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Jun 29, 2022

Writers from Alexandre Dumas to Jack Kerouac and Colson Whitehead have written fiction worth bonding with about these sometimes uneasy alliances

Male friendship, the way it works, the way people think about it, is going through a generational shift. To feel the change you just have to watch old movies. Last week, I made my kids sit through Diner, which I always thought of as one of my favourite films. It’s about a bunch of twentysomething guys in Baltimore in 1959, struggling to take the next step into adulthood. They argue about football and sandwiches, about Presley and Sinatra … but I’d forgotten how much they talk about sex, too. One of them bets he can “ball” a girl on a second date, another tells stories about the first time he “copped a feel”. Part of the point, of course, is that all this sexism is getting in the way of their lives. They don’t really know what to talk about with women, but the movie is also clearly nostalgic for their late-night bull sessions in the diner. All of which makes male friendship, and the way it mixes guilt and innocence, an interesting thing to write about.

One of the weirdest weekends of my life was when I flew out to Barcelona to interview LeBron James. After waiting around for two days, I was finally ushered into the large hotel room where he was doing media. Our interview, it turned out, was going to have an audience – which included not just agents, publicists and Nike reps but some of LeBron’s old high school teammates who now formed part of his entourage. I wondered what it was like to be one of the guys whose whole life had been shaped by someone he happened to play basketball with 10 years before.

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Jun 29, 2022

Striking biographies by Serhii Rudenko and Philip Short pit Ukraine’s comic actor turned wartime hero against Russia’s pragmatic, inscrutable insider

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is perhaps the closest thing to a mythical hero modern politics has to offer. Ukraine’s courageous wartime president captured the world’s imagination with his haunting, straight-to-camera monologues delivered under bombardment. A comic actor turned leader of the resistance, his story is a political fairytale. But is it almost too good to be true?

Truth and fiction collide in the Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko’s quirky and fascinating biography, describing how a man best known for playing a teacher who unexpectedly becomes head of state subsequently did something similar himself.

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Jun 29, 2022

A wistful, witty meditation on a gay man’s twilight years and the twilight of America

I could no longer deny what I was: an old man who liked to pee in his flower bed.” So says an unnamed sixtysomething living alone in an unnamed North Florida town. It’s a place of few residents, but 27 churches. The lake has gone dry, becoming prairie land. The man has stayed on in his dead parents’ house with their ashes and, like a pharaoh’s tomb, their stuff: his mother’s perfumes, a pack of Pall Malls his father left in the fridge, a crystal Virgin Mary. Andrew Holleran’s first novel in 16 years, The Kingdom of Sand is about death and taxes, literally, plus solitaire, car repairs and five-hour-long porn searches in the late Obama era. Out of this obstinate ennui, Holleran renders an elegiac and very funny contemplation of not just ageing but an age.

The opening chapters are listless and list-like, outlining dietary habits and lifts to the airport. Holleran is a perspicacious writer of place, and of mundanity; the first pages detail how the construction of two freeways and an overpass have made a cruisey video store on Highway 301 inconvenient. The result: no more passing trade, just desperate regulars, “egg-shaped men in loose T-shirts”, arthritic and/or pacemaker-dependent. “Too many cock-suckers,” as a friend puts it at lunch, “and not enough cock.” That friend doesn’t offer a goodbye hug, and on the way home the video store is as lugubrious as ever; the narrator remains untouched.

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Jun 28, 2022

Anastasia Steele actor describes constant disagreements on the set of the hit erotic thriller due to disagreements with Fifty Shades author EL James

Dakota Johnson has described the making of the hit erotic drama Fifty Shades of Grey as “crazy” and that she “signed up to do a very different version of the film [she] ended up making”.

Johnson, who is currently appearing in award-winning indie comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth and about to release an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, spoke to Vanity Fair about Fifty Shades of Grey, in which she starred opposite Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in a 2015 film version of EL James’ best selling novel directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Two further films, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, were released in 2017 and 2018 respectively, with James Foley replacing Taylor-Johnson as director and over which James was given what has been described as “unprecedented control”.

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Jun 28, 2022

The highs and lows of first-love relationships, modern-day mythology and summer escapism are among this month’s pick of teenage fiction

Readers facing a long wait for their next fix of Heartstopper: look out for two new teenage romances that channel some of that warmth and feelgood energy, framed by diverse casts of characters. Only on the Weekends (Hodder, £8.99) is Dean Atta’s second young adult verse novel, following the Stonewall book award winner The Black Flamingo. Hopeless romantic Mack longs for love, certain it’s the real deal when Karim becomes his boyfriend. A family move to Scotland presents fresh challenges, not least Mack’s instant attraction to new friend Finlay. It’s full of tender truths on the joy and agony of first love, amplified by the confessional tone of the verse format.

