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Archive by category: GuardianReturn
Jun 12, 2022

This insightful account of a four-star establishment taking in rough sleepers amid the pandemic finds grounds for real if slender hope

The Prince Rupert hotel in Shrewsbury is the kind of establishment where you’re offered a glass of sherry as you check in. A timber-framed oasis of fluffy towels and four-poster beds, its guests have included Margaret Thatcher, Monica Lewinsky and the Liverpool football team. Yet at the start of the pandemic, owner Mike Matthews, who had formerly managed Barbados’s Sandy Lane resort, made the decision to welcome a rather different clientele: the city’s rough sleepers.

Some hadn’t slept in a bed in decades. Many were in the grip of crippling drug addictions. Others were vulnerable and suffering from untreated mental illness. Now, as part of homelessness tsar Dame Louise Casey’s “Everyone In” mission, all were being found temporary accommodation as a matter of extreme urgency. While other hotels also stepped up, none had the Prince Rupert’s four-star reputation and 900-year history.

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Jun 12, 2022

The historian brings London’s hidden post-Roman past to vivid life in the story of two Saxon sisters

Rebecca Stott’s superb third novel, Dark Earth, dramatises the parallels between archaeology and historical fiction. Stott is a renowned historian, but in this excavation of London’s deep past she has created something radically new and beautiful, a book that retells a period of our national past that straddles the line between history and myth.

The title refers to the layers of black soil whose presence in archaeological digs around London reveals the several hundred years during which the city was abandoned in the wake of the Roman invasion. The novel opens in AD500 with the “Sun Kings” – the Romans – gone and London a place of ruins and memories, called the “Ghost City” by the local tribespeople. This is, as Stott says in a note at the end of the book, “perhaps the darkest corner of British history”.

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jun 12, 2022

The gripping and heroic story of Rudolf Vrba, who escaped the death camp in order to tell the world about its horrors

It was around September 1942, the month when he turned 18, that Rudolf Vrba came to a momentous decision. He had been imprisoned in Auschwitz since June and was working on the ramp where most new arrivals were sent directly to their deaths. SS men would sometimes reassure them or even joke with them right up to the doors of the gas chambers.

What Vrba realised, writes Jonathan Freedland, is that streamlined mass murder depended on “one cardinal principle: that the people who came to Auschwitz did not know where they were going or for what purpose”, since “it’s much easier to slaughter lambs than it is to hunt deer”. It would be his mission to “escape and sound the alarm”.

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Jun 12, 2022

This compelling autobiography charts the rise of the Island Records founder who became as much of a legend as the acts he championed

Nineteen sixty-two was a big year for Jamaica and Chis Blackwell alike. The country gained its independence and hosted the first James Bond movie, Dr No, on which Blackwell worked as a fixer, recommending locations and recruiting his musician friends as grips, extras, even as musicians. So impressed was co-producer Harry Saltzman that he offered Blackwell a job as his PA. The 25-year-old wavered; he was already knee-deep in Jamaica’s frantic music industry and about to leave the island to establish his own label, Island, in London. Only after consulting “a downtown Lebanese soothsayer” did he choose music ahead of film.

His decision was the world’s good fortune. Over the next 40 years Blackwell helped revolutionise popular music, his label becoming a byword for uncompromised artistry and era-shaping acts. In the 60s came Traffic, Cat Stevens, Free, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, followed by Roxy Music, U2, Robert Palmer and Grace Jones. Then there are the passing oddballs (Sparks, Frankie Goes to Hollywood), venerable bohos such as Tom Waits, and always there was reggae; from Millie Small’s 1964 international smash My Boy Lollipop, two minutes of teenage joy, to Bob Marley, the downtown rebel who became the first developing nation superstar.

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Jun 12, 2022

In this clever, thought-provoking memoir, a married academic’s life is ‘derailed by desire’. Can reading help her find a way forward?

Not so long ago, there was something of a craze in publishing for books about reading, one for which I didn’t much care at the time. But Christina Lupton’s Love and the Novel has little in common with the platitudinous manuals that particular trend delivered to the common reader. Its author, an academic with a special interest in the history of reading, doesn’t hope to turn fiction into a form of self-help, nor is she particularly interested in whether a character’s predicament “resonates” with her own situation. Long years of teaching have taught her not only that novels are not blueprints for living, but that the job of a writer is not “to tell us what we’re really like”, nor even how we should behave. In short, Elizabeth Bennet is not, and never will be, your friend.

