiful natural environment. And now the little-known work, Dear Brutus, is to be revived on the London stage for the first time in more than 20 years.

In a time of austerity and hard political challenges, the director of the play believes the British public’s need to escape to the solace and freedom of a magical world could not be greater. “Although the concerns of Barrie’s audience were different, they probably felt very similar in terms of their anxiety. Our audience, in the middle of fears about terrorism and politics, I am sure really want to escape the world around them,” said Jonathan O’Boyle, director of Dear Brutus, which opens at Southwark Playhouse on 29 November.

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Vladimir Nabokov's dream diary reveals experiments with 'backwards timeflow'

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 16:33:09 GMT2017-11-17T16:33:09Z

Newly published collection of the Lolita author’s notes shows him investigating theory that dreams can be inspired by future events

A 1964 diary in which Vladimir Nabokov recorded more than 50 of his dreams – ranging from the erotic to the violent to the surreal – is about to be published for the first time.

“Intensely erotic dream. Blood on sheet,” the novelist writes on 13 December 1964. “End of dream: my sister O, strangely young and languorous … Then stand near a window, sighing, half-seeing view, brooding over the possible consequence of incest.”

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Baillie Gifford prize goes to Aids chronicle How to Survive a Plague

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 22:15:07 GMT2017-11-16T22:15:07Z

David France’s book was praised by judges for its ‘incredibly visceral’ history, drawing on the author’s own experiences as a young gay man in the 80s

David France’s account of the Aids epidemic, How to Survive a Plague, has won the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction, as chair of judges Sir Peter Bazalgette hailed the importance of serious non-fiction as an “antidote to 140-character culture”.

Opening with a quote from Paul Monet, “Grief is a sword, or it is nothing”, France’s book chronicles how the activist community fought to develop the drugs that would turn HIV into a largely treatable condition. It covers the years between 1981 and 1996, when, as France puts it, “there was no effective medical treatment for an HIV infection and death was almost certain”, and how with the founding of Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group), activists paved the way towards a medical breakthrough.

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Brambly Hedge creator Jill Barklem dies aged 66

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 15:43:20 GMT2017-11-16T15:43:20Z

Writer and illustrator of children’s book series about a community of mice in the English countryside had sold more than 7m copies

Jill Barklem, whose intricate Brambly Hedge stories have delighted children for decades, has died at the age of 66.

Her publisher HarperCollins Children’s Books said this morning that the author died peacefully in London on Wednesday following a long illness. Barklem had sold more than 7m copies of her Brambly Hedge books, which tell the tales of a community of mice in the English countryside.

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Raymond Chandler attacks US healthcare in newly-discovered story

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:30:28 GMT2017-11-16T12:30:28Z

It’s All Right - He Only Died was found in The Big Sleep author’s archives with a note underlining his contempt for doctors who turned away poor patients

A lost story by Raymond Chandler, written almost at the end of his life, sees the author taking on a different sort of villain to the hardboiled criminals of his beloved Philip Marlowe stories: the US healthcare system.

Found in Chandler’s archives at the Bodleian Library in Oxford by Andrew Gulli, managing editor of the Strand magazine, the story, It’s All Right – He Only Died, opens as a “filthy figure on a stretcher” arrives at a hospital. The man, who smells of whisky, has been hit by a truck, and staff at the hospital are loth to treat him because they assume he will be unable to pay for his care. “The hospital rule was adamant: A fifty dollar deposit or no admission,” writes Chandler.

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Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 10:44:34 GMT2017-11-16T10:44:34Z

In Bah! Humbug! the former children’s laureate updates Charles Dickens’s Christmas classic for an era when poverty is again being blamed on the poor

Some 174 years after Charles Dickens forged his outrage at poverty into the quintessential festive story, the former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has reimagined A Christmas Carol for a new age of austerity defined by the neo-Victorian belief that “poverty is caused by poor people”.

The children’s author and poet’s new version of A Christmas Carol, Bah! Humbug!, illustrated by Tony Ross, sees schoolboy Harry Gruber take the role of Scrooge in his school play, while his miserable, work-obsessed father snipes from the sidelines.

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National Book Awards: Jesmyn Ward wins major prize for Sing, Unburied, Sing

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 03:39:31 GMT2017-11-16T03:39:31Z

Author takes out top prize for fiction for the second time with novel about race, poverty, loss and family in America’s south

Jesmyn Ward has won one of the highest awards in American literature for the second time, taking home the National Book Award’s top prize for fiction for her critically lauded novel about race, poverty, loss and family in America’s south: Sing, Unburied, Sing.

At the ceremony, held in New York and hosted by actor Cynthia Nixon, Ward saw off competition from Elliot Ackerman (Dark at the Crossing), Lisa Ko (The Leavers), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) and Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties: Stories).

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Artemis by Andy Weir review – follow-up to The Martian

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:00:07 GMT2017-11-15T12:00:07Z

His self-published debut sold 5m copies. The follow-up offers the same flat, sweary prose, fistfights and scientific mini-lectures - on the moon

Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, enjoyed a measure of success liable to make other writers slump slack-jawed and drooling, like Homer Simpson before a doughnut. Initially self-published, it became a word-of-mouth hit, got picked up by a regular publisher, sold 5m copies and was made into a blockbuster film by Ridley Scott. Straight out of the gates with a global hit.

Indeed, the book was such a blockbuster you probably know its story: an astronaut, stranded on Mars, has to use his scientific expertise to stay alive for two years until rescue can reach him. This simple narrative tug – will he survive or not? – gives Weir a line on which to hang a large number of interesting facts and little lectures. The reader learns a lot about the Martian environment, how to grow potatoes, how to get into orbit and so on. That’s the sweet spot The Martian hit: a likable protagonist in peril, saved by his own resourcefulness in a tale that leaves readers better informed about science than they were before they read it.

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Amazon's Kindle turns 10: have ebooks clicked with you yet?

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 11:00:00 GMT2017-11-13T11:00:00Z

A decade after Jeff Bezos launched a revolution in reading – and a $1bn money-spinner – much has changed in the book trade. But how has it affected readers?

George W Bush was in the White House, Chris Brown was topping the Billboard chart and Jeff Bezos … well, on 19 November 2007, Jeff Bezos was doing “the most important thing we’ve ever done” and launching the Amazon Kindle.

The first Kindles were chunky things about the same size as a paperback, weighing a smidgeon less than 300g. They had wonky little keyboards and a little wheel for scrolling up and down a grey and black screen. But Bezos was never aiming for a flashy design. Speaking at the launch in New York, he said that all he wanted was a device that could “disappear”.

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Turn up the volume: what's your favourite literary pop song?

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:21:43 GMT2017-11-15T12:21:43Z

Book Week Scotland is being marked by a poll to find the nation’s favourite tune with a literary connection. What would you vote for?

Will it be The Invisible Man or Bell Jar, The Dark Is Rising or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Scottish Book Trust is celebrating Book Week Scotland with an online poll, of course. But this year’s vote isn’t looking for readers’ favourite books, instead it is trying to find our favourite songs with a literary connection.

Some of the songs on their 40-strong list of possible choices wear their bookish credentials on their sleeves. There are songs where no attempt has been made at obliqueness or subtlety, with titles lifted directly from the works that inspired them. Step forward Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) and the Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). For others, the connection is almost as direct. Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel was the lead song from the movie adaptation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down, while Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins does exactly what it says on the pipeweed tin. And Radiohead’s Paranoid Android takes its title from Douglas Adams’s depressive robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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Revolution by Emmanuel Macron review – what’s the big idea, Monsieur President?

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 09:00:25 GMT2017-11-20T09:00:25Z

The French leader’s bestseller unwittingly sheds light on his shortcomings

Emmanuel Macron is by no means the first president of France to fancy himself as a man of letters. Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand immediately come to mind as his most recent literary predecessors. This is partly because, although Macron has only been in power a handful of months, he shares with De Gaulle and Mitterrand a vision of the “grandeur” of France. In recent times, however, for good and bad reasons, writes Macron in this book, many French people have lost sight of this. Macron’s first duty as president, he goes on to say, is therefore to restore a broken and gloomy France to its former glory and to make French people believe in themselves and their nation. If you like, Macron’s great political ambition is then to make France “grande” again. But how exactly will he do this?

Ostensibly, the first aim of Revolution is to answer this question. This is why, when it was first published in France in November 2016, it was a bestseller. The mainstream French public was hungry to know what solutions Macron had up his sleeve – indeed, in the unstable climate of the past few years, they needed to be reassured that there might be any solutions at all.

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Finding your way around Riddley Walker's world

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 15:45:56 GMT2017-11-14T15:45:56Z

In this novel’s post-literate realm, it is harder to work out what is happening than in most fiction. But we can’t mistake its intensely human story

We’ve had a go at understanding the language in Riddley Walker, but there are plenty more intriguing questions to answer. Such as: who is Riddley Walker? What is going on? When is it happening? And where?

The “where” is easy. It becomes apparent early on that Riddley is roaming around Kent. “Cambry” is Canterbury, a place where huge organ pipes were found and where someone called “the Ardship Of Cambry” lives. Russell Hoban explains in his afterword: “Horny Boy is Herne Bay; Widders bel is Whistable; Father’s Ham is Faversham; Bernt Arse is Ashford; Fork Stoan is Folkestone; Do It Over is Dover.” These approximations are amusing, but I can see their logic in a society that has largely lost the ability to read.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 94 – Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 05:45:21 GMT2017-11-20T05:45:21Z

Thomas Hobbes’s essay on the social contract is both a founding text of western thought and a masterpiece of wit and imagination

According to the 17th-century historian and gossip John Aubrey, Thomas Hobbes “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.” As a great thinker, Hobbes epitomises English common sense and the amateur spirit, and is all the more appealing for deriving his philosophy from his experience as a scholar and man of letters, a contemporary and occasional associate of Galileo, Descartes and the young Charles Stuart, prince of Wales, before the Restoration.

