Jul 03, 2022
Joanna Scutts’s fascinating secret US club of early 20th-century feminists, Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman’s quirky romcom and William Palmer’s vivid study of authors and alcohol
Joanna Scutts Continue reading...
Duckworth, £20, pp416
Jul 02, 2022
ITV’s political editor on coping with obsessive-compulsive disorder, belatedly publishing his first novel, and why he longs for a lost England
ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, 62, began his career as a print journalist and has broken a string of stories, including the Northern Rock bailout in 2007, when he was the BBC’s business editor. His debut novel, a slickly paced thriller titled The Whistleblower, is set in London in 1997 as Labour’s modernising new leader prepares to sweep the party to power in a general election. Enter political reporter Gil Peck, a flawed hero who stumbles upon the scoop of a lifetime after his high-powered civil servant sister is killed in a traffic accident.
This is your first published novel. Is it the first you’ve written?
In my 20s, I wrote three-quarters of a thriller about a female detective with extraordinary powers. I didn’t feel it was there really but I should have finished it because it wasn’t a million miles from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo conceit.
The Whistleblower by Robert Peston is published by Zeffre in paperback on 7 July (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Jun 18, 2022
The award-winning author on the urgency she felt when writing her pandemic novel, how she relates to Sarah Connor from The Terminator and what Egon Schiele’s paintings make her feel
Sarah Hall, 48, is the Cumbrian-born author of prizewinning short stories and novels, among them Mrs Fox and The Electric Michelangelo. Her latest, Burntcoat, is one of the first Covid-era works of long-form fiction to grapple with life during – and significantly after – a pandemic, though the plague it describes is far deadlier. Its searing prose deals with much else besides, including themes of art, intimacy and remembrance.
When did you begin writing Burntcoat?
On the first day of the first lockdown in March 2020, with notebooks and a pen, which I’d not done since my first novel, 20 years ago. It felt like a response to what was going on – this odd scribbling in the smallest room in the house, really early in the morning when it was quiet and eerie.
Burntcoat by Sarah Hall is published in paperback by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Jun 12, 2022
This insightful account of a four-star establishment taking in rough sleepers amid the pandemic finds grounds for real if slender hope
The Prince Rupert hotel in Shrewsbury is the kind of establishment where you’re offered a glass of sherry as you check in. A timber-framed oasis of fluffy towels and four-poster beds, its guests have included Margaret Thatcher, Monica Lewinsky and the Liverpool football team. Yet at the start of the pandemic, owner Mike Matthews, who had formerly managed Barbados’s Sandy Lane resort, made the decision to welcome a rather different clientele: the city’s rough sleepers.
Some hadn’t slept in a bed in decades. Many were in the grip of crippling drug addictions. Others were vulnerable and suffering from untreated mental illness. Now, as part of homelessness tsar Dame Louise Casey’s “Everyone In” mission, all were being found temporary accommodation as a matter of extreme urgency. While other hotels also stepped up, none had the Prince Rupert’s four-star reputation and 900-year history. Continue reading...
Jun 05, 2022
An invigorating debut places the same couple in different decades, examining how changing social conditions alter their story, to fascinating effect
When Violet and Albert first meet they’re mutually smitten. It’s all stolen glances, burning cheeks and churning desire with one major twist: their initial encounter takes place in 1947, then again in 1967, and once more in 1987. On each occasion they both are just 20 years old.
Despite some tantalising intimations of deja vu, journalist Holly Williams’s highly engaging debut is concerned less with supernatural solutions than with real-world problems, so any reader wondering how these characters manage to be reborn every couple of decades is destined to be frustrated. Instead, the shifting eras of the novel’s backdrop shape three distinct sections that combine the fizz of a romance with an earnest inquiry into the vastly changing (in some respects at least) fortunes of women in the second half of the 20th century, along with questions of class and privilege, and a glimpse into the history of British socialism.
What Time Is Love? by Holly Williams is published by Orion (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
May 22, 2022
The experience of her own son’s drug addiction inspires the novelist’s overwhelming dive into grief, regret and love
In Julie Myerson’s latest work of fiction, the first-person narrator, herself a novelist, receives a fan letter from a student about a book she published some years previously. “I know it’s a novel, but it didn’t feel like one,” the young woman emails. “It felt more like a memoir – something about how direct it was – it almost felt like a confession at times.”
