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Books | The Guardian



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



Published: Tue, 24 Oct 2017 11:33:17 GMT2017-10-24T11:33:17Z

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



Reading group: which post-apocalyptic novel should we read this month?

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 08:20:18 GMT2017-10-24T08:20:18Z

Many books have exploded, submerged and zombiefied humanity in fiction. With the world’s end feeling nigher than ever, help choose a tale of doom for November

This month on the reading group, I think we should face the darkness. Let’s confront our worst fears. Let’s talk about apocalyptic fiction.

I don’t even have to explain why total annihilation might be topical, do I? And that’s the bad news. It’s hard to be positive about the current state of world politics and the high potential for everything we know and love being snuffed out, after all. But, hey! Let’s try to be positive. The end of the world has inspired hundreds of incredible novels – long before Donald Trump brought the idea back into immediate fears.

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On Balance poetry review – an imagination that never closes

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 06:30:39 GMT2017-10-24T06:30:39Z

Sinead Morrissey’s Forward-winning collection is a breathtaking feat, blending fiction, memoir and history

Sinead Morrissey’s On Balance, which has just won this year’s Forward prize, is a collection that keeps extending itself and that shares many of the satisfactions of fiction, memoir and history (there is an especially arresting poem about a model of Napoleon’s horse, another fine poem about the aviator Lilian Bland and an astounding poem based on a garish photograph of tsarist Russia). Even the poems that cross the finishing line with a flourish are open-ended, leaving one with the sense that there will always be more to say, and this is because Morrissey is possessed of her own invigorating brand of Irish fluency and an imagination that never closes.

On the subject of balance – there is always the likelihood that the world is about to tilt. The Millihelen (the poem that launches the collection) means (I had to look it up) “a unit measure of pulchritude, corresponding to the amount of beauty required to launch one ship”. A natural performer on the page, Morrissey holds us here with a feat of suspension, of literary engineering. This is a phenomenal performance: a single sentence, no full stops, a steady push out into the water – I take liberties in interrupting its flow to lift out these lines:

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Tom Hanks's writing is yet another sad story of how men write women

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 12:52:27 GMT2017-10-23T12:52:27Z

The actor’s debut collection, Uncommon Type, is blighted by Hollywood’s obsession with female bodies – but he’s not the only author to write too much about hair and breasts

Seeing a movie star writing fiction is a bit like seeing a dog deliver a speech – we’re rarely impressed at how good it is, but that they’ve done it at all is a marvel. Tom Hanks’s debut short-story collection Uncommon Type alternates sparks of genuine literary talent with cliche and worn-out archetypes. It is largely enjoyable stuff – so it’s a shame, then, that Hanks’s real failing is his total inability to write a fully fleshed-out female character, to the point where the reader is left with the unshakeable impression that while Hanks may have heard women described, he has never actually met one.

At a time when all eyes are on Hollywood’s treatment of women, a few poorly written female characters might seem trivial and Hanks’s folksy, nice-guy schtick makes it hard to criticise him. Calling him out for mild sexism that clearly isn’t intended feels like kicking a puppy (if a puppy had two Oscars and the sense to know better).

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

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 14:00:19 GMT2017-10-23T14:00:19Z

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.

Anyone who finishes Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game deserves a a little recognition, so let’s start by clearing the floor for samye88:

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Pablo Neruda: experts say official cause of death 'does not reflect reality'

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 09:50:23 GMT2017-10-23T09:50:23Z

Panel of 16 experts says that when the Nobel prize-winning poet died in 1973, there was no indication of the cancer that was supposed to have killed him

A team of international scientists say they are “100% convinced” that Chile’s celebrated Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda did not die from prostate cancer, his official cause of death.

Neruda died aged 69 at the Santa María Clinic in Santiago, on 23 September 1973 – 12 days after Augusto Pinochet’s military coup toppled the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende. In 2013, Chilean judge Mario Carroza ordered the exhumation of Neruda’s remains after his chauffeur, Manuel Araya, told the Mexican magazine Proceso that the poet had called him in desperation from the hospital to say that he had been injected in the stomach while he was asleep.

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Poem of the week: An Invite to Eternity by John Clare

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 08:00:15 GMT2017-10-23T08:00:15Z

After a flowing, pastoral start, this quickly becomes a darker glimpse of damaged life in a damaged world – but its songlike beauty carries on

An Invite to Eternity

Wilt thou go with me sweet maid
Say maiden wilt thou go with me
Through the valley depths of shade
Of night and dark obscurity
Where the path hath lost its way
Where the sun forgets the day
Where there’s nor life nor light to see
Sweet maiden wilt thou go with me

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Short story round-up: mystery, murder and virtuoso ventriloquism

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 08:00:15 GMT2017-10-23T08:00:15Z

Late crime queens Ruth Rendell and PD James serve up collections full of wit and ingenuity, while William Boyd and TC Boyle indulge a fascination with failure

Along with a shot of an ivy-tangled iron gate squatting beneath a rook-dotted sky, the jacket of Ruth Rendell’s posthumous story collection, A Spot of Folly, carries a subtitle: Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem. Barely 50 words long and more spectral mystery than whodunit, its opening quarter-tale, Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror, is a wickedly macabre jape that sets the tone for all that follows.

In the title story, a philandering business exec collides with a colleague who’s both lovelorn and puritanical – a deadly combination, it turns out – while away at a sales conference in Paris. The Price of Joy sees much-married tycoon Daniel Derbyshire smitten anew with the first Mrs D; when his current bride is conveniently kidnapped, he finds himself hesitating over payment of the ransom. And in Digby’s Wives, a man suspects his boyhood acquaintance, a widower, of foul play.

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Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography review – portrait of an easily distracted genius

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 06:30:13 GMT2017-10-23T06:30:13Z

Walter Isaacson’s illuminating study explains why the original Renaissance man left so many paintings unfinished…

In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci left his homeland of Tuscany and moved to Milan. He had written to Ludovico Sforza, the city’s ruler, listing his impressive qualifications, hoping to be offered employment. He could design bridges, make new types of cannons, dig “secret winding passages”, create waterways and plan cities. To these accomplishments the 30-year-old Leonardo added: “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.”

Thus the creator of The Mona Lisa only mentioned his artistic abilities as an afterthought. “What he mainly pitched was a pretence of military engineering expertise,” states Isaacson in this lavish, loving biography of the great Renaissance polymath. “These boasts were aspirational. He had never been to a battle nor actually built any of the weapons he described.”

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 90 – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 04:45:11 GMT2017-10-23T04:45:11Z

Eloquent and influential, the Enlightenment philosopher’s most celebrated work embodies the English spirit and retains an enduring relevance

This celebrated essay, available to its first readers in December 1689, though formally dated 1690, could hardly be more topical today. It is an examination of the nature of the human mind, and its powers of understanding expressed in brilliant, lapidary prose: “General propositions are seldom mentioned in the huts of Indians: much less are they to be found in the thoughts of children.”

In the first two books, the argument moves through the source of ideas, the substance of experience (the origin of ideas), leading to a discussion of “the freedom of the will”: “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. In book three, Locke proceeds to discuss language, and in book four he defines knowledge as our perception of the agreement or disagreement between ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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The persuasive art of the dust jacket

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 17:00:28 GMT2017-10-21T17:00:28Z

Book covers have long been a source of artistic quality and, in the age of Kindle, are reintroducing more and more of us to the pleasures of traditional reading
Click here to view of gallery of of images from The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970

When the essayist and caricaturist Sir Max Beerbohm learned in 1949 that there was to be an exhibition of dust jacket designs at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, he drolly observed that he wouldn’t be attending, as he only needed to call in at any bookshop to witness the “internecine warfare between the innumerable latest volumes, almost all of them violently vying with one another for one’s attention, fiercely striving to outdo the rest in crudity of design and of colour.” He went on to liken the experience to visiting the parrot house in the Zoological Gardens, “save that there one can at least stop one’s ears with one’s fingers”.

The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel through the world

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Of Women: In the 21st Century by Shami Chakrabarti review – tell us something we don’t know

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 05:59:44 GMT2017-10-22T05:59:44Z

This essay on global gender inequality professes to be the product of long rumination but feels like the opposite

In an interview earlier this month, Shami Chakrabarti insisted that her new book about global gender inequality should not be seen as an attempt on her part to scramble back on to safe liberal ground following the trouble of last year – when, as you will recall, her report into allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party was widely condemned as a whitewash (in an act that brought her integrity into further doubt, she accepted a peerage from Jeremy Corbyn just a few weeks later). It’s not only that she stands by the work she did then. Such a volume has, she said, been “coming for some time”.

She is in favour of female quotas, sometimes, and wishes children's clothes and toys could be less gender-bound

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At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York by Adam Gopnik – review

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 08:00:00 GMT2017-10-22T08:00:00Z

The New Yorker writer’s stylish memoir, via Häagen-Dazs, Nietzsche and craft beer, is generous in wit and wisdom

Anyone who worries that artificial intelligence might some day outpace the faulty circuitry inside human heads should be cheered by the existence of Adam Gopnik. His brain has nothing to fear from electronic competition. It is an organ housed in a body, kindled by the appetites and affections of the flesh; it operates friskily, risking vast generalities that it clinches with neat, nimble aphorisms. At public events, Gopnik has a loyal but ageing audience; his son, he tells us, “never feels comfortable coming to a reading of mine without a defibrillator”. The precaution is unnecessary: a talk by Gopnik fibrillates furiously enough to revive the most tottery senior citizen.

As his contributions to the New Yorker testify, Gopnik can write brilliantly about almost anything. His new book is nominally a memoir of his first years in Manhattan, where he arrived from Montreal early in the venal 1980s, but its reminiscences are the pretext for a series of dizzy riffs – on art and the artisanal, connecting conceptualism with microbrews; on art and commerce, treating Jeff Koons and his stainless steel bunny as products of “late commodity capitalism”; or on the need to combine elitism in art with egalitarianism in politics, a juggling act that Gopnik manages with deft aplomb.

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Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago by Patrick Barkham – review

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

Nature writer Patrick Barkham finds a sense of salvation in this insightful tour of Britain’s sea-bound communities

The epigraphs of Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago, which tours 11 of the 6,000 water-girt rocks composing Britain, are taken from DH Lawrence’s The Man Who Loved Islands. Lawrence’s story tells of one Cathcart, who runs away to small and smaller islands, fails to integrate, spends all his money, seduces his housekeeper’s daughter, goes mad and dies. Cathcart was modelled on the author’s friend Compton Mackenzie, who did indeed island hop and seduce – and suffered misfortunes, overdrafts and “plaguing by malevolent spirits” – but did not finally lose his loot or the plot. (A wreck off one of his island homes, Barra, gave him the story of Whisky Galore, and a fortune in royalties.)

