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Books | The Guardian



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



Published: Sun, 26 Mar 2017 11:24:41 GMT2017-03-26T11:24:41Z

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



Angie Thomas: the debut novelist who turned racism and police violence into a bestseller

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 07:00:24 GMT2017-03-26T07:00:24Z

Angie Thomas grew up witnessing drug dealing and gun crime but dreamed of being a writer. Then police shot a young, unarmed black man and she found her subject. Afua Hirsch meets her

If a spaceship landed in northern Texas and beamed every adolescent within a 50-mile radius into its desolate interior, the scene would look a lot like what now lies in front of me. It’s difficult to believe there are any teenagers in north Texas not currently forming orderly queues at the Las Colinas conference centre – a formidably angular set of slabs in the Texan wasteland.

Yet among the lines of young readers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, their arms cradling impractical numbers of books, and the row of authors signing on an industrial scale, one woman stands out. Angie Thomas, one of the youngest writers in the place, is one black face in a sea of white. She’s upbeat, her hair tied with a perky bow, and when a fan says she looks “so pretty” in a top that combines a hood with sheer lace panels, she laughs and says “thank you” in a Mississippi accent whose vowels are so many notes, it’s a beguiling song. She fingers the garment. “My friend called it Thug Life with a feminine twist.”

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My life with Oliver Sacks: ‘He was the most unusual person I had ever known’

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 07:00:24 GMT2017-03-26T07:00:24Z

In this extract from his memoir, Bill Hayes, partner of Oliver Sacks, recalls the neurologist’s unworldly charm, their remarkable stay with Björk in Iceland, and the dignity of Sacks’s final weeks

He wrote me a letter. That’s how we met. He had read my book, The Anatomist, in proof, and enjoyed it. (“I meant to provide a blurb,” but “got distracted and forgot.”) This was when I was still in San Francisco – early 2008. This was when people still wrote letters regularly and when one got a letter, sat down and wrote a letter back.

“Dear Mr Hayes – ”
“ – Dear Dr Sacks…”

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

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

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

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

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

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Heidi Julavits: ‘This is a way to lasso moments that were about to be lost’

Sun, 26 Mar 2017 07:00:24 GMT2017-03-26T07:00:24Z

The author on writing a diary that honoured her childhood, emotional honesty and staying creative in the face of today’s current affairs

Author of four novels, co-editor, with Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, of the compendium Women in Clothes and co-founder of the Believer magazine, Heidi Julavits teaches creative writing at Columbia University and lives between New York and Maine. The Folded Clock: A Diary was inspired by rediscovering her childhood journals.

The book moves backwards and forwards in time. Why did you structure it like that?
It was something I struggled with. The structure of the diary was a generative structure, but I then needed something to make it a more curated experience. I played around with organisational systems, including dividing all the entries into topics, but the categories kept collapsing. So I decided to stop being overanalytical and start building the book like a mixtape that I used to make in college, where you’d lay a few tracks down and then stop and listen to them and that would guide you to choose the right next track.

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

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

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

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

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

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Author Will Ashon: ‘There’s a real value to being lost’

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

The former record label boss and novelist on why he decided to write a book about Epping Forest and all of the misfits it harbours

Will Ashon, like Dante, found himself lost in a wood in middle age. Unlike Dante, Ashon had spent most of his adult life running a record label, discovering and signing names from Roots Manuva to Kate Tempest to Speech Debelle. He’d also been a hip-hop journalist and a novelist, but his midlife collywobbles prompted a different kind of writing, a book, Strange Labyrinth, which tells the cultural history of Epping Forest. Ashon explores the woody edgeland that straddles London’s East End, turning up gloriously peculiar stories of outlaws, punk rockers and frantic doggers. He lives in Walthamstow, north-east London.

Why the move from hip-hop to psychogeography?
Running a record label is hard work. It sounds glamorous in theory but in practice it’s a very full-on office job. And for every moment where you feel you’ve helped someone achieve what they deserve, there are all the moments where it goes slightly wrong. The music business is not big on natural justice. Or talent, for that matter. I still feel a lot of affection for the label, though, and for hip-hop more generally. I like to think of quotes as samples!

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Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future

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

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

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

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

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How Lenin’s love of literature shaped the Russian Revolution

Sat, 25 Mar 2017 09:30:05 GMT2017-03-25T09:30:05Z

The father of the Soviet Union was also a Latin buff who adored Goethe and liked to compare his enemies to figures in novels

Literature shaped the political culture of the Russia in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin grew up. Explicitly political texts were difficult to publish under the tsarist regime. The rasher essayists were holed up in asylums until they “recovered”: in other words, until they publicly recanted their views. Novels and poetry, meanwhile, were treated more leniently – though not in every instance.