She could well be describing Nonfiction: A Novel. Though Myerson has built up a sizeable backlist of edgy, psychologically dark tales, this 11th novel cuts deeper than any of its predecessors. Its title may sound overly meta, but here is a book that instantly sucks the reader down into a swirling vortex of grief, trauma and powerlessness. Continue reading...
May 15, 2022
The Notes to Self author’s uplifting debut novel follows the fate of two women over the course of a transformative day in Dublin
The year 2019 didn’t want for sparky essay collections that interrogated the female experience, with Rebecca Solnit, Jia Tolentino and Rachel Cusk all publishing new work. Even so, Emilie Pine’s bestselling Notes to Self stood out. Initially released by a small, independent Irish press before being scooped up by Hamish Hamilton, the Dublin academic’s mainstream debut brought unusual clarity and compassion to bear on sources of resonant personal pain including miscarriage, rape and life as the daughter of an alcoholic father.
She follows it now with a first novel, Ruth & Pen, which taps that same likable combination of benevolence and searing inquiry as it sets the stories of its two title characters dancing around each other, drawing into their orbit questions of sexuality, self-worth and neurodiversity, as well as themes from the essays.
Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
May 07, 2022
The DJ and writer on coming to terms with being a novelist, the appeal of middle-aged men and the book that broke her heart
Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox has come a long way since the 1990s when Channel 4’s The Girlie Show made her one of the original ladettes. In 2019, her memoir Till the Cows Come Home: A Lancashire Childhood became a critical and commercial success; now comes a debut novel, Thrown. Tapping knowledge gleaned while presenting The Great Pottery Throw Down and grappling with themes from loneliness to infertility, it’s a funny, touching story of four very different women who meet at a ceramics class on a housing estate near Manchester.
Have you described yourself as a novelist yet? Continue reading...
No! I’ve not got used to talking about it. It’s just you and the book locked away for so long that when it’s out there it’s exciting but quite scary as well.
May 02, 2022
In this folksy, magnetic tale, two outsiders seek healing and enlightenment by creating crop formations in a Wiltshire field
It’s 1989, and over the course of a blazing Wiltshire summer, a series of mysterious and increasingly complex crop circles appear in the county’s ripening wheat fields. Combining precise geometry and motifs from eastern spirituality and Celtic mythology, they’re soon attracting international attention from the media, UFO enthusiasts, dowsers, exorcists and tourists.
Benjamin Myers’s latest novel, The Perfect Golden Circle, is every bit as idiosyncratic as its subject matter, combining lyricism with comedy and themes that range from warfare and environmental calamity to hope and healing. Continue reading...
Apr 24, 2022
The Love, Nina author’s new novel has all its predecessors’ gossipy bookishness and quirky charm
Susan and Norma meet while working in a haberdashery shop in small-town Leicestershire in the 1990s. The pair hit it off instantly, so Susan is surprised when the owner, who also happens to be Norma’s mother, assures her they’ll never be true friends.
As it turns out, awkward, single-minded Norma is there to exploit Susan’s literary acumen. She’s studied geology as an undergrad and is keen to switch to the arts for her masters; handily, Susan is a year into her own degree in English literature. While it seems destined to be forever shaped by its lopsided, transactional beginnings, they do indeed strike up a friendship, one that will endure for the next 30 years, its ebbs and flows shaping Nina Stibbe’s new novel as the women navigate marriage, motherhood and ambition. Continue reading...
Apr 17, 2022
Animal Farm provides the inspiration for an imaginative allegorical tale about tyranny in Zimbabwe
In the fictional African country of Jidada, a tyrant known as the Old Horse is finally set to be ousted from power. With his penchant for autocratic rule, clothing emblazoned with his own image, and a scheming, Gucci-clad wife, NoViolet Bulawayo’s ruler is all too recognisable but for one key factor: he really is an old horse.
Inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm and drawing on elements of creaturely folktales, the author’s vigorous satire of political turmoil in her native Zimbabwe is “peopled” by animals. The military are “ferocious dogs”, a spurious evangelist is a pig, and the first lady is an ass – literally. Still more plausibly, there’s a tweeting baboon in the White House. Continue reading...
Apr 10, 2022
In her first novel, the acclaimed short-story writer draws on the Northern Ireland of her childhood, merging unspeakable times with tough humour and romance
It’s the early 1970s, a time when the Carpenters are playing on the radio, the Milk Tray man epitomises sophistication and, in the small town outside Belfast where teacher Cushla Lavery lives with her mother, bombings and beatings fill the headlines. At 24, she is able to recall a time before the Troubles, unlike her class of seven-year-olds at the Catholic primary school, whose vocabularies already include words such as gelignite and internment.
