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Books | The Guardian



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



Published: Tue, 16 Jan 2018 12:58:25 GMT2018-01-16T12:58:25Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2018
 



Margaret Atwood faces feminist backlash on social media over #MeToo

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 18:36:05 GMT2018-01-15T18:36:05Z

The Canadian author’s defence of due process for those accused of sexual misconduct sparked online ire

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is facing a social media backlash after voicing concerns about the #MeToo movement and calling for due process in the case of a former university professor accused of sexual misconduct.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Atwood said the #MeToo movement, which emerged in the wake of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, was the symptom of a broken legal system and had been “seen as a massive wake up call”.

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Gilead: is John Ames as good as he wants his readers to believe he is?

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 09:00:20 GMT2018-01-16T09:00:20Z

Marilynne Robinson’s novel manages to beguile the reader with its portrait of a quiet, resolutely workaday life – told through the eyes of a wise, if mysterious narrator

Gilead is a wonderful, precious book. I loved reading it and I’d urge it on anyone. But it isn’t an easy sell. From the outside, it looks austere, quiet, maybe even dull, and I pity the blurb writer who first had to try to encapsulate this story of a 76-year-old cleric from Gilead, a small (very small) town in rural Iowa, writing to his young son and looking back over a long life lived mainly alone and in prayer.

It is a novel that defies summation. The crucial experience comes in engaging with the voice of the Reverend John Ames; entering his world and his heart. There’s plenty of gentle wisdom:

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Newly seen letters show Philip Larkin's close relationship with mother

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 18:56:42 GMT2018-01-15T18:56:42Z

Philip and Eva Larkin corresponded twice weekly for about 35 years, with the pair exchanging minute details of one another’s daily lives

He was terrified of marriage, living a life of tangled relationships with women who became his muses. Poet Philip Larkin’s view of marriage may partly have been coloured by his mother’s warnings of its disadvantages, previously unpublished letters reveal.

In 1952, Eva Larkin told her son: “Marriage would be no certain guarantee as to socks being always mended, or meals ready when they are wanted. Neither would it be wise to marry just for those comforts. There are other things just as important.”

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TS Eliot prize goes to Ocean Vuong's 'compellingly assured' debut collection

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 19:30:04 GMT2018-01-15T19:30:04Z

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, the debut collection by a poet who is the first literate person in his family, hailed as ‘the definitive arrival of a significant voice’

After becoming the first literate person in his family and a prize-winning poet festooned with awards, Ocean Vuong has now won perhaps his most prestigious accolade yet for his debut collection: the TS Eliot prize.

Reflecting on the aftermath of war over three generations, 29-year-old Vuong’s first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, has already landed the Forward prize for best first collection, as well as the Whiting and the Thom Gunn awards. The book has also been critically acclaimed, with Observer critic Kate Kellaway describing it as “a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide”, and the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani praising Vuong’s “tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words”.

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Letter to Louis by Alison White review – the courage of care

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 07:00:18 GMT2018-01-16T07:00:18Z

Alison White’s admirable, beautifully written account of raising a child with cerebral palsy offers an essential insight into the lives of carers

There are many heartbreaking moments in this beautifully written book, but the first comes before it even begins. In a dedication to her son Louis, author Alison White says how she wanted to write it so that people would understand disability and caring, but also, “to be totally honest, I wanted to write something that would make people consider being Louis’s friend”. Beneath that simple plea lies the great fear of so many parents who nurse a severely disabled child through to adulthood: “What will happen when I’m gone?” It’s a measure of this unsentimental and clear-eyed account that White never labours this point, or any other of the myriad anxieties that accompany long-term caring. Instead, she just tells us what it’s like: and it is, in equal measure, admirable, uplifting, terrifying.

White’s story begins with Louis’s premature birth and an account of his time in an intensive care unit, where he comes close to death. When the story moves back to the later stages of White’s pregnancy and the catastrophic failure of a midwife to check White’s blood pressure at a vital moment, you are already primed to shout at the page: “Check her blood pressure, for God’s sake!” White goes into pre-eclampsia, a condition that can be fatal for mother and child, and Louis is later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

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Lost in (mis)translation? English take on Korean novel has critics up in arms

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 12:23:25 GMT2018-01-15T12:23:25Z

A row over Han Kang’s award-winning novella The Vegetarian highlights the unavoidable difficulties of importing a novel from a very different language – but literal translation too often results in poor books

Another week, another round in what I shall henceforth refer to as Han Kang-gate – though Smith-field might be more accurate, evoking the London meat market, since the centre of this literary scandal is not the Korean writer but her English translator.

It began last summer in the New York Review of Books, when the writer Tim Parks laid into Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian. He professed himself mystified that it had won the Man Booker International prize, when “the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom.”

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Stephen King's PEN award is no occasion for horror | Alison Flood

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 13:58:40 GMT2018-01-15T13:58:40Z

I love his work, but even those who question King’s literary value should applaud his receiving a PEN award for his dedication to free-speech

When Stephen King was announced as winner of the National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2003, the literary establishment reacted with horror, whether it was the great critic Harold Bloom’s condemnation of the novelist as “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis”, or the calls that went up telling King to decline it.

Fifteen years on, the announcement that King will be honoured with the 2018 PEN America literary service award, in contrast, has prompted not a whit of ire. King’s status as a sort of literary national treasure, albeit one steeped in blood and gore, feels pretty assured these days. The PEN award, given to authors including Tom Stoppard, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie in the past, is for “a critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition, engendering empathy and imagination in even the darkest hours”.