The chief censor was, of course, the tsar. In the case of Pushkin, the “father of the people”, Nicholas I, insisted on reading many of his verses before they went to the printer. Some, as a result, were forbidden, others delayed, and the most subversive were destroyed by the frightened poet himself, fearful that his house might be raided. We will never know what the burnt verses of Eugene Onegin contained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘It captures a time before Dad became a public figure’: at home with Seamus Heaney

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 15:59:37 GMT2017-03-24T15:59:37Z

Catherine Heaney remembers gatecrashing her poet father’s kitchen photoshoot

This picture was taken when I was six years old. The photographer, Geray Sweeney, had come to our home in Dublin to take a portrait of my father for an exhibition on Northern Irish poets. I happened to be in the kitchen with my jar of bubbles as she was setting up, and she just started shooting. Clearly nothing was going to distract me from my task.

I don’t recall the occasion, but, looking at the photograph now, I have an almost physical memory of everything I’m wearing or touching. The beaded necklace was a gift from a family friend and I still have it in a jewellery box somewhere. The cardigan was knitted by my mum and was a bright, cherry red. But most of all, I remember my green bubble pipe. It made big, luxuriant bubbles – far superior to the little ones you’d get from the wands in bottles. My brother says it looks like a crack pipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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Border stories: Brexit Britain as seen by a witness to the scars of India's partition

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 14:51:56 GMT2017-03-24T14:51:56Z

As someone whose family fled their homes for England’s Midlands 70 years ago, how do I embrace my own Britishness in a time of imperial nostalgia?

On 14 August 1947, my grandparents fell asleep in one country and awoke the following day in another. While they slept, the ground under them, the plains between the Chenab and the Ravi rivers, where they and they families had lived for hundreds of years, became Pakistan. But until that moment, what had their homeland meant to them? Theirs was not a country but a colony. Home was on the rural edge of Lyallpur, a town near Lahore named after a lieutenant governor of Punjab, conquered by a country they had never seen: Britain. Even if they wished to forget their rulers they could not. Lyallpur was modelled on the British union flag. From a central panopticon-like clock tower, eight thoroughfares unfurled, divided and ruled.

When notice of partition was given, a British civil servant quietly drew up western and eastern national borders with little compassion for their citizens’ sense of history or their memories. Some of my grandparents’ neighbours, Hindus and Sikhs, loaded their homes on to their backs or oxcarts and walked east, fearing violence. My grandfather, an English teacher and farmer, stood on his roof and watched in disbelief as riots began. As houses around him burned, he refused to leave.

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Scarlett Thomas: Why I was wrong about children’s fiction

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 11:00:31 GMT2017-03-24T11:00:31Z

Once, I banned my students from writing them. Now I see the magic and joy in children’s stories

It was a mild early summer’s day, with buttercups everywhere. I was map reading and my partner was driving. We were somewhere in West Sussex, on a country road because I couldn’t cope with the harsh rush of the motorway. I’d recently been ill, and felt strongly that I never wanted to re-enter the normal world, with its clattering trucks, fluorescent litter, hashtags and memes. For the last few weeks I had only been able to read PG Wodehouse and Dodie Smith. So I felt happy in the simple nostalgic calm of the English countryside, with hamlets called things like Old Wives Lees and roads called Frog Hole Lane.

And suddenly, just off the A272, was a place called Dragon’s Green.

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The Patriots by Sana Krasikov review – stuck in the USSR

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

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

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

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

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin review – terrifying but brilliant

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

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

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

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

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Outrage as Belarus arrests authors, publishers and journalists in crackdown

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

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

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

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

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How Colin Dexter changed the face of crime fiction

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

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

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

Related: Colin Dexter obituary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Food in books: popovers from The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 16:00:08 GMT2017-03-23T16:00:08Z

A Californian holiday inspires a sweet take on Yorkshire pudding to conjure up a breakfast treat

The first thing they did on arrival was to have another breakfast. Just as if she had known what they would like Bella had made popovers for them; as well there was the most amazing fruit. Blueberries, the size of gooseberries, served with thick cream. Purple figs. Little cantaloupe melons cut in half and iced...

The Painted Garden, Noel Streatfeild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: Robert Silvers obituary

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The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale review – impressive debut western

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Erstwhile by B Catling review – a dazzlingly psychedelic quest

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

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

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

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

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Posters to reveal entire text of book about fighting tyranny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 08:59:07 GMT2017-03-23T08:59:07Z

Does the size of your plate matter, or how loud your crisps crunch? A psychologist explores our multisensory experience of food

One of the lesser enigmas of life is why so many people order tomato juice on aeroplanes. Like Pavlov’s dog, I often start craving it myself the minute I do my seatbelt up. Lemon, Worcester sauce, no ice (which I find dilutes the salty thickness too much).