Lupton’s narrative, part memoir, part literary criticism, isn’t cuddly or confiding. It asks more questions than it answers; there’s something withholding (though interestingly so) at its heart. But it is a clever, well-written book, and I often found myself underlining whole paragraphs as I read. If it is sometimes unintentionally comical – Lupton grew up in a commune in rural Australia, and she has a quaintly earnest hippy side – it is more often wonderfully insightful. Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, the letters of Simone de Beauvoir to Jean-Paul Sartre, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: I’ve never read accounts of any of these texts that manage to be at once so searching and so wondrously concise, and Lupton made me want to go back to them all (a particular achievement in the case of The Waterfall, a novel from the 60s that seemed of its time even in 1984, which was when I somewhat furtively first picked it up).

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Jun 11, 2022

Darren McGarvey’s angry study of how ‘remote politics’ has robbed ordinary people of power has solutions that may make uncomfortable reading even for ‘progressives’

A hundred pages into The Social Distance Between Us, the Scottish writer, broadcaster and rapper Darren McGarvey describes the time he spent in Aberdeen while he was filming a series for the BBC. The city, he muses, may well be Scotland’s most beautiful metropolis, where “beams reflect off the granite, rendering even the most ordinary building prestigious and majestic”. But as ever, his mission was to get behind the facade and use his experiences of poverty and want to explore deep social problems and the huge imbalances of power that they point up.

In Tillydrone, a disadvantaged neighbourhood in the north of the city, McGarvey met Michael, who had “moved from England to work as a scaffolder on the oil and gas rigs but, like many, had fallen on hard times since the [oil price] collapse of 2008”. He told McGarvey that he had been homeless for two years since being evicted from his flat. “I went down south to visit my family, who I hadn’t seen for 30 years,” Michael said. “I planned to stay for three days but ended up being there for three weeks. When I got home, I had been evicted. They said it was because I abandoned my flat, but I didn’t.” When this happened, he was 75. More shockingly still, his landlord was the city council.

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Jun 11, 2022

The French-Algerian author on teenage fame, the parallels between her and Zinedine Zidane, and why she admires Bernardine Evaristo

Faïza Guène is the bestselling, award-winning French-Algerian author of six novels largely set among the Algerian community living in the outskirts of Paris. She shot to fame in 2004 at 19 with the publication of Kiffe kiffe demain (Just Like Tomorrow), which used street slang to capture the world of 15-year-old Doria, growing up on the ill-named Paradise estate. Her latest novel, Discretion, tells the story of the Taleb family over seven decades, and their journey from a small village in Algeria to the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers.

Why did you put the matriarch Yamina, whose French-born children are nourished and overwhelmed by a love that “overflows like the Mediterranean”, at the heart of your book?
There are a few memoirs, and studies by historians or sociologists, about immigrant Algerian workers in France. These [men] had a role to play, even if they were exploited, whereas the women stayed at home. So we never heard from them. It was important to me that a woman like that should be the central character of my story.

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Jun 11, 2022

Meet the footballing bees, optimistic pigs and alien-like octopuses that are shaking up how we think about minds

How do you spot an optimistic pig? This isn’t the setup for a punchline; the question is genuine, and in the answer lies much that is revealing about our attitudes to other minds – to minds, that is, that are not human. If the notion of an optimistic (or for that matter a pessimistic) pig sounds vaguely comical, it is because we scarcely know how to think about other minds except in relation to our own.

Here is how you spot an optimistic pig: you train the pig to associate a particular sound – a note played on a glockenspiel, say – with a treat, such as an apple. When the note sounds, an apple falls through a hatch so the pig can eat it. But another sound – a dog-clicker, say – signals nothing so nice. If the pig approaches the hatch on hearing the clicker, all it gets is a plastic bag rustled in its face.

