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Books | The Guardian



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



Published: Sat, 10 Dec 2016 05:31:11 GMT2016-12-10T05:31:11Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2016
 



Salman Rushdie leads World Human Rights Day protest for Chinese writers

Sat, 10 Dec 2016 00:01:42 GMT2016-12-10T00:01:42Z

Author joins 120 others including JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman denouncing ‘the enforced silence of these friends and colleagues’

Letter: Time for China to release writers, journalists and activists

Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman are among more than 120 authors and activists calling on Chinese president Xi Jinping to reverse his government’s fierce crackdown on writers and dissidents.

The number of detained and imprisoned writers in China is among the highest in the world. In an open letter released by freedom of speech group PEN International, and published in the Guardian on World Human Rights Day, the signatories condemn the constriction of freedom of expression by Chinese authorities and say they “cannot stand by as more and more of our friends and colleagues are silenced”.

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Margaret Drabble and the Ruby Dolls - books podcast

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 18:19:47 GMT2016-12-09T18:19:47Z

The challenges of ageing and the dark side of fairy stories examined in a novel, The Dark Flood Rises, and the cabaret Brides of Bluebeard

As modern medical advances extend life way beyond the “happily ever after” imagined by our ancestors, Margaret Drabble investigates the dark side of longevity. Her new novel, The Dark Flood Rises, combines a character study of a group of people dealing in different ways with old age with a meditation on longevity and a consideration of “late style”: how the literature of maturity differs from that of youth.

She is joined in the studio by the Ruby Dolls cabaret group, who describe their latest show as “the folk tale Bluebeard rewired for 2016”. In words and songs, with wit and wisdom – and not a little fun – our studio guests tear to shreds the old fallacy of the fairytale ending.

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Publishers rush out Trump and Brexit books to traumatised readers

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 16:18:48 GMT2016-12-09T16:18:48Z

Industry push for titles responding to this year’s shocking votes in the US and UK prompts raft of comedies and sober analyses

Publishers are rushing out a raft of titles to meet demand among readers traumatised by the election of Donald Trump and the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Titles range from humour to protest packs aimed at reinvigorating the left as it faces four years of the former TV star in the White House.

The books are being turned around in time for Trump’s inauguration as US president on 20 January. American writer Gene Stone will publish The Trump Survival Guide on both sides of the Atlantic 10 days before the inauguration. Billed as “everything you need to know about living through what you hoped would never happen”, the book will be a serious call to action for Trump dissenters across the political spectrum, said publisher Dey Street Press, a division of HarperCollins. The author’s earlier books include a satirical guide to surviving George W Bush’s presidency.

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Gifts and misses: publishers pick their books of 2016

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 12:08:11 GMT2016-12-09T12:08:11Z

Which books did best? Which should have done better? Which books by their rivals would publishers like to have brought out?

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

Publishing director, Jonathan Cape

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Why Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales go against the tides

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 11:00:27 GMT2016-12-09T11:00:27Z

Stevenson was famous for adventures such as Treasure Island, but his South Sea Tales reveal a savage political and moral engagement

Adapting a book is a sure-fire way of discovering its strengths and weaknesses. Its plot must prove truly dramatic; dialogue must not only ring true but reveal character and advance the action. Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales, broadcast this weekend starring David Tennant, are my 10th foray into adapting for Radio 4’s Classic Serial slot – after novels by Edith Wharton, Dodie Smith and John Wyndham – and I have never felt more privileged to be let loose on another writer’s work.

Both The Beach at Falesá and The Ebb Tide (novellas, in fact, at 70 pages and 131 pages respectively) were written while Stevenson lived in Samoa, from 1890-94, in the final years of his short life. He brought to them all the literary skills he had developed over his career as a bestselling writer, but beyond technique and confidence, these tales have a savage political and moral engagement, a real-world vision, and a black humour that is more distilled here than in anything else he wrote.

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Wolfgang Streeck: ‘Look at London – it’s a second Rome. This is what an empire looks like’

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 10:05:40 GMT2016-12-09T10:05:40Z

The political economist on Trump’s election, why we should be happy about Brexit and the crises facing western democracy

Outside was panic. Barely a couple of hours after Donald Trump had been declared the next president of the United States and even the political columnists, those sleek interlocutors of power, were in shock. At the National Gallery in London, however, one of the few thinkers to have anticipated Trump’s rise was ready to see some paintings. Over from Germany for a few days of lectures, Wolfgang Streeck had an afternoon spare – and we both wanted to see the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition.

Nothing in his work prepares you for meeting Streeck (pronounced Stray-k). Professionally, he is the political economist barking last orders for our way of life, and warning of the “dark ages” ahead. His books bear bluntly fin-de-siecle titles: two years ago was Buying Time, while the latest is called How Will Capitalism End? (spoiler: not well). Even his admirers talk of his “despair”, by which they mean sentences such as this: “Before capitalism will go to hell, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.”

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A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman review – serious portrait of a shocking standup

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 07:00:22 GMT2016-12-09T07:00:22Z

A writer of gravitas embraces the world of comedy with this parable-like tale of a repellent Israeli comedian

A comic novel by David Grossman, the David Grossman? That would be simply ludicrous, obviously: Grossman is a writer of such high moral seriousness and tone, a writer burdened and possessed with such profound weight, as to render that book quite impossible. It would be like Dan Brown writing art history, or Lydia Davis writing a romcom. So, a comic novel by Grossman: no. But a novel about a comic by Grossman? An unexpected delight. Readers should be warned, however: A Horse Walks into a Bar is neither remotely funny nor an easy read.

Related: David Grossman: ‘You have to act against the gravity of grief – to decide you won’t fall’

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Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums – review

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 09:00:24 GMT2016-12-09T09:00:24Z

From John Lanchester at the Prado to Ann Wroe at Dove Cottage, these accounts of favourite museums are a joy to read

The 24 essays gathered here came about when distinguished writers were given what sounds like a most appealing brief: choose a museum that has played a part in your life, go back and write about it. It’s almost as good an opportunity as Desert Island Discs. Still, Richard Ford demurred, explaining that his eyes fail to focus after 45 minutes in a museum; David Sedaris said he prefers the cafe and gift shop. Alice Oswald clearly had her doubts. “I haven’t been to many museums,” she says. “I can’t help being depressed by the aloofness of things behind glass.”

There’s nothing to say that writers should particularly like museums, or that their experiences should be any different from those of musicians or teachers or cooks. The editor, Maggie Fergusson, is not (thank goodness) advancing an argument about the way authors look at objects or about contemporary forms of ekphrasis. It’s the quality of writing she relishes. And since museum visiting can be such a complex matter (of personal feelings in public places, ecstasy and boredom, ambitions and memories, incommunicable revelations, tastes in common and at odds), it’s a joy to read words that are so consummately up to the job.

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Poster poems: hope

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 08:00:23 GMT2016-12-09T08:00:23Z

Amid so many ominous events in the wider world, writing poetry is a small but significant way to sustain our spirits. For one last time, please share yours

In his great inverted sonnet Work Without Hope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge paints a contrasting portrait of his despairing self in a landscape bursting with the hope of spring, a picture that cumulates in the lines that end the poem:

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

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Max Porter's 'joyful linguistic invention' wins him young writer of the year award

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 19:45:08 GMT2016-12-08T19:45:08Z

Author of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers praised by judges of as ‘bursting with originality’

Max Porter, a novelist “bursting with originality” who was inspired by memories of childhood loss and the work of Ted Hughes, has been named young writer of the year.

Related: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter review – words take flight

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Are small publishers doing all the hard work for the big ones?

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 10:35:49 GMT2016-12-08T10:35:49Z

These days, it is minimally staffed and funded firms who invest in new authors. The giants avoid such risk, only picking the writers once their names are made

Paul McVeigh and Kirsty Logan are authors you may have heard of. Both of their debuts were published by Salt, an independent publisher. Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son was shortlisted for a bunch of awards, and won the Polari first book prize this year. Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales won three awards — including the Polari in 2015— and Logan had her next book published with Harvill Secker, a division of Penguin Random House. The same trajectory is likely for Paul McVeigh. It’s a familiar story.

Independent publishers have existed since the 19th century; it wasn’t until the 20th and the 21st that we saw the industry dominated by a few corporations. “The Big Four” publishers – Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins – have grown big by buying up small publishers. Hogarth, for example, was founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917; now it is an imprint at the Crown Publishing Group, which is in turn a part of Penguin Random House – which itself used to be Penguin and Random House before their merger in 2013. Phew.

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Philippe Sands uses book prize to raise £60,000 for charity

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 16:59:04 GMT2016-12-08T16:59:04Z

After the winner of the 2016 Baillie Gifford award announced plans to give away £30,000 award, other parties have more than matched it

A month after Baillie Gifford winner Philippe Sands announced he would donate his £30,000 prize money to charity, the writer has revealed Médecins Sans Frontières, SOS Méditerranée and Women for Refugee Women will receive more than £20,000 each after his donation was matched by other parties.

Related: Philippe Sands: 'Alarm bells are ringing in this country'

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Stephen King attacks Bob Dylan's Nobel prize knockers

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 16:05:16 GMT2016-12-08T16:05:16Z

Guitar-playing horror legend speaks out against literary authors such as Gary Shteyngart and Irvine Welsh who have scorned the singer’s award

Stephen King has come to the defence of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature, accusing those who oppose the award of sour grapes.

According to King, no other musician has had such an impact on popular culture or remained so influential for so long as Dylan. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the horror writer defended the songwriter against his detractors, particularly the authors who had rubbished Dylan’s win: “People complaining about his Nobel either don’t understand or it’s just a plain old case of sour grapes.”

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Literary mixtape: Teddy Wayne on songs of desire and obsession

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 15:00:02 GMT2016-12-08T15:00:02Z

Pop songs often walk an uncomfortable line between romantic obsession and stalker-like pursuit. Author Teddy Wayne shares 10 songs that helped him write about a lonely freshman in his novel Loner

By Teddy Wayne for Literary Mixtapes by Electric Literature, part of the Guardian Books Network

Loner is about David Federman, a freshman boy at Harvard running away from his suburban New Jersey origins, who becomes infatuated with a charismatic, upper-crust Manhattanite in his dorm, Veronica. His abiding attraction to her is not only about love and sex, but ambition, status, and class, and his belief that, through her, he can elevate his (already elevated) station in life.

Obsession is a popular topic to write about in fiction, in part because it resoundingly answers that most clichéd of MFA-workshop questions: “What does the character want?” (Or the actor’s question of “What’s my motivation?”)

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Hatchimals scheme 'ruins' novelist Sara Gruen and angers Christmas shoppers

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 13:44:57 GMT2016-12-08T13:44:57Z

The Water for Elephants novelist wanted to resell a huge purchase of the must-have toy but cannot do so, leaving frustrated buyers furious

Never cross parents of young children on the hunt for the Christmas must-have toy. It is a rule novelist Sara Gruen failed to heed when she snapped up $23,000 (£18,000) worth of this year’s answer to Cabbage Patch Dolls and Furbies to resell. Now her pursuit of a fast profit could ruin her financially, as well as destroy her reputation among irate parents.

The Water for Elephants author has been accused of being a Grinch stealing Christmas after she spent $23,595.31 on eBay for 156 Hatchimals toys with a view to selling them on at a profit. The auction website restricts sales of toys likely to pull in counterfeiters.