In the general run of things, few of us sip tomato juice for breakfast or as an aperitif, yet this savoury beverage forms 27% of all drinks orders on planes, with or without added vodka. According to one survey of more than 1,000 passengers, nearly a quarter of people will choose tomato juice when flying, even though they never drink it under other circumstances. This is exactly the kind of puzzle that interests Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology. In Gastrophysics, Spence notes that the “really special thing about tomato juice and Worcester sauce (both ingredients in a good bloody mary) is umami, the proteinaceous taste”. When Spence and colleagues investigated, they found that the blaring sound of being on an aeroplane – around 80-85 decibels of background noise – interferes with our ability to taste sweetness. That gin-and-tonic which tastes so sweet back on land is dulled in the air. By contrast, the noise actually increases our perception of the intensity of savoury umami flavours such as tomato juice. As we merrily ask the flight attendant to pour us a bloody mary, we have little notion that we may be driven to do so by what is happening to our ears as much as to our mouths.

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

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

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

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

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

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Colin Dexter: a mischievous, generous man every bit as clever as his creations

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 10:39:47 GMT2017-03-22T10:39:47Z

The man behind Inspector Morse was humble, kind and warmly funny. His death marks the passing of a generation who propelled crime writing to new levels

If you didn’t know Colin Dexter was an internationally acclaimed bestselling author whose award-winning novels had spawned three successful TV series, you’d never have guessed. A short, unassuming man in blazer and flannels, toting an old leather briefcase and living in an undistinguished semi on a main road on the outskirts of Oxford, he was invariably humble about his achievements.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he would say. “Lucky with my publisher, lucky with the television people, lucky to have John Thaw playing Morse.” He never had a literary agent because he remained convinced of the fundamental decency of people, despite the villainy and venality his books contained.

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Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter dead at 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caribbean crime thriller wins inaugural prize for only BAME writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mal Peet in line for posthumous win as Carnegie shortlist announced

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

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

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

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

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Oxford comma helps drivers win dispute about overtime pay

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 11:42:08 GMT2017-03-16T11:42:08Z

An overtime case that will delight language nerds everywhere hinges on the absence of an Oxford comma

Never let it be said that punctuation doesn’t matter.

In Maine, the much-disputed Oxford comma has helped a group of dairy drivers in a dispute with a company about overtime pay.

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Brexit, gun control and feminist science fiction on 2017 Orwell prize longlist

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 00:01:11 GMT2017-03-16T00:01:11Z

Naomi Alderman’s science fiction story The Power is the sole novel on a 14-book longlist for the political writing award, with accounts of recent and historical developments in Britain dominating

Naomi Alderman is the only novelist to make it on to the longlist for the 2017 Orwell prize for outstanding political writing, in a year when George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is once again troubling the bestseller lists.

Alderman’s The Power heads a 14-strong list of books that span anthropology, politics, memoir and history for an accolade considered Britain’s most prestigious for political writing, which comes with a cash award of £3,000. Described as The Hunger Games crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale, Alderman’s dystopian novel examines the roots and impact of misogyny by reversing the gender roles in a future society ruled by women. The novel has also been longlisted for the 2017 Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction, and shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust science writing prize.

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Amos Oz and Ismail Kadare named on Man Booker international prize longlist

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 10:00:27 GMT2017-03-15T10:00:27Z

Oz’s first novel in a decade joins Kadare’s gruesome Ottoman tale in ‘ferociously intelligent’ selection – but one with very few women

A Chinese satire of communism, a retelling of the Robin Hood myth set in the Republic of Congo and a coming-of-age tale in a still-divided Jerusalem are among 13 books from 11 different languages that are longlisted for the Man Booker international prize.

Books from Europe dominate the longlist, alongside two Israeli novels, and one apiece from China and Argentina. The annual award, which celebrates the finest global fiction translated into English, is worth £50,000, to be split evenly between author and translator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poem of the week: To Himself by Jeffrey Wainwright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 15:00:35 GMT2017-03-13T15:00:35Z

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.