In I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston (Macmillan, £14.99), Chloe has endured the puritanical Willowgrove Christian academy only through her steely resolve to become valedictorian. A month before graduation her main rival, the perfect Shara, unexpectedly kisses her and then vanishes, leaving an unruly breadcrumb trail of cryptic notes for Chloe and two unlikely accomplices. Sharp, funny and deliciously entertaining, it reads like a 21st-century take on a John Hughes classic teen movie; a Netflix adaptation can only be a matter of time.

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Jun 27, 2022

From The Simpsons to QAnon via The Stepford Wives, the psychoanalyst’s absorbing study of mind control is part media studies, part political history

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Jun 27, 2022

Study of literature should not be a ‘luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt aesthetes’, author says

The award-winning author Philip Pullman has said the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes” after it emerged that Sheffield Hallam University is to pull its English literature degree from next year.

He was one of a number of writers to raise concerns about the university’s decision to stop teaching the standalone degree and incorporate it instead into a broad-based English degree, a year after the University of Cumbria took similar action.

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Jun 27, 2022

A bracing celebration of the exhilaration and refreshment found in wild swimming

Llyn Gwynant

All through the night I twitch my heart.
Swimming is a kind of hiccup
that jolts the body clean apart.
All through the night I twitch my heart;
tight contractions of sleep starts
break like waves pushing me up.
All through the night I twitch my heart.
Swimming is a kind of hiccup.

Note: Llyn is Welsh for lake; Gwynant is derived from “‘gwyn” meaning white, fair, blessed, holy, and “nant” meaning stream.

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Jun 27, 2022

Morris resolves to fight her aggressor in this extraordinary account of her five-year struggle with a terminal brain tumour

“I didn’t choose cancer. Cancer chose me.” None of us know what we will do when we’re given the sentence of our death. For Jessica Morris, the sentence came too early, when she was in her early 50s, strong and vigorous, her three children not yet adults, her future seeming to lie clear and unimpeded in front of her. And it came out of the blue: hiking with friends in the Catskills in upstate New York in 2016, she began to feel strangely breathless and “inexplicably odd… odder still… struggling to call out during a nightmare… Agh…” The violent seizure she then had was her body’s “suicide mission” revealing itself.

Morris, a communications consultant, had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumour that is terminal, and whose median survival rate is 14 months; only 5% are alive after five years. The hourglass had been turned and the sands of her life were running out. All in My Head – written in a voice that is loud, defiant and beautiful, and that demands to be heard – is her account of what she did when she was given her sentence. It is a narrative that can only have one end: I picked up the book, whose back-cover photo shows her chemo-bald and vivid, knowing that Morris died last year; the afterword is by her husband, the journalist Ed Pilkington. The Evil Fucker, as she calls her disease, had got her, and her story is over.

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Jun 26, 2022

In an expansive new biography, the acclaimed writer and director’s complexities are explored and contextualised

You can’t chart the whole of Nora Ephron with just the name-making hits that placed her atop the end-of-the-century romcom boom, but you can’t do so without them, either. The polymath writer’s best-known traits – her barbed wit, her particular taste mistaken by some for pickiness, her profound and enduring love of food – course through scripting gigs like When Harry Met Sally … as well as such directorial projects as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Lovelorn and loquacious, this is the Nora fans feel they know well enough to assume the first-name basis, a characterization that only covers one side of a many-splendored woman. Kristin Marguerite Doidge, the author of the newly released Nora Ephron: A Biography, hopes to expand the image of a singular talent for the blinker-visioned faithful and uninitiated alike.

“She wrote for five or six decades, and so everyone comes to her from a different angle,” Doidge tells the Guardian from her home in Los Angeles. “Some people might have seen Heartburn before anything else, or maybe you remember seeing This Is My Life with your grandma. Some people find her much later, when she was feeling bad about her neck. The general public tends to think of her as the romantic comedy queen, the lady who did You’ve Got Mail. That’s just one part of her, and what she stands for. A lot of the younger generation doesn’t even know Nora and her movies. I teach at a university, and when I say her name, I get a lot of blank stares. It’s crazy!”

