Jul 26, 2022
Form is a preoccupation of the 13-strong selection, which highlights books from small presses in favour of work from more famous names
News: Booker prize longlist of 13 writers aged 20 to 87 announced
It’s taken over half a century, but the Booker longlisting of Alan Garner is recognition at last for an under-sung national treasure too often pigeonholed as “just” a children’s writer. Over the decades his writing has deepened and clarified and Treacle Walker, a flinty little fable about a convalescent boy visited by a rag-and-bone man, reads like a perfect distillation of his long-worked themes: mythology, archaeology, childhood, the transient rhythms of vernacular speech, deep time and inner visions.
This is a thoughtfully curated list which spotlights small presses and ignores some of the biggest names (Hanya Yanagihara and Jennnifer Egan, Ian McEwan with his strongest novel in years, the forthcoming Lessons) for quieter pleasures and rewarding surprises. Like Treacle Walker, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is another miracle of concision, compressing the usually capacious novel form into diamond. This story of an Irish coal merchant in the 1980s who is forced to confront what the whole town ignores – the church’s institutional abuse of young women – wastes not a word, implications rippling out from the brief text. Another Irish novel, The Colony by Audrey Magee, about an English painter visiting a tiny Irish island, is set in the era of the Troubles, but shades into broader allegory about power, colonialism, marginalised languages and even Brexit. Continue reading...
Jun 25, 2022
From pageturning thrillers and comic novels to an antidote to doomscrolling – our pick of the best new fiction and nonfiction. Plus 10 brilliant paperbacks, and 10 great reads for children and teens
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson Continue reading...
Longlisted for the Women’s prize, this is a darkly funny portrait of a dysfunctional family bent out of shape over decades by its narcissistic artist patriarch – and of what happens when his wife will no longer squash her own creative energies. Wise, waspish and emotionally astute, it’s addictive reading.
Feb 18, 2022
Always wanted to tackle the great Irish writer but not sure Ulysses is for you? This handy primer may just help you find a way in
The books of James Joyce, along with Middlemarch and War and Peace, were among the titles that many vowed to read when the UK was plunged into its first coronavirus lockdown. Almost two years later, we now know that most of us filled all that time indoors with Netflix and Zoom quizzes rather than catching up on lengthy classics (apart from the author David Mitchell, who did read Ulysses in 2020). But with this month marking the centenary of Ulysses and 140 years since Joyce’s birth, perhaps now really is the time to familiarise or re-familiarise yourself with the influential modernist writer.
The entry point Continue reading...
Jan 15, 2022
In an age of catastrophe, humour is more important than ever, argues the satirical author.
• Plus, 10 terrific 21st-century comic novels
I do not write historical fiction. But I envy those who do. I can picture them sitting in the lamp-lit halls of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, thumbing through fraying, early 20th‑century telephone directories or spinning the roulette of the microfiche machine, or meeting at a nearby coffee dispensary with fellow history-minded wordsmiths in the wee hours of the day, like hunters getting ready to put a bullet through the heart of a wildebeest. The best are able to address the current moment through deft metaphysical journeys between the present and the past, to illuminate our wayward realities by reminding us that it has ever been so, that the past is not even the past, or whatever Faulkner said.
Personally, I have trouble building a literary time machine. A decade ago, when I wrote a memoir set primarily in the 1980s, all I could remember of that era was Michael J Fox running around in a varsity jacket. The rest of my memories were just volumes of mist that sometimes trickled out of my minor brain holes, tantalising but highly suspect emissions that bore news of events which may or may not have been. When one’s teenage years are a distant Greek island, imagine trying to write a novel about the romantic entanglements of the Italian futurists or the political cataclysms of Meiji-era Japan, or anything at all about the ancient Egyptians. Continue reading...
Jan 01, 2022
New writing from Ali Smith, Marlon James, Elena Ferrante and Jarvis Cocker – a taste of good things to come Continue reading...
Dec 04, 2021
Dazzling debuts, a word-of-mouth hit, plus this year’s bestsellers from Sally Rooney, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro and more
The most anticipated, discussed and accessorised novel of the year was Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber), launched on a tide of tote bags and bucket hats. It’s a book about the accommodations of adulthood, which plays with interiority and narrative distance as Rooney’s characters consider the purpose of friendship, sex and politics – plus the difficulties of fame and novel-writing – in a world on fire.