Hobbes himself was born an Elizabethan, and liked to say that his premature birth in 1588 was caused by his mother’s anxiety at the threat of the Spanish Armada:

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

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 13:13:20 GMT2017-11-20T13:13:20Z

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

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

Sometimes a book is so good you feel like a fool for not having read it earlier. So it is that The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard has given Magrat123 regret – as well as delight:

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Poem of the week: Yoga for Leaders and Others by Philip Fried

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 09:59:07 GMT2017-11-20T09:59:07Z

Instructions for spiritual exercises are retooled as a manual for presenting political evasion in the most attractive light

Yoga for Leaders and Others

Mountain Pose

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Going for a gong: the week in literary prizes – roundup

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:30:00 GMT2017-11-17T10:30:00Z

We toast the winners of the Goldsmiths prize, the National Book awards, the Warwick prize for women in translation and the Stephen Spender for poetry

There were gongs galore this week. First to figuratively spray champagne from a podium was Nicola Barker for her formally tricksy novel H(a)ppy, promoted by its publisher William Heinemann as “a post-post-apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland”. It saw off shortlisted works by Jon McGregor and Will Self to take the £10,000 Goldsmiths prize for fiction that “embodies the spirit of invention”. Barker is the third female winner of a five-year-old award that has previously been given to Eimear McBride and Ali Smith (who both then went on to win the Baileys prize).

Also on Wednesday evening, but five hours later in New York City, Cynthia Nixon hosted the National Book awards, a multi-genre jamboree resembling Britain’s Costa awards in both its lineup of categories and its ban on foreign entrants. A month after Jesmyn Ward made the squad for 2017’s MacArthur “genius” awards (worth £475,000 over five years), the African American author’s Mississippi-set family saga Sing, Unburied, Sing won the fiction prize. Acclaimed by Margaret Atwood and just published in the UK, it will clearly be a strong contender for both the Women’s prize for fiction and the Man Booker prize in 2018.

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

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 10:50:48 GMT2017-11-13T10:50:48Z

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

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

It is, according to dylan37 the “time of year for Auden”:

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Poem of the week: Hairless by Jo Shapcott

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 09:44:51 GMT2017-11-13T09:44:51Z

Blending science, fantasy, and feminism, this is an unpretentious work that dances lightly over its weighty concerns


Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:
it’s newborn-pale, erection-tender stuff,
every thought visible – pure knowledge,
mind in action – shining through the skull.
I saw a woman, hairless absolute, cleaning.
She mopped the green floor, dusted bookshelves,
all cloth and concentration, Queen of the moon.
You can tell, with the bald, that the air
speaks to them differently, touches their heads
with exquisite expression. As she danced
her laundry dance with the motes, everything
she ever knew skittered under her scalp.
It was clear just from the texture of her head,
she was about to raise her arms to the sky;
I covered my ears as she prepared to sing, to roar.

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The world's hardest books quiz: 'no Googling allowed!'

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 11:44:39 GMT2017-11-09T11:44:39Z

With questions that make University Challenge look like kindergarten, Nemo’s Almanac has been teasing bookworms’ brains for more than a century

It’s hard to know exactly what makes a line of verse or a sentence from a novel stick in the mind, but it’s undeniable that they often do, running through our minds like fragments of melody in a way that can be both exhilarating and annoying. Dozens of different elements go to make a bit of language memorable, or to make this or that writer’s style immediately recognisable, but there’s no easy formula for pinning down its author. Trying to remember or work out who wrote something can be frustrating as well as satisfying, but the more tantalising the process, the more satisfying it is when we find the answer. This is the premise of Nemo’s Almanac, a literary quiz that has been published every year since 1892.

This year, for the first time, Nemo’s Almanac has appeared in book form, too, in greatly expanded form, but the traditional almanac – a slender pamphlet – has been published each year for the last century with the format largely unchanged. When it started publication in 1892, the first editor, a governess called Annie E Larden, included useful facts, anniversaries, and illustrations of English scenes alongside a variety of questions that ranged from quotations to “Did Oliver Cromwell use blotting paper?”, revealing its origins in the holiday tasks she used to set her charges. Soon into the tenure of Miss Atkinson, the second editor, the questions were dropped, though her earliest issues asked: “How does Lord Bacon describe coffee?” and “What is the cuckoo said to have done for musical science?”

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Novel recipes: apple charlotte from Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 06:00:11 GMT2017-11-10T06:00:11Z

Still savouring the second novel in Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, Kate Young makes a cosy apple and bread dessert, perfect for autumn

  • Scroll down for the recipe

Louise said truthfully that it was not at all bad. But that did not satisfy Stella, and by the time she had finished her apple charlotte, she had cross-examined Louise about everything and knew about there being four different categories of work - cooking, parlourmaiding, housemaiding and laundry - and that they changed their jobs every week, that two mistresses taught cooking...

Marking Time, Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Elizabeth-Jane Burnett: 'Swimming can give you the optimism to keep going'

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 14:20:30 GMT2017-11-16T14:20:30Z

Swims is a work of poetry that follows its author into open waters around the UK, where she finds both simple pleasure and more complicated political hope

“What can I do as a person on the planet, as a human being, as a writer, as the unique set of things that I am?” asks Elizabeth-Jane Burnett. “How can I help the environment?” For a writer and scholar who has been exploring the natural world and alternatives to capitalism in pamphlets, exhibitions and academic papers, the response to environmental catastrophe was clear: poetry.

Swims, her first book, is one long poem that follows the author as she dives into open water across England and Wales, plunging into rivers, lakes and seas in a watery circuit that takes in the Ouse, the Teign, the Channel, Grasmere and King’s Cross Pond in London. Some sections record a process or ritual – hopes and fears written across a swimsuit in black marker pen before immersion, or a group of swimmers inhabiting some non-human identity, entering the sea and then reporting back. Others focus on the feeling of not ending “where you thought you did / not with skin but with water / not with arms but with meadow / of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort”, the sensation of “an upward force / greater than the weight of the heart”.

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Tessa Hadley: The Rainbow changed my life – DH Lawrence is a life force

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:00:00 GMT2017-11-17T10:00:00Z

The writer on the brilliance of Colm Tóibín and Alice Munro and why she isn’t ashamed not to have read Brave New World

I’m rereading Proust’s Swann’s Way, in the Scott Moncrieff translation; I had a craving for luxuriant digressiveness. I’ve just arrived at the pink hawthorn and the narrator’s first glimpse of Gilberte. I read the whole of Remembrance of Things Past for the first time a few years ago, belatedly. Everything feels lucid and easy in the writing this second time round. It’s making me very happy.

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Legalise prostitution? We are being asked to accept industrialised sexual exploitation

Tue, 22 Aug 2017 10:40:06 GMT2017-08-22T10:40:06Z

Author of Pimp State, Kat Banyard explains how researching her book revealed why we need to end the sex trade - and how to do it

Right now, a global push is under way for governments to not only tolerate but actively enable the sex trade. The call is clear: decriminalise brothel keepers, pimps and other “third parties”, allowing them to profiteer freely – and certainly don’t dampen demand for the trade. This is no mundane policy prescription. The stakes are immense.

How we respond will be a measure of how seriously we take violence against women and the inequality underpinning it. Because what we are being asked to do is accept and normalise industrialised sexual exploitation.

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Rude by Katie Hopkins – digested read

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 17:00:06 GMT2017-11-19T17:00:06Z

‘People often compare me to Hitler. I take that as a compliment’

I appreciate that many people think I am a twat. And I can see why. My whole career has been founded on people believing that I am a twat. But I am not a twat. Honestly. If you were to meet me in person, you would probably think I am not as much of a twat as you thought I would be. The bar really is that low.

Vagina. Women don’t say the word vagina nearly enough. I am proud of my foof. A vagina is empowering. Too many women go through life playing the victim card. There’s no point moaning when a man puts his hand on your knee. Rather, you should take it as a compliment. Unless the man touching you up is a Muslim. In which case he should be thrown in prison or deported.

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Nicola Barker: ‘Each novel has its own specially designed notebook. These are sacred objects to me’

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 10:00:29 GMT2017-11-18T10:00:29Z

The novelist on why she loves marker pens, Post-it notes and notebooks – and why she is a ‘clucky, agenda-driven mother hen’

I work on an old apple laptop that isn’t online – it’s heavy and the keyboard is worn. It tells you if a word is spelled incorrectly (in American English so all my Ss need to be Zs or the page is covered in irritable red marks) but it doesn’t suggest alternatives. Every so often a key locks and you’ll look down at the screen and see eeeeeeeeeeeeeee or ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;. It also likes to impose random gaps and spaces on to the text (in geometric boxes) that are impossible to remove so you have to copy the narrative and open a new document. When I completed my last book, H(a)ppy, I suspected that I’d need a new laptop and I bought one and began working on it but this one was online. And it was way more portable. So I began slouching on the sofa (instead of sitting at my desk) and working whenever I felt the urge.

The text seemed different, though. I’m not sure how or why. So I’m back to using my old laptop again and constantly muttering about its crappiness. Everything is slow and irritating. Even the clock is wrong. Part of me suspects that I enjoy an element of adversity – even welcome it. You only truly appreciate the stuff you battle for.

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The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith review – a cultural battleground

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 09:00:03 GMT2017-11-17T09:00:03Z

The writer and editor promoted Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence and deserves recognition as a great literary tastemaker

The first question worth asking of Helen Smith’s A-grade biography of Edward Garnett (1868‑1937) is just how many manuscripts passed across the desk of this publishers’ reader in his lifetime. Very little hard data is vouchsafed, but Smith estimates that, in 1917, John Lane was forwarding him between 400 and 500 items a year. A decade later, the contents of the weekly parcel sent to his house in Kent is put at eight to 10. All this suggests that in a 50-year career, beginning with the firm of T Fisher Unwin and ending with Jonathan Cape, Garnett may have worked his way through 20,000 unpublished novels – 150m words, say, forming a pile that, if laid end to end, would stretch from one side of central London to the other.