Lawrence treated friends and family ruthlessly in his quest for material, but Mackenzie emerges as a luminous figure; island-struck, life-struck, the realised hero of his own fantasies. Our author, Patrick Barkham, whose outstanding nature journalism and books on butterflies and coastlines will be known by many readers, shares a love of islands with both men. “When the mainland or mainstream is in crisis,” he writes, “people look to the periphery for escape or inspiration. Many of us are looking there right now. Small islands may offer a critique of our larger island life, but might they also provide salvation for our epoch?”

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Moomins and more: UK show to exhibit Tove Jansson's broader work

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 15:02:22 GMT2017-10-22T15:02:22Z

Britain’s first major retrospective of Finnish artist, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, aims to enhance her reputation as serious artist

Halfway through the first major UK retrospective of paintings by Tove Jansson, which opens this week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, visitors will recognise some little blobby creatures in a glass case – the Moomins.

The stars of some of the most famous children’s books of the 20th century, they have become deeply familiar in their incarnations as fridge magnets, soft toys, on the tail fins of Finnish planes and in a newly opened museum in Finland. They have also appeared in cartoon strips and animations, with a new film coming at Christmas and a new animated series promised in 2019 featuring the likes of Kate Winslet, Rosamund Pike and Will Self.

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Philip Pullman launches La Belle Sauvage and says sequel is finished

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 23:01:07 GMT2017-10-18T23:01:07Z

Author reveals that first book in new trilogy, The Book of Dust, is bleaker than previous books and could be known as ‘His Darker Materials’

After waiting 17 years for his follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy, fans of Philip Pullman won’t have to wait as long next time, he revealed on Wednesday. He was speaking ahead of Thursday’s midnight launch of La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, where he told press the second volume was already complete.

Speaking in the Oxford’s 17th-century Bodleian library, which itself features in his hugely anticipated – and heavily embargoed – novel, Pullman also told press that La Belle Sauvage is a darker book than its predecessors.

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Broomsticks and dragon bones in British Library's Harry Potter magic show

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 16:03:33 GMT2017-10-18T16:03:33Z

Manuscripts for JK Rowling’s books mix with a centuries-old mermaid and a witch’s crystal ball in hotly anticipated exhibition

It’s all true, and the incontrovertible proof has gone on display in the British Library. Side by side with original manuscripts and illustrations for the Harry Potter books, in an exhibition that opens on Friday and has already sold a record 30,000 tickets, there are dragons’ bones, a mermaid, a step-by-step illustration (on a scroll six metres long) of how to create a philosopher’s stone, a black crystal ball owned by a 20th-century witch known as Smelly Nelly, and a broomstick on which another west country witch regularly startled Dartmoor walkers.

Even JK Rowling, on a preview visit to the exhibition combining a history of magic with her creations, was astonished to come face to face with the tombstone of one of her characters. She tweeted the image, writing: “Guess what this is? I’ve just seen it and was mesmerised …”

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Man Booker prize goes to second American author in a row

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 20:48:42 GMT2017-10-17T20:48:42Z

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo described as ‘unique’ and ‘extraordinary’ by head of 2017 judging panel

The American short story writer George Saunders has won the Man Booker prize for his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The book is based around a real event: the night in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln buried his 11-year-old son Willie in a Washington cemetery. Imagining the boy trapped in the Bardo – a Tibetan Buddhist term for a kind of limbo – Saunders’ novel follows the fellow dead, also trapped in the graveyard and unwilling to accept death, who observe the boy as he desperately waits for his father to return.

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Man Booker prize 2017: Ali Smith leads sales, George Saunders ahead at bookies

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 12:31:11 GMT2017-10-16T12:31:11Z

On the eve of the UK’s leading fiction award, Autumn dominates sales of the shortlisted novels, but Lincoln in the Bardo is tipped to take the final prize

Ali Smith is outselling the US writers on the Man Booker prize shortlist with just one day left before the winner is announced – but American author George Saunders remains the favourite at the bookmakers.

According book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan, Smith’s novel Autumn is the commercial winner so far among the six titles shortlisted for the UK’s most prestigious prize for fiction with almost 50,000 copies sold. From the US, Paul Auster’s 4321 comes in second with nearly 15,000 sales. Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, debut British novelist Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, and British/Pakistani Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West have all sold about 10,000 copies each. History of Wolves, by the American first-timer Emily Fridlund, has sold the least, with a figure of 3,410 copies.

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee taken off Mississippi school reading list

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 21:36:14 GMT2017-10-14T21:36:14Z

  • Official: ‘some language in the book makes people uncomfortable’
  • Story of racism in the US south has been removed from schools before

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic novel about racism and the American south, has been removed from a junior-high reading list in a Mississippi school district because the language in the book “makes people uncomfortable”.

Related: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: a classic with many lives to live

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Good Gaul: Asterix illustration sells for record €1.4m in Paris

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 01:02:54 GMT2017-10-14T01:02:54Z

The drawing for Asterix and the Banquet, signed by its creators, was only expected to sell for between €180,000 and €200,000

An original illustration for the cover of one of the early Asterix comic books has sold for a record €1.4m (£1.25m) at auction , more than seven times its expected price, an auction house announced.

The drawing for Asterix and the Banquet (Le Tour de Gaul in French), signed by the creators of the legendary series, Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, was sold by the Drouot auction house in Paris on Friday.

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'I dream of being an accountant': Wall of Dreams shines refugees' hopes over London

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 16:19:52 GMT2017-10-13T16:19:52Z

As a huge projection over London’s Southbank Centre illuminates the wishes of the city’s displaced people, participants explain some of their stories

Mohammed, a gangly 17-year-old who fled Syria with no hope of seeing his family again, dreams of being a footballer. Drita saw a side to humanity no 16-year-old should during her journey from eastern Europe. Now, she has pinned her hopes on becoming a teacher.

Abu has a dream too. The 18-year-old longs to stand in his grandmother’s kitchen in South Sudan, mouth watering in anticipation of her cooking. It is a dream he has consigned to fantasy. “I can’t see me being able to go back,” he says.

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Bertie Wooster returns as a spy in Jeeves sequel by Schott's Miscellany author

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 14:48:08 GMT2017-10-13T14:48:08Z

Ben Schott says ‘it’s like being lent the Crown Jewels’ after PG Wodehouse estate approves trivia bestseller to write Jeeves and the King of Clubs

Bertie Wooster, PG Wodehouse’s “mentally somewhat negligible” English gentleman with a heart of gold, is set to be reimagined as a British spy by Ben Schott, the author of the bestselling collection of trivia Schott’s Original Miscellany.

Schott, whose forthcoming Jeeves and the King of Clubs is sanctioned by the PG Wodehouse estate, called it “an incomparable honour to follow in the patent-leather footsteps of the greatest English-language humorist”.

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Weinstein Books 'terminated' in wake of assault allegations

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 10:47:26 GMT2017-10-13T10:47:26Z

Film mogul’s associated publishing imprint is to close in the wake of scandal over multiple abuse allegations

The Weinstein Books imprint is being shut down, following a week of sexual assault allegations against the film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

In a statement to staff issued on Thursday, Hachette Book Group said it had “terminated” the imprint. A joint venture between the Weinstein Company and the Hachette-owned publisher Perseus, Weinstein Books released around 10 books a year, with titles ranging from books by media personalities to film tie-ins. It was run by two women: editorial director Amanda Murray and publishing director Georgina Levitt.

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Writers step in to defend author accused of plagiarism in New York Times

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 15:41:00 GMT2017-10-12T15:41:00Z

Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life was charged with extensive use of others’ writing, but peers say accidental repetitions ‘were not egregious theft’

More than 70 authors, including Pulitzer prize winners Jennifer Egan and Louise Glück, have come to the defence of the editor and poet Jill Bialosky after she was accused of plagiarism, saying that Bialosky’s “inadvertent repetition of biographical boilerplate was not an egregious theft intentionally performed”.

A scathing review of Bialosky’s memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, by the poet William Logan in the Tourniquet Review last week accused her of having “plagiarised numerous passages from Wikipedia and the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation” when writing biographical details of poets including Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson and Robert Lowell.

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Miniature book said to have inspired Virginia Woolf's Orlando to be published

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 14:57:16 GMT2017-10-11T14:57:16Z

Vita Sackville-West’s stamp-sized book about a fashionable sprite who meets famous fairytale figures was written in 1922, four years before Woolf’s novel

A postage stamp-sized book by Vita Sackville-West, featuring a “fashionable and ageless sprite” who may have inspired her lover Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, is to be published for the first time.

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Dan Brown's Origin makes a strong start in UK bookshops

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 13:44:14 GMT2017-10-11T13:44:14Z

Although not quite the sensation of previous Robert Langdon thrillers, The Da Vinci Code author’s latest mystery sold 100,000 copies in its first week

Dan Brown’s mastery of something like a code for bestsellers has returned to cheer UK booksellers, with more than 100,000 copies of his latest thriller, Origin, sold in the first five days after publication last Tuesday. But while retailers pronounced themselves delighted, there were some indications that his hold on British readers is not quite as sure as it once was – with these figures adding up to only a fifth of the initial success of 2009’s The Lost Symbol.

According to Nielsen BookScan, Origin had amassed 100,095 sales by Saturday. Brown’s publisher, Transworld, said this makes it the fastest-selling original fiction title in the UK since Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman in 2015, which sold 168,455 print copies in its first five days. But the Bookseller pointed out that Origin’s first week UK sales were half those of Inferno, which sold 228,961 copies in its first week in 2013, with Inferno’s sales half those of The Lost Symbol, which sold 551,000 print copies in its first week in 2009.

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MacArthur 'genius grants' go to novelists Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jesmyn Ward

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 12:00:47 GMT2017-10-11T12:00:47Z

Among 2017’s recipients of the $625,000 honours are two novelists exploring the lives of minority communities in the US

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jesmyn Ward, two novelists exploring how writers from minority communities must “claim the same rights” as the majority, have landed $625,000 (£470,000) MacArthur fellowships, popularly known as “genius grants”.

The no-strings-attached fellowships, which have previously gone to writers including Claudia Rankine and Ta-Nehisi Coates, are intended “to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations”. Two novelists were among this year’s selection of 24 fellows, which included mathematicians, historians, computer scientists and anthropologists. Ward was picked for novels “exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans of the rural South, against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential”. Nguyen was chosen for “challenging popular depictions of the Vietnam war and exploring the myriad ways that war lives on for those it has displaced”.

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‘Fox 8’ by George Saunders: a fantastical tale from the Man Booker winner

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 08:00:17 GMT2017-10-21T08:00:17Z

This week the master of the short story won the Booker for Lincoln in the Bardo. ‘Fox 8’ is a heartfelt letter to Yumans

Deer Reeder:

First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as I do!

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Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 11:50:18 GMT2017-10-20T11:50:18Z

This year’s lineup may be deserving, but with just one collection by a BAME poet in an exceptionally strong year for poets of colour, it also seems naive

Over the past few years, challenges to British poetry’s lack of diversity have made it impossible to return to the status quo – or so we thought. This year’s TS Eliot prize shortlist, announced on Thursday, features just one collection (out of 10, including Michael Symmons Roberts and Leontia Flynn) by a poet of colour, the much-acclaimed Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive.