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Jun 11, 2022
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Jun 10, 2022

A repressed art historian expands his horizons in a 90s-set novel that moves from campus satire to something queerer in every sense of the word

James Cahill’s hotly tipped debut about art, privilege and power takes us first to the rarefied environs of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. It’s 1994 and winds of change are blasting through the university. An installation entitled Sick Bed – very much modelled on Tracey Emin’s groundbreaking My Bed – has been erected on the quadrangle. Sick Bed is “an iron frame packed with coil springs … propped up at one end by a mound of empty liquor bottles, crushed beer cans and snarled up clothes. On the grass beneath is an industrial lamp that rotates with slow, robotic gyrations.”

This unprecedented intervention amid cloisters and sandstone is met with mixed reactions. Don Lamb, an art historian at Peterhouse who is writing a monograph about skies in the works of rococo master Tiepolo, is particularly irked. For him, Sick Bed is emblematic of all that is wrong with contemporary art: the modern dismissal of transcendental beauty in favour of garish spectacle. Cahill uses Don’s conservative response to introduce his protagonist’s underlying anxiety about his place in a shifting world and, more broadly, to highlight Don’s characteristic rigidity. Don is something of an ascetic aesthete: adoring of expressiveness on the canvas, but a bastion of prudence in real life. A bachelor and scholar in his early 40s who has been at Peterhouse since his undergraduate days, Lamb’s is “a life of sexual abdication”: erudition dominates, while his gayness is studiously repressed.

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Jun 10, 2022
Social historian of London keen to explore the practical details of how people lived in centuries past

Liza Picard, who has died aged 94, wrote a series of books on London’s social history. The success of the first, Restoration London (1997), stimulated a mini-boom of history books on everyday life in the capital. Her books began as a retirement hobby – she was 70 when the first was published – and Liza made her inspiration clear: “I have a practical mind. I have always been interested in how people lived. The practical details are rarely covered in social history books … The only answer appeared to be to write a book myself.”

Reviewers decided that she had succeeded. The Sunday Telegraph described her account of “how our 17th-century ancestors ate, slept, travelled, worshipped, loved, clothed themselves, tried to keep healthy” as “a marvellous source-book for historical novelists and film-makers out for authenticity, and a near-perfect bedside book for anyone else”.

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Jun 10, 2022

Coffee company announces ‘difficult decision’ to end the prizes, sparking a chorus of disappointment across the books industry

The Costa book awards, after running for half a century, have been abruptly scrapped. The coffee shop chain has said the 2021 awards, which were announced in February this year, were the last.

In a statement from the company, which is owned by Coca-Cola, Costa’s CEO Jill McDonald said: “After 50 years of celebrating some of the most enjoyable books written by hugely talented authors from across the UK and Ireland, Costa Coffee has taken the difficult decision to end the book awards.”

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Jun 10, 2022

Ordinary Monsters by JM Miro; In the Heart of Hidden Things by Kit Whitfield; The Sanctuary by Andrew Hunter Murray; The Splendid City by Karen Heuler; and Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada

Ordinary Monsters by JM Miro (Bloomsbury, £17.99)
A boy in Mississippi whose wounds heal miraculously after every beating; a girl in Tokyo who entertains her sister by summoning clouds of dust and making them dance; a baby in England who glows with a mysterious blue light: these are among the orphans whose talents have marked them out for “collection” by the doctor who heads a mysterious institution on the shore of a Scottish loch. For what purpose? This, and the origins of the terrifying figures who try to destroy the “Talents”, are questions gradually answered in this ambitious dark fantasy, the first in a projected series. A complex, often horrific tale told through multiple viewpoints and over different settings between 1874 and 1882, it is an enthralling read.

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Jun 09, 2022

Faced with a devastating diagnosis, Morris responds by doing all she can to improve the odds of survival for her, and others

In 2016 Jessica Morris was on an annual hiking weekend with friends in upstate New York when she started to feel all wrong. Being out of breath was nothing new since she was in her mid-50s, and exercise had never been her thing. What was her thing, though, was talking – and now, weirdly, she couldn’t do that either. The words were all bunched up in her head and refused to launch themselves on to her tongue. The next thing she remembered was waking up in an ambulance, her face twisted into a permanent grin, which was strange, since she wasn’t feeling remotely happy.

Within days Morris was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a glioblastoma. GBM typically rips through patients in 14 months, leaving only 5% alive at the end of five years. It is the disease that took the lives of the MP Tessa Jowell, Senator John McCain and Beau Biden, the president’s son. And, when Morris gets a definitive diagnosis, she knows that it is the one that will take her off, too: “in a nanosecond, my life had gone from one of smooth, predictable joy to one of unimaginable terror”.

