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Archive by category: GuardianReturn
Jun 23, 2022

A ‘guide’ for companies looking to counter unwelcome research exposes the corporate world’s dark arts

“Playbook” is a term that feels overused at the moment – mostly because of Vladimir Putin’s military adventures. We now know all too well that his playbook, deployed in Chechnya, then Syria, and now Ukraine, involves heavy bombardment of civilian areas with the aim of demoralising and grinding down a population towards eventual defeat. The end goal is the demonstration of Putin’s ruthlessness – one of his key tools for retaining power. Jennifer Jacquet’s The Playbook is about something else entirely – the methods corporations use to “deny science, sell lies, and make a killing”. The specifics couldn’t be more different. And yet, in some fundamental and peculiar ways, the strategies are similar.

Jacquet chooses a slightly unusual means of getting her ideas across, writing in the style of a helpful guide for corporations faced with scientific evidence that could “pose a risk to business operations”. Readers might assume the odd business may have used some of these dubious methods to push back against unwelcome research every so often, but they probably wouldn’t think it was a systemic issue. It doesn’t take long, however, to realise that Jacquet has a point – that the use of these tactics really does amount to a playbook to which almost every sector has had recourse at some point. The sheer weight of evidence that she piles up, chapter by chapter, is unarguable.

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Jun 22, 2022

This thoughtful follow-up is a clever echo of Burton’s debut, tracing a woman’s coming of age in early 18th-century Amsterdam

When we rejoin Nella Oortman, the heroine of Jessie Burton’s blockbuster 2014 debut The Miniaturist, we find her almost as we left her. She still lives in her dead husband Johannes Brandt’s home on the Herengracht canal in Amsterdam, along with Cornelia the cook, Johannes’s once-enslaved manservant Otto, and Thea, the child Otto fathered with Johannes’s steely sister, Marin. So far so familiar, but 18 years have passed: Nella is now 37 and baby Thea a young woman. The three unrelated adults have bonded into a family after the deaths of Marin and Johannes, but their fortunes are dwindling and the once lavish house has been stripped bare.

The family is a curiosity – “the black man who lives on the Herengracht, his mixed daughter, and the widow of the man drowned by the city for his supposed sins” – and Thea’s status as a Black heiress is troubling to the upper-class Amsterdammers she mingles with, who must weigh her “whiff of scandal” against her stratospherically expensive and fashionable home. Nella is keen to solve the family’s money problems by arranging her a lucrative marriage, but Thea resists. Just as her aunt once did, Thea believes in true love. Unlike Nella, she believes she’s found it, in the arms of a handsome theatre set decorator.

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Jun 22, 2022

After 50 years, the prize has been scrapped. How did it change Britain’s literary landscape? And what happened at the awards when Margaret Drabble was seated next to Theresa May?

Margaret Drabble was a bright young star with five novels to her name in 1971, when she was talked into joining her old friend JB Priestley on the judging panel for a new book prize. “Jack told me that I should spend the fee (which came in wine) by choosing some very nice half-bottles to drink by myself, which I did,” she recalls.

Drabble argued for a biography of the playwright Henrik Ibsen, Priestley was keen on a novel by Gerda Charles, and their fellow judge, the critic Anthony Thwaite, championed a poetry collection by Geoffrey Hill. The glory of the new, brewery-sponsored awards was that all three could have prizes, so it all went swimmingly, with none of the squabbles that had already begun to bedevil the Booker, launched two years earlier. These arguments had included one over the literary quality of a certain Margaret Drabble, who (according to Booker judge Dame Rebecca West) would insist on lowering the tone by writing about the washing-up.

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Jun 22, 2022

Whether living as a caveman in a theme park or writing self-help copy for rice cracker packets, literature has many memorably awful occupations

Terrible jobs are a staple of literature. But it is a somewhat loaded term inviting images of scrubbing toilets, cleaning vomit, etc, when, really, all jobs are terrible, otherwise they would not have to pay us to do them.

I knew I wanted to write a novel about modern cultures of work. We’re working longer hours than ever and the gig economy workforce has almost tripled in the last five years. The Odyssey is set aboard a gargantuan cruise ship and explores this central contradiction: a requirement of devotion to your job which is then not reciprocated with basic security.

