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Books | The Guardian



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



Published: Fri, 28 Jul 2017 19:12:21 GMT2017-07-28T19:12:21Z

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



Robin Hobb: ‘Fantasy has become something you don’t have to be embarrassed about’

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 11:00:20 GMT2017-07-28T11:00:20Z

The US author on the art of choosing a pseudonym, the success of Game of Thrones and finishing Assassin’s Fate, the finale of her 16-book epic

As George RR Martin takes his time over a new instalment from the Game of Thrones world, much to the frustration of his legions of fans, fellow fantasy writer Robin Hobb has finished the final book in her 16-part series. More than 20 years ago, Hobb set out to tell the story of the bastard son of a prince, assassin FitzChivalry Farseer. Sixteen brick-like volumes and thousands of pages later, wars have been fought, magic wielded, dragons resurrected, fair maidens lost and won and lost again, and she has pulled her epic tale to a breathtaking conclusion in Assassin’s Fate, published this spring.

Hobb, who is softly spoken and carefully deliberate in her choice of words, sounds relieved about coming to the end of a story she felt she had finished at least twice before. “It feels like I worked on it for ever,” she says, jet lagged in a Kensington hotel after flying in from the US, where she lives on a small farm in Washington state with her husband and two dogs.

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'Sensational' lost play by Peter Pan author JM Barrie published

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 11:57:45 GMT2017-07-28T11:57:45Z

The Reconstruction of a Crime, which the Scottish author co-wrote with the humorist EV Lucas, has been unearthed by the Strand magazine

An unperformed play by the Peter Pan author JM Barrie that has languished in a Texas archive for half a century is to be published for the first time.

The play, entitled The Reconstruction of a Crime, was found in Barrie’s archives at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where the catalogue describes it as “a sensational scene”, in which the audience is requested to assist one “Mr Hicks … in the detection of the criminal”. It takes its bow alongside new fiction from Ruth Ware, Jo Nesbø and Charles Todd in the Strand magazine, an American journal that has previously unearthed work by writers such as Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams.

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Laurie Penny: ‘Women shouldn’t apologise for the pitter-patter of tiny carbon footprints’

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 08:00:21 GMT2017-07-28T08:00:21Z

In our series marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the author calls for an end to blaming mums for everything, including climate change

Everyone has mummy issues these days – including climate scientists. A recent study made headlines by suggesting that the number-one thing a person can do to reduce their carbon footprint is to have fewer children. Right on cue, a neo-Malthusian chorus seized on the study as another opportunity to shame women for their reproductive choices. Averting climate catastrophe is a collective responsibility – but it’s far more comfortable to blame your mother, or someone else’s, for every social ill.

I’ve just crossed the invisible rubicon between the age when you’re shamed and terrified out of the very idea of breeding and the age when you’re coerced and cajoled into it – if you have a uterus, of course. If you don’t, you can pretty much sit back and wait for some woman to do the donkey work of organising your genetic legacy, safe in the knowledge that you’re unlikely to be judged on your reproductive choices. I’m consistently taken aback by the number of men my age and older who speak offhandedly about their “future children”, without having planned in the slightest for the arrival of these notional sprogs – simply assuming that it’ll happen someday, when they’ve had time to dedicate themselves to their life’s work.

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Self-published archaeological thriller takes £20,000 Amazon award

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 14:07:54 GMT2017-07-28T14:07:54Z

The Relic Hunters by David Leadbeater is inaugural winner of online retailer’s DIY publishing prize

The writer David Leadbeater has struck gold with his self-published archaeological thriller, The Relic Hunters, scooping up the first Amazon Kindle Storyteller award.

Leadbeater pronounced it “a dream come true” to win the £20,000 award, which is open to writers who produce their books using the online retailer’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.

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Gil Jordan: the great Belgian detective you've never heard of

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 10:00:23 GMT2017-07-28T10:00:23Z

Long eclipsed in English by Tintin, Maurice Tillieux’s cool, sharp investigator has a good claim to being the world’s best private eye

In Belgium and France, Maurice Tillieux is as lauded as Asterix creator René Goscinny. You’ve likely never heard of him. But Gil Jordan – Tillieux’s signature creation – may be the comic world’s greatest detective (sorry Batman). While Asterix made his English debut in the late 1960s – a mere decade after the diminutive Gaul was created – it wasn’t until 2011 that English-language readers got two Gil Jordan mysteries, both of which, by then, were more than half a century old. This month, Anglophones are getting two more; that’s (slow) progress.

Born in 1921, Tillieux grew up in Belgium loving cinema, slapstick comedy and crime fiction. Despite having his illustrations published in Le Moustique magazine in his mid-teens, he wanted to join the merchant navy. His naval career was halted before it even began, however, when he went into hiding during the second world war. He spent his days writing and drawing, separately, until he united his talents, feeling he could capture mood better using both. The fact that producing comics paid better than writing novels didn’t hurt, either.

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The Commuter Pig Keeper triumphs at oddest book title award

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 10:17:48 GMT2017-07-28T10:17:48Z

Fresh from a win at the Weald and Downland rare breed show, author Michaela Giles ‘beyond excited’ to have taken the annual Diagram prize as well

In good news for readers who struggle to find space in their busy schedules to look after their pigs, The Commuter Pig Keeper has won the Bookseller magazine’s Diagram prize for oddest book title of the year.

Subtitled A Comprehensive Guide to Keeping Pigs When Time Is Your Most Precious Commodity, the book took 40% of the public vote. It saw off a shortlist that also featured Love Your Lady Landscape, which encourages readers to go back to the “time when the space between a woman’s thighs was considered a power portal”, and Nipples on My Knee, which collects its co-authors’ experience of 25 years in the sheep business.

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The Witch by Ronald Hutton review – why fear of witchcraft hasn’t gone away

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 08:00:21 GMT2017-07-28T08:00:21Z

A magisterial account across space and time of why people have been accused, and how some societies have stayed clear

It comes as no surprise to learn that the study of witches and witchcraft has been pockmarked by feuds and even the occasional falling-out. According to the opening section of Ronald Hutton’s magisterial book, the battle lines were drawn from the 1960s to the 90s between those scholars who insisted on taking a global view of maleficent magic and those who argued for a more local approach. The big-picture people tended to be an older generation of anthropologists who believed that all expressions of witchcraft could be traced back to a pocketful of ancient sources. Local characteristics – hanging upside-down naked from a tree in Uganda, dressing your pet toad in a frock in the Basque country – were simply a dialect version of a universal shamanistic language that had trickled down from prehistory.

For a slightly later cohort of scholars this approach reeked of ethnographic bias. It was naive to think that a change of costume and climate was all it took to explain the differences between the troll-whisperers of Scandinavia and the baby-eaters of New Guinea. As for the fact that francophone witches from early-modern Alsace went about their dastardly deeds as freelancers while their German-speaking neighbours hunted in packs – such distinctions really meant something, if you were only prepared to find out what.

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

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 11:00:20 GMT2017-07-28T11:00:20Z

Shattered Minds by Laura Lam; Lost Boy by Christina Henry; Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory; Mormama by Kit Reed; The Truants by Lee Markham

In Shattered Minds (Macmillan, £12.99) Laura Lam combines William Gibson’s noirish cyberpunk vibe with Kim Stanley Robinson’s social concern and world-building to produce a gripping, fast-paced hi-tech thriller peopled by flawed but believable characters. In a near-future US west coast state known as Pacifica, ex-neuroscientist Carina was the subject of an experiment carried out by Sudice Inc. It left her with violent urges and an addiction to a drug called zeal. With her memory of the experiment wiped, she begins to hallucinate a dead girl, a fellow victim of Sudice’s sinister mind-mapping operation. Together with a team of hackers, she works to bring down the organisation, restrain the homicidal urges in her own shattered mind and come to some understanding of her fraught past. The novel works as a tense techno-thriller, as state-of-the-art extrapolative SF, and as a moving exploration of character in which even the bad guys are portrayed with sympathy.

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Where are all the great books about women in sport? | Emma John

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 05:58:18 GMT2017-07-28T05:58:18Z

Now that England’s women’s cricket team are world champions, it’s high time literature caught up

There was a time when an England cricket team winning the Women’s World Cup was an “And finally …” item, the sort of thing the news presenter announced with an ironic smile. Not so last week, when Heather Knight’s cricketers pulled off a dramatic turnaround against India. Expect even more excitement if the football team pull off a similar coup in Euro 2017. These days, women’s sport makes headlines.

Related: Heather Knight: ‘It felt like Jenny Gunn had dropped the World Cup’

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Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty review – marriage under the microscope

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 06:30:19 GMT2017-07-28T06:30:19Z

An elderly couple remember their past and face up to the future in this quietly brilliant novel from the Northern Irish author

The married couple at the centre of Bernard MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years have reached that stage of life where “every time I open my glasses case nowadays, I am pleasantly surprised to find my glasses”. Gerry and Stella have survived the Troubles, raised a son now living in Canada, had careers in architecture and teaching. Their memories reach back to Northern Ireland in the 40s and 50s; their future is both circumscribed and uncertain. Don’t they deserve a little holiday?

But the midwinter break of the title turns out to refer not only to their long weekend in Amsterdam, but to the possibility of a rupture between them, as well as the more general stumbling blocks of old age. Stella has an agenda for the trip that goes beyond visits to Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum, while the enforced intimacy of time away from home will shine an unforgiving light on the furtive alcohol habit that is coming to saturate Gerry’s every thought.

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Man Booker prize 2017 longlist led by Arundhati Roy's return to fiction

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 23:01:33 GMT2017-07-26T23:01:33Z

Twenty years after her first novel took the same award, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness leads a field of 13, ranging from established stars to newcomers

Twenty years after Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, the Indian author has been longlisted for the £50,000 award for her second, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

On a longlist thronged with literary titans, whose combined trophy cabinet would include the Pulitzer, the Costa, the Baileys, the Folio, the Impac and the Goldsmiths prizes, Roy – the only author to have won the Booker before – is listed for her novel about an Indian transgender woman, which judges called a “rich and vital book”. Speaking about why it took her two decades to produce a second novel, Roy told the Guardian earlier this year that “fiction just takes its time. It’s no hurry. I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s just gathering all these layers, and swimming around.”

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Hillary Clinton to 'let her guard down' in candid 2016 election memoir

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 12:33:09 GMT2017-07-27T12:33:09Z

What Happened, due out in September, will tell her story of the electoral battle with Donald Trump in ‘a deeply intimate account and a cautionary tale for the nation’

Hillary Clinton has promised that she will be “letting [her] guard down” in the most personal book she has yet written: a memoir due out in September that will reveal her thoughts on last year’s US presidential election.

“In the past, for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down,” writes Clinton in the introduction to What Happened, which was announced by publisher Simon & Schuster on Thursday.

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Testimony by Scott Turow review – legal eagle turns private dick

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 13:00:03 GMT2017-07-27T13:00:03Z

Finely researched history and clumsy sex scenes collide in this thriller about investigating war crimes in Bosnia

Scott Turow began his career as the literary version of John Grisham. His bestselling Presumed Innocent and subsequent novels were brilliantly twisty legal thrillers that were also rich and reflective character studies. This novel is a departure, swapping mysteries of domestic murder in small-town Kindle county — a fictional Illinois community that is his equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county in Mississippi — for a mystery about an alleged war crime in the former Yugoslavia.

The hero-narrator is one Bill ten Boom, an American of Dutch descent, in his mid-50s and recently divorced, who takes a break from his legal career in white-collar fraud to go to the Hague and prosecute an alleged massacre of 400 Roma in Bosnia in 2004. His qualifications for such a change of role are unclear, but Boom – who, happily, induces more than one character in the novel to exclaim “Boom!” when he walks into a room – learns about the machinery of the international criminal court from various friendly characters who are only too happy to act as exposition funnels.