This year was an exceptionally strong year for British poets of colour, and you would have reasonably expected to see Kayo Chingonyi, Richard Georges, André Naffis-Sahely, Nick Makoha, Nuar Alsadir, or Elizabeth-Jane Burnett here, among several others.

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Male writers still dominate book reviews and critic jobs, Vida study finds

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 16:25:44 GMT2017-10-19T16:25:44Z

The annual Vida count of authors across the world suggests about two-thirds of those published, and the critics who review them, are men – but their intersectionality survey is less conclusive

The 2016 Vida count has been released and it demonstrates yet again that the media can’t seem to locate enough female writers. Every year Vida – the New York-based organisation for Women in Literary Arts - counts the writers featured in dozens of literary journals and periodicals across the world, and finds that the authors represented, and the critics who are evaluating those authors, are consistently about two thirds men. For the second year, the survey also looks into “intersectional” data, and analyses factors such as ethnicity, sexuality and disability, as well.

Once again, the London Review of Books “has the worst gender disparity”, with women representing only 18% of reviewers and 26% of authors reviewed. The LRB’s figures have remained more or less consistent since the first Vida count in 2010, despite the publication telling the author Kathryn Heyman in 2013: “… there’s no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful. We’ll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly.”

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Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles: far more than sex and swords

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 11:14:18 GMT2017-10-19T11:14:18Z

This saga of a courageous 15th-century Scottish nobleman, contending over six volumes with many a lethal challenge, has kept me rapt for 30 years

‘Lymond is back.” So begins The Game of Kings, the first book in my greatest literary love affair: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I first discovered them while mooching around an empty classroom as a bored 16-year-old. There, among the dry textbooks and histories, was a tattered, much-thumbed book with a garish cover depicting a man and woman locked in passionate embrace. Intrigued, I picked it up. From the opening line, I was hooked.

Nearly 30 years later, nothing has changed. These are the books I reread through each pregnancy, the books I turn to for comfort whenever things get bad. I have owned four different sets, replacing each copy as they fall apart. Lines from all of them pop into my head at odd moments. They are the first thing (apart from my children) that I would save in a house fire, and the novels I would take to a desert island exile.

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His Dark Materials: the enduring, terrifying appeal of Philip Pullman's world

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 13:06:38 GMT2017-10-18T13:06:38Z

La Belle Sauvage will return readers to Lyra’s universe tomorrow, 17 years after Pullman’s original trilogy ended. But His Dark Materials remains a radical read – and a true modern classic

Children’s authors are always being invited to speak in schools and, at every visit, I ask the question: “If your soul was in animal form, what would it be?” Without fail, every hand goes up.

Daemons capture the imagination in a way that few other concepts do. Reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as a 10-year-old, it made perfect sense to me that people should have a crucial part of themselves that inhabited a separate, animal being: two halves of the same whole. Like many children, I longed for my own daemon, but not in the way that I longed for my Hogwarts letter. Daemons were not magical diversions, but a way of bedding deeper into your reality. In place of escape, they offered understanding.

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How do you win the Man Booker prize? Move to New York or London | Lucy Diver

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 15:10:53 GMT2017-10-16T15:10:53Z

The prize used to champion unknowns and outsiders. But a 2014 rule change has cemented the neo-colonial cultural dominance of the US and the UK

The upstairs room of an indie bookstore. A book launch for a local author. Crisps and wine are being handed out, a buzz is in the air, congratulations are showered upon the young writer. I know – because I worked there at the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

When Catton won the 2013 Man Booker prize, people in the bookstore were crying. Looking back on that day, the store’s manager said: “I don’t watch rugby, but I did think, maybe this is what it’s like when we win the World Cup?”

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Poem of the week: Ay, But Can Ye? by Vladimir Mayakovsky

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 11:30:41 GMT2017-10-16T11:30:41Z

To mark the centenary of Russia’s revolution, an energetic reflection on how to make similarly radical art in a startling Scots translation by Edwin Morgan

Ay, But Can Ye?

Wi a jaup the darg-day map’s owre-pentit –
I jibbled colour frae a tea-gless;
Ashets o jellyteen presentit
To me the gret sea’s camshach cheek-bleds.
A tin fish, ilka scale a mou –
I’ve read the cries o a new warld through’t.
But you
Wi denty thrapple
Can ye wheeple
Nocturnes frae a rone-pipe flute?

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Happiness is a salty potato – and other life lessons from Russian literature

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 08:00:27 GMT2017-10-13T08:00:27Z

Don’t trust a woman who wears too much perfume and know your limits – Viv Groskop on the 10 top tips Chekhov, Tolstoy and others have for us today

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
This is the five-page kernel of what Henry James called “the large, loose, baggy monster” (read from page 1,074 of the Penguin Classics edition). The character of Platon Karatayev, the everyman muzhik (peasant), pops up fleetingly to proffer a potato sprinkled with salt to Pierre Bezukhov and deliver the most important message of Tolstoy’s entire oeuvre: love your parents, have children of your own, bear your fate with acceptance and patience. And relish every mouthful of that salty potato.

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Writing women into The Wind in the Willows revitalises the canon

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 11:30:10 GMT2017-10-11T11:30:10Z

Making imaginative room for another sex in this much-loved classic opened up its world to me

I grew up in a very small town in Iowa in the 60s, where the library was a single, graceful room with a golden oak circulation desk, which overlooked everything but a lone bookcase packed with the complete American Heritage backlist. Books were divided into children’s, mysteries, science fiction, romance, biography, science, nonfiction (we didn’t have rarefied arcana like history or current events). “New Acquisitions” were whatever had been dropped off recently: old Agatha Christies, accidentally ordered Book of the Month Club selections, agricultural yearbooks from the 1950s.

I read them all. Once I finished the children’s section, I started at the upper left-hand corner of the first bookcase (mysteries), and proceeded methodically. This made for some highly age-inappropriate choices, as when I waded through the Decameron aged 10. I read everything the same way, uncritically and going with the flow whenever I couldn’t understand.

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'I am dying but you are already a corpse': the 100-year-old multiple sclerosis diary that became a classic

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 05:00:14 GMT2017-10-21T05:00:14Z

WNP Barbellion’s audacious The Journal of a Disappointed Man is so good that HG Wells wished he wrote it – but it is not as well known as it should be

One hundred years ago today, WNP Barbellion scrawled his final diary entry. “Self-disgust,” he wrote. Ravaged by multiple sclerosis at just 28, this one word was all he could manage, before his hand was too unsteady to go on. He had been recording his daily life – and, latterly, the daily encroachment of death – since his first entry when he was 15: “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned for the time being the idea of writing on ‘How Cats Spend their Time’.” His diary would be published in 1919 as The Journal of a Disappointed Man, to wide acclaim but it is sadly little known nowadays.

Related: My hero: WNP Barbellion by William Atkins

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Not the Booker prize 2017: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li wins

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 09:40:31 GMT2017-10-16T09:40:31Z

Readers backed a clear leader and the judges agreed – debut author Li has won for her vivid account of the aftermath of a sexual assault

Winnie M Li’s Dark Chapter is the winner of this year’s Not the Booker prize. It was the voting public’s favourite, and our judges concurred.

Coming into the final round, Dark Chapter was the clear favourite with its victory in readers’ polling meaning it had two votes to take into the final round. Here’s how the public vote played out:

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From Disraeli to Thatcher: 15 of the best political biographies and diaries

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 15:00:53 GMT2017-10-08T15:00:53Z

Leaders shape history and here are a selelction of the most remarkable insights into these public figures plus first-hand accounts by those with access to the corridors of power

Before Moore published the first volume of his authorised biography there had already been a mountain of books on Thatcher. Most struggled to get much beyond the caricature. Although an admirer, Moore’s account is more nuanced. He shows that far from being fearless, she could often be fearful without cause and, at times, could be stubbornly foolish in her policymaking even if, from the author’s point of view, she was heading heroically in the right direction. The final volume will include her Shakespearean fall from power.

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From The Second Sex to The Beauty Myth: 10 of the best feminist texts

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 05:00:10 GMT2017-10-09T05:00:10Z

Twentieth-century polemical writing that changed the way we think about gender

To ask what influence this book had on gender politics is akin to wondering what the sun ever did for the earth. The answer? Everything. Today, The Second Sex is still hailed as the mothership of feminist philosophy. “One is not born, but rather becomes (a) woman,” muses De Beauvoir (the quote varying, according to the translation). Exploring topics from sex, work and family to prostitution, abortion and the history of female subordination, De Beauvoir challenges the notion of men as the default (the ideal), and women as “other”. For many, The Second Sex represents not just key feminist reading, but rather essential feminist thinking and being.

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From Roots to Black People in Britain: 10 key political texts on black consciousness

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 05:00:10 GMT2017-10-09T05:00:10Z

How the lessons of injustice were drawn from centuries of slavery and colonialism

We are living through something of a Baldwin renaissance, in large part thanks to Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Any number of Baldwin’s books might earn a place on this list, but The Fire Next Time stands out. Consisting of two essays, one addressed to Baldwin’s nephew, it is a passionate and visceral plea to black and white America. It is the only document I know of that expresses the civil rights case as eloquently as the speeches of Martin Luther King.

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From Lloyd George to Brexit: 10 of the best books on British politics

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 05:00:10 GMT2017-10-09T05:00:10Z

This collection tracks the ideological struggles that have helped form modern British society

This landmark book described how the Liberal party, apparently unassailable after their 1906 landslide, went into decline less than a decade later, never to lead a government again. The reasons, as Dangerfield set out, went far beyond parliamentary arithmetic. This was a ruling class failing to understand the pressures of the new century: suffragism, the trade union movement and Irish nationalism. This depiction of downfall of perhaps the original citizens of nowhere offers a lesson for today’s politicians in how a ruling class can be undone by contemporary events, and how establishment parties can be brought down by failing to change with the times.

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10 books about the politics of now: from the left-behinds to reborn radicals

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 15:00:53 GMT2017-10-08T15:00:53Z

Brexit Britain, racial strife in the US and a crisis of capitalism: today’s political world is turbulent

An essential primer for anyone seeking to understand the politics of the Brexit referendum. Shipman, the political editor of the Sunday Times, gives a vivid and compelling account of the Westminster gambles, compromises and miscalculations that unleashed social forces that prime minister David Cameron utterly failed to anticipate or understand. From Boris Johnson’s ambition-fuelled decision to join the Leave campaign to Jeremy Corbyn’s fatefully low-key endorsement of Remain, Shipman chronicles with élan the how and the why of the country’s fateful decision to “take back control”.

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From post-Empire to liberation theory: 10 of the best books on international struggle

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 15:00:53 GMT2017-10-08T15:00:53Z

As the era of imperialism ended, new divisions and faultlines emerged in the difficult aftermath of empire

Some classic books capture the essence of their time; some remain relevant for ever. Orientalism is the latter sort – if anything, the book has become more relevant. It demonstrates how dominant nations, through their academic, cultural and social agents of expression, exoticise and misunderstand the “other”. Said was ahead of his time in isolating how cultural prowess is consolidated to the benefit of the west, by exaggerating differences with the orient that create a skewed perception of the eastern world as inferior to the west.