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Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff – review

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 07:00:20 GMT2018-01-14T07:00:20Z

Michael Wolff’s sensational White House exposé paints Trump as a childlike nonentity sustained by our grim fascination

Everyone knew what was in this book before anyone had read it, and the scoops skimmed off in the pre-publication headlines are now old news. Yes, here we have Bannon’s claim that the Trump campaign may have had a “treasonous” meeting with Russian agents, plus the dire warning that Ivanka thinks her brand is potentially presidential. Wolff inevitably likens the Russian cover-up to the skulduggery of Watergate, and briefly updates us on Pissgate and Pussygate – respectively the spurious tale of the golden shower in Moscow, and Trump’s better-authenticated braggadocio about his success as a groper (although, evidently believing that executive privilege protects his mendacity, he now claims that it “really wasn’t me” on that tape).

Fire and Fury also gives the lowdown on the lacquered trompe-l’oeil that is Trump’s hairdo, with those tinted tendrils combed over a cranium that is totally bald and resonantly empty. But beyond such acts of exposure, what makes the book significant is its sly, hilarious portrait of a hollow man, into the black hole of whose needy, greedy ego the whole world has virtually vanished. Wolff deplores Trump, explains the conditions that made him possible, and accuses us all of colluding in this madness.

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OUT: LGBTQ Poland by Maciek Nabrdalik review – Poles apart

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 08:00:50 GMT2018-01-15T08:00:50Z

A book of portraits and testimonies from Poland’s LGBTQ community speaks volumes about entrenched rightwing zealotry and intolerance

In 2015, the newly elected president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, immediately announced that he was against marriage equality and, when asked if he would employ gay people in his office, replied: “I can’t imagine half-naked people parading around the chancellery.” His father, Professor Jan Tadeusz Duda, has said he views homosexuality as an acquired affliction that the state should do all it can to prevent.

In his illuminating introduction to OUT: LGBTQ Poland, journalist Robert Rient provides the cultural and historical context for these kinds of views. “The concentrated contempt for non-heterosexual people in Poland,” he writes, “is the product of a medieval, patriarchal culture reinforced by the state and the powerful Catholic church, to which the vast majority of Poles belong. It is a culture where chauvinism and misogyny, and therefore homophobia and transphobia, thrive.”

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What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home review – Mark Mazower’s evocative story of his forebears

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 08:00:21 GMT2018-01-14T08:00:21Z

The noted historian’s account of his family’s exile from Russia after the revolution offers a rich cast of characters

Centenaries are odd affairs. Such a passage of time lurches from the approachable to the incomprehensible. As is the case with the Russian Revolution. In What You Did Not Tell, however, Mark Mazower ably conjures up this crepuscular period as he considers his family’s involvement in the events of 1917.

The Mazowers originated in the Pale of Settlement, the western region of imperial Russia where Jews were allowed residency. And although Mazower was raised in the émigré haven of Hampstead and Highgate in the 1960s, by then his extended family had been ravaged by tsarist deprivations, Soviet purges, a German occupation and the Holocaust.

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Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life – review

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 09:00:22 GMT2018-01-14T09:00:22Z

Nick Coleman’s analysis of pop’s most thrilling singers brims with joy and well-turned phrases, but doesn’t dig deep enough

What do we want or expect from a voice, someone else’s voice, a stranger’s voice? After nine months of deafness, documented in his 2013 memoir Train in the Night, Nick Coleman realised he only wanted to hear voices that would “nourish and sustain” him. He found nourishment in the heightened naturalism of 60s girl group records, exemplified by the Shangri La’s’ Mary Weiss and the Marvelettes’ Gladys Horton, and in Aretha Franklin, who became a more personal prop for him, offering sisterly advice. Whenever he put a record on, he was always conscious that his hearing might go again, at any moment, and maybe this time it would never return.

This urgency gives Voices a slightly claustrophobic feel. The book covers the rock era, and Coleman has a varied enough palate to appreciate “the weird disturbance wrought by Suzi Quatro” as well as more familiar and predictable names like Dylan, Jagger and Lennon. He’s not afraid to go out on a limb and throw his arms wide for effect, so Little Richard’s voice is “the most exciting sound in the world”. Neither is he afraid to venture into synaesthetic descriptions, as with Elvis Presley: “This sound is like burnished gold; it shines”. The notion that Kate Bush’s voice “fills the sky like weather” is quite beautiful.

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Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding review – the first British murder trial held in secret

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 09:00:01 GMT2018-01-13T09:00:01Z

A man is found dead in his London home. The killer is jailed. But is it all a high-level cover-up?

Writing a true-crime book while the legal process is still unfolding is a high-stakes business. There’s no assurance of a neat outcome, or really any outcome at all. The goodies might turn out to be baddies, and all that righteous anger about a possible miscarriage of justice could leave you looking foolish. Trial dates slip, which means you’re deprived of a cracking finale in which grateful relatives embrace you on the courtroom steps while the police stand by looking sheepish. You could end up, in other words, with a sort of fretful trailing off …

All of which happens in Blood on the Page. Despite the title, which promises a “body in the library” plot from the golden age of detective fiction, Thomas Harding has written a real-life procedural about an uncharismatic crime involving unattractive people, which might, nonetheless, have important implications for us all. Or there again, it might not. For at the heart of the narrative is a big hole that, despite everyone’s best efforts, including those of Duncan Campbell of the Guardian, the British government has decreed cannot be filled for fear of imperilling national security.

