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Jul 21, 2022

A handmade sash, plastic red carpet and matching custom T-shirts featured in the literary prize winner’s home award ceremony

The newly crowned winner of Australia’s Miles Franklin award, Jennifer Down, celebrated her win in a style befitting the remote ceremonies of the pandemic: with a handmade sash and a plastic tiara.

The 31-year-old, who won the country’s most prestigious literary prize this week, delighted fans on Thursday when she described her family’s surprise celebration, which featured a plastic red carpet (“murder or slip and slide?”), matching T-shirts, bouquets and an A4 printed sign on the front door that said “Miles Franklin Ceremony inside”.

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Jul 21, 2022

Judges praised the author for combining ‘intrigue, peril and humour in a deft exploration of international espionage’

Mick Herron has won the Theakston Old Peculier crime novel of the year award, after his fifth time being shortlisted in six years.

Herron won the award for Slough House, the seventh instalment in his series of the same name, which follows a band of failed spies. In the book, a new populist movement is taking hold on London’s streets, and the spies find themselves on the run in the aftermath of a blunder by the Russian secret service that left a British citizen dead.

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Jul 21, 2022

The Light We Carry, to be published in November, compiles the former first lady’s best strategies for surviving in the face of a ‘rising tide of bigotry and intolerance’

A new book by former first lady Michelle Obama will offer readers “fresh stories and insightful reflections on change, challenge and power”, according to her publisher.

The Light We Carry, which will be published in November, is Obama’s second book, after her bestselling memoir Becoming, which was released in November 2018.

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Jul 21, 2022

The poet explores his Catholic upbringing, queerness and the highs and lows of love, in an elegantly conceived memoir

The poet Seán Hewitt’s first foray into memoir unfolds in the nonlinear way favoured by many contemporary exponents of the form. We move with elegant fluidity between phases of Hewitt’s life: recollections of growing up near Liverpool with a developing sense of his queerness; his complex and furtive sexual experiences at university; the development of his literary interests; the illness and devastating death of his father.

At the core of the book, however, is the writer’s relationship with the inscrutable Elias. Elias is a Swedish student Hewitt meets while backpacking across South America after having finished his English degree at Cambridge. They begin a whirlwind romance. The bright green waterfalls and infectious reggaeton of their surroundings are as transfixing to Hewitt as Elias’s “confidence … aloofness ... easy sociability”.

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Jul 21, 2022

Anyone who has yet to read the late author’s works is in for a treat. This handy primer should help you choose which to pick up first

Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison was arguably the greatest American writer of her time, leaving behind an impressive body of boundary-pushing work when she died, aged 88, three summers ago. Maybe her novels have long been sitting on your “to read” pile, or perhaps you’re a lifelong fan who wants to revisit your favourites. Either way, writer Bernice McFadden, whose novel The Warmest December was praised by Morrison herself, can guide you through this brilliant writer’s work.

***

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Jul 21, 2022

The story of a Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast explores the fictions required to survive in the totalitarian state

The interest in North Korea is unsurprising in an era of rising totalitarian states and growing threats to basic freedoms in democratic countries. The latest addition to the catalogue of books about this little understood place is Marcel Theroux’s The Sorcerer of Pyongyang, which sets out to narrate the story of a nation, beginning in the 1990s, through the life of its main character, Cho Jun-su.

Jun-su isn’t one of North Korea’s elite; he has the typical problems of a high school student anywhere, in addition to the horrors of widespread famine around him and endless political requirements, such as the mandatory weekly self-criticism sessions that require public confessions of wrongdoings from all citizens. His life is transformed one day, however, when he accidentally encounters a Dungeons and Dragons rulebook, The Dungeon Masters Guide, left behind by a foreign hotel guest and later picked up by Jun-su’s father, one of the hotel’s kitchen staff.

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Jul 20, 2022

An illuminating guide to the man and the science behind the Higgs boson – and how its discovery ‘ruined’ his life

Exactly 10 years ago, Peter Higgs learned that the subatomic particle named after him had finally been found. He was in Sicily, enjoying lunch in a restaurant. Outside, the stone streets of Erice burned in the midday sun; inside, a Dutch film crew was making a documentary about the boson he had described in a two-page research paper nearly half a century earlier. With Higgs was Alan Walker, another physicist who, since retirement, had served as a kind of personal assistant.

Walker stepped away from the table to take a call. When he returned, he quietly told Higgs that it had been John Ellis, a senior theorist at Cern in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider. He was urging them to come to Geneva for an event billed as an “update” on the search for the boson. “If John Ellis says that, then we should go,” Higgs replied. Four days later, on 4 July 2012, Higgs was sitting in Cern’s main auditorium as scientists working on the collider’s massive detectors reported the discovery of the Higgs boson – a particle that exists for about one ten-thousandth of the time it takes for light to cross a single atom.