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The best recent crime novels – review roundup

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 12:00:03 GMT2016-12-08T12:00:03Z

The Dry by Jane Harper; The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl; The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer; The Watcher by Ross Armstrong; The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Parched and crackling after a two-year drought, the Australian town of Kiewarra is the highly combustible setting for Jane Harper’s first novel The Dry (Little, Brown, £12.99). Nature isn’t the only thing that’s dangerous in this small town in the middle of nowhere – when policeman Aaron Falk returns from Melbourne to attend the funeral of childhood friend Luke Hadler, who apparently shot his wife and six-year-old son before turning the gun on himself, he finds a community rife with poverty, alcoholism and despair. It’s Falk’s first visit since he was run out of Kiewarra as a teenager, suspected of killing his classmate Ellie Deacon. Many people still believe he’s guilty, and he wants to get out of the place as soon as possible. Hadler’s parents, who have discovered that Falk and their son gave each other false alibis for the day of Ellie’s death, persuade him to stay and investigate, and he finds himself trying to untangle two crimes that occurred 20 years apart. Solid storytelling that, despite a plethora of flashbacks, never loses momentum, strong characterisation and a sense of place so vivid that you can almost feel the blistering heat add up to a remarkably assured debut.

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Latin American authors bewildered by Donald Trump: 'I just can't believe it'

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 08:00:10 GMT2016-12-08T08:00:10Z

Some of Latin America’s leading literary figures gathered at the Oaxaca International Book Fair and discussed the president-elect and what lies ahead

At the 36th edition of the Oaxaca international book fair in Mexico, Donald Trump’s name was on everyone’s lips. Not a single of the festival’s readings or panels went by without some mention of the uncertainty that Latin America faces during the presidency of a man who kicked off his campaign by characterizing Mexicans as criminals, killers and rapists. A man who said they must be walled out of the country, and who has since pledged to deport up to 3 million immigrants within his first days as president.

“I just can’t believe it,” poet and essayist Tedi López Mills said at the festival’s opening dinner. Mexican novelist Álvaro Uribe invited me to sit beside him, “unless you voted for Trump. Then you have to sit by yourself.” Such jokes quickly gave way to generalized despair at the uncertainty of what a Trump presidency would mean for the Mexican economy as well as for more personal matters, like visas to visit the United States.

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UK library budgets fall by £25m in a year

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 06:00:08 GMT2016-12-08T06:00:08Z

Official figures show steep drop in 2015/16 funding, a week after the government announced £4m Libraries Deliver grant

A brutal year for the UK’s public libraries has been topped off with the revelation that the sector took a £25m hit to its budgets in the year to March, as calculated in official figures released on Wednesday. The number of public libraries still open reached a 10-year low, while visitor numbers slid by 15 million. Book budgets were also severely hit, taking an 8.4% fall over the period. Critics claimed the cuts endanger the long-term survival of the sector.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) released the figures as part of its annual survey of library authorities in the UK. They revealed that total expenditure for the sector fell from £944m to £919m over the year, a 2.6% fall that reflects swingeing cuts by local authorities seeking to shore up frontline services by raiding library budgets. Over the same period, visitor numbers fell to 250 million as 121 libraries closed, taking the total number still open down to 3,850.

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Labor defends import protection for Australia's book publishers

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 19:20:02 GMT2016-12-08T19:20:02Z

Opposition announces it will oppose moves to lift parallel import restrictions on books to protect future of Australian works

Labor has announced it will oppose moves to lift the parallel importation restrictions on books to maintain protection for the Australian publishing industry.

The publishing industry welcomed the announcement, and said that removing the rules would have a direct negative impact on Australian culture and jobs with no tangible consumer benefit.

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Martin Amis working on novel about Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 14:26:54 GMT2016-12-07T14:26:54Z

Theme of the autobiographical fiction about his three friends, who all died after he had begun writing it, will be death

Martin Amis has disclosed that he is writing an autobiographical novel about three other writers: poet Philip Larkin, novelist Saul Bellow and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens. All three, who were friends and inspirations to Amis, died after he had started writing it, and the governing theme of the book will be death, he told the livemint.com website.

Amis, who wrote about all three men in his memoir Experience, did not confirm when the novel would appear appear. He did not reveal its title, but said: “It’s not so much about me, it’s about [the] three other writers … and since I started trying to write it, Larkin died in 1985, Bellow died in 2005, and Hitch died in 2011, and that gives me a theme – death – and a bit more freedom, and fiction is freedom.” He added: “It’s hard going but the one benefit is that I have the freedom to invent things. I don’t have them looking over my shoulder any more.”

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Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark sells out after Trump victory

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 12:02:14 GMT2016-12-07T12:02:14Z

Feminist activist’s manifesto for ‘an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists’, originally published in Bush years, sees huge rise in sales

Rebecca Solnit’s political manifesto, published to encourage activists while George W Bush waged war in Iraq, has enjoyed a huge resurgence in sales since the election of Donald Trump as the next US president.

Hope in the Dark by activist and writer Solnit was published in 2004, but an updated third edition published earlier this year sold out in the US after the poll result, and digital downloads have topped 33,000, reports Publishers Weekly.

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Authors, rock stars and one Doctor Who among artists in illustration auction

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 08:00:25 GMT2016-12-07T08:00:25Z

Classic works by Quentin Blake and images from Eric Clapton, Brian Eno and Peter Capaldi are among 40 works being sold to raise money for London gallery

Autobiographical drawings by Brian Eno, Eric Clapton and Peter Capaldi will join work by more traditional artists including Chris Riddell and Helen Oxenbury in a sale of more than 40 original illustrations aimed at raising thousands for a public gallery founded by former children’s laureate Quentin Blake.

As well as the musicians and Doctor Who star (all three of whom studied at art school), the designer Paul Smith and artists David Shrigley and Peter Blake will have works on sale at Sotheby’s in London on 13 December. Money raised will be used to support the House of Illustration. Based near King’s Cross in London, the House is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated to the artform and seeks to discover and nurture new illustrating talent.

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Fidel Castro worked on Gabriel García Márquez's manuscripts

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 16:01:04 GMT2016-12-06T16:01:04Z

The Nobel laureate sent the Cuban dictator all of his books and received his factual and grammatical notes before submitting them to his publisher

Feted as a revolutionary hero and demonised as an enemy of the free world, Fidel Castro also played an unexpected role in global literature. The Cuban president, who died on 25 November, acted as unofficial copy editor for the acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Márquez, providing line-by-line corrections for the writer after the two struck up a close friendship in the late 1970s.

Dr Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, lecturer in Latin American studies at Aston University, told the Guardian: “The president was an avid reader. When they met in 1977, they had several conversations about literature and eventually Fidel offered to read his manuscripts, because he had a good eye for detail.”

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Bad Little Children's Books satire pulled following racism accusations

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 12:16:50 GMT2016-12-06T12:16:50Z

Collection of pastiche illustrations, which declares itself ‘shamelessly offensive’, has been withdrawn from sale after Twitter storm

The author of a parody collection of children’s book covers from “more innocent times”, has asked for his book to be pulled after a storm of complaints on Twitter accused the titles of crossing the line from satire into racism and Islamophobia.

Pseudonymous author Arthur C Gackley has instructed his publisher, Abrams Books to take Bad Little Children’s Books off sale after floods of complaints were posted online. Covers featured in the book include an illustration of a First Nation family with the title The Anti-Vaccine Kid and the Gift of the Navajo Blanket Riddled With Smallpox. Under the title Happy Burkaday Timmy! a girl in a hijab, ticking bomb in hand, chases a white boy. Other parodies feature children killing babies, vomiting and being propositioned by predatory uncles.

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Jailed Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji's appeal delayed

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 13:36:34 GMT2016-12-05T13:36:34Z

The author was given a two-year prison sentence in February for ‘violating public modesty’ amid crackdown on free expression by President Fatah al-Sisi

An appeal hearing against a two-year prison sentence imposed on novelist Ahmed Naji for publishing a “sexually explicit” article in an Egyptian newspaper has been delayed.

The writer was jailed in February for “violating public modesty”. He was convicted after the state-owned Akhbar al-Adab published extracts from his 2014 novel The Use of Life. The prosecution followed a reader’s complaint that the extract had caused him to “experience heart palpitations and an extreme feeling of sickness along with a sharp drop in blood pressure”. The newspaper editor was fined the equivalent of £430 for running the extract.

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To Kill a Mockingbird removed from Virginia schools for racist language

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 13:07:19 GMT2016-12-05T13:07:19Z

Accomack County has suspended Harper Lee’s novel, as well as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from classrooms and libraries after parent’s complaint

To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been suspended from the curriculum in some Virginia schools, after a parent complained about the use of racial slurs.

Harper Lee and Mark Twain’s literary classics were removed from classrooms in Accomack County, in Virginia after a formal complaint was made by the mother of a biracial teenager. At the centre of the complaint was the use of the N-word, which appears frequently in both titles.

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Kafka's sexual terrors were 'absolutely normal', says biographer

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:15:20 GMT2016-12-05T10:15:20Z

Reiner Stach, author of a three-volume life of The Trial’s author, says his ‘anti-sensual’ fears were shared with millions of middle-class peers who dreaded STDs

It is a tantalising mystery that has fascinated historians and fans alike for decades, but a biographer who gained access to one of the author’s closest friends’ diaries has revealed a new theory about Franz Kafka’s sexuality.

Kafka’s intense attraction to women but clear aversion to physical contact and sex has been a subject for discussion for years. Theories on his possible asexuality or repressed homosexuality contributed to the mythology around the author. Max Brod, writer and eventual inheritor of Kafka’s estate, once described his close friend as being “tortured by his sexual desires”. Kafka himself described his fear of intimacy in a letter to Brod in January 1921:

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The parliamentary book awards: in literature at least, Labour come out on top

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 15:25:16 GMT2016-12-08T15:25:16Z

From Alan Johnson’s latest to a biography of Attlee, the first ever parliamentary book awards went mainly to left of centre authors or subjects

It’s been a great year for the Labour party … from a literary perspective anyway. The 2016 parliamentary book awards, which were handed out on Tuesday, all went to left of centre authors or subjects: Alan Johnson’s The Long Winding Road won best memoir by a parliamentarian; Called to Account by Margaret Hodge (right), about the government’s use of public money, was the best non-fiction; Melvyn Bragg’s novel Now is the Time was the best fiction; and John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee, Citizen Clem, won the title of best political book by a non-parliamentarian. The winners were voted for by parliamentarians and the ceremony presided over by Gisela Stuart MP, a former bookseller.

Ed Balls sadly didn’t score a 10 with these judges, but in September he proved to be popular with the book-buying public (though not as much as he was with the salsa-loving electorate of Strictly Come Dancing). His book Speaking Out was a bestseller, and is currently a fixture in books of the year lists. On the other hand, Ken Clarke’s memoir Kind of Blue was expected to be a hit, but fell rather flat, and was described in a review in this newspaper as “clumsy”, “shallow”, “smug” and “boring”.

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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk steps up for December's reading group

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 09:24:12 GMT2016-12-06T09:24:12Z

Whether we read it as a continuation of The Great Gatsby or a premonition of the alt-right, there’s a lot to discuss

Fight Club, the 1996 classic by Chuck Palahniuk, has punched its way to the top to become this month’s reading group choice. A novel about anti-consumerism and knocking bells out of your enemies: clearly a good fit with this month’s theme of defiance. But one question arises immediately: the first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is also that you don’t talk about fight club. If people take things too seriously, our discussions may be short.

That would be a pity. This promises to be a fascinating book by an intriguing writer. We may be able to look, for instance, at why Palahniuk chose to say that his book was really just an update of the The Great Gatsby. Equally fascinating was his suggestion (in a 2004 introduction) that the book came out of his thinking about self-help groups for men:

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Is your library under threat? Share your experiences with us

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 12:31:33 GMT2016-12-06T12:31:33Z

If your local library is facing closure or cuts to funding we’d like to hear from you

Nearly 9,000 people in Sheffield have signed a petition to try and prevent the city’s central library building being turned into a five-star hotel.

