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Books | The Guardian

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

Published: Wed, 29 Mar 2017 19:20:51 GMT2017-03-29T19:20:51Z

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

Hollie McNish's 'funny and serious' poetry wins Ted Hughes prize

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 18:20:05 GMT2017-03-29T18:20:05Z

YouTube star’s collection Nobody Told Me, a verse memoir from ‘the frontline of motherhood’, secures prestigious £5,000 honour

A “funny and serious, humane and consciousness-raising” poetry collection that reports from the “frontline of motherhood” has scooped the prestigious Ted Hughes poetry award for new work in poetry.

YouTuber Hollie McNish beat six other shortlisted poets to the £5,000 prize with her third collection, Nobody Told Me. The collection combines poems and diary entries in a revealing memoir that follows her from when she discovered she was pregnant seven years ago, to when her daughter turned three years old. The prize, which is administered by the Poetry Society, was presented by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy at a ceremony in London on Wednesday.

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Top 10 books about fathers

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 11:55:04 GMT2017-03-29T11:55:04Z

From Shakespeare to Seamus Heaney, the author selects his favourites from a tradition where the most interesting characters are very often absent

Until recently, I did not seek out books about fathers. Perhaps because, until two-and-a-half years ago, I had a father of my own who seemed as good a parent as anyone could hope for. But when Karl Miller died in September 2014, I began, in a state of loss and grief, to write about him. Only then did I begin to reflect on how others had written about fathers and fatherhood, and only then did I start to seek solace and understanding in fatherly stories.

Related: Fathers by Sam Miller review – generous memoir of a family affair

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Joanna Cannon vows to keep working in NHS after £300,000 book deal

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 08:22:43 GMT2017-03-29T08:22:43Z

Novelist who began writing to relieve the stress of her psychiatry job says literary success will not stop her listening to ‘real voices’ in hospital

A bestselling debut novelist who wrote her book in a hospital car park as stress release from her job as a psychiatrist is to return to the NHS. Her decision comes despite a £300,000 deal for her second book and a contract for two more novels.

Joanna Cannon, whose first book The Trouble With Goats and Sheep has now sold more than 100,000 copies in paperback in the UK and has been optioned for film by the makers of the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, said she was returning to the health service because she missed her patients.

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Russia blamed for hacking Amazon listing of anti-Trump book

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 10:45:47 GMT2017-03-29T10:45:47Z

Historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, which offers lessons on resisting repressive rule, has sales blurb rewritten to repeat slogan seen on pro-Putin posters

Publishers believe that Russian hackers are behind an attack on the Amazon page for a self-styled manual for resisting US president Donald Trump and other populist leaders, with the author, historian Timothy Snyder, claiming the hack as just the latest in a series of efforts by Russians to undermine his work.

Images of Snyder’s On Tyranny were replaced on with those for a non-existent colouring book by “Timothy Strauss”. The blurb for Strauss’s book said it contained “lessons to Make World Great Again” [sic] – a slogan used on pro-Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin posters that have appeared across the Russian Federation.

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David Jones by Thomas Dilworth review – the lost great modernist

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 11:00:03 GMT2017-03-29T11:00:03Z

TS Eliot thought Jones stood alongside himself, Joyce and Pound. But the poet and painter has remained obscure. Why?

It is rare to read a major biography of a minor figure, but then David Jones, an artist who produced outstanding and original work in several media, primarily poetry and painting, is minor by mistake. To prove it, Thomas Dilworth, who has written two other books on Jones’s life and work in the 30 years since he was commissioned to write this one, begins with an enfilade of praise from TS Eliot, WH Auden, Kenneth Clark, Graham Greene, Seamus Heaney, Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. The effect is to make the reader wonder how someone possessed of such genius could become so obscure. “If Beckett was the last great modernist,” he writes, “Jones was the lost great modernist.”

In his introduction to In Parenthesis, one of Jones’s two brilliant long poems, TS Eliot put him at the heart of Anglophone modernism by including him in a quartet with “Joyce and Pound and myself”. He was born into a working-class family in Brockley, south London, in 1895, his father Welsh and mother English. Artistically precocious, he was studying art at Camberwell when the first world war began, and enlisted in January 1915 with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He described himself as “a parade’s despair”, but was, Dilworth notes, not a bad soldier: “canny, efficient” and “adept at survival”. In 1916, he was shot in the leg at Mametz Wood, an engagement in the battle of the Somme, and didn’t return to the front.

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The Lovings, a marriage that changed history – in pictures

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 10:00:02 GMT2017-03-29T10:00:02Z

In July 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested for interracial marriage, then a crime in their home state of Virginia. Life photographer Grey Villet spent a few weeks with them, two years before their case brought down the law. Here are some of his images of the heroic lovers from the book The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism?

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-03-29T08:00:02Z

With its chatty gods and gentle giants, Gaiman’s good-natured version of the mythos lacks brutal tragedy at its heart

Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.

For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.

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The Great Leveller by Walter Scheidel review – an end to inequality?

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 06:30:00 GMT2017-03-29T06:30:00Z

Is economic disparity only ever reduced by war, revolution and catastrophe? Paul Mason is more optimistic: the world can change

Be careful what you wish for, historian Walter Scheidel writes: the suppression of inequality was, on the historical evidence, “only ever brought forth in sorrow”. In a scholarly and ambitious book, Scheidel argues that economic inequalities are usually narrowed most effectively as a result of cataclysmic events: war, revolution, the collapse of states and natural disasters.

Scheidel dubs these the “four horsemen” and explores the causal relationships between them and the emergence of mechanisms that significantly redistribute wealth – not just in the societies we think we know, such as western European modernity, but those we rarely consider, such as the pre-conquest Americas, or the dark ages in Europe.

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Like Death by Guy de Maupassant review – a sexy, intoxicating read

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 08:59:01 GMT2017-03-29T08:59:01Z

Newly translated, this heady novel reveals the decadant, suffocating lives of le beau monde in belle époque France

Olivier Bertin is a celebrated painter, and for 12 years has been the lover of Anne, the Comtesse de Guilleroy. The last time Olivier had seen Anne’s daughter, Annette, she was six and being sent off with colouring books while her mother sat for her portrait and began her affair with the artist, now so long established that it has become comfortable, automatic almost. And then the daughter returns from her education, aged 18 ...

Maupassant was more famous for his stories than his novels, but he could pace a narrative of either length superbly, and if this at times feels more like a long-drawn-out story than a novel, that is because of its limited cast of characters, its confinement largely to the drawing rooms, salons and playgrounds of the Parisian beau monde, and not because it is too long. It needs the space to stretch out, to illustrate the suffocating nature of the genteel life. Early on there is an extended passage of about a dozen pages stiff with dukes that pushed me to the limits of my patience, but persevere, it’s a necessary backdrop.

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Walter Scott prize for historical fiction unveils 2017 shortlist

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 11:00:10 GMT2017-03-28T11:00:10Z

Judges hail vintage year as major authors including Sebastian Barry and Rose Tremain contend alongside unfamiliar names for £25,000 honour

Sebastian Barry and Francis Spufford are to replay their battle for the Costa book of the year award after both were shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. The two feature on a shortlist that pits high-profile authors against virtual unknowns in what the judges described as one of the best years they have seen for the £25,000 award.

Related: Sebastian Barry on his Costa-winning novel Days Without End – books podcast

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Anthony Burgess webchat with biographer Andrew Biswell – post your questions now

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 15:02:13 GMT2017-03-28T15:02:13Z

Ahead of a live webchat on Friday 31 March at 1pm, leave questions for a writer who knows where the facts end and fiction begins in the novelist’s enigmatic life

Anthony Burgess’s biographer Andrew Biswell will be joining us for a live Q&A at 1pm on Friday 31 March.

The Real Life of Anthony Burgess is a fascinating, detailed and forgiving portrait of a brilliant and unusual man. One made all the more interesting because part of Biswell’s job has been to gently unpick the stories Burgess told about himself in his novels and his own volumes of autobiography. Alas, we learn that Burgess may not have been chased down the street by his doctor in Malaya, the four-minute mile hero Roger Bannister. But his love of gin, cigarettes, travel and literature ensure he remains an engaging and intriguing subject. Not to mention the fact that he was generally ready and able to cause controversy, consternation and confusion as well as delight and enlightenment.

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Decline and Fall on TV – would Evelyn Waugh have approved?

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 09:00:24 GMT2017-03-28T09:00:24Z

The prospect of a new BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall, starring Jack Whitehall and Eva Longoria, is stirring mixed feelings – will Waugh’s wit be sold short once again?

The new BBC1 adaptation of Decline and Fall, with Jack Whitehall as Paul Pennyfeather and Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, has already stirred the usual mixed emotions among Evelyn Waugh fans. On the one hand, warm satisfaction at the prospect of a 20th-century classic brought to a TV channel otherwise graced by Mrs Brown’s Boys; on the other, a faint but congenital wariness, born of the fact that so many dramatisations of the Waugh oeuvre have defied the best intentions of director and cast alike to produce films that, for all their enthusiasm, have sold their onlie begetter woefully short.

Waugh, it turns out, had the same mixed feelings about adaptations. His early novels – notably Vile Bodies (1930), with its tantalising dialogue and artful cross-cuts – display a moviegoer’s relish for cinematic techniques. But by mid-career, Hollywood’s designs on the bestselling Brideshead Revisited (1945) had plunged him into gloom: Christopher Sykes, his first biographer, records an anguished conversation from early 1947 in which, having advised his friend not to worry about the end product and settle for cash over cachet, Sykes received a terrific lecture to the effect that: “You have no notion of what these people might want to do with my book.”

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Robots v experts: are any human professions safe from automation?

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 09:00:24 GMT2017-03-28T09:00:24Z

Technology already outperforms humans in many areas, but surely we would never accept machines as teachers, doctors or judges? Don’t be so sure

The main themes of our book, The Future of the Professions, can be put simply: machines are becoming increasingly capable and so are taking on more and more tasks.

Many of these tasks were once the exclusive preserve of human professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. While new tasks will certainly emerge in years to come, it is probable that machines will, over time, take on many of these as well. In the 2020s, we say, this will not mean unemployment, but rather a need for widespread retraining and redeployment. In the long run though, we find it hard to avoid the conclusion that there will be a steady decline in the need for traditional professional workers.

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Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie review – a singular, funny take on glamping

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 06:38:02 GMT2017-03-28T06:38:02Z

Rain, boredom and jigsaws – a graphic novel for everyone scarred by childhood camping holidays

How you feel about Collecting Sticks, a graphic novel by Joe Decie, is likely to depend on your relationship with camping. Tent and Primus stove fanatics may want to give it a miss; ditto enthusiastic Scout leaders, and those who even in middle age ache inside at the merest thought of Glastonbury. But if you’re still scarred by camping holidays you endured as a kid – I know I am – then this singular, funny book is for you. The rain, the boredom, the tinned beans: why anyone in their right mind prefers a night on a damp groundsheet to one in their own bed is completely beyond me.