Naturally there were times when this decades-long sojourn in what George Gissing called the Valley of the Shadow of Books became oppressive and Garnett began to feel that he was pouring his immortal spirit down the drain a pint at a time. A rather plaintive letter survives from November 1910 in which he informs John Galsworthy: “I get very low sometimes as to the secondhand sort of existence that is implied in the game and its sequelae.” But there was gold lurking among the dross, and a list of the famous names that he turned up in the slush pile would be enough to fill a literary Who’s Who. The Nobel-winning Galsworthy, Conrad and the Lawrences (DH and TE) all benefited from his advice, and even in his 60s he could be found busily annotating the apprentice work of such up-and-coming youngsters as Naomi Mitchison and Henry Green.

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Appointment in Arezzo by Alan Taylor review – the truth about Muriel Spark

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 07:30:22 GMT2017-11-16T07:30:22Z

Ahead of the centenary of Spark’s birth, this beguiling memoir of a friendship is revealing of the novelist’s personal entanglements and Scottishness

In 1976, when I was in my early 20s, I wrote to Muriel Spark – I was an avid fan – asking if I could interview her at her house in Italy, in Arezzo. I was spending some weeks in Tuscany researching the death, in 1822, of Percy Bysshe Shelley and thought I might profit by interviewing some writers I admired who happened to live in the area. Spark declined, swiftly, politely: alas, it wasn’t convenient. It would be another 15 years before I met her.

Alan Taylor, author of this beguiling, fascinating memoir, had more luck. He went to Arezzo to interview her in 1990 and a lasting friendship ensued that went as far as regular house-sitting for her and her friend Penelope Jardine, as Muriel and Penny quit Italy in the hottest weeks of summer for more temperate climes. Taylor came to know her well in the last decade-and-a-half of her life. He was often called on to be her walker-cum-cicerone on trips she made, in failing health, to Oxford or New York or other places where she was being feted. She was Dame Muriel Spark, then, with a long literary career that seemed enviably successful. It’s only now, posthumously – she died in 2006 – that the riven complexities of her early life, the entanglements of her personal relationships and the various glosses and concealments that Spark deployed to enhance her elaborate myth are coming into sharper focus. The Spark persona becomes more and more fascinating.

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Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years and Oscar’s Ghost review – Wilde after prison

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 07:30:02 GMT2017-11-15T07:30:02Z

Nicholas Frankel’s book together with Laura Lee’s study of Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s legacy chart a tragic relationship that is also one of the most fascinating gay love stories

Three months before Oscar Wilde was released from prison, in February 1897, his wife Constance obtained a legal separation and a formal end of his responsibility for his two sons. After much rancorous discussion, she agreed to offer him an annual allowance of £150 a year on condition that he did not get in touch with her or the children without her permission. The other condition, as Nicholas Frankel writes in his detailed and finely judged account of Wilde’s life after prison, was “that he not associate in future with any person deemed disreputable in the eyes of his own lawyer”. This was an indirect reference to Lord Alfred Douglas, who had been Wilde’s lover.

It was arranged that Wilde, on release, once he had washed and shaved and changed into a new suit, would take the boat to Dieppe, where his friends Robert Ross and Reggie Turner were waiting for him. Before his departure for Dieppe, Wilde had a note sent to the Jesuits in Farm Street in London asking for a Catholic priest to come so that he might receive spiritual guidance. When the Jesuits refused, Wilde “broke down and sobbed bitterly”. Between then and his death three and a half years later, he would be marked as someone to be avoided. “My existence is a scandal,” Wilde would later write to Ross.

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Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello review – brilliant essays on immortal beasts

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 09:00:03 GMT2017-11-15T09:00:03Z

The meanings of Dürer’s rhino, Mozart’s starling, Darwin’s tortoise and others explored with wild imagination and pyrotechnic prose

Elena Passarello starts this extraordinary book with the image of Yuka, a woolly mammoth chiselled from the softening permafrost by Siberian tusk hunters in 2010. First a rounded hoof comes into view, then a hollowed-out eye and finally the flank still bearing evidence of the gash that must have done for young Yuka – she was no more than 10 years old when she died – nearly 40 millennia ago. Most surprising of all, though, is the burning smoulder of her pelt, which has kept to its unconvincing ginger-red despite the passing centuries. Whoever knew that woolly mammoths shared their hair colour with dime-store dolls?

As Yuka is flopped on to the snowmobile it is not her odd dislocations – most of her spine is gone although her legs remain rigid – that qualify as one of the “curious poses” of the book’s title (taken incidentally from a line in “When Doves Cry” by Prince). It is what happens next, Passarello suggests, that stretches and shrinks Yuka into something truly strange. First she becomes the object of hard financial bargaining as the tusk hunters hide her carcass in a frozen cave and wait for the highest bidder. Then, when the scientists finally get their hands on her, she morphs into the poster child for a “rewilding” initiative that aims to make extinct breeds live again by splicing their ancient DNA into the embryo of their nearest living relatives.

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The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown review – ‘the heart of the zeitgeist, people!’

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 14:15:32 GMT2017-11-14T14:15:32Z

These reflections by the celebrated editor aren’t really about a magazine but about her, and the name-dropping and hard-glamour sell are relentless

Almost 20 years ago I bought a book in a charity shop purely because of the author: it was Life As a Party, by Tina Brown, published in 1983. I was starting to consider journalism as a career and, of all the high-profile female journalists out there to see as a role model, Brown struck me as a pretty good option. Whereas the similarly impressive Anna Wintour, long-term editor-in-chief of American Vogue, made success look utterly joyless, Brown seemed to have such fun, whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic, dropping names like a chainsmoker discarding cigarette butts. Who wouldn’t want to hang out at Tina Brown’s party?

Except, it turned out, the operative word in “Life As a Party” was the second one: Brown’s world wasn’t an actual party, but a simulation of one. That book was her collected journalism from her time as the editor of Tatler, which she took over in 1979 when she was just 25. There, she wrote enthusiastically about people with names such as Baron Enrico di Portanova, and she championed their milieu gamely. I still have the book, even though it is almost entirely incomprehensible, because it taught me an important lesson: when you work in glossy magazines, there is no such thing as detachment, because you are selling your subject to the reader, even one as banal as the lifestyles of Tory toffs. Brown is, unquestionably, a thrillingly dynamic editor, but the primary reason she has been so successful is she is very good at selling.

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The Story of Looking by Mark Cousins review – the world through someone else’s eyes

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 07:00:24 GMT2017-11-14T07:00:24Z

The film-maker’s history of the human gaze is illuminating, but has little to say about today’s image overload

In December 2013, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the then Danish prime minister, briefly became an internet sensation when she was photographed at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela taking a selfie with Barack Obama and David Cameron. In March 2016, a 26-year-old British man, Ben Innes, a passenger on an EgyptAir flight, managed to persuade the plane’s hijacker, Seif Eldin Mustafa, to pose with him for a selfie. In the photo, Mustafa is wearing what appears to be an explosives vest (though it was later found to be fake).

If the internet has radically altered the way we think, the smartphone is simultaneously altering the way we look – and are looked at – in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a few decades ago. As both these examples illustrate, our behaviour has changed accordingly: we seem to have become less self-conscious and self-aware. Thus, posing for selfies, snapping total strangers and filming almost everything we do, from eating lunch to attending a concert, has become so commonplace as to be rarely commented on.

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‘Why the response to the centenary is muted’ – the Russian Revolution and its legacy

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 07:00:18 GMT2017-11-13T07:00:18Z

One hunded years after the Bolshevik revolt, books by Masha Gessen, Serhii Plokhy, Yuri Slezkine and Stephen Kotkin shed light on Soviet socialism’s birth and death

There was a time, not long after the cold war ended, when it looked as though the vast investments the west had made in Kremlinology were about to be liquidated. Having failed to foresee communism’s collapse, the west’s Soviet experts faced grim prospects in a world that had apparently left them behind. How fast things change: today, Russia is back in the news, reprising for the internet era its familiar role as antihero to the freedom-loving west. Putin’s muscle-flexing has produced an old-fashioned territorial struggle in Ukraine and Crimea; the Kremlin’s newfangled cyberwar has generated a firestorm in the US and the results of the 2016 presidential election, far from calming relations between the two old superpowers, have made them tenser than they have been for years.

Yet amid this drama, the response to the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has been curiously muted and not only in Russia itself. Fifty years ago, there was an outpouring of high-calibre work that testified to the west’s desire to understand its adversary. This year, there has been relatively little. One reason for this is obvious. Communism itself, as a system of thought counterposed to capitalism and private property, is more or less dead in Russia and moribund outside. And with communism gone, anti-communism has become meaningless. But not only communism. Socialism more broadly suffered a heavy blow after 1989. Most leftist parties tacked sharply to the centre, drawn by the dream of a new third way and only austerity economics has done anything to staunch the trend.

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Vital Little Plans review – why the ideas of Jane Jacobs are still vital

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 09:59:15 GMT2017-11-10T09:59:15Z

These short pieces showcase Jacobs’s opposition to top-down bureaucratic arrogance and big-money property development

The need for Jane Jacobs and her clear-eyed human-scale urbanism is as strong as ever. Her masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) described in brilliant detail the intricate ecology of how a city works (New York) or does not work (Detroit). Though Jacobs never wrote fiction, the book was more like a novelistic rendering of lived street life than a scholarly text. She was, as she once described herself, a “student of cities”, more interested in the effects of buildings than their design.

Related: How Jane Jacobs changed the way we look at cities | Saskia Sassen

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Victorious Century by David Cannadine review – a sparkling history of 19th-century Britain

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-11-10T09:00:14Z

An era in which the UK enjoyed unparalleled influence in the world seems long distant but its contradictions remain embedded in our own

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1859, imagining France on the eve of revolution. He may as well have been describing Britain during his own century. It was an era when industry energised and enriched, but polluted and proletarianised; when men enjoyed expanding political rights but women’s freedoms were curtailed; when some rejoiced as the British empire flung pink arms across the world, but others resisted. It was a “Victorious Century”, as David Cannadine entitles this sparklingly intelligent survey, for a United Kingdom whose hegemony rivalled that of the US and China today – but a century of contradictions for the people who lived in it.