Campaigners are urging the council to reject a deal with the Chinese company Sichuan Guodong Construction Group, however the local authority says the art deco, grade II-listed building needs £30m worth of repairs, which it cannot afford after cuts to its budget by central government.

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

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 16:00:28 GMT2016-12-05T16:00:28Z

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.

We’re getting ever closer to the end of 2016. There are all sorts of reasons why that might be cause for relief and celebration - but let’s focus on the positive: the new projects many TLS readers have planned for 2017. HousmansEngland has a host of ideas:

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Jonathan Safran Foer: technology is diminishing us

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 07:00:15 GMT2016-12-03T07:00:15Z

Have you found yourself checking email at dinner, or skipping from book to screen, unable to focus? The closer the world gets to our fingertips, the more we stand to lose

The first time my father looked at me was on a screen, using technology developed to detect flaws in the hulls of ships. His father, my grandfather, could only rest his hand on my grandmother’s belly and imagine his infant in his mind. But by the time I was conceived, my father’s imagination was guided by technology that gave shape to sound waves rippling off my body.

The Glasgow-based Anglican obstetrician Ian Donald, who in the 1950s helped bring ultrasound technology from shipyard to doctor’s office, had devoted himself to the task out of a belief that the images would increase empathy for the unborn, and make women less likely to choose abortions. The technology has also been used, though, to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy – because of deformity, because the parent wants a child of a certain sex. Whatever the intended and actual effects, it is clear that the now iconic black and white images of our bodies before we are born mediate life and death. But what prepares us to make life-and-death decisions?

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'Tis the season for books of the year: what were your picks of 2016?

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 16:19:09 GMT2016-11-28T16:19:09Z

Writers from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Jeanette Winterson shared their picks over the weekend – but it’s a very good time to be enthusing, so please share yours

Best books of the year part one | Best books of the year part two

Jonathan Coe relished the culinary surrealism of 70s Dinner Party and Margaret Drabble luxuriated in The Long, Long Life of Trees - love them or hate them, the annual books of the year columns provide an irresistible insight into the reading year.

Nearly 90 authors offered their favourites over the weekend in a two-part selection from the Guardian Review and the Observer New Review.

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Choose a book of defiance for December's reading group

Tue, 29 Nov 2016 16:20:17 GMT2016-11-29T16:20:17Z

For those of us about ready to give up after the multiple shocks of 2016, let’s find a bracingly rebellious read. Make your voice heard below!

Thank goodness 2016 is drawing to a close. Let’s hope we soon start to see the dawn breaking over our current global political nightmare and that 2017 doesn’t take the lives of quite so many great artists.

After so much dismay, the temptation is to bury ourselves deeper under the duvet and try to ignore the chill outside. Certainly, my first instinct was that we should end this year with a comfort read. But then, wiser counsel prevailed. Do we want to resist or succumb? Do we want to end this year whimpering? Or do we want to stand up for what we believe in and get ready to face whatever 2017 may bring?

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Jeremy Hunt's workhouse and the art of misusing a quotation

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 08:00:10 GMT2016-12-02T08:00:10Z

The health secretary this week clumsily invoked Oliver Twist to scold doctors wanting more funds. So we wondered what other great words politicians could mangle?

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt this week quoted Oliver Twist as he argued down pleas for more money for the health service, dismissing a report by the lobby group NHS Providers as amounting to saying: “There isn’t enough money, please sir, can I have some more?”

It was presumably lost on Hunt that the bearer of the begging bowl is the hero of the piece – a small orphan living in that Victorian forerunner of the welfare state, the workhouse. Bearing in mind the political power of selective quotation, we have ransacked the annals of literature to find some more useful quotes, ready for misuse.

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Why bad sex is an international language

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 15:20:32 GMT2016-12-01T15:20:32Z

Erri De Luca’s The Day Before Happiness is the first translated novel to win. But has a prize designed to ridicule high-profile literary novelists outlived its purpose?

Opening up and novelty have been the themes of an autumn awards season rich in firsts: first US author (Paul Beatty) winning the Man Booker prize; first title about a non-mainstream sport (surfing in William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days) chosen as William Hill sports book of the year; and, this week, the first time a translated novel – The Day Before Happiness by Italy’s Erri De Luca, translated by Jill Foulston – has provided the risible romp selected for the annual Bad Sex award.

Like the Booker, the Literary Review’s prize for “poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description” has steadily widened its international scope. Launched by the monthly’s then editor Auberon Waugh in 1993, it too began with British novelists, mock-honouring the erotic swagger of the likes of Melvyn Bragg, Philip Kerr, Sebastian Faulks and AA Gill in the decade of resurgent laddism.

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JG Ballard’s house – the perfect place to crash

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 10:00:13 GMT2016-12-02T10:00:13Z

JG Ballard’s Shepperton home is up for sale or you can rent Ted Hughes’s Bloomsbury love nest. How do the prices compare with other authors’ homes?

These are high times for house-hunters of a literary bent. The three-bedroom semi in Shepperton, Surrey, where JG Ballard lived for nearly 50 years has just gone on sale for a relatively modest £475,000, while those stuck in the rental market can console themselves with the Bloomsbury house where Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath first got together.

Hughes, who rued the “unlit and unlovely lavatory” in the poem “18 Rugby Street” might be surprised to find a price tag of £5,850 a month on a property which he described as a stage-set for “the love struggle in all its acts and scenes”.

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The Bestseller Experiment: can you deliberately write a blockbuster book?

Tue, 29 Nov 2016 10:00:45 GMT2016-11-29T10:00:45Z

Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux are picking up clues from publishers and authors in a new podcast, while they go about trying to write the next bestseller

Everyone may have a book in them, but what about a bestselling one? It would seem obvious that the big-name authors are going to go straight to the top of the charts, but periodically a book comes out of nowhere that captures the imagination — and the public’s money — to become a break-out hit.

But is there actually a formula for writing a bestseller? Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux think think there might be, and they’ve given themselves one year to make it happen.

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Poem of the week: The Lake of Memories by Howard Altmann

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 12:04:53 GMT2016-12-05T12:04:53Z

With a carefully halting structure, this is an elegantly condensed reflection on psychological scarring and healing

The Lake of Memories

Voices sit
like broken chairs
in a room.

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Louisa May Alcott: a practical utopian from a divided US

Tue, 29 Nov 2016 11:14:39 GMT2016-11-29T11:14:39Z

The author of Little Women grew up among idealistic transcendentalists – and the book itself was a practical sacrifice to sustain those dreams

In 1840, when an eight-year-old Louisa May Alcott moved with her family to the little town of Concord in Massachusetts, a fresh-faced idealism reigned over its bucolic lanes. A young Henry David Thoreau led a gaggle of the town’s schoolchildren, Louisa included, into the woods. There he beguiled his audience with tiny insects and playful chipmunks, introducing them, per his transcendentalist philosophy, to the wonders of the natural world. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in a stately white house just down the way, often hosting the glamorous Margaret Fuller and chatting up newly arrived Nathaniel Hawthorne. Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, had himself come to Concord at Emerson’s invitation. This band of thinkers, united by their faith that all men were inherently good and that nature could enrich the soul and intellect, together formed the principal characters in the childhood of one of America’s most loved female authors.

The community at Concord would not endure. By 1863, as Louisa entered the third decade of her life, the transcendentalist faith in an imminent new era unshackled by the strictures of the past had dissipated, both in Concord and elsewhere. In its place came the bloody realities of the civil war and a country divided between those who believed in equality for all men and those committed to the enslavement of blacks. The transcendentalist vision of a better world, where all men were free and nature was a source of spiritual replenishment, would never exist again. Depleted perhaps by this very realisation, Thoreau died in 1862; by 1864, Hawthorne was also buried.

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The best fiction of 2016

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 07:30:11 GMT2016-11-30T07:30:11Z

We thumb through a year that saw a US author win the Booker, the death of a short-story master – and the first Brexit novel• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times ...” From its opening line Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton), written and published at speed to become the first Brexit novel, faced up to the sometimes despairing mood of Britain in 2016 with humour and grace. This being an Ali Smith novel, it also found solace in the consolations of friendship and art, spinning a typically lightfooted meditation on mortality, mutability and how to keep your head in troubled times around the tale of an uncertain young woman and her elderly childhood friend.But times were good for fiction: this was a rich 12 months, with plenty of big names and big ideas – though not always wrapped up in the same package. The year began with an elegant portrait of Shostakovich’s life under Stalin from Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape), and an involving cold-war spy story from Helen Dunmore, Exposure (Windmill). Other big hitters included Don DeLillo with Zero K (Picador), a chilly investigation into cryogenics and father-son relationships; JM Coetzee’s drily philosophical inquiry The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker); and Javier Marías delving into desire and guilt in Thus Bad Begins (Penguin, translated by Margaret Jull Costa). Rose Tremain was on top form with her nuanced analysis of emotional and political neutrality, The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus), while AL Kennedy tenderly anatomised London and loneliness in Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape) and Ian McEwan had fun in Nutshell (Jonathan Cape), a slightly crusty jeu d’esprit whose foetus narrator shows a precocious appreciation of poetry and fine wine. Continue reading...[...]


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Best books of 2016 – part one

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 08:00:26 GMT2016-11-26T08:00:26Z

From Zadie Smith’s Swing Time to horror in the Highlands and a brief history of tomorrow ... writers choose their best reads of 2016

Birth of a Dream Weaver; The Face; The Return; Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between

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The best biography and autobiography books of 2016

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 07:30:40 GMT2016-12-01T07:30:40Z

Cocktails with Sartre and dark memories of Gaddafi … Kathryn Hughes explores extraordinary lives
Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

Laura Cumming got the year off to a luminous start with The Vanishing Man (Chatto & Windus), which consists of two abbreviated life stories, entwined like a double helix. The first strand concerns Diego Velázquez, who painted life at the 17th-century Spanish court, culminating in the wonder that is Las Meninas. Alongside this elevated loveliness, Cumming runs the story of John Snare, a Victorian bookseller from Reading who becomes convinced that he has found a Velázquez portrait in a grubby country house, and then ruins his life trying to prove it. In shimmering prose fuelled by an intriguing mystery – if Snare’s painting isn’t by Velázquez then whose is it? – Cumming explores the nature of artistic obsession and desire.

Another fine original biography appeared from Frances Wilson, whose Guilty Thing (Bloomsbury) matched its voice to that of its subject, the opium-eating Romantic author Thomas De Quincey. Wilson’s prose has some of the same hallucinatory loveliness that De Quincey used in his verse and journalistic essays, and the result is thrillingly immersive.

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Nicholas Lezard’s best paperbacks of 2016

Tue, 29 Nov 2016 09:30:45 GMT2016-11-29T09:30:45Z

Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting The Buried Giant, Adam Mars-Jones’s hilarious memoir and Sydney Padua’s eye-opening graphic novel are some of this year’s highlights

Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

Once again, a year has gone by in which I realise I have one of the best jobs in the world. The only pain in it is having to restrict my choice to one book a week. Anyway, here is my selection of this year’s paperbacks that have stayed with me the most, in chronological order of publication.

First: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber), a strange, shifting tale, superficially utterly unlike any other Ishiguro, set in post-Arthurian England, in which an aged couple travel to see their son in a distant village. Bizarre and haunting.

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The best books on sport of 2016

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 07:29:09 GMT2016-12-02T07:29:09Z

A surfer’s prizewinning memoir, an insight into women’s football and a chronicle of horse racing make Huw Richards’ selection
Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

John Gaustad, who died in June, argued that “the best sports books are about life itself, as much as sport”. The range, depth and ambition of the books published in 2016 prove his point. The judges for Gaustad’s creation, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, did him proud with a winner so leftfield – William Finnegan’s exquisitely observed surfing memoir Barbarian Days (Corsair) – that even its author questioned its eligibility. But more mainstream works also show sport illuminating life.

