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Archive by tag: Alex PrestonReturn
Jun 25, 2022

The novelist on learning farming from his grandfather, how his background in law informed his work, and why homophobia is a Victorian export

Taymour Soomro was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and read law at Cambridge University and Stanford. After a brief career as a solicitor in London and Milan, and an even briefer stint in fashion, he began to write fiction. At first he wrote short stories – his work has been published in the New Yorker and the Southern Reviewand has now published his first novel, Other Names for Love. The book tells of a young man, Fahad, from an influential Pakistani family who travels with his father to visit the ancestral home in the fictional region of Abad. It comes garlanded with praise, including from the writers Yiyun Li and Garth Greenwell. Soomro is the co-editor, with Deepa Anappara, of a creative writing handbook on fiction, race and culture, which will be published in 2023.

How did your return to Pakistan after many years away provide the blueprint for the book?
About 15 years ago, I wrote a novel so terrible and unpublishable that no one will ever see it. Having failed as a writer, I didn’t really know what to do. I wanted to run and hide and so I ran home to Pakistan and hid there with my family. But I also wanted to be useful and productive. Our farm has been in the family for generations. When I returned, my grandfather was managing it. He had been doing this for 40 years alongside his career first as a civil servant and later as a politician. I was curious about farming, about how it was done, about how it might be done better; though my grandfather was keen for me to restart my legal career, he taught me the logistics of seeds and tractors, harvests, threshing and crop-sharing.

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Jun 12, 2022

The historian brings London’s hidden post-Roman past to vivid life in the story of two Saxon sisters

Rebecca Stott’s superb third novel, Dark Earth, dramatises the parallels between archaeology and historical fiction. Stott is a renowned historian, but in this excavation of London’s deep past she has created something radically new and beautiful, a book that retells a period of our national past that straddles the line between history and myth.

The title refers to the layers of black soil whose presence in archaeological digs around London reveals the several hundred years during which the city was abandoned in the wake of the Roman invasion. The novel opens in AD500 with the “Sun Kings” – the Romans – gone and London a place of ruins and memories, called the “Ghost City” by the local tribespeople. This is, as Stott says in a note at the end of the book, “perhaps the darkest corner of British history”.

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 30, 2022

The Shakespeare critic and author on her new history of books and readers, and how it’s made her think about the contents of our shelves

Emma Smith is professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her bestselling book This Is Shakespeare was praised by the likes of Hilary Mantel and Margaret Drabble. She is an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio – the 1623 first collected edition of his plays, and one of the most valuable books in the world. She has written books about the First Folio and in 2016 was called upon to authenticate a newly discovered copy at Mount Stuart library on the Isle of Bute (it was genuine). Smith also hosts Approaching Shakespeare, a podcast series. Her latest book, Portable Magic, is a history of reading that explores the way books have shaped our social, cultural and political lives.

Did your work on the First Folio steer you towards writing this history of the physical book?
I think that’s probably true. And my investment in how that book was transformed from a fairly normal product of the print marketplace into this glass-case icon. I was really interested in thinking about that book in the history of libraries and the collecting of books and the values that these practices put on books.

Portable Magic by Emma Smith is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 16, 2022

The American crime writer on the inspiration for his new book about warring gangs, his sudden thirst for poetry and why reading Jane Austen wears him out

Over Zoom from his Rhode Island home, Don Winslow is straight from central casting for a 68-year-old former private investigator turned crime writer who works in the morning and goes hiking in the afternoon. He’s lean and tanned – he splits his time between California and Rhode Island – with a bald dome of a head and owlish spectacles. Winslow has written 22 novels, a collection of stories, and numerous film and TV scripts, most notably the adaptation of his novel Savages, which was directed by Oliver Stone. He has become a prominent figure in US politics, producing a series of films in the lead-up to the 2020 US elections that were highly critical of Donald Trump and were viewed 250m times. His latest novel, City on Fire, is published on 26 April.