Not that a damp groundsheet has a starring role here. In Collecting Sticks, Joe and Steph and their Star Wars-obsessed son Sam head off to the woods for a weekend of “glamping” (so-called glamorous camping), having booked a cabin somewhere near the Essex coast which comes with real beds, a fire pit, and a wood burning stove (Steph long ago vowed never to camp properly again). It sounds, they agree, idyllic, and so it should be given that it costs more than a hotel. But alas, emergency microwave or not, it’s still camping. The loo is a hole in the ground, everything tastes and stinks of smoke, and once darkness falls, the only option is to head to bed for an early night. By way of fun, they spend one evening slowly chucking the remaining pieces of an old jigsaw into the wood-burning stove.

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Man Booker International prize and Dorthe Nors – books podcast

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 07:00:22 GMT2017-03-28T07:00:22Z

This week’s podcast heads abroad as we look at the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International prize and speak to longlisted author Dorthe Nors about her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

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

This week’s podcast heads off around the globe as we cast our eye down the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International prize. One of the judges, Daniel Hahn, joins us in the studio to introduce the writers on the list and to explore what it tells us about publishing around the world.

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The retreats where famous authors found inspiration – in pictures

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 18:30:46 GMT2017-03-27T18:30:46Z

Former president Barack Obama is to journey to the South Pacific island of Tetiaroa, once owned by Marlon Brando, to write his memoir. Here’s a look at where other famous authors found the inspiration to write

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Poem of the week: Low Tide at St Andrews by Emily Pauline Johnson

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 09:50:49 GMT2017-03-27T09:50:49Z

The half-English, half-First Nation Canadian translated the Romantic tradition into a beguilingly low key in this reflection on a coastal scene

Low Tide at St Andrews
(New Brunswick)

The long red flats stretch open to the sky,
Breathing their moisture on the August air.
The seaweeds cling with flesh-like fingers where
The rocks give shelter that the sands deny;
And wrapped in all her summer harmonies
St Andrews sleeps beside her sleeping seas.

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

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 14:00:01 GMT2017-03-27T14:00:01Z

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.

I know that this is kind of the point of our whole enterprise here, but I still love the way Tips, Links and Suggestions makes me find out about things that I would entirely miss otherwise. This recommendation from from JamesLibTech is a case in point:

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 60 – On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 05:45:01 GMT2017-03-27T05:45:01Z

Darwin’s revolutionary, humane and highly readable introduction to his theory of evolution is arguably the most important book of the Victorian era

When Charles Darwin first saw On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in book form, he is said to have remarked that he found it tough going. Actually, the book, composed in a hurry to forestall his rivals, after 20 years of research, and aimed at that mythical beast “the educated general reader”, is extraordinarily accessible, sometimes even moving, in its lucid simplicity. That’s all the more remarkable for a revolutionary work of scientific theory, arguably the most important book published in the English language during the 19th century.

From a 21st-century perspective, Darwin’s Origin has two roles in this list. First, it is a profoundly influential work of biology, argued in astonishing, and compelling detail. For example, one famous passage (too long to quote in full) describes the ecological benefits to “a large and extremely barren heath” derived from the planting of Scotch fir: “I went to several points of view, whence I could examine hundreds of acres of the unenclosed heath, and literally I could not see a single Scotch fir, except the old planted clumps. But on looking closely between the stems of the heath, I found a multitude of seedlings and little trees, which had been perpetually browsed down by the cattle. In one square yard … I counted 32 little trees; and one of them, judging from the rings of growth, had during 26 years tried to raise its head above the stems of the heath, and had failed. No wonder that, as soon as the land was enclosed, it became thickly clothed with vigorously growing young firs.” [pp 123-24]

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The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics by David Goodhart – review

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 07:00:00 GMT2017-03-27T07:00:00Z

Goodhart’s valuable study identifies Britain’s new sociopolitical tribes in the wake of the Brexit vote

Four years ago, I was asked to take part in an inquiry by the BBC Trust into whether the corporation’s output reflected the breadth of opinion in the UK. “So much of the public conversation emanates from London, so that leads to a more tolerant, liberal approach to life. If you don’t subscribe to that and you live in Gloucestershire, you may feel your views are not being represented. It pertains to all aspects of public life, not just the BBC,” the report quoted me as saying.

The issue was not leftwing bias (there are more big names on TV and radio with a Conservative-leaning background than Labour); rather, it was social. Too many BBC staffers thought like me. Boy, did they take that advice on board (and many people were pointing to the same problem). Now barely an edition of Question Time goes by without Nigel Farage gracing us with his presence; rarely does one get through a news programme without hearing someone complaining about immigrants.

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Ludo and the Power of the Book review – portrait of a great campaigning journalist

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 09:00:02 GMT2017-03-27T09:00:02Z

Richard Ingrams recounts four of the most famous miscarriages of justice exposed by Ludovic Kennedy

To those of us who take an interest in miscarriages of justice Ludovic Kennedy is something of a patron saint. His account of the terrible events at 10 Rillington Place, the house of horrors in 1950s Notting Hill, which led to the trial and execution of an innocent man, is a classic. It eventually resulted in a pardon for Timothy Evans and played an important part in the campaign to abolish capital punishment. In later years Kennedy took up the cudgels on behalf of many other miscarriage of justice victims.

Richard Ingrams has recounted just four of the many causes that Kennedy, espoused, using them to illustrate his argument that the pen is mightier than any other medium and to pay tribute to one of the great campaigning writers of his day.

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Maggie O'Farrell memoir to reveal series of close encounters with death

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 00:00:17 GMT2017-03-24T00:00:17Z

I Am, I Am, I Am describes 17 near-fatal experiences and was written to give hope to eight-year-old daughter

A life-affirming memoir, which began as a project to give hope to her eight-year-old daughter, is to be published this summer by novelist Maggie O’Farrell.

The book, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, recounts a series of near-death experiences suffered by O’Farrell. It was written to help her daughter to face life with courage and be aware that “she is not alone”, despite suffering from a severe immunology disorder.

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Outrage as Belarus arrests authors, publishers and journalists in crackdown

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 18:05:19 GMT2017-03-23T18:05:19Z

Human rights groups call for release of men arrested by security forces at Minsk literature festival, and others held as protests rock authoritarian state

Human rights organisations have called on Belarusian authorities to drop all charges immediately against writers, publishers and journalists who have been arrested following a wave of nationwide protests.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said security forces had detained or otherwise obstructed at least 32 people in recent weeks. It was joined by Pen America in protesting against the arrests.

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Authors condemn £4m library fund as a 'sop' and a 'whitewash'

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 17:40:19 GMT2017-03-23T17:40:19Z

Patrick Gale, Mark Billingham and Francesca Simon among writers suggesting government scheme will do little to rescue sector that has been hit hard by cuts

Authors Patrick Gale and Mark Billingham have slammed a government fund to support innovation in public libraries as “a sop, a smokescreen and a whitewash” that does nothing to help the fundamental crisis facing the sector. They were joined by Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon in criticising the ability of the £4m scheme to rescue the beleaguered sector.

Though Billingham welcomed investment in libraries, he said: “It is hard not to view this as a smokescreen – a sop – to those who have long fought the cause of libraries while their funding nationwide continues to be slashed.” Describing himself as increasingly depressed at the state of the sector, Gale told the Guardian: “This is a kind of whitewash and it makes me cross.”

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Posters to reveal entire text of book about fighting tyranny

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 11:00:02 GMT2017-03-23T11:00:02Z

Timothy Snyder’s manual for resisting populism, On Tyranny, to be pasted in full on a street in east London

In what is believed to be an industry first, the entire text of a book billed as “a practical guide to resisting the rise of totalitarianism” is to be fly-posted along an east London street next week.

Related: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – review

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Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter dead at 86

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 14:08:54 GMT2017-03-21T14:08:54Z

Val McDermid, Lee Child and other crime writers pay tribute to Dexter, who died at his Oxford home on Tuesday

Colin Dexter, the author behind detective Inspector Morse and his adventures solving mysteries in Oxfordshire, has died at the age of 86, with the top names in crime writing lining up to pay tribute to a “a kind, generous man”.

Dexter’s death at his home in Oxford was announced by his publisher Macmillan on Tuesday. Val McDermid, who was a good friend of Dexter, described him as “a lovely, lovely man” and not as grumpy as his creation – “though he did share Morse’s love of music”.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on transgender row: 'I have nothing to apologise for'

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 05:18:07 GMT2017-03-21T05:18:07Z

Novelist and feminist has attracted criticism for her comments on trans women, but says hostility of backlash serves to ‘close up debate’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and feminist, has condemned a “language orthodoxy” on the political left after she endured a vitriolic backlash over comments about transgender women.

The author of Half of a Yellow Sun plunged into a row about identity politics when she suggested in an interview last week that the experiences of transgender women, who she said are born with the privileges the world accords to men, are distinct from those of women born female. She was criticised for implying that trans women are not “real women”.

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Robert B Silvers, editor of New York Review of Books, dies aged 87

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 19:39:41 GMT2017-03-20T19:39:41Z

The much-respected literary figure, who helped champion writers from Norman Mailer to Zadie Smith, died after a short illness

Revered New York Review of Books editor Robert B Silvers, who served as founding editor of the magazine for more than 53 years, died on Monday morning.

Silvers, 87, died “after a short illness”, according to a statement from the Review.

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Bigmouth strikes again: row over Morrissey's James Baldwin tour T-shirt

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 14:16:11 GMT2017-03-20T14:16:11Z

Shirt featuring the Smiths lyric ‘I wear black on the outside’ and a picture of the author has been removed from sale after backlash in music press

A Morrissey tour T-shirt pairing an image of black author and civil rights campaigner James Baldwin with one of Morrissey’s most famous lyrics has landed the former Smiths singer in yet another controversy.

Music press attacked the merchandise produced for the singer’s forthcoming tour of the US and Mexico, which features a headshot of the Another Country writer coupled with the lyric from the song Unloveable: “I wear black on the outside / ’cause black is how I feel on the inside.”

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The ‘lost’ novels that Anthony Burgess hoped would make him rich

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 00:05:00 GMT2017-03-19T00:05:00Z

The acclaimed writer, who gained only meagre rewards from A Clockwork Orange, planned a money-making trilogy

Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange who was born 100 years ago this year, described himself as “a graphomane”. When not composing music, he was indefatigably at work on many genres: novels, short stories, children’s books, plays, film scripts, poems and countless book reviews, many of them for the Observer.

Burgess was the hack’s hack, and also that creature now as fabled as the hippogriff, “a man of letters”. In 1961, for instance, he published no fewer than three novels. Once, he even reviewed one of his own books pseudonymously.

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Caribbean crime thriller wins inaugural prize for only BAME writers

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 19:45:18 GMT2017-03-17T19:45:18Z

The Jhalak prize, set up to address UK publishing’s long lack of diversity, goes to Jacob Ross’s crime novel The Bone Readers

The inaugural Jhalak prize for black, Asian and minority ethnic writers (BAME) has been won by Jacob Ross with his “thrilling, visceral and meditative, and always cinematic” crime novel The Bone Readers.