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From Middlemarch to King Richard III: 15 of the best political novels and plays

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 05:00:41 GMT2017-10-08T05:00:41Z

Fiction and drama hold a mirror to the virtues and vices of an age. Here’s our pick of the best

Richard Wright wrote to his friend William Faulkner that black and white Americans were engaged in a “war over the nature of reality”. The terms of Wright’s engagement in that ongoing war were set by his 1940 novel Native Son, which sold 250,000 copies in its first three weeks. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a native of the south side of Chicago in the 1930s, who murders two women, one white and one black. Its controversy was rooted in the case Bigger’s lawyer makes in mitigating his crimes in the context of racist oppression – that white society is also responsible. The book did much to politicise the civil rights generation and continues to be a key reference point for #BlackLivesMatter.

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Halloween reading with Andrew Michael Hurley – books podcast

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 11:04:02 GMT2017-10-24T11:04:02Z

On this week’s show, Sian speaks to Andrew Michael Hurley, whose first book The Loney was acclaimed by critics and buoyed by word of mouth – as well as an endorsement from Stephen King. He’s back with his second novel, Devil’s Day: a similarly spooky novel that follows a young man and his new wife as they return to his childhood home, in a damp and dreary corner of Lancashire called the Endlands.

Then Claire joins Sian in the studio, where they discuss their favourite horror novels, eerie tales and ghost stories.

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Novel eating: new recipes from your favourite fiction | Book extract

Fri, 06 Oct 2017 11:00:51 GMT2017-10-06T11:00:51Z

Ever tucked in to a Narnian midnight feast, or dreamt of feasting on sardines and ginger beer with the Famous Five? Here, in an excerpt from the new Little Library Cookbook, are four recipes straight from the pages of your favourite novels

  • See more recipes from your favourite novels fortnightly here.

I have always been a highly suggestible, hungry reader. When discovering a new book, or revisiting an old favourite, my mind wanders, imagining what food the characters are enjoying would taste like. A passing mention of a ripe summer strawberry, a fragrant roast chicken or a warming mug of hot chocolate sends me straight to the kitchen, book still in hand.

When I wasn’t in the kitchen, my childhood was spent in books. On weekends, my dad would push me out of our front door towards the park, encouraging me to run around in the fresh air until dusk. Little did he know that I always had a book tucked into my bike shorts, and would instead hide under a tree somewhere, losing myself in Jane Austen’s Regency England, Enid Blyton’s seaside Devon or Harper Lee’s Depression-era Alabama. My childhood was idyllic, but I spent much of it in parallel fictional worlds.

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‘Have you seen the maggots yet?’ Lindsey Fitzharris on the gruesome history of surgery

Sun, 15 Oct 2017 15:30:34 GMT2017-10-15T15:30:34Z

The medical historian is obsessed with mortality – and her new book examines the work of early surgeons, including Robert Liston, the ‘fastest knife in the West End’

The first time Lindsey Fitzharris saw a dead body, she was eight years old. Her great-aunt was embalmed and on display, a common practice at funerals in the American midwest. “My cousin asked me if I wanted to touch her; I was a kid, of course I did,” she says.

Almost 30 years after she brushed her aunt’s cold, slightly too-firm arm, Fitzharris still remembers the instantaneous change that came from that gentle contact; a new perception of mortality revealed to her, like someone turning on a light. “It was one of those moments where you realise something has fundamentally changed with this body. That person is gone. I touched her and I understood then, that death meant something much bigger than I had previously thought.”

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Top 10 imaginary drugs in fiction

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 09:00:25 GMT2017-10-18T09:00:25Z

From the mind-bending potion in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Don DeLillo’s cure for the fear of death, these are some of the most potent hits in literature

Science-fiction writers are always looking for ways to bring about change, whether in society, in the nature of the physical world or in the human mind. And making up new drugs is a powerful way of inducing alteration on all these levels.

In my own work I’ve invented drugs such as Vurt, Metaphorazine, Lucidity, Wave, Haze and many more. My latest novel A Man of Shadows sees people enjoying a concoction called kia, shortened from chiaroscuro, a time-altering drug created from a flower that blossoms only at dusk.

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Armistead Maupin: ‘I wrote the memoir to show I had made a journey from darkness’

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 11:00:06 GMT2017-10-20T11:00:06Z

The Tales of the City author on his past as a closeted young conservative and his fears over America’s ‘fascist regime’

Armistead Maupin is divorcing his family – that’s how he puts it. The particular problem is his brother, Tony, a Donald Trump supporter with a fondness for the Confederate flag. “That’s what Facebook has done,” Maupin tells me: you see a family member’s page “and you want no part of it any more. Life is too short to pretend the poison isn’t there. Their religion and their politics automatically make me, as a gay man, a second-class citizen. So fuck it.”

Maupin (pronounced “Mawpin”), whose much-loved Tales of the City novels are soon to have an updated treatment on Netflix, has long made a distinction between his problematic biological family and his “logical family” – close friends and soulmates. The idea was expressed in fiction by Anna Madrigal, the transgender matriarch of the Tales, who gathers around her a familial group of misfit tenants at 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco. Now the author has chosen Logical Family as the title for his long-awaited memoir.

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks – digested read

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 23:00:35 GMT2017-10-21T23:00:35Z

‘After we came back from the moon, we all went home for some nice apple pie. Whoopety-doodah-day’

Three Exhausting Weeks

Anna and I were rummaging through some old typewriters in a secondhand store as a gift for MDash, a sub-Saharan immigrant who was about to become as American as Apple Pie.

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Andrew Michael Hurley: ‘​Some days I don’t look up until my wife texts to tell me to ea​t’

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 09:00:18 GMT2017-10-21T09:00:18Z

The author of The Loney on his not-so-Scandi-neat study, why he feels guilty going for a walk and what humans will look like in a thousand years

Watching the morning travel updates on the news as the rest of the family gets ready to leave, I’m grateful that on writing days I don’t have to commute any further than the study at the back of the garage. It’s a nice space in which to work. The double glazing blots out the noise of the traffic on the M55. I have a view of things both deciduous and evergreen in the garden. The decor is hopeful; the white walls, desk, bookshelves and small sofa all say efficiency, order, focus – watchwords for a professional writer serious about his work, oh yes.

But for all the promises I made to myself about keeping things Scandi-neat in the study, I have reverted inevitably to type. Books and files sit on the sofa more often than I do. A picture leans against the wall waiting to be hung. On the desk, the laptop is elbowed by books. To the left it’s Coleridge Walks the Fells and the Penguin Dictionary of Geology. To the right, a bigger pile. The Essential Hemingway, a Jim Crace novel, a large hardback called The Occult Universe, a seasonal recipe book from the 1940s, each month prefaced by an appropriate poem before instructions are given for duck in aspic or hashed heart. I could quite easily tidy up, of course, but I like the magpie-nest clutter and I think there’s something a bit sterile, creatively speaking, about a clean desk. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

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The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell review – service with a scowl

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 09:00:01 GMT2017-10-22T09:00:01Z

The owner of Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop has an entertainingly low opinion of customers

It is a wonder, reading some of Shaun Bythell’s descriptions of the customers in his bookshop, that anyone dares cross its threshold at all. Here we are introduced, for example, to one of the shop’s valued regulars, Mr Deacon: “His dark, thinning hair is combed over his pate in the unconvincing way that some balding men try to persuade others that they still retain a luxuriant mane… it appears as though someone has loaded his clothes into a cannon and fired them at him.”

Those who spend nothing – and they are legion – are particularly unflatteringly depicted, but even those who cough up are far from safe: “The wife mauled her way through the antiquarian shelves, coughing and moaning… Despite being remarkably annoying, [the couple] spent £250 on an 18th-century Scottish botanical book.”

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Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years by Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa review – an impossible act to follow

Sun, 22 Oct 2017 05:30:43 GMT2017-10-22T05:30:43Z

This account of Mandela’s years in power, compiled from his own notes, reveals why he was irreplaceable

Six months after the 1994 election that brought the ANC to power, I was interviewing Ahmed Kathrada, then President Mandela’s parliamentary counsellor, when I heard the door behind me open. A look must have been exchanged because Kathrada stopped mid-flow to ask if I wouldn’t mind stepping out for a moment. As I was leaving, I heard the new arrival say: “He’s done it again.”

I knew that “he” must be Nelson Mandela and I had a good idea what he must have done. That evening’s news soon confirmed it: Mandela had gone off-piste again. Never the most riveting of speakers, he would, every now and then, galvanise his country’s attention by breaking away from the monotonously good stuff his speech writers had compiled to speak from the heart. I had taken this as an endearingly maverick but spur-of-the moment act by an otherwise disciplined man who always insisted that he served the collective. But reading Dare Not Linger, which the writer Mandla Langa (who, in the interests of full disclosure, is a friend of mine) has compiled from Mandela’s handwritten notes and from interviews, I learned that Mandela did this deliberately. It was his way of breaking away from a consensus with which he disagreed: he went along with the majority decisions of his cabinet but could not resist making his real point of view public.

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A Revolution of Feeling by Rachel Hewitt review – the anguish of failed utopians

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 08:00:17 GMT2017-10-21T08:00:17Z

A daring history of Mary Wollstonecraft and other 1790s radicals suggests this was the decade that ‘forged the modern mind’

In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey set out to save the human race. By establishing a small political community in which property was held in common and everyone had a vote, they wanted to create a utopia where “wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking” were nothing but a bad memory. The 27 hand-picked communitarians would rub along together comfortably, bound by a sort of sunny reasonableness. Coleridge and Southey, who were still undergraduates when they dreamed up the scheme, were typical of their time in believing that political change went hand in hand with “revolutions of feeling”. To have any hope of achieving one you had to fix the other.

Naturally it all went wrong. The original idea had been to set up the community in post-revolutionary America, an appropriate place for radical new beginnings. But when that proved to be expensive – Coleridge was already deep in debt as a result of some distinctly unreasonable expenditure on wine and women – someone suggested they scale the scheme back to a “Welch Farm” instead. Then there was the question of sex. In a community where property would be held in common, did that mean wives would be shared, too? Quite aside from the impropriety of the thing, it sounded so cold and calculating, as if sex were a passionless commodity rather than the affective glue that held two loving individuals together. Then Southey, who was always of a pragmatic turn of mind, suggested that perhaps the new community should include some servants. They would eat at the same table as everyone else, of course, but they would spend their days doing the hard labour while the full members of the community thought and wrote about the joys of social equality. Coleridge was appalled – if Southey wanted “slaves” then the game was clearly over.