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Jun 22, 2022

A tour of the science, culture and history of bisexuality that ranges from the vehemently political to the charmingly weird

According to periodic reports in the media, bisexuality has been a brand-new fad since at least the 1890s. It was all the rage in 1974, for example, when the US magazine Newsweek discovered “Bisexual Chic: Anyone Goes”. A generation later, in 1995, the same magazine published a cover story declaring it “A new sexual identity”. In 2021, the Daily Telegraph parodied itself with a letter from an “Anonymous Dad” complaining about his bisexual daughter. “My daughter doesn’t like girls and boys, she likes boys”, he fumed. “But she says she is attracted to both to jump on another woke bandwagon, because for snowflake Gen Z, it’s trendy.” Like flares, student protest and hating your children’s taste in music, it seems bisexuality is always back in fashion. Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw’s book is an impassioned attempt to bring decades of serious academic research out of the shadows, to show that being bisexual is nothing new, it’s here to stay and is simultaneously less and more provocative than you think.

As Shaw explains, the first use of the word in English was probably in 1892, in a translation of German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. “The book was intended for clinical-forensic settings, and Krafft-Ebing wrote it in intentionally difficult language and with parts in Latin so that laypeople couldn’t read it.” There is a rich seam of nonfiction that translates impenetrable academese about interesting subjects into language that curious lay readers can understand, including this book with its juxtaposition of academic language and cute social media speak. Here, “penile plethysmography” rubs shoulders with “[my] adorable bi bubble” and a church minister “so sparkly gay that he is a bit of a local legend”.

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Jun 22, 2022

Been recommended the great German author but never got round to picking his books up? This handy guide will help you find your way in

German writer WG Sebald is regularly named one of the most influential writers of recent decades. He referred to his genre-defying books as prose fiction – not-quite-novels, not-quite-autobiographies, not-quite-nonfiction – but with elements of all. Examining loss, exile, memory and trauma, they still feel relevant today. To mark the 30th anniversary of Sebald’s book The Emigrants, journalist and PhD candidate Sandra Haurant suggests where those new to Sebald should start.

***

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Jun 22, 2022

The American award winner brings his laser-like focus to the story of a teen and his terminally ill mother

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease, is a condition of unknown cause that progressively destroys the human motor system. The sufferer loses the ability to open jars or turn the pages of a book, then to walk, to bathe or feed herself, to speak, and eventually to breathe. A diagnosis of ALS means another three to 10 years of life, although some of this period will be a type of life that, outwardly at least, resembles death.

The War for Gloria, the stunningly good second novel by Atticus Lish, spans four years in the life of Corey Goltz and the death of his mother, Gloria. She wanted to be a feminist thinker, a painter, a musician, but instead she dropped out of college, had Corey, and put her plans on hold. Corey’s father, Leonard Agoglia, is a self-proclaimed physics genius who performs some kind of law enforcement role at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; as with much of Leonard’s life, the precise details are murky. He wasn’t around for most of Corey’s childhood, but after Gloria’s diagnosis he begins showing up semi-regularly at their small house in Quincy, a coastal suburb of Boston.

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Jun 21, 2022

A fascinating history of women’s football from early 20th century heights, through suppression, to its present-day resurgence

Suzanne Wrack argues that for women the mere act of playing football is a feminist one, a form of activism. Her book begins as a historical survey, but ends as a manifesto.

Wrack is women’s football correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. She tracks the rise of the game through the suffrage movement and the first world war, when the flow of women into workplaces carried them on to football pitches – at their peak, the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies FC attracted a crowd of 53,000. It was partly this success, and the phenomenal gate receipts passed to charities, Wrack thinks, that attracted the Football Association’s ire. In 1921, it declared football “unsuitable for females”, and banned the sport from the grounds of all affiliated clubs. “Fifty years in the wilderness” followed, in which the sport went underground. The ban was finally lifted only in 1971, which still sounds far too recent.

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Jun 21, 2022

Author Laura Kay is part of a new wave of authors releasing uplifting queer literature that casts its characters as the heroes of their lives – not the victims

“I have read some really fantastic fiction about queer women, but I have quite often felt that it leans towards the slightly gloomier side,” says author Laura Kay. For the London-based writer, it was natural that her debut novel, The Split, would be a romcom. “I really just wrote the story that I wanted to read,” she says. Published last year, the story follows Ally, who, after a savage break-up, moves to Sheffield – taking her ex-girlfriend’s cat, Malcolm, with her.

Only after The Split was published did Kay realise its significance. “Other people started reading it, and telling me, ‘Oh my God, this is the first time I’ve read this story about queer women,’” she says. Readers praised the novel for being refreshingly joyful and funny – including a happy ending, which is not that common for a book with an LGBTQ+ plot. Kay also deliberately avoided reference to any trauma surrounding Ally’s sexuality.

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Jun 21, 2022

The 80s-style shooter EmilyBlaster is a real-life version of a game featured in Gabrielle Zevin’s forthcoming novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Ever wanted to play a computer game based on the poems of Emily Dickinson? Well, now you can, with the release of EmilyBlaster, a 1980s-style game in which players must shoot words out of the sky to correctly recreate Dickinson’s verse.