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Harriet Paige: 'I had this epic in my head, but found I couldn’t write like that'

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 10:29:25 GMT2017-07-27T10:29:25Z

The author of Man With a Seagull on His Head remembers the chances that led her to write the story of an outsider artist who becomes an accidental star

What would happen if you lost the ability to erase memories? Harriet Paige could not forget this question, overheard on the radio many years ago as she “doing the housework or something”. It was the starting point for her debut novel, which hurls the problem at the head of a 40-year-old local council photocopying clerk.

Ray Eccles lives in a small town “lolling out of the mouth of the Thames” on the Essex coast. During a day trip to a local beach, his life is transformed when a seagull falls on him from the sky, creating a strange reverse amnesia which fixes him for ever in that infinitely random moment.

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Rates hike 'could leave 275 towns without a bookshop'

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 09:03:56 GMT2017-07-27T09:03:56Z

Booksellers Association’s chief executive tells meeting at parliament that ‘if something isn’t done, booksellers will be put out of business’

Booksellers are warning that 275 towns across England and Wales could be left without a bookshop as a consequence of the rise in business rates earlier this year.

Booksellers Association chief executive Tim Godfray told MPs at a parliamentary reception earlier this month that a quarter of high-street bookshops are facing a minimum 10% increase in business rates – a statistic drawn from a March survey of its membership – and that “if something isn’t done, booksellers … will be put out of business”.

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Sugar by James Walvin review – from slavery to obesity

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 06:30:42 GMT2017-07-27T06:30:42Z

A history of the commodity dwells on body horror and morality, but fails to grasp how capitalism and racism reinforce one another

In 1792, a popular pamphlet urged Britons to boycott sugar and rum manufactured by enslaved labourers in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. A boycott, the pamphlet insisted, would hamstring the “West India interest” in parliament, and hasten the abolition of the slave trade. West Indian sugar was protected by high tariffs; by buying it, Britons subsidised slavery. Protected prices had made slave owners brutal and imprudent. Rather than improving conditions for the people they claimed to own, sugar planters could rely on the slave trade to replace anyone they worked to death. The circuit of slavery, money and power needed to be broken. “The wealth derived from this horrid traffic,” the pamphlet concluded, “has created an influence that secures its continuance.”

Many of its readers recognised that eating sugar made them complicit in slavery, and that slavery’s roots were as much British as they were colonial. The problem of our relationship as consumers to the suffering inflicted by our desires is not just a question of morality. Greed for sugar, and sugar money, was a point of origin for slavery in the Americas. But slavery embodied that greed in institutions – plantations, shipping, insurance, capital – that were harder to abolish than slavery itself.

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Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti review – a new standard in post-apocalyptic fiction

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 11:00:39 GMT2017-07-26T11:00:39Z

This story of children running wild in Sicily brilliantly manipulates the usual models even as it transcends their limits

As we know from Lord of the Flies, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and any number of book-to-movie franchises such as The Hunger Games, the collapse of the traditional social order is inevitably followed first by a period of fragmentation, alienation and conflict, in which individuals struggle desperately to survive, and, second, by a tyranny of some kind, where the most vicious and calculating organise to impose their will on those either too weak or morally unprepared to fight. This tyranny is often brutal and without principle: that most humans lapse into random violence when they are not sufficiently well policed is, apparently, a symptom of our basic animal nature, just as it is always the case that a small band of privileged cynics will quickly emerge to exploit the chaos under the guise of preventing worse carnage.

Resistance to this tyranny, if it happens at all, is only achieved when a charismatic new hero arrives, like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or Jonathan E in that franchise’s obvious predecessor, the 1975 film Rollerball. As Susan Sontag has pointed out, the particular satisfaction such fictions supply is “extreme moral simplification – that is to say, a morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel, or at least amoral, feelings”.

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Top 10 female detectives in fiction

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 08:30:36 GMT2017-07-26T08:30:36Z

From a Copenhagen scientist to a hardbitten single mother in New York, these are singular sleuths contending with problems that all women will recognise

My new mystery novel, The Last Place You Look, centres on female private investigator Roxane Weary as she re-investigates a 15-year-old murder case. Writing crime fiction from a woman’s point of view was a natural decision for me – as a woman and a feminist, I want to read more stories like this, so why not write one myself? But I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of other writers who have taken on what has historically been a bit of a boys’ club.

A crime novel from the point of view of a female detective is much more than just a difference of chromosomes. Women obviously have a different experience to men of moving through the world – and law enforcement – which is necessarily reflected in these stories. Female detectives in fiction contend with rampant sexism, being underestimated, excluded, and harassed, in addition to battling the mysteries at the centre of their cases. They also bring a different sensibility to their work, and solve crimes in ways that men never could.

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The Fear and the Freedom by Keith Lowe – the moral surprises of the second world war

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 06:30:34 GMT2017-07-26T06:30:34Z

A highly readable and startling history uses individual testimonies to strip away the layers of myth and misunderstanding that surround this devastating conflict

Four generations have been born since the end of the second world war. The infants of today – “Generation Z” in demography-speak – are the great-great-grandchildren of the wartime generation. Since the defeat of Germany and the capitulation of Japan, countless terrible conflicts have been fought, and tens of millions have died in them. Indeed the numbers killed in wars since 1945 will, in the coming decades, inevitably exceed the death toll of the second world war. Yet even as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, and as 1945 slowly slips beyond living memory, it remains the case that when we talk about “the war”, everyone understands that we are referring to the calamitous conflict of 1939-45.

The borders between numerous nations, the widespread acceptance of the principle of national self-determination, the transnational institutions that for 70 years have attempted to order the world economy, and the political power still ascribed to the victorious nations of 1945 are all legacies of the war. Yet, as Keith Lowe powerfully argues, the seemingly simple fact that the war made the modern world does reward further examination. The conflict remains a staple of TV, publishing and cinema – two second world war movies, Churchill and Dunkirk, are currently on release in the UK. Meanwhile, our understanding of what the war meant to the people whose lives it shaped – both combatants and civilians – is distorted by layers of myth, the lingering echoes of wartime propaganda and the act of forgetting.

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Shelf abuse: spot the authors' putdowns - quiz

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 13:12:58 GMT2017-07-25T13:12:58Z

‘Bollock-faced foghorn of ignorance’ was Philip Pullman’s pithy verdict on one public figure this week. Can you identify some more well-spoken slapdowns?“Extinguish is a transitive verb, you bollock-faced foghorn of ignorance.” Who was Philip Pullman schooling in the proper use of English, after they wrote that “The rights and obligations deriving from the Treaties would therefore extinguish"?Theresa MayMichael GoveNigel FarageDonald TrumpWho was Bret Easton Ellis describing when he tweeted: “The best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn't able to achieve”?Martin AmisMarlon JamesDavid Foster WallaceDave EggersJK Rowling has become known for her Twitter put-downs. Which of the following did she NOT tweet? “The Internet doesn’t just offer opportunities for misogynistic abuse, you know. Penis enlargers can also be bought discreetly.”“The fact-free, amoral, bigotry-apologism of celebrity toady Piers Morgan is, of course, why it's so delicious to see him told to fuck off."“I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I'll auto-excommunicate.”“My God, what an appalling, lying, dangerous little fuckturnip Trump is.”And which writer said of Rowling’s fondness for a tweet that “Creating this mass following and tweeting several times a day is like wanting to be Cheryl or Kim Kardashian. Some writers like JK Rowling have this insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time, and that’s entirely driven by their ego”?Joanna TrollopeJoyce Carol OatesWilliam BoydElena FerranteWith whom did Ernest Hemingway have a long-running feud, a fellow writer who was quoted as saying of Papa that “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”?Mark TwainWilliam FaulknerF Scott FitzgeraldGeorge OrwellWho described James Joyce's Ulysses thusly? “Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”DH LawrenceVirginia WoolfJD SalingerVladimir Nabokov“Emotionally primitive and intellectually barbaric…” What was Martin Amis describing?Ian McEwan’s novel NutshellIan McEwan’s novel SolarDonald Trump’s manifestoThe Daily MailWho said of the playwright Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’”, prompting a lawsuit for millions of dollars?Gertrude SteinEdith WhartonGore VidalMary McCarthyWhich of the following did Gore Vidal say to Norman Mailer?On his writing: “No more interesting than the stomach of an intellectual cow”After Mailer knocked him to the ground at a party: “Norman, once again words have failed you.”“Fold it five ways and shove it where the moon don’t shine”“The only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60.”"A man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head." Who on who?Christopher Hitchens on John Le Carre Salman Rushdie on John Le CarreJohn Le Carre on Salman RushdieKatie Price on Christopher Hitchens9 and above.Well done! Even Gore Vidal wouldn't have a put-down for you.8 and above.Well done! Even Gore Vidal wouldn't have a put-down for you.6 and above.Not bad! Maybe try again - not like Samuel Johnson, who once said: "Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is."5 and above.As Stephen King said of Trump: "Worse than any horror [...]


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Colson Whitehead adds Arthur C Clarke award to growing prize haul

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 20:00:06 GMT2017-07-27T20:00:06Z

The Underground Railroad, a fantastic reimagining of US slavery, takes the UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize a day after being longlisted for the Man Booker

Fresh from being nominated for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Colson Whitehead’s alternative history of slavery in the US, The Underground Railroad, has won the UK’s top honour for science fiction, the Arthur C Clarke award.

A fantastical take on the real-life Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses and routes that allowed slaves in the south to escape to the free states in the north, Whitehead’s novel sees the network reimagined as an actual railway system and follows a slave escaping from a cotton plantation in Georgia.

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Game of Thrones: Winds of Winter could be out in 2018, says George RR Martin

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 09:05:06 GMT2017-07-24T09:05:06Z

Author tells readers that he is ‘months away’ from finishing long-awaited next instalment of epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire

George RR Martin has informed fans impatient for his new Game of Thrones novel The Winds of Winter that he is “still months away” from completing it – but offered hope that they might be reading it next year.

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Chris Brookmyre's 'tour de force' Black Widow named crime novel of the year

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 12:02:30 GMT2017-07-21T12:02:30Z

Scottish novelist takes £3,000 award with book that judge Elly Griffith said ‘cements his place in the pantheon of great crime writers’

Chris Brookmyre’s story of cyber-abuse, sexism and murder, Black Widow, has collected its second award, after being named crime novel of the year at the Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival on Thursday night.

“I’m over the moon,” said Brookmyre, whose book beat titles including Val McDermid’s Out of Bounds and Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed to win the £3,000 prize. The Scottish novelist has been shortlisted three times before for the award. Last autumn, Black Widow won the inaugural McIlvanney prize at the Bloody Scotland festival.

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Unreliable narrator? Andrea Leadsom mistakenly resurrects Jane Austen

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 16:49:01 GMT2017-07-20T16:49:01Z

Leader of Commons refers to face of new £10 note as one of Britain’s greatest living authors, causing much mirth among MPs

A cabinet minister prompted laughs from MPs when she mistakenly praised Jane Austen as one of the UK’s “greatest living authors” just days after the 200th anniversary of the writer’s death.

Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons, was attempting to praise the Pride And Prejudice author, who will feature on the new £10 note, which is scheduled to go into circulation in September.

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Jane Austen's Great House launches urgent appeal to stay open

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 12:35:35 GMT2017-07-20T12:35:35Z

Chawton, home to Austen manuscripts and a library of early women writers, has launched a fundraising push to secure its place as a literary destination

As Jane Austen becomes the new face of the £10 note, Chawton House Library, the “Great House” where she whiled away many an hour, is hoping that at least some of the currency bearing her image will be directed its way. The charity is looking to raise around £150,000 over the next 18 months to stay afloat after its main backer withdrew support. It will also be applying for millions in capital grants over the next few years to transform its focus.