Rooney’s wasn’t the only eagerly awaited new chapter. Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus The Books of Jacob (Fitzcarraldo) reached English-language readers at last, in a mighty feat of translation by Jennifer Croft: a dazzling historical panorama about enlightenment both spiritual and scientific. In 2021 we also saw the returns of Jonathan Franzen, beginning a fine and involving 70s family trilogy with Crossroads (4th Estate); Kazuo Ishiguro, whose Klara and the Sun (Faber) probes the limits of emotion in the story of a sickly girl and her “artificial friend”; and acclaimed US author Gayl Jones, whose epic of liberated slaves in 17th-century Brazil, Palmares (Virago), has been decades in the making. Continue reading...
Jul 26, 2021
Second Place is both timeless and up-to-the minute, with big names Richard Powers and Kazuo Ishiguro among strong international finalists
News: Booker reveals globe-spanning longlist
This is a longlist light on debuts and surprises, heavy on historical fiction, with an impressive geographical reach and an interest in the weight of the past. The biggest names look to the future, however: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun shows us, through its narrator’s artificial eyes, a tired, fragile world in which inequality is ever-deepening and humans are at risk of becoming defunct. As ever, the Nobel laureate is exploring the messy mysteries of emotion, memory and what it is to be human: the book makes a fascinating companion piece to his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. And it’s no surprise to see Richard Powers here, previously shortlisted for The Overstory; it’s not out until September, but Bewilderment, an investigation of climate grief and the prospect of life on other planets, told through the story of a father and his troubled son, will be a strong contender.
Elsewhere, recent political history and national trauma come to the fore. This is the third Booker listing for Damon Galgut; The Promise follows a white South African family in the decades before and after the end of apartheid, weighing broken promises on a national and individual level. Anuk Arudpragasam is a hugely promising young Sri Lankan author: in his second novel, A Passage North, a young man reflects on the horrors of the civil war. There’s a more fable-like treatment of political violence in one of the surprise inclusions, An Island; South African Karen Jennings’s small-press parable centres on an isolated lighthouse keeper who has suffered under colonialism and dictatorship in an unnamed African country. Debut novel The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris has been a smash in the US: a revisionist take on civil war history, with a sweeping treatment of forbidden gay love and the aftermath of slavery. Continue reading...
Jul 01, 2021
From gay hookups to pub banter, connections multiply over the nine sections of this incisively witty novel
In Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, an odd couple of police officers were the common thread through storylines that traded in uncertainty and irresolution: as though a crime novel had chosen to self-combust. Nearly a decade on, the Irish author again shuffles together London lives, this time over nine discrete sections, characters colliding or glancing off one another, connections multiplying, themes layering, images repeating. It’s a left-field way of building a novel, but if Hawthorn & Child was consciously quirky, A Shock reads more as a subversive take on realism that knows how weird reality can feel. Throughout, Ridgway shows a radical dedication to his characters’ viewpoints, while retaining a wry comedy and compassion. From gay hookups to Labour party meetings, pub banter to insecure housing, the result is witty, precise, political. His sentences effortlessly encompass the humdrum and the metaphysical alike; the ordinariness feels fresh, while the oddity rings true.
In the opening section, an elderly widow endures her gay neighbours’ house party, grieving for her husband as the walls reverberate to strangers’ music and chatter. Stream-of-consciousness narrative seeks to plunge the reader into the river of thought, and Ridgway puts us right there in the miracle of the present moment: “There is only now, in all its perpetual detail, as deep as a well.” Remembering how her husband liked DIY and “fixing things”, the woman laughs to herself that “things are too complicated to explain”, but slowly and slyly her hinterland comes into view, thoughts on time and change subtly interwoven with a story of gender transition and the continuity of love. She gets up close to the party wall and imagines accosting the oblivious young people: “This story I have.” Continue reading...
May 11, 2021
Shortlisted for the International Booker prize, this science-fiction satire on corporate language is a miracle of concision
From the mysterious monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the impossible spaceship in Arrival, one of science fiction’s favourite tropes is the alien artefact that defies human comprehension. Danish author Olga Ravn’s brilliantly unusual novel The Employees, which has been shortlisted for the International Booker prize, is an SF epic in miniature, but it takes a prosaic approach to our dreams of extraterrestrial transcendence. “It’s not hard to clean them,” says a crew member of the strange objects found on the faraway planet New Discovery, now housed in the Six-Thousand Ship orbiting above. “I normally use a little brush.”