Jonathan Wilson’s Angels With Dirty Faces (Orion) offers a perceptive, wide-ranging history of Argentina seen through the prism of football. Messi, Maradona, Boca Juniors and the 1978 World Cup have their expected places, but so too do Juan and Evita Perón, the Malvinas and refrigerated beef in explaining a nation so singular that economist Simon Kuznets divided countries into “developed, undeveloped, Japan, and Argentina”. Similarly, academic Alan McDougall’s The People’s Game (Cambridge) uses football to examine life, and to explore the limits of authoritarian state power, in the little-lamented German Democratic Republic.

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The best books on food of 2016

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 07:30:16 GMT2016-12-03T07:30:16Z

From fresh central Asian flavours to pies from the deep south, cookbooks open up new mouthwatering worlds for Felicity Cloake
Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

A lot has been said in recent years about the death of the cookbook – the blithe assumption being that, with 43,500,000 chocolate brownie recipes online, no one could possibly need any more in print. Happily for those of us who write these books, there are several problems with this idea, not least of which is that, if you only Google dishes you already know, you’ll never stumble across treasures such as the truly magnificent Princess Surprise Bombe in Regula Ysewijn’s stunning history of British puddings from spotted dick to syllabub, Pride and Pudding (Murdoch). Gorgeously photographed by Ysewijn herself, and meticulously researched, it’s one to pore over in bed as well as in the kitchen, and that’s not something you can say about many websites. Or at least, not the ones I tend to visit.

A good cookbook can open up entire worlds – a chance encounter with author Caroline Eden in an Edinburgh bookshop this spring led to one of my favourite finds of the year, Samarkand (Kyle), a collection of recipes and stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, co-written with Eleanor Ford, and, like Ysewijn’s book, chock-full of fascinating stories and pictures as well as intriguingly unfamiliar flavours. Similarly, Sumayya Usmani’s evocative culinary memoir of her native Pakistan, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree (Frances Lincoln) made me realise how embarrassingly little I knew of the ancestral cuisine of so many Britons – a gap in knowledge I’m very much enjoying filling, particularly with railway mutton curry.

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The best music books of 2016

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 12:00:15 GMT2016-12-02T12:00:15Z

David Bowie entertains, the Beach Boys give good vibrations, but it’s a life of James Brown that has soul

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, died from heart failure 10 years ago this Christmas Day, aged 73, long past his prime and latterly notorious for problems with drugs, wives and the police. He was a contradictory figure who fined his musicians for unshined shoes and missed cues but insisted that his statue on Main Street in Augusta, Georgia, should not be on a plinth but have its feet on the ground.

Born dirt poor in South Carolina and brought up by an aunt in a house that appears to have functioned as a brothel, Brown spent his early years hustling on the streets. Aged 20 he joined a vocal group called the Famous Flames and over the next three decades he became a pivotal figure in the development of pop music, his intuition encouraging the schooled musicians in his band to develop a stripped-back, highly syncopated style that became known as funk. In concert, he was mesmerising: Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Prince owed much to his stagecraft.

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The best politics books of 2016

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 09:00:42 GMT2016-12-01T09:00:42Z

At the end of a tumultuous year, Gaby Hinsliff rounds up insider accounts and analysis and asks, where do we go from here?


• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

What the hell happened to 2016? If there’s one question that sums up the dark and febrile politics of the past year, that’s surely the one. First comes the shock but then the craving for something to explain the seemingly inexplicable, and, however unfairly, it’s in that light that this year’s crop of political books will inevitably be judged. Publishers can only provide so much insight in a world where events move this fast and furiously, but there are worse places to start than reading and reflecting.

Bookshops will be overflowing this Christmas with rival inside stories of Brexit, from the Downing Street spin doctor Craig Oliver’s campaign diaries to useful first-hand accounts from journalists Owen Bennett and Gary Gibbons. But the two I wouldn’t have been without were Tim Shipman’s authoritative All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class (William Collins), the insider’s insider account, and its opposite, the Ukip donor Arron Banks’s The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem & Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign (Biteback), billed as a campaign diary but in truth reconstructed after the event by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott (inconveniently, Banks didn’t keep an actual diary).

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Peter Conrad’s best art books of 2016

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 11:59:23 GMT2016-12-05T11:59:23Z

Studies of the disorderly life and work of Turner, Monet’s watery abstractions and the chaos of the YBAs were illuminating

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

Painters are licensed mess-makers, and their private lives are often as messy as their studios. In The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of JMW Turner (Viking £25), Franny Moyle studies a prize specimen. Her biography emphasises Turner’s antisocial quirks, dubious business dealings and sexual irregularities. He was an astute self-promoter, driving hard bargains with aristocratic patrons and campaigning shamelessly for election to the Royal Academy; his seascapes made him an apologist for British imperial power, and an investor in the slave trade that sustained it. Yet he entered into liaisons with servants and, posing as an old tar named Puggy Booth, shacked up with a widow in what was then known as “squalid Chelsea”.

The impalpability of his later work, which painted the “particles of light” we see when we think we’re looking at people and places, led to accusations of insanity. As described by Moyle, his technique had a punk irreverence. On varnishing day at the Royal Academy, he scandalised his colleagues by smearing his canvases with a murky brown powder, then picked out highlights with gobbets of spit. Ignore the book’s puffed-up title: this is a fine account of the cranky, conflict-ridden man behind those radiant skies.

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Rowan Moore’s best architecture books of 2016

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 07:30:06 GMT2016-12-06T07:30:06Z

Books about building for peace in times of war are among the standout volumes of the last 12 months

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

Most of the time the pursuit of architecture is not as serious as its practitioners would like us to think. It can add to or detract from human joy or, by acting as the background of the events of our lives, impart a subtle influence to them. It is not generally a matter of life or death. Which makes two of this year’s books, about the relation of buildings to violent conflict, stand apart from the normal run of musings about the design of buildings.

One is The Battle for Home (Thames & Hudson £16.95) by the Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, who describes the political corruption of her discipline that she experienced from student days onwards, and the dismemberment of her home city of Homs through divisive planning that preceded and abetted its destruction in war. She argues that the close-knit form of the traditional city obliged people of different faiths and backgrounds to get along. In recent decades politicians and planners dispatched its populations to segregated zones around its edge, which made it more likely that they would fear, mistrust and ultimately kill one another.

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Rachel Cooke’s best graphic books of 2016

Sun, 04 Dec 2016 07:30:07 GMT2016-12-04T07:30:07Z

From dazzling biographies to fantastic fantasy and wry observation, the year’s graphic books would make great Christmas presents

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

When I began writing about graphic novels a decade ago, I remember worrying slightly about the supply line: would I really be able to find a good one to review every month? And it was tricky, sometimes. But what a difference 10 years has made. I’m now in the awful business of running a beauty pageant: I have too many darlings, not too few. This year, especially, has been a bumper one. Memoirs, novels, biographies, reissued classics: if there isn’t something to suit everyone on the bulging list that follows, I’ll eat my copy of Persepolis.

First, memoir. It seems sometimes to be taking over, and this is as true in the world of graphic books as elsewhere in literature. Regular readers will know that I was waiting anxiously for the second volume of The Arab of the Future (Two Roads £18.99), Riad Sattouf’s series of comics about his childhood in France and the Middle East, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint. But aAnyway, a reminder: it’s truly great. Picking up the story in 1984, when Riad is six, the Sattoufs are now back in Ter Maaleh, Syria, a situation that seems not to be making any of them very happy. Funny, dark and occasionally revelatory, this and its predecessor are my graphic memoirs of the year.

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Kate Kellaway’s best poetry books of 2016

Sun, 04 Dec 2016 12:00:13 GMT2016-12-04T12:00:13Z

From Denise Riley’s Say Something Back to Katharine Towers’s The Remedies, women’s voices dominate the year in poetry

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

As well as picking out collections for the Observer’s monthly column, I have, this year, been a judge (with Andrew O’Hagan and Jen Campbell) of the Costa poetry award. We were all struck, as we read through diverse submissions, by the way women’s voices have dominated 2016, and our shortlist (Denise Riley, Alice Oswald, Kate Tempest and Melissa Lee-Houghton) confirms this. The TS Eliot prize shortlist adds other names: Rachael Boast, Ruby Robinson, Katharine Towers. This year’s Forward prize was won by Vahni Capildeo for Measures of Expatriation – an innovative work about displacement and identity that excites strong feelings and divides opinion. If I could have had my way, our shortlist would have been longer – but I cannot imagine it being more powerful.

Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador £9.99) was the year’s most thrilling discovery. Riley has been writing for years but with this book she steps to the front of the stage. She is remarkable in that she never loses her own plot, does not allow grief over the death of her son (the subject that drives her poems) to engulf or disfigure the writing. She can stand outside herself – and if she is saying something back to the woman she observes, it is likely to be clear-eyed, tart, exacting. Riley’s grief is tailored and personal in contrast to the all-encompassing urgency of Kate Tempest in her phenomenal Let Them Eat Chaos (Picador £9.99). Tempest is a tempest here, a conductor of voices and a lightning conductor as she writes about seven sleepless people in London, tormented by a world gone awry in a gathering storm. Both books have an imperative quality – they are must-reads.

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The best books on drink of 2016

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 07:30:16 GMT2016-12-03T07:30:16Z

Henry Jeffreys raises a glass to the British pub – and goes in search of volcanic wines
Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

In April last year a pristine 1920s pub, the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, London, was illegally demolished just days before it gained listed status. This is not an unusual occurrence nowadays, but the story might have a happy ending as Westminster City Council has ordered the developer to rebuild the pub “brick by brick”. If this happens, it will be a rare victory for the beleaguered British pub.

Pete Brown’s book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (Jacqui Small), therefore, could not be more timely. It is part history, part celebration and part guide to some of the best pubs in the country. He is such a prolific writer, I sometimes wonder whether, as with Rembrandt, there is a school of Pete Brown working to the master’s instructions. Whatever the truth, this is an excellent book. Heartfelt, poetic and defiantly optimistic, it carries an implicit message: cherish your local or it may go the way of the Carlton.

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The best nature books of 2016

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 12:00:21 GMT2016-12-03T12:00:21Z

Stephen Moss celebrates a man living as an animal, Chris Packham’s gripping memoir and a bracing tale of recovery in Orkney

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

What next for nature books? Now that you can’t visit a Waterstones without tripping over heaps of them, is there anything left to write about?

Every year the pile beside my desk gets bigger and bigger, and the subject matter becomes more and more esoteric. This year’s bunch includes a man who tried to live like an animal, a woman who decided only to eat animals she had personally killed and an author who spent an entire book searching for a bird that is almost certainly extinct.

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The best stocking filler books of 2016

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 09:00:11 GMT2016-12-02T09:00:11Z

We leaf through Kama Sutra colouring books, career tips from the SAS and the inevitable volumes on hygge

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?

I suppose we should begin with hygge (English translation: “Bah Humbug”). Missed out on the whole hygge phenomenon? Not to worry: as far as I can tell, it’s mostly about fairy lights and cable-knits, with a bit of Scandi-nationalism thrown in for good measure. Among the least annoying of the season’s must-have hygge books are Marie Tourell Søderberg’s Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (Michael Joseph) and Signe Johansen’s How to Hygge: The Secrets of Nordic Living (Bluebird), which offer insights such as: “The personal element and wonderful smell of something homemade underlines that what you are about to eat is authentic and unique and far away from mass production” and “time spent outdoors can improve your mental health and reduce stress levels”. I can certainly testify that time spent indoors – reading books about hygge – can have the opposite effect.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 45 – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 05:45:15 GMT2016-12-05T05:45:15Z

Virginia Woolf’s essay on women’s struggle for independence and creative opportunity is a landmark of feminist thought

A Room of One’s Own is both a landmark in feminist thought and a rhetorical masterpiece, which started life as lectures to the literary societies of Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in October 1928. It was then published by the Hogarth Press in 1929 in a revised and expanded edition that has never been out of print.