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Jun 26, 2022

A lyrical, witty novel of the US south, a great Italian writer’s mountain detective story, and the history of a controversial cycling champion

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
4th Estate, £9.99, pp816 (paperback)

To order The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois, Impossible or Jan Ullrich go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jun 26, 2022

Anie’s skilful debut novel follows the development of an unlikely bond between a shopkeeper and a young boy in a hostile inner-city environment

Life in the city is shocking, its din so overwhelming that inhabitants learn to dull it into an incessant ambient roar. It is this bewildering clamour of urban living that sets the rhythm for Sussie Anie’s London-based debut novel, To Fill a Yellow House. It is the story of the unlikely friendship between Kwasi and Rupert. In the course of the novel, we see Kwasi grow from shy infant to artistic and socially unsure young man. Rupert is the ageing owner of a charity shop. He and the shop, poorly maintained after the death of his wife, are both in decline, caught between the whims of the unsupportive council and the threat of local youths.

If this sounds like a small or parochial story, it is testament to Anie’s skill (and background as a short story writer) that it rings with such keen and resonant themes. The only thing Kwasi and Rupert have in common is they are both outsiders, which makes their simple, human closeness all the more touching; amid the pressures of inner-city life, they allow each other the space in which they can be themselves.

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Jun 26, 2022

This International Booker-winning story of a woman who travels to Pakistan at the age of 80 to reclaim her true identity is a breath of fresh air

Geetanjali Shree, the first Hindi writer to win the International Booker prize, seems to have come out of nowhere. Until last month, some very famous Hindi Indian journalists didn’t know her name. At 65, she has been writing for about 30 years, and Tomb of Sand, translated by Daisy Rockwell from her book Ret Samadhi, is her fifth novel.

The invisibility of women is a recurring subject in Shree’s work. It seems to be the natural state of women in India, where, despite modernity, men continue to take social and psychological precedence. Visibility may be returned to us conditionally – on having kids, by proving to be indispensable to men, on winning the Booker prize. Shree is an excellent observer of women’s inner lives. What living with men does to women, to their spines. “We always knew mother had a weak spine,” her debut novel Mai (Silently Mother) begins. “Those who constantly bend get this problem.”

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Jun 26, 2022

The film-maker and author’s latest novel, about the bond between an aristocrat and a freed slave, is thrillingly written and laden with social and sexual ambiguity

“This is a ballad of fools and heroes and maybe you can work out which is which.” The real-life relationship between the Irish aristocrat turned republican revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his servant-cum-saviour, the freed slave Tony Small, is one that has been largely ignored by history. Small is remembered, if he is at all, as a minor character in Fitzgerald’s more celebrated story. But the association between the two men forms the backbone of the author and film-maker Neil Jordan’s latest novel, which explores their tentative, highly unequal friendship from Small’s perspective, and is typically laden with social and sexual ambiguity.

The narrative begins on the battlefields of the American war of independence, as Small almost accidentally saves Fitzgerald’s life. It continues as Small, granted his freedom papers in gratitude, accompanies “my lieutenant” as his servant on his travels to the West Indies, Britain, Ireland and across Europe, as Fitzgerald takes an increasing, and eventually fatal, interest in revolutionary politics. There is a vividly depicted – if brief – account of the horrors of slavery and “the passage”, as well as a charmingly evoked vignette of theatre-going in 18th-century London. But Jordan is most interested in the ethical and racial tensions that exist between the two men – Rousseau is evoked repeatedly – even as something akin to a love affair develops between them.

The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small by Neil Jordan is published by Head of Zeus (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jun 26, 2022

This uneven account of the Ukrainian president’s three years in power is aimed at his home market, but offers glimpses of the man behind the wartime facade

Until 24 February this year, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a name that was not widely known outside Ukraine. True, he’d enjoyed a cameo role in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, when it appeared that the former American president had tried to pressure the new Ukrainian president into serving up dirt on Joe Biden’s son Hunter by allegedly blocking payment of a military aid package.

But even then, he was just another leader of Ukraine, the largest entirely European nation, no more recognisable to the general populace than any of his five predecessors – the likes of Viktor Yanukovych and Petro Poroshenko. With Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic decision to invade Ukraine, however, he suddenly became a global figurehead, an international hero, a modern David standing up to the brutal Russian Goliath.