Your new book retells the Iliad against the backdrop of warring gangs in 1980s Rhode Island. Where did the idea come from?
Other people have obviously done this – you immediately think of Joyce’s Ulysses – but there was an incident in real crime history where a war was touched off between two syndicates and it was an argument over a woman at a beach party. It happened not far from here. That struck me at the time – going back some 20-odd years – as being a Helen of Troy incident. Just like Troy, the woman was the pretext, but the real reasons were what they have always been: money, power and turf. I have taken the major beats of the Iliad, and this is the first book in a trilogy, so later books are going to draw on the Aeneid and the Odyssey and work in other Greek dramas, the Oresteia, for instance. I read those texts looking for contemporary parallels. Where could the poetry of my beloved crime genre meet the poetry of the Greek classics?

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Apr 10, 2022

Recounting a summer spent tending her garden under threat of eviction, the writer’s exploration of the appeal of gardens ranges far and wide

Gardens knit us into the cycles of life: every winter is a preparation for more permanent losses, every spring a reminder of the possibility for renewal ahead. Lulah Ellender began writing Grounding after her mother’s death; sorting through the family home, she found a diary that her mother kept recording the rhythms of her gardening year and this becomes a guide for her own engagement with her garden. Ellender realises that her garden – as a physical space and as a way of being – represents a point of communion with her mother, a way of keeping in touch with her via the mediums of plants and flowers. “Her tasks are my tasks now,” she writes.

The book begins with Ellender and her family – a husband and four children, all of them unnamed – at a turning point in their lives. They rent a house in a Sussex town (also unnamed, but probably Lewes) and their landlord has just died. There is a legal wrangle over the property: one party wishes to evict the tenants, the other wants them to stay. At first, Ellender feels defeated. The house is where she and her husband have raised their children. The large garden is a place of beauty and refuge (even if, as she says later, “to tend this garden is to engage in a constant struggle not to be overwhelmed”). The possibility of losing their home calls up an earlier loss – of the West Country farmhouse in which Ellender grew up and from which she was exiled when “my parents split up, my father went bust and we had to move out”.

Grounding: Finding Home in a Garden by Lulah Ellender is published by Granta (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 02, 2022

The Booker winner’s follow-up to Shuggie Bain – a similarly stirring tale of precarious lives on a Glasgow council estate – proves his debut was no fluke

The writer of a successful first novel – and they don’t come much more successful than Douglas Stuart’s Booker-winning Shuggie Bain – has two choices when it comes to the follow-up. Either they seek to prove their range with something entirely different, or they capitalise on that early success, giving readers more of what pleased them first time around. Stuart has opted for the latter course: Young Mungo is set in the same world and at more-or-less the same time as Shuggie Bain. It turns around the same basic friction: a young man growing up in grinding poverty who, because of talent, temperament and sexuality, is particularly ill-suited to the hard-edged world of the Glasgow schemes.

If Young Mungo doesn’t raise the same immediate thrill as Shuggie Bain – the sense of discovering a new voice of coruscating brilliance – there’s a richer, deeper pleasure to be gleaned here. Young Mungo is a finer novel than its predecessor, offering many of the same pleasures, but with a more sure-footed approach to narrative and a finer grasp of prose. There are sentences here that gleam and shimmer, demanding to be read and reread for their beauty and their truth.

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Mar 27, 2022

Parallels are drawn between our age and the time of the Black Death in this beautiful, mysterious novel

Companion Piece is a fitting title for Ali Smith’s12th novel, her first after the extraordinary Seasonal Quartet. It’s a book that springs from the same source as its predecessors – written and published swiftly, it is about as real-time as novels get, set in the heart of lockdown in “this land of union-jack-the-lads in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty one”. It feels as if Smith so enjoyed the breakneck speed of writing her quartet that she has produced this: a companion piece. Even the (beautiful) David Hockney cover looks like it was designed to sit on a shelf next to the Quartet.

There’s another kind of companionship going on here, too. Like How to Be Both (2014), Companion Piece is in two parts, with the longer, contemporary first section acting as a precursor to a scintillating story-within-a-story set in the time of the Black Death. The two parts of the novel reflect upon and enlarge each other, collapsing time and illustrating the way that problems we think of as being very much of our era – pandemic preparedness, gender identity, workplace equality – are rooted deeply in our collective histories.