The hardy readers of TLS seem intent on taking on tough ones at the moment. Like thesecretorganist, who has been reading the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor:

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Poem of the week: Animal Rescue by Antony Dunn

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 11:26:40 GMT2017-03-13T11:26:40Z

It is not the moths, newts, sheep or spiders that are most in need of rescue in this elegant and wry poem

Animal Rescue

To say nothing of all the moths and wasps
I’ve been opening windows for;

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

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

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

That’s all for today

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

Related: City of Friends by Joanna Trollope – digested read

tippisheadrun asks:

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

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

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

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Writers unite! The return of the protest novel

Sat, 11 Mar 2017 08:00:29 GMT2017-03-11T08:00:29Z

From Ali Smith’s Brexit book to Howard Jacobson’s Trump satire, writers are responding to the political moment. But can art bring real change?

There are many reasons to miss the writer Gordon Burn, who died in 2009 at the age of only 61: his fearlessness in depicting the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, the Moors murderers and Fred and Rosemary West, and parsing their distorted, occult refraction of the English psyche; his wonderfully engaged, wry writing on sport, art, politics; his intuitive, loving understanding of the deep pathos and nostalgia of popular culture. But one of the talents that his death deprived us of becomes more noticeable by the minute. In 2008, Burn published Born Yesterday: The News as Novel, which he had written to a punishingly tight schedule during the course of 2007. Born Yesterday had only the slightest plot – a Burn-like character absorbs the world around him, noticing incidentals, making connections, drawing conclusions – because its real business was the news itself, its events and atmosphere gleaned from the newspapers and TV bulletins.

Related: Gordon Burn | Obituary

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From 'alibi' to 'mauve': what famous writers' most used words say about them

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

Zadie Smith’s ‘evil eye’, JK Rowling’s ‘dead of night’ … favourite phrases – and cliches – tell a fascinating story

When Ray Bradbury was asked to contribute his favourite word for the 1995 book The Logophile’s Orgy, he chose cinnamon: “The word cinnamon derives, I suppose, from visiting my grandma’s pantry when I was a kid. I loved to read the labels on spice boxes; curries from far places in India and cinnamons from across the world.”

If you count the millions of words Bradbury wrote over the course of all his novels, the data shows that this was no spur-of-the-moment answer: he did use the word at an unusually high rate. In fact, he used it more frequently than Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, John Steinbeck and Edith Wharton combined.

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Alt-right comic book villains? Comics have moved on from punching Nazis

Thu, 09 Mar 2017 08:05:31 GMT2017-03-09T08:05:31Z

Just as Captain America once found himself recruited to battle nazism, today’s cartoon warriors are squaring up to far-right villainy

Comics have never shied away from punching a Nazi. Captain America socked Hitler himself on the jaw in his first issue back in March 1941, with Superman and Batman also stepping up to fight the Führer that same decade.

But long after the Third Reich was toppled, Nazis and fascists continued to make good villain fodder for superheroes. For Captain America, Marvel created out-and-out Nazi agent Red Skull (who also became a communist in the 1950s), as well as the green-garbed fascist, terrorist, criminal organisation Hydra. In DC Comics, there was Captain Nazi – genetically altered by his scientist father to fight for Hitler – who was sent by the Nazis to fight American superheroes, and there were evil groups like Hive and Kobra.

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Reading group: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess is our book for March

Tue, 07 Mar 2017 10:51:36 GMT2017-03-07T10:51:36Z

This novel of a writer’s life in the 20th century was the runaway favourite to look at this month. It’s a big book, with much to think about and much to enjoy

Earthly Powers has won the popular vote and is this month’s reading group choice. It was the runaway winner, with 20 more votes than its closest rival – although it should also be noted that there were more than 20 other books also in the running. That’s some testament to the variety and scope of Burgess’s talents – as is Earthly Powers itself, being the novel Burgess said he wrote to “really show what I could do”.

Shortlisted for the 1981 Booker prize, Earthly Powers was deemed by Malcolm Bradbury to be the book that “summed up the literary, social and moral history of the century with comic richness as well as encyclopedic knowingness”. The Times thundered that it was a “hellfire tract thrown down by a novelist at the peak of his powers”. And its reputation has only grown in the years since its publication. In 2006, for instance, it was the runner-up in a 2006 Observer poll to find the best novel of the last 25 years (unfortunately missing out to Disgrace by JM Coetzee).

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George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

Sat, 04 Mar 2017 08:00:10 GMT2017-03-04T08:00:10Z

A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts … What is the mysterious process writers go through to get an idea on to the page?