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Jun 25, 2022

The author of gay cult classic Dancer from the Dance moves on from disco-fuelled revels to ‘death’s antechamber’ in his august portrait of a man for whom duty calls in Florida, while a literary critic revisits the glory days of Fire Island

Pausing briefly during his round of almost motorised erotic delights in New York, the hero of Andrew Holleran’s first novel, Dancer from the Dance, proclaims the glory of gay liberation and foresees its doom. “We’re completely free,” he says, “and that’s the horror.” This was in 1978; three years later, Aids curtailed the disco-fuelled revels and Holleran began to write essays about a city that had turned into an ashen graveyard. His subsequent novels, published at intervals of a decade or more, have tracked a long withdrawal – from New York to Florida, where Holleran moved to care for his aged parents, and from hedonism to the metaphysical gloom or “morose delectation” that he absorbed from his Jesuit education.

Now, in The Kingdom of Sand, a nameless narrator, deputising for the near-octogenarian Holleran, soberly contemplates what Christian eschatology calls the last things. The arid corner of Florida in which he is beached might be a parody of Fire Island, the sandbar off Long Island where the characters of Dancer from the Dance alternately sun themselves on the shore and couple, triple or quadruple in the dunes. The sand that spreads through the drought-stricken setting of the new novel is a morbid symptom, warning that the planet, trashed by our “manufacturing mania”, may soon be uninhabitable. Sex for the narrator consists of occasional blowjobs administered to unattractive strangers, in sessions that amount to what the Catholic church defines as corporeal acts of mercy. Otherwise, he spends his days viewing porn, which he likens to the miserable games of solitaire played by his dying father. But the coital bouts on the screen only worsen his boredom, as the performers take so long to reach orgasm that “watching them is like waiting for a bus”.

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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 25, 2022

Authors recommend their favourite recent reads, from addictive novels and fascinating cultural history to a game-changing graphic memoir

Bernardine Evaristo
More Fiya: A New Collection of Black British Poetry, edited by Kayo Chingonyi, brings together a wonderful array of outstanding poets whose linguistic flair and wide-ranging perspectives excite, inspire and challenge in equal measure. As a companion, Canongate is also republishing the 1998 anthology The Fire People: A Collection of British Black and Asian Poetry, edited by Lemn Sissay.

Hilary Mantel
A novel featuring the young Joseph Stalin might not sound like summer entertainment, but Stephen May’s Sell Us the Rope is fresh and original: jaunty, cunning, thought-provoking but never solemn. For nonfiction, and a venture into the strange world of coincidence and prediction, try Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau. It’s a book hard to classify, but wholly fascinating: lively, nimble, its subject poised on the frontiers of the possible.

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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
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.

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Jun 24, 2022

Seventy-five years after Diary of a Young Girl’s publication, Sonnet for Anne Frank reflects on the ‘awful paradox’ of the journal’s bright spirit and her fate

  • Read the poem below

Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has written a new poem to mark the 75th anniversary of the release of Anne Frank’s diary.

The poem is titled Sonnet for Anne Frank; Rosen wrote in this form, he said, because sonnets have “a certain kind of dignity” and give “you time to reflect”.

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Jun 24, 2022

Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles; Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto; Wake by Shelley Burr; Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant; Aurora by David Koepp

Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99)
The first in a projected series from the pop star turned vicar and memoirist, Murder Before Evensong is set in the late 1980s in the English village of Champton. This enjoyable cosy crime novel contains all the requisites: a social hierarchy ranging from aristocrats to semi-feral woodland dwellers; lashings of afternoon tea and parish intrigue; charming pets; and a body in the church. There’s plenty of fascinating liturgical business, although clergyman sleuth Canon Daniel Clement, a mildly exasperated but accommodating type with little hinterland, does not, as yet, make much of an impression. We initially encounter him using a biblical text to persuade his congregation of the necessity of installing a toilet at the back of the church. This becomes the focus of a debate about the perils of upending the status quo and leads to a series of fatal events. The appropriately named DS Vanloo duly investigates, but the revelatory manner of the ending is religiously apt rather than convincing.

Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto, translated by Jesse Kirkwood (Penguin Classics, £12.99)
The railway mystery is another staple of golden age crime fiction, and this tale of timetables was the debut novel of bestselling writer Seichō Matsumoto (1909-1992). First published in Japan in 1958 and never out of print, it’s being reissued in the UK in a new translation. When ministry official Kenichi Sayama and waitress Toki Kuwayama are found dead in a cove on the island of Kyushu, next to a bottle that appears to have held cyanide-laced juice, it is chalked up as a lovers’ suicide pact. However, neither local detective Jūtarō Torigai nor his Tokyo-based colleague Kiichi Mihara buy this explanation: the pair were witnessed boarding the train from the capital the day before their bodies are discovered and anomalies keep piling up, and the ministry where Sayama worked is mired in a corruption scandal. No revelations here, but intuition coupled with dogged detective work and a palpable sense of frustration, as the two men go back and forth along the line – maps and diagrams provide clarification – trying to solve the mystery in this ingeniously plotted story.