Victorious Century opens in 1800, with the passage of the Act of Union with Ireland, and with Britain struggling to prevail against France in what Lord Cornwallis, who had presided over the loss of the American colonies, called a “bloody and hopeless war”. Nobody in 1800 could have reasonably anticipated British victory over France, let alone its global hegemony. But the industrial, financial and demographic momentum was in Britain’s favour. Production of iron and textiles surged, the population boomed, and an increasingly efficient state apparatus of borrowing and tax-collection funded an ultimately successful war effort. If Napoleon said his army marched on its stomach, Wellington’s marched to Waterloo on the public debt.

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The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1 review – why Plath can’t win in a world of male privilege

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 14:52:00 GMT2017-11-08T14:52:00Z

At last her letters, including many to Ted Hughes, appear in complete form. But in the years from 1940 to 1956 she had yet to come into her own as a writer

The posthumous editing of a famous writer is rarely as simple as it might seem, but the case of Sylvia Plath is one of the most tangled and fraught in modern letters. And it is this history that primarily makes the publication of volume one of the unabridged Letters of Sylvia Plath a newsworthy event. This volume covers the early years of her life, ending with her marriage to Ted Hughes in 1956. The second volume, due next autumn, covers the years of their marriage and separation, up to her death; it promises to be even more newsworthy.

When Plath died in 1963, the majority of her writing was unpublished – despite her strenuous efforts to the contrary. She and Hughes had separated after six years of marriage, a split precipitated by his affair with Assia Gutmann Wevill. They were still married when Plath killed herself, and she died intestate, which meant that Hughes inherited her literary estate. He had to decide, in the midst of what was clearly terrible grief and guilt, while trying to comfort their two small children, what to do with this dark, brilliant legacy.

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Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement review – how can I be a better person?

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 10:00:41 GMT2017-11-08T10:00:41Z

To write this fine comedy of cultural criticism authors Carl Cederström and André Spicer spent a year ‘optimising’ themselves physically, sexually, morally and mentally

How can I be a better person? For most of human history this has been an ethical question. But now it’s a technological one. This is the age of life-hacks, smart drugs, cosmetic surgery, mindfulness apps, wearable gadgets that quantify movement, productivity-enhancing software and social media, the largest infrastructure for indiscriminate boasting the world has ever seen. Old Stoic approaches to controlling one’s thoughts are updated to macho video headlines such as “How I Made My Mind My Bitch”. Crucially, the phrase “self-help”, with its unfortunate possible implications of weakness and victimhood, has been elbowed out by the engineering metaphor of “self-optimisation”.

This is now such a huge and variegated industry that, for a curious outsider, it’s difficult to know where to start. Which is where our authors come in, for they have done their readers the profound service of starting everywhere. Over the course of 2016, they each spent an entire month trying to optimise, according to the latest scientific or at least sciencey advice, one area of their lives, from productivity (in the work sense), to brain function, physical attractiveness, relationships, creativity, money, and so on. In a month, Carl Cederström scoffs smart pills, gets a personal trainer to build muscle, and learns French; André Spicer runs an ultramarathon, becomes a day trader, and goes on a man retreat.

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Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers review – a heartfelt hug of a story

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 09:00:30 GMT2017-11-07T09:00:30Z

Jeffers’s first nonfiction book is a witty, tender introduction to the world for his newborn son

Like many new parents back from hospital, Oliver Jeffers found himself taking his baby on a tour of his home: “Here’s the kitchen, where we make food...” This sparked the idea for his first foray into nonfiction, a picture book introducing his son to “the big globe, floating in space, on which we live”. Unmistakably conceived in the afterglow of new parenthood – the sun blazes, everyone smiles and the baby is a cute, luminous cocoon lighting up the nursery – it bursts with tenderness.

As you’d also expect from the world-renowned creator of such characters as Henry (The Incredible Book Eating Boy) and Wilfred, with his botched attempts at moose-taming (This Moose Belongs to Me), it’s witty and fun. At the bottom of a diagram of the body, the label for “bones” reads: “To hold it all together.”

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Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne; How to Swear by Stephen Wildish – review

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 07:30:28 GMT2017-11-07T07:30:28Z

Two books on swearing explore the cathartic pleasures of the four-letter riposte

My earliest memory is of sitting on the pavement outside my childhood home while Tony Hilsden, the local juvenile delinquent, tutored me in the lexicon of profanity. “No, not ‘can’t’. It’s ‘cunt’.”

I was four years old and the reason it sticks in my mind is that my mother caught him doing it, sent him packing, and told me to forget everything I’d just learned. That, of course, became an impossibility the instant I realised its forbidden nature. So began my initiation into the social taboo of “bad” language.

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Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza review – a people’s man at work, rest and play

Mon, 06 Nov 2017 07:30:10 GMT2017-11-06T07:30:10Z

A record of Barack Obama’s eight years in office by the official White House photographer reminds us of what we are missing in the age of Trump

Given Donald Trump’s hollow self-conceit, his lies, bully-boy rampages and mad determination to goad Americans into a reignited racial war, it’s no surprise that the presidency of Barack Obama looks, in retrospect, like a blessed time.

The loss to us all is dramatised in Obama Leaving, a huge photorealist tableau by Robert Longo, currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Under a thundery sky of charcoal clouds, Obama strides into the distance, withdrawing from a world that can no longer rely on his sanity and goodwill. Now Pete Souza, who as Obama’s official photographer spent eight years documenting his every move, shows him in the helicopter after Trump’s inauguration, looking down at the small, suddenly fragile White House where, as he remarks, “I used to live”. Less than a year later, its symbolic coat of paint no longer vouches for the republic’s rectitude.

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Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard – review

Sun, 05 Nov 2017 06:30:11 GMT2017-11-05T06:30:11Z

In tracing the roots of misogyny to Athens and Rome, Mary Beard has produced a modern feminist classic

This book is a mere slip of a thing: at 115 pages, small enough to fit into the most diminutive of bags or even (should you be in striding out mood) the pocket of an overcoat. But size, in this instance, is irrelevant. There are two things you need to know about it. The first is that what Mary Beard has to say is powerful: here are more than a few pretty useful stones for the slingshots some of us feel we must carry with us everywhere we go right now. The second is that most of its power, if not all, lies in its author’s absolute refusal to make anything seem too simple. Even as she tries to be concise and easy on the ear – the book is adapted from two lectures, one given at the British Museum in 2014, and the other earlier this year – Beard knows that the matters with which she is concerned are extremely complicated. Before she arms you, then, she makes you think. In this sense, if no other, Women & Power deserves to take its place alongside Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, the text that first suggested literature as a medium for consciousness-raising.

Beard’s primary subject is female silence; she hopes to take a “long view on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment”, the better to get beyond “the simple diagnosis of misogyny that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on”. Calling out misogyny isn’t, she understands, the same thing as explaining it, and it’s only by doing the latter that we’re likely ever to find an effective means of combating it. The question is: where should we look for answers? Beard acknowledges that misogyny has multiple sources; its roots are deep and wide. But in this book, she looks mostly (she is a classicist, after all) at Greek and Roman antiquity, a realm that even now, she believes, casts a shadow over our traditions of public speaking, whether we are considering the timbre of a person’s voice, or their authority to pronounce on any given subject.

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Brolliology by Marion Rankine review – thinking about umbrellas

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 08:00:13 GMT2017-11-04T08:00:13Z

Mary Poppins used one to fly but for most people they are merely ‘portable roofs’. Have brollies lost their magic?

Among the Japanese yokai, or monstrous spirits, one of the most prominent forms of apparition is the kasa-obake: the umbrella ghost. It is always an old umbrella, well used and long ignored, with holes in the oiled paper or a broken rib. One moment it is quietly rolled in the hallway stand, the next it is leaping and leering, its wooden handle now taking the shape of a human leg. From among the folds a single eye gleams with sinister life. An 18th-century haiku by Yosa Buson catches the mood: “Oh, the winter rain / On a moonlit night / When the shadow of an old umbrella shudders.” The Japanese paper parasol is more often a protection against sun than rain, but in both guises it can be beautiful, symbolically powerful and malign. It casts a clement shadow, but shades can also be spectres.

I must say, I’ve never felt haunted by an umbrella, but I wouldn’t open one indoors, and Marion Rankine’s tour through umbrella culture suggests how widely this apparently simple accessory has been regarded with reverence, superstition and fascination. If you’re surprised by the thought of a whole book on the subject, be assured that there is already a substantial reading list. The story of ancient ceremonial usage, of sky gods, of Thomas Coryat’s return to England with news of the Italian sunshade – all this has been much retold and refined since William Sangster, proprietor of Sangster’s Umbrellas in London, published his cheerfully triumphal survey Umbrellas and Their History in 1855. The histories on the bookshelf are joined by social analyses, such as Dickens’s inquiry into the conditions of umbrella manufacture, and contemporary studies of sartorial sign language. And this is before we open the floodgates to painting, poetry and fiction.

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The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff – Joseph Conrad in world history

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 07:30:17 GMT2017-11-03T07:30:17Z

This brilliant study blends biography, lit crit and commentary on our times. Conrad’s life gave him a unique insight into ‘progress’, empire and global capitalism

The Dawn Watch will win prizes, and if it doesn’t, there is something wrong with the prizes. Is this a biography of Joseph Conrad? Not entirely. Although it follows the chronological form of his life, there are elisions and diversions. Is it literary criticism? No, though Jasanoff gives bravura renditions of the novels, laying down a story, quoting lines, revealing their essence and showing the links to Conrad’s own experience. Is it a study of globalisation, a historical commentary on our times? Yes, but this is done so deftly that you barely notice. The reader is shown international trade played out as conquest, reckless politicians, cynicism, alienation and racism, even suicide bombers, but the links to the present are not stated, just left there fizzing like a late 19th-century anarchist’s bomb. Jasanoff has even gone to the trouble of sailing from East Asia to Europe on a cargo ship, and travelling 1,000 miles down the Congo river, but wisely she confines this to brief mentions at either end of the book. The Dawn Watch is an expansion of the biographical form, placing an individual in total context: Joseph Conrad in world history.