Theirs is a “mixed” town, but community relations teeter on a knife edge. At the family’s pub, run by Cushla’s brother, Eamonn, Paras pointedly grind their cigarette butts out in the carpet and the “ould lads” propping up the bar reminisce about the second world war, “because this war was unspeakable”. Continue reading...
Apr 04, 2022
The author’s searing account of helping her husband to end his life at Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic is full of heartache… and dark humour
“I have failed him” is a confession that Amy Bloom utters more than once of her husband, Brian Ameche, in her courageous howl of a memoir. Spoiler alerts aren’t required to say that, ultimately, she does no such thing, even though ensuring that it’s so means making good on the ultimate pledge: helping her beloved kill himself.
Assisted suicide is the preferred wording at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, to where she and 66-year-old Ameche will eventually travel from their Connecticut home in January 2020, in order for him to down a fatal dose of sodium pentobarbital. They’ll fly business class, paid for by her sister, but the truer journey there takes months and involves endless paperwork and administrative delays, obstructive medical professionals (“villains”, she deems them), and a slaying range of bittersweet emotions. Because braided with the backstory of their offbeat midlife romance is Bloom’s account of watching her spouse fall victim to one of the world’s most prevalent but least understood diseases: Alzheimer’s. Continue reading...
Mar 27, 2022
This collection of essays by the late Observer and Guardian journalist and her friends is a moving, funny and bracing account of living and dying
This is not the book that Sarah Hughes intended it to be. Aged just 46, the journalist learned that her recently treated breast cancer had not only returned and spread, it had become incurable. She went on to defy statistics and live with it for more than two years (the median is just 11 months) but it wasn’t long enough to complete the work she had originally outlined. And yet, while they’re clearly as nothing compared with some of her life’s other incomplete endeavours – most poignantly, the raising of her two children – missing chapters such as Financial Advice from an Unrepentant Gambler and The Secret Lives of Catholic Saints are also fully eclipsed by what she did manage to achieve.
Here is a volume that packs in wisdom and wit, grace and frivolity. It isn’t purely a cancer book, either. Yes, it’s broadly about living with the disease, dying from it even – a neglected topic, she observes – but these memoiristic essays also yomp across food and high fashion, bonkbusters and box sets. Equally, though she allows for sorrow, her voice and insights – her sheer elan – set them soaring. Continue reading...
Mar 13, 2022
Richard Ford, Kamila Shamsie and Tim Parks, among others, shed light on the life-affirming joy of rambling, whether through familiar streets or uncharted territory
Synonyms for the verb “to walk” are plentiful – promenade, hike and trudge, amble and ramble. Where My Feet Fall, a new collection of essays both sprightly and ruminative, illustrates all these ambulatory attitudes and more, exploring the delights – and challenges – of that most essential of human activities, the placing of one foot in front of the other.
The book is edited by veteran radio producer Duncan Minshull, and features contributions from some appropriately sturdy literary names, among them Richard Ford, Kamila Shamsie and Patrick Gale. Tasked with writing about a particular walk, the 20 writers were given a choice: revisit the old or chronicle the new. This was at the start of 2020, and as the pandemic took hold, several found themselves exploring their own neighbourhoods for the first time, while others footed it through memories of freer times. Continue reading...
Mar 06, 2022
This spirited Trinidadian love story about a gravedigger and a medium has echoes of Dickens
A love story, a ghost story, a thriller: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s radiant first novel embraces elements of multiple genres, binding them through incantatory language steeped in the rhythms, fables and spirituality of her Trinidadian homeland.
At its centre are two young people wrestling with their destinies. Yejide St Bernard belongs to a long line of women duty-bound to commune with the dead. Her distant mother, Petronella, has railed against this spectral legacy, but now that she is dying it is incumbent upon her to induct Yejide into powers that will shortly become hers, remaking her from the inside out.
When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Feb 28, 2022
After battling alcoholism in her bestselling memoir The Outrun, the author is now sober and seeking intimacy in this highly relatable sequel
Amy Liptrot’s first book, The Outrun, chronicled her retreat from London and alcoholism to the islands around Orkney, where she had grown up on a cliffside farm. The book became a prizewinning bestseller, and her new essayistic memoir, The Instant, picks up where it left off, finding Liptrot in her mid-30s, sober, strong and single.