Barely 40,000 words long, addressed to audiences of female students in the hothouse atmosphere of interwar creativity, this became an unforgettable and passionate assertion of women’s creative originality by one of the great writers of the 20th century. Ironically, she herself never favoured the term “feminist”.

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Leroy Smith: 'Guns, robberies. That was my life'

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 10:00:44 GMT2016-12-01T10:00:44Z

Out of the Box, written from shocking experience, is the memoir of a reformed criminal with an impassioned message for young black men

Leroy Smith is 48 and he has a story to tell. It’s not one that makes easy reading, especially if you are unfamiliar with the south London estates in which he grew up or the prisons he came to know at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Smith’s life was a rampage of crime and guns, robberies and jailbreaks, drugs and women – until it all came to an end in the US in 1994 when he was arrested by an FBI Swat team. “The game and the party were finally over,” he says.

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Top 10 cats in literature

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 12:55:24 GMT2016-12-07T12:55:24Z

From riddlers to reincarnated geniuses and fine artists, author Lynne Truss selects fictional felines who show why it’s worth risking one’s reputation to write about them

A couple of months after I took up my post as literary editor of the Listener in the autumn of 1986, I decided to write a review for the Christmas double issue: a review of two books about cats. I wrote it, marked it up for the typesetters, sent it off, and thought nothing more about it until one of the subeditors brought the corrected galley proof through to my office. “Lynne,” she said solemnly, “you won’t publish this under your own name, will you?” I replied cheerfully that I had been intending to, yes. Which was when she explained a great truth to me – that once a literary woman associates her name with cats, no one will take her seriously again.

I have been haunted by that conversation ever since. In my heart, I know that she was right. But on the other hand, cats are such good material. When I was asked to write a gothic novella three years ago, I did not hesitate to propose a funny one about evil, talking cats.

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Juliet Jacques: 'I was nervous about publishing intimate, traumatic moments'

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 11:32:41 GMT2016-12-06T11:32:41Z

Trans: A Memoir’s author recalls the struggle to write about her transgender experience in a wider context and avoid producing a ‘long-suffering romantic narrative’

As soon as my blog, A transgender journey, began on the Guardian in 2010, people asked if I would turn it into a book. For most of its two-year run, I said no. I had reasons for documenting my transition here: not least that the Guardian’s trans coverage had not always been favourable. Through the writing, I wanted to push the discussion away from the crude stereotypes on which hostile outsiders often relied, and towards our lived experiences.

Using the confessional form was the compromise I made. In Gender Outlaw (1994), Kate Bornstein wrote of how, for years, all we could get published were “long-suffering romantic narratives”. Activists began to use other forms: novels, plays, essays or new combinations. Older trans journalists said editors usually requested personal stories over political statements; I wanted to use the former to get the latter to a broader audience. Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Julia Serano and others used autobiographical material to bolster their points, and I didn’t believe that theory and memoir were antithetical.

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The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher – digested read

Sun, 04 Dec 2016 17:00:19 GMT2016-12-04T17:00:19Z

‘Before I knew it, I was in the back of a taxi snogging Harrison and telling him I had always loved him. Don’t hate me’

It was 1976. Lots of interesting stuff, like it being very hot in England and Mao Zedong dying, was happening. And I was making Star Wars. Wow. Cut to 2013. George Lucas announced he was going to make another Star Wars film and this time I would get paid enough to cover my overheads. The thing is: I liked playing Princess Leia and never expected to do so again. Wow.

Let’s get some of the backstory that you already know over and done with. My mother was Debbie Reynolds and my father was Eddie Fisher. If you know that already from my previous books, please don’t hate me. See, the only reason I am writing all this is because I want you to love me – you’d be messed up with parents like that. If you end up hating me then it will be a bit of a bummer for me. Only kidding. I’ll live. Once I’ve had a few sessions with my shrink.

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Petina Gappah: ‘I was a lawyer, but I forced myself to write before I went to work’

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 10:00:19 GMT2016-12-03T10:00:19Z

The author on her mini-life crisis, her ‘white whale’ novel and dreams of yoga on a veranda in the mountains

My ideal writing day involves getting up at five in the morning. I feed my two dogs, jack russell–maltese crosses, then do my daily 40 minutes of yoga on the veranda of my cottage overlooking the Bvumba mountains in the east of Zimbabwe. I then go to my study and sit at my desk, a walnut Victorian library table. My favourite artists – Gareth Nyandoro, Misheck Masamvu, Helen Teede and Portia Zvavahera – hang on the walls. I listen to Thomas Mapfumo, Verdi and the Bhundu Boys. On good days, when the writing is firing, I will have produced one or two thousand words by lunch time. I break to walk the dogs in the hills.

This day is a complete fantasy. The dogs and the art are real, but I own neither a cottage in the Bvumba, nor a walnut Victorian library table: it does exist though, for the last six years it has been on sale at an antique shop I have passed on the way to the Bvumba, waiting for me to afford it.

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Julian Barnes: I was wrong about EM Forster

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 12:30:15 GMT2016-12-02T12:30:15Z

Put off by A Passage to India in his teens, the author has rediscovered a wry, sly and subversive writer

If reading is one of the pleasures – and necessities – of youth, rereading is one of the pleasures – and necessities – of age. You know more, you understand both life and literature better, and you have the additional interest of checking your younger self against your older self. Occasionally I will reread a book in exactly the same copy as I first did decades previously: and there, in, say, a student text of a Flaubert novel, I will find all those annotations which now, initially, embarrass. Key passages underlined, exclamations in the margin of “Irony!” or “Metaphor!” or “Repeated image!” and so on. And yet often, naive and excited as they seem, these comments are pretty much ones I might be making – if not so explicitly – several decades on. That younger reader wasn’t wrong: it was ironic, it was metaphorical, it was a repeated image. I don’t think you are a more intelligent reader at 65 than at 25; just a more subtle one, and better able to make comparisons with other books and other writers.

Related: Zadie Smith on EM Forster

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Mansions of Misery review – Marshalsea and the horror of debt

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 09:00:00 GMT2016-12-08T09:00:00Z

Jerry White offers an exuberant history of the debtors’ prison in Southwark, London, immortalised in the novels of Dickens

This colourful, exuberant, brilliantly detailed account by Jerry White is the latest in a long list of irreplaceable books about London, all written as if the author were personally remembering what he describes rather than excavating it. This one, anatomising one of London’s most famous prisons, the Marshalsea debtors’ jail, bears a striking dedication, which remains at the heart of everything that follows: “To debtors everywhere.” His opening chapter etches a striking, Hogarthian panorama of the day-to-day experience of defaulters through the centuries, confronted with implacable creditors, back-street attorneys (the notorious pettifoggers), corrupt lawyers hiking up their fees, a callous judiciary and brutal jailers. And debt was no respecter of class: Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and John Cleland all suffered its depredations.

The inmates habitually referred to their place of confinement as 'this enchanted Castle' and even 'the College'

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Testimony by Robbie Robertson review – Bob Dylan’s buddy and the Band

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 07:00:09 GMT2016-12-08T07:00:09Z

Dylan’s one-time best friend and Martin Scorsese’s creative partner tells of music, drugs and self-destruction

In his early years, Bob Dylan always seemed to need a confidant, an accomplice, a sidekick. These semi-famous figures, silhouetted against the penumbra of his growing celebrity, included Victor Maymudes, his tour manager and protector during the rapid ascent to fame in the early 1960s, and Bob Neuwirth, a fellow graduate from the folk clubs, with whom he perfected the art of the slashing verbal putdown, as immortalised in DA Pennebaker’s documentary film of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back. But when the singer returned to Britain in 1966, his new best friend was someone capable of making a serious contribution to the development of his music. In Robbie Robertson, Dylan found the perfect buddy on every level – for a while, at least.

As the guitarist with the rock’n’roll band that came out to join him for the second half of each concert during a controversial tour, Robertson provided Dylan with moral as well as musical support when the howls of outraged folkniks attempted to drown the amplified crunch of Like a Rolling Stone. Born in Toronto to a part-Mohawk mother and a Jewish father, at 22 he was two years younger than Dylan and had been on the road since leaving home in his mid-teens to audition for a job with Ronnie Hawkins, a gnarled rock’n’roll veteran, and his crack band, the Hawks. After six years of playing bars and clubs to rough, tough audiences, he was able to help Dylan navigate his way through a hostile time.

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Diary of a Wartime Affair review – an intimate account of adultery

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 09:00:26 GMT2016-12-07T09:00:26Z

The diary of Doreen Bates, edited by her children, gives an unusually exact view of private life in the 1930s and 40s

In October 1933, the 39-year-old civil servant Bill Evans informed his 27-year-old colleague Doreen Bates that she had the most fascinating mind he had come across. Soon they were having regular lunches in Kensington Gardens and exchanging books and ideas. They started to “love” in countryside clearings, or sometimes on the office floor. Although this was a serious and consuming union of mind and body, Bill was married and seems to have had no intention of leaving his wife. Doreen was content just to be happy in the present until, after three years, she became preoccupied by the desire to have his child. Now Doreen’s diary from these years has been published, edited by her children, Margaret and Andrew.

The title Diary of a Wartime Affair is misleading, because the most interesting stretch of the affair happened before the war. It also makes it sound both more trivial and more exciting than it actually was. This isn’t a book offering the thrills of snatched intensity in the blitz. By 1940, it was more a marriage than an affair, for Doreen at least. She had lost her virginity to Bill (known in her diary as “E”) and believed herself to have fallen in love for life. The appeal of this book is rather in its portrait of a corner of 1930s and 40s life as seen through the eyes of an unusually intelligent witness: she is astute on questions of pacifism and is a passionate observer of nature. More important, it allows us a remarkably intimate window on to the complexities of a particular relationship.

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Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance review – does this memoir really explain Trump’s victory?

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 07:00:24 GMT2016-12-07T07:00:24Z

One of the standout successes of 2016, Vance’s account of his white working-class origins should be treated with caution by commentators

Some books stand alone, while others are almost impossible to assess outside the political and cultural debates of their time. In June 2016, a few months before the US election, a young Silicon Valley investment manager published a workmanlike memoir, which has become a No 1 New York Times bestseller. JD Vance had grown up poor in rust-belt Ohio, in a family that was, by his account, highly dysfunctional. His book describes how he transcended severe disadvantages to attend Yale law school and go on to a lucrative career. It follows the broad arc of the survivor story, a genre that has a special place in the US’s conversation with itself. Class mobility in America is stagnant and Vance is a statistical outlier. He should not have made it out of Middletown, Ohio. That he did, he ascribes to luck, character and the relative stability provided by his grandmother, known as “Mamaw”.

Related: How Donald Trump seduced America’s white working class | JD Vance

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The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth review – Europe’s interwar era brought to life

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 08:00:55 GMT2016-11-27T08:00:55Z

The first appearance in English of a wonderful collection of articles by Joseph Roth captures his wanderings in cosmopolitan society before the rise of Nazism

To read Joseph Roth describe “five o’clock tea” in The Hotel (1930) – “corpulent ladies who have been prescribed Marienbad” drinking from “miniature coffee cups resembling thimbles”; gigolos preying on their daughters; lounges full of palms, “the soul of discretion”; and “serious men” gathering in conference rooms “deciding the fate of the world” – one is transported to the days so beautifully conjured up by Wes Anderson in his recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Roth would have made a wonderful cameo appearance in the movie, seated in the lobby watching life unfold around him. “Freed from the constriction of patriotism, from the blinkers of national feeling, slightly on holiday from rigidity of love and land,” he writes in the earlier Arrival in the Hotel (1929), “people seem to come together here and at least appear to be what they should always be: children of the world.” This is Roth’s milieu, the leisured, cosmopolitan environment of Europe before the rise of Nazism.