Ross’s winning book shadows Digger, a plainclothes officer working in a rogue police force on the small Caribbean island of Camaho, who can read bones under LED lights. It is the first in a quartet, while also being the British Grenadian writer’s first foray into crime writing: Ross is the author of two short story collections and the acclaimed 2009 novel Pynter Bender.

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Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 14:14:24 GMT2017-03-17T14:14:24Z

Walcott, who died in Saint Lucia, was famous for his monumental body of work that wove in Caribbean history, particularly his epic Omeros

The poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who moulded the language and forms of the western canon to his own purposes for more than half a century, has died aged 87.

His monumental poetry, such as his 1990 epic Omeros, a Caribbean reimagining of The Odyssey, secured him an international reputation which gained him the Nobel prize in 1992. Walcott also had an accomplished theatrical career, being the writer and director of more than 80 plays that often explored the problems of Caribbean identity against the backdrop of racial and political strife.

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Mal Peet in line for posthumous win as Carnegie shortlist announced

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 19:30:48 GMT2017-03-16T19:30:48Z

Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Ruta Sepetys also make shortlist, while children’s laureate Chris Riddell is nominated for Kate Greenaway illustration medal

Two years after he died, children’s author Mal Peet may be set for a posthumous Carnegie medal win, after making the shortlist with his co-author Meg Rosoff.

Rosoff, who finished Peet’s novel Beck, a coming-of-age tale about a mixed-race boy in America during the 1900s, told the Guardian: “I was really worried about doing justice to his amazing writing, so this is a nice confirmation that I did an OK job.”

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Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 08:00:04 GMT2017-03-25T08:00:04Z

From Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood, feminist science fiction writers have imagined other ways of living that prompt us to ask, could we do things differently?

Margaret Atwood’s evergreen dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about to become a television drama. Published in 1985, it couldn’t feel more fresh or more timely, dealing as it does with reproductive rights, with the sudden accession to power of a theocracy in the United States, with the demonisation of imagined, pantomime villain “Islamic fanatics”. But then, feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.

Where does the story of feminist science fiction begin? There are so many possible starting points: Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing World, about an empress of a utopian kingdom; one could point convincingly to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of how men could “give birth” and what might happen if they did; one could recall the 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” by Begum Rokeya, about a gender-reversed India in which it’s the men who are kept in purdah.

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How Colin Dexter changed the face of crime fiction

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 08:00:27 GMT2017-03-24T08:00:27Z

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels began a boomtime in crime fiction on television and in bookshops – and we are still feeling its effects

“Game-changer” is a word Colin Dexter, who died this week, would almost certainly have loathed. But it exactly describes what Dexter himself was, via TV’s Inspector Morse. Though it might seem his legacy is limited to a handful of novels, it is actually far larger than that: publishers’ insatiable enthusiasm today for crime fiction, the shelf space bookshops now allocate to it, the number of writers making a living from it.

Related: Colin Dexter obituary

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Dames, detectives and dope: why we still love hardboiled crime

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 10:00:01 GMT2017-03-23T10:00:01Z

As political corruption, violence and gender politics gain fresh relevance, pulp noir is attracting new voices and audiences, giving the gumshoe a 21st-century reboot

Back in 1920, Henry Louis Mencken and George Jean Nathan ran a magazine for the well-heeled women and their sugar daddies up on Long Island: the Smart Set, they called it.

The Smart Set wasn’t doing so well – but Mencken had an idea. He had noticed that a periodical called Detective Story Magazine, was flying off newsstands, so he started his own crime pulp: Black Mask, the first issue of which landed in October 1920, complete with a woman being menaced with a burning branding iron on the cover.

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How celebrity deals are shutting children's authors out of their own trade

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 16:36:56 GMT2017-03-22T16:36:56Z

As Frank Lampard, George Galloway and Cara Delevingne land big-money book deals, established writers look on from the fringes – or turn away altogether

Another day, another celebrity announces they are to “pen” a children’s book. Already this week, Jamie Lee Curtis has announced a “selfie-themed” tome, Chelsea Clinton a picture book about inspirational women and the Black Eyed Peas a graphic novel featuring zombies.

They join a slew of celebs cashing in on a burgeoning market. In the past month, model-turned-actor Cara Delevingne, TV presenter Dermot O’Leary and even politician and professional motormouth George Galloway have joined Frank Lampard, Danny Baker, Julian Clary and Fearne Cotton in vying to be the next JK Rowling.

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How much is real in Earthly Powers? Maybe everything and nothing

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 13:02:22 GMT2017-03-21T13:02:22Z

Anthony Burgess’s take on Hemingway as a drunk boor rings true, and his narrator may have something in common with Somerset Maugham – but does any of this matter?

At one point in Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, his author-narrator Kenneth Toomey is unable to talk because his mouth is “bloated” after the kicking he has received from homophobic sailors in Nice. He is then told off by a policeman: “Fiction, pronounced the sergeant, is written from the imagination, it is invention, it requires no meddling with the dangerous exterior world.”

With his frequent smashing of the fourth wall, Toomey seems be keen to make us aware that he is as artificial as everything else in the book, but Burgess the author also makes sure we know he is based on someone real, not invention. Many have pointed out that Toomey has a lot in common with Somerset Maugham: both homosexual, both interested in colonial Malaya, both wealthy playwrights. And Toomey is all too aware that he is not a first-rate writer and may actually be, to use the apocryphal phrase that is always applied to Maugham (but which, funnily enough, has never been satisfactorily attributed), “a first-rate writer of the second rank”.

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How to finish a novel: tracking a book's progress from idea to completion

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 07:00:30 GMT2017-03-20T07:00:30Z

Data from an app Wyl Menmuir used to help him write his Booker-longlisted debut gives insights into how it was done

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Poem of the week: To Himself by Jeffrey Wainwright

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 11:27:56 GMT2017-03-20T11:27:56Z

In a meditation on the sea, this scrupulous poet strives to imagine the limits of images and their relationship to language

Dreams and systems; humble wishes;
myths that sustain because venerable;
even a walk along the promenade
might do, undertaken regularly.

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The lie of the land: does environmentalism have a future in the age of Trump?

Sat, 18 Mar 2017 08:00:33 GMT2017-03-18T08:00:33Z

Will Trump’s presidency spell disaster for the climate, or can the green movement seize back the debate?

Last June, I voted to leave the European Union. I wasn’t an anti-EU fanatic but I was, despite my advancing years, still something of a green idealist. I had always believed that small was beautiful, that people should govern themselves and that power should be reclaimed and localised whenever possible. I didn’t think that throwing the people of Greece, Spain and Ireland to the wolves in order to keep bankers happy looked like the kind of right-on progressive justice that some of the EU’s supporters were claiming it represented.

So I voted to leave. I didn’t say anything about this before the vote and, despite being a writer, I didn’t write about it either. There was too much mudslinging on both sides already, and I didn’t want to throw any more or have any thrown at me. In any case, I didn’t have much to say.

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The fall and rise of physical book sales worldwide – in data

Sat, 18 Mar 2017 12:00:38 GMT2017-03-18T12:00:38Z

The effect of ebooks on sales of paper books has not been as drastic as expected – it seems that other, more unpredictable factors have a greater influence on how and what we read

Nielsen, which tracks book sales in several countries, released 2016 figures to coincide with this week’s London Book Fair. They show a mixed bag: physical sales are up in the UK, US and Ireland but down in Italy, Spain, Australia and South Africa.

This has less to do the rise of ebooks than the volatility of book markets, which, according to Nielsen’s director of book research, Hazel Kenyon, can be swayed by trends and the success of individual titles.

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Books for girls, about girls: the publishers trying to balance the bookshelves

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:37:27 GMT2017-03-17T15:37:27Z

One study of 5,000 children’s books found that a quarter had no female characters, and less than 20% featured a woman with a job. But a new wave of books and writers is helping to fix that disparity

The book is called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, but reading a handful of its 100 stories about some of the most brilliant women in history at bedtime might not be a good idea. Featuring spies, pirates, astronauts, activists, scientists, writers, sports stars and more, many of the stories are so thrilling and uplifting your child’s heart may beat a little faster, her mind racing with possibilities. If she leaps out of bed to get to work, blame the authors.

Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli launched their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and IndieGogo, with the aim of raising $40,000 (£32,000) to create and print 1,000 copies. They ended up raising more than $1m, with the book becoming the most highly funded original book in the history of crowdfunding. The pair had moved to the US from Italy in 2011, and had formed their own children’s media company, Timbuktu Labs, and created an iPad magazine and several apps. Working in children’s media, says Cavallo, “we saw how children’s media and books were still packed with gender stereotypes, and we really wanted to create something that could break the rules, with a new type of female protagonist, and examples of strong women from the past and present who have done incredible things. We really wanted to show the true variety of fields, disciplines and jobs, just to show the full capabilities of women and to inspire young girls to believe they can try to do anything.”

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London book fair: UK publishers cheerfully splash cash as sales rise

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 14:19:10 GMT2017-03-17T14:19:10Z

Decline of reality TV and soap star memoirs greeted with glee, but publishers say it is time to turn the page on Gone Girl-style ‘grip-lit’

On the eve of the London book fair, publishers were excited by news that sales of physical books were up for the second year in a row – 7% more than in 2015. And, following Waterstones’ return to profit for the first time in years, there was also good news for bricks-and-mortar bookshops, with a 4% rise in purchases across the UK. Meanwhile, ebooks declined by 4%, the second consecutive year digital book sales have fallen.

Is this the start of a trend? While it was too early to tell at this year’s book fair, more than one publisher was whistling a happy tune as they entered the Olympia exhibition centre on Tuesday. With print books having a higher average price point than ebooks, and with a weaker pound benefitting exporters – German publishers in particular bought big this year – the mood among the hundreds of publishers was optimistic. As an industry that works 18 months ahead of the reader, the future of publishing looks bright.

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'Benedicent numen my arse': Earthly Powers is a comedic tour de force

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 13:30:02 GMT2017-03-14T13:30:02Z

Anthony Burgess repeatedly blasts the fourth wall and builds it again, in this very clever book about a very clever – and ridiculous – author

Go on, let’s have the memorable opening of Earthly Powers again:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

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He who must not be named: how Harry Potter helps make sense of Trump’s world

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 16:56:14 GMT2017-03-13T16:56:14Z

For fans of the wizard series, the new political order is Dumbledore’s army v President Voldemort. Is it just a juvenile comparison or have JK Rowling’s books shaped a generation’s thinking?

Every generation has its go-to pop-culture political analogy. For decades, it was Star Wars. It’s easy to see how Reagan’s 80s space-based weapons shield initiative earned its nickname, for example, but the reference has endured, to the extent that White House chief strategist Steve Bannon expressed his admiration for the dark side in a recent interview: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power.” But one name was missing from that list: Voldemort.