It’s acute lonesomeness that drives her back to the mainland and from there to Berlin. She’s seeking the juvenescence that she’s started to sense is slipping through her fingers, looking for excuses to shed layers and put on party dresses again. What she really wants is a boyfriend. “I was embarrassed by my conventional desires,” she admits. “I had hoped I was more resourceful and interesting than to want a boyfriend.” Continue reading...
Feb 26, 2022
The award-winning novelist on the Mojave desert, her itinerant childhood and her longstanding hypnagogic hallucinations
Transatlantic author Catriona Ward, 41, published two well-received gothic horror novels, both historical, before switching things up and setting her third, The Last House on Needless Street, on the edge of a forest in contemporary America. It became her breakout book, a bestseller described by Stephen King as a “true nerve-shredder”. Now she’s back with Sundial, a lyrical, twisty tale of a toxic mother-daughter bond that begins as suburban domestic noir and soon hurtles into weirder, more terrifying territory in the Mojave desert. Ward spoke via Zoom from her home on Dartmoor, where she ascribed a light switching itself off mid-interview to the quirks of country living – either that or a spectral presence making itself felt.
What was the starting point for Sundial? Continue reading...
The novel is quite Grand Guignol and if you’re going to do that, it really helps to have small hooks of reality to hang it on, otherwise it can just drift into madness. I knew it was going to be about nature and nurture, and I wanted to do something on behaviour modification. Then I discovered that as part of its MK-Ultra project, the CIA had installed electrodes in dogs’ brains, to essentially turn them into remote control dogs. Finding that experiment was this little talismanic moment of, “This is going to work.”
Feb 21, 2022
A miner dreams of a better future for his son in this visceral tale of the men who powered the Industrial Revolution
Daniel Wiles’s brutal, breviloquent debut novel opens with the first of many striking scenes that make strange and freshly terrifying a well-worn chapter in British history: the Industrial Revolution. Picture a dozen people trapped in a cage suspended on a huge iron chain, while beyond its bars, legions more scurry around a “vast sea of black land”. When eventually the cage moves, with a sound like “the cracking of fingerbones”, its momentum is downwards, deep into the belly of the Earth, where lamplit tunnels are filled with satanic bellowing, sweat and chokedamp.
The year is 1872 and the setting a small Black Country village whose landscape and social fabric are being savagely refashioned by its three collieries. Among those caged miners is Michael Cash, who has taken a second job in order to send his six-year-old son to school. Having himself started work while still a boy, labour that’s left him scarred by memories too lightless to coalesce into pictures, he’s determined that this won’t be his lad’s fate. But when taking that second job loses him his first, he feels his careful plan slipping through his fingers. Continue reading...
Feb 13, 2022
The 1966 Aberfan disaster triggers flashbacks a young man has tried to suppress in a thoughtful debut novel that offsets tragedy with uplift
Time’s passing has done little to dim the horror of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, in which thousands of tonnes of coal waste thundered down a mountainside and engulfed a Welsh junior school. The sentiments it so powerfully evokes inform the opening of Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel, A Terrible Kindness, which begins as hope of finding survivors dwindles.
Responding to the appeal for help, newly qualified undertaker William Lavery, 19, loads a hearse with embalming fluids and heartbreakingly small coffins, and drives through the night from his Uncle Robert’s Midlands funeral home. There are still 140 bodies to rescue, most of them children, and the scenes he witnesses are captured in a sequence of crisply etched images, some plucked from history, others from the author’s imagination. Continue reading...
Feb 05, 2022
The prize-winning author of The Cutting Room on writing its long-awaited follow-up, female victims in crime novels, and the allure of Mrs Danvers
Louise Welsh’s intensely atmospheric debut novel, The Cutting Room, won prizes and plaudits when it was published in 2002. Its protagonist is Rilke, a gay auctioneer and accidental sleuth who stumbles upon a disturbing cache of photographs. Now, 20 years later, comes an equally compelling sequel, The Second Cut, in which Rilke must navigate Grindr, queerwashing and Covid restrictions, as well as murky goings-on in a crumbling mansion and the sudden death of an old friend. Welsh, who was born in 1965, is a professor of creative writing and former antiquarian bookseller. Like Rilke, she lives in Glasgow with her partner, the writer Zoë Strachan.