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Mar 21, 2022

Playwright Derek Lindsay’s only novel under his nom de plume is a stark, hallucinogenic trip into a barbaric postwar TB hospital

The sanatorium makes for a wonderful crucible: an enclosed space inside which the events of a novel can play out. Thomas Mann used the heightened sensibilities of a group of confined tuberculosis patients in his 1924 masterpiece, The Magic Mountain. In it, our hero, Hans Castorp, goes to visit a consumptive cousin at a sanatorium in Davos. He ends up staying for seven years, engaging in metaphysical jousting with a host of other residents – each of whom represents a different approach to the great philosophical questions of the age – and falling in love with the alluring Clawdia Chauchat. The novel ends with Castorp going off to fight (and, we presume, die) in the first world war.

AE Ellis was the pen name of the playwright Derek Lindsay, an enigmatic figure who produced one great, celebrated novel, The Rack, in 1958 and then, aside from a couple of largely forgotten plays, disappeared from view. The Rack was described by Graham Greene as rising like a “monument above the cemeteries of literature”. It is a novel in complex dialogue with Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and, to my mind at least, equally masterful. I reread The Rack with the weight of my second bout of Covid still heavy on my chest: there is now an extraordinary and dreadful resonance in a book that charts, perhaps better than anything else I’ve read, the tortuous paths of illness.

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Mar 13, 2022

A shape-shifting 14th-century huntsman rides again in these shadowy, extraordinary stories that blend prose and poetry, the present and the past

I have an old US copy of one of my favourite books as a child: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. The edition is illustrated by Alan E Cober – dark, fantastical pencil drawings that bring Cooper’s winter world to life. The best of these sketches is of the mythical figure of Herne the Hunter, a weird and warped creature with the antlers of a stag sitting astride a horse. Herne leads his wild hunt through the final pages of the book, a riot of raucous energy that brings the novel to its stunning conclusion. Now Zoe Gilbert, author of a wonderfully strange collection of confected myths in her debut, Folk, has made Herne the hero of her second book.

It is – follow closely here – purportedly an academic collection of writings about Herne, from his 14th-century life as the favoured huntsman of Richard II to his dystopian appearance in the late 21st century. It opens with a convincingly po-faced introduction by a (fictional) professor, who writes of the way that science and enlightenment thought have elbowed the “rascally psychopomp” Herne out of the national consciousness. Now Gilbert’s stories re-accommodate him as the sometimes shadowy representation of a peculiarly British strain of weirdness and wildness.

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Feb 20, 2022

Christina Patterson’s family memoir is crammed with challenges, setbacks, illness and death, and yet remains a wonderfully uplifting read

In another age Christina Patterson’s Outside the Sky Is Blue would have been marketed as a misery memoir. It’s true that it’s the record of a life that has contained an uncommon amount of misery. But this book is a bracing, heart-lifting read, a narrative that consistently, courageously rises above the horrors it recounts. Patterson is a superb writer – part of the redemptive message of this memoir is that beautiful prose can make almost anything bearable – but she’s also clearly a pretty wonderful human being. On page after page, she’s hit with the kind of sucker punches that would floor most of us, and yet she comes back sparkling with humour, with love, with hope. Outside the Sky Is Blue is a lesson in generosity, in accommodation, but most of all it’s a lesson in resilience.

Patterson’s story begins with the birth of her sister Caroline in Thailand. Her mother is Swedish, her father British and he has what promises to be a splendid diplomatic career ahead of him. Caroline is followed by Tom, and then Christina. By the time Christina is born, though, there are already signs that Caroline is troubled. Christina realises early on that her “skinny, sensitive, beautiful sister” is mentally ill, although the true extent of Caroline’s schizophrenia only becomes apparent when she is a teenager. Their father gives up his dreams of roving the world and settles down – grudgingly, we feel – to a job in the Treasury. Patterson reconstructs her childhood with a beautiful, sun-drenched nostalgia, summoning up holidays with her family in Sweden and a happy if shy existence in Guildford, drawing always on the rich store of her mother’s diaries and files. “My mother wanted to mark every moment of her life. She took photos of almost every meeting with a relative or friend.”

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Feb 13, 2022

Two women named Violet negotiate loss, secrets and birth during the second world war in this intensely inventive novel

A few years ago, I was interviewing the French novelist Laurent Binet and asked him what the most powerful motivational force in his creative process was. “A fear of humiliation,” he told me. Writing is a profoundly exposing act, a public baring of the soul, and this is why so many authors hide behind irony or flippancy, unwilling to commit fully to the deepest demands of their art. I thought about Binet, who described an almost paralysing anxiety that people would laugh at his writing, when reading Alex Hyde’s debut novel. This is a book that walks along the dangerous edge between seriousness and portentousness, between high art and parody. That it largely works is down to the very earnestness with which Hyde pursues her artistic ends, the sense of a writer entirely committed to her project.