The Harry Potter villain has risen again over the past couple of years, as fans have drawn comparisons, often humorously, between a world under threat from a narcissistic autocrat and that of the Harry Potter books. In February, Bannon was the subject of a Buzzfeed quiz that asked, Who Said It: Steve Bannon or Lord Voldermort?; it was harder than you might have thought. JK Rowling’s readers have grown up at roughly the same pace as Harry, Ron and Hermione, and with its hundreds of millions of book sales and the massive success of the film adaptations, the series’ reach has been enormous.

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Joanna Trollope webchat – your questions answered on libraries, Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 14:00:10 GMT2017-03-13T14:00:10Z

The bestselling author answered questions on everything from literacy and ereaders, to being the author of choice for presents and ‘the real Trollope’ – read them here

That’s all for today

Can I thank you ALL for wonderful questions and I am very sorry if you asked a question there was no time to reply to. It has been a great experience and I am very appreciative of your participation.
My latest book, City of Friends is out now! Published by Mantle.

Related: City of Friends by Joanna Trollope – digested read

tippisheadrun asks:

I think that I have probably given away more Joanna Trollope books as gifts to friends & family than I could count. There is a book suitable for seemingly every point of passage in womanhood and I’m wondering if there is any subject that you would have liked to tackle or made an attempt at that you had to, in the end, abandon. If so, was that experience frustrating or liberating – letting go of a subject that you wanted or felt that you needed to write about.

Can I start by thanking you hugely for making me into a present so often! I can't think of a more appealing use for my books and I am truly grateful.

Quite honestly, I don't think there has ever been a novel I have abandoned or felt unable to write, even if there have been cases where I make many false starts at the opening. I have certainly had to abandon a couple of non-fiction projects but that I have always put down to non-fiction not being my natural metier. And being half a Scot, I find all wastage very hard to bear, and those abandoned projects are still slightly uncomfortable to endure, I have to admit!

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‘The greatest literary editor there has ever been’ – John Banville remembers Robert Silvers

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 18:00:10 GMT2017-03-23T18:00:10Z

The death this week of the New York Review of Books editor marks the loss of one of publishing’s most brilliant minds

Robert Silvers was one of the most significant cultural figures of our time. This will seem a large claim to make about the editor of a twice-monthly literary magazine, but then the New York Review of Books – or “the paper”, as Silvers always called it – was more than your usual lit mag. There had been great journals before it, of course, notably the Times Literary Supplement and the Paris Review – which Silvers edited for a time. But the NYRB was a unique phenomenon: unapologetically intellectual, politically radical, distinctive in its high-toned New York fashion and wholly committed to civilised values. And from the outset Silvers was its heart and, more importantly, its brain.

Related: Robert Silvers obituary

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

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 15:00:39 GMT2017-03-20T15:00:39Z

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.

Let’s start with one of the finest living writers. samye88 has been reading Denis Johnson:

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London book fair: not so common deal for Jarvis Cocker as publishers chase Britpop stars

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 18:14:52 GMT2017-03-15T18:14:52Z

Ex-Pulp frontman’s book on creativity heads for six-figure deal, while Suede’s Brett Anderson memoir is also signed

Two of Britpop’s biggest stars staged a comeback at this year’s London Book Fair, led by Jarvis Cocker. Bidding for a six-page book proposal by the ex-Pulp frontman had passed the £100,000 mark by the end of Thursday, with eight publishing houses fighting it out for This Book is a Song, Cocker’s book about creativity.

Those understood to have put offers on the table at Cocker’s literary agent Mónica Carmona include Penguin Random House, Macmillan and Faber, for whom the musician has worked as an editor-at-large. A publisher who pulled out of the bidding before the final round described the numbers as “scary” for a book that insiders said was “emphatically not a memoir”.

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Why are there so few novels about Aids these days?

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 10:49:34 GMT2017-03-15T10:49:34Z

Fewer and fewer authors are addressing this cruel disease, but depictions of life with Aids – particularly non-white stories – are rare in an already slim canon

In Tim Murphy’s recent novel Christodora, Hector Villanueva, an Aids activist, looks back on his life’s work. Addicted to crystal meth and alone after the death of his partner, Hector quietly resents others with Aids who get to live “in the bright-eyed new landscape of the chronic manageable illness, supposedly no more menacing or stigmatised or weird than high blood pressure or diabetes”. It was his life’s work to get recognition for the illness and its sufferers – and now they have it, it rings hollow.

Related: Christodora by Tim Murphy review – solidarity in the shadow of Aids

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Books in 2017: a literary calendar

Sat, 07 Jan 2017 12:00:18 GMT2017-01-07T12:00:18Z

Jane Austen’s bicentenary, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, and unpublished F Scott Fitzgerald ... the literary year ahead

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Kayla Rae Whitaker: cartoon life on the dark side

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 14:07:48 GMT2017-03-16T14:07:48Z

The Animators is a dazzling debut novel filled with smart women and honest depictions of addiction. Its author reveals how it was born out of the ‘endurance test’ of time in New York, and her love of TV toons

When Kayla Rae Whitaker was tiny, perhaps four or five, she would watch Warner Brothers cartoons with her grandfather. “He was a world war two vet and he liked them as much as I did. I remember him sitting there, smoking a Winston and laughing, y’know…” – she does a raspy, hacking laugh – “and I realised then, grownups can see things that I don’t see. And I need to know what that is. It was my first sense of the adult world. Kids can always sense darkness without being able to put their names to it.”

Whitaker’s encyclopaedic knowledge for cartoons, and her early awareness of adult darkness fuel her debut, The Animators. After their meet-cute at university, Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught are united by their “white trashiness” and a shared love for cartoons. Sharon is awkward, a worrier, forever lovelorn; Mel is caustic, perennially buzzing on a cocktail of something illicit, resembling – as Sharon once puts it – “a dykey George Burns”.

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Jami Attenberg: ‘I wanted to see if there were other happy endings for single women’

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 13:00:33 GMT2017-03-24T13:00:33Z

The US writer on epic plots, small moments and creating tricky, independent heroines

In her new novel, All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg has done what many long assumed to be impossible: she has coined a smart and original take on the single woman in a big city. Just when the shtick seemed hopelessly exhausted by decades of Bridget Jones, Sex and the City, bad chicklit and worse romcoms, along comes Attenberg’s heroine, Andrea. Spiky, utterly uninterested in marriage or babies, the daughter of an activist mother, she is broken but not in a way a relationship could or should fix. An individual but at once so familiar that every line seems to sing effortlessly off the page. In a typically wry and layered moment, Andrea, addressing herself, describes when her sister-in-law got pregnant:

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16th Seduction by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro – digested read

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 16:00:35 GMT2017-03-26T16:00:35Z

‘My trust levels were low – my husband was sleeping with another woman as part of a CIA operation’

I was staking out a perp called J. Intel was he was linked to the terror group GAOAEBMIA – Global Attacks on Absolutely Anywhere But Mainly in America. The mission was to just keep track of him. But then I saw he had “bomb” written on the side of his car. And he was heading for San Francisco airport. Time to break the rules and intervene. J panicked and blew himself up. “Well done,” said my boss. “You’ve just stopped a major attack by GAOAEBMIA.”

Two months later, I was having dinner with my husband Joe. It was the first time we’d been together since he told me he was working for the CIA and had had to sleep with another woman in the service of his country. My trust levels were low, but I was working on them. Over dessert, we heard a giant explosion. Sci-Tron had just been blown up. We ran to the scene. I noticed a man standing around looking suspicious. “Hi,” he said. “My name is Connor Grant and I’ve just blown up the Sci-Tron centre killing 25 people.”

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Simon Armitage: ‘Language is my enemy – I spend my life battling with it’

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 09:59:06 GMT2017-03-25T09:59:06Z

The poet on creative chaos, the cathartic effect of table tennis and writing on the undersole of a slipper

I have a love-hate relationship with writing. First the hate. It’s difficult. Finding language for ideas, then finding better language. During my years as a probation officer I occasionally heard colleagues joke (sort of) that the job would be great if it weren’t for the clients. I sometimes feel the same way about writing and language. Some writers swoon over language: “It’s my muse, my lover”, and so on. Well, it’s my enemy, and I seem to spend all my life arguing and battling with it. Also, sitting down at a desk aggravates my sacroiliac joint, so by the end of a week of solid writing I’m pretty much bed-bound or crawling around on all fours.

What else? Writing is static, unsocial, and restricts opportunities for the uptake of vitamin D via dermal synthesis. I know what you’re thinking: “Poor thing, must be awful.” As for the love, nothing absorbs or engages me more than composing a poem, trying to cajole it into shape, trying to get the sound of it and the sense of it operating in concert, trying to get to that place where the writing transcends by every measure its original intention and ambition, the feeling of having created something inconceivable.

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Henry Green’s Party Going: an eccentric portrait of the idle rich

Sat, 18 Mar 2017 09:00:34 GMT2017-03-18T09:00:34Z

Amit Chaudhuri revisits a masterful tale of revellers stranded at a hotel, which recalls Joyce and Woolf but resembles neither

In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student in Oxford, I bought a volume of three novels by an author I hadn’t heard of, Henry Green. The Green people were talking about then had an e at the end of his surname, and his first name was Graham. He was almost an exact contemporary of Henry’s: born in 1904, a year before Green, he lived much longer. Both belonged to well-to-do families, but Green was particularly affluent. His father was an industrialist. I’d tried reading Graham Greene, but had never made much headway. Then Henry Green came along, and Graham swiftly became, for me, the “other Greene”, and then not even that. About Henry Green, however, there’s an irreducible, longstanding excitement among the few who have read him.

I must have bought the three-novel volume of Loving, Living, Party Going because John Updike had, in his introduction to the volume, not only given Green centrality as a precursor, but called him a “saint of the mundane”. The religious analogy was excessive, but what had made me admire Updike in the first place was the way in which he’d deliberately made room for the mundane, for the banality that fills our lives and makes them truly interesting. And yet I found Green to be a different kind of writer, with almost none of the chronicler’s impulse that from time to time directed Updike’s decade-long projects, and with no abiding interest in realism, despite his extraordinary eye and ear and his gift for capturing character. Replying to a question put to him by Terry Southern for the Paris Review in 1958 – “You’ve described your novels as ‘nonrepresentational’. I wonder if you’d mind defining that term?” – Green said:

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Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence review – beyond food

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 06:00:22 GMT2017-03-26T06:00:22Z

These tricks of the scientist’s trade conjure up a feast for the senses

Charles Spence is not afraid of stirring things up. “The pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not the mouth,” he writes, no doubt triggering much gnashing of teeth from cookbook writers the world over.

In fact, while Gastrophysics is about cracking the conundrum of the perfect meal, it has almost nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of cuisine. Instead, this is the science of the “everything else”, a blending of gastronomy and psychophysics to probe the myriad, seemingly peripheral, ingredients that influence our perception of flavour, steer our culinary choices and make all the difference between a memorable meal and one to be forgotten.

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You Know What You Could Be review – a Scottish tale of psychedelic folk

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 09:00:05 GMT2017-03-25T09:00:05Z

This enjoyable joint memoir by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig has at its centre late 60s hippiedom and the Incredible String Band

This book is a freak, a fairground mermaid, half monkey, half fish. It is therefore entirely in keeping with its subject, the Incredible String Band, the 1960s group that was never quite one thing nor another – folk or rock or world music – but always a mingling of influences, voices and styles.