The Elizabethan residence in Hampshire, built by the Knight family in the 1580s, was inherited by Jane’s brother Edward centuries later. He offered the nearby bailiff’s residence, now the Jane Austen’s House Museum, to his mother and sisters Jane and Cassandra. But the author was a frequent visitor to her brother’s home, eating and reading there, and walking in its grounds. “I went up to the Great House between 3&4, & dawdled away an hour very comfortably,” she wrote in 1814.

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Paradise Lost 'translated more often in last 30 years than previous 300'

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 05:01:11 GMT2017-07-20T05:01:11Z

Global study finds Milton’s verse epic rendered in languages from Tamil to Tongan, and argues interest is linked to social turmoil and political revolutions

Three hundred and fifty years after it was first published, John Milton’s epic revolutionary poem about the fall of man, Paradise Lost, continues to find relevance around the world, with research revealing that new translations in the last 30 years outnumber the previous three centuries’ output combined.

More than 50 academics around the world collaborated to research a new book, Milton in Translation, discovering that the works of the 17th-century author have been translated more than 300 times and into 57 different languages. These range from Faroese and Manx to Tamil and Tongan, from Persian and Hebrew to Frisian and Welsh.

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Sherman Alexie's mother's ghost prompts him to cancel book tour

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 12:08:44 GMT2017-07-18T12:08:44Z

The author, who was promoting memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, reports that ‘spectacular’ haunting and depression have led him to cancel dates

Sherman Alexie has cancelled a tour promoting his new memoir about his relationship with his late mother, citing depression and his belief that his mother’s ghost has been haunting him since the book was published last month.

In an open letter to his readers, Alexie said that he would be cancelling all his appearances in August and “many, but not all” of his events for the rest of the year. The tour was intended to promote You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, about his mother Lillian Alexie, a woman the award-winning Native American author describes as “brilliant, funny, beautiful, generous, vindictive, deceitful, tender, manipulative, abusive, loving, and intimidating”, and who died in 2015.

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Horrid Henry artist Tony Ross named UK libraries' most borrowed illustrator

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 12:40:59 GMT2017-07-17T12:40:59Z

In the first ranking of its kind, the Public Lending Right showed Ross clocking up more than 1m loans last year

Tony Ross, whose images of the naughty prankster Horrid Henry and the ragamuffin Little Princess are instantly recognisable to children up and down the country, has been named as the most borrowed illustrator from the UK’s public libraries.

Ross, who illustrates Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry books and writes the Little Princess titles, came in ahead of names including Quentin Blake and Lauren Child and The Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler to top the first ever ranking of illustrators from Public Lending Right (PLR). Ross, who also illustrates David Walliams’s bestselling titles and estimates that he has written or illustrated at least 1,000 books, saw his titles borrowed more than 1m times from the UK’s public libraries over the last year. He described himself as “surprised, proud, and delighted” at the result.

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Jane Austen to star in Bank of England literary links exhibition

Sun, 16 Jul 2017 11:42:14 GMT2017-07-16T11:42:14Z

Exhibition features author’s deposit ledger as well as other writers preoccupied with money including Charles Dickens

Jane Austen is not just the heroine of the new £10 note, to be unveiled on Tuesday on the 200th anniversary of her death, but also the star of an exhibition on the literary connections of the Bank of England.

“Jane Austen’s novels are not taken up with chit-chat about bonnets in carriages, as some people who haven’t read them think. She was very well aware of the value of money, and it is a major theme in her work,” the exhibition’s curator, Jenni Adam, said.

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Less landscape, more dialogue: Jane Austen's lessons for creative writing students

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 10:18:19 GMT2017-07-25T10:18:19Z

Her storytelling smarts are as fresh as ever, and she still provides a model for letting readers into characters’ inner lives

Jane Austen has had quite a week. She’s been misrepresented on our new £10 notes, celebrated in Parliament as our “greatest living writer”, and made the headlines everywhere from the Basingstoke Gazette to the New York Times.

How easy it could be to be cynical about all this attention. In that New York Times article, Howard Jacobson provides a stern reminder that “she isn’t Jane, your best friend. She is Jane Austen, a novelist of unfamiliar and uncomfortable genius.”

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

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 14:00:07 GMT2017-07-24T14:00:07Z

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 a recommendation that hit the spot. Larry McMurtry’s “truly fantastic” Lonesome Dove has pleased nicandrach88:

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Beatrix Potter-pinching and Žižekian swipes: the strange world of book thefts

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 06:00:28 GMT2017-07-24T06:00:28Z

Booksellers explain some of the reasons why certain titles won’t stay on the shelves, and remember some of their most eccentric thieves

It isn’t quite Artful Dodger-grade thievery, but after noticing a steady erosion of their history stock, staff at the Jarrold bookshop in Norwich installed a security camera last year. The surveillance revealed that a long-coated customer had tied a cardboard box beneath his coat, and was covertly lowering books into the box before exiting the shop.

“He’d been doing it for months,” says book buyer Chris Rushby. “He’d taken about 20 books. It shows a certain spirit of invention to have a cardboard box hanging by string from your neck. The police were called and he was arrested – I think he got a suspended sentence.”

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Not the Booker prize 2017 needs your nominations now

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 14:28:38 GMT2017-07-17T14:28:38Z

The literary award decided by readers is back for another year of compelling contention. Please use your vote in the comments below

The Not the Booker prize is back and it’s nine years old – old enough now that I really should stop expressing surprise at its continuing development. If it were a child, it would be safely past the stage of sighing heavily when I remark how much it’s grown. It would simply roll its eyes and walk off. And we don’t want that, because the award remains a source of fascination, intrigue and – best of all – unexpected and wonderful novels.

This year’s search starts right here. You can nominate any book eligible for for this year’s Man Booker prize – that is to say basically any novel originally written in English, by a writer of any nationality, published in the UK between 1 October 2016 and 30 September 2017. (As with the Man Booker, US authors are now allowed). All you have to do is post a comment naming the book and author (and publisher too, if you want to be really helpful) below the line.

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Poem(s) of the week: A pair of odes to the Pulteney daughters by Ambrose Philips

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 10:13:35 GMT2017-07-24T10:13:35Z

These two sunny works celebrating the arrival of young children are more than a little sentimental, but they also have a winning freshness

To Miss Charlotte Pulteney
In her mother’s arms, May 1, 1724

Timely blossom, infant fair,
Fondling of a happy pair,
Every morn and every night
Their solicitous delight;
Sleeping, waking, still at ease,
Pleasing, without skill to please;
Little gossip, blithe and hale,
Tattling many a broken tale,
Singing many a tuneless song,
Lavish of a heedless tongue;
Simple maiden, void of art,
Babbling out the very heart,
Yet abandon’d to thy will,
Yet imagining no ill,
Yet too innocent to blush;
Like the linlet in the bush,
To the mother-linnet’s note
Moduling her slender throat,
Chirping forth thy pretty joys;
Wanton in the change of toys,
Like the linnet green, in May,
Flitting to each bloomy spray;
Wearied then, and glad of rest,
Like the linlet in the nest.
This thy present happy lot,
This, in time, will be forgot;
Other pleasures, other cares,
Ever-busy Time prepares;
And thou shalt in thy daughter see
This picture, once, resembled thee.

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We need robots to have morals. Could Shakespeare and Austen help? | John Mullan

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 05:00:27 GMT2017-07-24T05:00:27Z

Using great literature to teach ethics to machines is a dangerous game. The classics are a moral minefield

• John Mullan is professor of English literature at University College London

When he wrote the stories in I, Robot in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov imagined a world in which robots do all humanity’s tedious or unpleasant jobs for them, but where their powers have to be restrained. They are programmed to obey three laws. A robot may not injure a human being, even through inaction; a robot must obey a human being (unless this contradicts the previous law); a robot must protect itself (unless this contradicts either of the previous laws). Unfortunately, scientists soon create a robot (Herbie) that understands the concept of “mental injury”. Like a character in a Thomas Hardy novel or an Ibsen play, the robot soon finds itself in a situation where truthfully answering a question put to it by the humans it serves will cause hurt – but so will not answering the question. A logical impasse. The robot screams piercingly and collapses into “a huddled heap of motionless metal”.

Related: Do no harm, don't discriminate: official guidance issued on robot ethics

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Drama queens: why it’s all about women and power on screen right now

Sat, 22 Jul 2017 08:00:33 GMT2017-07-22T08:00:33Z

From George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, fantastical tales with women centre stage are everywhere. Feminist? Misogynist? That’s not the point …

Fictions set in alternative realities have enjoyed huge popularity recently, which is perhaps unsurprising in a post-truth world. For the last decade or so, Hollywood appeared to have almost given up producing any film that was not about a comic book superhero fighting a CGI apocalypse: Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, even Ant-Man. Some might wonder if Hollywood was over-compensating: if you want to know what a crisis in popular masculinity looks like, look no further then all those super, super men. Even groups of superheroes, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and the Fantastic Four, rigorously maintained the cultural statutory maximum of 25% female population for any group of leaders. The most realistic part of superhero movies, in fact, is that all the power is generally in the hands of white men; physical laws might get overturned, but not political ones.

Gradually, however, women are pushing their way into the cultural story on terms other than those defined by men. Last summer brought an all-female Ghostbusters, followed this summer by Wonder Woman, who leapt off a cliff and landed squarely, bow drawn, in the centre of this masculine ground. From The Hunger Games to Game of Thrones, audiences have demonstrated a growing appetite for allegorical stories about women with political and moral authority: after more than 50 years and 12 incarnations, even Doctor Who’s Doctor is finally about to become a woman.

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Bicycle books: a tour of the best

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 11:00:09 GMT2017-07-21T11:00:09Z

The author of The Bicycle Book on the literature no self-respecting bike fan should be without

Though cycling is a wide and democratic church, as open as its devotees, most books about the subject are concentrated in a single area: racing. There aren’t thousands of books about mountain biking or commuting or one of the many forms of cycling that almost certainly represent most people’s everyday experience, but there are lots about dead French pros. Broadly speaking, they are grouped into four areas.

First, there are guides to some practical aspect of the sport: detailed explanations of the best way to mend a puncture at 10,000ft, route guides etc. Often coupled with the author’s quest for the perfect derailleur/groupset/gîte d’étape. Unreadable, unless of course you need to change a tyre at 10,000ft.

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Matt Haig: ‘There is no more shame in mental illness than having tonsilitis’

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-07-21T09:00:14Z

In our series marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the writer says it is time to integrate mental and physical health

The problem we have with talking about mental health is that we still don’t think of it as an equal priority with physical health. This is wrong not simply because it leads to less money being spent on mental health service provision by governments, but also because it fails to see that the whole idea of mental health shouldn’t be an isolated one.

As a species, we love to divide things up. We draw a straight line in a map between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans while the water remains oblivious. We also draw a line between the mental and physical and base our entire system of healthcare on that false division.

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Books on location: Robert Macfarlane on putting 'in-situ' reading on the map

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 10:00:05 GMT2017-07-21T10:00:05Z

The author has taken to Twitter to ask, ‘What book have you read while actually in its landscape?’ The responses, he says, are broadening his horizons

I was recently sent a note and photograph on Twitter from someone who was reading a copy of my first book, Mountains of the Mind, while camping high on Glas Bheinn, a peak in north-west Scotland.

Perfect holiday reading, camped on the slopes of Glas Bheinn, Assynt. Letting my mind run free in the mountains. Thank you @RobGMacfarlane pic.twitter.com/pR1GBfFVZB

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Game of Thrones will not be decided by a contest of TV and print

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 10:52:18 GMT2017-07-21T10:52:18Z

George RR Martin’s mighty fantasy might be somewhat different on page and screen, but those distinctions are the least interesting aspects of the story

The divergence began, for me, with the death of Shireen. Yes, there have always been inconsistencies between TV’s Game of Thrones and the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, but the sacrifice of a child to the Lord of Light felt like the most significant change yet. Then Stannis was killed (or was he? We didn’t see the sword strike home and the show usually likes to display every gory detail), Danaerys set out for Westeros and Cersei blew up King’s Landing. No wonder The Winds of Winter is taking so long; George RR Martin must be thinking up ways for the novels to outsmart what’s already been televised.