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Jul 20, 2022

The ‘dazzling’ finalists include Sequoia Nagamatsu, Eloghosa Osunde, Tara M Stringfellow, Tess Gunty and Louise Kennedy

Six “bold and original new voices” have made the shortlist for the inaugural Waterstones debut fiction prize.

The list, voted for by booksellers from Waterstones, includes Sequoia Nagamatsu’s “extraordinary” science fiction novel How High We Go in the Dark, Eloghosa Osunde’s “bold and beautiful mix of folklore and realism”, Vagabonds!, and Tara M Stringfellow’s celebration of Black womanhood, Memphis.

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Jul 20, 2022

In recent decades, the best world-building fiction has begun to shed its roots in European mythology in favour of new ideas challenging the limits of the real

At the heart of every fantasy is something unreal, impossible, or at the very least, so extraordinary as to take us outside the universe we think we live in. Fantasy world-building surrounds those unreal things with recognisable furniture and plausible emotion, so that Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” can kick in. As writers from Tolkien to Pratchett have taught us, the task for both writers and readers is easier when the impossible involves motifs and storylines we recognise from oral narratives such as tales, legends and myths. That also ties most fantasy literature, up to the turn of the millennium, to European culture, because the myths we know are likely to be Greco-Roman or Norse; the tales, German or French or sometimes Scandinavian.

However, in this century, a new wave of fantasy challenges that European dominance. Writers of colour and writers from indigenous cultures use magical narratives to depict experiences and express viewpoints difficult to convey within the constraints of realism. One of the effects of fantasy is the way it forces us to consider the categories of the real, the possible and the ordinary – all the norms that fantasy violates. And, in particular, the new fantasy reveals how culture-bound those norms are. Non-European traditions mark off boundaries differently and include as natural entities things we might think of as supernatural. Out of those different ways of setting the limits of the possible and assigning meaning to the impossible come different versions of the fantastic.

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Jul 20, 2022

A magnificently spiky commentary on the detrimental nature of work hierarchies and job instability

Camilla Grudova’s debut, the short fiction collection The Doll’s Alphabet, was acclaimed as feminist horror reminiscent of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. In 13 often jarringly grotesque stories, Grudova built miniature scenarios to explore the disappointments of young women’s lives: dystopian worlds studded with double meanings and symbolic objects such as inscrutable dolls, mannequin parts and sewing machines. With slyly rococo titles such as Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead and The Moth Emporium, it was as if the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington had undertaken a collaboration with David Lynch.

Grudova’s themes of identity and isolation continue on a larger scale in her first novel, set in an old cinema called the Paradise. It is “a Frankenstein’s monster of a place”, with a trapdoor casually opening on to a river of raw sewage below, and a mysterious red screening room which manifests in hallucinatory fashion from time to time, and from which no one who enters emerges again. With its replica title, the novel is also a dark reflection of Marcel Carné’s classic 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis, and similarly features a cast of misfits, although Grudova makes clear from her characters’ bizarre and frequently sadomasochistic interactions that Carné’s vision of doomed epic romance is very much not on the cards.

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Jul 20, 2022

From a ferocious Norse warrior to an outrageously original autobiographer, the female characters changing our understanding of the past

In 1878 a pile of ancient bones was pulled from the ground at Birka, near Stockholm, and confidently identified as the remains of a 10th-century Norse warrior. After all, the skeleton, known as “Bj 581”, was going into the next life surrounded by every kind of death-dealing instrument: spears, axes, arrows and swords, and a couple of strapping war horses. You might have assumed Bj 581 would have one of those helmets with curly horns too, were it not for the fact that the “classic” Norse headgear was actually a stage prop invented for a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle just two years earlier, in 1876. Still, it seemed plausible to imagine that Bj 581 had once sported a wild red beard.

Then, over the last 10 years, murmurs of doubt started to surface. The skeleton’s pelvis was suspiciously wide, the bones of his forearm remarkably slender. In 2017, DNA was extracted from a tooth and the truth was finally out: not a Y chromosome in sight. The Birka warrior was female. At a stroke ideas about Norse women, and about women in medieval culture generally, were turned upside down. Out went the wimples and the prayer books, the mute looks and downcast eyes, and in came something altogether fiercer and more interesting. Indeed, no sooner had the news of Bj 581’s misgendering flashed around the world than its effects started to register in popular culture. Suddenly Norse wonder-women were everywhere, from film franchises to lunch boxes.