EmilyBlaster is a real-life version of the fictional game that a character makes in Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, out next month. Zevin’s book is about Sadie and Sam, who first meet as children in a hospital computer room in 1987. Eight years later, they are reunited and begin to work together making computer games.

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Jun 21, 2022

Unpublished writers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have until 14 August to submit their entries for the Guardian and publisher 4th Estate’s competition

The Guardian and publisher 4th Estate’s short story competition for unpublished writers of colour is open for entries for its sixth year.

Previous winners of the 4thWrite prize, which was renamed in 2021, include Gift Nyoni, with his 2021 winner The Ritual Seat of the King, a story about a boy meeting his father for the first time, and Kandace Siobhan Walker, who won in 2019 for her story Deep Heart, a poignant exploration of kinship and community.

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Jun 21, 2022

Looking for a new reading recommendation? Here are some wonderful new paperbacks, from new editions of classic Marvel comics to great novels for the summer

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Jun 21, 2022

Squalor, Kate Moss, prison, class A drugs… the indie frontman and tabloid fixture’s memoir is lucid, candid and, ultimately, hopeful

Peter Doherty had, for a period in the mid 00s, the kind of fame that made him recognisable even in silhouette. Like his friend Amy Winehouse, he was a fixture on tabloid front pages, whether in disrepair or ducking out of a courtroom. Doherty had gone from a cultish figure as co-frontman (with Carl Barât) of the Libertines – a band with a devoted following and tantalising capacity for implosion – to a threat to the nation’s impressionable youth and himself. His drive to self-destruction was served up as cartoonish sideshow, his trajectory fast-tracked from public health risk to pitiable train wreck, amplified by his relationship with Kate Moss, a famously guarded A-lister. Playing up to the “why him?” angle, the couple duetted on a tellingly titled song, La Belle et la Bête.

Doherty has made it out the other end of flashbulb infamy but, as A Likely Lad makes clear, it was touch and go. The book is an “authorised biography” put together by the music writer Simon Spence from more than 60 hours of conversations the pair had during lockdown. Spence has organised its chronology but hasn’t put words in Doherty’s mouth. As the singer notes in the foreword, he’d been clean of drugs for more than a year when they began the process and he’s a lucid, honest presence, admitting at one stage part of him had wanted to be “the most fucked-up person in the world”. Doherty reveals that beyond the tabloid hoopla, it wasn’t all brinksmanship and squalor; there was joy too, in the excess, in his relationship with Moss – at times “an Evelyn Waugh scene”, we learn, all secret rendezvous and four-poster beds – and in the camaraderie among bands, especially in the Libertines’ more ramshackle days.

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Jun 21, 2022

Noughts & Crosses author praised by judges for ‘challenging issues of injustice in a way that is totally engaging’

Noughts & Crosses author Malorie Blackman has become the first children’s and YA writer to be awarded the PEN Pinter prize.

The prize is given by English PEN annually to a writer of “outstanding literary merit” who is based in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. The recipient must also, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel prize, cast an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze on the world and show a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”.

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Jun 20, 2022

In this analysis of six national leaders, the grand old man of US politics offers a broad-brush history of international statecraft but ignores the death and destruction that sometimes resulted

Christopher Hitchens once called Henry Kissinger a “stupendous liar with a remarkable memory”. Leaving judgment aside on the first part of that description, at 99 Kissinger seems set on proving Hitchens right on the second.

While many people who make it to that age struggle to recall their own name, the grand old man of realpolitik has produced a study of six national leaders – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher – entitled Leadership. As is evident from the subtitle, Six Studies in World Strategy, Kissinger, the geopolitical guru, is most interested in how leaders act on the world stage rather than, say, if they lie to their parliaments or transgress their own laws.

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Jun 20, 2022

Context is crucial, but does that really mean we can leave free will out of the picture?

The question of whether we are responsible for the harm we cause goes to the heart of who we think we are, and how we believe society should run. Guilt, blame, the existence of evil, and free will itself can complicate this question to the point of near absurdity. And yet, as absurd as it may be, it is unavoidable. Taking a binary approach, whichever path one chooses, can lead to difficulties very quickly. On the one hand, if we are solely responsible for the things we do wrong, some genuinely malevolent parties get off scot-free. On the other, if we locate responsibility entirely outside the individual, we relegate ourselves to sentient flotsam buffeted by currents beyond our control.