You Know What You Could Be is a joint memoir, at times a joints memoir, written by the String Band’s Mike Heron and the poet Andrew Greig. Despite being the marquee name and main draw, Heron here plays the support act in his own story. His contribution comes first and takes up not quite a third of the book. He sometimes uses the present tense (“I’m back at the drug emporium two days later”) to describe the years between 1957, when he is a 15-year-old Edinburgh schoolboy, and 1966, when he is on the brink of becoming a star. Greig picks up the story in the late autumn of ’67, writing in the past tense about how he, still at school in Fife, had his mind blown by the String Band, and was inspired to form his own version, Fate & ferret, the ampersand and lower case “f” a nod to ee cummings.

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Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell review – a poignant, poetic memoir

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 09:00:28 GMT2017-03-24T09:00:28Z

Light and dark combine in this multi-generational account of abandonment, alcoholism and gender transition

There are several precursors nodded to in the title of Howard Cunnell’s light-filled memoir of childhood, parenthood and gender transition. One thinks of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, in which the author, finally cutting himself off from his pious and overbearing father, sets out “to fashion his inner life for himself”. There’s Turgenev’s tale of an ageing man unable to keep pace with his fast-living nihilist son. Then there’s Hemingway’s short story, “Fathers and Sons”, in which the Hemingway figure, Nick Adams, talks to his son about his own father, a man “both cruel and abused” who is dead now, and who was severe and distant in life. In all cases, the message is that parenthood is a different country, that the old are unable to speak to the young, that men are destined to harden with age and repeat the mistakes their fathers made.

This is a book of two halves, the first dominated by an absence – that of Cunnell’s own father. Jason Cunnell is a chancer and a fly-by-night who walks out on Howard and his brother, Luke, before Howard is born. The young Howard finds that he’s “terrified by how badly somebody that doesn’t exist can make me feel. My small hands turn to fists when I hear the word: Dad.” The boys’ mother moves to her parents’ in Eastbourne, where Howard and Luke grow up in a familiar muddle of art, literature, music and provincial violence. It’s a charming if well-trodden narrative path, redeemed from the commonplace by the flair Cunnell exhibits in his descriptions of the South Downs.

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To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell review – solving the problem of death

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 07:30:05 GMT2017-03-23T07:30:05Z

A captivating exploration of transhumanism features cryonics, cyborgs, immortality and the hubris of Silicon Valley

Max More runs Alcor, an American company which, in exchange for $200,000, will store your corpse in liquid nitrogen until the science exists to revive you. Tim Cannon is a computer programmer who implanted a device the size of a pack of cards into his arm, without the aid of anaesthetics. Zoltan Istvan recently ran for US president and publicised his campaign by driving across the country in a huge vehicle modified to look like a coffin.

These are among the unusual individuals Mark O’Connell interviews in his travelogue-style exploration of transhumanism, the movement that campaigns for the direct incorporation of technology into our bodies and minds, and strives to remove ageing as a cause of death. “What are my chances, would you say, of living to a thousand?” the author asks Aubrey de Grey, an established figure in this strange world: “I would say perhaps a little better than fifty-fifty,” is the serious reply. “It’s very much dependent on the level of funding.”

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Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel review – a profound hermit? Not really

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 09:00:30 GMT2017-03-22T09:00:30Z

The story of Christopher Knight living in solitude in the wilderness for 27 years is remarkable. But this account tries too hard to give it real significance

In the summer of 1986, a young man returning home from a road trip impulsively drove past his house without stopping and continued north on smaller and smaller roads until he reached a forest trail in northern Maine, where he abandoned his car, stepped out into the wilderness, and disappeared for 27 years.

He didn’t have a plan, nor project, nor even a conscious motive other than a fondness for solitude. He set up home in a small tent below a camouflaged tarpaulin in a secluded spot in the woods. There, through the ferocious winters and mosquito-ridden summers, he remained unseen, though not unnoticed: every week or two he would break into one of the many seasonal camps and cabins dotting the shores of a nearby lake and steal supplies. His skill as a thief, along with the modest nature of his plunder, earned him a certain mythic local status. Some people left bags of food out for him, though others resented his intrusions – on their peace of mind as well as their property. In 2013 a game warden, determined to capture the elusive “Hermit of North Pond”, nabbed him in flagrante, stealing from a summer camp for disabled children.

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The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart – a liberal’s rightwing turn on immigration

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 07:30:29 GMT2017-03-22T07:30:29Z

Is your tribe the ‘Somewheres’ or the ‘Anywheres’? A book on the faultlines that divide Brexit Britain is timely but misguided

Forget the title, there will be plenty of people – Guardian readers among them – who’ll take one look at this book and refuse to get past the author’s name. For many on the liberal left, David Goodhart became persona non grata more than a decade ago.

In 2004, he wrote an essay for Prospect magazine, which he both founded and edited, that earned rapid notoriety and saw him branded a “liberal Powellite”. In “Too Diverse?”, he argued that there was a trade-off between increased diversity, through mass immigration, and social solidarity, in the form of the welfare state. Goodhart said that for citizens willingly to hand some of their hard-earned cash to others via their taxes, they needed to feel a basic level of affinity with those others. He wrote that in the homogenous societies of old that was never a problem: citizens felt the mutual obligation of kinship. But in the highly mixed societies of today, such fellow-feeling was strained. Goodhart offered copious data to show that people bridled at subsidising the housing, education or welfare benefits of those whose roots in the society were shallow. As he wrote, “To put it bluntly – most of us prefer our own kind.”

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Mail Men: The Unauthorized Story of the Daily Mail – the Paper That Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison – review

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 09:00:32 GMT2017-03-20T09:00:32Z

A rollicking history of the Daily Mail charts its rise from 60s doldrums to middle England’s paper of record

Nobody, 50 years ago in the chilly spring of 1967, would have seen much point in a biography of the Daily Mail, authorised or not. Its glory days, the days of its founder, Alfred Harmsworth, were long gone. Its days of Nazi-fawning shame, under Alfred’s brother Harold, the first Viscount Rothermere, lay buried in forgetfulness. And the paper itself – like any benefits from its unlikely marriage to the Liberal-supporting News Chronicle – was failing to deliver.

Two men made the difference: the 3rd Viscount, Vere, and the editor of the Daily Sketch he had set his heart on hiring, David English. What does Adrian Addison, an ex-BBC Today desk editor, have to reveal about them? That “mere Vere” was a Buddhist billionaire, sat on the cross benches in the Lords, embraced Blair, loved the European Union – and gave his chosen supremo the greatest possible freedom to get on with the job: turning the Mail tabloid, cherishing the best popular writers and, slowly, leaving rivals behind.

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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – review

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 07:30:30 GMT2017-03-20T07:30:30Z

The Yale historian’s important book argues that we must learn from the horrors of the past if we want to protect our democracy

Halfway through this crisply produced little book, Timothy Snyder makes the case for the printed word. The ninth suggestion of his 20-point “how to” guide for resisting tyranny reads as follows: “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone else is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

I sat reading Snyder’s own book last week outside in the first spring sunshine. And while I was doing so I was struck by a thought that maybe creeps into your head as often as it creeps into mine these days. The thought runs like this: it is good to be reading these words not on a screen but on a clean white sunlit page not only for the tactile pleasure it gives but also because it is the only way I can be sure that this interaction is just between me and the author of this book. No algorithm is tracking my scrolling habits; no cunning intelligence is hazarding a guess at what I might want to read or be distracted by next (“If you liked On Tyranny, you might also like i) Nineteen Eighty-Four, ii) tear gas canisters…”). No one else knows what me and Snyder are up to.

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A House Full of Daughters review – fascinating family memoir

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 12:00:07 GMT2017-03-19T12:00:07Z

An engrossing study of seven generations of Juliet Nicolson’s literary family

“Nothing has really happened unless it is written down,” the author’s father was fond of telling her, quoting Virginia Woolf whose letters he edited. This engrossing book charts seven generations of a family who were obsessive documenters of their lives through diaries, letters, memoirs and autobiographical novels. But Nicolson – the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West – probes the premise too, questioning the subjectivity of memory, the fleeting nature of occurrences, and experiences beyond the remit of expression. Focusing on the women in her family, she grapples with that which has still neither been written down or said, eloquently exploring the silences.

Nicolson notices many patterns emerging through the generations, some that she finds disturbing – secrets that parents kept from children, a fear of intimacy, a “lack of self-worth and self-belief”, a slipping into loneliness and isolation, and “numbing unhappiness in an addictive dependence on drink, money and sex. Only rarely did an individual, ensnared in this way, manage to break through the dependence” – she traces not only what has been passed down but what it takes to begin afresh. She goes as far back in her family tree as her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, in evocative scenes in the 19th-century slums of Malaga, in which her sentences twist and turn with the vitality of the dancing it is describing. She moves through the generations to her eccentric grandmother Vita, who in her own book Pepita “works out her feelings for her mother with a clarity that I would covet”.

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Arthur and Sherlock review – ‘diligent study of Holmes and his role models’

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 13:00:08 GMT2017-03-19T13:00:08Z

Michael Sims investigates Conan Doyle’s real and fictional inspirations for his great detective

The best Sherlock Holmes stories were written before 1916, when Arthur Conan Doyle officially converted to spiritualism and took to table-rapping. A mishmash of new age mysticism and low church gloom, the pseudo-religion flourished amid the bereavement of the first world war and its aftermath; Conan Doyle had lost his adored son Kingsley to the flu epidemic of 1918. Had he dabbled seriously in mediums and moonshine before The Hound of the Baskervilles appeared in 1902, the fire-breathing beast of Grimpen Mire might really have come from the beyond, as we are led at first to believe. Instead, the novel is enlivened by marvellous corny humour. “I have ample evidence,” Holmes tells his client Sir Henry Baskerville, “that you are being dogged in London.”

Complete with pipe, Stradivarius and magnifying glass (though not deerstalker: the hat was added by the Strand magazine illustrator Sidney Paget), Sherlock Holmes was hooked on cocaine and injected himself with morphine in order to stave off fears of boredom. The detective’s darker side, made explicit in the drug–taking of the second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890), contradicts the cosy deerstalker image. Conan Doyle himself was familiar with stimulants from his medical studies at Edinburgh University in the early 1880s, and later witnessed varieties of addiction (notably to rum) as a trainee surgeon aboard a whaling ship. His relationship with Sherlock was fraught with dark undercurrents and possibilities.

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The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy review – a fearless, compelling memoir

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 06:30:00 GMT2017-03-19T06:30:00Z

The New Yorker writer didn’t think anything could shatter ‘the movie of her life’. Until it did…

Loss is the black hole at the centre of Ariel Levy’s maelstrom of a memoir. The events of her life surge around this absence, and loss is the centrifugal force – not just loss of love (though love goes), or of hope, though that too, but loss of her sense of self as a ceaseless, marvellous act of becoming.