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Jun 09, 2022

Book printed 400 years ago is one of fewer than 20 copies in private hands

An original copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, often referred to as the most important book in English literature, will be auctioned next month in New York.

The book, which was printed almost 400 years ago, is one of fewer than 20 copies left in private hands and is estimated to fetch up to $2.5m (£2m), according to the auction house Sotheby’s.

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Jun 09, 2022

Two previously unseen short stories by Jackson, rated by Stephen King as one of the great horror fiction writers, are to appear in US magazine the Strand

Two previously unpublished short stories by Shirley Jackson, the queen of gothic fiction, have been released.

Charlie Roberts and Only Stand and Wait were both published on 9 June in Strand magazine, a US-based print magazine that publishes short fiction and interviews.

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Jun 09, 2022

Stats from 2020-21 reveal that the Pointless presenter’s The Thursday Murder Club is the biggest hit in UK libraries

Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club was the most borrowed book from UK libraries in the year 2020-21, while the prolific bestseller James Patterson was the most borrowed author overall.

The Public Lending Right (PLR) data, which collates information on library loans and pays authors for every book borrowed, showed that crime and thriller books were the most popular genres among library users.

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Jun 09, 2022

Director Nick Barley says lessons from the pandemic include providing a more accessible festival, so half of this year’s offering will be available online

At least half of the Edinburgh International book festival programme will be broadcast free online this summer, after the pandemic “fundamentally transformed” what the event can offer.

Building on the hybrid format developed over the past two years, the EIBF will return to full-scale, in-person events in theatres around the Edinburgh College of Arts, but director Nick Barley says he aims to continue accessibility for those unable to attend in person, while maintaining the “extraordinary international reach” achieved online last year, via streaming in the festival’s three biggest theatres.

The Edinburgh International book festival will run from 13 to 29 August.

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Jun 09, 2022

A homeless woman makes a pilgrimage to return a lost engagement ring in this poignant novel

From Rachel Joyce to Jonas Jonasson to Emma Hooper, novels about older people going on long journeys have almost become a genre: later-life pilgrimage fiction. In Paper Cup, Karen Campbell gives it a new slant; her protagonist who takes an extended walk is a homeless alcoholic. The freezing doorways, dirty skips and uncaring streets of Glasgow are where Kelly sleeps and lives, trying and often failing to stay off the drink. Late one night on a bench in George Square, a drunk bride-to-be celebrating her hen night with a potty on her head and pockets full of cash accidentally leaves her diamond engagement ring behind; Kelly sticks it on her own finger and cannot get it off. A day or so later she flees the city, determined to return the ring to the bride before the wedding in a week’s time. She travels south via a series of pilgrimage sites, and with the help of various characters, to Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway, the town where she grew up and where her estranged family may still live.

Paper Cup is Campbell’s eighth novel. A former police officer brought up in Glasgow, now living in Galloway, Campbell’s love for Scotland – the people and the place – shines through.

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Jun 09, 2022

A fascinating exploration of how beliefs are formed ends up asking whether it’s always right to want to win the argument

This book is bad news for anyone who thinks we should use facts and evidence to change people’s minds. It is disappointing for lovers of debate. It reveals the psychological and evolutionary reasons why all humans are certain we are right, and why “certainty” is nothing but an illusion. But it’s an optimistic, illuminating and even inspiring read. Because while you can’t talk someone into changing their mind, you just might be able to listen them into it, and David McRaney thinks he can show you how.

McRaney, the bestselling author of You Are Not So Smart, is fascinated by the intersection of brains, minds and culture, and in this book he takes a tour through politics and fashion, social media, psychology and human evolution, to understand “the new science of belief, opinion and persuasion”. He talks to Charlie Veitch, a well-known 9/11 conspiracy theorist who was demonised by his online community after announcing that he had changed his views. He meets young people who have left the extremist Westboro Baptist church, and interviews a psychologist who is so passionate about promoting progressive conversations that she created “an Uncle Bot, a simple AI to stand in for an argumentative relative”. He even holds in his hands The Dress – the one in the viral photo that half of people see as white and gold, half as blue and black – and learns how our brains add information based on past experience to fill in knowledge gaps and convince us that the result is the only possible version of reality.