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What You Did Not Tell by Mark Mazower review – a dramatic family memoir

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-10-20T08:00:02Z

In uncovering his ancestors’ secrets, the historian also paints a vast and rich picture of left-wing European Jewry throughout the 20th century

There is a level of secrecy within families that is sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend. Max Mazower, grandfather of the author, never told his much loved wife Frouma, to whom he was married for many years, the name of his mother. This was, in a way, the least of it. Nor did he talk about his long and active past as a revolutionary socialist in tsarist Russia. Memory and secrets, how they are buried and how they can be unearthed, lie at the heart of Mark Mazower’s fascinating and scholarly reconstruction of a family’s life and the myriad relations, friends, acquaintances, places, houses and adventures that spin out from it.

Mazower is a distinguished historian of 20th-century Europe and he brings to his digging the doggedness and meticulousness of the obsessive researcher. There are few archives or collections of papers relevant to his subject that he does not appear to have consulted, whether in the US, the UK, Russia, Belgium or Israel. To these he has added a diary kept by his father between 1941 and 1996, the many letters preserved by his mother during the years when letters were the only way to keep in touch with people across the eastern bloc, and the family stories he prodded out of his father not long before his death. He was a man, Mazower writes, who “shied away from the personal like a nervous horse”. All this evidence put together offers not simply a biographical narrative, but, woven into it, a vast and rich picture of leftwing European Jewry throughout the 20th century.

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The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben review – a revolution in how we regard other species

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 06:30:00 GMT2017-10-20T06:30:00Z

Following his bestselling The Hidden Life of Trees, the author explores the emotions and intelligence of animals. The ‘new biology’ has big moral implications

John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman, once told his congregation that they lived among spirits they could not see. He told them this in a sermon called “The Invisible World”. Angels and the souls of the dead were constantly active, but people’s senses could not perceive them. Anyone who found this difficult to believe should remember, Newman said, that, after all, there was another surrounding world of which people knew almost as little: the animal world. Animals were everywhere. Their presence was familiar. Yet the emotional lives of these creatures, their perceptions and the reasons for their behaviour, remained so hidden that Newman could compare this concealed life to a world of spirits.

Peter Wohlleben is a Rhineland forester who became unhappy with industrial methods. Remarkably, he persuaded the municipal owners of his forest to end their commercial contracts and abandon those methods. He is scientific and secular, yet he too perceives that we live in a world of intelligence and emotional complexity that goes unseen. Traditional relationships with farm animals, hunted animals and pets have always provided insights into that world, but only science can reveal the depths. Combining scientific reports with tales of his own observations, Wohlleben tentatively begins to uncover that world and explore its implications for our behaviour.

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The Mushroom at the End of the World review – life in capitalist ruins

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 09:30:02 GMT2017-10-19T09:30:02Z

A highly original study that turns the commerce and ecology of a rare fungus into a tale of environmental renewal

Written in “a riot” of short chapters, “like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after rain”, Anna Tsing’s highly original study explores ruined industrial landscapes and precarious livelihoods in this age of economic decline and globalisation. She travels the world in search of matsutake mushrooms and the people who forage for them in the forests of Oregon, Yunnan, Lapland and Japan, where they have become “the most valuable mushrooms on earth”, prized as gourmet treats and exclusive gifts. It’s said that after Hiroshima was obliterated by an atomic bomb, “the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom”. They only grow in forests disturbed by humans and were first mentioned in an eighth-century Japanese poem celebrating “the wonder of autumn aroma”. The smell is unique, though Tsing admits most Europeans can’t stand it: “It’s not an easy smell. It’s disturbing.” This book brilliantly turns the commerce and ecology of this most rare mushroom into a modern parable of post-industrial survival and environmental renewal.

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins is published by Princeton. To order a copy for £12.71 (RRP £14.95) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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English by Ben Fogle review – Marmite, queuing and weather

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 08:00:01 GMT2017-10-19T08:00:01Z

A lyrical portrait of Englishness takes in waxed jackets, cheese rolling and Wimbledon but fails to look outside the white, middle-class bubble

There is, as various writers have noted over the years, something inherently contradictory about lavishing praise on Englishness. The English are understated, polite and self-deprecating – more comfortable apologising than blowing our own trumpets. As Ben Fogle points out in his book, we love heroic failures and gravitate endlessly towards the underdog. The English somehow manage to bring these qualities to the very act of being English – apologising, failing and being the underdog.

Fogle sets out to explore, in a gentle, provincial way, this contradiction. His book is less systematic than Kate Fox’s Watching the English, which cleverly applied the anthropological lens once deployed by the British overseas to “tribal societies” closer to home. And Fogle’s book is less analytical than Jeremy Paxman’s The English, which delved into historical events and characters to ask what has happened to English identity.

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The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison review – the language of race and racism

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 06:30:02 GMT2017-10-18T06:30:02Z

The author of Beloved reads that novel alongside the real-life story that inspired it, in one of a resonant set of lectures on literature and the fetishisation of skin colour

It is hard not to read Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others in the light of recent disturbing political developments in the US. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his introduction, the central concerns of this slim book, based on Morrison’s 2016 Norton lectures at Harvard on “the literature of belonging”, may seem to have a new resonance after the election of Trump and given the increasing visibility of white supremacist groups.

Morrison considers the fetishisation of skin colour and the questions posed by our era of mass migration, and offers elegant reminders of some well-known but still unpalatable facts. One is that human beings invent and reinforce dehumanising categories of otherness in order to justify economic exploitation and to shore up our sense of security and belonging. That process of self-justification requires and encourages an extraordinary level of sadism.

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Christmas: a Biography review – ‘a feast of illusions’

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 10:00:02 GMT2017-10-16T10:00:02Z

There’s no point moaning about Christmas being tawdry and commercial. As Judith Flanders’s exhaustive history shows, it has always been that way

One Christmas Day in the 1780s a London woman was murdered. Her husband testified that he had not the smallest recollection of where he had been that day because “he was so much in liquor”. Nothing unusual in that. In 1831 a man charged with being drunk and disorderly begged for leniency on the grounds that it was Christmas-time: the magistrate commented wearily that every person brought before him in the last three days had made the same plea.

It is a persistent fallacy, suggests Judith Flanders, that Christmas has only recently been rendered tawdry by commerce. As she repeatedly demonstrates in this exhaustive history, what a medieval cleric called “swilling and riot” accompanied, and often eclipsed, piety from the very start. In the sixth century, a father of the church was inveighing against the “majority” who “became slaves to gluttony” in the festive season, raving “in drunkenness and impious dancing”.

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The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956 – review

Sun, 15 Oct 2017 05:30:22 GMT2017-10-15T05:30:22Z

This hefty first volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters barely hints at her inner life or blossoming talent

The arrival of the collected letters of Sylvia Plath – this is only volume one; a second will follow next year – provides something of an object lesson in the weird desperation involved in what we might call heritage publishing. Of course we understand that Faber (and in the US, Harper) is thrilled to have this long-dead poetic genius on its list; such pride isn’t misplaced. But whether this means that every word Plath ever wrote, up to and including her scholarship applications, is of interest to anyone other than truffling biographers and PhD students is another matter altogether. Lugging around this rusty anchor of a book – it runs to more than 1,400 pages – what I felt mostly was exasperation. The notion that Plath’s every utterance is sacred would be dumb even if she ranked with Keats or Waugh as one of the truly great letter writers. The fact that she clearly doesn’t – the majority of those in this volume, written to her mother, Aurelia, are marked by their quotidian sameyness – only makes it seem the more vacuous.

It’s a problem that’s hardly helped by their editing. The focus of Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil, the Plath scholars who have devoted long years to this project, appears to be on accumulation, not enlightenment; their footnotes, which they describe as “comprehensive” but in fact tend to the minimalist, are far from adequate. Should Plath mention, say, a story she has read by Jean Stafford in the New Yorker, they will certainly endeavour to identify which one it might have been. But of the connections between the letters and their author’s life and work, they tell us almost nothing. The reader, then, is entirely in Plath’s hands, which is not only tricky in narrative terms – ellipses come as standard in correspondence of which you get to read only one side – but also perilously unbalanced.

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A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey – captivating and grounded

Sun, 15 Oct 2017 09:00:26 GMT2017-10-15T09:00:26Z

Ruth Pavey’s unassuming memoir celebrates the imperfections of rural life and the virtues of spontaneity

“Sometimes you have to check,” writes Ruth Pavey, “just in case life means you to do a somersault.” Her own modest upheaval was to buy a piece of land, at auction, on the Somerset Levels, with a view to turning it into a wood.

At the time she was a teacher living in London (she is still gardening correspondent on Hampstead’s Ham & High newspaper), and the land, four acres of scrub woodland costing £2,750, was not even the lot she’d had her eye on – that went to a higher bidder. This was the consolation prize.

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The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks review – an agility of enthusiasms

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-10-14T08:00:02Z

These posthumously published essays range from psychiatry to plagiarism to near-death experiences

One March in the mid 1990s I checked into a cheap hotel in Helsinki. I dropped my bag on the floor and, wondering what Finnish daytime television was like, switched on the TV. A darkened room with a dining table came into focus, and around it were six people having a conversation. To my surprise, all were speaking English, then a face I knew filled the screen – it was Oliver Sacks. Then another, Stephen Jay Gould, and another, Daniel Dennett. I had books by all three. It was snowing outside, and Helsinki seemed suddenly less inviting; I sat down on the bed and began to watch.

A Dutch TV company had assembled these men, together with Freeman Dyson, Stephen Toulmin and Rupert Sheldrake, for the round-table finale of a documentary series on science and the meaning of life. The series, A Glorious Accident, didn’t seem to have invited any women to take part but even so I watched it to the end – three hours later. The participants’ areas of expertise were diverse: biology, physics, palaeontology, neuroscience, philosophy. As the only practising clinician, Sacks made perceptive and valuable contributions – and was clearly having fun. I was just starting out in medicine, and it was a relief to see how a lifetime in clinical practice offered insights still relevant across the sciences.

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Stalin’s Defectors by Mark Edele – from Red Army soldiers to Hitler’s collaborators

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 08:00:27 GMT2017-10-13T08:00:27Z

A huge number of Soviet soldiers deserted to the German side and even took up arms alongside the fascists. Why?

The debt that all of Europe owes the Red Army for defeating Hitler is incontrovertible, however grudgingly it is acknowledged in many quarters. What is less well known but remarkable is that a huge number of Red Army soldiers deserted to the German side and even took up arms alongside their homeland’s fascist invaders. At a minimum, according to Mark Edele, one of the leading historians of Soviet society during the war, 117,000 Soviet citizens voluntarily crossed the front line, risking life and limb to escape to the Germans.

In addition, up to 6% of soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans decided to join the German forces. No other allied army in the second world war had such a large share of defectors. Put together with civilians, some 1.6 million Soviet citizens became military collaborators with the fascists.