Drawing loosely on the story of Hyde’s own father’s birth and upbringing, Violets tells the story of two young women during the second world war, both of them called Violet. The first Violet we meet wakes in a Birmingham hospital with memories of an “enamel pail of blood”. She has had a hysterectomy after an ectopic pregnancy. Dreams of a happy family life with her husband, Fred, seem suddenly remote. What’s more, he is about to be deployed to Burma.

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Jan 16, 2022

The Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist talks about her new book, Invisible Child, which records the experiences of a young girl growing up homeless in Brooklyn

Read an extract from Invisible Child here

Andrea Elliott is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the New York Times. Through December 2013 she published a five-part series in the paper exploring the homelessness epidemic in New York City. It told the story of Dasani Coates, an 11-year-old girl living with her family in a run-down homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Elliott continued to follow the family over the course of almost a decade, recording their experiences in her first book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City, published last year. Elliott’s maternal family fled Chile during the Pinochet era. She lives in New York with her two children.

How did you choose Dasani?
What mattered most to me was finding a child who wanted to be heard and who could narrate her experience of growing up poor to me. I think it’s incredibly important, it’s essential, to give a voice to the person whose story I’m telling. It’s important to have a communicator, because I think the best writing and reporting rests on the power of intimacy. She was a kid it was almost impossible to keep quiet. She had so much to say and I wanted to hear every word of it.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City by Andrea Elliott is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on 27 January (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Jan 10, 2022

The follow-up to A Little Life is a complex tour de force in three interrelated sections that has emerged from the white heat of the moment

To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s vast, complex follow-up to her Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, is a novel of many faces. I could tell you, for instance, that it’s about colonialism and racism in America today; or that it’s a queer counterfactual history (and future) that asks what would happen if sexuality were destigmatised (and then restigmatised); or an elegy for the lost kingdom of Hawaii. Most readers, I think, will concentrate on the book’s longest section, the third, in which Yanagihara writes of a series of pandemics and the way they reshape society in the decades ahead.

To Paradise is arranged in three discrete but interrelated parts. The first, Washington Square, is set in the 1890s in a fictional New York. History has gone through a delicious skew, so that the north-eastern states have seceded from the rest of the US, part of a more general post-civil war rearrangement. Our hero for this section is David Bingham, the dreamy and foppish scion of a banking empire. He lives with his grandfather, Nathaniel, in a beautiful house in Washington Square. The “Free States” based their independence on the question of gay marriage – it seems that, with all stigma stripped away from homosexuality, around half of the citizens choose same-sex relationships.

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Jan 02, 2022

This wise and generous book eschews the usual advice on structure and encourages new writers to open their hearts

In the weeks after my grandfather died in 2019, I spent a melancholy few days sorting through the “Gramps” section of my filing cupboard, mainly the many letters he’d sent to me over the years. It was a way, I suppose, of continuing the 40-year conversation we’d had about books, of keeping his voice loud in my mind. One letter struck me with particular force, though – a page and a half in response to a short story I’d sent him aged 10. It was typical of his letters about my writing: warm yet forthright in its criticism, even at this early stage showing something that I came to recognise as a gift – the fact that he took me seriously as an author, that this was feedback from one writer to another.

It’s one of the central messages in Cathy Rentzenbrink’s wise and generous book about the writer’s life, Write it All Down; this idea that one of the hardest things for a writer to do is to take themselves and their work seriously. There is, as she acknowledges early on here, an awful lot of snake oil sold in the creative writing industry: “Books that are too focused on structure make me want to cry,” she says. “Their authors seem to enjoy discussing the classical three-act structure, protagonists and antagonists and all that, but it is just too cold a way to go about things for me, and I know it would never lead to anything good.” Write it All Down is not a book that gives you structure; rather it helps the aspirant writer fashion a vessel into which they might safely pour the contents of their heart.