Related: 'Arya should skewer Ed Sheeran': your verdict on the new Game of Thrones

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Literary misquotations quiz: can you get the wrong lines right?

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 11:13:23 GMT2017-07-19T11:13:23Z

The Bank of England has chosen a contentious quote to adorn its Jane Austen note, joining a long tradition of misused and mangled citations. Do you know your lines?The Bank of England is coming in for some stick over the quotation it has chosen for its new Jane Austen note: "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!" Which character in Pride and Prejudice says it?Mr DarcyElizabeth BennetMrs BennetCaroline BingleyIn 2013, Ireland’s Central Bank misquoted James Joyce on a commemorative coin intended to honour the author. Which is the correct quotation from Ulysses?Ineluctable modality of the invisible: at least if no more, that is thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to readIrresistible modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to readIneluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things that I am here to readThanks to F Scott Fitzgerald scholar Anne Margaret Daniels for pointing out that Donald Trump misquoted Fitzgerald yesterday. The US president tweeted after the collapse of attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare that The Great Gatsby author wrote: “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” Which is the correct quotation?“You mustn't confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again.”“You mustn’t confuse failure with success.”“Wake up and smell the covfefe.”The quotation “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” is widely attributed to Mark Twain, but to whom did Twain himself actually credit it?Walt WhitmanBenjamin Disraeli Nathaniel HawthorneAlexander HamiltonAnd who has the site Quote Investigator pinpointed as the likely origin of “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, which is usually attributed to Twain? Jonathan SwiftVoltaireSamuel JohnsonMary ShelleyTwain is much misquoted. Which of the following lines did he actually say? “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.”"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."“Ours is the 'land of the free'- nobody denies that - nobody challenges it. (maybe it is because we won't let other people testify.)"Which book retailer used George Orwell to support its argument that publishers were against cheap books by using the partial quotation: if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them” - rather than the full quote, which shows Orwell's support for the idea? "The Penguin books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against the[...]


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Forget George Eliot: now it's male authors disguising their sex to sell more books

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 17:17:52 GMT2017-07-18T17:17:52Z

The writer behind the much-hyped debut novel Final Girls is in fact called Todd Ritter – but he’s far from the first man to write under an ambiguous name

Riley Sager is a debut author whose book, Final Girls, has received the ultimate endorsement. “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love this,” Stephen King has said. But unlike Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, The Girls, Luckiest Girl Alive and others, Final Girls is written by a man – Todd Ritter. This detail is missing from Riley Sager’s website which, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, refers to the author only by name and without any gender-disclosing pronouns or photographs. (His Twitter avatar is Jamie Lee Curtis.)

Ritter is not the first man to deploy a gender-neutral pen name. JP Delaney (real name Tony Strong) is author of The Girl Before, SK Tremayne (Sean Thomas) wrote The Ice Twins and next year, The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (AKA Daniel Mallory) is published. Before all of these was SJ (AKA Steve) Watson, the author of 2011’s Before I Go to Sleep.

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My bookshelf says who I am – and a Kindle cannot do that | Patrick Barkham

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 15:10:28 GMT2017-07-17T15:10:28Z

An on-display book collection is a mirror, a projection, a beloved memoir of one’s life and influences. No technology can match that
• Patrick Barkham is a Guardian columnist

When life is tumbling out of control, I go to my happy place, where I can dream, remember and find order in chaos: I gaze upon my bookshelves.

Bookshelves are back, with sales up by more than 10% in John Lewis. There’s the rise of the “shelfie” – a photo of one’s library; bookshelves are a cool way to divide open-plan living, and e-readers are falling from fashion because we prefer the beautiful-looking objects produced by contemporary publishers.

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The Man Booker prize 2017 longlist: who should be on it?

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 05:30:32 GMT2017-07-26T05:30:32Z

This year’s ‘Booker dozen’ is released on Thursday. Who will make the cut is hard to guess, but there are plenty of strong candidates

From the longlist to the eventual winner, in the last couple of years, second-guessing the winner of the Man Booker prize has become harder than ever. With the field now open to American authors, and a focus on bringing indie gems such as His Bloody Project and A Brief History of Seven Killings into the spotlight, each July the Booker dozen has been full of surprises. It certainly makes the “posh bingo”, as Julian Barnes put it, more exciting – but who could we, should we, might we see on the longlist this Thursday?

This Booker year runs from 1 October 2016 to 30 September 2017, putting some brilliant novels from big-name authors in the running: Sebastian Barry’s intimate epic of the US civil war, Days Without End, which has already hoovered up any number of prizes; The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s historical phantasmagoria about slavery, also much garlanded; Ali Smith’s Autumn, a marvellously quirky response to the EU referendum. I’d love to see these three on the list, but will they feel like last year’s books?

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Spider-Man comics finally swing into the big-money league

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 15:15:43 GMT2017-07-20T15:15:43Z

Our friendly neighbourhood arachnid is finally getting the attention he deserves among collectors – with a new issue shooting straight to No 1 and copies of the first series selling for hundreds of thousands

When, as a child, I was given my first chemistry set for Christmas, I started by mixing all of the chemicals together, dropped a small spider into the mixture and popped it on my arm, willing it to bite me. It didn’t – or if it did, I didn’t get any superpowers.

Devotion like that illustrates Spider-Man’s enduring appeal. According to Go Compare’s Comic Gains, the comic-book character whose average value has appreciated most is none other than our friendly neighbourhood arachnid, shooting up by 278%. An issue of his first appearance, from 1962, sold in 2016 for $275,000 (£211,000). His latest comic, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, is doing, well, spectacularly: the first issue, out last month, went straight to No 1, with sales of almost 225,000, almost double the second bestseller (DC’s Dark Days: The Forge).

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Dawkins sees off Darwin in vote for most influential science book

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 13:04:07 GMT2017-07-20T13:04:07Z

A public poll to mark 30 years of the Royal Society book prizes sees The Selfish Gene declared the most significant – with women authors left on the margins

Debates about the most influential science book of all time habitually settle into a face-off between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society science book prize returned a more recent winner: Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Related: 'As long as we study life, it will be read': the Selfish Gene turns 40

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Persuasion: Jane Austen's kung fu novel?

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 12:01:40 GMT2017-07-18T12:01:40Z

For all the gentility, the characters in Austen’s last novel face real peril, and contend with dramatic reversals and bruising verbal blows

A couple of weeks ago, I confidently predicted it would be easy enough to find new things to say about Jane Austen for this month’s reading group. But now I’ve read Persuasion I want to repeat everything everyone has been saying for the past 200 years. It’s superb. I loved it. It swept me up.

Harold Bloom once called Persuasion “the perfect novel”, and generations before and since have agreed. In the first biography of Jane, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh quoted his brother-in-law Sir Denis le Marchant telling him:

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Best holiday reads 2017, picked by writers – part one

Sat, 08 Jul 2017 07:00:01 GMT2017-07-08T07:00:01Z

A plagiarist in a kitchen and a horse walking into a bar; Dublin crimes and Washington misdemeanours; relationships, revolutions and relaxations ... leading writers reveal their summer recommendations

A book I absolutely loved was Margo Jefferson’s Negroland (Granta), a memoir of her life as part of the African American economically privileged class. It is a sharply honest, biting, reflective look at America, and a useful guide on how race and class do not merely intersect, but race becomes class. I’m looking forward to reading Salt Houses (Hutchinson), a novel by Hala Alyan, which feels very promising. The Big Stick (Basic) by Eliot Cohen has been on my to-read pile for a while and I plan to get to it this summer. And House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a new poetry collection, by Ishion Hutchinson.

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Sara Pascoe and Lucy Worsley on Jane Austen – books podcast

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 05:30:11 GMT2017-07-18T05:30:11Z

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

Two hundred years ago, a 41-year-old woman called Jane Austen died quietly, her head in the lap of her older sister, completely unaware that her writing would become synonymous with the very greatest of English literature.

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Novel recipes: cream puffs from The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 05:00:09 GMT2017-07-21T05:00:09Z

Mansfield’s 1922 short story, set around the wealthy Sheridan family’s shindig, inspires Kate to make a dessert from their elegant spread

  • Scroll down for the recipe

That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.

‘Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,’ ordered cook.

The Garden Party, Katherine Mansfield

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100 best nonfiction books: No 77 – The Life of Samuel Johnson LLD by James Boswell (1791)

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 04:44:27 GMT2017-07-24T04:44:27Z

This huge work is one of the greatest of all English biographies and a testament to one of the great literary friendships

Like some of the greatest titles in this list, James Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson, the most famous biography in the English language, had a protracted, tortuous and tortured gestation. Boswell first advised his friend and mentor of his intention to write his life in 1772, when Johnson was 62, and the would-be biographer 31. He had, however, been making notes and gathering materials for his “presumptuous task” since their first encounter in 1763.

After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell settled down to organise a “prodigious multiplicity of materials”, a labour that, he admitted after five years of struggle, was costing him acute labour, perplexity and vexation. Moreover, he was being overtaken by rival lives (A potboiling “biographical sketch” by Thomas Tyers had appeared in 1784; Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson in 1786; then A Life of Samuel Johnson by his friend and executor, Sir John Hawkins, came out in 1787). Worse, he was becoming a figure of pity and contempt in Grub Street, the self-appointed biographer who had both missed the bus and simultaneously failed his own life’s mission.

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Carlo Rovelli: 'I felt the beautiful adventure of physics was a story that had to be told'

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 08:25:39 GMT2017-07-25T08:25:39Z

How does a book about theoretical physics sell more than 1m copies? Rovelli explains how he set about sharing his wonder at quantum science

There are two kinds of popular science books. The first kind is for passionate readers. Say you are mad about butterflies. You want a book that gives you all the details about all varieties of butterflies, their lives, habits and colours. You are keen to know everything.

The other kind of popular science book is written for everybody else. Say you never cared much for butterflies, but one day you happened on a book filled with incredible images of their phantasmagorical wings and read an interesting fact, such as how many of them live only for a single day … even though you don’t want many details, you suddenly find yourself wanting to learn more.

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Beren and Lúthien by JRR Tolkien (ed: Christopher Tolkien) – digested read

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 16:00:11 GMT2017-07-23T16:00:11Z

‘All at once appeared some elves, who were not feeling quite themselves’

After the publication of The Silmarillion, which I found gathering dust in my father’s attic long after his death, I went rootling through his house in search of other discarded manuscripts. Eventually, I managed to assemble a manuscript of 17,835 pages that, for some reason, Allen and Unwin – like my father – believed to be unpublishable. Undeterred, I pressed on with editing these invaluable jottings to produce as many posthumous works as my father had managed to complete while he was alive along with a 12-volume history of Middle-earth without which any reading of The Lord of the Rings is pointless.

I should also add that though everything that is included in this book has been published elsewhere – I point readers in particular towards The Silmarillion, the Lost Tales, the Lay of Leithian and the Quenta Noldorinwa – this is the first time, and almost certainly the last, that anyone has tried to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien into a single coherent whole and explain how the narrative developed.

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Scott Turow: ‘My characters, like me, find society’s problems in the law’

Sat, 22 Jul 2017 09:00:34 GMT2017-07-22T09:00:34Z

The American author on the latest outrage from Donald Trump, the frustrations of starting a novel, and his double life as a lawyer and novelist

The simple truth, I’m pleased to acknowledge, is that most days writing makes me happy. Usually what’s ahead of me flashes through my mind not long after waking, igniting a triumphal fantasy: I will imagine epically, think precisely and, like an underwater swimmer with elastic lungs, breaststroke through the murk until I unseal the buried treasure chest of perfect words.