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Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976-1991 by David Lodge review – plodding and self-indulgent

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 08:59:25 GMT2018-01-12T08:59:25Z

Where is the accomplished comic novelist in this over-detailed, prickly account, which has only flashes of moving writing and entertaining gossip

Henry James famously contrasted life as “being all inclusion and confusion”, with art “being all discrimination and selection”. I wish that David Lodge, a James aficionado, had heeded the latter part of that dictum when he was planning Writer’s Luck, the second volume of a memoir that began with Quite a Good Time to Be Born (2015). This book presents a writer who simply has no clue as to what he should leave out, or how to compress a narrative for the sake of pace. In his acknowledgements he thanks his agent, editor and others for their help, though evidently none of them troubled to tell him his book needed serious pruning.

Related: The interview: David Lodge

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A Long Way from Home review – Peter Carey’s best novel in decades

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 07:00:49 GMT2018-01-15T07:00:49Z

The acclaimed writer’s 14th novel is a nuanced story of racial identity set in postwar Australia

Writers are by nature chameleons, with each new character a new disguise to take on, a fresh skin to inhabit. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that racial passing has such a rich literary history. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, is a near-forgotten classic, telling of two mixed-race women, Clare and Irene, who identify as white and black respectively. More recently, we’ve had Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which the African American Coleman Silk attempts to pass for a Jewish academic. Then there’s Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, whose concluding revelation about one of the characters’ racial identities does what all good end-of-book twists ought to, shedding new light on the entire novel.

A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey’s 14th novel, uses the story of a light-skinned Indigenous Australian who has been brought up white to address the country’s brutal history of racism. It seems strange at first that Carey – surely Australia’s greatest living novelist, even if he hasn’t dwelled there for decades – has taken so long to get around to the subject. In a recent interview in the Australian, he said that he’d always felt that it was not the place of a white writer to tell this tale. Then something changed: “You can’t be a white Australian writer and spend your whole life ignoring the greatest, most important aspect of our history, and that is that we – I – have been the beneficiaries of a genocide.”

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Three Things About Elsie review – the tricks of memory at an old folks’ home

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 10:00:24 GMT2018-01-14T10:00:24Z

Joanna Cannon’s new novel focuses on the mysteries of its protagonist’s past, but is at its best in its tender descriptions of those on the fringes of society

Joanna Cannon’s 2016 debut novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, was that rare literary phenomenon: a bestseller, swiftly optioned for TV and spawning a devoted readership. But beyond that, it was to lead a new publishing trend, latterly described as “uplit”: fiction in which empathy and kindness drive the narrative and where protagonists exist on the periphery of society, at best overlooked and at worst rejected entirely.

Cannon is now back with her second novel, which similarly explores the inner lives of society’s outsiders. Eighty-four-year-old Florence Claybourne is a resident at the Cherry Tree home for the elderly and is beset by both nostalgia and dementia: “My mind started to wander. It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away.” She has fallen over in her room and as she lays on the floor waiting for someone to find her, she remembers the events of the past month: the arrival of a man at the home whom she is convinced is someone from her past, albeit someone who supposedly died many years before. But no one in the home believes her – neither staff nor fellow residents – bar Florence’s lifelong friend, Elsie, so Florence sets out to unravel her past and prove them wrong.

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The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor review – a new light on Reservoir 13

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 07:30:52 GMT2018-01-13T07:30:52Z

The Costa award-winner returns to the scenes of his success with a collection of linked stories

Last April, when his Costa award-winning novel Reservoir 13 was published, Jon McGregor gave an interview in which he took polite issue with the praise heaped on him throughout his career for writing about “ordinary” lives. “It’s quite an othering statement,” he said. “My take is that nobody is ordinary to themselves. Everyone’s life story is interesting, complicated and nuanced.”

As a position, it’s irrefutable – but to me it seemed to undercut McGregor’s formal experiment. Despite Reservoir 13’s classic crime-fiction set-up (it opens with the New Year’s Eve disappearance of a 13-year-old girl), the book soon reveals itself to be the chronicle of a community, in which the lives of the inhabitants are merely threads in the wider warp and weft of village life. The novel is delivered almost entirely in the passive voice: sentences that are framed as subjectless observations (“they were seen”; “questions were asked”) gradually accrete to create an atmosphere of local gossip.

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The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments by Ann Quin – review

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 11:59:28 GMT2018-01-12T11:59:28Z

The adventurous spirit of a cult author from the 1960s animates tales of sex and psychiatry

Reduced to an anomalous footnote in British literary history – a female, working-class, avant-garde author – Ann Quin is all too often taken as read. Yet her work is as open-ended as those sentences she regularly produced that trail off into silence, casting a spell instead of spelling out; floating away on their reserve of potentiality. As open-ended, indeed, as her life, which she took at the age of 37, swimming out to sea off Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973. She left behind four novels – including her celebrated debut, Berg (1964) – along with scores of short-form pieces, some which now appear in a thrilling new collection of miscellanea.