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When in French by Lauren Collins review – love and a language gulf

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 09:00:00 GMT2016-11-25T09:00:00Z

An American writer meets her French husband to be in a charming memoir that explores how language defines who we are

I lived in France for quite a while before I could understand a word of the language. I couldn’t distinguish individual words; they seemed to be all roped together, falling overboard from people’s mouths. I used to listen to the radio constantly, until first the weather set in – vingt-cinq degrés, plein soleil, usually. Then les nouvelles, the news. Then finally the phone-in problems.

Some people find it easy to pick up a second language. For me it was grind; years of it. And even at the end, my patient martinet of a teacher simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “You will always make lots of faults. You must just hope that people find it charming.”

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Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey review – the edge of Europe

Wed, 23 Nov 2016 09:00:00 GMT2016-11-23T09:00:00Z

Madeleine Bunting’s thrilling voyage through the islands considers their poetic appeal and place in national culture

This moving and wonderful journey through both the geography and history of the Hebrides was six years in the writing. Madeleine Bunting wasn’t expecting the Scottish referendum when she began the book, but the independence debate feeds into her aim of using the islands to come to a better understanding of Britain, and the idea of home. She visits the Hebrides many times, inspired by childhood holidays to the Highlands and her own family heritage, as well as by literary precedents from Samuel Johnson and James Boswell to George Orwell.

It’s clear from the start that she recognises the poetic appeal of the isles – “the last volcanic remnant before we tip off the continental shelf, leave Europe and head out into the open ocean for the Americas” – and also that their bleak beauty is accompanied by a history of marginalisation and loss, from the clearances to more recent depopulation. It takes longer for an understanding to be revealed of the Hebrides as modern, working, inhabited places.

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Vertical by Stephen Graham review – class war from above

Wed, 23 Nov 2016 07:00:57 GMT2016-11-23T07:00:57Z

Cities are now segregated by height, with the world’s wealthiest living high, argues this fascinating book

Some weeks ago, the director of the Tate galleries, Sir Nicholas Serota, had a spat with people living near Tate Modern that could have come from a satirical novel. They had complained that the gallery’s new 10th-floor public balcony looked directly into their glass-walled flats, which are in a nearby, slightly older tower complex and are each worth up to £19m. Serota tartly replied that the residents should “put up a blind or a net curtain”, “as is common” in most homes.

Related: This brutalist world: from Rotterdam's 'vertical city' to Tokyo's capsule tower – in pictures

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Saving Grace by Grace Wilson review – brilliant commentary on the housing crisis

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 07:30:29 GMT2016-11-22T07:30:29Z

A graduate’s struggle to find a room in London makes for a wise, hilarious graphic memoir

The star of the funniest and most perspicacious memoir I’ve read this year is a twentysomething called Grace. An art school graduate who still dreams of a creative life, she works in an artist supplies store in London, and lives with three friends – Vicky, Jess and Maxine – in a house where the rent is beyond extortionate, and the kitchen ceiling is permanently sprouting mushrooms. The girls have asked their landlord, the Mercedes-driving slimeball Mr Zanetti, time and again to make some repairs, but their pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.

One morning, however, he pulls up at their door and after a few customary “jokes” (one involves the power of semen to cure acne) and a little light sexual harassment, he announces that the house will shortly be completely renovated. “Whoop, whoop!” they cry, preparing to dance a jig. But there’s more. “And then I shall sell it,” says Mr Zanetti. He gives them four weeks’ notice, though if they can find £1m, they’re very welcome – ha ha – to give him a call.

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All Out War; The Brexit Club; The Bad Boys of Brexit review – rollicking referendum recollections

Mon, 21 Nov 2016 07:30:00 GMT2016-11-21T07:30:00Z

Three excellent accounts of the EU referendum campaigning expose the petty conniving of all involved

Britain is in the early stages of an unfolding catastrophe that is going to transform the country into an unpleasant, illiberal and inward-looking island. The US, now set to follow suit under Donald Trump, can only make matters worse. All Out War is the title of Tim Shipman’s excellent account of the referendum that led to the UK’s part in this wretched prospect (there seems to be no one to whom he hasn’t spoken and whose motives he does not pretty accurately portray and understand), and it is a war that has continued well beyond 23 June. It was also winnable by Remain five months ago, as Shipman tells it, had Remain taken its cause as seriously and as passionately as Leave. The deep forces at work could still have been successively challenged. But in acts of self-indulgence bordering on decadence, both the Conservative and Labour leaderships put their party interest before the nation’s – and 600,000 votes that could so easily have been in the Remain ledger ended up in Leave’s.

The same overweening desire to hold the Tory party together that had prompted the referendum stayed Cameron's hand

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Lonely Boy by Steve Jones; Set The Boy Free by Johnny Marr review – setting the record straight

Sun, 20 Nov 2016 06:30:30 GMT2016-11-20T06:30:30Z

Contrasting memoirs of life in the Sex Pistols and the Smiths from two charismatic working-class guitarists

List some late 20th-century British bands that electrified culture in provocative ways, and the Sex Pistols and the Smiths should be at the top, underlined in messy ink. The former were a blast of welcome loudness, filthiness and funniness in the mid-1970s, while the latter were similarly bracing, fusing the pretty with the sinister (take the Smiths’ 1984 debut album: oceans of jingle-jangle alongside songs about the Moors murders). The instigators of both bands were working-class, charismatic guitarists with something to say, who now, at 61 (Steve Jones) and 53 (Johnny Marr), want to set their stories straight.

It was Sex Pistol Jones, not wide-eyed frontman John Lydon, who said “what a fucking rotter” on teatime TV – a phrase that sounds rather quaint 40 years on. Jones’s autobiography is anything but quaint. “You know that bit in A Clockwork Orange where the main guy has his eyes forced open to make him feel like shit every time he remembers what a rotten cunt he was?” he rails early on. “That’s pretty much how writing this book is going to feel for me.”

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Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramović – five decades of groundbreaking performance art

Sat, 19 Nov 2016 09:00:04 GMT2016-11-19T09:00:04Z

One of the world’s most distinguished artists recalls hilarious sexual encounters, famous friends and a few husbands, but also explores the big themes in her revelatory work

At first glance Marina Abramović has made a career from doing the opposite of Elena Ferrante, whose identity, as we all know, has been investigated by a journalist. If the lack of Ferrante’s corporeal presence is the subject of the investigation, Abramović has made it her life’s project to place her body at the centre of her exploration of the limits of fear, exhaustion, pain and endurance.

Her extraordinary work across a number of media is very personal, maybe spiritual, certainly political; its subjects raise questions rather than provide answers – about intimacy, war, mortality, mourning, delusion, illusion and time itself. These big subjects are all aired in this engaging memoir, in which the reader is invited to walk through perceptual and conceptual walls with her. It is a wry invitation to trace how such themes have been a preoccupation over five decades of groundbreaking performance art.

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The Marches by Rory Stewart review – farewell to an imperial class

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 09:00:13 GMT2016-11-18T09:00:13Z

Brian Stewart was a spy and British patriot, fond of tartan. As his son Rory walks the borderlands between England and Scotland he reflects on their relationship and its political contexts

It sometimes seemed to his son that Brian Stewart, once the second most powerful figure in the British intelligence services, was protesting his Scottishness too much. There had always been an enthusiasm for country dancing. In Kuala Lumpur, in between keeping an eye on the natives, he’d taught five-year-old Rory how to hop the steps of the Highland sword dance. Now, white-haired and rather frail, he wore tartan trews every day and spread a tartan blanket on his bed; he had lurcher called Torquil; next to the whisky on his desk lay oatcakes and a Gaelic dictionary; he ate porridge every morning and haggis twice a week.

Hail Caledonia! But also: Rule Britannia! Scotland was a hobby, but Britain was a state. Glenalmond, Oxford, the Black Watch, the Malayan Civil Service, MI6: that was more or less the précis of his life. He believed in the union and the empire and the force of arms. Before he was wounded in Normandy on 1 July 1944, he and his anti-tank platoon had destroyed a dozen Panzers. Four decades later, walking through the streets of Hong Kong with his young son, he suddenly swung around to lay a man flat with his fist, sensing (his son doesn’t say with what justice) that he was about to be attacked.

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Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr review – the story of the Smiths, and after

Thu, 17 Nov 2016 09:00:43 GMT2016-11-17T09:00:43Z

The guitarist who formed, moulded and broke up the cult 80s band by age of 23 has written a breezy and smart memoir – with only the odd dig at Morrissey

Shortly after Michael Jackson died, Johnny Marr was stopped in Los Angeles by a reporter who recognised him and asked to name his favourite song from Thriller. “I told him that I didn’t like Thriller. He looked at me like I was mad or joking, or was a very bad man, but I was just being honest. His death was tragic, but of course I didn’t like Thriller, I was in the Smiths.”

Marr’s autobiography, Set the Boy Free, is for everyone who shares, or at least excuses, that sentiment. And perhaps who sees the twinkle in his eye as he relays it. Marr is the guitarist who formed, moulded and then broke up the Smiths and his wildly original songwriting partnership with Morrissey by the time he was 23. He’s spent the best part of three decades deflecting questions about whether they would reform, and concentrating on his new work. But here, just as during his recent, irresistible solo live shows, Marr embraces his defining story.

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Black and British by David Olusoga review – reclaiming a lost past

Thu, 17 Nov 2016 07:00:41 GMT2016-11-17T07:00:41Z

Olusoga’s insightful ‘forgotten history’ amounts to much more than a text to accompany a TV series. Yet despite its many attributes, is it too temperate?

How do you make black British history palatable to white Britons? Actually, hold on a second. How do you make it palatable to black Britons? Let’s start again. How do you compose a history of Britain’s involvement with black people? The answer during my childhood was to accentuate the positive; to tweak the past, for instance, so that schoolchildren were left with the impression that slavery was somehow an abhorrent North American practice and that the British, through the good works of William Wilberforce, should be commended for their part in bringing about the end of the Atlantic slave trade.

Related: David Olusoga: ‘There’s a dark side to British history, and we saw a flash of it this summer’

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Tim Adams’s best biographies of 2016

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 07:30:17 GMT2016-12-05T07:30:17Z

Beryl Bainbridge, John Le Carré and Bruce Springsteen are among the lives summed up this year• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?Introducing This Long Pursuit (Harper Collins £25), his compulsive, fastidious journey through 50 years of his own notebooks, Richard Holmes gives an insight into his methods. In travelling in search of his subjects, Shelley and Coleridge and Robert Louis Stevenson and the rest, the great Romantic biographer suggests that researching any life was a form of “double accounting”: on the right-hand page of his notebook he made careful notes of the facts of a life – dates, times, births deaths and marriages – from archives and letters and diaries. The left-hand page he reserved for his own “personal responses, my feeling and speculations, my questions and conundrums, my travels and visions”. Holmes approaches autobiography in the same way – amassing the evidence of his obsessions, speculating deftly as to the cause.Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Fleet £16.99) employs a comparable method. Subtitled “a story of trees, science and love”, it traces the author’s journey of self-discovery through her vivid experiments in botany, and is a book that takes root in your mind and heart. It is, along the way, full of the poetic wisdom of plants, and the things they teach Jahren about life – “A vine makes it up as it goes along,” she will write; or “a cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”. It is the perfect Christmas book for those already restless for spring. Continue reading...[...]