Of course, it is almost never like that. In fact, at my current stage, when I’m starting a new novel, I know that most of what I write will not appear in the finished book, since I chew my work over relentlessly like a ruminating cow. But I understand my own process. Each day inches me closer to the goal of harnessing soul and self and producing something that is, for better or worse, quintessentially me.

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As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Alex Preston – books and birds

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 08:01:36 GMT2017-07-26T08:01:36Z

Fascinated by birds since boyhood, Preston has written an astute memoir-meets-anthology, with illustrations by Neil Gower

In the middle of writing this book, Alex Preston and his young family moved from north London to a rose-clad, redbrick rectory in Kent. What he found was no simple rural idyll: the mood there, close to the Channel ports, was “a bubbling … rage”, pro-Brexit and anti-immigration. Nonetheless, the move has been a happy one, in part because he can lie awake at night and listen to nightingales.

The nightingales don’t stay long – a brief three months from April to July – and it’s impossible, thinking of their perilous journeys from Africa, to forget their human counterparts, on their perilous journeys. Even birds allow no escape from politics, Preston says. For the Russian Anna Akhmatova and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, the nightingale is a symbol of the poet’s struggle against state tyranny and censorship, and for Keats its “happy lot” is one denied to humans: “No hungry generations tread thee down.” So many different meanings have been ascribed to the bird down the years (by Shelley, Coleridge, Christina Rossetti, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf) that it risks seeming a mere trope, or metaphor, “more fable than bird”. To hear the real thing has been a source of elation for Preston.

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Field Studies by Chrystel Lebas review – a photographic journey into the UK’s wild places

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 06:58:03 GMT2017-07-25T06:58:03Z

Chrystel Lebas follows in the footsteps of 1930s botanist Edward James Salisbury to document our changing landscape and the secret life of plants

An article in New Scientist in June 1959 described Sir Edward James Salisbury as a “prophet and propagandist of botany”. Inspired by the plants that grew wild in his native Hertfordshire, he became a pioneering ecologist, lecturer, author – The Living Garden (1935) was a bestseller – and, from 1943-56, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He was also a keen photographer and a large collection of his glass plate negatives – natural landscapes and individual plant studies – was recently discovered in the Natural History Museum archives. It is the conceptual starting point for this ambitious book by the contemporary French photographer Chrystel Lebas.

For Field Studies, Lebas literally followed in Salisbury’s footsteps, revisiting the landscapes he had photographed in the 1920s and 1930s and searching out the plants he had isolated and documented on light sensitive paper. Her botanical pilgrimage took her to the Trossachs, the Cairngorms and the Moray Firth in Scotland and to Blakeney Point in Norfolk, each location pinpointed by a global mapping system in the accompanying caption. On her walks, Lebas was often accompanied by a contemporary botanical expert, which, she writes, enabled her to realise that “my remit was very different from Salisbury’s. He was a scientist disguised as a photographer. Was I becoming a photographer disguised as a scientist?”

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The Long March from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie review – ‘a tribute and a rallying call’

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 06:30:29 GMT2017-07-24T06:30:29Z

In retracing the steps of the Jarrow march of 1936, Stuart Maconie finds that much of the past remains with us

“Our people shall not be starved … If we cannot do this, what use are we as a Labour party?’ asked Jarrow’s MP, Ellen Wilkinson, at the Labour party conference in October 1936. To make her speech she had dashed to the conference in Edinburgh from the route of the Jarrow Crusade, an event that has “stitched itself into the warp and weft of British history”, as Stuart Maconie elegantly puts it. Jarrow, an industrial town on the south bank of the Tyne, had seen the closure of its steelworks and shipyard, leaving 80% of its population unemployed. Wilkinson helped organise a march of 200 men from Jarrow to London, to present a petition to parliament demanding jobs.

The question Wilkinson posed encapsulates the thrust of Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow, a social commentary reflecting on the parallels between the 1930s and today, as he retraces the steps of the marchers. His book is an exercise in giving the mundane its beautiful due, to use John Updike’s phrase.

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The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich review – ‘a monument to courage’

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 05:30:08 GMT2017-07-23T05:30:08Z

From the siege of Leningrad to the frontline, Soviet women recall their wartime lives in these epic first-person accounts, translated into English for the first time

First published in 1985, Svetlana Alexievich’s account of the second world war as seen through the eyes of hundreds of women is an extraordinary thing. It has been constantly growing and updated over the years and has sold more than 2m copies worldwide. Now, for the first time, it is published in English, bringing to life the world of soldiers, nurses, munitions workers and the women left behind, all of whom have been absent from the official Soviet narratives.

This is a tough read, both emotionally and intellectually. But it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original. There’s a visceral anger in Alexievich’s introduction that’s rare in any history book. Her message is: these stories deserve to be heard. But she doesn’t want us to forget either that for many years, no one bothered to hear them. Worse, they were suppressed. “The monstrous grin of the mysterious shows through these stories... ‘Women’s’ war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”

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Pale Rider by Laura Spinney review – the flu pandemic that killed 50 million

Sat, 22 Jul 2017 07:00:32 GMT2017-07-22T07:00:32Z

Spanish flu in 1918-19 killed vastly more people than the world war it followed, yet has remained in the shadows

A high-security containment facility in Atlanta, Georgia, keeps under lock and key an organism that in the course of a few months from 1918-1919 was responsible for more deaths than the number of people killed in the first world war. Vanished until 2005, the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus was brought back to life for the purpose of better understanding its catastrophic effect on the world’s population a century ago. But as Laura Spinney points out in Pale Rider, the resurrection is not thought universally to be a good idea.

The Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people, has remained something of an enigma, not only because scientists are still unsure about why it was so lethal, but because it’s a hugely significant world event that for decades seemed to have been largely forgotten.

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Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson review – centenary of a Darwin-challenging classic

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 07:59:13 GMT2017-07-21T07:59:13Z

Honeycombs, snail shells, a tiger’s stripes … The celebrated study of how physical forces and mathematical laws affect natural selection has just been reissued

Asked to name the most significant book about biology ever written in English, most biologists would opt for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. How about the second most significant book? After 1917, when it was published, the answer would unhesitatingly have been D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. Eclipsed since the 1950s by the domination of DNA, its time may have come round once more. This year’s centenary was celebrated in editorials, a clutch of abridged versions and now a facsimile edition of the original.

Thompson, born in 1860, was a professor of natural history, first at Dundee and then at St Andrews, for an astonishing 63 years. But he was also a distinguished classicist and a powerful mathematician. The Nobel prize-winning immunologist Peter Medawar, himself no mean stylist, described him as “an aristocrat of learning whose intellectual endowments are not likely ever again to be combined within one man”. On Growth and Form, Medawar believed, is “beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue”.

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M by Henry Hemming review – the fascist spymaster of MI5

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 08:00:15 GMT2017-07-20T08:00:15Z

A superb book on the naturalist turned intelligence officer discloses new information on agents within far right and communist organisations

Maxwell Knight seemed unemployable, until he found his metier in the British Secret Service in the 1920s. He was a failure as a son, a husband – he was impotent, though his third wife didn’t mind – a naval rating, a civil servant, a paint seller, a prep school games teacher and a novelist. His abiding interest was in exotic animals, ranging from spiders, toads and snakes to parrots and a brown bear, which he kept in his rooms, living happily with the stench, filth and noise they brought with them. But that didn’t seem to offer him much of a career. He was also a jazz fiend, which was thought to be radical and even depraved in the 1920s; and a fascist, which probably helped him get into MI5.

MI5 has been much criticised for its upper-class, rightwing bias between the wars, which – it is claimed – caused it to lose sight of the German Nazi menace in its obsession with communism. Hemming’s book offers a different reading. Despite his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, “Max” proved to be supremely good at his new job in countersubversion, earning Hemming’s accolade as “MI5’s greatest spymaster” – equally effective against both the major extremist threats of his day.

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Koh-i-Noor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand review – an infamous diamond and imperial bloodshed

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 06:30:13 GMT2017-07-20T06:30:13Z

A dynamic and gory history of the celebrated gem, from emperor Shah Jahan’s peacock throne in the 1600s to present-day demands for its return

Investigative journalists know that the way into a great story is to “follow the money”. In this vivid history of one of the world’s most celebrated gemstones, the Indian diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor, Anita Anand and William Dalrymple put an inventive twist on the old maxim. “Follow the diamond,” they realise, and it can lead into a dynamic, original and supremely readable history of empires.

Well before diamonds became a western synonym for wealth, Hindu scriptures endowed gems with magical, even divine, qualities, while central Asians – including 16th-century India’s Mughal rulers – prized rubies as tangible distillations of the light of the setting sun. On festive occasions the Mughal emperor would have himself weighed against offerings of gems, pearls and gold presented by his courtiers – and then distribute the treasure among the people. The imperial treasury of the 1600s, as described by a handful of gasping visitors, cascaded with gems of exceptional size, clarity and colour.

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The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life by Karin Roffman – review

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 13:00:21 GMT2017-07-19T13:00:21Z

A brilliantly researched study explores the poet’s difficult relationship with his farmer father and his guilt-ridden need to conceal his sexuality

The American poet John Ashbery, who turns 90 this month, is often figured as the epitome of cosmopolitan sophistication – as a refined but radical innovator whose open-ended lyrics and narrative-free long poems refract and dramatise the anxieties of postmodernity. Doyen of the avant garde Ashbery may have become, and yet, as Karin Roffman demonstrates in this illuminating account of his early life, the originality of his poetic idiom owes as much to his provincial rural upbringing, and to the compound of guilt and nostalgia that was its legacy, as it does to his embrace of the experimental in New York and Paris.

Ashbery’s parents, Chester and Helen, ran a fruit farm about a mile south of Lake Ontario, where winters are long and snowy. Chet, as his father was known, could be ill tempered. “He used to wallop me a great deal,” Ashbery recalled in an interview, “so I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” I’ve often wondered if the evasiveness of Ashbery’s poetry, its habit of tiptoeing or sliding around a crisis in states ranging from mild apprehension to ominous foreboding, reflects the simmering domestic tensions of these early years.

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Hunger by Roxane Gay review – how the world treats fat people

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 06:30:13 GMT2017-07-19T06:30:13Z

A catalogue of horrors and public humiliations, Gay’s memoir responds to society’s condescension and disgust about her body size

This is a book its author Roxane Gay has, over many years, earned the right not to publish. Even though she has found great success as an essayist, writer of fiction and university teacher, and attracted a large, passionate online following, it’s clear from her account that her weight is still the first thing strangers notice about her, and that she must spend much of her time dealing with their unsolicited responses to it. These range from rude to abusive, encompassing all sorts of casual mockery, faux concern and outright aggression along the way.

Related: Roxane Gay: ‘My body is a cage of my own making’

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RisingTideFallingStar by Philip Hoare review – a love of the ocean wave

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 06:00:43 GMT2017-07-17T06:00:43Z

Part nature writing, part memoir and part travelogue, Hoare’s erudite and intimate account of his obsession with the sea is a masterpiece

There’s a radiant passage at the end of Philip Hoare’s prize-winning 2008 book Leviathan, where the author describes diving with a group of sperm whales off the Azores. He gazes into the ocean around him, endlessly deep, endlessly wide. “It was as if I were looking into the universe,” he writes. A vast whale swims towards him. “Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant and yet not quite.”

Leviathan can be seen as the first in a loose trilogy – along with 2013’s The Sea Inside and RisingTideFallingStar – and this encounter feels like it encapsulates the impulse that animates each of the books. These are works of sublime self-dissolution.

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Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 review – a window on the world of autism

Sun, 16 Jul 2017 06:00:13 GMT2017-07-16T06:00:13Z

Naoki Higashida’s lyrical and heartfelt account of his condition is a gift to anyone involved with the same challenges

Naoki Higashida is a 24-year-old man with severe, largely non-verbal autism. Though he cannot hold a conversation, he uses an alphabet grid to build up sentences, which are taken down by a transcriber. By this method he produced his first book, The Reason I Jump, when he was only 13. It quickly became an autism classic.