His early life was unbearable, the sort of personal tragedy that is happening now to families in countries such as Syria or Myanmar. His parents were devoted to each other, and their love extended to a shared, romantic nationalist dream of liberating Poles from the Russian yoke. “My soul yearns for that ‘Young Poland’ of our dreams, which you will create, rouse to life, and lead into the future,” wrote wife to husband as he made his revolutionary plans. Instead, the local tsarist police chief “appeared in disguise, without ringing the bell, at the gate of Terechowa, and questioned people in the stables”.

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The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa review – superior pet lit

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 12:00:02 GMT2017-11-17T12:00:02Z

Anyone who’s ever had a cat will be moved by this beautifully evoked feline roadtrip

Consider two famous facts about cats. One: on the night of 30 April 1915, the ship’s cat of the RMS Lusitania went awol in New York. The next day, the ship sailed for Liverpool without him; a week later it was torpedoed by U-boats and sunk. Two: in the ruins of Pompeii, there have been found no cat remains, although mosaics and statues indicate that cats were favoured pets. Countless people perished in the destruction of Pompeii, as did hapless dogs. But when they died, they did it cat-less.

I mention these feline feats of scarpering in times of crisis because the reader needs to be warned: Hiro Arikawa’s bestselling Japanese novel features a cat with a heart, who feels loyalty and gratitude and would never abandon his loving human master – not at the first rumble of an erupting volcano; not even on hearing rumours of enemy submarines lurking in the Irish Sea. So we must start with a question. Is this a book for cat lovers who can’t handle the truth?

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The Alarming Palsy of James Orr review – the collapse of normality

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 07:30:06 GMT2017-11-17T07:30:06Z

Perception and reality blur in a compelling fable about otherness, anxiety and the alienating effects of illness

Reading Eley Williams’s brilliant story collection Attrib., published earlier this year, I encountered a phrase – “unheimlich manoeuvres” – that captures perfectly the most notable element of Tom Lee’s writing. He has a pronounced ability to take normal, even mundane situations and nudge them out of true, propelling his characters into positions of strangeness and danger that they are often fatally slow to identify. He did it in the best stories in his first book, Greenfly, and now he does it at novel length in The Alarming Palsy of James Orr.

Lee wastes no time in setting things askew. “When James Orr woke up,” the book begins, “he had the sense that there was something not quite right, some indefinable shift in the normal order of things.” That shift turns out to be physical: James has been struck by Bell’s palsy, the mysterious condition that manifests as a sudden and inexplicable facial paralysis. But this ailment rapidly takes on a psychological dimension, and its level of seriousness swells from inconvenience to existential threat.

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Selected Poems of Thom Gunn edited by Clive Wilmer review – life on the edge

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 12:00:18 GMT2017-11-10T12:00:18Z

He left England for California and, as an observer of gay life, became a uniquely Anglo-American poet. The new selected edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry reveals a writer as good as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney

Thom Gunn was one of those poets you studied at school in the 1960s or 70s if your teacher had their finger on the pulse: Plath, Hughes, Heaney and Gunn. He had his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954), accepted for publication while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, and brought out his second, The Sense of Movement, in 1957 – the same year as Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain. Gunn and Hughes were prolific and famous enough, in 1962, to share a joint Selected Poems from Faber. Gunn met his life partner, Mike Kitay, an American visiting student, at Cambridge, and moved with him to California in 1954. By the time Gunn died at his home in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, he had lived in the US for nearly 60 years, and had become – as he put it – an “Anglo-American poet”.

In “To Thom Gunn in Los Altos, California”, his friend Donald Davie wrote: “Conquistador! Live dangerously, my Byron, / In this metropolis / Of Finistere. Drop off / The edge repeatedly, and come / Back to tell us!”

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The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet review – games within games

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 07:30:12 GMT2017-11-10T07:30:12Z

A Simenon-style story from the Booker-shortlisted trickster recreates a France of francs and call boxes

In an era of fake news, the Scottish novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet is experimenting with a genre that might be called “false true crime”. In His Bloody Project, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize, he presented himself as the editor of historical documents relating to an ancestor apparently accused of a triple killing in the mid 19th-century Scottish Highlands. That multi-veiled tale continued a strain of tricksy fiction that began with the 2014 debut novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, purporting to be Macrae Burnet’s translation of a mystery by Raymond Brunet, a late 20th-century French writer of policiers in the manner of Georges Simenon.

Now Macrae Burnet tells us that he has anglicised a second fiction from the same source. According to a preface, L’Accident sur l’A35 was sent to a Parisian publisher in 2014, having been found among the papers of Brunet’s late mother, to whom it had passed after the writer took his own life in 1992.

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America City by Chris Beckett review – dark vision of our future

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 12:00:27 GMT2017-11-09T12:00:27Z

The Arthur C Clarke winner’s dystopia is set in a future US ravaged by climate change and war

The signposts have been around for decades, and the territory is increasingly well mapped. So while the past may be a foreign country, the future is an increasingly familiar one – in which we continue to be alarmingly ourselves.

In this vivid and disturbing climate-change novel, Chris Beckett, winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, compellingly illustrates the consequences of our species’ fatal hard-wiring. Though a knight’s move away from his acclaimed sci-fi trilogy Dark Eden, Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden, his new work shares a preoccupation with the survival and evolution of societies in inhospitable worlds.

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Winter by Ali Smith review – luminously beautiful

Sun, 05 Nov 2017 07:00:11 GMT2017-11-05T07:00:11Z

A fraught family Christmas in Cornwall is the setting for the second part of Smith’s seasonal quartet, a tender tale inspired by Dickens and Shakespeare

Think of a classic winter tale, and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol might be the first to mind. It’s clearly one of the models for the second part of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, a novel of great ferocity, tenderness, righteous anger and generosity of spirit that you feel Dickens would have recognised. Sophia Cleves is a Scrooge for our time, a retired businesswoman whose work always took precedence over family. Now holed up in her 15-bedroom house in Cornwall, she is, as her estranged sister, Iris, observes, “an old miserly grump who had nothing in the house for your son and his girlfriend for Christmas except a bag of walnuts and half a jar of glace cherries”.

But Sophia has not been alone; as the story opens she is chatting to a child’s disembodied head that bobs cheerfully around her like the dancing light of Christmas past. Like Scrooge’s ghosts, the head is a shape-shifter, at times taking on the form of the Green Man of legend, at others appearing more like a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, one of the novel’s other tutelary spirits. Midnight chimes over and over for Sophia on Christmas Eve, as the narrative cuts between past and present as if being shown to the reader in a vision (“Let’s see another Christmas…”).

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First Person by Richard Flanagan review – memoirs of a shady past

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 07:30:12 GMT2017-11-04T07:30:12Z

In the Man Booker winner’s first novel since The Narrow Road to the Deep North, an invitation to ghostwrite a criminal’s autobiography leads a man into a moral crisis

Kif Kehlmann is a young Tasmanian with a chip on his shoulder, $200 in his bank account, a wife who is pregnant with twins, a three-year-old daughter he struggles to provide for, and thwarted ambitions to become a novelist. But he also has noble principles. When celebrated conman Siegfried Heidl – who is about to go to prison for his crimes – suggests out of the blue that Kif becomes the ghostwriter of his memoir, his first instinct is to say no, and stick to the high ground of his failing art.

But needs must. And anyway, Kif seems to have been given a head start – a 12,000-word manuscript produced by Heidl himself, which on the face of it offers a sketch of everything it will be Kif’s job to flesh out. Despite the warnings of both his conscience and his rackety best friend Ray, now employed as Heidl’s gofer, he therefore accepts the commission.

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Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – unflinching reflections

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 16:00:24 GMT2017-11-03T16:00:24Z

For all its lyrical elegance, there is no hiding the anger and defiance in this debut collection

Eminem ruined everything,” laments the speaker of “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, a playfully candid narrative poem in Kumukanda, Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection. Ostensibly a hymn to the poet’s teenage love of mixtape assembly, R&B and modern rap, “slick lyrics I could earn stripes by reciting”, the nostalgic story soon morphs into a barbed reflection on racial difference and societal prejudice. “In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line”, boasts the poet, “though no amount of practice could conjure the pale skin / and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me / just another brother who could rhyme”.

Kumukanda, we learn, is the name given to the tribal rites of passage that young Zambian boys must undergo before they become men (Chingonyi, born in 1987, moved to the UK from Zambia aged six). The book emerges as being about memory and identity in the best and broadest sense. But it also challenges our preconceptions around culture as it is both made and received, and the tensions between art and the self. “If my alternate self, who never left, could see me” questions the title poem, “what would he make of these literary pretensions, / this need to speak with a tongue that isn’t mine?”

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All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler review – a provocative portrayal of teen sexuality

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 09:00:19 GMT2017-11-03T09:00:19Z

The author formerly known as Lemony Snicket explores gender politics and the fluidity of sexual identity through his perpetually horny antihero

American author Daniel Handler is best known for the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, written under his pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. If you’re a Snicket fan – and many people are, as the children’s books have sold more than 65m copies and been translated into 41 languages – then be warned: All the Dirty Parts, like much of the work published under Handler’s real name, could prove more provocative than you anticipate.

