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May 18, 2022

As Amazon meets campaigners’ demands for a ‘disability fiction’ section, adult literature still has much work to do

Are we finally getting some good disability representation in fiction? Certainly, the publishing industry seems to have belatedly recognised the need to get disabled writers through the door. After a successful social media campaign, Amazon has recently introduced a “disability fiction” section. The Society of Authors now has a dedicated peer network for disabled and chronically ill writers. And in 2020, the Barbellion prize was set up to reward brilliant work by disabled authors. But does any of this mean that disabled people are finally seeing themselves and their experiences in the novels they pick up in Waterstones? It depends where you look.

Children’s literature is definitely getting better at representation. Indeed, when I asked disabled friends and acquaintances to name their favourite disabled character, almost all of them highlighted books aimed at younger readers, like Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark. Lizzie Huxley-Jones, who is disabled themself, says that through their work as a children’s author and sensitivity reader they are seeing signs of progress. “Even just in the last three years in the UK – probably five if I’m being extremely generous – I feel like there has been a big push around securing autistic talent, publishing autistic stories, which I think is great because, historically, autistic people really didn’t get to tell our own stories.”

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May 18, 2022

Looking for a new reading recommendation? Here are some exciting new paperbacks, from brilliant non-fiction about sex and gender to acclaimed novels

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May 18, 2022

From Virginia Woolf to Torrey Peters, authors have long been fascinated by the ways we navigate gender and relationships

Writer and historian Morgan M Page recently explained to me that the oldest surviving work by a known author is The Exaltation of Inanna, written by Enheduanna more than 4,000 years ago. Enheduanna was a Mesopotamian Gala priestess, someone assigned male at birth who lived as a woman in service of the goddess Inanna. Her poetry influenced both the Hebrew psalms and Homeric Hymns. “To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inana. Desirability and arousal, goods and property are yours, Inana,” is perhaps her most famous line.

I consider the poetry itself an unfolding love story, shared at first between the writer and her goddess, and now by scholars and those of us seeking to place our obscured selves in history.

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May 18, 2022

This rollicking adventure set in gold rush America features an unforgettable protagonist

“‘My name is Yip Tolroy & I am mute. I have made not a sound since the day of my birth, October 2nd, 1815.” So begins Paddy Crewe’s ambitious, cinematic debut novel set during Georgia’s gold rush in a semi-mythic American south that recalls both Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Faulkner’s Light in August. Purporting to be the written account of Yip’s adventures narrated from the comfort of later life, it explores a society in flux, one about to turn its back on religion and embrace greed and individualism. It’s also a rollicking, page-turning wild west adventure, populated by a cast of arresting grotesques, with luminous imagery and an unforgettable protagonist.

When Yip’s father mysteriously disappears, his fierce, gun-toting mother opens Tolroy’s Store in Heron’s Creek and sets her son to work. At 14, he’s just 4ft tall and hairless, from what we assume to be alopecia. The pain of his mutism is well expressed in affecting arias: “How can a man live without his voice, O this was the question what begun to haunt my every waking & sleeping minute.” His future looks bleak until a retired doctor teaches him to read and gives him a slate on which to write. This single means of communication is the tool that emancipates Yip, one that travels with him through his picaresque adventures after he embarks on a disastrous night expedition prospecting for gold: “I too turned my heart away from God & took a turn down the Road to Ruin.”

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May 18, 2022

Translated into English for the first time, these diaries provide a glimpse into the innermost thoughts of a great philosopher

Ludwig Wittgenstein joined the army the day after his native Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia in August 1914. He had been serving for almost three months when he received word that his brother Paul, a concert pianist, had lost his right arm in battle. “Again and again,” he wrote in his notebook, “I have to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly been deprived of his vocation! How terrible! What philosophical outlook would it take to overcome such a thing? Can it even happen except through suicide!”

Wittgenstein was an unusual philosopher. He became obsessed with the foundations of logic while an engineering student and presented himself to Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, ready to solve all its problems. His intent was to provide an account of logic that was free from paradox and his solution came in the form of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, sent to Russell from the Italian prisoner-of-war camp in which Wittgenstein was held at the end of the first world war.

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May 17, 2022

The further chronicles of a Turkish-American student in the 1990s showcase a wonderfully idiosyncratic comic voice

Should one spend one’s brief time on Earth guided by hedonism and pleasure, or by morality and responsibility? The second instalment of Elif Batuman’s chronicle of Selin, a student of Russian literature at Harvard in the 1990s whose biography corresponds fairly closely to the writer’s own, takes as its title Søren Kierkegaard’s first book, which suggests that one must choose whether to live according to ethical or aesthetic principles. For Selin, now in her sophomore year and with an unsatisfactory, perplexing quasi-relationship with mathematics student Ivan apparently behind her, the real issue seems not so much how to make a choice between two starkly opposed systems, but how to start living at all.