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Jun 24, 2022

At the national diary archive in Pieve Santo Stefano, Tuscany, no journal is ever turned away – whether typed, scrawled or written on a bedsheet

When I was in my early 20s, I tried to keep a diary of my experiences as a student and teacher in Bologna. There was much to write about: I was teaching in one of the city’s largest secondary schools, attending lectures delivered by professors who seemed as ancient as the faculty’s medieval buildings and I was learning, painfully, that a certain British shabbiness is not considered a mark of sophistication in Italy, but its very opposite. Yet the diary contained none of this. It was, as the Italians say, uno sfogo, a vent, and, instead of bringing to life this fabulous city with its myriad characters, I detailed minor fluctuations in my mood and the messy breakdown of a short relationship. That, at least, is what I remember, for, on returning to the UK, I was so ashamed of the text that I burned it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that diary ever since visiting Italy’s Archivio Diaristico Nazionale or national diary archive. Nestled in the small town of Pieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany, it holds about 9,000 diaries, letters and memoirs. Its founder, the late Italian journalist Saverio Tutino, was a professional writer who wanted to find a home for his own voluminous diaries. But the spirit of the archive is decidedly egalitarian; it accepts every Italian text that it receives, regardless of literary merit. Within its collection you will find the writings of Italian contadini (peasants), immigrants, aristocrats, criminals, factory workers, victims of violence, business executives, drug addicts, partisans, fascists, communists, the semi-illiterate, the over-educated and, yes, students nursing literary ambitions. “Do you have a diary in a drawer?” Tutino asked readers of La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, in 1984. “Don’t let it become mouse food in the year 2000.”

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Jun 23, 2022

From overdressed hares to furious falcons … an impassioned study of wildlife under threat that still manages to inspire hope

Sophie Pavelle has been busy. A science writer, presenter, maker of podcasts, ambassador for the Wildlife Trust and adviser to the RSPB, she’s also spent much of the last two years roving from Cornwall to Orkney in search of 10 species whose fortunes have been affected by human-induced climate change. More impressive still, she’s done so in the middle of a pandemic and while eschewing wherever possible high-carbon forms of transport – and she is still only 27. Plug this woman into the grid.

Forget Me Not is not a hymn to those species – nothing so reverent. It’s an openhearted, superbly nerdish fan letter. With apologies for the spoiler, she doesn’t always find the species. But what she does find is a detailed perspective on the interconnectedness of the climate and biodiversity crises and ways to solve them. In short: it’s complicated, and we’re messing up big time. We have, Pavelle tells us as kindly as anyone can, created a world that “can barely continue to absorb our mistakes”.

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Jun 23, 2022

Wood’s unnerving fourth novel follows young siblings from borstal to living on a farm in 50s England

“Was this how it was going to be for ever?” wonders Joyce Savigear, facing another afternoon of drudgery at EH Lacey’s department store in postwar Maidstone, Kent. Joyce is 16 and at a crossroads. Before her is mysterious Mal Duggan, looking invitingly up from the driving seat of a Daimler; behind her are endless hours of folding womenswear and polishing counters. “How much worse off would she be if she went driving with a stranger for a while?”

In due course, Joyce finds out, and Benjamin Wood’s latest novel, The Young Accomplice, is set in motion by the choice she makes. It is a choice that leads to a period in borstal for her and her younger brother, Charlie, developing into a story of opportunity, education and escaping the past. Like Wood’s previous novel, A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, it concerns malign or misguided father figures, and the necessity of learning from mistakes.

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Jun 23, 2022

A self-published novel by Michael Winkler joins Alice Pung, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Michelle de Kretser and Jennifer Down to compete for $60,000


A self-published book has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin for the first time in the award’s 65-year history, with Michael Winkler’s cult hit Grimmish clearing the final hurdle before Australia’s most prestigious literary prize is announced on 20 July.

Announced on Thursday evening, Grimmish joins Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You, Michelle de Kretser’s Scary Monsters, Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light and Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days to compete for the $60,000 prize.

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