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke review – racial tensions in small-town Texas

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:30:15 GMT2017-10-21T06:30:15Z

A black investigator’s quest for justice drives this nuanced meditation on race, roots and belonging

Locke’s mesmerising new novel bears all the hallmarks of modern crime fiction: the alcoholic protagonist with the damaged marriage; the townsfolk who close rank against outsiders; the small-town law enforcement agent with murky loyalties. But Bluebird, Bluebird is a true original in the way it twists these conventions into a narrative of exhilarating immediacy.

Darren Matthews is a Texas Ranger, working in a division of state law enforcement tasked with investigating everything from political corruption to murder. He is also a black man who must negotiate these two often conflicting identities: “He got confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.” As a native of East Texas, with strong ties to home, Darren offers aid to an old friend, a move that jeopardises both his marriage and the job he loves. It is while on suspension from the force that he learns two bodies have washed up in the bayou in the tiny town of Lark – the first, that of a black male lawyer from Chicago, the second, of a local white waitress. These grisly discoveries lead him into an investigation that ultimately threatens all he holds sacred.

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The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson review – extraordinary Nordic short stories

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 10:59:06 GMT2017-10-20T10:59:06Z

Psychology, fantasy and fable collide in a hygge-free northern collection

To begin, a quick test: which are the countries, possessions, autonomous territories and indigenous peoples that make up the Nordic region? It is a much more encompassing term than Scandinavia, which comprises only Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Use “Nordic” and you can include not only Finland, but the Åland Islands (an autonomous possession of Finland, although the inhabitants all speak Swedish), the Faroe Islands and Greenland, which are both autonomous but part of the Kingdom of Denmark. You also have Iceland, which became sovereign 100 years ago but before that belonged first to Norway, then to Denmark-Norway, then only Denmark. And there are the Saami people – indigenous to Scandinavia and Fennoscandia, who live in a band across northern Norway, Sweden and Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

That sounds confusing and disparate, but the Icelandic author Sjón, who has edited The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories from the North alongside Ted Hodgkinson of London’s Southbank Centre, cuts through the detail with appealing directness. As Sjón explains in the introduction, the region has a shared history in which the Norse religion was replaced by Catholicism, then Lutheranism, and monarchical power gave way to democracy. As a result, the Nordic lands can really be seen as “a single culture with regional variations”. That means this project, the very first English-language anthology of Nordic literature, makes a lot more sense than others based on geography: there is, for example, no way to talk sensibly of “Mediterranean literature”.

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The Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman review – worth the wait

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 23:01:07 GMT2017-10-18T23:01:07Z

In Pullman’s longed-for return to the world of His Dark Materials, two children battle to protect baby Lyra as enchanted allegory combines with a retelling of the Biblical story of the flood• Philip Pullman launches La Belle Sauvage – and says sequel is finishedPhilip Pullman is the living heir of Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald and, yes, CS Lewis – in spite of Lewis being his chief bugbear, whom he attacks furiously for his religiosity and misanthropy. While JK Rowling carried on the tradition of jolly school adventures and gripping supernatural yarns, he has chosen the pilgrim road of fantastic metaphysical allegory, and his new book nods to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in the same way as His Dark Materials took on Milton and Paradise Lost. In this longed-for opening volume of the new trilogy, Pullman faces his lineage without apology: his young heroine is even called Alice, and the story follows her as she is swept down the Thames in the eponymous canoe of the hero, Malcolm. But whereas the Thames offered Carroll’s Alice an idyllic, pastoral meander, a very contemporary apocalypse explodes around this older Alice.To begin with, La Belle Sauvage feels old-fashioned and comfy, set in a picture-book Oxford redolent of stewed cabbage, meat pies and generous helpings of pudding, lit by naphtha lamps and warmed by brandwijn. The action takes place 10 years before Northern Lights, and unfolds how Lyra, the once and future heroine of His Dark Materials, will come to grow up in the Oxford college called Jordan. The hero, Malcolm, a red-haired, good-natured, savvy and inquisitive 11-year-old, works as a potboy in his parents’ pub, The Trout at Godstow, and helps out the nuns living in the priory on the island across the way. He is an ordinary lad in some respects, but a golden boy over all – like Pip and Oliver in Dickens, with a dash of Kim, and of Emil from another classic Pullman admires, Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives. As for Alice, she is seen, early on, working as a barmaid; when a customer pinches her bottom, she smashes a beer tankard and flings the handle at the offender. Continue reading...[...]


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Nature and Necessity by Tariq Goddard review – debauchery and class war in the country

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 11:00:01 GMT2017-10-18T11:00:01Z

There are hints of PG Wodehouse and EF Benson in a modern take on the country house novel that takes in broad humour and contemporary mores

For a genre rooted in the 19th century, the country house novel has proved amazingly durable. Tariq Goddard has set his latest book in a North Yorkshire house called The Heights, “once an Arts and Crafts cottage, now arguably the most attractive dwelling in the county”. It is quite a departure for a writer best known for his novels about men in wartime, such as his 2002 debut Homage to a Firing Squad, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel prize.

Nature and Necessity opens in the 1970s and ends roughly around the present day. The lady of the house is Petula Montague, who married into money in the form of her second husband, Noah. She has two children from her previous marriage whom she alternately dominates and neglects; Evita eventually runs away and becomes a drug-addled hippy, whereas Jasper, or Jazzy as he is known, stays on the family estate as a disgruntled labourer, “like a cross between Arthur Scargill and Bill Sikes”. Petula lavishes all her attention on her daughter with Noah, Regan (the King Lear reference is entirely relevant). She encourages people to refer to them as “the sisters”, and we are told “there had never been a point in her life where she considered her daughter’s property or affairs separate from her own”.

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Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn review – King Lear as model of a modern media mogul

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 06:37:41 GMT2017-10-16T06:37:41Z

St Aubyn’s reworking of Lear for the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels is authentic, affecting and funnyA 2014 New Yorker profile of Edward St Aubyn remarked that he “makes frequent reference, in his fiction and his conversation, to works that he studied in the final two years of secondary school, including King Lear, Four Quartets and The Portrait of a Lady”. Anyone with a basic knowledge of St Aubyn’s life and novels might speculate that Lear resonated with the writer because he knows a thing or two about tyrannical fathers and dysfunctional wealthy families, but he is an inspired choice to retell King Lear for Hogarth Shakespeare’s anniversary series. Dunbar emerges as one of the finest contributions in a line-up glittering with literary stars (Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Tracy Chevalier and Anne Tyler have already published volumes, with Jo Nesbø and Gillian Flynn still to come).St Aubyn’s patriarch, Henry Dunbar, is head of a global media empire, which he has divided between his two eldest daughters, Abigail and Megan, the better to enjoy an indulgent semi-retirement as “non-executive chairman”. But as the novel opens, he finds himself incarcerated in an expensive sanatorium in the Lake District thanks to the machinations of his daughters and their lover, Dr Bob, who has doped the old man to effect “enhanced paranoia”. Dunbar is left in the company of Peter Walker, a once-famous alcoholic comedian, an apt Fool given to riffing on absurd puns with the occasional flash of insight and a penchant for playing multiple characters. As Dunbar laments the impulsive fit of pique that led him to sack his attorney and oldest friend Wilson, and disinherit his beloved younger daughter, Florence, Peter plots their “great escape” to the village pub. Meanwhile Abby and Megan need to keep their father incapacitated while they launch a bid to take the Dunbar Trust private, Dr Bob is scheming to betray the sisters to Dunbar’s greatest rival, and Florence and Wilson must outwit the sisters’ mercenaries to find the old man before he falls prey to the i[...]


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Uncommon Type: Some Stories review – Hanks, but no thanks

Sun, 15 Oct 2017 07:00:24 GMT2017-10-15T07:00:24Z

With one exception, Tom Hanks’s debut collection of short stories could be the work of Forrest Gump himself

Several characters appear repeatedly over the course of the 17 stories in Tom Hanks’s debut short-story collection. One of them, Hank Fiset, is a newspaper reporter struggling to find a place for himself in the internet age. We read his good-natured grumbles about the pace of change – “the only way you’ll be reading my column and everything else you now hold in your hands is on one of your many digital devices – your phone, maybe, or a watch that needs recharging every night”. It’s the signal note of this book of stories, which Hanks wrote on his collection of vintage typewriters: nostalgic, conversational, fusty.

The best story in the book by some distance has already appeared in the New Yorker. Alan Bean Plus Four suggested that Hanks, always a likable presence on screen, might also be a half-decent writer. It tells the pleasingly surreal tale of a group of characters – the narrator, his on-off girlfriend Anna, and two nerdy Home Depot workers called Steve Wong and MDash – who put together a rocket ship in the garden and fly to the moon. It reminded me of Stuart Dybek and Lore Segal – the pairing of flat prose with hallucinatory subject matter. There are occasional literary flourishes. As the rocket approaches the moon’s gravitational field, she wraps it “in her ancient silvery embrace”.

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Wake Me When I’m Gone by Odafe Atogun review – magical thinking in Nigeria

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 09:01:03 GMT2017-10-14T09:01:03Z

A village ruled by a despotic king is the setting for an evocative allegory about the endless contest between good and evil

Odafe Atogun’s second novel is set in a Nigerian village that could almost be described as magical. It is ruled by a despotic king and his council of priests; their worldview is, not surprisingly, patriarchal and ultra-conservative. Any form of dissent or innovation is punished with banishment, or death.

Widows must marry within a prescribed period after losing their husbands; if they don’t, their children are taken away to live with their uncles, or in extreme cases exiled to the town limits and left there to forage or beg for their food. It is a cruel system crying out to be challenged, if someone is willing to pay the steep price that accompanies such defiance. An unlikely challenger emerges in the form of the beautiful and kindly Ese.

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Mrs Osmond by John Banville review – superb Henry James pastiche

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 06:30:00 GMT2017-10-14T06:30:00Z

This cunning sequel to The Portrait of a Lady is a remarkable novel in its own rightJohn Banville is one of the best novelists in English, and an expert ventriloquist, among other things. In his case, ventriloquism is his way of embodying the past. In The Untouchable, for instance, he channelled the high-class Cambridge twaddle of Anthony Blunt. Mrs Osmond is his sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. At times it has the glacial pace of the original, endless psychological dithering punctuated by brilliant flashes of melodrama. Even stylistically it is a perfect fit: the actual descriptions of places are rather vague, but the metaphors are devoted to extremely vivid, even over-the-top, language. For instance, Isabel Archer wanders into the “unwonted solitude” of a hotel lobby – a general, rather abstract wording. Two lines later, she is savouring her freedom, which is rendered in a startling, original metaphor in which “the thing itself” is freedom: “She was being given a sample of the thing itself, as a seamstress might press upon her without charge a sample of fine silk.”Isabel, who has married Gilbert Osmond, is of course an American, as is her very refined, Europeanised and devious husband. She reflects on how she was lured to Europe from Albany, New York, again in an unadorned statement backed up by a vivid metaphor: “Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent so precipitately, as a free-trader’s posse might snatch from the doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life upon the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it.” The movement between the refinement of a civilised woman’s dwelling on the past and the kidnapping of a young male sailor precisely follows James’s way of injecting a coarse energy into descriptions of what he called his “super subtle fry”. Continue reading...[...]