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

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The Reformation should have been a warning to Remainers

Fri, 03 Mar 2017 12:00:01 GMT2017-03-03T12:00:01Z

If David Cameron had understood the causes and progress of the English Reformation he would have realised the appeal of ‘very well then, alone’

We are told that, shortly after midnight on 24 June, 2016, when the European Union referendum result was declared, David Cameron and George Osborne – the true begetters of the squalid exercise in party management – were as surprised as they were disappointed. That was because they did not understand the character of the English people. They took it for granted that votes would be cast according to a calculation of whether membership of the European Union or withdrawal offered England the most prosperous future. But inhabitants of this fortress built by nature do not live by GDP alone.

Many of them have an ingrained belief in national sovereignty. England is at its best, the argument runs, when it is neither governed nor influenced by decisions taken in what Shakespeare called “less happier lands”. If Cameron and Osborne had understood the causes and progress of the English Reformation they would have realised the appeal of “very well then, alone”. The parallels are far from exact, but they are near enough to prove that the English believe in deciding things for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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Why are there so few novels about Aids these days?

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

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

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

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

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London book fair: new Peter Carey and Benedict Cumberbatch snaps up Matt Haig

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 17:06:32 GMT2017-03-14T17:06:32Z

First day of the annual trade fair sees British actor option unpublished Haig novel and a new book from Peter Carey

Book deals are flying thick and fast at the annual London book fair, as swarms of publishers descend on west London to snap up the starriest names and fresh-faced debuts on offer. Here are some of the biggest deals finalised on the first day of the 2017 fair:

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Books in 2017: a literary calendar

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

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

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Being a radical optimist with Mohsin Hamid – books podcast

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

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

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid joins Richard in the studio to talk about his latest novel, Exit West: the story of Saeed and Nadia, a couple who leave an unnamed city in search of a new life. Mohsin shares how he came up with the idea of doors that act as wormholes into alternative universes and locations, why he left Saeed and Nadia’s city anonymised and why the conversations around Brexit and Donald Trump have left him energised.

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Kayla Rae Whitaker: cartoon life on the dark side

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

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

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

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

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 59 – Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (1869)

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 05:45:28 GMT2017-03-20T05:45:28Z

Arnold caught the public mood with this high-minded but entertaining critique of Victorian society, posing questions about the art of civilised living that still perplex us today

In 1848, a year of European revolutions, Matthew Arnold, the eldest son of a celebrated Victorian headmaster, voiced fears about his society that still seem hauntingly prescient and topical. “I see a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual, and social, preparing to break over us,” he wrote. Arnold was also a poet, critic and educationist of great distinction. In Dover Beach, his finest poem, he expressed similar anxieties in some famous lines:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

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Top 10 stories of obsession

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 11:00:33 GMT2017-03-22T11:00:33Z

From Stephen King’s avid fan in Misery to Nabokov’s disturbing tale of preteen Lolita, fixation is a powerful pull for authors – especially when it overlaps with desire

I’m not an obsessive person, but tell me a book is about obsession and I’m going to read it. Obsession is a natural motivator, requiring ever greater sacrifices, presenting increasing dangers to anyone standing in the way.

When you’re a new writer, struggling to make sense of your characters, there’s a simple question that unlocks everything else: What does your protagonist want? What a person wants from life, whether it’s happiness or money or love, powers every decision. And what is obsession, but wanting on steroids? It’s a canister of gasoline dumped over the flames of desire.

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

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

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

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

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Sjón: 'Behind my book lies another I will never write'

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 11:00:04 GMT2017-03-21T11:00:04Z

The novelist recounts the bleak story of a psychic that led him, circuitously, to a story of a gay teenager making his way in flu-struck Reykjavik in 1918

Behind the text of my book Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was hides another one I will never write. It was in 2001 or thereabouts that I heard a story I thought I’d try to develop into a novel. It was about a medium who had become something of a celebrity by conversing with the dead. People would contact him and he would put them in touch with their lost ones.

Most of his clients seemed to be satisfied with the results, even though to a sceptic’s ear the whole thing sounded like bad improvisation. It didn’t help that the medium’s connection to the afterlife jammed whenever the questions to the deceased became too specific. So, the man was obviously a fake (should you believe there are real ones), and he knew it, but there was no denying he was doing his best.

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From the Heart by Susan Hill – digested read

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 17:00:13 GMT2017-03-19T17:00:13Z

‘Olive woke up to discover she was a lesbian having an affair with an older teacher called Thea’

Evelyn Piper had prayed for three sons, only to be disappointed by the birth of a single daughter, whom she called Olive. The disappointment got worse the older Olive became, as she became a dull, plain teenager who wore glasses. Just about the only thing Olive had going for her was that she didn’t have acne. Eventually, the disappointment grew so intense that Evelyn realised she had no option but to die.