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Jun 08, 2022

The relationships between three generations – child, mother, grandmother – are brilliantly observed in a novel full of humour and pain

Miriam Toews’s novels are often described as tragicomedies, populated by war survivors, and set in or around Mennonite communities where Toews, too, grew up. In works such as All My Puny Sorrows, following the relationship of two sisters, and the spectacular Women Talking, about cloistered women who gather in secret after a series of sexual assaults, Toews grapples with the humiliations of motherhood, the burdens of sisterhood, abuse, grief and suicide: a wound from her own life that she nurses throughout her work. Her novels are heart-wrenching and raw; they’re all, in some way, about the drudging ordinariness of female pain, everyday indignities from which she extracts big tearful belly laughs. “To be alive,” Toews writes, “means full body contact with the absurd.”

Toews’s primary theme is the battles of women in a world of cruel men, and intergenerational misfires as mothers try to protect and warn their daughters. Her eighth novel, Fight Night, is an ode to grandmotherly defiance, embodied by a kind of ancestor that I, too, know well: a mouthy immigrant, an old-world fighter, a fiery human contradiction.

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Jun 08, 2022

Exclusive: Guardian Australia uncovers multiple near-identical phrases and scenes in John Hughes’ book The Dogs and Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction work The Unwomanly Face of War

The Australian author John Hughes has apologised for unintentionally plagiarising parts of a Nobel laureate’s work after a Guardian Australia investigation found multiple similarities and some identical instances in his new novel, The Dogs, which has been nominated for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.

Nearly 60 similarities and identical sentences were found in a comparison of Hughes’ novel and the 2017 English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction book The Unwomanly Face of War.

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Jun 08, 2022

From John Fowles’s deep weirdness to Yōko Ogawa’s amnesiac dystopia, these books could put you off beach holidays for ever

I’ve lived and worked on islands and I’ve holidayed on islands and nothing (terribly) sinister has ever befallen me. That’s because, of course, in reality islands are often very nice.

But novelists are not very nice, and fictional islands are pressure cookers, the smaller the hotter. It doesn’t matter if the island in question is lush and tropical or a hunk of rock in an Austrian lake. When there’s nowhere to go but the shore and back and the shore and back, everything is familiar and familiarity breeds resentment. Confrontation – with oneself, neighbours, history, the most sinister offerings of society – becomes impossible to avoid.

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Jun 08, 2022

From relationships, to sport, to happiness – why data points, not feelings, are a better guide to what works

Intuition is a funny business. Back in the day, you might have thought that making life decisions by blindly following your “gut feeling” was a bad idea and could get you into trouble. But in 2005 along came Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, a massive bestseller that made the scientific case for “the power of thinking without thinking”. Split-second decisions, Gladwell argued, are often far better than ones that involve deliberation. Perhaps ironically, the idea that intuition was a good thing was itself quite counterintuitive – and counterintuitive ideas really sell books.

But now it’s time for another U-turn. The new book by the economist and ex-Google researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is the anti-Gladwell: it’s about how we can learn from “big data” to help us make better decisions in our lives – and how this often goes against what our intuitions might tell us.

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Jun 08, 2022

The digital revolution is explored in this debut about a gifted coder’s journey from an Indian coconut plantation to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley

King Rao is born, so his relatives whisper, under a bad star. His mother, Radha, becomes pregnant as the result of rape, then dies in childbirth. The baby is left in the care of her sister, Sita, who is also forced to take on the burden of Radha’s no-good husband. “A big name for a little runt,” Sita’s in-laws mock when she insists on naming the boy King. “He has strong bones,” Sita retorts. “He has a regal lip ... He’ll live up to it.”

The Raos, from the beginning, are a divided family. Through hard work and prudent planning, their patriarch, Grandfather Rao, is able to inherit the cultivation rights to a productive coconut plantation from its former Brahmin owners. Their Dalit origins pushed aside, the Raos’ fortunes appear to be flourishing.Sita never doubts that her nephew will come to something. She secures the best education for King. She also warns him to steer clear of those members of the extended family she castigates as freeloaders, benefiting from Grandfather Rao’s careful husbandry of the plantation while contributing nothing in return.

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