The Employees is not only a disconcertingly quotidian space opera; it’s also an audacious satire of corporate language and the late-capitalist workplace, and a winningly abstracted investigation into what it means to be human. The book takes the form of a series of statements – some missing, some with material redacted – made by the crew to a bureaucratic committee investigating the effects of the strange objects: not what they might be or reveal, but how they might “precipitate reduction or enhancement of performance, task-related understanding and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills”. Continue reading...
Mar 31, 2021
The difficult relationship between a mother and daughter is mercilessly dissected in this astute, bitterly funny novel
“It’s a weird thing,” said Gwendoline Riley after the publication of First Love, shortlisted for the Women’s prize in 2017. “I don’t feel as if I’m building a body of work; each book is saying what I want to say, but better.” Over two decades and six novels now, she has refined her material; a writer/academic, called Aislinn or Carmel or Natalie or Neve, kicks away from the claustrophobia and emotional incontinence of her childhood in the north of England in search of a self-contained, autonomous existence in Manchester or Glasgow, America or London. Often she recounts vignettes from her early years; her mother’s flight from her father, weekend access visits to be suffered through with a sibling. She fixes her parents on the page with darkly comic precision, mercilessly attendant to their tics and repetitions: a monstrous bully of a father who, in Opposed Positions, says after his daughter’s novel is published, “Oh dear! Oof! Posing! Er, what?”; a mother who bleats in book after book, “Well, it’s a long time ago now, isn’t it?” “Well, it was just what you did.”
The mothers in Riley’s books are always baring their teeth to their daughters, like angry dogs or frightened chimps Continue reading...
Mar 13, 2021
The Last House on Needless Street is partly narrated by a cat, has been praised by Stephen King and is set to be her breakout hit. The novelist talks about her fascination with horror
When Catriona Ward was about 13, she’d wake up each night with a hand in the small of her back, pushing her out of bed. “It was absolutely terrifying. I could feel that there was someone in the room.” Had Google been around in the early 1990s, she might have found out sooner about hypnagogic hallucinations, intensely real sensations on the border between wakefulness and sleep. “But it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not; the fear is real. And there’s nothing else quite like it, that fear in the dark.”
Fear in the dark is what powered her 2015 gothic horror debut, Rawblood, the follow-up Little Eve, and now her breakout third book, The Last House on Needless Street, published on 18 March. Buzz has been building for months around a dark, audacious highwire act of a novel that can be only tentatively described for risk of giving too much away. Whereas Ward’s previous novels were historical chillers set in remote corners of Britain, featuring young women traumatised by cursed families and social oppression, the new book looks at first like a contemporary American thriller. There are horrors hidden in a rundown house on the edge of a forest; a spate of disappearing children; a vulnerable woman searching for answers. Ward introduces us to Ted, a bizarre, childlike loner who lives with his daughter Lauren and cat Olivia – and then pulls the rug, repeatedly, from under the reader’s feet. Continue reading...
Jan 27, 2021
This gloriously immersive reimagining of a scandalous Jacobean murder trial traces a dangerous friendship between two women
Lucy Jago is an award-winning biographer whose richly imagined adult fiction debut is based around a scandal that rocked the Jacobean court. The poet and courtier Thomas Overbury was already in the Tower of London when he died, apparently of natural causes, in 1613; two years later, accusations that he’d been poisoned reached King James, and suspicion settled on the king’s favourite – and Overbury’s close friend – Robert Carr, now Earl of Somerset, and his wife Frances Howard. Frances’s companion Anne Turner, a doctor’s widow, was also implicated; she was Frances’s dresser and fixer, obtainer of both love potions and poisons, and much more vulnerable than the aristocratic Somersets to ruin and social censure. Justice, then as now, is the net for small fishes: “the great ones swim away”. Continue reading...