Related: The return of experimental fiction

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Salt by David Harsent review – studies in human fear and frailty

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 09:59:26 GMT2018-01-12T09:59:26Z

These poems, rarely more than five lines long, ‘form a ricochet of echoes’

If poems are like other people’s photographs in which we recognise ourselves, David Harsent’s writing catches us at our most vulnerable, vicious and unnervingly visceral. Reading through his back catalogue gives you the measure of his oeuvre: A Violent Country, After Dark, Dreams of the Dead, Mr Punch, Night. Stalking through an often nightmarish territory of half-apprehended horror and bleakness, the narrators of his poems survey human fear and frailty against the backdrop of an elemental, unforgiving world. Like a scene from a Hitchcockian movie, the worst always seems to be held just out of shot, all the more present for its apparent absence. Redemption and absolution are rarely on offer. Harsent may have a beautiful technical facility for language, its measure, weight and texture, but the ends to which it is put are as black as a darkroom negative.

Salt is Harsent’s first collection since Fire Songs, winner of the 2014 TS Eliot prize. Its poems form a strange sequence of sorts, though their author is resistant to such definitions: “the poems belong to each other”, we are told in a prefatory note, “by way of certain images and words that form a ricochet of echoes”. Fragmentary, fleeting and impressionistic, the poems in Salt are rarely longer than five lines, issued from an anonymous speaker who gives next to nothing away, just as the poems so often explore the apparent next to nothing – a moment, seemingly insignificant, is mined for its sudden significance, as revelation, brief history or omen. Take the following piece, quoted here in full:

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Blankets by Craig Thompson review – one of the best graphic novels of all time

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 09:30:17 GMT2018-01-11T09:30:17Z

This touching, passionate account of growing up in the American midwest is officially released for the first time in the UK

Blankets has been garlanded with praise since its publication in 2003, winning an Eisner award and regularly featuring in lists of the best graphic novels of all time. But Thompson’s autobiographical tale of family life and young love in the American midwest has never before received an official UK release. First-time readers expecting an instant showstopper may wind up disappointed: the book unspools gradually over 600 black-and-white pages as young Craig negotiates life, sharing blankets unwillingly with his younger brother and reverently with his girlfriend Raina. It’s a childhood cloaked in snow, in which money is ever tight and Christ ever present, and school is a hostile place. The dialogue can be clunky, but Thompson has a great eye for the moment, and the pages fly by as Craig meets Raina at church camp, falls in love and questions his faith. While the young artist is at the heart of this fine work, everyone in Blankets has a spark and an inner life, and the fluid panels tease out character with subtlety and generosity. It’s a touching, passionate account of growing up.

Blankets is published by Faber. To order a copy for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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The Noise of a Fly by Douglas Dunn review – shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 09:59:17 GMT2018-01-11T09:59:17Z

Larkin’s influence is still strong in this collection, which illuminates the natural world and the coming of old age

The Hebrew for fly, zvuv, “is surely one of the most magically exact onomatopoeias in any language”, Steven Connor writes in his study of the insect, Fly. News that Douglas Dunn’s poetic muse has taken wing again, 17 years after his last collection, deserves an onomatopoeic outburst of its own of relief and delight. Slacking is hardly a trait one associates with the diligent Dunn, but the opening quatrain, “Idleness”, listens out for “The sigh of an exhausted garden-ghost. / A poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.” There are ghosts and exhaustion aplenty in The Noise of a Fly, shortlisted for next week’s TS Eliot prize, but rarely if ever does the poet find himself stuck for words.

It is almost a half a century since Dunn made his debut with the northern realism of Terry Street, but the influence of his fellow Hull librarian Philip Larkin still remains strong. Dunn is 75 (12 years older than Larkin was when he died), and his poems of ageing show all manner of convergences with the bard of Pearson Park. “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs,” wrote Larkin. Dunn broadly agrees: “So much time wasted wanting to be remembered / Ends with desire to be forgotten.” “Gave yet another lecture. God, I’m boring,” begins “Thursday”: “Dear God, it’s true, I’m just an ancient bore.”

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The Light Jar review – thoughtful and empathetic

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 08:00:19 GMT2018-01-16T08:00:19Z

Lisa Thompson brings bags of empathy to a deftly plotted tale about an 11-year-old suddenly left to fend for himself

Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy, about a troubled 12-year-old with OCD investigating the disappearance of a toddler, was one of 2017’s bestselling children’s debuts. Her follow-up, The Light Jar, is another mystery/thriller wrapped around psychological themes. Nate’s dad ran off with a colleague when he was six. Now 11, Nate and his mum are bedding down in an abandoned cottage, on the run from Gary, her emotionally abusive boyfriend. When his mother fails to return from a shopping trip, Nate must fend for himself – and convince Kitty, a girl who lives in the neighbouring stately home, that he has not been abandoned.

Domestic abuse is tricky territory for young readers (this is a “middle-grade” novel, as Americans have it), and there are moments here when Nate – and Kitty’s – predicaments feel almost unbearably bleak. There is a terrifying passage in which Nate has a panic attack in an enclosed space, and we come to understand his attachment to a jar filled with fairy lights that he keeps by his bed.

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Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone review – an action-packed adventure

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 09:30:01 GMT2018-01-13T09:30:01Z

Ice Queen meets Fur tribe in a warm and exciting tale about the magic of wilderness

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel begins with a memorable image: a girl crouches, frozen, under the glass dome of a music box, unable to move or speak, witnessing horrors in a winter palace, determined to escape and regain her unique voice.

Best known for her Dreamsnatcher trilogy, Elphinstone’s latest novel is an action-packed adventure and a truly magical tale (in both senses), set in the icy north. Erkenwald is a land of mountains, forests and glaciers; it is home to polar bears, eagles, whales and wolves, as well as to the Fur, Feather and Tusk tribes. In Elphinstone’s well-orchestrated mythology, the North Star, a Sky God “carved from stardust”, breathed life into the land that still retains traces of the magic of its creation. But “darkness can come to any kingdom and so it came to Erkenwald”.