My two eldest sons, George and Sam, have autism. Sam is the same age as Higashida, and similar in many ways. When I read The Reason I Jump, I felt as if Sam was speaking to me fully for the first time – or for the first time since early childhood, when he would try earnestly to make himself understood before withdrawing, defeated. Would reading its successor be as valuable and powerful an experience?

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In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott – escaping a fundamentalist Christian sect

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 07:58:44 GMT2017-07-27T07:58:44Z

An account of the writer’s own life and her father’s in the Exclusive Brethren, and the chaos and freedom that followed the decision to walk out

Rebecca Stott’s account of life in a fundamentalist sect in the UK known as the Exclusive Brethren opens with the weeks she spent caring for her terminally ill father. Following his death, Stott, to fulfil her promise to him, has set out to trace four generations of her Exclusive Brethren family, from prestigious Australian forebears on her mother’s side, to an apprentice Scottish sail-maker on her father’s. Rebecca, like her father (whose memories she relays), endured harsh discipline as a child of Brethren parents, as well as hours of boredom in congregation meetings. She also inherited his literary leanings: her father was one of the last Brethren permitted to attend university, where he experienced what could be argued was his true conversion, courtesy of reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, following which he assumed a leading role within the sect.

In the story as Stott tells it, all goes reasonably well until the succession of James Taylor Jr as head of the sect in the 1960s results in a separation rule that means Brethren are no longer permitted to live in communal buildings unless they use a separate entrance, nor to eat with unbelievers, including fellow-workers and family members. A “ruthless gestapo” is set up to enforce these ideals; Stott’s father is a member of this force. These so-called “priests” visit homes, forcing confessions of deeply humiliating “sins”, usually of a sexual nature. Solitary confinement or expulsion from the organisation frequently ensues, even if the wrongdoer is repentant; nor are the interrogators immune, fearing exposure even more than their victims.

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The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell review – 1930s decadence in the Med

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 11:00:34 GMT2017-07-24T11:00:34Z

A grand tour of the social whirl of Maxine Elliott’s chateau on the Côte d’Azur – frequented by Churchill and Anthony Eden

In 1930, American actress Maxine Elliott bought an unpromising piece of land on the Cote d’Azur – “a long 20-metre-wide strip of rocks lying between the sea and a stretch where the railway line and main highway ran next to each other”. To most people, it would have seemed uninhabitable, but to Elliott it had huge potential: a star of stage and screen she had, over the previous two decades, ingratiated herself into the favour of the upper echelons of English high society, and here she saw an opportunity to create a Mediterranean retreat befitting that social world.

Over the following three decades the house Elliott built – the Chateau de l’Horizon – became synonymous with glamour and power. Elliott played host to politicians and royalty, from Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill – with whom she became great friends – to Edward and Mrs Simpson. After Elliott’s death, the house was bought by Prince Aly Khan, who lived there with his wife, Rita Hayworth, and numerous visiting celebrities.

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How to Resist by Matthew Bolton review – protest and thrive

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 09:00:03 GMT2017-07-23T09:00:03Z

The living wage campaigner shows how to effect change in this inspiring seven-step guide

If there’s anyone worth listening to about the politics and strategy of protest, it’s Matthew Bolton. After all, this is the man who led the hugely effective campaign for the living wage, and here he sets out a persuasive case for being proactive, rather than moaning about the state of the nation on social media. How to Resist is genuinely a “how to” guide, the road to successful campaigning set out in seven steps. The snappy, conversational tone and impressive up-to-date references (it opens with a look into Labour’s surprising results in the general election) make Bolton’s book feel like a return to the golden age of the pamphleteers - though, thankfully, it’s not laden with overt party political statements. Instead, How to Resist argues that even if people feel they are a tiny part of an unjust system, they can - if they organise themselves properly - effect lasting change. Inspiring stuff.

How to Resist by Matthew Bolton is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99). To order a copy for £8.49 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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Taboo by Kim Scott review – a masterful novel on the frontier of truth-telling

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 18:00:31 GMT2017-07-24T18:00:31Z

The two-time Miles Franklin award-winner deftly navigates the strange, tricky terrain of decolonisation in an optimistic and exceptionally generous book

Kim Scott has been to jail, and it shows. Since he began working with prisoners in his groundbreaking Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories project, Scott’s writing has been pared to the bone, becoming far more accessible than the complex Benang, his second novel and first to win the Miles Franklin award in 2000. His latest offering, Taboo, is a novel infused with violence of many kinds and the vulnerability of his characters is so clear we tremble for them.

As in his second Miles Franklin-winning novel, That Deadman Dance, Scott is writing the frontier but here we are on a much newer frontier, familiar to Aboriginal people all over Australia. It’s the frontier of truth-telling, which has emerged after two centuries of colonial conflict, uneasy truces and silent shame. Taboo asks: after so much pain, after a history that has left so many of us incarcerated and broken, how can we possibly find peace together?

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The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce review – hits all the right notes

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-07-23T08:00:02Z

Joyce’s heart-warming fourth novel follows a band of shopkeepers in the 80s struggling to halt redevelopment plans

Since her bestselling debut in 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce has established a reputation for novels that celebrate the dignity and courage of ordinary people and the resilience of the human spirit.

Her fourth novel, The Music Shop, is driven by the same impulse. Set in 1988, it follows record-shop owner Frank, who has a rare gift for music therapy: he can find the perfect piece to remedy any emotional or psychological woes his customers are suffering from.

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Under the Sun by Lottie Moggach review – summer noir on the Spanish coast

Sat, 22 Jul 2017 06:30:31 GMT2017-07-22T06:30:31Z

A dark underside to expat life is revealed in this nimble thriller exploring ideas of home, migration and loneliness

Lottie Moggach’s debut, Kiss Me First, a thriller about online identity, was shortlisted for the Guardian first book award. Her second novel is an enjoyable slice of summer noir with a wider social perspective. From the prologue, you’d think you were in recognisable territory; then the story opens out into a commentary on the vicissitudes of escapism. Forty-ish Anna lives in southern Spain, an expat haven, at least from the outside. The reality is a bunch of bored, recession-hit Brits desperate to sell up and get out, not that they would admit as much when Skyping their families back home. Anna’s is perhaps the saddest tale of the lot – the man she was building a life with left her suddenly, and the finca (Spanish farmhouse) she poured her life savings into is now falling into disrepair.

Living in a flat above the bar she owns in the beach town of Marea, Anna whiles away the days drinking her profits and wondering what went wrong with her relationship, distracting herself occasionally by having sex with a married man, another disillusioned expat. When a local businessman, the mysterious Simón, offers to rent her empty finca, Anna thinks it could be the answer to her problems: a wodge of cash, and possibly a way out. But like so much in Marea, Simón is not what he seems, and when a body washes up on the beach, Anna finds herself increasingly suspicious of him, and increasingly desperate to reclaim her house from what she senses is a sinister operation. But as a homesick, heartbroken, convicted drink-driver, how much agency does she have to investigate her suspicions?

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The Tryst by Monique Roffey review – perfectly judged erotic fiction

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 11:00:09 GMT2017-07-21T11:00:09Z

Sex and mythology collide in a novel with insights into contemporary coupledom

Although women are increasingly writing and reading sexually explicit fiction, there are still relatively few erotic masterpieces written by women. It is notable that two of the most accomplished female writers of literary erotica, Story of O author Anne Desclos and Anaïs Nin, wrote their erotica for men – Desclos for her lover, Jean Paulhan, and Nin for a collector who paid a dollar a page. In her novel The Tryst, Monique Roffey is writing for herself, the book forming part of a wider exploration of sex and sexuality which she also covered in a memoir, With the Kisses of His Mouth.

Erotic literature is vulnerable to a number of stylistic weaknesses. It is, by its very nature, repetitive, while descriptions of sexual ecstasy can become unintentionally comic if they try too hard to convince the reader of the power of sex to transport. Happily, The Tryst is no contender for the Bad Sex award: the sexual descriptions walk the line between transcendent and plain dirty with perfect judgment.

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To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann review – a brutal coming of age in Nazi Germany

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 06:30:11 GMT2017-07-21T06:30:11Z

The final weeks of the second world war are hauntingly portrayed in a German novel that bears comparison with Erich Maria Remarque and Günter Grass

March 1945, and Walter and Friedrich, young apprentices on a north German dairy farm, are drafted into the Waffen SS, serving out the final weeks of wartime in Hungary, in the teeth of the Russian advance and the brutality of the German collapse. The boys are plunged from childhood into the abyss, and this remarkable novel charts a most terrible coming of age.

To Die in Spring is the first of Ralf Rothmann’s eight novels to be translated into English, by Shaun Whiteside; published in Germany in 2015, it has won him much acclaim across Europe, with a few reviews even suggesting he has inherited the mantle of Günter Grass. This is high praise indeed, but then Rothmann has chosen the very subject that Grass failed to address in his fiction. He too was a teenage conscript, drafted late in the war, but kept this quiet, only revealing it in his late memoir, much to the consternation of his critics and admirers.

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No Dominion by Louise Welsh review – a deeply satisfying conclusion

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 11:00:18 GMT2017-07-19T11:00:18Z

The final part in the Plague Times trilogy adds fresh ideas to the tropes of apocalyptic fiction

According to futurologists, a baby born today will live to 100. But what do they know? In her Plague Times trilogy, Louise Welsh trashes such blithe predictions, setting the grim reaper to work in a not unlikely near-future scenario: a flu-like epidemic ravaging the world’s population and leaving survivors plunged into chaos.

If the landscape is familiar, it’s because fiction has been conjuring disasters ever since The Epic of Gilgamesh. Welsh, who belongs to the generation scared witless by the threat of nuclear war, acknowledges her debt to Terry Nation’s iconic 1970s TV series Survivors, the solid Lego-base on which many a contemporary future-set drama has been constructed. The tidal wave of apoca-lit, led by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and TV dramas such as The Walking Dead, has added new bricks to the edifice, further honing our certain anticipation of food scarcity, gibbets, feudalism, child brides, rabid dogs, creepy population drives, religious maniacs and cannibalism.

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How to Stop Time by Matt Haig review – provokes wonder and delight

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 06:51:52 GMT2017-07-18T06:51:52Z

A teacher’s rare genetic condition prevents him from ageing at the normal rate in the talented Haig’s clever time-hopping fantasy

Matt Haig is a writer of admirable versatility (children’s books, nonfiction, adult novels) and an enviable ability to produce bestsellers. Reasons to Stay Alive, his memoir of being depressed in his 20s, was one of the bestselling nonfiction books of recent years. The Humans, his wickedly funny 2013 novel about an alien taking over the body of a Cambridge maths don, sold more than 200,000 copies – a serious number for any book. And now here is Haig’s latest, which you just know is also fated to succeed. A film version (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) is in the pipeline, and just last week there was Stephen Fry, on Twitter, predicting (while simultaneously helping to ensure) that it would attract a “large and grateful readership”.

So what is Haig’s secret? A major aspect of his popularity is his ability to think up arresting concepts, and quickly make them clear and convincing. His latest novel, How to Stop Time, is a case in point. Tom Hazard, our hero, was “born on the third of March 1581”, but is still alive today. How? He has an incredibly rare genetic condition, “anageria”, which develops around puberty, and which causes sufferers to age 15 times more slowly than normal people. So despite being 439 years old, and having hung out, in his day, with Shakespeare, Captain Cook and Christopher Marlowe, Tom can, in the present, pass himself off as 41-year-old London comprehensive school teacher with a knack for making his subject, history – what else? – “come alive”.