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Jul 19, 2022

A chorus of writers and artists, from Virginia Woolf to Lina Poletti, tells a bold, original story of creativity and freedom

In her autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf writes that she was born not on 25 January 1882, but “many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past”. These are instincts to protect the self and body against male intrusion; to take ecstatic pleasure in beauty; to seek truth in dreams.

In Selby Wynn Schwartz’s bold and original novel, Woolf is part of a chorus that forms the narrative voice, calling for a collective, transhistoric experience of female being. The book comprises biographical fragments of the lives of historical women, moving us mainly forwards through time from 1880s Italy, where the baby who will grow up to be Italian poet Lina Poletti first throws off her swaddling blanket, to 1920s Paris and London. We encounter Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Nancy Cunard, Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall. Poletti has a leading role and is Schwartz’s great discovery – shape-shifting, visionary, apparently seducing most of the great women of her age.

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Jul 19, 2022

The artist goes on the trail of her mother’s father, a German second world war general, in this unsettling memoir of transgenerational guilt

A week after she was born to an English father and German mother, Angela Findlay’s maternal grandfather died. Yet “like a relay racer passing on a baton”, she writes, “he handed me something… just as we might inherit the physical or character traits of our forebears, we can inherit their unresolved emotions, traumas or crimes”.

Much of this strange, powerful but rather unsatisfactory memoir explores Findlay’s relationship with her difficult mother, Jutta. Glamorous, energetic and sociable, she was also a woman for whom “any allusion to weakness or failure always seemed to evoke the opposite of sympathy or compassion”. She often made remarks about her daughters’ weight and imagined futures for them involving “a sensible job with a vibrant social life, puffed up like a meringue in silk taffeta dresses, charming husband in tow”. The family learned to “tread warily” and “collude in protecting [her] inner vulnerability”.

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Jul 18, 2022

This collection’s relentless focus on one person’s pursuit of intimacy invites us to redefine what a love story is

In 2019, an American novelist of slender renown named CJ Hauser scored a viral hit with an essay about calling off her wedding and embarking on an ornithological field trip. The Crane Wife described a relationship in which she was cheated on more than once, though what finally brought her to her senses was the realisation that she couldn’t sustain the ludicrously “low-maintenance” persona demanded by her husband-to-be. On one occasion, he even presented her with a blank birthday card, explaining that it could be filed away and reused later.

Ten days after ending the relationship, Hauser headed to the Gulf Coast, tagging along with a team studying the whooping crane, one of the world’s longest-lived birds. If you want to save a species, she learned, you need to pay close attention to what it requires to live – wolfberries and crabs in this case, all of which had to be counted. “If there was a kind of rehab for people ashamed to have needs, maybe this was it,” she mused.

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Jul 18, 2022

Five Years Next Sunday, about an ostracised girl who ‘holds the fate of her community in her hair’, wins £10,000 award for African writing in English

Kenyan writer Idza Luhumyo has won the 2022 AKO Caine prize for African writing, with a short story judges described as “incandescent”.

Five Years Next Sunday, first published in the book Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa, is about a young woman with the unique power to call the rain in her hair. Feared by her family and community, a chance encounter with a foreigner changes her fortunes, but there are duplicitous designs upon her most prized and vulnerable possession.

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Jul 18, 2022

From Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel to Stephen Sexton’s poetry, more writers are using gaming in literature and not before time

Early on in Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, one of the trio of lead characters gives a fictional interview to a very real video games publication. The troubled but passionate Samson Mazur tells the interviewer, “There is no more intimate act than play, even sex.” This is an explosive statement, but a perfect one in the context of a novel that treasures the act of play and holds it sacred. In some ways, this is a thesis statement for Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow itself: the novel opening its heart, and showing you what it is truly about.

Video games are seldom treated in literature as a site of emotion, but in Zevin’s work they are the very landscape that the full spectrum of relationships, grief, and love play out in. The world of video games is a surprisingly uncommon location for the modern commercial or literary novel, despite the fact that they have long since evolved from children’s toy or tech curio into a form of entertainment that is so mainstream as to be ordinary.

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Jul 18, 2022

Today’s politicians mislead with impunity – could we legislate to stop them lying?

For months the British government has floated the idea of unilaterally breaking the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, part of the withdrawal treaty it agreed with the European Union. That would undermine the Good Friday agreement, reanimate the prospect of sectarian violence and damage the UK’s international reputation. Such action demands a weighty justification and ministers have one, with the attorney general arguing that “Northern Ireland’s economy is lagging behind the rest of the UK”.

Except it’s not. Statistics show that Northern Ireland is outstripping every part of the UK except London.