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Star in the Jar review – magical story of loss and sibling love

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 09:00:15 GMT2018-01-09T09:00:15Z

Sam Hay’s warm-hearted tale explores the wonders of the night sky

Full of encouragement to look up at the night sky with little children during these long dark evenings, Star in the Jar is about a small boy who loves collecting precious things – “Tickly treasure. Glittery treasure... even litter bin treasure” – and one day stumbles upon a real star.

Popped in a jar for safekeeping, the star never leaves the boy’s side, even brightening up a trip to the toilet. But as night descends, the star longs for home. Sarah Massini’s rich, characterful illustrations show the boy’s celestial friend growing limp as it gazes up from a window ledge to read a constellation spelling out “lost, one small star”. And so the boy and his big sister, the story’s narrator, must figure out how to return their latest treasure.

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I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan review – uplifting and empowering

Mon, 01 Jan 2018 08:00:04 GMT2018-01-01T08:00:04Z

This debut novel about a coming-of-age British Muslim teenager is fresh and funny, while also tackling serious issues

Early in 2015, three Bethnal Green schoolgirls fled to Syria to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State. I Am Thunder is a response to that event, written by secondary school teacher Khan to explore the lives of young British Muslims.

His 15-year-old protagonist, Muzna, dreams of being a writer; her friend’s response, that “you don’t hear of many Muslim authors, do you?”, seems only too fair considering the dearth of non-white voices in UK publishing. Muzna feels invisible; her life is a jumble of teenage angst, stifled by loving but controlling parents and the sharp edge of racism everywhere.

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Kerry Andrew on writing supernatural fiction: ‘I had to spook myself out’

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 11:00:25 GMT2018-01-14T11:00:25Z

The musician and writer on her debut novel, Swansong, inspired by a 17th-century ballad, her inspirations and the wisdom of Robert Macfarlane

Kerry Andrew is a London-based composer, performer, writer and educator. She has a PhD in composition, has won four British composer awards and is the current BBC Ten Pieces commissioned composer. In 2014 she released Hawk to the Hunting Gone, an avian-themed alternative-folk album under the name You Are Wolf. Swansong, her debut novel, is set in the Scottish Highlands, where a London student flees after a disastrous night out.

Swansong is based on a ballad probably originating in the 17th century. What appealed to you about it?
It comes from the same root as the Swan Maiden myth – or it might do – and the version I came across was more supernatural. It’s very dark and romantic and tragic. Quite often in ballads you get a woman who’s been left very sad, so the fact that this involves a male character who is left bereft – in a very beautiful way – made it stand out.

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Gail Honeyman: ‘I didn’t want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim’

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 11:59:28 GMT2018-01-12T11:59:28Z

The Costa award-winning debut novelist on the kindness of Glasgow and becoming a full-time writer in her 40s

Gail Honeyman arrives in London trailing a wheelie-case, having travelled from Glasgow on a plane that was supposed to leave at 7am, but was delayed by the freezing weather. As we take the escalator up to liberate her of the case for a photocall, we muse on the peculiarity of a –7C ground frost stranding a plane which regularly flies at air temperatures of –40C.

In ways that only those who have found themselves sucked into her award-winning debut novel will truly understand, this is an Eleanor Oliphant moment: it enfolds a stressful experience, stoically borne, in the beady intelligence of a woman who is rarely seen in public without a trolley-bag. The comparison has less to do with Honeyman herself than with the capacity of her writing to make everything seem a little bit strange, slightly dislocated from its face value.

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Daniel Mallory: ‘Without Gone Girl I’d never have written this book’

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 09:00:22 GMT2018-01-14T09:00:22Z

Having written his debut novel in total secrecy and published it under a pseudonym, Daniel Mallory has been astounded that The Woman in the Window has created a worldwide bidding frenzy. Tim Adams meets novelist as he steps out of the shadows

Last year, Daniel Mallory had one of those weeks that all first-time novelists fantasise about. Through an agent he had submitted his manuscript to several publishers and was about to take a short holiday. The excitement started when he arrived at Newark airport in New York to take a plane to Palm Springs. That was when the first offer to publish his book came in.

After that, Mallory says: “It was the full dream.” His phone lit up with offers and messages like in the movies. “I was going on holiday with someone and he was taking a separate flight and he texted me in mid-air, and asked: ‘How is your flight?’ And I texted back: ‘Life changing.’ And he wrote back ‘LOL’, and I was like, ‘No, Really!”’

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Stalking bestseller that split German opinion arrives in UK

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 08:54:07 GMT2018-01-14T08:54:07Z

Dirk Kurbjuweit’s fact-based bestselling novel asks if violence can be justified in self-defence

A remarkable German novel based on the author’s disturbing real-life experience of being stalked by a neighbour is to be published in the UK later this month.

Fear, a bestseller in Germany that was recently turned into a TV movie, is the work of Dirk Kurbjuweit, deputy editor-in-chief of the current affairs magazine Der Spiegel. In 2003, Kurbjuweit’s downstairs neighbour waged an eight-month campaign against the family, This included waiting in the hallway to shout at Kurbjuweit’s wife, Bettina, trying to get into the family flat through the garden, papering the walls in the hallway with notices accusing the couple of sexually abusing their children, and writing poems and letters addressed to them filled with fantasies of murder.