Dec 04, 2020
Themes of love and loneliness, doom and desire are explored in a richly comic collection from an Irish maestro
“Here’s a very old joke – Cause of Death: the west of Ireland.” The misfits and mavericks who people Kevin’s Barry’s third short story collection are as vulnerable as ever to that landscape’s “glamorous and drunk making” aspect; the wild, doomy, transporting strain that runs from the punky dystopia of his Impac-winning debut novel, City of Bohane, through the Goldsmiths winner Beatlebone and on to last year’s tragicomic Night Boat to Tangier. “This place could wreak fucking havoc on a man’s prose if you let it,” remarks the narrator of “Old Stock”, who inherits his uncle’s cottage facing the Bluestack Mountains. It’s a story brimming with both the desire for and the fear of strong feeling, handled with a loose, supple comedy. His change in circumstance threatens some test or transformation for the narrator; rapture and resignation compete, and in the end he backs away. “I knew well I was a maggot.”
Elsewhere the drama between individual and setting unfolds as fable, as shaggy dog story, or as country and western ballad. In the title story, a pregnant teenager parked up in a forest awaits the outcome of her boyfriend’s unwise heist on a petrol station. “Her man in jail and a child at the breast – it was all playing out by the chorus and verse.” In “Ox Mountain Death Song”, a romp of a story with a sting in its tail, a guard is on the trail of a local ne’er do well who’s been “planting babies all over the Ox Mountains since he was 17 years old”. Sergeant Brown’s darkest attribute appears at first to be a sweet tooth; as he pursues the charismatic young Canavan, he sucks honey from a squeezable tub. Barry holds myth-making and dull reality in teasing balance, with a kind of comic double vision winking at the operatic and the bathetic by turns. Generations pass in the shadow of the mountains, “and only the trousers changed”, from sackcloth, gabardine and denim on to “the nylon trackpant, and then to the cotton sweats”. Whitethorn trees encroach into nearly every story, whether foaming with blossom or waving gnarly branches, carrying their aroma of death and magic. Fate, doom and disaster are lightly invoked, and swiftly brought down. Continue reading...
Oct 07, 2020
A pandemic enables animals and humans to communicate, in a fierce and funny exploration of other consciousnesses and the limits of language
Wittgenstein wrote that “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” In her fierce debut novel, Australian Laura Jean McKay sets herself an extraordinary challenge: to represent animal communication in words. The book succeeds by walking a difficult and delicate line between understanding and incomprehension, creating something like dirty realism out of its fantastical premise. The revelatory allure of talking with animals recurs throughout literature; as our appealingly spiky narrator Jean says, staring into the eyes of a caged dingo at the zoo where she works as a guide: “Tell me she doesn’t know something about the world that you and me haven’t ever thought of.”
Alcoholic Jean has led a rackety life before coming to rest at the zoo run by her daughter-in-law, Angela; now she divides her time between feeding her addiction and staying straight enough to babysit her granddaughter Kimberley. “She’s a grandma, for shitsake, not a ranger,” but she longs to get closer to the animals, and as the novel opens nips over a fence to free dingo Sue’s foot from wire, getting a bite on the hand in the process. Jean is used to much harder knocks in life than a dingo bite – it’s just Sue’s “way of saying, ‘You’re in my face, bitch’” – but the wound will throb and worsen for the rest of the novel, a symbol of the rising chaos. Continue reading...
Sep 12, 2020
Her debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, sold 4m copies - 16 years on, Clarke has written a second novel. She talks about chronic fatigue syndrome
Sixteen years ago, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel became a publishing phenomenon. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an unlikely story of intellectual obsession, set in a Regency England in which the buried powers of English magic are reawoken by two scholar magicians. The prose style mashes together Jane Austen and Charles Dickens for a tale that ranges across all levels of society as well as to fairyland and the battlefields of the Napoleonic war. The pages crawl with footnotes, one of the title characters doesn’t appear for the first 200 pages and at the end the reader is left hanging. It went on to sell 4m copies worldwide and was adapted for a BBC miniseries in 2015.
Neil Gaiman, an early champion, declared it the finest work of English fantasy in 70 years – but he also predicted that it “would be too unusual and strange for the general public”. The long-awaited followup appears on 15 September, and as Clarke admits from her home in Derbyshire, it’s stranger still. “When I finished it I thought: ‘This is so different, I don’t know whether anyone is going to understand it because it’s so peculiar.’” Continue reading...