The story has a staccato rhythm, divided into short vignettes offering us raw snapshots of a young man’s life. That young man is Cole, a high-school student preoccupied by sex. “Let me put it this way,” he says in the opening lines of the novel, “this is how much I think about sex. Draw a number line, where zero is, you never think about sex and 10 is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.” Cole is popular with girls, so popular that he is beginning to develop a “reputation”, leaving him adrift with only his best friend, Alec, for company. And then Grisaille comes to town …

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The White Book by Han Kang review – the fragility of life

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 07:30:49 GMT2017-11-02T07:30:49Z

The author of The Vegetarian has written a powerful autobiographical meditation on the life and death of a newborn sister

When I first read Han Kang’s modernist masterpiece, The Vegetarian, its accumulative effect was shattering. I knew that I was engaging with the most sophisticated kind of writing intelligence. How thrilling it was to discover the work of a major contemporary Korean writer. But what was it about? The core of the story features an apparently unremarkable woman who refuses to eat meat and is therefore subjected to crazed violence by her family. Yet it is also about authoritarian control, all the dimensions of desire – including the renunciation of desire – and the ways in which we make a bid to live a life that feels less wrong.

Han won the 2016 Man Booker International prize for The Vegetarian, along with her translator Deborah Smith. Quite right, too. It requires immense skill to translate the literary techniques at work in a novel of this kind: the depth charge of its pared-down language, its cadence, the intricate web of connecting conversations with readers, and above all, the aesthetic sensibility of the whole composition. Smith also translated Han’s astonishing 2016 novel, Human Acts.

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The best recent thrillers – review roundup

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 12:00:54 GMT2017-11-02T12:00:54Z

Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir; All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin; Pale Horse Riding by Chris Petit; Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre; The Brother by Joakim Zander; Kill Me Twice by Simon Booker

The Nordic crime wave just keeps coming. In Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Orenda, £8.99, translated by Quentin Bates), young mother Sonia is coping with an acrimonious divorce and trying to keep custody of her son. Desperation drives her to smuggle cocaine into Iceland; she initially enjoys the excitement, but is soon wondering whether she is tough enough to survive in a new and ruthless criminal environment – particularly with customs officer Bragi on her tail. The eponymous “snare” here is a Hydra-headed monster: Sonia is caught in a criminal, financial (embodying her country’s recent financial crash) and even a sexual snare – her new lover Agla is not at ease with their relationship, constantly claiming that she is really straight. Sigurðardóttir avoids inviting easy sympathy for any of her characters, even the beleaguered Sonia, but she keeps us reading.

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The Last Hours by Minette Walters review – mass graves and power plays

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 12:00:16 GMT2017-11-01T12:00:16Z

The first novel in a decade from the queen of psychological crime is a historical drama set during the Black Death“In the book business, when you have had a success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life,” explains Ken Follett, in the introduction to his 1989 bestseller The Pillars of the Earth. Follett ignored that advice, frightening his publishers by abandoning thrillers to embark on a historical epic. Now Minette Walters – formerly the multimillion-selling “queen of psychological crime” – has gambled on the same change of direction. After retiring from the genre she helped popularise, amid much speculation about burnout or writer’s block, she has spent most of the last decade working on a mammoth two-part historical saga set in her home county of Dorset during the early ravages of the Black Death.There’s no shortage of corpses in these 500-plus pages, including a murder victim, but The Last Hours is not historical crime; the influence seems rather to have been Follett’s Kingsbridge novels, with their multiple story lines and large cast. In the summer of 1348, Lady Anne of Develish is shaping her humble demesne into one of the most productive and harmonious in the county, thanks to her unusually progressive ideas about healthcare and literacy among her serfs, and despite resistance from her boorish Norman husband Sir Richard and petulant teenage daughter Eleanor. While visiting a neighbouring manor to secure Eleanor’s marriage, Sir Richard succumbs to an unknown illness: his shrewd captain notices mass graves and deserted villages along the way. When a messenger arrives in Develish forewarning that “a Black Death has fallen upon our land”, Lady Anne – who from her convent upbringing has learned the importance of segregating the sick – orders her people inside the boundary walls of her moated manor house. The gates are barred to all comers including her ailing husband and his retinue, who are left to die unshriven in the village. Continue reading...[...]

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Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner review – thrilling nihilism from Mad Men creator

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 10:00:13 GMT2017-10-31T10:00:13Z

An elegant novella about the decline and fall of a marriage is bleak but captivating

In an interview a few years ago, Matthew Weiner said that, as a child growing up in a bibliophile family, he “always thought” he would be a novelist. Though his route to this destination has been unusually roundabout – first, there was the small matter of becoming a screenwriter and creating the hit TV series Mad Men – he has finally got there, aged 52. Heather, the Totality may be a slender work (technically more novella than novel), but it packs an impressive amount of drama and excitement into its 138 pages. A bleakly elegant tale of ennui and class envy, it reads – perhaps not altogether surprisingly – less like a novice effort than the work of a highly accomplished fabulator.

Mark and Karen Breakstone are a couple from Manhattan who meet, and get married, “a little late in life”. He works in an unspecified area of finance (which, not irrelevantly, gives him the “potential to be rich”); she has a job in publicity that she is only too glad to be rid of. While theirs is a not entirely cynical union, Weiner makes it plain that the emotions involved aren’t earth-shattering. Karen nearly calls off the wedding when Mark is passed over for a promotion, but eventually reconciles herself: “She knew that what she had come to know as love had become love when she was around him.” Mark, less convolutedly, considers Karen “beautiful” and thinks he will “never tire of having sex with her” – a realisation he takes “very seriously”.

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Mother Land by Paul Theroux review – a phenomenally strange novel

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 07:59:55 GMT2017-11-19T07:59:55Z

The veteran writer’s ‘fictionalised memoir’ of matriarchal tyranny reads like an act of projection too far

In lieu of a memoir, acclaimed, prolific travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux brings us a work of fiction narrated by a (sometimes) acclaimed and (often the result of accounts due) prolific writer who decides not to write a memoir. “I imagined the book’s appearance. My life would be reviewed by envious hacks, bitter academics and ambitious young writers. I knew – I had been all of these people in my career. The summation of my life: ‘Some good parts, lots of boring parts, wasted time – on the whole, a mediocre life. Not recommended.’”

There is something distinctly passive-aggressive about this fictionalised rejection of an attempt to write the truth. Theroux, writing here in the persona of Jay Justus, knows that his good parts have been very good, and that boring is a relative concept when you’ve roamed the world for decades. Sure, now you’re verging on broke and holed up in a mildly entropic corner of Cape Cod (Jay rather than Paul, who pings between Massachusetts and Hawaii when not on farther-flung trips), but this deliberately downbeat assessment of imaginary others’ assessment seems an act of projection and self-protection too far.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng review – hidden passions

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 07:30:25 GMT2017-11-18T07:30:25Z

A burning house sparks tensions within an all-too-perfect suburban community in a story exploring race, identity and family secrets

Is it possible to plan a community; to construct it from scratch, instil it with virtues and benefits, and order it to your satisfaction? The founders of Shaker Heights, Ohio, certainly thought so: in 1905, railroad magnates the Van Sweringen brothers picked a wide place in the road and set about developing one of the United States’ first garden cities. Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from its fug and bustle: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation, with rules regulating every aspect of communal life, down to the colours you could paint your house (“slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan”) and how high (“six inches”) your lawn was permitted to grow.

It was – is – a miniaturised version of its motherland: the United States of America, that shining city on the hill; a country that conjured itself into being on the strength of an idea. The citizens of Shaker Heights, in which Celeste Ng’s novel is set, possess a heightened sense of the superiority enjoyed by all their compatriots thanks to the purity of their founding principles. “When the troubles of the outside world made their presence felt in Shaker Heights,” we hear, “the community felt obliged to show this was not the Shaker way.” Others may scrap and brawl, but in Shaker Heights the community is “unified and beautiful”: the weeds are pulled, the cookies are baked (“with all proceeds benefiting charities”), and the school band goes marching on, and on.

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green review – dark and complex

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 08:00:25 GMT2017-11-14T08:00:25Z

Teenager Aza embarks on a mystery and a love story but both are soon derailed by her own anxieties in John Green’s first novel in six years

The Fault in Our Stars and its subsequent film adaptation catapulted John Green into literary stardom. In his first new novel for almost six years we’re back in familiar territory, the “gloomy” canvas of middle America populated by astonishingly articulate teenagers with a penchant for existential debate and cultural references – Star Wars, The Tempest and fan fiction in this case. Against this backdrop 16-year-old Aza and her “best and most fearless friend”, Daisy, investigate the disappearance of a fugitive billionaire in the hope of pocketing a reward. The detective angle is quickly sidelined, though, when Aza falls for his teenage son, Davis, and a tentative relationship develops. But Aza is prey to a “tightening spiral” of anxiety and OCD, which affects every aspect of her life. She longs for agency over her own thoughts, repeatedly referring to herself as in a movie or book written by someone else.

The novel is narrated exclusively from Aza’s perspective, sometimes, it feels, at the expense of other stories – there’s a whole other book in there about the two rather lost brothers living alone in a soulless mansion, or of Daisy and her invisible home life. But the voice of a suffering teenage girl and the dark lens through which she views life are well drawn and uncomfortably convincing.

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We See Everything by William Sutcliffe review – surveillance and survival in dystopian London

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 09:29:14 GMT2017-11-04T09:29:14Z

Resistance fighters are tracked by drones in this young adult tale of violence, love and bereavement

Although I’m an almost lifelong fan of dystopian fiction, ever since accidentally picking up Nineteen Eighty-Four at the age of 10, I find it harder to read now that the gap between it and reality is closing by the day. Dystopias these days read like terrifying premonitions with just enough notice of doom to give your loved ones a kiss goodbye before the apocalypse hits.

Nevertheless, though We See Everything belongs firmly in the dystopian genre – it is set in a near-future, war-ravaged London whose impoverished inhabitants are herded into “the Strip”, surveilled constantly by drones and periodically bombed into further submission – it remains a relatively easy read, for both good and bad reasons.