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Siddhartha Mukherjee: ‘Two hours writing, then a researcher knocks on the door with a pipette’

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 10:00:02 GMT2018-01-13T10:00:02Z

The author and oncologist on his red suede writing couch, his admiration for Orwell and his love of cell biology

By the time I sit down to write in my office, I’ve typically gone through several internal cycles of remission and relapse. I’ve probably finished my rounds in the cancer ward. Perhaps I’ve taught the red-eyed, exhausted overnight intern to recognise the difference between the drug rash from Amoxicillin (bright, angry, often harmless) and the innocuous-looking rash of immune rejection after a transplant (dusky, hazy, often deadly). Perhaps it’s eight in the morning now. I’ve had two shots of espresso. I might have written orders for chemo for a young woman with breast cancer, and – since her babysitter had to cancel this morning – I may have asked one of the nurses to distract a three-year-old daughter while another nurse puts an IV line into Mom’s arm. Then I may have scooted down to the pathology lab to look at the bone marrow biopsies that I did last week. There’s one man whose marrow shows a spectacular response to the drug that is on trial. Another patient has definitely relapsed. It’s barely midday, and my pulse has stopped, started and stopped about four times.

Why do I write? Or why, for that matter, do some doctors write? Some of us write to bear witness. Some of us tell stories. Zadie Smith once said that the very reason she writes is so that she “might not sleepwalk through my entire life”. On some particularly grim days, I think that I write to induce sleepwalking.

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Katherine Rundell: ‘The only time kids fully understand the world is when they read’

Sat, 06 Jan 2018 10:58:11 GMT2018-01-06T10:58:11Z

The winner of the Costa children’s award on academia, adventure and her wild childhood in Zimbabwe

Katherine Rundell was low on money when she won the Waterstones prize for children’s fiction for her novel Rooftoppers nearly four years ago. The £5,000 that came with the award meant the young author could afford tickets to the Amazon to research a new novel, The Explorer – a book that has just landed her the prestigious Costa children’s books prize, won in the past by giants of the genre from Roald Dahl to Philip Pullman.

“I was not making a fortune from my fiction,” she explains. She was also doing a master’s and then a PhD at Oxford and some teaching. “I would love to say I was starving in a garret. All Souls College has several butlers. I was not suffering,” she says. “But I knew I wanted to write a book set in the Amazon. I’d wanted to go since I was tiny. I read Willard Price and this fabulous book called The Lost City of Z [by David Grann], and then this glorious book by Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea.”

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Poem of the week: Moving On by Robyn Bolam

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 08:00:50 GMT2018-01-15T08:00:50Z

Reflecting on the traumatic changes that have transformed the city of Newcastle, a poet casts a steady gaze at its past and present

Moving On

In the Haymarket a bus station has been transformed
from cattle crush to airport lounge. I no longer miss
Marlborough Crescent, open to weather. From there, I’d rush
for the trolley bus to school while the abattoir let
blood flow unchecked along the gutter, stinking through fumes
as drivers climbed in their cabs and, one by one, engines
vibrated, buses pulled into stands. I’d leap across,
never connecting that red stream with the death it meant
or managing to link this to cattle sometimes glimpsed.
Our city made blood, tanks and ships. It still stood on coal.

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Sound and fury: how pronunciation provokes passionate reactions

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 08:59:01 GMT2018-01-13T08:59:01Z

Auditory beauty lies in the ear of the listener but to focus on sounds we don’t like is to miss out on the riches, power and beauty of the English sound system

When I used to present programmes on English usage on Radio 4, people would write in and complain about the pronunciations they didn’t like. In their hundreds. (Nobody ever wrote in to praise the pronunciations they did like.) It was the extreme nature of the language that always struck me. Listeners didn’t just say they “disliked” something. They used the most emotive words they could think of. They were “horrified”, “appalled”, “dumbfounded”, “aghast”, “outraged”, when they heard something they didn’t like.

Why do people get especially passionate about pronunciation, using language that we might think more appropriate as a reaction to a terrorist attack than to an intruded “r” (as in “law(r) and order”)? One reason is that pronunciation isn’t like the other areas of speech which generate complaints, such as vocabulary and grammar. You may not like the way people use a particular word, such as disinterested, but you’re not going to meet that problem frequently. Similarly, if you don’t like split infinitives, you won’t hear one very often. But every word has to be pronounced, so if you don’t like the sound of an accent, or the way someone drops consonants, stresses words, or intones a sentence with a rising inflection, there’s no escape. Pronunciation is always there, in your ears.

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Why is the cover of Fire and Fury so ugly?

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 15:38:16 GMT2018-01-10T15:38:16Z

The bestselling Donald Trump exposé has a startlingly bald, plain cover – but that is in keeping with the no-frills conventions of the politics genre

Donald Trump and subtlety do not go together naturally, but the cover of Michael Wolff’s bestselling White House exposé Fire and Fury greets the gaze like a towel-snap to the face: shouty, red capitals over a shouty, red man. While the red, white and blue cover is certainly eye-catching, its design has been criticised as too bland and simplistic for a book that has had such an explosive impact. “Why did they have to make the Fire and Fury book cover on Microsoft Word?” reads one derisive Twitter take, while a design website gave it faint praise for echoing “the raw immediacy and faux-outsider aesthetics that underlined Trump’s entire campaign”.