Why did you wait so long to write a sequel? Continue reading...
You have to have the right story, and I guess I didn’t really feel I had anything to add. The Cutting Room changed my life, so I didn’t want to do something rubbish.
Jan 30, 2022
Espionage, witchcraft, gore and spellbinding language propel an exciting historical adventure
Alex Preston’s fourth novel sprang from the notion of crafting a “grown-up” Moonfleet, he explains in his acknowledgments, adding “I hope this is close”. For anyone who’s familiar with J Meade Falkner’s swashbuckling 1898 tale of smuggling and shipwreck, the answer is a boisterous yes, but readers for whom that evocative title draws a blank need know only this: you’re in for a treat. Its short, salty chapters are crammed with murder, treason and illicit embraces, with chases, battles and perilous high-seas skulduggery. There is international espionage, a whisper of witchcraft, and a cast of orphans, rogues and redcoats. There are, should you still need persuading, maps.
Winchelsea takes its title from its East Sussex setting, a crumbling town whose heyday is long passed. It opens there in 1742, when heroine Goody is barely 16 years old. Saved from drowning as a babe, she is the adopted daughter of a French herbalist and one Ezekiel Brown, a local who straddles two worlds, being both physician and – like all Browns before him – “cellarman”, allowing smugglers known as the Mayfield gang to stow their spoils in the maze of tunnels that run from his home, Paradise, down beneath the streets and out to the seashore. Continue reading...
Jan 23, 2022
Nagamatsu’s zany visions of a future plague give way to more optimistic notes in an affecting if uneven book
Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ambitious novel-in-stories was written long before Covid. Nevertheless, when melting permafrost reveals a Neanderthal corpse, which in turn disgorges an ancient plague, the repercussions feel initially familiar. Only initially, because the Arctic plague will turn out to be far deadlier, while Nagamatsu’s zany vision extends, via a succession of first-person narrators, thousands of years into the future, incorporating interstellar travel, advanced cryopreservation and alien shape-shifters.
The plague first targets children, transforming their organs into approximations of other bodily organs (squeamish readers take note: Nagamatsu isn’t one to shy away from the physicality of disease). Soon, all aspects of human life revolve around death. “Mortuary cryptocurrencies” are the only money worth having, high-rise cemeteries sprout and theme parks become euthanasia centres. Continue reading...
Jan 15, 2022
The renowned author on the unfinished task of replacing the patriarchy, swapping 24,000 letters with her mother, and why she gives all her books away
Isabel Allende’s books have been translated into more than 42 languages and sold some 75m copies globally. Her career spans fiction and nonfiction, and she’s also created the Isabel Allende Foundation in memory of her daughter (who died in 1992), working to empower women and girls around the world. Her new novel, Violeta, spans 100 years and recounts the turbulent life and times of its South American heroine. Allende, 79, who was born in Peru and raised in Chile, spoke from the study of her home in California, where she writes daily.
How did Violeta begin? Continue reading...
The idea started when my mother died, right before the current pandemic hit. She was born in 1920 when the influenza pandemic reached Latin America, so it was almost natural to have the two bookends of the novel be pandemics. When I write, I don’t have a plan and I don’t have a message – I just want people to come with me, to let me tell them a story.
Jan 01, 2022
The author on late-night writing sessions, vulnerability, and rediscovering her love of painting during lockdown
Raven Leilani is the author of Luster, a kinetic, award-winning debut novel whose fans include Barack Obama. Now published in paperback, it tells the story of Edie, a young black woman trying to find her way as a painter in New York City. After getting fired from an entry-level publishing job and ground down by the gig economy, Edie moves in with her middle-aged white lover, his white wife, and their (adopted) black daughter in the suburbs. Cue a plethora of razor-sharp, caustically funny insights into the politics of race, gender and desire. Leilani, 31, spoke from her home in Brooklyn.
What inspired Luster? Continue reading...
I wrote it when I was in NYU’s MFA [creative writing] programme, which I’d come to with an entirely different novel. When my teachers asked me whether I had any real intention behind my project and I couldn’t articulate an answer, I started Luster. I wanted to write something that felt honest and urgent. Because I was trying to scrabble together pages, I wrote in a panic and edited myself emotionally less, so the work came from a more vulnerable place. And some of the most vulnerable subjects for me, I guess, are art and intimacy and failure.