What she dreads is to be 'old, weakened, wizened', in the meaningless march towards death

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Wear and Tear by Tracy Tynan review – trapped in a parental horror film

Sat, 18 Mar 2017 09:00:34 GMT2017-03-18T09:00:34Z

Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy’s daughter delivers an astonishing family tell-all of narcissism and neglect

Here is one peep behind the curtain I wish I’d never taken. Tracy Tynan, daughter of Kenneth Tynan and the writer Elaine Dundy, describes an upbringing of privilege and privation that deals a death blow to the character of both parents. If the Joan Crawford takedown Mommie Dearest is the template for the awful-mother showbiz memoir, Wear and Tear goes one better, or worse: this is Mommie and Daddy Dearest. You may never again read a family tell-all of such narcissism, of such subtle cruelty, of such toadying to the famous. I didn’t doubt a word of it.

Ms Tynan had already laid the groundwork in 2001 by publishing her father’s diaries, which quickly became notorious for their candid revelations about his spanking and his sadomasochistic affair with a woman named Nicole. But his bedroom preferences now seem rather innocent compared with what we learn about him here. When Tracy was born in 1952 Tynan was already renowned as a drama critic and social dandy; Elaine was the novelist, and a gruesome match for him in attention seeking. Looking back to her childhood, Tracy recalls their Mayfair flat playing out a drama of its own – to smashing crockery and screaming matches. One night she saw her father perched half-naked on a window ledge. “I’m going to jump!” he yelled. Her mother replied, “Why the fuck don’t you?” and went off to bed.

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Truevine by Beth Macy review – a remarkable story of freakshow racism

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 09:00:05 GMT2017-03-17T09:00:05Z

George and Willie Muse were black albino brothers exploited as sideshow freaks in the American south who gained international fame

It’s the best story in town, but no one has ever been able to get it.” That’s what journalist Beth Macy was told by colleagues when, at the end of the 1980s, she moved to Roanoke, a former railroad town in rural Virginia. The story they were talking about, handed down through generations, was the stuff of marvel and melodrama, of folk horror, of racial terror and its impact on the most vulnerable Americans. It concerned George and Willie Muse, albino brothers who were taken from a tobacco farm in Truevine, near Roanoke in Virginia, by a circus promoter and spent more than a decade touring the country as sideshow freaks.

Travelling circuses were common at the start of the 20th century. Factory workers craved non-mechanical entertainment and showmen such as the Ringling Brothers, in addition to the usual carnival of big top performers, offered up giants, dwarves, fat ladies, conjoined twins, microcephalics. This was a post-Darwinian period in which unfortunate men and women were collected by bounty hunters and canny populists, who packaged them as variations on the species. Who could resist a pair of black albinos, their hair done up in dreadlocks, strumming guitars and, as if they hailed from another planet, squinting back at audiences who were squinting at them.

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The Autonomous City by Alexander Vasudevan review – in praise of squatting

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 09:00:04 GMT2017-03-16T09:00:04Z

This international history makes the case for squatting as a radical alternative to neoliberal urbanisation and a shared vision of the city

In February this year squatters moved into a £14m mansion near Buckingham Palace. It was the third such luxury property occupied in a matter of weeks by members of the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, or Anal for short, part of a campaign to highlight the scandal of empty properties at a time when homelessness and inequality are soaring. The number of people sleeping rough in England has risen steadily for the last six years.

Alexander Vasudevan’s study is the first comprehensive attempt to reconstruct the history of squatting as “the expression of an autonomous understanding of shared city life”. Each of his eight chapters takes a specific city and charts the evolution of squatting since the radical social movements of the 1960s, showing how the occupation of buildings became a way of reimagining the city “as a space of necessity and refuge, experimentation and resistance”. As well as providing an instant solution to the need for housing, squatting was also a way to reclaim the city in the face of gentrification and urban renewal schemes that were stripping it of public spaces and displacing working-class populations.

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Mail Men by Adrian Addison review – inside the Daily Mail’s sanctimony and vitriol

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 07:30:02 GMT2017-03-16T07:30:02Z

It was Britain’s first popular paper – and once supported Hitler – but this history is best on the Mail’s divisive current editor

This summer Paul Dacre will have edited the Daily Mail for 25 years. No journalist has had a bigger influence on the behaviour of recent British governments, and few journalists at any time have been so disliked. Dacre, 68, is not just loathed by what he would call the “metropolitan liberal elite” – a phrase that encompasses the Guardian, the BBC and the judiciary – but also by a multitude of people that the Mail would celebrate as “ordinary”. These are people who detest the Mail’s sanctimony and vitriol, to say nothing of its long-lasting loyalty to the obdurate right of the Tory party, loyalty to Thatcher but not to Cameron, who in desperation during the run-up to last year’s referendum wanted Dacre’s owner, the fourth viscount Rothermere, to fire him. And loyalty most recently to Theresa May, who in Dacre’s eyes can do no wrong – so far, at least.

Related: Paul Dacre: the Mail man leading the Brexit charge | the observer profile

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Truevine by Beth Macy review – a black American tragedy

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 13:00:31 GMT2017-03-26T13:00:31Z

The 19th-century abduction of the albino Muse brothers makes for a compelling read

The forced abduction of the albino Muse brothers at the end of the 19th century, and their circus career as travelling freaks, was one of the many tragedies of the black American experience. Beth Macy tells a story that offers both intricate personal history of the unfortunate Muses and a wider picture of the harshness of life in rural Virginia, the “heart of the Jim Crow South”. It is from there that the Muse brothers were abducted by a travelling carnival, sparking a 28-year struggle by their mother Harriett to retrieve them.

Macy describes a nightmarish world, where the national KKK had a membership of 5 million and, if you were black, casual discrimination and often brutal violence awaited. George and Willie Muse were unusual in that they had curly blond hair and blue eyes, which led their captors to exhibit them as circus freaks across the world, from Paris to New York, shunting them around like so much human baggage, bought and sold by “managers” as nothing more than commodities. A grim and compelling story.

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What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? 70 Questions That Will Change the Way You Think About Architecture by Jonathan Glancey – review

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 08:00:25 GMT2017-03-26T08:00:25Z

These engaging essays on global landmarks show that our opinions aren’t set in stone

All buildings are temporary, said the great architectural thinker Cedric Price, but some are more temporary than others. In other words, even something as enduring as the Parthenon and the pyramids will one day go. And even before they disappear, these seemingly fixed and eternal objects are in constant flux. Not only do they weather, decay and get altered, but they change in public perception. An eyesore can become a landmark, a pagan temple can become a church, a symbol of tyranny can become a popular icon.

These paradoxical truths have allowed Jonathan Glancey, formerly architecture critic of the Guardian, to have a bit of fun. In What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? he finds 70 examples of buildings whose backstories are not as you might imagine. The title refers to Exhibit A in the case of the changeability of architectural perception, the fact that what is now one of the world’s most popular structures was originally opposed by 300 members of the French cultural elite.

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The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe review – great writers on their deathbeds

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 09:30:31 GMT2017-03-22T09:30:31Z

Sensitive and faithful, this book charts the last hours of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter

The grave’s a fine and private place, as Marvell wrote; the deathbed, as he did not, less so. Here we have six intrusions on the last moments of six writers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. (The last name perhaps not so well known in the UK: I recommend checking him out.)

Dr Roiphe (she has a PhD in literature) has always been a bit obsessed with death, we learn from an introduction that tells of a traumatic childhood bout of pneumonia. Recovering, she read “exclusively books about genocide” by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and others, describing her “great, endless appetite for these books, not just for people dying but people dying in great numbers”. Being so consumed by her subject, and at the same time highly sensitive to the areas where art and life meet, is what lifts her book from the category of Higher Gossip (nosiness excused by the trappings of Great Art).

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The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott review – a double helping of love and loss

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 09:00:26 GMT2017-03-26T09:00:26Z

Jake Arnott’s fictionalised adventures of a notorious 18th-century prostitute vividly captures London’s world of thieves – and the precarious life of his gay narrator

The capture and hanging of the infamous thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard in 1724 made headline news and his rackety life story was turned into a sensational biography by Daniel Defoe. In Defoe’s account, Elizabeth Lyon – the lover Sheppard denounced before his death – “laid the foundation of his ruin” when she first met him, setting him on the path to the gallows. In The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott redresses the balance, offering a fictional account of one of history’s footnotes, Lyon, AKA Edgworth Bess.

Set in the time that saw the birth of modern journalism, Arnott gives control of the narrative to a hack writer, the entirely fictional William Archer, who sends the account in sections to his publisher, John Applebee. Bess recounts, from her prison cell, her life as a serving girl in the Middlesex village of Edgworth (now Edgware) and the scandal that saw her evicted and drawn into a life of crime and prostitution. From there, her story plunges the reader into the underworld of early 18th-century London, the city we recognise from William Hogarth’s Gin Lane, a barely contained free-for-all. In this world of punks, prigs, jades and mollies, a tenuous companionship of thieves and misfits, ruled over by thief-taker general Jonathan Wild (himself the subject of an account by Defoe), everyone is just a snitch away from deportation, or worse, a trip to Tyburn’s fatal tree. So far, so Moll Flanders.

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The Accusation by Bandi – review: unflinching tales from North Korea

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 06:30:23 GMT2017-03-26T06:30:23Z

These compelling stories of cruel absurdity are believed to have been smuggled out from the secretive totalitarian state

When the founding strongman Kim Il-sung died in 1994, displays of public grief in North Korea reached extraordinary levels. Sobbing television presenters segued into distraught citizens tearing at their hair and family members collapsing in paroxysms of despair. In Pyongyang’s vast eponymous square, rows of kneeling, white-clad men and women set up a keening cacophony. The scenes were repeated 17 years later on the decease of the son and successor, Kim Jong-il. When he died, North Korea’s news agency solemnly reported, ice cracked, magpies mourned and a family of bears was found weeping on a road.

Both had presided over an exceptionally totalising and brutal regime. Even as Kim Il-sung died, a devastating famine was beginning that would last for four years and reduce the population beneath destitution in what had once been one of north Asia’s most prosperous countries. What, the puzzled outsider had to ask, were they all crying about?

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In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant review – history you can see, hear and smell

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 07:30:03 GMT2017-03-25T07:30:03Z

The latest instalment in a bravura Renaissance series offers a new perspective on two of history’s most notorious figures, Lucrezia Borgia and Niccolò Machiavelli

Recent advances in malice and technology have encouraged the new industry of “reputation management”, in which strategies and algorithms are used to burnish the public profile of a maligned character. Sarah Dunant attempts a literary equivalent by boldly basing a novel around two of the most notorious figures in history: Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) and Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527).

His surname has been immortalised as an adjective for clever and deceitful ambition, especially in politicians and diplomats, while a Donizetti opera and assorted TV miniseries have established her as a mass murderer who also slept with most of the men in her own and other leading families.