If Olive was upset by her mother’s death, she didn’t show it. Primarily because she was almost entirely without affect. So on the day after Evelyn’s funeral, she went to see her careers adviser at school. “What do you want to do?” asked the careers adviser. “Nothing really.” “What interests you?” “Nothing really.” “Nothing?” “Well, I quite like reading books.” “Then you’d better become a teacher.”

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

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

Amit Chaudhuri revisits a masterful tale of revellers stranded at a hotel, which recalls Joyce and Woolf but resembles neitherIn the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student in Oxford, I bought a volume of three novels by an author I hadn’t heard of, Henry Green. The Green people were talking about then had an e at the end of his surname, and his first name was Graham. He was almost an exact contemporary of Henry’s: born in 1904, a year before Green, he lived much longer. Both belonged to well-to-do families, but Green was particularly affluent. His father was an industrialist. I’d tried reading Graham Greene, but had never made much headway. Then Henry Green came along, and Graham swiftly became, for me, the “other Greene”, and then not even that. About Henry Green, however, there’s an irreducible, longstanding excitement among the few who have read him.I must have bought the three-novel volume of Loving, Living, Party Going because John Updike had, in his introduction to the volume, not only given Green centrality as a precursor, but called him a “saint of the mundane”. The religious analogy was excessive, but what had made me admire Updike in the first place was the way in which he’d deliberately made room for the mundane, for the banality that fills our lives and makes them truly interesting. And yet I found Green to be a different kind of writer, with almost none of the chronicler’s impulse that from time to time directed Updike’s decade-long projects, and with no abiding interest in realism, despite his extraordinary eye and ear and his gift for capturing character. Replying to a question put to him by Terry Southern for the Paris Review in 1958 – “You’ve described your novels as ‘nonrepresentational’. I wonder if you’d mind defining that term?” – Green said: Continue reading...[...]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A House Full of Daughters review – fascinating family memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This international history makes the case for squatting as a radical alternative to neoliberal urbanisation and a shared vision of the cityIn February this year squatters moved into a £14m mansion near Buckingham Palace. It was the third such luxury property occupied in a matter of weeks by members of the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, or Anal for short, part of a campaign to highlight the scandal of empty properties at a time when homelessness and inequality are soaring. The number of people sleeping rough in England has risen steadily for the last six years.Alexander Vasudevan’s study is the first comprehensive attempt to reconstruct the history of squatting as “the expression of an autonomous understanding of shared city life”. Each of his eight chapters takes a specific city and charts the evolution of squatting since the radical social movements of the 1960s, showing how the occupation of buildings became a way of reimagining the city “as a space of necessity and refuge, experimentation and resistance”. As well as providing an instant solution to the need for housing, squatting was also a way to reclaim the city in the face of gentrification and urban renewal schemes that were stripping it of public spaces and displacing working-class populations. Continue reading...[...]


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

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

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

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

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

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Insatiable by Stuart Sim review – neoliberalism and the greedocracy

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 15:00:33 GMT2017-03-15T15:00:33Z

Greed has always been with us, but now there is hardly a sector of public life where it is not a rampant influence. What can be done?Avarice is one of the seven deadly sins, and, as Stuart Sim points out in his lively survey of the phenomenon, the medieval church itself was not immune. Not only did it revel in extravagantly decorated buildings and rich costumes for its priesthood, it took money for pardoning sins while enjoying a lucrative income from the sale of allegedly holy relics, which were often based on false claims about their origin as well as their power to bring healing.So greed, as our more secular age prefers to call it, has always been with us. What is new? In Sim’s view it is greed’s all-pervasive visibility in our interconnected world where little remains hidden. While the extravagant fortunes that can be made in the financial centres and on stock exchanges receive most media attention, there is hardly a sector of public life where greed is not a rampant influence. It inflates the salaries of university vice-chancellors and company chairmen. It tempts sportspeople into taking performance-enhancing drugs and faking score lines for the sake of betting syndicates. In the food industry it perverts suppliers as well as consumers by manipulating packaging and advertising in order to create excess demand for fatty and unhealthy products. It permeates the healthcare business, through pharmaceutical companies’ unfair pricing policies, as well as a private health insurance sector which seeks the maximum profit while failing, as far as they can get away with it, to cover people’s pre‑existing medical conditions. Continue reading...[...]


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Be Like a Fox by Erica Benner review – was Machiavelli really not Machiavellian?

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 09:00:26 GMT2017-03-15T09:00:26Z

The Prince was meant ironically, and its author was really a nice guy, argues this compulsively readable study

One has grown used to reading the kind of revisionist history in which the Renaissance was a myth, the Reformation never happened and the great Irish famine was a spot of food shortage. Britain blundered into ruling India by a series of unfortunate oversights, and Attila the Hun was by no means as bad as he has been painted.