Kierkegaard is not Selin’s only template: as in Batuman’s preceding novel, The Idiot, and her nonfiction book, The Possessed, works of literature exist, variously, as vast mansions in which to wander, marvelling at the ingenuity and beauty of the fixtures and fittings; unexpectedly capricious haunted houses, in which mirrored doors open on to dead-end corridors and distorted reflections; and, occasionally and disappointingly, arid thought experiments, destined to trap the reader in repetitive and unyielding arguments.

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May 17, 2022

Bestsellers like Atlas of the Heart and Atomic Habits use feel-good philosophy to turn our anxieties into our identity

You are a victim. A person of anxious experience, navigating a minefield of shame triggers. Research suggests that people with your attachment style are predisposed to dissociating. Some experts believe this very sentence could re-traumatize you. It’s not your fault, of course. You just need to reframe your narrative.

This is the language of a coalescing sub-genre of self-help books that combine the comforting yet impenetrable vocabulary of modern therapy with pseudoscientific grand theories on human behavior. You’ll recognize it from titles like Atlas of the Heart, Atomic Habits, The Body Keeps The Score, Attached, Mating in Captivity, even The Artist’s Way. None were bestsellers upon release, but all have slow-burned their way to the tops of bestseller lists and the bookshelves of People Who Go To Therapy. These are the new bourgeois bibles – foundational texts for a generation of yuppies adrift.

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May 17, 2022

This month, in clever, tense tales by Gillian McAllister and Jack Jordan, two mothers are on a mission to save their sons

Gillian McAllister
Michael Joseph, £14.99, pp416

To support the Guardian and Observer order Wrong Place Wrong Time or Do No Harm at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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May 16, 2022

This muddled feminist reworking of Coetzee’s celebrated novel fails to grasp his book’s ambiguities

Lacuna opens with an extremely peculiar author’s note. Fiona Snyckers informs the reader that her book is not a retelling of Disgrace (1999) by the Nobel prize-winning South African novelist JM Coetzee, but that it does have an “intertextual relationship” with that harrowing, controversial and much-garlanded novel. Lacuna will feature a character called John Coetzee who is “entirely fictional” and another called Lucy Lurie who, like her namesake in Disgrace, is the white victim of gang rape by black men but is otherwise “original and fictional”.

“I use the character of Lucy to explore the phenomenon of white feminism in South Africa,” she announces. For Lucy is “trapped in her own racism and unconscious biases”. She is “solipsistic and selfish”. She makes “flawed life choices” and “practises a shallow form of feminism that does not take into account intersectionality”.

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May 16, 2022

This powerful institution is filled with brilliant people – but is it holding Britain back?

When we think of things that need fixing in the British state, it’s natural to think of institutions that are struggling: from the government’s powerlessness in the face of the rocketing cost of living, to the perennial crises of the NHS, to revelations of rule-breaking at No 10. But one powerful way to fix many of the UK’s problems is the radical reform of one of our most effective institutions: Her Majesty’s Treasury.

The Treasury is a remarkable organisation. It sits at the heart of the British state and employs the brightest young officials. Former Treasury staff occupy top roles in most other government departments, and provide half the current crop of permanent secretaries. Retired ministers, in moments of candour, will tell you that the Treasury is the one part of Whitehall that lives up to RA Butler’s description of a “Rolls-Royce” civil service. It is also unusual, compared with other finance ministries around the world, in that it is three things at once: a budgetary ministry, controlling government expenditure; a financial ministry, responsible for public credit and taxation; and an economics ministry, with a brief to stimulate economic growth. In France, Germany, the US, Japan, Canada and Australia these roles are all, in differing ways, separated out. The Treasury is also central to the political news cycle. Its semi-annual “fiscal events” – budgets, statements and spending reviews – dominate the government’s agenda for weeks at a time, and set the media agenda for days.

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May 16, 2022

This portrait of a sleepy adolescent at breakfast is intensely affectionate – without ever sentimentalising youth

Slow Waker

I look at the nephew,
eighteen, across the breakfast.
He had to be called and called.
He smiles, but without
conviction. He will not
have tea, oh OK,
if it’s no trouble,
he will have tea.

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May 16, 2022

Spanning three generations, from the battlefields of Crimea to a Cornish farm in the 1970s, this novel deftly navigates the emotional minefield of a clan at war

Two shocking bereavements, separated by more than a century, will link unsuspecting sides of a family in Cressida Connolly’s haunting and beautiful novel. Other writers might have stretched this material to saga length. Bad Relations confines its scope to fewer than 300 pages and reverberates the more for its deft compression.