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Dec 26, 2021

With a host of phenomenal debuts on the way, plus some dazzling new work from the likes of Douglas Stuart and Hanya Yanagihara, 2022 is positively groaning with great novels

Whether it’s a hangover from a pandemic-disrupted few years, a sign that writers had particularly productive lockdowns, or perhaps it’s the many centenaries coming up – Ulysses, The Waste Land and Jacob’s Room – but 2022 is positively groaning with great novels. We’ll leave the Observer’s peerless debut feature to cover new novels from the UK and largely focus on books published in the first half of the year.

Prepare your hearts, for Douglas Stuart is back. After the extraordinary success of Shuggie Bain, his second novel, Young Mungo (Picador, April), is another beautiful and moving book, a gay Romeo and Juliet set in the brutal world of Glasgow’s housing estates. Also following up a painfully affecting predecessor is Hanya Yanagihara, whose To Paradise (Macmillan, January) gives us three stories far apart in space and time but each unique in their power to summon the joy and complexity of love, the pain of loss. I’m not sure I’ve ever missed the world of a book as much as I miss To Paradise now I’ve left it. A new Kamila Shamsie novel is always worth celebrating, but Best of Friends (Bloomsbury, October) is something else: an epic story that explores the ties of childhood friendship, the possibility of escape, the way the political world intrudes into the personal, all through the lens of two sharply drawn protagonists.

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Dec 04, 2021

The acclaimed author of Detransition, Baby talks about the novel’s breakthrough success and how she was moved by the support of contemporaries

Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby is the story of Reece, a sharp and self-destructive trans woman in New York, who finds herself suddenly back in touch with a former lover, Ames. Ames was previously Amy, also a trans woman, but has now detransitioned. Ames’s new girlfriend, Katrina, reveals she is pregnant with his child. The three of them form an unconventional family and try to decide whether to raise the child together.

Detransition, Baby was an international bestseller and is being adapted for Amazon Prime by the team behind Grey’s Anatomy. The novel was longlisted for the 2021 Women’s prize for fiction, the first time the award has recognised the work of a trans woman. Peters lives in New York with her wife.

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Nov 29, 2021

This poised, Jamesian debut novel about a Manchester family in the lead up to the first world war is a masterclass in detail and atmosphere

One of my favourite poems is Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. In it, the poet writes of how the old masters recognised the “human position” of suffering: “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Auden summons the image of Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, where the mythical drama is playing out in the background, while “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. This poem and the painting it describes seem like a useful model for thinking about Adam O’Riordan’s gentle and intimate first novel, The Falling Thread.

The book opens in the white heat of the trenches: a barrage of shells approaches and Lieutenant Wright begins to count. “If he got to a thousand, he’d have made it.” Then the novel spools back in time to an earlier generation of the Wright family: it’s August, 1890, and we’re in a prosperous suburb of Manchester where Charles, the oldest of the Wright children, is mooning around the house, his eyes repeatedly drawn to Miss Greenhalgh, his sisters’ new governess. The two engage in a frantic fumble, a child is conceived, scandal barely averted. Meanwhile his sisters grow and change, with Tabitha becoming involved in a local charity for the underfed poor, while Eloise goes to art school and becomes a painter.

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Jul 19, 2021

This lyrical dive into rock pools illuminates the interconnectedness of all natural habitats

There’s a WTF moment about a third of the way through Adam Nicolson’s new book, The Sea Is Not Made of Water. The first chapters largely follow in the footsteps of his last book of nature writing, The Seabird’s Cry, applying the same characteristic form of lyrical scientific investigation into the creatures of the rock pool that he’d deployed on the birds of the cliffs and wide oceans. The opening section of this book is called Animals and we leap from sand hopper to winkle to prawn, understanding the complex interconnectedness of these underexamined lives, learning a new and perspective-altering fact on every page. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a chapter on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.

It’s a segment of exquisite beauty, a bravura act of writing that seems not only to provide a model for the rest of this book, but changes the way you understand the whole dizzying Nicolson oeuvre. This is a writer who has moved from memoir to literary criticism to nature writing via The Mighty Dead, one of the best books on Homer ever written. In his chapter on Heraclitus, Nicolson reads a rock pool through the work of the great philosopher, bringing to the crucible of tidal life “a systemic understanding whose wholeness relies on its union of opposites”. We begin to understand that the thread that links Nicolson’s books is precisely this – a philosopher’s wish to provide a way of comprehending the place of the individual in a vast and shifting world, the quest for a good life, the search for new answers to old questions.