In my own medical career, I have seen attitudes shift considerably around the idea that individuals should take personal responsibility for the harm they do to themselves. Self-injurious behaviours such as alcoholism and drug addiction have rightly been reframed as diseases rather than lifestyle choices. In the case of opiate dependence, as the huge numbers of people hooked on prescription painkillers in the United States demonstrates, “bad” behaviour is often caused directly by doctors and pharmaceutical companies. But even with less dramatic examples, there is a growing acknowledgement that personal choice is not the biggest driving factor.

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Jun 20, 2022

An extraordinary, theologically agile reflection on family life bears comparison with much more famous metaphysical poems

Upon Wedlock, and the Death of Children

A Curious Knot God made in Paradise,
And drew it out inamled neatly Fresh.
It was the True-Love Knot, more sweet than spice
And set with all the flowres of Graces dress.
Its Weddens Knot, that ne’re can be unti’de.
No Alexanders Sword can it divide.

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Jun 20, 2022

The first English translation of these subtle stories of self-worth and domestic frustration is a revelation

How to describe Talk to My Back, a classic collection of graphic stories by alt-manga’s feminist star, Yamada Murasaki? These tales of thwarted-ness and domestic ennui were written in the 80s, but Japan being what it is – only last month it was reported that when abortion pills are finally made available to women in the country, partner consent will still be required – their atmosphere often feels much closer to that of the 50s or early 60s. At moments, it’s almost as if Murasaki has set out to fictionalise Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. If her stories are pensive to the point of dreaminess, they’re also full of frustration, a discontent that simmers like a hot pan. I’m so glad Drawn & Quarterly has seen fit to put them into an English edition for the first time.

Translated by the comics historian Ryan Holmberg (who has also written a hugely informative introduction), these stories comprise an extended portrait of a housewife, Chiharu Yamakawa. She has two daughters (whom we watch growing up) and a husband (mostly absent) who treats her like a servant. Often lonely, there are days when she hardly recognises herself; she seems little more than an outline of a person, a sensation Murasaki captures on the page via a delicate all-body halo and, sometimes, by drawing her without features on her face.

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£23). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jun 19, 2022

This magnificent book reveals the strange and mysterious ways that creatures sense their surroundings – pushing our understanding of them to the limit

Scallops have eyes. Not just two eyes, like humans have, or eight, like most spiders do, but up to 200 of them, each clasped by a thin, wavy tentacle protruding from the inner edges of the corrugated shell. Considering how rudimentary a scallop’s brain is, these eyes are surprisingly sophisticated. Play a scallop a video of juicy particles drifting by in the water, as researchers at the University of South Carolina have done, and it will likely open its shell, as if to take a bite.

It’s possible, at a stretch, to say what’s going on here. The scallop’s eyes transmit visual information to its brain, which creates a picture, however fuzzy, of some juicy plankton approaching, and it springs into action. The shell opens wide, the plankton floats in, and snap! Dinner is served.

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Jun 19, 2022

The teacher relates his experiences in the education system – many of them shocking – with insight, intelligence and wit

Jeffrey Boakye draws on 15 years of experience as a secondary school teacher to tackle racism and inequality in Britain’s schools. His experience, like the book, is a mixed bag. For every black student who flourishes under his interest and encouragement, there are instances of overt bigotry and baiting from other students, passive aggression and smirking truculence from peers and colleagues. For every small win there is a depressing realisation, for every apparent triumph a poisonous sabotage. Every time Boakye congratulates himself there is a deep wake of nagging doubts and reservations: “I’ve walked around schools with signs of whiteness jumping out at me at every turn. Science displays of famous scientists from history without a single non-white face represented. Literature timelines guilty of the same.”

Boakye’s tone is pleasantly chatty and lightly humorous; quite a feat while slipping issues of race, class, sex and cultural supremacy into everyday classroom anecdotes. He occasionally lapses into an egregious – and sometimes plain weird – egotism: “Depending on how long you’ve been tracking my movements, you may or may not know that my Twitter handle used to be @unseenflirt… But when the book deals started coming in, I had to think again.” Yet any boasting, humble-bragging and solipsism soon get punctured by Boakye’s actual experiences in the classroom and by the realisation of his own relative smallness in the system.

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Jun 19, 2022

In this ‘greatest hits’ collection, the author of the acclaimed Empire of Pain stops at nothing in pursuit of the truth

Patrick Radden Keefe is among the hallowed practitioners of American long-form journalism. Every year or so at the New Yorker, he comes up with the eminently bingeable, religiously fact-checked and seductively globetrotting piece of narrative reportage that has become practically its own genre in the past two decades. In the preface to Rogues, a collection of his greatest hits since 2007, Keefe writes that despite the internet’s overall bleak effect on the circulation of print media, it also enabled his career on a century-old magazine: “A big magazine feature used to be as evanescent as the cherry blossoms: here today, gone next week. Now it’s just a click away, forever.”