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The Patriots by Sana Krasikov review – stuck in the USSR

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 12:00:32 GMT2017-03-24T12:00:32Z

This saga uncovers the compelling stories of the Americans who emigrated to the USSR in the 1930s and were trapped there under Stalin

Sana Krasikov wrote her debut novel before Donald Trump was elected, but in the current climate her themes are urgently relevant. The Patriots asks huge, complex questions about identity, loyalty, truth and self-deception, and explores tangled historical connections between Russia and the US. 

Krasikov’s heroine, Florence Fein, trades 1930s Brooklyn for Soviet Magnitogorsk, a steel-producing city in the Urals. She is escaping the “whole rigged capitalist setup”, naively chasing both a utopian life of “meaning and consequence” and a dark-eyed Russian called Sergei. Seven decades later, Florence’s son Julian is trying to solve painful questions about his mother’s life: why, even after it killed her husband and imprisoned her for eight years, did she refuse to condemn the system that destroyed their family? 

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin review – terrifying but brilliant

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 07:30:26 GMT2017-03-24T07:30:26Z

Longlisted for the Man Booker international prize, this dangerously addictive first novel in which a woman’s life speeds towards doom is haunted by the bleak landscape of rural Argentina

“Each thing she tells you is going to be worse,” someone says about two thirds of the way through Samanta Schweblin’s short, terrifying and brilliant first novel, now longlisted for the Man Booker International prize. It could be the book’s strapline, as she remorselessly cranks up the tension until every sentence seems to tremble with threat.

Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, is the Argentinian writer’s first book to appear in English (she has written three short story collections). In it, Amanda has left her husband working in Buenos Aires and travelled, with her daughter Nina, to a holiday home in the countryside. She becomes friendly with a neighbour, Carla, who tells her a horrible, apparently supernatural story about her seven- or eight‑year-old son David, whose soul, Carla believes, has “transmigrated” into another body: “So this one is my new David. This monster.” Shocked and puzzled by the story, Amanda suspects Carla is delusional.

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The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale review – impressive debut western

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 15:00:07 GMT2017-03-23T15:00:07Z

This British author’s debut, set during the US civil war, shines light on hitherto overlooked people and events

What was happening around Los Angeles when the US civil war began? I bet you don’t know. I’ve written a book about pre-war Kansas, but I hadn’t given any thought to the LA of the time until I read Davina Langdale’s first novel. It turns out it was much more interesting than I might have suspected: more populous, more connected to the east, more culturally diverse, and, of course, plenty violent.

The Brittle Star is a romance in the strict sense of the word – a young man, with a conscience and only a few flaws, sets out to right a wrong. In this case, John Evert Burn is the only child of his American father and Spanish mother. The father has died and the mother is attempting to run the ranch; a neighbour, Phineas Dunn, who owns the adjacent property, is trying to take the Burn ranch any way he can. Late one night, raiding warriors from a local Paiute band burn down the house, injure John Evert with an axe, and kidnap his mother. John Evert’s quest is to find and rescue his mother, but, as with all quests, his real job is to grow up, see the world, and maybe find love along the way.

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The Erstwhile by B Catling review – a dazzlingly psychedelic quest

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 11:59:03 GMT2017-03-23T11:59:03Z

Following on from The Vorrh, the second instalment in the surreal cult trilogy sees the setting move from the African jungle to old Europe, and quiet comedy come to the fore

Brian Catling is a poet and sculptor who published his remarkable 2015 novel, The Vorrh, in his late 60s. It is a fantastical work in the tradition of what is sometimes called “the new weird”. The Vorrh of the title is a primeval, unmapped jungle in the centre of Africa which may or may not be the location of the original Garden of Eden. With the second world war looming, it is now inhabited by monsters and exploited by colonial capitalists. It drives mad most who venture into it, whether seeking profits or prophets. The book has a classic quest structure, and encompasses historical figures such as the novelist Raymond Roussel and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge; it reads like Joseph Conrad trying to interpret a Max Ernst painting. It is also the first part of a prospective trilogy; The Erstwhile is the promised continuation.

The middles of trilogies are difficult things, a balancing act between closure and continuation. The middle can’t just tread water, nor can it wholly deliver. In the right hands, this very balance can be elliptically tantalising. The Erstwhile almost revels in its status as the hiatus between Genesis and Apocalypse. It applies the sleight of hand that many of the best middle-books do, for a shift of focus. Although there are still scenes set in Africa, the prime interest moves to old Europe.

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Quieter Than Killing review – vivid and eerie

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 07:30:07 GMT2017-03-21T07:30:07Z

Sarah Hilary’s fourth DI Marnie Rome novel digs deep into the detective’s past, wrapping the story in effortless prose

DI Marnie Rome first ventured on to the literary scene in 2014, in Sarah Hilary’s debut Someone Else’s Skin. Horribly unsettling, beautifully written, it went on to win the Theakston’s crime novel of the year award. Quieter Than Killing is the detective-with-a-troubled-past’s fourth outing, and it’s just as good: honestly, if you’re not reading this series of London-set police procedurals then you need to start doing so right away.

This time around, Rome and her sidekick DS Noah Jake are dealing with a string of apparently unconnected brutal assaults. The victims seem to have nothing in common, but Rome and Jake discover that they have all served time for brutal acts of their own in the past. They believe they are dealing with a vigilante, not someone on a killing spree. “It was quieter than that. In some ways, it was worse. Leaving victims on all sides, living in fear, watching the shadows.” Or as one of their colleagues puts it, less elegantly: “As if we don’t have enough arseholes on our hands without the arsehole-hating arseholes pitching in.”

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First Love by Gwendoline Riley review – a compelling tale of toxic love

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-03-19T08:00:02Z

Riley’s novel about a poisonous partnership makes uncomfortable reading, but it’s also bleakly, blackly funny

Borrowing the title of one of Turgenev’s best-known works is a bold statement, directly implying a kinship between Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel and the Russian master’s tale of an ill-fated love affair. But while Turgenev’s First Love is a linear exploration of the liminal state between childhood and maturity, Riley’s First Love is a more elusive, chronologically chaotic take on the power dynamics of love.

The novel – longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction – opens with Neve unpacking boxes in the house she shares with her husband, Edwyn. The tone is melancholic but tender, the voice less dominated by an insistent “I” than in Riley’s previous fiction. Neve recalls waiting for Edwyn, looking down from the window to the street, watching him head home, how she meets him on the street, their “cuddles” on the stairs and in bed, their kisses and pet names (“little cabbage”, “little cleany puss”). The joys of such intimacy, the sympathy between two people in love are elegantly, beautifully written; Riley’s prose shimmering and luminous.

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Birdcage Walk review – domestic terror in Georgian Bristol

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 07:30:01 GMT2017-03-19T07:30:01Z

Helen Dunmore’s vivid novel of a woman married to a violent 18th-century property magnate is her best yet

This is the finest novel Helen Dunmore has written. Its unencumbered lightness does not come out of nowhere: it has been years – and books – in the making. Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was a remarkable debut, but in comparison suffers from a surplus of detail. Now, Dunmore knows how to let a narrative move like an arrow in flight. There is an atmosphere of Hardyesque unease as a man rows from Bristol to a glade where he has left his dead wife overnight. He must bury her fast, where no one will find her. From the start, Birdcage Walk has the command of a thriller as we keep company with John Diner Tredevant, an 18th-century property developer building a magnificent terrace in Clifton, high above the Avon Gorge. Lizzie, his second wife, does not know the details of what happened to his first. Nor do we know as much as we might suppose.

It is 1792. The French Revolution is about to have a catastrophic effect on Diner’s property speculations and this is particularly alarming given his disposition. Dunmore’s portrait of Diner is brilliant. She grasps the psyche of an oppressive, jealous, potentially violent man. Whenever Diner is cheerful, Lizzie is relieved. When he is not, she knows how to humour him and steer the subject away from peril. She knows which secrets she needs to keep from him.

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A Separation by Katie Kitamura review – a smart study of upper-class alienation

Sat, 18 Mar 2017 07:30:32 GMT2017-03-18T07:30:32Z

From the glamour of Glyndebourne to murder in Greece – a woman’s intriguing quest to find the husband who divorced her

Katie Kitamura’s first novel, The Longshot, was set in the closed, masculine universe of martial arts, while her second, Gone to the Forest, was a fable of destruction set in an allegorical, unnamed country. This third novel also takes place in an attenuated world stiff with custom: that of the English upper classes and their sorrowful literary offspring.

Here, everyone lives in the same neighbourhood, attends Glyndebourne and a round of dinner parties, and there are neither politics nor bills. Jobs have atrophied – publishers commission books with no deadlines – and so have gender roles. Our narrator accepts that a mother with three children is ipso facto “always in need of help and companionship”; that men only “achieve a little privacy [on] the shores of infidelity”; and that sex while menstruating is quite impossible.

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The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown review

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:00:12 GMT2017-03-17T15:00:12Z

A clever debut, with a slow burn of horror, sees the 17th-century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins confronted by his fictional sister

One thing historical fiction writers frequently struggle to get across is a steeped-in sense of the religiosity of the past, with all its facets from fervour to hypocrisy. Some publishers even welcome the transplantation of much later ideas into historical settings, giving characters appealing modern notions (feminism, gay rights) they cannot possibly have harboured, in a bid to make them more “relatable”.

Beth Underdown’s debut novel, centred on Matthew Hopkins, the infamous “witchfinder general” of the mid 17th century, positions him as a serial killer: “The number of women my brother Matthew killed, as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.” And perhaps that’s fair enough, religious fundamentalism forming, as so often, a mask for misogyny.

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Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar review – Solaris with laughs

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 12:00:09 GMT2017-03-17T12:00:09Z

With its interplanetary shenanigans and lessons in Czech history, this zany satirical debut is bursting at the seams

“No one informs on the informer,” Jakub Procházka’s father smugly informs him. Jakub’s father is what’s commonly referred to as a secret policeman (although they actually weren’t that secret in Czechoslovakia), but despite rounding up citizens who aren’t big on communism, he nevertheless has a clandestine fascination in Elvis Presley. You only have to read a few lines of Jaroslav’s Kalfar’s debut novel to realise that you are undoubtedly in the land of the satirist Jaroslav Hašek and film‑maker Jiří Menzel.

Jakub is the Bohemian spaceman of the title: in 2018 a proud Czech Republic fires him off from a launchpad in a potato field to investigate a mysterious cloud of cosmic dust that has appeared between Venus and Earth. There really was a Czech spaceman, Vladimír Remek, who in 1978 became a cosmonaut courtesy of the Russians, and Kalfar makes a joke or two at the expense of Moscow’s space programme.

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Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore review – a marriage suffused with menace

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

A haunting depiction of domestic constraints set in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution

Barry Unsworth, whose Sacred Hunger shared the 1992 Booker prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, mistrusted an addiction to historical minutiae when it came to evoking the past in fiction. “What matters,” he said, “is trying to get hold of the spirit of the age, what it was like to be alive in that age, what it felt like to be an ordinary person in the margins of history.”