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Jul 18, 2022

The US novelist on being immersed in The Hobbit, an inspirational Woman Warrior, and sobbing on the beach reading the Aeneid

My earliest reading memory
I was around seven when I discovered the Nancy Drew mystery series, about a plucky 18-year-old amateur detective. I think clever, independent Nancy made a wonderful role model.

My favourite book growing up
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. It showed me how words can immerse readers into worlds that don’t exist, and make us long for them to be real.

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Jul 18, 2022

A sharply anguished lament for the poet’s beloved friend and inspiration Arthur Hallam

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

While now we talk as once we talk’d

Of men and minds, the dust of change,

The days that grow to something strange,

In walking as of old we walk’d


Beside the river’s wooded reach,

The fortress and the mountain ridge,

The cataract flashing from the bridge,

The breaker breaking on the beach.

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Jul 18, 2022

In this full-length debut tracing the complex relationship of a young artist and her tutor, every page looks exquisite

Lizzy Stewart’s first full-length graphic novel reminds me both of the kind of novels I read when I was young (think early Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien) as well as some I’ve loved more recently (it has echoes of Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl). It will also appeal to those who were stirred by Self-Portrait, Celia Paul’s memoir of her early life as an artist and of her relationship with Lucian Freud. But there is, of course, one crucial difference: Stewart uses pictures as well as words to tell her story, a tale that is as old as the hills, and somehow this makes it new. It is in her power to encapsulate huge amounts of information, literal and emotional, in a single image and, thanks to this, her narrative, like certain kinds of poetry, is fleet of foot even when its mood is grave, her heroine silent and stuck.

The Alison of the title is Alison Porter and she narrates, an older woman looking back on her life, seemingly still slightly amazed by what she has made of it (she is now a painter of great renown). When the book begins, it is the mid-1970s and she is an 18-year-old newlywed, her husband, Andrew – a good man, but also rather a full one – having helped make reality her dreams of an ordinary, grownup life just like the one her parents had before her. But there is a problem. Trapped in their cottage on the Dorset coast, with no one to speak to and nothing much to do while Andrew is at work, Alison is bored and lonely. It’s this that pushes her to sign up for a class taught by Patrick Kerr, a distinguished portraitist (his work hangs in the Tate) almost 30 years her senior.

Alison by Lizzy Stewart is published by Profile (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jul 17, 2022

Video games unite a young creative couple in a charming and playful novel with a difference

When Macbeth soliloquises of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, he speaks of the relentlessness and futility of life. When Gabrielle Zevin employs the same words, she speaks of the “possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption” offered by video games. In the virtual world, death is not the end and losing is but a chance to try again; there are endless chances, endless restarts. You do not have to be a gamer to see the appeal.

Zevin is an American author and screenwriter whose other works include the New York Times bestseller The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and award-winning young-adult fiction. The decidedly digital subject matter of her 10th novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – which is being made into a feature film by Paramount – is an unusual one. But playing and reading are natural companions, and Zevin gracefully weaves together the two in language that is pleasingly accessible to non-gamers.

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Jul 17, 2022

A bewitching fantasy debut mixes magic with sharp insights about power structures and discrimination along with pop-culture nostalgia

Five girls gather in a treehouse in the opening scene of Juno Dawson’s debut adult novel. The following day, on the summer solstice, they will pledge their oaths to Gaia and Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, a top secret government department of witches founded by Anne Boleyn and charged with protecting the United Kingdom from magical forces and otherworldly evil. (The nifty acronyms continue: the US equivalent is the Coven Intelligence America.) Dawson may be best known as a young adult writer, but this is no witching coming-of-age story. In a playful twist on fantasy tropes, the action leaps forward 25 years. A magical civil war has been fought and won and our witches are now navigating life in their late 30s.

White, wealthy Helena is the youngest ever high priestess of HMRC. Elle is a nurse who has largely eschewed the witching community for the comforts of middle-class mediocrity. Leonie, a mixed-race lesbian, has broken away to form Diaspora, her own, more inclusive, coven. Irish Niamh, widowed in the war, is a country vet in Hebden Bridge and Ciara, her twin sister who fought on the wrong side, is now incarcerated in magical prison. Whisperings of an apocalyptic prophecy foretell a “sullied child” with the capacity to destroy both the coven and the world. Can the friends put aside their differences and work together to thwart the coming darkness? And what does it mean that the child comes in the form of a transgender teenage witch?