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Boundless by Jillian Tamaki review – picture-perfect short stories

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 07:00:44 GMT2017-07-17T07:00:44Z

This collection of graphic short stories, quirky and ephemeral though they seem at first, are indelible in the mind

In Jillian Tamaki’s graphic short story Half Life, a young woman called Helen tries on a previously too-small dress to work out whether or not she has lost weight. And, yes, it seems that her friends, half-jealous and half-admiring, were right. Ta-dah! She really is smaller. Before the mirror in her guest bedroom, she performs a delighted little twirl.

After this, though, things begin to get weird. She is visibly shrinking – and fast, too. In the street, she is mistaken for a child; at home, she can only stir the pan on her hob if she stands on a chair. Her sister, keen to protect her ever more miniature dignity, gamely stitches her a new wardrobe of doll-sized clothes but, alas, she doesn’t get to wear them for very long. In the next frame, we find her sleeping in a match box, and in the one after that, she is living in a special glass enclosure designed by doctors to prevent her being devoured by an insect or swept up on a passing bit of pollen. No one knows what has caused this condition, but in all likelihood, it won’t be long before Helen is invisible to the human eye.

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Eureka by Anthony Quinn review – saucy antics and artistry in swinging London

Sun, 16 Jul 2017 07:00:15 GMT2017-07-16T07:00:15Z

Art reflects life in this pitch-perfect novel set on a 60s film shoot, the third part of a loosely linked trilogy

Anthony Quinn’s two most recent volumes of period fiction, Curtain Call and Freya, were set in the 1930s and the 1950s. In Eureka, he takes another step on his journey through the 20th century to arrive in London in the summer of 1967, swinging to the soundtrack of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. Some of the same characters from the two previous books return, but for those yet to discover this former film critic, don’t be put off joining the party for part three of this loosely linked and hugely enjoyable trilogy. You require no prior knowledge. Eureka works just as well as a stand-alone.

Indeed, you could argue that, such is Quinn’s restless inventiveness as a writer, the three novels hardly overlap at all. Where Curtain Call was a highly polished murder mystery, peeping backstage in the prewar years to witness the forces pushing Britain towards conflict, Freya was more a moving hymn to female friendship (a brave choice for a male author), set among a postwar generation of women battling to be taken seriously in their chosen careers.

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A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi review – a journey into radicalisation

Sat, 15 Jul 2017 06:29:45 GMT2017-07-15T06:29:45Z

Cultural integration and the repercussions of terrorism are the key elements in this expertly crafted coming-of-age story

A Good Country is the third novel in a trilogy following three generations of a Kurdish family, its action moving from Iran to the US. It is the story of Rez, full name Alireza, who is 14 years old at the start of the novel and 18 at the end; the title comes from his father’s description of the United States. Our first sight of the father, whose experience of the Islamic revolution was related in The Walking, is of a demanding, adamant man, “a tyrant without a cause”, as Rez thinks him when he suffers violent humiliation at his hands for a B grade in a school history test.

The pieces are in place for a story of adolescence in wealthy Laguna Beach, California, and the rebellion of a second-generation migrant youth against hard-working and ambitious parents. The father’s name is Saladin Courdee, an Americanisation of Khourdi, while his first name invokes the most famous Kurd in history. Khadivi places a series of clues in the narrative to indicate the struggle of migrant families to become American, and the contrasting anxieties between the generations with their potential for violent rupture.

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The Party by Elizabeth Day review – a study in anxiety

Fri, 14 Jul 2017 11:01:21 GMT2017-07-14T11:01:21Z

A terrible event at a 40th birthday celebration becomes the focus for a dark tale of lifelong obsession and jealousy

The Party is a novelistic study in every kind of anxiety. Class anxiety, status anxiety, sexual anxiety, social anxiety, pregnancy anxiety, fashion anxiety, even footwear anxiety. I felt anxious reading it – anxious for the characters, anxious for the author, anxious for myself. I feel anxious reviewing it. The cover of the proof copy asks: “Are you invited?” Anxiously, I now pass that question on to you.

Elizabeth Day’s first novel, Scissors, Paper, Stone, won a Betty Trask award. This is her fourth and the press release offers comparisons to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. And, indeed, it is very close – in terms of subject matter and setup – to the latter.

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

Fri, 14 Jul 2017 06:31:16 GMT2017-07-14T06:31:16Z

Barker is as glorious and gnomic as ever in this vision of a dystopian future which defies narrative and typographic conventionFor two decades now, Nicola Barker has been writing extravagantly ununusal books. Her subjects have ranged from a 15th-century court jester in Darkmans to the anxieties of golf in The Yips; her characters have been outliers, oddballs, obsessives of all kinds. Her last novel, 2016’s The Cauliflower, was a typically playful portrait of the 19th-century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, riffing on holiness and eccentricity, the sacred and the profane.So the odd thing about her 12th novel – a phantasmagoria in which willing submission to constant surveillance in a regulated virtual reality keeps the population happy, or at least h(a)ppy – is that it begins on such familiar ground. The trope of a society in which to deviate from the norm is to risk instant public shame is familiar from social-media satires such as Dave Eggers’ The Circle or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, while the figure of a lone individualist resisting coercive conformism and ersatz contentment goes back nearly a century to Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Continue reading...[...]


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The Answers by Catherine Lacey review – how to solve the love problem

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 10:58:06 GMT2017-07-13T10:58:06Z

A ‘Girlfriend Experiment’ to discover why attraction ebbs away is at the heart of this smart novel literalising the concept of emotional labour

As the computer Deep Thought pointed out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s no good spending seven and a half million years working on the answer if you don’t start with a good idea of what the question is. Lacey’s second novel, the follow-up to 2015’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, opens with a full-scale assault on readerly curiosity: a female narrator wakes up in her own bed and then locks eyes, shockingly, with a woman called Ashley who is outside her window, staring in. The who, what and why are a powerful incentive to drive through the pages. But for the characters in The Answers, the thing they are looking for is always being deferred or displaced.

Mary, the woman whose bedroom we started out in, is looking for an answer to her pervasive, agonising and maybe psychosomatic health issues. When extensive medical investigations only add debt to her distress (because the novel is set in the US, where healthcare is a luxury), she feels as though “the use of my own body, the only thing I really owned, had somehow been repossessed”. The solution is an alternative and expensive therapy called PAKing – “Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia” – recommended by a hippy friend. Mary is well aware that allowing a man called Ed to hoik her about in her underwear for hours at a time might be quackery, but as it works, she reasons it’s worth paying for.

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Room Little Darker by June Caldwell review – junkies, sex slaves and ghosts

Wed, 12 Jul 2017 11:02:22 GMT2017-07-12T11:02:22Z

The Irish fiction renaissance continues with a gothic collection of short stories that shock and fascinate in equal measure

As Leonard Cohen asked: you want it darker? How about a story about a couple kept as sex slaves in a farmhouse in Leitrim, their desperate antics livestreamed to an audience of perverts worldwide? Or a junkie who gets a beating and a shoehorn “scoopslide right in and up on over” his “stink tunnel”? A story narrated by a foetus? The tale of a paedophile who is enrolled on a “dynamic new domestic-environment therapy with 100 per cent effectiveness demonstrated in trials across twelve countries on three continents”, which involves him adopting his own boy robot that he can abuse in the comfort and privacy of his own home? Room Little Darker, June Caldwell’s debut collection, couldn’t get much blacker. It reads like boiling tar.

As Irish fiction once again awakens to its true power and potential, Caldwell emerges as one of those giving the tradition a good old-fashioned shaking. (To name just a few others: Sara Baume, Lisa McInerney, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett.) In the words of the narrator of “Dubstopia”, “Come out of charity, Come dance with me in Ireland, that cunt Yeats said in the book by their mattress. But he didn’t know fuck all about the skank or fiddlers like Carol, all thumbs and kettledrums, sucking off ghosts at the window in the Old Bank on Doyle’s Corner.” If you prefer your Irish fiction sweet, ponderous and full to the brim with twinkles and craic – horseman, pass by.

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Mad by Chloé Esposito review – murder most long-winded

Tue, 11 Jul 2017 06:30:02 GMT2017-07-11T06:30:02Z

An evil twin assumes her sister’s perfect life in this much hyped debut thriller – if only she wouldn’t talk so much

Last year’s London book fair was set alight by first-time author Chloé Esposito, a former management consultant who had won book contracts worth more than £2m for her trilogy of thrillers Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. The first in the series, Mad, is just out, and introduces us to life from the perspective of identical twin Alvina Knightly.

Esposito’s opening is a cracker, and it’s easy to see why it had international publishers lining up to acquire her debut, as well as a film deal with Universal. “There’s something you should know before we go any further: my heart is in the wrong place,” says Alvina. “Seven billion people on this planet have their hearts on the left. Mine’s on the right. You don’t think that’s a sign?”

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The Star Witness by Andy Hamilton review – soap star seeks redemption

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 09:00:22 GMT2017-07-28T09:00:22Z

The knives are out for ‘Dirty Len’ in the comedian’s first novel, and the reader is judge and jury

In comedian Andy Hamilton’s first novel, Kevin Carver plays Lenny in a fictional soap opera. His character is a bad’un – Dirty Len, if you like – and Kevin is irritated by fans of the show who confuse him with his role. The tabloids don’t help, and when Kevin’s real-life relationship with his onscreen girlfriend goes sour, the knives are out. Hamilton steers his narrative along a narrow and treacherous path: the unlikeable protagonist who must redeem himself. While Kevin is tried in court for his misdemeanours, the reader is the true judge and jury whose sympathy Hamilton begs for, as Kevin makes one bad decision after another. But it’s not so much the laws he has broken as his self-absorption and self-pity that risk losing the reader. Ploughing the depths, Kevin faces a long, slow road to redemption. Hamilton pays out the rope of salvation with great skill and, although there is plenty of comedy, particularly in some of the secondary characters, he ultimately chooses not to play this heartfelt drama for laughs.

The Star Witness is published by Unbound. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP £8.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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The Zoo by Christopher Wilson review – secrets and lies in 50s Moscow

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 11:00:05 GMT2017-07-23T11:00:05Z

A compelling young narrator recounts a powerful, moving adventure set during Stalin’s final days

A gift for creating compelling outsiders resonates throughout Christopher Wilson’s , such as Mischief, The Ballad of Lee Cotton and Blueglass. His latest, The Zoo, is narrated by 12-year-old Yuri, who is left brain-damaged after a road accident. In a first-person voice reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we learn of Yuri’s life in 1950s Moscow, where his father (mother is absent) is a veterinarian at the city zoo. When the latter is bizarrely ordered to attend a very human (and very important patient), things take a perilous turn for the guileless boy, who finds himself central to the tumultuous power struggles of Stalin’s last days. Engrossing and very moving.

The Zoo by Christopher Wilson is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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Under the Sun by Lottie Moggach – review

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 10:00:04 GMT2017-07-23T10:00:04Z

A body on the beach promises much in this expat thriller set in Spain, but too much detail spoils the plot

The merits of Moggach’s second novel are also the source of its problems. Detailed, and populated with a credible cast, description quickly morphs into exhaustive listing, and characters become tired and cliche-ridden.

From the outside Anna looks to be living the life in Spain, refurbishing a finca with her artist boyfriend. Cue the cad dumping her, and Anna being thrown into emotional and financial turmoil. She buys a lacklustre bar, contemplates having a baby, and has sex with someone unsuitable. Then Simon, a dodgy businessman, appears and rents the finca, and Anna finds a dead body on the beach. Could Simon be involved?

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Picture books for children reviews – from old hats to new homes

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 07:00:01 GMT2017-07-23T07:00:01Z

Neil Gaiman’s mute, pearl-eyed princess and a magical tale of moving house are among the best illustrated reads for kids this summer

It is summer – the season in which mad dogs and Englishmen are said to go out in the midday sun. A better idea might be to stay in the shade and read Raymond, by Yann and Gwendal Le Bec (Walker £11.99, ages 3+). Even before you have opened the book, you will be won over by the brilliant sunshine-yellow cover and Raymond – a little dog with big dreams – standing on his hind legs, looking perkily assured, with a cup of what looks alarmingly like coffee in his left paw.