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After the Fire by Henning Mankell review – Wallander author’s final novel

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 06:28:25 GMT2017-10-13T06:28:25Z

The elegiac final novel from the late author of the Wallander series, one of Scandinavia’s finest writers, weighs up life and death“No man is an island”, the poet John Donne announced. Muriel Spark played with this notion in her early novel, Robinson, where a human-shaped island begins to affect a group of castaways stranded there. Islands have a long association with literature, providing a setting for adventure, rebirth and danger. From Treasure Island to Lord of the Flies, they explore us as much as we explore them.Henning Mankell, in his final novel, returns to the location of a previous book, Italian Shoes, and the same protagonist, retired orthopaedic surgeon Fredrik Welin. That earlier novel dealt with ageing and mortality, themes also central to this work. Welin lives alone on his small island off the coast of Sweden, his only regular visitor the postman Jansson. He is self-contained and introspective, but his world changes when his house burns down one night. Arson is suspected, and the police think him the likely culprit. Meanwhile he moves into a caravan and begins to become infatuated with a young journalist, Lisa Modin, who is interested in the story. His apparently feckless daughter Louise then arrives, their relationship fraught from the outset. She has plans to create a garden, an “ocean of emptiness”, but soon departs without explanation. Left alone again, Welin questions whether he has any future: “I felt as if I was walking through my house once more. The cumulative impressions left by several generations had been obliterated in just a few short hours … Even things that are invisible can be reduced to soot and ashes.” Continue reading...[...]


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Sugar Money by Jane Harris review – slavery obscured by a rollicking adventure

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 11:01:10 GMT2017-10-11T11:01:10Z

Based on a true story, this tale of slaves smuggling slaves in the 18th-century Caribbean brings too light a tone to a brutal subject

Jane Harris’s first two historical novels showcased the voices of unsung, socially disadvantaged characters: a young Irish immigrant in The Observations, an elderly Victorian spinster in Gillespie and I. Harris is an empathetic and intelligent writer, with an instinct for the delicate alchemy that produces page-turners.

In her third novel, based on a true story, Harris takes us to 1765 and the voice of Lucien, a “mulatto” slave who is “thirteen or fourteen or thereabouts”, and has been brought over to Martinique from his native Grenada. Lucien works tending livestock on a plantation run by French friars. His only family is older brother Emile, who works “a long day hike away”.

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Origin by Dan Brown – a Nostradamus for our muddled times

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 11:00:48 GMT2017-10-08T11:00:48Z

Machines with synthetic brains pose a danger to mankind in Brown’s latest dotty apocalyptic thriller

I used to think Dan Brown was merely a crackpot. Now I wonder if he might not be a prophet. What once seemed to be his deranged fantasy increasingly looks like our daily reality. In our myth-maddened world, we are befuddled by bloggers peddling conspiracy theories and menaced by transactions on the dark web; we can’t cross a road without dreading some runaway act of messianic terror, and we experience an implosion of identity if we lose our smartphones or forget our passwords. In listing those perils I have summed up the plot of Brown’s new novel Origin: whether or not we read his apocalyptic thrillers, we are living inside them.

Origin stirs up again the witches’ brew that Brown first concocted in The Da Vinci Code. Scientific enlightenment engages in another battle with religious fundamentalism, fought out in glassy labs, glossy luxury hotels and devilish cathedrals, with Gulfstream jets and Tesla self-driving cars to ferry the characters between locations. In Inferno Brown threatened mankind with extinction by reactivating the bubonic plague; here the human race is warned of its imminent redundancy, as machines with synthetic brains prepare to take control of us.

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Dinner at the Centre of the Earth by Nathan Englander review – the trauma of conflict

Sat, 07 Oct 2017 06:30:14 GMT2017-10-07T06:30:14Z

A spy story that cuts between time and place brings home the devastating psychological impact of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle

Where this book so resonantly succeeds is as a meditation on the many traumas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – slap bang, as Nathan Englander reminds us, in the geographical centre of the standard map of the Earth.

This is Englander’s second novel, but his reputation was made by his first two collections of short stories. The epigraph he has chosen is from Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending and his writing has much in common with Barnes’s fine literary intelligence: a well-tempered intellectual and artistic pleasure, replete with collusive wit and playfulness. But his theme and subject here could not be less Barnesian – the psychological impact on the individual of the atrocities and failed peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians; how to live, in other words, within the grim cycle of reprisal.

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A Spot of Folly by Ruth Rendell and Sleep No More by PD James reviews – terrific stories

Fri, 06 Oct 2017 11:00:51 GMT2017-10-06T11:00:51Z

Collections from the late queens of crime fiction, each spanning 40 years of publication, are ideal for long autumn evenings

At the age of 91, PD James pondered the extent to which crime fiction contains a moral element. “Detective stories,” she said, “affirm the sanctity of each individual life and the possibility of human justice.” It is perhaps because of this that the genre has such enduring appeal and so many lifelong devotees: justice and recompense may elude the reader in matters both large and small, but turn to an Agatha Christie and you may be certain the murderer will meet an avenging angel in waxed moustaches or a nemesis with a bag of knitting.

So readers will greet with gratitude the publication of two terrific collections of crime stories from two late masters of the genre, each spanning 40 years of publication: James’s Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales; and A Spot of Folly: Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem by Ruth Rendell. Fittingly, these arrive in autumn, a season James felt was especially suited to crime fiction, since “people can be concealed by darkness and there is a certain melancholy in the dying of the year”.

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The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst review – passion and folly, beautifully observed

Thu, 05 Oct 2017 08:00:18 GMT2017-10-05T08:00:18Z

An assured chronicle that moves from a charmer’s wartime years at Oxford to his son’s experiences in modern-day London

Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is almost as hard to pin down as it is to put down. Its real subject seems to grow more, rather than less, mysterious as the book progresses. Meanwhile, the immense assurance of the writing, the deep knowledge of the settings and periods in which the story unfolds, the mingling of cruel humour and lyrical tenderness, the insatiable interest in human desire from its most refined to its most brutally carnal, grip you as tightly as any thriller.

Its five interlinked sections, beginning in wartime Oxford and ending in modern-day London, follow a group of friends, mostly gay men, whose lives have all been affected in one way or another by the fateful charms of a handsome athlete from Nuneaton named David Sparsholt.

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Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono review – a compliment from one author to another

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 16:00:01 GMT2017-10-20T16:00:01Z

Part biography, part mythic self-portrait, this wildly creative homage to Herman Melville is worth reading for its oddity alone

French novelist Jean Giono’s homage to Herman Melville, translated by Paul Eprile, is a strange creature: part biography, part Künstlerroman, part mythic self-portrait, it started life as the foreword to an edition of Moby-Dick but assumed monstrous form and sped off into the deep. Giono was obsessed with the story of the white whale, but his vision of the “patrician soul” behind it leans only lightly on the facts. After an idiosyncratic foray through Melville’s early life (“May is blossoming in his eyes. His memories are kings”), we join the author aged 30 in London. He thinks he has written all his books, but the angel who haunts his every stride has other ideas. Melville disguises himself as a sailor, sets out across England and falls for a beautiful revolutionary – who strongly resembles Giono’s own mistress – but the real interest in this wild-eyed adventure of creativity is what happens on the inside. As Giono writes: “You have your own private oceans, and your own personal monsters.” Melville is a unique compliment from one great writer to another, and worth reading for its compass-spinning oddity alone.

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Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin review – moving story of a child migrant

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 08:00:08 GMT2017-10-17T08:00:08Z

The team behind the graphic novel versions of Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series change direction with this very real and affecting tale

Writers Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano created the graphic novel adaptations of Colfer’s classic fantasy action series, Artemis Fowl. With Illegal, they turn to the here and now and have created a deeply affecting and thought=provoking account of the 21st-century refugee experience.

A kind of documentary fiction, the book weaves real stories of migration into the tale of Ebo, a spirited, motherless 12-year-old from Niger who follows his older brother from his hopeless village to the city of Agadez, where traffickers take them across the Sahara to Tripoli. Here, the boys again put their lives in the hands of nefarious men, who grant them space on a boat heading for to Italy. The story comes alive in the details: at his lowest ebb, Ebo lucks upon a packet of antiseptic wipes that he can trade, one by one, for food. One of his fellow voyagers, a Chelsea FC obsessive, jokes about becoming a World Service commentator (see how these boys are just like our own?).

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The Snow Angel by Lauren St John – review

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 08:00:21 GMT2017-10-03T08:00:21Z

This no-holds-barred tale of a Kenyan girl who finds refuge from poverty and disease is a hymn to the human spirit

Lauren St John’s novels conjure up rich, evocative landscapes and inquisitive, resilient children, both much in evidence in her latest adventure story that travels from Africa to the Highlands of Scotland.

Growing up in Nairobi, 12-year-old Makena dreams of climbing Mount Kenya, like her mountain guide father. But when tragedy strikes, darkness falls and the city slums become her harsh new reality. There she meets another forgotten child, ballet dancer Snow, and glimpses an elusive white fox, which appears to protect her. Makena’s search for a home ultimately takes her to Scotland, where mountains prove, once more, to be a refuge, and offer the happy ending she so yearns for.

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The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell review – action-packed fantasy fun

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 08:00:12 GMT2017-09-19T08:00:12Z

Worlds collide when a young wizard meets a warrior princess in this charmingly illustrated adventure from the author of How to Train Your Dragon

It’s a self-assured author who decides to write a children’s novel about the adventures of a “young boy wizard” in a world of magic, but then Cressida Cowell has reasons to be confident: 8m copies sold of her How to Train Your Dragon books, a film franchise and a spin-off series for TV.

As with the Viking world of Dragon, the eagerly awaited The Wizards of Once is set in the ancient past and our two heroes are scrappy kids struggling with that timeless issue of failing to live up to parental expectations. In place of dragons, there are sprites, deep-thinking giants, ogres and snow cats living in an enchanted wildwood.

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On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna review – alive to the power of nature

Sun, 10 Sep 2017 12:00:36 GMT2017-09-10T12:00:36Z

A ramble in the woods proves transformative in this award-winning celebratory tale

Anyone keen to pass on a love of the great outdoors will welcome the latest picture book from Italian-French talent Beatrice Alemagna, about a child lured away from technology to find fun in a forest. Using a beautiful earthy palette and intricate lines, loops and curls, the author/illustrator evokes a woodland world so full of textures and sights you can almost feel the shafts of sunlight on your back.

It’s a wet day and, in a scene familiar to most parents, a mum (herself glued to a laptop, presumably working) snaps at her offspring to do something other than play computer games all day. The child, whose gender seems ambiguous (great for little readers who can decide for themselves), skulks off into the woods in a neon orange raincoat that dazzles against the foliage – the child is outdoors and out of place. But, having lost the computer console, the child grows captivated by the forest’s sensuous delights – from stroking slimy snails to slurping icy rainwater.