Charles Dickens may have been the most-read novelist of his time, but the monthly instalments of A Tale of Two Cities weren’t available to as many people mere seconds after publication, as, say, the latest viral article by Ronan Farrow. What explains the compulsive popularity of these 10,000-word “true stories”? I suspect that their appeal has something to do again with the preponderance of screens, which seem empirically suited to a more contemporaneous immersion. If the majority of your daily reading is on a device, chances are you don’t read much poetry or historical fiction.

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Jun 19, 2022

The Three Women author once again explores female desire and sexual power dynamics in a collection of stories that often feel shockingly true

Since the remarkable success of her nonfiction debut, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has specialised in writing with gloves-off candour about female desire, in particular the kind that modern feminists are not supposed to admit to. Ghost Lover, her first collection of stories, is peopled by outwardly successful, empowered women who are emotionally or sexually in thrall to men, often men who are not remotely worth the time spent obsessing over them. Sometimes the women themselves know it – “He has no idea he is not interesting” – but still they persist in their self-abasement: “She wanted him more than her whole life.”

With Three Women, Taddeo established a talent for anatomising the contradictions inherent in (hetero)sexual power dynamics, the nuances of consent and how differently desire and fulfilment can appear to the woman doing the longing, compared with those judging from the sidelines. The characters in Ghost Lover are so many lenses through which to examine these same questions. Ari, the protagonist of the title story, has become a wealthy Netflix sensation by creating an app that messages potential dates on your behalf (“A way for girls, mainly, to be the coolest version of themselves, inoculated in practice against their desire”). But Ari is trapped in her own curdled love for her ex, Nick, who is about to marry a woman 10 years younger; Ari’s conviction that publicly denouncing him for an ambiguous instance of sexual assault will speed his return to her is as pitiable as it is deluded. But the reader also knows that Ari was abused as a teen by her stepfather. The tangled motives of early sexual encounters – including young women’s apparent complicity in their own manipulation – and the ways in which these shape women’s later responses to men is a recurring theme in Taddeo’s narratives, though she is careful never to draw moralistic straight lines.

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Jun 19, 2022

The annual award for aspiring cartoonists offers the chance to be published in the Observer and win £1,000, with past winners going on to land film and book deals

Calling all aspiring cartoonists and graphic novelists: entries are once again open for our graphic short story prize which, in its 15th year, has a brilliant new partner in the form of the publisher Faber, and particularly stellar guest judges in the form of the acclaimed actor and comics fan Michael Sheen (The Queen, Good Omens, Staged), and Adrian Tomine, the cartoonist famed for his New Yorker covers and the author of, among other books, Killing and Dying and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist. The winner, as always, will receive £1,000 and their work will appear in the Observer in print and online. The runner-up will receive £250 and their work will also be published online.

People often ask whether this prize (henceforth to be known as the Faber/Observer/Comica prize) has the power to change lives. The answer is: yes. Among those who have been winners and runners-up in the past are Isabel Greenberg, the acclaimed author of Glass Town, Matthew Dooley, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize-winning author of Flake, and Joff Winterhart, whose graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer, a story that began its life as his entry in the 2009 competition, eventually became a film (Monica Dolan and Rob Brydon starred). Last year’s winner, Astrid Goldsmith, has already signed a deal with Jonathan Cape for her first book, based on her winning entry, A Funeral in Freiburg.

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Jun 18, 2022

The power of tech corporations is a threat to democracy, yet governments are reluctant to take action. This refreshing book picks apart the ideology that holds them back

As Marx might have put it, a spectre is haunting the world’s democracies: the spectre of tech power. For more than two decades those democracies slept peacefully while a small number of global corporations acquired a stranglehold on the most powerful communications technology since the invention of printing. The political earthquakes of 2016 provided a rough wake-up call as these slumbering giants suddenly realised that “the technological was political”, that unaccountable power was loose in their world, and that if they didn’t rein it in they may wind up as democracies in name only.

The years since that rough awakening have seen a frenzy of legislative and regulatory activity: antitrust suits, draft bills in the US, the EU and the UK (among others), congressional and parliamentary inquiries and so on. Whether any of this leads to effective curbs on tech power remains to be seen, and this reviewer isn’t holding his breath. The question is not whether tech giants can be brought under control: we know that they can because Xi Jinping’s regime has been conducting masterclasses in how to do it. The question for us is: can liberal democracies do it?

The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century by Jamie Susskind is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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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

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