It begins amid the smoke and chaos of a battlefield in the Crimea, where Captain William Gale cuts a lock of hair from the head of his dead younger brother, Algie – a memento for their parents back home in Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, William’s wife, Alice, prays for his safe return and writes him letters deploring the prosecution of the war, a radical streak destined to come between them. For in spite of her loving ways and the young son she has borne him, William grows distant from Alice on his return to England; unreasonable at first, then unreachable, he is not the gentle husband who went off to war years before. “Small gusts of fury blew through him yet not away from him.” Those gusts presage a thunderstorm that will rend and wreck.

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May 15, 2022

The author emerges from this compelling biography as a difficult outsider whose twin passions were feckless men and drink

In 1907, Ella Gwendoline (“Gwen”) Rees Williams sailed to England from Dominica, the Caribbean island of her birth, to attend school in Cambridge. Gwen, who was 16, had long dreamed of the motherland, but from the moment she landed at Southampton, her mood began to darken. If London, her first stop, was sooty and drab and populated by permanently indignant landladies, school was little better. She was mocked for her lilting accent by her classmates, who took particular pleasure in the fact that the maniac who is Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was a white Creole just like her. On Saturdays, she would cycle to the house of a kindly great aunt. Even there, though, the atmosphere was cautionary. Her aunt told her that she’d once been planning to leave her husband for a lover – until, that is, she looked in the mirror and saw the devil leering over her shoulder.

Did the devil ever perch on Gwen’s shoulder? Read Miranda Seymour’s slyly compelling new biography of Jean Rhys – the pen name was adopted in 1924, at the behest of her patron, Ford Madox Ford – and you will feel that it surely did, usually more than once a year. Unlike her aunt, however, she was not one to turn from temptation. The author of Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight was all feeling: a human bagatelle ball whizzing from one crisis to another, lured not only by all the usual siren songs (men, money, booze), but by any number of other, less appealing tunes (“disaster is her element,” said her last editor, Diana Athill). Was she, to use the old word, mad? Sometimes, perhaps. But if so, she was hardly alone. I Used to Live Here Oncethe biography takes its brilliantly apt title from one of Rhys’s ghost stories – is shot through with madness. Half its cast are half crazy, and most of the rest are as creepy as hell. Liars and fraudsters, bigamists and bolters, grifters and gropers: they’re all here, though Seymour has a special line (because her subject attracted them) in the kind of literary stalker whose pulse races furtively at the sight of an old woman with a bad wig, a whisky habit and (just perhaps) a half-finished manuscript in a drawer.

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May 15, 2022

The Station Eleven author’s brilliant novel flits between disparate lives past and future, and the detective patching them together

It is a bold author who heads off potential criticisms of their work with a self-aware allusion, but in Emily St John Mandel’s ambitious new novel, the character of the writer Olive Llewellyn is confronted by an unimpressed reader in a book-signing queue. Her interlocutor impatiently claims “there were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t ultimately”.

Some may agree with this as a description of Sea of Tranquility, but it also elegantly anticipates censure of this thought-provoking read. Over its spare length, St John Mandel’s book juggles a variety of storylines, loosely connected by the pivotal character of the time-travelling detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts. He has been sent back from the far-distant future to interact with apparently disparate figures, from the 23rd-century novelist Olive to the disgraced “remittance man” Edwin St Andrew, making his uncertain way in 1912 Canada. The recurring motif that unites them all is the sound of a violin heard in an unnatural setting; its significance becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses.

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May 15, 2022

The Notes to Self author’s uplifting debut novel follows the fate of two women over the course of a transformative day in Dublin

The year 2019 didn’t want for sparky essay collections that interrogated the female experience, with Rebecca Solnit, Jia Tolentino and Rachel Cusk all publishing new work. Even so, Emilie Pine’s bestselling Notes to Self stood out. Initially released by a small, independent Irish press before being scooped up by Hamish Hamilton, the Dublin academic’s mainstream debut brought unusual clarity and compassion to bear on sources of resonant personal pain including miscarriage, rape and life as the daughter of an alcoholic father.

She follows it now with a first novel, Ruth & Pen, which taps that same likable combination of benevolence and searing inquiry as it sets the stories of its two title characters dancing around each other, drawing into their orbit questions of sexuality, self-worth and neurodiversity, as well as themes from the essays.

Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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May 15, 2022

First published in 1964, this striking account of Greenberg’s years in a psychiatric hospital reveals her boredom and fear – and the ignorance of the era

At the beginning of Joanne Greenberg’s striking 1964 autobiographical novel, now reissued by Penguin Modern Classics, is a one-way journey. Deborah Blau, 16, is with her parents, who try to normalise the trip: stopping at a diner, catching a movie. But there’s no getting away from it – her parents look upon her as a “familiar face that they were trying to convince themselves they could estrange”. Deborah has schizophrenia, with episodes of psychosis that they can no longer manage, and they are taking her to a psychiatric hospital.