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Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend review – a magical debut

Sun, 29 Oct 2017 11:00:25 GMT2017-10-29T11:00:25Z

This enchanting adventure of a ‘strange little girl with black eyes’ more than holds its own against a certain H Potter. Roll on the franchise

A barrage of hype accompanies this magical debut: a film deal, a storm of foreign editions and Harry Potter comparisons galore. Happily, this supremely entertaining adventure deserves the attention. Fans of the boy wizard will find much to love here, but Nevermoor has its own charm in spades.

Morrigan Crow, a “strange little girl with black eyes”, is a cursed child, blamed for her town’s every misfortune and doomed to die at midnight on her 11th birthday. Enter the enigmatic Jupiter North, a mysterious benefactor who plots her escape from the murderous Hunt of Smoke and Shadow, whisking Morrigan to the city of Nevermoor. There, Morrigan discovers that she must compete in a series of trials for a place in the prestigious Wundrous Society, pitted against hundreds of children with exceptional talents. Morrigan, however, has yet to discover her own.

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

Sat, 28 Oct 2017 09:01:00 GMT2017-10-28T09:01:00Z

Scary stories for Halloween, the transformative power of education … and fish-finger sandwiches

Ghoulish goodies abound for picture-book fans this Halloween, including I Want to Be in a Scary Story by Sean Taylor and Jean Jullien (Walker). Asked what sort of story he’d like to be in, Little Monster demands a scary one. But a spooky forest and haunted house prove too perturbing – and he wants to be the one doing the scaring … This is beautifully structured for reading aloud; a vibrant, viewpoint-flipping picture book that should lessen small readers’ fairytale fears.

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Iona Opie obituary

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 14:59:52 GMT2017-10-25T14:59:52Z

Folklorist who collected, codified and published children’s rhymes, riddles and street culture

When asked how she became a custodian of the lore and traditions of childhood, Iona Opie, who has died aged 94, told a bedtime story. The publishing company that employed her husband, Peter, was exiled by the London blitz to Bedfordshire in 1943, and there the couple walked by a field of corn. Iona, who was pregnant, picked up a bug and recited “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children all gone.” It flew and they were “left wondering about this rhyme – what did it mean? Where did it come from? Who wrote it?”

No index in the public library could direct them, so from scratch they started researching nursery rhymes. Iona claimed the rhymes were uniquely British: “All part of being frightfully tough and not minding the weather; we’re nourished with nonsense and it does us a lot of good”. The Opies collected, codified and published that nonsense.

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Philip Pullman: ‘My daemon is a raven, a bird that steals things’

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 07:00:45 GMT2017-10-22T07:00:45Z

Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy is celebrated the world over, has finally produced a new instalment in Lyra’s story. Here he answers questions from Observer readers and famous fans including Ed Sheeran, Rowan Williams and Ali Smith

Philip Pullman opens the door to his 16th-century Oxfordshire farmhouse looking pale and slightly washed-out in his crisp, white shirt and nut-brown waistcoat. Is he under the weather? “No, no, I’m perfectly fine,” he reassures me. “Just a bit apprehensive, perhaps, about what’s to come.” We are meeting a week before the launch of his new novel, so what is to come in the next few days is a whirlwind of book signings, public appearances, glad-handing, readings and interviews: “I’m doing the minimum possible but it is still going to be absolute pandemonium,” he smiles ruefully.

In truth, Pullman feels fitter and more energetic than he has for a long while. He spent much of the past couple of years in constant pain, until surgery restored him to full health last spring. “I’m a great deal better now, but that’s one reason I’m trying to keep the fuss to a minimum,” he says. You sense he might feel short-changed with no fuss at all, however, and Pullman grants that he is looking forward to sitting down in his book-lined study and getting to grips with my very long list of questions from Observer readers, writers, theatre directors, clergy and other distinguished folk.

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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman review – a tidal wave of imagination

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 07:00:54 GMT2017-11-19T07:00:54Z

Philip Pullman revisits his great fictional universe with this captivating first story of a new trilogy, The Book of Dust

La Belle Sauvage – the name of the boat in which Philip Pullman’s hero Malcolm navigates a flooded Thames valley – was also the name of the pub in Ludgate Hill where Pocahontas and her brother Tomocomo stayed when they first arrived in London. The landlord cashed in on the Algonquian princess’s presence by using her portrait as a pub sign. Tomocomo had decided he would count the number of people he met in England by making a notch in his tally stick for each new face. By the time he left Plymouth dockyard the stick was a handful of splinters. The world turned out to be bigger than Tomocomo could imagine.

The mark of a great fictional universe is that it is bigger than the story, that there is something beyond the map in the endpapers. I remember getting that Tomocomo feeling when I first opened CS Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and saw that there were islands and unknown lands beyond Narnia. La Belle Sauvage opens with an even greater surprise. There are nice nuns in Pullman’s Oxford!

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John Lewis’s Moz was under my bed years ago – but they haven't credited me | Chris Riddell

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 00:04:46 GMT2017-11-19T00:04:46Z

Advertising agencies should credit the illustrators and writers whose work they plunder

It was the eyebrows that mesmerised me. They were luxuriantly bushy and rose and fell in an endlessly expressive way. I’m not talking about Moz the Monster, the star of the John Lewis Christmas advert I watched with the rest of the nation this week. No, the eyebrows in question belonged to the publisher Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press. It was 1984 and I was a young art school graduate doing the rounds of the publishing houses, showing my illustrations in the hope of a commission. Flugge raised then lowered those eyebrows and fixed me with a penetrating stare. “These illustrations are perfectly fine,” he said, a little too dismissively for my liking, but I was still mesmerised, “but where are your stories?” I wanted to be an illustrator, not a writer. I had no stories, so I played for time. “I do have a story,” I said falteringly, “but it’s at home.” “Bring in this story of yours tomorrow!” he ordered, his eyebrows furrowed, “I want to read it.”

So I went home and, in a blind panic, dredged up a memory from my childhood, common to many, of being convinced that there was something scary lurking beneath my bed. I wrote a reassuring story about a benign cuddly monster and took it in to Andersen Press. “This is perfectly fine,” said Flugge. “We will publish it.”

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Jonathan Coe: writing a children’s book for our turbulent times

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 11:00:30 GMT2017-11-18T11:00:30Z

The author reveals how the simplicity, satire and ambiguity of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels gave him the spark to write a fantasy story for childrenThis year marks the 350th anniversary of Jonathan Swift’s birth, which makes it a good moment to reflect on the many paradoxes of his art. In an age when it has become the purest cliche to point out that modern political reality outstrips the efforts of the satirist at every turn, it’s gratifying to return to the greatest of all satires in English, Gulliver’s Travels – a book that owes its longevity, among other things, to its generic ambiguities. For almost three centuries it has been revered both as a harrowing critique of politics, society and human nature and as a children’s fantasy adventure.It was partly to immerse myself in these ambiguities that I accepted a commission, a few years ago, to write an abridged version of Gulliver’s Travels, this time targeted specifically at young children. The initiative came from the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, who had the idea of commissioning a number of writers (Umberto Eco and Ali Smith were among the others) to produce children’s versions of literary classics for a series called “Save the Story”. I worked for several weeks trying to distil the essence of Swift’s original, to preserve the delicate blend of political moralising and ludic fantasy that made him declare it was written “to vex the world rather than divert it”. At the end of the process, I was seized with the desire to attempt something generically similar, albeit of far smaller scope and ambition. Continue reading...[...]

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John Lewis Christmas ad accused of plagiarism by Mr Underbed author

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 07:47:39 GMT2017-11-17T07:47:39Z

Chris Riddell points out similarities between Moz the monster and a character from his 1986 picturebook

A renowned writer and illustrator of children’s books has suggested John Lewis may have plagiarised one of his stories for its latest Christmas advert, which was launched to great fanfare last week.

Related: John Lewis’s Moz was under my bed years ago – but they haven't credited me | Chris Riddell

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Nicola Barker wins Goldsmiths prize for her novel H(a)ppy

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 20:00:08 GMT2017-11-15T20:00:08Z

Barker beats novels by Will Self and Jon McGregor to take home the £10,000 literary prize for her narrative-bending vision of a dystopian future

Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy has won this year’s Goldsmiths prize for “fiction at its most novel”, praised by judges as a work of “vaulting ambition”.

Related: H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker review – visionary satire of a new information age

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Richard Flanagan: ‘Fiction is not a lie, but a truth, a necessary truth’

Sun, 05 Nov 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-11-05T09:00:14Z

The Booker prize winner on his new novel and why it’s not always possible to separate fact from fiction

Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In First Person, would-be novelist Kif finds himself embarking on the ghostwriting job from hell.

This is a very different novel to The Narrow Road. Was that always the plan?
Plan? I had no plan. First Person is the book I began before the Booker and which I finished after, while at the same time, trying to surf the mudslide that the Booker brings on without falling off and being buried alive.

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Is it too late to save the world? Jonathan Franzen on one year of Trump's America

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 08:06:13 GMT2017-11-04T08:06:13Z

‘As the ice shelves crumble and the Twitter president threatens to pull out of the Paris accord’, Franzen reflects on the role of the writer in times of crisisIf an essay is something essayed – something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity – we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The US president now operates on this presumption. Traditionally hard news reporting, in places like the New York Times, has softened up to allow the I, with its voice and opinions and impressions, to take the front-page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to discuss books with any kind of objectivity. It didn’t use to matter if Raskolnikov and Lily Bart were likable, but the question of “likability,” with its implicit privileging of the reviewer’s personal feelings, is now a key element of critical judgment. Literary fiction itself is looking more and more like essay.Some of the most influential novels of recent years, by Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, take the method of self-conscious first-person testimony to a new level. Their more extreme admirers will tell you that imagination and invention are outmoded contrivances; that to inhabit the subjectivity of a character unlike the author is an act o[...]