After he was approached by “some folks who think the existing cover is a disaster and a missed opportunity”, designer Edel Rodriguez (who made two striking Trump covers for Time magazine) came up with a new cover for Wolff’s book. His bright and bold design, featuring a fiery Trump looming over a tiny White House, is now being celebrated as the cover that should have been, with some readers even downloading it to replace the original on their e-readers.

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Reading group: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is January's choice

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 09:00:15 GMT2018-01-09T09:00:15Z

For our theme of redemption, this novel about a midwestern congregationalist minister promises to be a bracingly thoughtful start to the year

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has been drawn as our book for January’s reading group. Several readers nominated it for our theme of redemption – and all were persuasive. Ceciliefodor said the book was “absolutely beautiful, and will feel like a mental antihistamine for the frantic mind with its almost provocatively slow, meditative pace”.

The actual nomination that emerged from the hat came from vr1777, who wrote:

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

Mon, 08 Jan 2018 15:00:13 GMT2018-01-08T15:00:13Z

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

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

The festive season is almost out of the way. But not quite. Benner notes:

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The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list

Sun, 31 Dec 2017 08:30:25 GMT2017-12-31T08:30:25Z

After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, Robert McCrum has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing

1. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
An engrossing account of the looming catastrophe caused by ecology’s “neighbours from hell” – mankind.

2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
This steely and devastating examination of the author’s grief following the sudden death of her husband changed the nature of writing about bereavement.

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The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

Mon, 17 Aug 2015 09:11:54 GMT2015-08-17T09:11:54Z

After two years of careful consideration, Robert McCrum has reached a verdict on his selection of the 100 greatest novels written in English. Take a look at his list

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

A story of a man in search of truth told with the simple clarity and beauty of Bunyan’s prose make this the ultimate English classic.

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Best books of 2017: indie publishers on their favourite books of the year

Fri, 29 Dec 2017 08:00:24 GMT2017-12-29T08:00:24Z

India’s answer to Lear, a teen tale set amid the London riots and the first great book on grime. Experts pick 2017’s smartest, oddest and most overlooked reads

Co-director, Tramp Press

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'If you're looking for Nordic angst, forget it!': your favourite books of 2017

Thu, 28 Dec 2017 11:30:15 GMT2017-12-28T11:30:15Z

From mind-bending typography to birdsong, from short stories to long lives, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads

This brilliant, Man Booker-shortlisted first novel has been described as a noir, and it has echoes of southern gothic. A violent act precipitates the final conflict. Love Carson McCullers? Look the other way when you read Cormac McCarthy? You’ll love this!

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2018 in books: a literary calendar

Sat, 06 Jan 2018 09:00:09 GMT2018-01-06T09:00:09Z

Essays from Zadie Smith, Arnhem from Antony Beevor and novels from Julian Barnes, Sarah Perry, Pat Barker, Rachel Cusk … and Bill Clinton. Place your book orders now

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Meet the new faces of fiction for 2018

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 08:30:22 GMT2018-01-14T08:30:22Z

The fashion writer inspired by her local lido, the museum attendant who told herself tales about the artefacts to while away quiet afternoons… there are some great stories behind our choice of the UK’s debut novelists this yearNew voices are the life-blood of the world of books, especially when it comes to fiction. As the old, established novelists slow down and – whisper it – show signs of becoming stale, how refreshing, how rejuvenating, it is to welcome fresh faces to the table. Not surprisingly, spring, the time for new beginnings, is the season when publishers large and small choose to unveil their new talent and the class of 2018 looks particularly promising. For the fifth year running, the Observer New Review has chosen six debut novelists we believe will make a splash, among them two teachers, a former fashion journalist, a one-time literary agent and a gallery attendant at the British Museum. The subjects they take on range from mermaids, child abuse and outdoor swimming to old age and the “comfort” women of Japanese colonial rule in South Korea.What makes us so sure these new writers will stand out from the crowd? It can never be more than a hunch but our track record in picking the cream of the crop speaks for itself. Previous New Review debutantes have included prize-winners and bestsellers such as Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist), Emma Healey (Elizabeth Is Missing), Laura Barnett (The Versions of Us), Sally Rooney (Conversations With Friends) and Gail Honeyman, whose Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine has just won the Costa debut novel award for 2017. It is heartening to see more black and ethnic minority authors among 2018’s first-time novelists, a sign that publaishers may be starting to address the imbalance that means writers named David are famously more likely to get into the bestseller charts than BAME authors. Could they do more? Evidently. Let’s see what 2019 brings. Lisa O’Kelly, associate editor (books) Continue reading...[...]


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Frankenstein at 200 – why hasn't Mary Shelley been given the respect she deserves?

Sat, 13 Jan 2018 08:00:00 GMT2018-01-13T08:00:00Z

Shelley’s Frankenstein has spoken to technological and cultural anxieties from the Enlightenment to #MeToo. But its author’s achievements have too often been dismissed or treated with scepticism

I became fascinated by Mary Shelley and her most famous novel because of her husband. Back in 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. It was a tricky assignment. Percy was above all a creature of his own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist. Yet Mary’s Frankenstein comes out of just the same heady cultural and political nexus as her husband’s verse, and her novel has continued to fascinate us. Two hundred years after its publication in January 1818, it still speaks to us directly as a myth about contemporary life. It has inspired film adaptations across genres, from the comedy caper Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the quasi-rock opera The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner. Then there’s the apparently endless schlock and kitsch in comics and cosplay (where fans dress up as their favourite fictional characters). It has become the go-to journalistic shorthand for technological interventions in human biology or medical science: Dr Frankenstein and his creature make their way in the mainstream of modern life. They reappear in our fantasies and nightmares more consistently than most fictional or historical characters. Now we can expect a slew of new Frankensteins, as everyone’s favourite scar-faced shuffling giant and his creator are remade for a new time.