Related: Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?

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Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith review – the octopus as intelligent alien

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 07:30:24 GMT2017-03-15T07:30:24Z

A scuba-diving philosopher of science explores the wonder of cephalopods, smart and playful creatures who live outside the brain-body divide

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea.” Coleridge’s lines evoke those Precambrian depths where sensate life first stirred, and which remain lodged atavistically in our collective imaginations. Perhaps that’s why we look on the octopus as an eldritch other, with its more-than-the usual complement of limbs, bulbous eyes, seeking suckers and keratinous beaks voraciously devouring anything in its slippery path.

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s brilliant book entirely overturns those preconceptions. Cephalopods – octopuses, squids and nautiluses – “are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals”, he writes, having developed on a different path from us, “an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour”. This is why they present themselves as a fascinating case study to Godfrey-Smith, who is a philosopher of science – because of what can be learned from them about the minds of animals, including our own. His book stands alongside such recent works as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins as evidence of new and unconstrained thinking about the species with which we share our watery planet.

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Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman – review

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 09:00:28 GMT2017-03-13T09:00:28Z

The Dutch historian’s blueprint for a liberal paradise is challenging in places but pure fantasy elsewhere

This is a book with one compelling proposition for which you can forgive the rest. It is utopian visions that have driven humanity forwards. It was the hope we could fly, conquer disease, motorise transport, build communities of the faithful, discover virgin land or live in permanent peace that has propelled men and women to take the risks and obsess about the new that, while not creating the utopia of which they dreamed, has at least got us some of the way. Celebrate the grip that utopia has on our imagination. It is the author of progress.

Medieval idealists imagined a land of plenty – Cockaigne – where rivers ran with wine, everyone was equal and partied and drank all their lives. The trouble with today’s liberals – witness Hillary Clinton or any of Labour’s recent past or present leadership – is that they have lost any comparable vision, however far-fetched or unrealistic. Utopia has become the preserve of the right. It is Mr Trump and Mr Farage who dream of a world of America and Britain first, revelling in low taxes and little or no state, liberated from the dark forces of the UN, World Trade Organisation and the EU.

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Book reviews: fresh insights on Islam and Isis

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 07:30:26 GMT2017-03-13T07:30:26Z

Four new books give much-needed insight into a misunderstood religion, from history and philosophy to life under Isis

In the years since 9/11, there has been much talk about “the problem with Islam”. Part of the problem, obvious to anyone who follows the news, is that a very small number of people who like to blow up buildings and sever heads do so in the name of Islam. As if the link between violence and religion was now proven (it is not), the current occupant of the White House wishes to restrict the movement of certain Muslims into the US. If you have a historical view of Islam, you will understand the irony in this because a little more than 100 years ago, many Muslims were seen as sensual, mystical and exotic.

You won’t find much of those three qualities in The Way of the Strangers. Graeme Wood’s book does what it says in the subtitle and offers a series of “encounters with the Islamic State”. Well, not quite the state itself, because the chance of becoming another orange-suited sacrifice deters most western journalists from travelling there. Instead, Wood talks to the state’s supporters and enthusiasts in Cairo, London, New York and elsewhere.

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Eat like a Jedi: the best tie-in cookbooks | Phill Langhorne

Sun, 12 Mar 2017 06:00:16 GMT2017-03-12T06:00:16Z

Star Wars, Fifty Shades, Twin Peaks…Phill Langhorne finds plenty of drama in these film and TV recipe books

In 1940, to capitalise on the success of Gone with the Wind, toothpaste company Pebeco published a tie-in cookbook, featuring recipes such as Coffee Cake Wheels and Georgia Peach Trifle. Since then, hundreds of films and TV shows have left their culinary mark. Here we prepare a meal, with each course coming from a different TV of film tie-in cookbook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensitive and faithful, this book charts the last hours of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James SalterThe grave’s a fine and private place, as Marvell wrote; the deathbed, as he did not, less so. Here we have six intrusions on the last moments of six writers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. (The last name perhaps not so well known in the UK: I recommend checking him out.)Dr Roiphe (she has a PhD in literature) has always been a bit obsessed with death, we learn from an introduction that tells of a traumatic childhood bout of pneumonia. Recovering, she read “exclusively books about genocide” by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and others, describing her “great, endless appetite for these books, not just for people dying but people dying in great numbers”. Being so consumed by her subject, and at the same time highly sensitive to the areas where art and life meet, is what lifts her book from the category of Higher Gossip (nosiness excused by the trappings of Great Art). Continue reading...[...]