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The best history books of 2016

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 12:00:00 GMT2016-12-01T12:00:00Z

The Raj, Nazi Germany and rural England – David Horspool on ambitious, disturbing and daring works of research• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?Perhaps the most ambitious, compelling and hard-hitting history book published in 2016 came out at the very beginning of the year. The magnum opus of the late David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 (Macmillan) is an attempt to bring the results of an outpouring of scholarship from the past three decades to a wider audience. But it is much more than a simple work of synthesis. Cesarani’s book is also a daring act of revisionism. The author’s own exemplary contribution to the world of Holocaust memorialisation gives force to his argument that commemoration is not the best route to understanding such a complex, multifaceted event. Cesarani’s combination of clarity and nuance allows him to make good on a startling claim: “Unlike most previous narratives, this account contests whether Nazi anti-Jewish policy was systematic, consistent or even premeditated.”The effects of this tragedy of unforeseen consequences transformed individuals and families all over Europe. The human rights lawyer Philippe Sands takes up the crisscrossing strands of four of these stories as they intersected in the city of Lviv in Baillie Gifford prize-winning East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Sands’s book is partly a family memoir, written with urgency and sensitivity, but its range is much wider, following the story of the men who introduced the two concepts quoted in his subtitle, genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as one of the perpetrators brought to justice at Nuremberg, Hans Frank. The book is an extraordinary work of research and evocative empathy, in which consciousness of present effects is never allowed to trump the complexities of the past. Continue reading...[...]


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The month in comics: a hot neon safari into the world of roller derby

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 09:00:26 GMT2016-12-07T09:00:26Z

A new strip centres around the fast, furious and female-focused sport, plus the sharksploitation legend that is Hook Jaw returns

To the uninitiated, the argy-bargy world of roller derby can look too fast, too furious: a contact sport conducted at the velocity and volume of a Mad Max convoy. But that larger-than-life quality makes it a natural fit for comics, and not just because every participant is required to come up with a mock-heroic code name like Kate Wreckinsale or Emily Bluntforce-Trauma. The first issue of Slam! takes an immersive dive into the sport, as seen through the wide eyes of two newbies. Jen Chu is a smart but lonely overachiever whose impressively Zumba-boosted thighs catch the eye of a roller derby recruiter. Chu then meets Maise Huff, a young woman emerging from the wreckage of a long-term relationship, as they both attend a trial. Bonding over a shared love of cats and rare Lost In Translation posters, Jen and Maise survive and even thrive during their crash-course in pop squats and crotch-blocks. But are they good enough to be drafted into an elite squad like the Pushy Riots? Created by writer Pamela Ribon (who recently worked on Disney’s Moana) and artist Veronica Fish, Slam! is as brash as that exclamation mark suggests, with heart-on-sleeve narration and a doodle/scrapbook design that evokes roller derby’s DIY warpaint-and-masking-tape aesthetic. Every page is also crammed with the sort of detail that suggests Ribon and Fish know this world inside out, making it a hot neon safari into a fascinating subculture.

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Panorama by Dušan Šarotar review – a Sebaldian journey

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 09:30:08 GMT2016-12-06T09:30:08Z

A Slovenian writer seeks perspective and peace in this shifting, melancholy narrative illustrated with his own photographs

About two-thirds of the way through this book, I broke off to read the afterword and fossick around on the internet to do some research on Šarotar, and I discovered that what I had been reading was, in fact, a novel. Oh. And I had been enjoying it so much. I exaggerate my reaction a little, but it does not read like a novel until the end. It begins in Galway with a Slovenian writer, in first-person narration, watching a storm build up across the bay. The text is illustrated with black-and-white photographs; the tone is melancholy, thoughtful, the sentences long, the paragraphs sometimes taking up nine pages at a stretch. We are evidently meant to recall WG Sebald, who is, indeed, cited towards the end. If it is a novel, it is not a typical one. And it is all the better for it. It’s also, as far as I have been able to gather, the first of Šarotar’s five novels to be translated into English.

Šarotar (I’m not going to call him “the narrator”) is at the extreme western edge of Europe trying to find peace and quiet to finish a manuscript; we don’t learn what it is, but presumably it is the book one is holding. He has a driver/guide called Gjini, an Albanian who emigrated 11 years before, and who rails against Ireland:

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Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson review – cruelty, comfort and joy

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 06:59:55 GMT2016-11-25T06:59:55Z

Difficult childhood memories transmute into forgiveness in a mix of seasonal stories, recipes, animal fables and fairytales

In her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson recalled: “Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa Claus at Christmas time … I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

That memoir was the hilarious, if harrowing, account of Winterson’s attempt to escape the tyranny of her adoptive mother, a manic depressive who kept a revolver in her duster drawer, believed the activity of mice to be evidence of ectoplasm and built a short-wave radio to beam Pentecostal messages to the unconverted. She seemingly thought nothing of shutting her daughter in the coalhole overnight. Yet despite her dour outlook, Mrs Winterson loved Christmas. “It was the one time of the year she went out into the world looking as if the world was more than a vale of tears,” Winterson writes. “She was an unhappy woman and so this happy time in our house was precious. I am sure I love Christmas because she did.”

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Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton review – portrait of an author ahead of her time

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 15:00:05 GMT2016-11-25T15:00:05Z

This luminous biographical novel about unconventional 17th-century writer Margaret Cavendish is a small miracle of imaginative sympathy

Margaret Cavendish was an anomaly. Born into an aristocratic family in 1623, in an era when women’s writing was vanishingly rare and usually anonymous, she put her name to poetry, plays and philosophy, scientific observations and fantastical romances. She was also unashamedly, publicly ambitious, in a way still discouraged in women today: well aware that her sex barred her from public and intellectual life, she nonetheless insisted that “though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”.

And she was: the first woman to be invited to a meeting of the Royal Society (and the last, for 200 years), in Restoration London she got the fame she wanted – but as celebrity, rather than thinker. Crowds ran after her carriage, calling her “Mad Madge”, marvelling at her extravagant dress sense (in an early work, she nicely describes clothes as “the Poetry of Women”). Samuel Pepys dismissed her as “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman”; it was widely assumed that her books were written by her husband. Women artists in centuries to come would get used to similar reactions.

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Himself by Jess Kidd review – a dark and rollicking debut

Wed, 23 Nov 2016 12:00:03 GMT2016-11-23T12:00:03Z

Buried secrets are uncovered and the dead rise in Kidd’s fantastical literary thriller set on the west coast of Ireland

Diabolical deeds, ferociously kept secrets, black humour and magical realism abound in Jess Kidd’s richly textured, thronging debut. At its dark heart is the tale of a long-ago murder in a remote coastal village in the west of Ireland, and the young man who, nearly 30 years later, seeks to avenge it.

We are in Mulderrig, County Mayo, in the sweltering late spring of 1976. “A benign little speck of a place ... pretending to be harmless”, it is ripe for disturbance. This takes the form of Mahony, born in 1950 to its most rebellious teenager, Orla Sweeney. Both had vanished 26 years earlier; now Mahony, a petty criminal brought up in a Dublin orphanage, and armed with a letter and photograph that have recently come into his possession, has returned to reclaim his past.

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The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler review – bittersweet follow-up to A Whole Life

Sun, 20 Nov 2016 08:00:31 GMT2016-11-20T08:00:31Z

Robert Seethaler has another hit on his hands with this coming-of-age tale set in pre-war Vienna

Robert Seethaler follows up last year’s bestselling A Whole Life with this ominous tale about growing up fast in pre-war Austria. It’s 1937, and 17-year-old Franz Huchel leaves the calm shores of the Attersee for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. The city is heavy with threat: there are bombs in the park and Nazis on the Ringstrasse. However, with its newspapers and customers such as Sigmund Freud, the shop remains a citadel of reason. There is a sharp quirkiness to the story. Suffering from homesickness and girl trouble, Franz turns to Freud, who dispenses wisdom (“Even the best of us are dashed to pieces on the rocks of the Feminine”) in return for hand-rolled cheroots. Seethaler blends tragedy and whimsy to create a bittersweet picture of youthful ideals getting clobbered by external forces. The result is a little like Great Expectations, only with dachshunds and strudel.

The Tobacconist is published by Picador (£12.99). Click here to buy it for £10.65

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Rotten Row by Petina Gappah review – buzzing with Zimbabwe life

Sat, 19 Nov 2016 07:00:01 GMT2016-11-19T07:00:01Z

From the hairdresser’s salon to the kombi bus, these compelling short stories vividly capture ordinary lives and the tensions that call for the law

It is the unfortunate burden of African writers that their work is often reduced to representation: as though they existed to describe and diagnose the state of their home countries, or worse, the entire continent. Yet this burden, in the hands of a brilliant writer, can be an opportunity. In Rotten Row Petina Gappah, who won the Guardian first book award in 2009 for her collection of stories An Elegy for Easterly, has produced a beautiful, sweeping collection that illuminates various aspects of contemporary Zimbabwean life. This is the country in what Gappah calls “its proper context” – that is, with character at its forefront, with humour and empathy and pathos, with the ordinary lives of everyone from hairdressers to a government executioner as its primary concern.

Related: KJ Orr's top 10 stories of crossing boundaries

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My Grandmother’s Glass Eye: A Look at Poetry by Craig Raine – a gripping and combative study

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 18:00:45 GMT2016-11-18T18:00:45Z

Insight and vendettas in a guide to the right and wrong ways to read a poem

“I believe,” says Craig Raine, midway through My Grandmother’s Glass Eye, “that the first and most important question you can ask a poem is, ‘what does it mean?’ The poet … relies on his reader to try to make sense of the poem … We will get nowhere with poetry if we stall at the start and decide it cannot be understood.”

On the surface, Raine’s proposition appears to be a modest, even innocuous, one. The centrality of meaning to poetry – the absolute necessity of getting at it, and getting it right – is at the heart of his argument, and he makes it in terms that are hard to gainsay. “Poetry”, he declares, “isn’t diminished by clarity” – and after all, what is? Anyone familiar with the field of poetry criticism will, of course, have spotted that there’s a degree of disingenuity at play here; the notion of “meaning” within poetry has long been contentious, and Raine himself acknowledges this, taking the time to walk us through the range of historical perspectives. But nevertheless he is keen, in the here and now, to emphasise the common sense of his chosen approach; the way in which it simplifies what others have sought to complicate, and thus permits us a closer, truer, more robust relationship with verse.

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The Wangs Vs the World by Jade Chang review – a richly entertaining debut

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 15:00:20 GMT2016-11-18T15:00:20Z

Comedy mingles with compassion as a bankrupt businessman takes a road trip across the US and rediscovers his Chinese rootsWhen facing personal disaster, people often have a powerful desire to hit the road. American fiction has a rich history of road trips as escape, whether characters are on the lam, like Humbert Humbert, or fleeing society’s strictures and their broken prospects, as in Dave Eggers’ recent novel Heroes of the Frontier, the tale of a single mother taking an RV around the wild stretches of Alaska.For Charles Wang, the jovial patriarch of Jade Chang’s richly entertaining debut, the drive across country from Los Angeles is both a flight and a reckoning. Wang, a multimillionaire founder of a makeup empire, has lost everything after a business expansion fails and the bank calls in its loan. His ageing amah, who nursed Charles himself in China and later his American children, returns to Charles the 1980 Mercedes he gifted her years before; in this comical vehicle Charles and his second wife, Barbra, collect Grace from boarding school and Andrew from college (neither child’s tuition being now affordable), then head eastwards to upstate New York and the farmhouse recently bought by his oldest daughter Saina, on proceeds from her art career. The year is 2008, the economy is imploding, and a transformative election campaign is under way. Continue reading...[...]