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David Hare: ‘For every hour you write a screenplay, you spend 10 defending it’

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

The playwright and screenwriter on dilettante script editors, Bafta club bores and the simple truth about who should, and shouldn’t, be allowed to ‘improve’ your scriptsEvery morning, Monday to Friday, I get up at 7am and make my wife breakfast in bed. She always wants something salty. I enjoy doing it because the rest of my day may be self-interested. I then walk for 15 minutes to a studio once owned by the artist Mark Gertler. Here, in 1916, he painted his antiwar masterpiece The Merry Go Round.The day depends on whether I’m writing for stage or screen. If stage, I’ll putter through a couple of newspapers online, then start writing dialogue, ideas or maybe structural charts in a sketchbook that I get from an artists’ supply shop. When I’m ready I’ll transfer what I have to the computer and rewrite. My handwriting is so bad that sometimes I can’t work out what I’ve scrawled. If I end up with just a few lines of dialogue, it no longer panics me. All time spent considering your play is well spent, regardless of outcome. One day you write nothing, the next you write eight pages. It’s not in your hands. At lunchtime, I’ll go down to the local deli to get a pork pie or a bagel. If the writing is going well, I’ll continue into the afternoon. If not, I’ll go to the cinema or answer emails. Continue reading...[...]

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Margaret Atwood: will Alias Grace repeat the TV success of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-11-04T09:00:14Z

Atwood’s 19th-century murder story is another prescient study of women in a patriarchal society

Alias Grace, published 21 years ago, sits as near as dammit in the middle of Margaret Atwood’s novels; eight precede and seven succeed it (although with the ever productive Atwood, there are probably more to come). Though she had already ventured into the world of the satirical, fabular and dystopic in novels such as Lady Oracle and Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace was her first foray into the distant past. Set in 1840s and 1850s Ontario – it had only recently been the British-controlled colony of Upper Canada – it recreates the true and much disputed story of Grace Marks.

As Sarah Polley’s adaptation finally comes to Netflix – finally because Polley first wrote to Atwood to ask for the film rights shortly after publication, when she was a mere 17-year-old – it is set to join Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale in bringing Atwood’s novels to a wider audience.

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Colm Tóibín: ‘Why shouldn’t Catalonia be an independent state within Europe?’

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 08:00:18 GMT2017-11-03T08:00:18Z

The author, who has observed Catalan politics for 40 years, calls for Madrid to soften its stance

Late on Friday 27 October Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan government, having declared Catalan independence, made his way from the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, the seat of power, to the city of Girona, close to where he was born, where he served as mayor for five years. The next afternoon, he was seen eating in a restaurant and seemed very relaxed. Sometime that night or the next day, with seven members of his cabinet, he travelled by car to Marseille and from there by plane to Brussels where, at the time of writing, he remains, even though a number of his colleagues have returned to Barcelona.

In his absence, the Spanish authorities are preparing a case against him for rebellion, sedition and embezzlement of funds. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to 30 years in jail.

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Tom Lee: 'Eimear McBride knew she had a great book. I thought mine was a turkey'

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 15:45:05 GMT2017-11-02T15:45:05Z

Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Lee’s debut The Alarming Palsy of James Orr sees a man wake up to find his appearance nightmarishly changed. The author explains how his novel came to be and why it works as an exploration of male inadequacyKafkaesque is a word bandied about far too often, applied to everything from slightly maddening instances of bureaucracy to nightmarish novels. But Tom Lee’s debut, The Alarming Palsy of James Orr, is more than Kafkaesque: just as Gregor Samsa, awaking one morning from uneasy dreams, “found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”, Lee’s everyman protagonist James Orr wakes one day to find his face has changed: “The left-hand side of [his] face has collapsed, a balloon with the air gone out of it, a melted waxwork.”At first, James’s face, which “gave the impression of two different faces, two different people, welded savagely together”, causes little trouble. He is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a dramatic but reversible condition that can cause one side of the face to become paralysed. But while Bell’s tends recede after a few months, James is irrevocably changed by his condition, psychologically more than physically – though the reader only sees glimpses of the truth through his fragile comprehension of reality: the alarm of his neighbours as one of his eyes begins to weep uncontrollably during a community meeting; a burst of rage during a dinner party; a very unsettling sexual advance on his sleeping wife. Continue reading...[...]

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John Updike revealed as a prolific letter writer to readers and strangers

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 13:42:27 GMT2017-11-02T13:42:27Z

Adding to his vast output as a novelist, short-story writer, poet and critic, a collection of his letters will reveal his startlingly abundant correspondence

Postal workers in Beverly, Massachusetts, no doubt learned by heart the route from their depot to the home of author John Updike, on the area’s north shore. In his biography of the celebrated writer, Adam Begley tells us that Updike’s wife Martha warned that “if he had access to email, he would spend every waking hour responding to messages, so he steered clear, relying on the postal service and FedEx”.

Katie Roiphe wrote in The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End: “Updike’s correspondence is so charming and lively and wonderful that it evokes the man more powerfully than his published bits of autobiography. It may not be surprising that much of the work of friendship, for Updike, existed on the page.”

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Ghosting Rio Ferdinand: how I got the football legend to relive the hardest days of his life

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 19:02:27 GMT2017-10-30T19:02:27Z

When Rio Ferdinand asked her to ghost-write his life story, Decca Aitkenhead knew she would have to ask the reticent star painful questions about his wife’s death and raising their children alone. She recalls a surreal, emotional month on his sofa

One morning in May, a car ferried me across leafy suburban Kent to an executive gated community, through three sets of security barriers, past driveways occupied by Bentleys, to the door of a neo-Queen Anne mansion. “Bloody hell,” the driver choked. “Who lives here?” “No one,” I mumbled idiotically, trying not to look equally wide-eyed as I wondered what I had signed myself up for.

Five months later to the day, I opened the newspapers to see that what I had signed up for was on the bestseller list. It has been, from day one to the end, a fabulously surreal experience.

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Yaa Gyasi: ‘I write a sentence. I delete it. I wonder if it’s too early for lunch’

Sat, 28 Oct 2017 09:00:00 GMT2017-10-28T09:00:00Z

The Ghanaian-American novelist tries to recreate the feeling of working on her award-winning debut in ‘the dungeon’, a dank nook in her first apartment

I recently had a prolonged phone battle over a desk I had ordered and not received. Online, it said the desk had shipped, but weeks passed and nothing. I would call, repeat my story to the customer service rep du jour and be greeted with commiseration, as though they too didn’t quite understand how their shop worked. Maybe they didn’t. All I knew was that, after a year of nearly nonstop book touring, I had got it into my head that I needed this desk in order to start writing again and the fact that I didn’t have it yet was sending me into hysterics.

About a month or so in, after being told a delivery date and then waking up that day to a note online that said my delivery date had been cancelled “per customer’s request”, I really lost it. I told the customer service rep that it was news to me that I had cancelled this delivery, to which she replied that they had called me and left a voicemail. That was news to me, too.

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How Joseph Conrad foresaw the dark heart of Brexit Britain

Sat, 28 Oct 2017 11:00:01 GMT2017-10-28T11:00:01Z

From financial crises to the threat of terrorism, the works of the Polish-British author display remarkable insight into an era, like ours, of elemental change in a globalised worldA terrorist bombing in London, a shipping accident in southeast Asia, political unrest in a South American republic and mass violence in central Africa: each of these topics has made headlines in the past few months. But these “news” stories have also been in circulation for more than a century, as plotlines in the novels of Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest and most controversial modern English writers.Conrad is known to most readers as the author of Heart of Darkness, about a British sea captain’s journey up an unnamed African river. And Heart of Darkness is known to many as the object of a blistering critique by the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who condemned Conrad as “a bloody racist” for his degrading portrayal of Africans. It is right to call out the racism – and, for that matter, the orientalism, antisemitism and androcentrism – in Conrad’s work. But his dated prejudices, abhorrent though they are to readers today, coexist in his work with elements of exceptional clairvoyance. Continue reading...[...]

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Welcome the reaper: Caitlin Doughty and the 'death-positivity' movement

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 13:11:45 GMT2017-10-27T13:11:45Z

The author has become a figurehead for people who see death as something to embrace rather than recoil from. Here she talks about dying the right way

One of the most compelling scenes in Caitlin Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, takes place in the small town of Crestone, Colorado. The body of a woman – who is called Laura – is carefully wrapped in a coral-tinted shroud and placed on a smooth concrete pyre. The scent of burning juniper branches perfumes the air. Surrounded by those who’d known and loved her (as well as the author, who’d been invited to observe), the body gradually turns to ash beneath. The ceremony takes place at the only open-air pyre in the western world and is one of alternative funerals that Doughty explores.

Related: The sacred task of caring for the dead should be a normal part of life | Caitlin Doughty

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Alice Roberts: ‘Science needs more visible women’

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 11:00:28 GMT2017-10-27T11:00:28Z

Broadcaster, author, anthropologist and qualified doctor Alice Roberts is on a mission to prove that science needs to engage with the public – and be more diversePhysical anthropologist, author, broadcaster and professor of public engagement in science, Alice Roberts is a 21st-century Renaissance woman. Her face might be most familiar from Channel 4’s Time Team, or BBC2’s Coast, or one of several Horizon programmes she has presented; but she is also a qualified medical doctor, an anatomist and the author of seven popular science books, including the Wellcome prize-nominated The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being.Like its author, her new book Tamed: 10 Species That Changed Our World weaves together many forms and disciplines: genetics, archaeology, anthropology and history combine with personal anecdote, travelogue and little pieces of fiction to create a book that is both chatty and academic, rigorously scientific and full of empathy. It describes how humans have domesticated nine species of animals and plants – from dogs, cattle and horses to rice, apples and wheat – changing the species and, in doing so, transforming our environment and ourselves. The 10th species she writes about is us. It brings evidence from ancient pottery sherds and new genetic techniques to explain, for example, how the Inca invented instant mash; how 70% of modern Europeans possess a Ne[...]

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