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Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett review – she fought and conquered

Sun, 19 Mar 2017 09:00:03 GMT2017-03-19T09:00:03Z

A gripping portrait of the Spanish queen’s fearless reign in a masculine worldGiles Tremlett’s biography of the 15th-century queen of Spain, Isabella of Castile, is subtitled “Europe’s First Great Queen”. It could just have been subtitled “Europe’s Toughest Queen”, as Tremlett tells the story of the woman who not only succeeded in a traditionally masculine world, but excelled. As in his previous biography of Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, Tremlett describes a world full of uncertainty and cruelty, in which the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition was just one of the ways that she reconquered Spain from the Moors. In grippingly told and evocative pages, the military success of Isabella is evoked as she ordered her armies: that “we lose ourselves to fury rather than allow moderation to triumph”. Tremlett’s style is both scholarly and hugely readable, and he particularly excels in depicting Isabella’s relationships with her husband, Ferdinand, and, towards the end, with Christopher Columbus. This superb book is a pleasure to read.• Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To order a copy for £21.25, 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 Continue reading...[...]


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Quieter Than Killing review – vivid and eerie

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

Sarah Hilary’s fourth DI Marnie Rome novel digs deep into the detective’s past, wrapping the story in effortless proseDI Marnie Rome first ventured on to the literary scene in 2014, in Sarah Hilary’s debut Someone Else’s Skin. Horribly unsettling, beautifully written, it went on to win the Theakston’s crime novel of the year award. Quieter Than Killing is the detective-with-a-troubled-past’s fourth outing, and it’s just as good: honestly, if you’re not reading this series of London-set police procedurals then you need to start doing so right away.This time around, Rome and her sidekick DS Noah Jake are dealing with a string of apparently unconnected brutal assaults. The victims seem to have nothing in common, but Rome and Jake discover that they have all served time for brutal acts of their own in the past. They believe they are dealing with a vigilante, not someone on a killing spree. “It was quieter than that. In some ways, it was worse. Leaving victims on all sides, living in fear, watching the shadows.” Or as one of their colleagues puts it, less elegantly: “As if we don’t have enough arseholes on our hands without the arsehole-hating arseholes pitching in.” Continue reading...[...]


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

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

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

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

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

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Birdcage Walk review – domestic terror in Georgian Bristol

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

Helen Dunmore’s vivid novel of a woman married to a violent 18th-century property magnate is her best yetThis is the finest novel Helen Dunmore has written. Its unencumbered lightness does not come out of nowhere: it has been years – and books – in the making. Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was a remarkable debut, but in comparison suffers from a surplus of detail. Now, Dunmore knows how to let a narrative move like an arrow in flight. There is an atmosphere of Hardyesque unease as a man rows from Bristol to a glade where he has left his dead wife overnight. He must bury her fast, where no one will find her. From the start, Birdcage Walk has the command of a thriller as we keep company with John Diner Tredevant, an 18th-century property developer building a magnificent terrace in Clifton, high above the Avon Gorge. Lizzie, his second wife, does not know the details of what happened to his first. Nor do we know as much as we might suppose.It is 1792. The French Revolution is about to have a catastrophic effect on Diner’s property speculations and this is particularly alarming given his disposition. Dunmore’s portrait of Diner is brilliant. She grasps the psyche of an oppressive, jealous, potentially violent man. Whenever Diner is cheerful, Lizzie is relieved. When he is not, she knows how to humour him and steer the subject away from peril. She knows which secrets she needs to keep from him. Continue reading...[...]


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

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

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

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

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

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The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown review

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

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

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

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

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Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar review – Solaris with laughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

A haunting depiction of domestic constraints set in Bristol at the time of the French RevolutionBarry Unsworth, whose Sacred Hunger shared the 1992 Booker prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, mistrusted an addiction to historical minutiae when it came to evoking the past in fiction. “What matters,” he said, “is trying to get hold of the spirit of the age, what it was like to be alive in that age, what it felt like to be an ordinary person in the margins of history.”Helen Dunmore would doubtless agree. From her debut, Zennor in Darkness, set in Cornwall during the first world war, to Exposure, her recent take on the cold war spy drama, she has carefully peeled back the public record to expose the private struggles of those whose lives are forged in the crucible of history, and in particular what she calls “the long shadows of war”. Her novels illuminate not only the suffering of these forgotten people but their small joys, the ties of family and of faith, the stubborn determination of individuals, even in the grimmest of circumstances, to hold onto the humanity that redeems us. Continue reading...[...]


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