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Jul 12, 2021

The bestselling writer’s first novel, about a family who move into a ‘hellishly privileged’ area, is a powerful study of mistrust, tragedy and friendship

Cathy Rentzenbrink is the author of one of the most powerful memoirs of the past decade. The Last Act of Love told of the accident that left her brother in a decade-long coma, the long shadow cast on her life, the grief and guilt that haunted her. She followed that book with A Manual for Heartache, a Matt Haig-ish miscellany offering succour to the grieving, a series of nuggets of wisdom and comfort for times of trouble. Haig is an interesting point of reference for Rentzenbrink: he was a novelist who moved effortlessly into nonfiction. Now Rentzenbrink has taken the opposite path, publishing her first novel, Everyone Is Still Alive.

Juliet and Liam have moved from trendy east London to Magnolia Road, a leafy and genteel street in Hammersmith, west London. Juliet’s mother has died, and she and Liam, who is an author, move into her mother’s house with their child, Charlie. Liam worries that “Magnolia Road is a bit square, a bit posh, a bit heteronormative, not the sort of place he imagines a hip young writer should live.” Soon, though, he falls in with the “Magnolia Wives”, the mums at Charlie’s school. There’s the “wise woman”, Sarah, there’s the perennially disappointed Helen, and there’s Lucy, whose husband, Bas, is possibly cheating on her. It’s a privileged world, hellishly so, where marriages are full of mistrust and disappointment, where children are tormented by the ambitions and neuroses of their parents, where money and status are everything.

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Jul 03, 2021

The bestselling author on the dearth of top-quality politicians, his regard for diaries and letters, and his disciplined writing approach

Robert Harris is the author of 14 novels, including the bestselling Fatherland, the Cicero trilogy and Enigma. He also wrote the screenplays for the films of his novels The Ghost (filmed as The Ghost Writer) and An Officer and a Spy. His latest book, V2, weaves together two narratives, linked by the development of Wernher von Braun’s rocket just as the tide turned in the second world war. Dr Rudi Graf is a German rocket scientist, deeply conflicted in his job and troubled by the views of his superiors. Kay Caton-Walsh of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force is a cool-headed analyst who works first in England, then in Belgium, looking for the location of secret V2 launch bases. Harris was previously a journalist, serving as political editor of the Observer. He now lives in Berkshire with his wife. He has four children.

Your novels are always very different. How did you settle on the subject of this one?There is no plan. I just go from day to day and something pops up. In the case of V2 it was an obituary in the Times about five or six years ago about a woman who’d had to plot the trajectory of rockets in newly liberated Belgium. I thought she sounded like an interesting character, no more than that. I was attracted to the story because of Brexit, funnily enough. The idea that one European power had occupied another to fire ballistic missiles at a third struck me as amazing. I was going to have a coda at the end of the book reflecting on that. But in the end the link felt somehow extraneous.

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Jun 08, 2021
Three cross-cultural narratives in Rupert Thomson’s new novel paint a picture of Barcelona during the early 2000s.
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May 30, 2021

Lee reimagines the life and death of a giant of 19th-century New York in a book of real intelligence and style

Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake is a novel so comprehensively steeped in American literary history that it comes as something of a surprise to find that its author is a fortysomething from Surrey. It’s as if Lee, whose three superb earlier novels include a reimagining of the IRA bombing of the Grand hotel in Brighton, has distilled more than a century of American letters into a single book. There’s Fitzgerald, of course – The Great Gatsby is echoed in more than just the novel’s title. There’s Hemingway in the muscular lyricism of the prose; Sherwood Anderson and Steinbeck in the beautifully drawn portraits of rural America; there’s the restraint of Henry James in the sinuous sentences; and then there’s a host of lesser-known writers who took for their subject turn-of-the-century New York and the riotous excesses of early capitalism: Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair.

The Great Mistake examines the life of a great American, Andrew Haswell Green, through the lens of his death. Green might have greater claim than any to be the father of modern New York. Brought up on a hardscrabble farm where he was judged too feminine and myopic to wield an axe, he made his name first as a crusading lawyer, then as the architect of the union of Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens – a move called by its detractors the “Great Mistake of 1898”. Green was a man as guarded in his private life as he was expansive in his public works: he was devoted to his “intimate friend”, Samuel Tilden, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1876. Green founded the Public Library of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, most famously, that breath at the heart of the city, Central Park.