Raymond’s big dream is to be more than one of the family – he wants to “act more and more like a human”. He becomes a celeb journo on Dogue magazine – and it all gets a bit much. It is not until he goes on holiday with his faithful old family that he remembers the enchantment of simply being a dog. The delight for readers is partly in acknowledging that we should all be careful what we wish for.

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The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue review – it’s a family affair

Sat, 22 Jul 2017 07:59:33 GMT2017-07-22T07:59:33Z

Big is beautiful in the Room author’s tale of seven children, four parents (and a three-legged dog) who follow their dreamsEmma Donoghue, the award-winning novelist best known for Room, has made her first foray into children’s fiction. The Lotterys Plus One is set in cosmopolitan Toronto and features a household that embodies diversity and respect for the planet. It’s a tale that’s funny, heartwarming and quietly provocative.There is a huge difference between writing about children and for children. In sharp contrast to the grim tale of five-year-old Jack and his virtuoso narration of Room, Donoghue’s latest novel is full of warmth and light, its third-person perspective introducing us to a large and, in some respects, utopian family unit. The Lotterys are people “who like to say why not?” There are two sets of committed same-sex parents (of different ethnicities), seven children, mostly adopted (ditto), and their pets, including a rat and a three-legged dog. Caroline Hadilaksono’s charming illustrations help keep track of the large cast of characters. Having won the lottery, the parents can devote themselves to bringing up their brood in a way that cherishes their individuality, educates and encourages a sense of responsibility towards family, community and planet. “Love is not a pie,” the parents say. “Everyone doesn’t have to fight for a slice.” The parents all have nicknames, such as PapaDum and MaxiMum. The children are named after trees. The young Lotterys are home-schooled and live in a spacious, well-equipped Victorian house called Camelottery, where “the only routine is to wake up and decide what to learn”. Continue [...]


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Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence review – gripping urban teen fiction

Tue, 11 Jul 2017 08:00:04 GMT2017-07-11T08:00:04Z

The award-winning author gets to the raw heart of her diverse characters in this winning sixth form tale of romance and identity

Her award-winning debut Orangeboy, a gripping urban thriller, announced Patrice Lawrence as a bold, fresh voice in young adult fiction. This promise is realised in her second book, a tender and complex story of first love, family and belonging.

The chemistry is instant when Indigo and Bailey meet at sixth form. But these are two teenagers from very different places. As a small child, Indigo witnessed her father kill her mother and has grown up in the care system. Her notorious story and her own reputation for losing it shadow her start at this “last-chance” school. Mixed-race Bailey, meanwhile, who’s known for his love of guitars and distinctive ginger afro, lives with his middle-class parents. A hesitant romance develops between the pair, beautifully capturing both the shine of mutual attraction and the awkwardness of fledgling lovers. When Bailey is approached by a tramp who knows far more about Indigo than he should, he faces the most difficult decision of his life.

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Harry Potter quiz: 20 years, 20 questions

Mon, 26 Jun 2017 11:00:03 GMT2017-06-26T11:00:03Z

It’s exactly two decades since the first of JK Rowling’s books was published. Try our Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test to see how much you have learned since thenWhat is Albus Dumbledore's full name?Albus Percival Wulfric Brian DumbledoreAlbus Patrick William Bob DumbledoreAlbus Brian Percival Wulfric DumbledoreAlbus William Bob Patrick DumbledoreHow many years in a row had Slytherin won the House Cup before Harry's arrival at Hogwarts in 1991?Three yearsSeven yearsTen yearsEight yearsWhich two characters share a Patronus?Ron Weasley and Neville LongbottomHarry Potter and James PotterSeverus Snape and Lily PotterDean Thomas and Ginny WeasleyWhen Harry and Ron visit the Slytherin common room in disguise in The Chamber of Secrets, what is the password used to get inside?"Salazar""Pure-blood""Parselmouth""Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus"When Harry and Hermione use the Time-Turner to save Sirius in The Prisoner of Azkaban, how many times does Hermione turn it?One timeTwo timesThree timesFour timesWhich dragon does Cedric Diggory face in the first test during The Goblet of Fire?Hungarian HorntailChinese FireboltWelsh GreenSwedish Short-SnoutWhich of these subjects would a first year student in Hogwarts NOT do?ArithmancyHistory of MagicTransfigurationAstronomyJames Potter, Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew are the only known unregistered Animagi – until who comes along?Aberforth DumbledoreRita SkeeterNymphadora TonksLudo BagmanHow many Educational Decrees were introduced during Dolores Umbridge's time at Hogwarts?Seven142129Which vault belongs to the Potter family in Gringott's Wizarding Bank?Vault 256Vault [...]


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

Sat, 24 Jun 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-06-24T08:00:02Z

A beautiful, heart-breaking exploration of family bereavement, how to get a knighthood and sinister goings-on during detention

For the very youngest picture-book fans this month, Nosy Crow’s collaboration with the British Museum yields two enticing board-books, 123 and ABC. The alphabet book features stylish photographs of exhibits from around the world, ranging from Japanese porcelain elephants to Austrian woodcuts of oranges; the counting book gives infant curators the delightful illusion of handling ancient hats, dolls, keys and rings.

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Mog author Judith Kerr, 94, to publish new book Katinka's Tail

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 15:29:54 GMT2017-06-20T15:29:54Z

Story of a ‘perfectly ordinary cat with a not-so-ordinary tail’, based on beloved children’s author’s ninth pet feline, is due out this autumn

Almost 50 years after the appearance of one of the most famous felines in children’s books, Mog creator Judith Kerr is to publish a book inspired by her latest pet cat, Katinka. The much-loved author and illustrator, who celebrated her 94th birthday last week, is to publish Katinka’s Tail in the autumn.

The story of a “perfectly ordinary cat with a not-so-ordinary tail” was inspired by Kerr’s observations of her cat, the ninth in an inspirational line. “She is a ridiculous-looking white cat with a tabby tail that looks as though it belonged to somebody else,” she said. It was watching the “bizarre” behaviour of her first family pet, Mog – which included licking her sleeping daughter’s hair – that inspired the eponymous stories beloved by generations of children.

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Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals: US double in children's book awards

Mon, 19 Jun 2017 12:47:42 GMT2017-06-19T12:47:42Z

Ruta Sepetys’ novel Salt to the Sea and illustrator Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids win their American creators the venerable British awards

A former “punk” illustrator and a refugee’s daughter have performed an American double, taking two of the UK’s most prestigious children’s literary awards. Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids won the 2017 Kate Greenaway medal for illustration and Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea received the Carnegie medal for best children’s writing.

Chair of judges Tricia Adams described the winning books as demonstrating “the vitally important role that literature and illustration play in helping children and young people to understand the world around them, be that through a historical lens or through the natural world around them”.

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Tiny Dinosaurs by Joel Stewart review – a lovely romp for boys and girls

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 08:00:05 GMT2017-06-20T08:00:05Z

Little Daisy is enchanted when she finds a band of little dinosaurs in her back garden – but her beloved sausage dog is less keen

Neatly twisting the stereotype that all girls long to find fairies at the bottom of the garden, this sweet tale stars dino-loving Daisy, who uncovers a tiny T rex and friends in the undergrowth of her back yard. With her bouncy bob and big grin, Daisy resembles the French film heroine Amélie, and she’s joined on her quest to find dinosaurs by her best friend and the story’s narrator, a perky sausage dog called Rex.

After criticism was levelled at Marks & Spencer and the Natural History Museum two years ago for their boys-only dinosaur-themed clothing range, it’s heartening to find more and more publishers and retailers reflecting the fact that many girls love these prehistoric beasts too.

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Iranian artist to attend Edinburgh book festival after visa volte-face

Fri, 28 Jul 2017 14:50:57 GMT2017-07-28T14:50:57Z

Children’s book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi was denied entry to UK but decision has been overturned by UK embassy in Tehran

A respected Iranian illustrator who came under the spotlight after he was denied entry to the UK to attend the Edinburgh international book festival has been granted a visa.

Ehsan Abdollahi’s original visa application was declined by the Home Office despite the festival’s invitation to him to speak about his books. But the decision has been overturned by the British embassy in Tehran.

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Filth and fame: how David Walliams became king of kids’ books

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 15:27:17 GMT2017-07-25T15:27:17Z

The actor, writer and author has been the UK’s bestselling children’s author for 100 weeks. What is the secret to his success?David Walliams’ colossal sales figures are the stuff of dreams for most kids’ authors; he has just hit his 100th consecutive week as the UK’s top‑selling children’s writer. So, what is the secret of his success? Is it the power of celebrity – or is he simply a brilliant author?Well, fame has certainly helped. Well known for his work with Matt Lucas on the sketch show Little Britain, Walliams had already established himself as a familiar funny face and a writer with a turn for grotesque humour when his first book for children was published by HarperCollins in 2008. The Boy in the Dress was deeply indebted (as Walliams acknowledges) to Roald Dahl; it also benefited from the involvement of Quentin Blake, the most celebrated of Dahl’s illustrators. It struck an unlikely balance between gross-out humour of the squelchiest kind and subtler ideas of identity and courage; it starred a neglected, put-upon child hero; and it handled the idea of cross-dressing with a humorous lightness of touch. While the Sunday Times’ Nicolette Jones commented gently that Walliams’ writing was “not the finest”, Philip Ardagh praised its “genuine child-appeal”. Book-buying parents, however, were evidently unsure about the theme of transvestism for younger readers. Continue reading...[...]


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Teenage fiction reviews – the hapless magician and lost souls in Hollywood

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 07:00:01 GMT2017-07-23T07:00:01Z

A stranger offers hope to a struggling spellcaster, love is in the air in the entertaining Freshers, and detention ends in death in a first-class mystery

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter (Andersen Press £7.99), a touching, truthful depiction of an unconventional family life, was written before London’s current summer of discontent but captures the effect of a constant climate of unease on young people and the permanently anxious adults who care for them.

Alena has been brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when she was three. With a series of supermarket bombs attributed to terrorists, plus dirty fighting in the London mayoral campaign, Alena’s carers are distracted, on edge and unsupportive when she tries to fill gaps in the family history. The threads lead through two generations of political activism: Alena’s mother was a Greenham Common campaigner but raised a more conservative son: Danny is a spin doctor for an independent “anti-radical” candidate.

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Fiction for older children reviews – tales of the cities

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 07:00:00 GMT2017-07-23T07:00:00Z

London and New York both feature strongly in stories from both sides of the pond, while Room author Emma Donoghue makes her children’s fiction debut

In the UK, you wouldn’t want under-12s to have much contact with doormen – ours being burly negotiators who remove the ill-behaved from nightclubs.

In New York, however, doormen are the guardians of gracious apartment buildings and, thus, civilisation itself. One such building is the star of The Doorman’s Repose, by Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka (Faber, £11.99), an urbane collection of New Yorker-ish short stories. It begins with a new doorman – who, disastrously, knows nothing about baseball – taking up his post. Otis, the elevator, plays matchmaker; Liesl, the boiler, loses her va-va-voom; the mice are into jazz and psychotherapy, and the humans in these droll, Lemony Snicket-like stories are only slightly less variegated.

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Acclaimed Iranian artist refused visa to attend Edinburgh book festival

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 06:00:11 GMT2017-07-21T06:00:11Z

Children’s book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi says Kafkaesque reasons given for refusal

An acclaimed Iranian illustrator has been denied a visa to attend the Edinburgh international book festival amid growing criticism of the UK’s handling of Iranian visas.

Ehsan Abdollahi, described by the festival’s director as a “highly respected, award-winning Iranian illustrator of kids’ books”, was due to arrive in the UK early August, but he has received a visa refusal letter, issued by the British embassy in Dubai and seen by the Guardian. It states that he has “no right of appeal or right to administrative review”.

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