Helen Dunmore would doubtless agree. From her debut, Zennor in Darkness, set in Cornwall during the first world war, to Exposure, her recent take on the cold war spy drama, she has carefully peeled back the public record to expose the private struggles of those whose lives are forged in the crucible of history, and in particular what she calls “the long shadows of war”. Her novels illuminate not only the suffering of these forgotten people but their small joys, the ties of family and of faith, the stubborn determination of individuals, even in the grimmest of circumstances, to hold onto the humanity that redeems us.

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The best recent science fiction, fantasy and horror novels – reviews roundup

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 12:00:55 GMT2017-03-16T12:00:55Z

Chalk by Paul Cornell, The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams, Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds, Relics by Tim Lebbon and Hekla’s Children by James Brogden

Early in Paul Cornell’s psychological horror novel Chalk (Tor, £14.50), something appalling happens to Andrew Waggoner, a mild-mannered schoolboy who suffers continual bullying. After a Halloween disco he’s attacked by five fellow pupils who drag him into nearby woods, tie him to a tree and mutilate him. Later that night, his tortured psyche gives birth to a Hyde-like alter ego that proceeds to do terrible things; as he tells Andrew: “You can only be healed when your revenge is complete.” What follows, seen through the eyes of the book’s unreliable narrator, is the story of Waggoner’s revenge. The setting is the West Country in the 1980s, and Cornell brilliantly delineates not only the insular milieu of rural England but the brutal materialism of Thatcher’s Britain, in a slow-building novel of retribution and cycles of abuse. Cornell has described Chalk as not being about the triumph of a victimised martyr but about “how the bullied often become the bullies, and a desperate attempt to escape that”. Superb.

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee review – rich story of the immigrant experience

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 12:00:29 GMT2017-03-15T12:00:29Z

A vivid, immersive multigenerational saga about life for Koreans in Japan is a tale of resilience and poignant emotional conflictIn the latter stages of Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s patient, sprawling story of a Korean family in Japan, Nobuo Ban, one of the novel’s principal characters, allows himself a moment of reflection. He is living a “small, invisible life” in Nagano, Japan, in 1969 – a modest but respectable middle-class existence, with a wife and four children and a job as a manager of a gambling joint where customers play the pachinko machines that lend the novel its title. But Nobuo’s unchanging routine and determinedly detached manner hide a terrible secret that plagues him daily: he is not, in fact, Japanese, but Korean – born Noa Baek, the son of poor immigrants despised by the rest of Japanese society. His failure to commit himself emotionally to his wife is at odds with the totality of his dedication to Japanese language, culture and manners, and betrays not just a deep-seated fear of being unmasked but an acceptance of the impossibility of equality or redemption. “Though he valued his wife and children as a kind of second chance, in no way did he see his current life as a rebirth.”Noa’s predicament is a terrifying embodiment of the anxieties of Koreans in Japan – he stands to lose his family and job if his true identity is revealed – and indeed of immigrants in general. His desire to assimilate is constantly tempered by the fear of rejection, a tension that works its way into virtually every scene in the novel. Continue reading...[...]

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Cheese: A Novel by Willem Elsschot review – self-improvement through edam

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 09:30:18 GMT2017-03-14T09:30:18Z

Deadpan humour abounds in this absurdist tale of a useless, cheese-hating clerk who tries to become ... a cheese merchant

A bit over halfway through this short novel, Frans Laarmans, an ineffectual clerk at an Antwerp shipyard, has visitors from his office. He has supposedly been off sick from nerves for weeks, but what he has really been doing is trying to establish himself as a cheese merchant. This is not going well. His co-workers, or possibly ex-co-workers, paint a vivid picture of the excitement he is missing.

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Still Life With Feeding Snake by John Burnside review – master of the parallel universe

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 07:30:15 GMT2017-03-14T07:30:15Z

Levity and gravity make perfect bedfellows in the Scottish poet’s 15th collection

The words “still life” and John Burnside do not belong together. I imagine the unattributed painting he beautifully describes in his poem Still Life to be a 17th-century Dutch genre painting (its neighbour, in this collection, is Hendrick Avercamp: A Standing Man Watching a Skating Boy). But perhaps the painting does not exist, except in Burnside’s imagination. We can visualise the canvas precisely with its Chinese glazes lang yao hong (oxblood) and qingbai (white with greenish tint) and its “blemished” grapes until it is eclipsed by a living scene. The painting is a memento mori but the poem does not – cannot – stay still. Someone – Burnside’s mother? – wraps apples in newspaper while he becomes visible, then vanishes, in the same and final line.

He watches a girl, in a blue dress, in a cafe in Innsbruck. He is spellbound as she unloosens her hair

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A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – review

Sun, 12 Mar 2017 11:00:01 GMT2017-03-12T11:00:01Z

A young woman combats her depression by moving to the countryside in this finely calibrated, affecting novel

This is, explicitly, a book about art and “sadness”, but it is neither affected nor mawkish. When its narrator, 25-year-old art student Frankie, hacks off her hair in response to her grandmother’s death, her not uncaring mother’s first thought is for her shears. “‘It knackers them if you use them on anything that isn’t fabric,’ she said.”

Frankie’s grandmother has been dead for three years when Irish writer Sara Baume’s novel begins, but her depression has only lately come to a head. Jacking in her job at a Dublin gallery, she has fled to the country and her grandmother’s empty bungalow to “get better or die altogether”.

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A Natural review – masterful

Sun, 12 Mar 2017 12:00:02 GMT2017-03-12T12:00:02Z

Ross Raisin’s novel about a young, gay footballer negotiating life in the lower leagues is gripping, mature and importantOf the 4,000 men who currently play professional football in England, not one is openly gay. When you think about it, that’s a mind-boggling statistic. Within society at large, homosexuality is becoming ever more accepted. Yet scores of soccer players – hundreds, probably – lead lives founded upon positively 19th-century levels of concealment. Living as they must in constant fear of exposure, how do such men accommodate themselves to the sport’s bizarre behavioural codes – the hyper-masculine excesses that are themselves tinged with homo-eroticism? In the hotel room, in the nightclub, when the time comes for them to “perform”, how do they react, and what goes through their minds? Such questions are, for the most part, unanswerable.Except, of course, to a writer as talented as Ross Raisin, whose first two novels (God’s Own Country and Waterline) hinted strongly at what he’s capable of. Now, in his supremely accomplished and moving new novel, Raisin imagines the life of a young footballer who, over the course of a couple of seasons, unhappily discovers that he’s attracted to “fellas”. When A Natural opens, Tom Pearman has just been signed by “Town”, a team newly promoted to League Two from the unfathomable depths of the (non-league) Conference. Already, at 19, Tom feels that his career is hanging in the balance: his move to Town, hundreds of miles away from [...]

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The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop (illustrated by Ashley King) – review

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 08:00:23 GMT2017-03-28T08:00:23Z

Bishop’s tale of an 11-year-old detective-cum-worrier is a charming hymn to the imaginative power of books

Earlier this month, a video did the rounds on Facebook demonstrating dispiriting facts about gender and children’s books. Such as: 25% of kids’ titles don’t have any female characters at all; of those that do only half have female characters who speak. Simply baffling, at the very least because girls grow up to be more avid readers of fiction than boys.

There are no such shortcomings in The Bookshop Girl, Sylvia Bishop’s follow-up to her well-received 2016 debut, Erica’s Elephant. The protagonist, 11-year-old Property Jones (so-called because she was adopted after turning up as lost property in a secondhand bookshop run by Netty and her brainy son Michael), is by turns detective, comic, action hero and worrier.

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The Doll Funeral review – emotional depth

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 12:00:30 GMT2017-03-26T12:00:30Z

A teenager searches for her birth mother in Kate Hamer’s follow-up to The Girl in the Red Coat

Kate Hamer’s debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, was a gripping portrayal of a young girl’s abduction. Hamer is now back with The Doll Funeral, whose protagonist, Ruby, learns on her 13th birthday that she is adopted. The novel’s dual narrative alternates between Ruby’s search for her real parents, and the story of her birth mother’s pregnancy, marriage, and abandonment of Ruby.

Ruby is not a conventional teenager, and there is a dark, supernatural, fairytale quality to the novel. Throughout, Hamer writes with great skill and emotional depth – about the confusions of adolescence and identity, the bond between mothers and daughters and the redemptive power of love, wherever we may find it.

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Ties by Domencio Starnone review – a sharply observed tale of a couple in crisis

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 11:00:29 GMT2017-03-26T11:00:29Z

The novel by Elena Ferrante’s huband follows a similar course to her Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment described a wife’s wrath at the husband who leaves her and their two children for a younger woman. Ties lays out a similar scenario from the betrayer’s point of view, which may be no coincidence, given that Domenico Starnone is married to Anita Raja, aka Elena Ferrante (allegedly). Clever, concise and astringent, it swiftly dispels any suspicion that the pair ought to just get a room or that their publisher risks bleeding the Ferrante craze dry. The narrator, an ex-screenwriter from Naples, has cause to revisit his desertion after an apparent break-in at the Rome flat he shares with his wife, the two uneasily reconciled in late age after his reckless midlife pursuit of sexual and professional desire in the 1970s. Translated at Starnone’s invitation by the US novelist Jhumpa Lahiri – a Ferrante favourite – the story glints and cuts like smashed crystal.• Ties by Domenico Starnone is published by Europa (£9.99). To order a copy for £8.49 go to or call 0330 333 6846 Continue reading...[...]

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

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 11:00:00 GMT2017-03-25T11:00:00Z

Diabolical kids, alien communication apps, a first story from Jessica Ennis-Hill and the last from Geek Girl

As the weather turns balmier, welcome in the spring; wander in a maze, ride on a truck, and get lost in a story. Picture-book lovers will find much to like in Triangle (Walker), the latest collaboration between Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, and the first in their new trilogy. Klassen’s spattered mint-green, bark-brown and rust-pink shapes impart depth and humour to this story of friends Triangle and Square’s practical joke feud – and Square’s valiant attempt at styling it out when things backfire.

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The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray review – sprawling metaphysical tale

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 18:30:40 GMT2017-03-24T18:30:40Z

Wittgenstein, Klimt and Buffalo Bill all feature in an ambitious work that charts the history of a familyWaldemar Toula has woken up to find himself “excused from time”, held in a strange, timeless version of his aunt’s apartment. From there, he writes to an ominous Mrs Haven about the history of his family (all “failed physicians”) and their shared obsession with decoding a great-great-grandfather’s cryptic notes on a discovery he made, just before he died, about the nature of time. Toula’s narrative spans a century and traces the rise of antisemitism in Europe, the emergence of nazism and experiments by, and romances of, the Toula family. Along the way, we encounter, among others, Wittgenstein, Klimt and Buffalo Bill. It is an ambitious novel, sprawling and complex. Metaphysical concepts appear in digestible chunks as part of the narrative, which jumps back and forth in time. However, while there is lots of fascinating content (we meet Klimt’s models; observe Wittgenstein discuss physics), the novel – perhaps trying to cover too much ground – never quite comes together. In the details, some great writing can be found, but a preoccupation with philosophical and metaphysical inquiry gets in the way of the emotional trajectory of the characters.• The Lost Time Accidents is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP [...]

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