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May 29, 2021

The Hideous Kinky author on her childhood dyslexia, the frenzy around being a perfect mother, and why there are so few great female artists

Esther Freud is the author of nine novels, including Hideous Kinky, her semi-autobiographical debut, which tells of her unconventional childhood in Morocco. The daughter of Lucien Freud and Bernardine Coverley, she trained as an actor before becoming a novelist. Freud has three children with the actor David Morrissey, from whom she recently separated. I Couldn’t Love You More is the story of three generations of Irish women: Rosaleen, a heroic, headstrong teenager in the early 1960s who begins an affair with an older man; Aoife, her mother, who recounts her life to her dying husband and wonders what became of her flighty daughter; and Kate, in London, married to the useless Matt, trying to make it as an artist while looking after their daughter, Freya. The three lives intertwine and overlap over the course of the novel.

You say in the acknowledgments that I Couldn’t Love You More was inspired by your own mother, bringing up children unmarried and without the support of her family.
I didn’t start the book with the intention of telling that story. I was thinking how much I’d like to write a book where love was the main theme. So I started with a real rush of energy, writing about it from different points of view, three women from different generations. I began really playfully and freely, writing these short chapters. After a while I realised I needed a story and some kind of plot, and it was then that it occurred to me to think more about my mother and how extraordinary it was that she managed to have two children without her parents knowing, and what it was like to be in such an unsupported world.

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May 23, 2021

The final volume of an Irish trilogy feels overwhelmed by its prize-winning debut

Nothing raises your average author’s blood pressure like the question of likable characters. Since Amazon democratised the art of the book review, any number of one-star write-ups have turned on Patrick Bateman, Jude St Francis or Eva Khatchadourian, pointing out that these just aren’t people your reviewer would want to spend an evening with, as if the qualities we demand of the protagonists of our fiction are the same things we’d ask for from a dinner date. It has always struck me that in dismissing these complaints, authors are missing something, though. Likability seems to me to be about something other than a kind of basic misunderstanding of the point of novels. When a reader says they don’t “relate” to a character, it feels like this is more about credibility of motive: for “likability”, read “believability”. We will go a long way with a character if we feel that their actions chime with what we know of our fellow humans, if the character is sufficiently “got in”, as Ford Madox Ford put it.

Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, was a rollicking success, winning the Baileys Women’s and Desmond Elliott prizes. The Rules of Revelation is the third in what she calls her “unholy trilogy” and, like its predecessors, is set in the violent and drug-fuelled estates of Cork. That it left me slightly cold is, I fear, partly my own fault. There are novels in a series one can pick up and enjoy without having read those that preceded them – the cover blurb suggests this as “an excellent place to start” with McInerney’s trilogy. I was about a third of the way into The Rules of Revelation when, utterly befuddled, unsure of who any of the seemingly endless stream of twentysomething characters were, I gave up, ordered The Glorious Heresies and its successor, The Blood Miracles, on my Kindle and began at the beginning.

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May 16, 2021

The folk singer offers a lyrical homage to the endangered migrant bird whose uniquely beautiful song he has been communing with up close for years

A few years ago, a group of friends and I followed Barbara Dickson, the Scottish pop star turned folk singer, into a wood deep in the green heart of Kent. We were there as part of Singing With Nightingales, an immersive experience run by another folk singer, Sam Lee. It was night and we had no torches. We came to a small clearing where we sat, silent, until from far off, then closer, and then so close that the sound seemed to be the voice of the very trees around us, a nightingale sang. After listening to its otherworldly carolling for a while, Lee and Dickson took turns singing back to the nightingale, old shanties and folk songs, praising the beauty of its voice, recognising the importance of its role in that bright space where culture and nature meet.

Now Lee, a tousle-haired former Mercury prize nominee (for his 2012 debut album, Ground of Its Own), has turned from song to prose with The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, a beautiful, lyrical, heartfelt book about the songbird. Part nature writing, part memoir, part miscellany, every page of this book benefits from the incredible intimacy that Lee has built up with the bird over the years of his “undoubtedly romantic and whimsical” pilgrimages to listen to, and sing back to, nightingales.

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