Sep 03, 2020
From a secret diary, gossipy celebrity memoirs and a love letter to Jürgen Klopp, to novels by Don DeLillo, Elena Ferrante and Nick Hornby - new releases to look out for
This autumn will be like no other in the world of books. It’s always a busy season, but Covid-19 postponements mean that in September alone, 16,443 titles will be published in the UK (including ebooks and audio): 76% of these are nonfiction. Publishers are worried that much will get lost, but one of the surefire hits is Caitlin Moran’s memoir More Than a Woman (Ebury). Coming a decade after the mega-selling How to Be a Woman, this mid-life book follows, with Moran’s irresistible comic candour, a day in the life of a woman in her early 40s as she deals with ageing parents, divorcing friends, teenagers having “micro-breakdowns”, greying hair, “maintenance shags” and the tyranny of the to-do list. Other writers have covered this ground, but very few are as funny. Continue reading...
Jul 31, 2020
As her bestselling Murder Most Unladylike series ends, the children’s author talks about cosy crime, gay characters and watching her schoolgirl detectives grow up
Warning: when tween readers get their hands on the final book in the Murder Most Unladylike series, published next week, they may well burst into tears on the very first page. Fans have been devouring the adventures of 1930s schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong since 2014, but have been tipped off that in the ninth book, Death Sets Sail – a romp through Egypt inspired by Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile – only one of the girls makes it home alive. “I’m getting 20 emails a week reasoning with me, saying ‘Please don’t kill one of them! Please!’” laughs Robin Stevens over the phone from Oxford.
For this last book, though, she “wanted to go big. I have kids who started reading when they were 10, they’re now 16, so for the final one I wanted something that you’re desperate to know about – something exciting and terrifying.” Daisy and Hazel were 13 when we first met them at Deepdean boarding school, setting up their own detective society and discovering a dead body in the gymnasium. Aristocratic, golden-haired Daisy declares herself Holmes to Hazel’s Watson; at first, Daisy calls the shots and Hazel, whose family lives in Hong Kong, writes up the cases. As she says, “I am much too short to be the heroine of this story, and who ever heard of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes?” Continue reading...
Jul 17, 2020
Williams’ PhD about fictitious dictionary entries led to an acclaimed short story collection and now a novel. She talks about nonsense words, sexuality and the wonders of Wikipedia
Eley Williams has always loved dictionaries. That love shone throughout her dazzling, acrobatic 2017 collection, Attrib. and Other Stories, which savoured words and wordplay with an irresistible enthusiasm. The debut catapulted its tiny publisher, Influx, on to prize lists and heralded the arrival of a singular new voice.
It all dates back to her childhood, when Williams’s family kept a pile of dictionaries by the kitchen table. “Once you start looking words up it’s very easy to ricochet from column to column, falling down a rabbit hole … I got ‘precocious’ in a school report and I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. I thought it was probably a very good thing.” She continued to ricochet around the columns throughout her school years, even starting her own dictionary of neologisms as a teenager, inspired by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff. As time went on, she became more and more fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of a branch of knowledge that sets out to fix and codify meaning. “The concept is so ambitious … there’s something humane and sympathetic in the fact that we’ll always fall short, but something extraordinary in that we’d ever attempt it.” She wrote a PhD about fictitious entries in dictionaries, part of which has become her eagerly awaited debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, out this month. Continue reading...
Apr 24, 2020
Strangers connect in this artful exploration of solitude and empathy in a globalised world
Every technological innovation both changes its human users and uncovers something new about our nature. In this ingenious novel, Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin conducts an unnerving thought experiment: if an individual could be virtually inserted into the life of a random stranger, anywhere in the world, what effects would that have on them both? And what hidden truths would be revealed?
Little Eyes follows her gripping 2017 novella Fever Dream, a destabilising parable about GM farming and maternal anxiety, and a story collection of domestic surrealism, Mouthful of Birds; all three books have been long- or shortlisted for the International Booker. In her new novel the gadget that’s sweeping the globe is called a kentuki. It’s not much more, says one character, than “a cell phone with legs”, but the camera and speaker are housed within the felt-covered, remotely propelled body of a toy animal – rabbit or panda, dragon or crow, the buyer or “keeper” decides. What the keeper can’t choose is who the “dweller” connecting with the robot and watching online is, while dwellers have no control over where, and with whom, they “wake up”. As with a human life, the stakes are high; there is one connection per kentuki, one mind per body. When the keeper destroys their pet or forgets to charge its batteries, or the dweller disconnects, it’s game over, no replays. If death is what gives life reality, the life of a kentuki is real. Continue reading...