How did Shelley create her great work? Some critics have claimed that she didn’t

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‘A tipping point’: women writers pledge to boycott gender biased books after very male anthology

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 15:15:35 GMT2018-01-12T15:15:35Z

After 2017’s Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets included only four women, 250 writers have agreed to boycott anthologies, conferences and festivals where women are not fairly represented

Irish women poets are rising up en masse against their repeated exclusion from literary history, signing a pledge of refusal to participate in anthologies, conferences and festivals in which the gender balance is skewed.

The pledge was conceived after the publication of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets in 2017. Covering Irish poetry from the 17th century to the present, it features essays on four women poets and 26 men, with just four female contributors. According to the 250 poets, academics and writers who have now signed the pledge, the book “repeats the minimisation or obliteration of women’s poetry by previous anthologies and surveys” and “leads to a distorted impression of our national literature and to a simplification of women’s roles within it”.

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From Richard III to Captain Ahab: what literature reveals about how we treat disabilities

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 09:00:25 GMT2018-01-12T09:00:25Z

Disability is everywhere in literature, across all periods and genres – which can show us the way to go beyond stereotypes today

The controversy over Toby Young’s appointment to, and then resignation from, the Office for Students, and especially his comments about wheelchair ramps in schools, dyslexic students and accessible assessments, indicates how rife disability oppression remains in our cultural and educational institutions. There is a direct connection between negative writing about disability – stereotypes, prejudices, hate speech – and the treatment of disabled people in society. Reading literature provides one window on to the narratives about disability that circulate across cultures and throughout history.

King Richard’s soliloquy at the start of Richard III is one of the most dramatic openings of any piece of literature. From the play’s very first lines, Shakespeare stresses that his central character is vengeful, vindictive and morally vacuous. Richard tells us that he is “determinèd to prove a villain”, and everything that follows, it is made clear, will be part of the pursuit of this determination. But Richard spells out specific details that help us understand his hatred. He is, he observes, “not shaped for sportive tricks”, but rather is “rudely stamped”, “deformed, unfinished”, “scarce half made up” and “cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. Richard is disabled, and the fact of his disabled difference is given as an explanation for his desire to be “subtle, false and treacherous”.

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Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff – digested read

Mon, 15 Jan 2018 07:00:49 GMT2018-01-15T07:00:49Z

‘On election night, Melania wept with despair. Now I’ll have to stay with the creep for another four years, she sobbed’

On a snowy January evening in 2017, disgraced head of Fox News Roger Ailes and Donald Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon met for dinner in a New York brownstone. “We’ve got a problem,” said Bannon. “Trump doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realise the bad guys are the bad guys.”

“There’s only one thing for it,” replied Ailes. “We’ve got to bring in Michael Wolff to write a book about him. He can be relied on to be as unreliable as the Donald. Hopefully, no one will believe a word.”

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The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list

Sun, 12 Oct 2003 14:27:00 GMT2003-10-12T14:27:00Z

From Don Quixote to American Pastoral, take a look at the 100 greatest novels of all time

The 100 greatest non-fiction books

The 2015 version of the 100 best novels

1. Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes
The story of the gentle knight and his servant Sancho Panza has entranced readers for centuries.
• Harold Bloom on Don Quixote – the first modern novel

2. Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan
The one with the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.
• Robert McCrum's 100 best novels: The Pilgrim's Progress

Continue reading...The greatest novel of all time? ... windmills in La Mancha feature in Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote. Photograph: Victor Fraile / ReutersThe greatest novel of all time? ... windmills in La Mancha feature in Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote. Photograph: Victor Fraile / Reuters


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Fragments of book recovered from wreck of Blackbeard's ship

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 11:32:26 GMT2018-01-11T11:32:26Z

Remains of notorious pirate’s ship in North Carolina yield evidence that it was carrying a copy of Edward Cooke’s Voyage to the South Sea

The notorious 18th-century pirate Blackbeard may have whiled away the hours between raids by curling up with a good book, according to a new discovery.

Archaeological conservators in North Carolina working on the wreckage of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, found 16 tiny fragments of paper “in a mess of wet sludge” that had been in the chamber of a cannon. They worked for months to conserve the fragments, the largest of which was the size of a US quarter, discovering as they worked that a few words were still visible on some of the fragments.

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The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman - review

Fri, 22 Jun 2012 21:55:00 GMT2012-06-22T21:55:00Z

Negative thinking is the way forward

Do you see a glass that is half-full, half-empty, or that simply contains enough liquid to throw over the idiot asking you to make the choice? However you answer, Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote is like a Pimm's on a summer's day: refreshing if consumed by those already sceptical about the power of positive thinking, bracing if splashed in the face of those who aren't.

In his long-running Guardian column, Burkeman has proven himself to be a very rare beast indeed. He is never sneering or snooty about the self-help world he explores, and is always willing to grant to whoever he is examining whatever truth might lie behind their claims. At the same time, he has not allowed his brain to turn to mush.

Continue reading...Brave face: a Mexican girl wears a Day of the Dead skull mask. Photograph: Livia Corona/Getty ImagesBrave face: a Mexican girl wears a Day of the Dead skull mask. Photograph: Livia Corona/Getty Images


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