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Jul 17, 2022

Love and grief coexist in Pedersen’s paean to his closest pals – and one musician buddy in particular

In 2018, Michael Pedersen sat down and started writing a letter to his best friend. Scott Hutchison had taken his own life a few weeks before, in May, and as Pedersen addressed his friendship with the musician, artist and lead singer of indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, he found himself returning to the male alliances that have shaped his life. The result, Boy Friends, sees Pedersen – a co-founder of avant-garde Edinburgh literary collective Neu! Reekie! – illuminate these companions with a poet’s eye, a comedian’s timing – and a lover’s care.

For all his skill, Boy Friends is self-consciously unpolished – appropriately so maybe. Real love is tricky, unplottable, stained with the dirt and struggle of everyday life. To drive this point home, the author murders a hamster in chapter one. Muffin, crushed to a pulp by the young Pedersen, hovers over the bloody-handed sprog for years to come (“Shame cast asunder the curtains of my weakling heart,” he wails, not entirely joking). Seeing him standing in the dark for hours to honour one of Muffin’s rodent successors, his mother makes a comment that could stand as Boy Friends’ epitaph. There’s nothing wrong with you, she reassures him. You just feel things a lot.

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Jul 17, 2022

Withnail and I meets James Bond as two druggy neighbours and a celebrity crime novelist join forces to investigate a murder in Boyle’s deft, engaging thriller

Writing a crime novel now appears to be a well-established rung on the career ladder of white male television entertainers, achieved with varying degrees of success and skill, so it’s a relief to find that Frankie Boyle’s first work of fiction is an enjoyably dark and entertaining tranche of Glasgow noir. It contains all the deft wordplay you’d expect of him, and a few well-aimed, drive-by satirical shots at political targets along the way.

Set in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Meantime is narrated by Felix McAveety, a Valium addict and aspiring writer whose best friend, Marina, is found murdered in a Glasgow park – news Felix first learns when he’s woken by police demanding a sperm sample. Finding himself a suspect, Felix and his overweight neighbour, Donnie, also partial to mind-altering substances, decide to undertake their own investigation: “We were the two people least suited to investigating anything, but with the right drug combinations we could be whoever we had to be.”

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Jul 17, 2022

A will-they-won’t-they relationship plays out in Sweden in this clever tale of a world carved up by ‘extinction credit’ traders

Ned Beauman was listed on Granta’s once-a-decade list of best young British novelists last time out, in 2013, and his latest novel makes clear that, not yet 40, he’s absolutely worth a nomination next year too. Full of fun and big ideas, his conceptually tricksy novels crackle with comic zip, alive to the past (his debut, Boxer, Beetle, and second novel, The Teleportation Accident, dealt in different ways with the legacies of Nazism) as well as the present (his third novel, Glow, was an ultra-contemporary conspiracy thriller centred in south London). His fifth book, Venomous Lumpsucker, imagines a super-heated, algorithm-driven near future in which guilty hand-wringing about endangered species has led to a global trade in “extinction credits”, awarded by a regulatory body essentially enabling the richest firms and states to kill off all the flora and fauna they can afford – safe in the knowledge that tissue samples and genome data are securely stored in “biobanks” around the planet.

The novel follows two strangers brought together by their vested interest in this niche market. Middle-aged Brit Mark Halyard is “an environmental impact coordinator” for an Indian mining conglomerate, who has been short-selling credits in an attempt to game the system to fund his taste for fine foods (in painfully short supply, thanks to global warming). Karin Resaint is a Swiss German biologist hired by Halyard’s firm to assess the intelligence of the fish off the coast of Sweden, which Halyard’s firm is busy blowing up. She’s decided that the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, native to those waters, makes it worth a high number of credits, just as market volatility leaves Halyard’s get-rich-quick scheme painfully belly-up. His only resort is to put pressure on Resaint to downgrade the species, in a bid to ward off bankruptcy or worse...

So begins a jet-setting romp through Baltoscandia, as we hop from an Estonian nature reserve to a Finnish labour camp and an offshore seasteading community, cutting between Halyard and Resaint’s perspectives in a compellingly talky quest narrative with a will-they-won’t-they frisson. The philosophical and ethical conundrums, involving nothing less than the meaning and merit of life itself, float lightly along on their simmering back and forth, and Beauman’s deft characterisation makes the pair instantly engaging: “‘Can’t you just be happy for [him/her/them]?’, people had said to Halyard in the past after he’d admitted to some deep jealousy or bitterness, but most of the time he regarded the very idea – happy for – as a con invented by sticking a preposition where it had absolutely no logical business.”

Halyard knows from the off that sex with Resaint isn’t on the cards, which doesn’t stop him thinking about it, and there’s an uneasy undertow to his desire, courtesy of his lingering grief for his sister, Frances, who overdosed on Xanax in her teens.

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