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Cove by Cynan Jones review – an intensely observed tale of one man at sea

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 07:00:10 GMT2016-11-18T07:00:10Z

Lightning strikes, and a kayaker finds himself in unknown waters. This novel powerfully explores disorientation, survival – and love

In a blank between two paragraphs of this arresting short novel, a lone man in a kayak is struck by lightning. He wakes in unknown waters, having drifted far from the cove of the title. Badly injured, equipped with little more than a litre of water, a fishing line and a frying pan, he faces an endurance test of the most essential, stripped-back sort. Here is a man and the sea – or rather a man and his own fear, thirst, self-control and motivating love for a pregnant partner back on land.

Cynan Jones is a highly accomplished writer in whose hands such elemental raw materials turn strange and fugitive. Lightning strikes and kayaks might belong in an all-action adventure, but Jones’s interest is in stillness and repetition. Though his novels often turn on sudden shocks, the real power of his prose lies in its slow accumulation of energy around dimly apprehended points of tension.

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Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin review – a 15th-century fantasia

Thu, 17 Nov 2016 12:00:47 GMT2016-11-17T12:00:47Z

Mingling myth, history and metafiction, this densely packed novel set against the Wars of the Roses reads like a mixture of AS Byatt and Terry PratchettI’ve always found the polymath Robert Irwin’s writing to be bracingly intelligent and immensely cultured. Irwin’s inclusion in his 1999 Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature of the lexical rarity, riman, a Bedouin word which means “the sound of a stone thrown at a boy”, would be enough on its own to induce me to give his new novel a favourable review. Not to mention his introduction in 2014 to Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, an anthology of Arab tales discovered in a library in Istanbul, which is the uglier, yet still fascinating, cousin of the Thousand and One Nights.The Wars of the Roses are the backdrop for Wonders Will Never Cease. There is a long list of characters at the beginning of the book to remind those of us who dozed off in history class or when attending Shakespeare’s plays about the key players in the struggle between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The novel features the real-life Anthony Woodville, the second Earl Rivers, who in Irwin’s version dies and is resurrected – or perhaps has the medieval equivalent of a near-death experience – on Palm Sunday 1461 at the battle of Towton, one of the biggest battles ever fought on British soil. He goes on to take part in a two-day dust-up with the killing machine and bibliophile that was Antoine, the Bastard of Burgundy (again, a real-life event). Continue reading...[...]


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The Start of Something: Selected Stories by Stuart Dybek review – achingly beautiful, startlingly hip

Thu, 17 Nov 2016 15:00:51 GMT2016-11-17T15:00:51Z

There are shades of the Coen brothers in this stylish showcase for an American master – but his female characters are sadly two-dimensional

American author Stuart Dybek’s Selected Stories are arranged in reverse chronology, so that we start with pieces published in the US when Dybek was already in his 70s. These received huge praise and it is easy to see why: not only do they come from the pen of an influential teacher and winner of the Guggenheim and O Henry award, but they are strikingly with-it, distinctly 21st-century in their shape and method.  

Related: Bookmark this: from Queen Victoria to Twin Peaks – November's literary highlights

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The Bitter Taste of Victory by Lara Feigel review – life in the ruins of the Reich

Tue, 15 Nov 2016 10:25:13 GMT2016-11-15T10:25:13Z

A superbly researched study that shows the devastation of postwar Germany as seen through the eyes of cultural figures such as Auden, Orwell and Lee MillerOnce it became apparent, around 1944, that Nazi Germany was going to lose the second world war, plans began to be floated as to what was to be done with the country. By September of that year, Henry Morgenthau, US secretary of the treasury, had gained support from both the US and UK governments for a plan involving a deindustrialised Germany, turning the place into, in effect, “a giant farm” (to use Lara Feigel’s words). As we know, this didn’t happen (and it’s probably just as well). But as troops advanced deeper into Germany, the reporters accompanying them or following behind began to reveal the astonishing scale of devastation: it seemed as though Germany would never be able to build a factory again, let alone a city.This book tells us, in some detail, about the destruction visited by the allies on the enemy. In Cologne, for example, every building (except, eerily, its cathedral) had been flattened, each of its bridges collapsed into the river, and a population of 700,000 reduced to 20,000. In Nuremberg – the scene, a decade before, of Hitler’s largest rally – what was left of the population starved in freezing cellars, while everywhere displaced persons roamed the country, scrounging for scraps and pushing the last tattered remnants of their property in wheeled carts before them. Continue reading...[...]


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The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer review – no pain, no gain

Tue, 15 Nov 2016 07:30:10 GMT2016-11-15T07:30:10Z

A mysterious interrogator accepts one final job for her former employer in the Twilight novelist’s pacy adult thriller

Bella Swan, the heroine in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, drew criticism for her passivity, for letting all her battles be fought by men – vampire men who’d spend the night creepily watching her sleep. Perhaps Meyer took note, because the protagonist in her new novel, adult thriller The Chemist, is a very different proposition.

Living life under various pseudonyms – but mostly known in the period we meet her as Alex – she’s a medic and an interrogator who worked for a shadowy branch of the US government torturing terrorists before her bosses turned on her. Now she is a fugitive. Having already seen off three would-be assassins from the agency, she sleeps wearing a gas mask in whichever nondescript room she’s renting, various deadly chemical compounds rigged up to go off if anyone breaks in. (No night-time vampire observers allowed here; “someone would come for her, and instead of a victim he would find a predator. A brown recluse spider, invisible behind her gossamer trap.”)

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The Power review – a shocking gender war

Sun, 13 Nov 2016 13:00:18 GMT2016-11-13T13:00:18Z

Naomi Alderman’s anarchic sci-fi satire imagines a future in which girls can shoot bolts of electricity from their fingers

In the weeks before my daughter was born I was surprised by how many well-wishers told me that I would notice a contrast between her temperament and that of my son. She would be less noisy, they said, more serene. It’s still early days… but it’s the kind of thing Naomi Alderman’s new novel gets you thinking about.

It’s a brash sci-fi fantasy, clever and coarse, calculated and hectic, with the premise that sometime around 2018 girls everywhere find that they have the ability to emit lethal bolts of electricity – generated by a previously undetected length of flesh under the collarbone. Governments fall, there’s a new religion, and online forums throb with talk of “the coming gender war”.

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The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas – review

Sun, 13 Nov 2016 09:00:14 GMT2016-11-13T09:00:14Z

This harrowing 1999 novel from the author of The Slap, published here for the first time, explores the migrant experience of a Melbourne family

The subject of male violence is at the core of Christos Tsiolkas’s bestselling novel The Slap and of its follow-up, Barracuda. Here too, in this earlier work only now published in the UK (it came out in Australia in 1999), male fear and brutality fractures the family at its heart.

Walking with his brother on a deserted beach at the southernmost tip of Australia, the narrator is horrified by the sight of crows feeding all along the shore beside a sea in which large grey birds are caught and floundering in an oil slick. “The terror I experienced is indescribable,” he tells us, but, though his brother advises them to turn back, he cannot tear himself away: “Part of me wanted to stay, I wanted to face this terror, examine it, wanted to comprehend it.”

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The Dark Flood Rises review – ageing and dying in style

Sun, 13 Nov 2016 07:00:11 GMT2016-11-13T07:00:11Z

Margaret Drabble’s sharply drawn characters look back on lives lived and forwards to achieving a good death

Francesca Stubbs is nearing the end of her life. Employed by a charitable trust researching living arrangements for the elderly, she attends conferences and visits care homes while attending to her panoply of ageing and dying friends: her ex-husband Claude, to whom she takes chicken soup; and her friend Teresa, who is “dying with such style and commitment that Fran is deeply impressed”. Meanwhile, Fran muses on her strained relationships with her son Christopher and her daughter Poppet.

Related: Margaret Drabble: ‘I am not afraid of death. I worry about living’

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Alex Preston’s best fiction of 2016

Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:09 GMT2016-12-04T09:00:09Z

From Ali to Zadie – and that’s just the Smiths – it’s been a rich year for vivid and visionary novels• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?It isn’t quite We Need to Talk About Donald, but Lionel Shriver’s satirical dystopia, The Mandibles (Harper Collins £16.99), paints a chilling and timely portrait of the death of the American dream. Its befuddled yet charismatic president isn’t Trump, and the wall built on the Mexican border is to stop hungry Americans crossing to their richer southern neighbour, but this is nonetheless a caustic and prescient leap into the not-so-distant future.I can’t remember a year in which so many first-rate novels have been published after Man Booker cut-off time in October. There’s Ali Smith’s Autumn (Penguin £16.99), for one, which carries out a real-time appraisal of the events of 2016, her exquisite prose seemingly writing itself as you read it. There’s also Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Hamish Hamilton £18.99), a poised and moving portrait of a friendship, nodding to Elena Ferrante and re-examining our notions of happiness and home. Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking £12.99) is a fabulously inventive vision of a world in which women seize control. Redolent of Margaret Atwood, it does what all good speculative fiction should – using its dazzling what-ifs to prompt questions about the way we live now. I also found Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle (Virago £16.99) extraordinarily aff[...]


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The best crime books and thrillers of 2016

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 12:00:17 GMT2016-11-30T12:00:17Z

Mark Lawson finds murder in the Scottish Highlands, terror in Paris and visions of war at the Vatican• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?Crime writing turned up in unexpected places this year. The usually mystery-sniffy Man Booker prize shortlist found a place for Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Contraband), a smart amalgam of legal thriller and literary game that reads as if Umberto Eco has been resurrected in the 19th-century Scottish Highlands. Ian McEwan also blurred genre boundaries in Nutshell (Jonathan Cape), an ingenious rewrite of Hamlet as a murder story in which a foetus is both detective and possible victim.The crime reader’s dream of a long, labyrinthine novel that you never want to finish is magnificently fulfilled by Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (Riverrun). This Japanese super-seller, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, is a police-procedural conspiracy thriller involving two disappearances that also rivetingly dramatises the mindsets and lifestyles of contemporary Japan. Continue reading...[...]


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The best SF and fantasy books of 2016

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 09:00:13 GMT2016-11-30T09:00:13Z

In a year in which new and important voices from around the world made themselves heard, Adam Roberts reflects on SF’s ever-expanding universe• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?In 2016, SF and fantasy went global. It wasn’t a question of success – both genres have been globally successful for many years – but of provenance. This was the year in which western audiences began to wake up to the excellence and diversity of genre voices from around the world.Take, for instance, the Hugo, the genre’s most prestigious award. Over the last couple of years this prize was more or less hijacked by the “Sad” and “Rabid Puppies” – groups opposed to the more progressive and liberal iterations of SF. In 2016 these angry activists proved much less destructive. This year’s Hugo winners were not only great books, they were pointers for the direction in which the genre as a whole is moving. Best novel went to NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (Orbit), a tale of an earthquake-afflicted and wasted world that functions as a powerful fable of ecological collapse while also reconfiguring fantasy in more ethnically and sexually diverse directions. Best novella was Nnedi Okorafor’s African-flavoured space opera Binti (Tor), while best novelette was Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. Continue reading...[...]


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The Mothers by Brit Bennett review – a bold new voice in American fiction

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 09:30:56 GMT2016-11-27T09:30:56Z

This tale of absent mothers and the daughters they left behind is an impressive debut

The Mothers starts with two ​traumatic endings​: a death and an abortion. ​The novel’s protagonist, ​17-year-old Nadia, ​grief-stricken after her mother’s suicide,​ takes up​ with the local pastor’s son​ and gets pregnant.​ ​She decides to have ​a termination. The novel follows Nadia as she ​enters adulthood (“Like most girls, she’d already learned that pretty exposes you and pretty hides you”) in an African American community in a Californian military town​.

Brit Bennett perceptively portrays the impact Nadia’s choice ​has on her life and relationships, focusing on her friendship with another motherless girl, Aubrey. Her decision to put abortion front and centre in the story is in itself extraordinary, given how absent ​it is in cultural narratives about young women, but she doesn’t​ ​linger on it, nor does she judge her characters. She is much more interested in what happens afterwards.

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