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Dealing with monsters: why adults need kids books now more than ever | Kat Patrick

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 01:09:28 GMT2017-10-14T01:09:28Z

In a turbulent world, it’s helpful to have places like Alice’s Wonderland where the grown-up world is refracted, not reflected

• What are some of your favourite kids’ books to re-read as an adult? Let us know in the comments

As the majority of the so-called adults in charge across the globe begin to mirror the villains I grew up reading about, I find myself going back through old, worn favourites as well as buying plenty of new releases that help keep me sane. Kids’ literature, after all, is probably the best place to look for advice on dealing with monsters. I don’t know where I’d be without them.

Related: Scrumdiddlyumptious! My Roald Dahl top 10

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Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai review – an enchantingly light touch

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 08:00:43 GMT2017-10-10T08:00:43Z

The human rights campaigner strikes just the right balance in her first picture book, which relates the story of her childhood with a magical optimism

It must be a tricky business writing for young children about human rights: too heavy-handed and your work has an excessively moralising air, too heartfelt and it sounds schmaltzy. Having captured the world’s attention as a schoolgirl blogger under Taliban rule in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai knows a thing or two about striking the right tone.

Her debut picture book, an autobiographical tale about her childhood and how she became a global campaigner for educational rights, immediately draws the reader in with the opener: “Do you believe in magic?” To an audience well-acquainted with stories featuring magic beans and genies in lamps, Yousafzai explains that as a child she desired a magic pencil that could solve problems large and small, from erasing war to creating a football for her brothers so they no longer had to play with a rubbish-filled sock. Later, she cleverly flips the fairytale structure: the magic pencil never materialises and Yousafzai discovers she can change the world without wizardry.

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green review – a new modern classic

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 06:30:41 GMT2017-10-10T06:30:41Z

Five years after The Fault in Our Stars, John Green has written another YA novel that will resonate with teenagers and comfort anxious young minds everywhere

Following the gargantuan success of John Green’s 2012 YA novel The Fault in Our Stars, Turtles All the Way Down is a publishing mega-event. It’s also a book some might find easy to not like. It is sentimental, occasionally cliched and ticks so many teen fiction boxes you sometimes wonder if the author has a form beside him (troubled teen narrator – check; love interest – check; adults who don’t understand – check; quirky best friend - check; scene where boy points out stars to girl – check; topical issue – check). I wondered at first if I wouldn’t like it, but, spoiler alert, I rather did.

The story, narrated by a troubled Indianapolis teenager, Aza Holmes, begins as a mystery. Along with her mildly unscrupulous best friend Daisy, Aza decides to search for billionaire Russell Pickett, who has gone missing under a cloud of fraud and bribery accusations, in the hope of pocketing the $100,000 reward money.

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Dr Seuss racism row escalates over illustration of Chinese man

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 14:58:04 GMT2017-10-09T14:58:04Z

The Massachusetts museum dedicated to the children’s author has agreed to remove a mural showing one his early pictures, prompting charges of political correctness

The Dr Seuss Museum in Massachusetts has become embroiled in an escalating fight over an 80-year-old Seuss illustration of an Asian man, which culminated at the weekend in the local mayor condemning complaints about the picture as “political correctness at its worst”.

On Friday, author and illustrator Mo Willems announced that he and two other authors – Lisa Yee and Mike Curato – would no longer be appearing at a scheduled event at the museum in Seuss’s hometown of Springfield, due to a mural that included a “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat and slanted slit eyes”.

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Tim Minchin: ‘The world feels a bit post-jokes’

Sun, 08 Oct 2017 08:00:45 GMT2017-10-08T08:00:45Z

The comedian-composer on his children’s book, Australia’s same-sex marriage vote and why he’s glad to be leaving Hollywood

Australian composer and comedian Tim Minchin, 42, was born in Northampton but raised in his parents’ native Perth. After an award-winning comedy career, he wrote the music and lyrics for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s global hit musical Matilda, followed by the stage musical adaptation of Groundhog Day. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Sarah, a social worker, and their two children.

Tell us about your new children’s book, When I Grow Up, which is based on the lyrics of the song from Matilda.
It’s awesome – I didn’t even have to do anything [laughs]. That’s the incredible thing about Matilda, it keeps manifesting itself in different ways. It’s profoundly gratifying to have something else beautiful put into the world that was sparked by something you wrote eight years ago.

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‘Who wrote Mrs Osmond?’ – John Banville on writing a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 10:00:20 GMT2017-10-21T10:00:20Z

‘It did seem that I might be a character in one of the Master’s tales of the uncanny’ … the author recounts how his follow-up to Henry James’s classic came into being

I embarked on the writing of Mrs Osmond, a sequel, more or less – well, rather more than less – to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, with the insouciance of an unwise tourist setting out on an Alpine climb clad in a light jacket, city shoes and a straw hat, and wielding nothing sturdier than a malacca cane. It was only afterwards, when I had returned to Inglenook Inn and had sat myself down before a revivifying glass of Glühwein, that it was borne in upon me how high and treacherous were the crags I had climbed, and how deep were the crevasses into which I might have plunged. Within seconds I was in a fearful sweat, infirm of grip and tremulous of lip. How could I have been so rashly adventurous, so blithely foolhardy?

Related: Mrs Osmond by John Banville review – superb Henry James pastiche

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Shami Chakrabarti: ‘Harry Potter offers a great metaphor for the war on terror’

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 09:00:04 GMT2017-10-20T09:00:04Z

The Labour politician on the book she wishes she had written and why she couldn’t finish Fifty Shades of Grey

The book I am currently reading
Ali Smith’s Winter. The second in the seasonal cycle by the greatest English language novelist of recent times.

The book that changed the world
I reread The Female Eunuch recently and parts are still so relevant nearly 50 years on. It’s also hard to believe that Germaine Greer was barely 30 when she wrote it.

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Carol Drinkwater reveals sex attack by Hollywood director Elia Kazan

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 11:11:12 GMT2017-10-20T11:11:12Z

Rejecting the advances of a famous director cost the actor turned author the part of a lifetime. She explains why, 40 years on, she poured her shame and guilt into her latest novel, The Lost Girl

When the stories about Harvey Weinstein’s abusive behaviour began to pour out of the Hollywood closet, they stirred up painful memories for actor turned novelist Carol Drinkwater – so painful it has taken her four decades to speak out about them.

In an emotional Facebook post last week she wrote about being “very badly damaged in my 20s by a director as famous as HW, more so. It took me years to get over it ... I lost a mighty role because I would not play along, would not sleep with the director in question.”

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George Saunders: ‘When I get praise, it helps me be a little bit more brave’

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 18:06:24 GMT2017-10-18T18:06:24Z

This week the American writer George Saunders, celebrated for his short stories, won the Man Booker prize with his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He talks about brevity, empathy and how he sees writing as a form of activismGeorge Saunders won the Man Booker prize on Tuesday night, but while he was working on Lincoln in the Bardo, his winning book, he would sometimes stop and ask himself if it really was a novel he was writing. He still sounds a little unsure. “I still, I still … I mean, it says it is!” he says, pointing to the dustjacket; US tradition dictates that a novel is specified as such on its cover.Until now, Saunders, 58, has been master of the short story. (He won the Folio prize in 2014 for his collection Tenth of December and in 2006 was awarded a MacArthur fellowship.) This explains why he and his wife, Paula, who has been his first reader since they met in 1986 on a creative writing MFA at Syracuse University, still joke about the book. “Pretty good use of white space there!” one of them will say. “I guess it is a novel,” Saunders says. Continue reading...[...]


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'These guys can make something beautiful': Tracy Chevalier's new project – quilting with prisoners

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 08:39:41 GMT2017-10-18T08:39:41Z

The bestselling novelist fell in love with the craft while researching her last book, but now the author has found that it helps jailed men in real life

“Turn that bloody torch off. I only get two hours” is stitched into one patch of The Sleep Quilt, Tracey Chevalier’s latest project. The bestselling author explains: “The prisoner is high risk and on suicide watch, so he is woken every two hours to make sure he’s still alive. It’s been happening for 24 years for this prisoner – it’s horrifying. For him, sleep is something he craves, but it’s a horrible experience.”

After teaming up with 63 inmates in Wandsworth prison, south London, the author of novels such as The Girl With a Pearl Earring has helped them to create a quilt made up of the patches they sewed. Now that quilt is set to become a book.

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Rebus and roll: Ian Rankin’s new gig as a ‘dad rock’ singer

Sun, 15 Oct 2017 15:00:33 GMT2017-10-15T15:00:33Z

Best Picture are an Edinburgh band with a twist – their lead singer is one of Britain’s most popular crime writers

‘Tell you what,” says Ian Rankin, “I wish I could move like Jagger.”

We are in the Oxford Bar, the Edinburgh pub famous as the place where Rebus – Rankin’s fictional detective – does his drinking. But we are not here to talk about a book. Rather, to hear a confession of sorts: Ian Rankin is the singer in a hitherto secret band.

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Andrew Michael Hurley: ‘It’s not about whether you want to write. It’s an urgent necessity’

Sun, 15 Oct 2017 06:30:23 GMT2017-10-15T06:30:23Z

The novelist on religious communities, desolate landscapes… and getting a rave review from Stephen King

Hurley’s first novel, The Loney, was widely praised. Stephen King declared: “It’s great. It’s an amazing piece of fiction.” Originally published by a small press in a run of just 300 copies, it went on to win the Costa best first novel of the year and book of the year at the British Book Industry awards.

Your new novel, Devil’s Day, is set in a remote farming community called the Endlands. How did it begin its life?
It was the landscape that informed the novel, and really started that process. It’s based on an area north of Preston, where I live – the Trough of Bowland. Essentially, it’s a stretch of moorland that goes north from Preston and over towards Yorkshire. It’s a really unspoilt, untrodden place, and it occurred to me, as it did when I was writing The Loney, that this was a place that had been missed off the map in terms of literary fiction.

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John Green: ‘Having OCD is an ongoing part of my life’

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 11:00:00 GMT2017-10-14T11:00:00Z

The bestselling YA author talks about the success of The Fault in Our Stars, answering his critics and writing his mental illness into fiction in his new novel, Turtles All the Way Down

There is a scene late in US author John Green’s new novel, Turtles All the Way Down, where his protagonist, Aza Holmes – a bright, troubled teenager, as Green’s heroines generally are – goes through an ordeal so distressing it is difficult to read. Aza has obsessive compulsive disorder, and the “tightening gyre” of her thoughts has taken over. Green catapults his reader right into the middle of Aza’s desperate mental state as she becomes increasingly panicky over the possibility of being infected with the bacterium C. diff – “do you want to die of this do you want to die of this because you will you will you will you will” – eventually scooping handfuls of hand sanitiser into her mouth, gagging and vomiting as her mother tries to stop her.

Green, who has OCD himself, says it was “very hard to write”. “I wrote it right at the last, in the last revision. That’s as close to my experience as I could get.”

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