Deborah has retreated to an imaginary world she calls Yr, speaking a language nobody else understands. As we unpeel her past – a tumour in childhood, experience of antisemitism – it’s not surprising that she doesn’t consider our world to be a good fit. But we see the anguish not only of Deborah but of those around her: no one is guilty here; all are suffering. When her parents return home, they are tortured by what they have done, but admit that the family now has periods of “calmness, even of happiness” without her.

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May 15, 2022

From clubs and pubs to aristocratic follies, from an Indian theatre to a Cuban ice-cream parlour, this creative book is a hymn to the gay-friendly buildings treasured by film-makers, artists and activists

Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire is one of the great lost wonders of British architecture, a neo-gothic giant with cathedral-sized interiors, built from 1796 to 1813, whose 90-metre tower collapsed and was rebuilt several times. It fell for the last time in 1825, since when the rest of the building has all but disappeared.

It also takes its place in Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories, alongside clubs, bars, railway carriages, bookshops, community centres, public parks, private houses and a Castro-era ice-cream parlour in Havana. Fonthill Abbey was built for his own use by an exceptionally wealthy man, William Beckford, whose prospective career in public life was ended when he was outed as a “sodomite”. He “consoled his unhappiness”, as the book puts it, by building his fantastical house, where he longed “for a ‘beatific vision’ in which a beautiful angelic youth would come forth from the heavens to embrace him with love and understanding”. As conspicuous as it was, its main purpose was to shelter him from a hostile world, creating instead a private internal universe of mirrors, stained glass, “lustrous multicoloured objets d’art” and carefully framed views out to the surrounding landscape.

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May 15, 2022

Emma Smith’s wise and funny history of the physical book, from the Bible to boobytraps and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘blooks’, is a thing to cherish

Most of us who spend our time reading books gobble up their verbal contents, then set aside or at best shelve the container. But those receptacles have an identity and existence of their own: with their upright spines, their paper layered like skin and their protective jackets, books possess bodies and wear clothing, and they enjoy adventures or suffer mishaps as they circulate around the world. Overlooking the epic bulk of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer addresses the poem as his “little book” and sends it off into the future with fond parental solicitude, while in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair the heroine begins her career of rebellion by hurling a copy of Samuel Johnson’s officious, prescriptive dictionary out of the window.

In Portable Magic, Emma Smith wittily and ingeniously studies books as objects, possessed by readers not produced by writers. Her title, borrowed from an essay by Stephen King, emphasises the mobility of these apparently inert items and their occult powers. Like motorcars or metaphors, books transport us to destinations unknown, and that propulsion has something uncanny about it. Smith begins with sorcerers conjuring as they consult books of spells; she goes on to examine the varieties of magical reading, which range from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, who was converted by a random perusal of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic volume” such as Mein Kampf, distributed to all households during the Third Reich as a sinister talisman, the “bibliographic manifestation of Hitlerism”.

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May 14, 2022

By telling the life stories of his bipolar father and a convicted murderer he tried to save from the electric chair, Stafford Smith raises urgent moral questions about behaviour and justice

If you have ever wondered from where the death-row lawyer Clive Stafford Smith gets his intransigent, crusading spirit, this vivid, inquiring memoir provides much of the evidence. It is set up as a book not about its author but about the lives of two very different men who helped to define him. The first is Stafford Smith’s father, Dick, a wildly volatile man with bipolar disorder, who squandered the family fortune and blamed everyone but himself. The second is Larry Lonchar, an inmate in Georgia State Prison facing a capital sentence, one of the many men for whom Stafford Smith has acted as advocate and sometime saviour in the past 40 years. The lawyer’s examination of these two doomed lives, and his own role in them, expands into a compulsive personal investigation into the limits of empathy, and the proper balance of responsibility and retribution toward the destructive actions of men not in their best minds.

Dick Stafford Smith, whose death in 2007 first prompted this book, was in some ways the blueprint for all of the prisoners lost in the American justice system, for whom his son petitioned mercy: a man burdened with a temperamental makeup entirely unsuited to the circumstances of his adult life. Haunted by his failure to fathom his father, still less to help him, Stafford Smith explores how he went in search of the most extreme kinds of “save-able” surrogates elsewhere. Not for nothing did he call his charity Reprieve.

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May 14, 2022

The American author on how his own experience of psychedelic therapy sparked his debut novel, and his poems about the opioid epidemic

William Brewer, 33, is the author of I Know Your Kind (2017), a collection of poems about poverty and drug addiction in West Virginia, where he was born and grew up. Selected for the prestigious National Poetry Series in the US, and cited as an inspiration by Ocean Vuong, he has been described by New York magazine as “America’s poet laureate of the opioid crisis”. Psychiatry, debt and quantum gravity are among the themes of his first novel, The Red Arrow, narrated by a troubled ghostwriter urgently in search of a vanished Italian physicist whose memoirs he must deliver. Brewer, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, spoke to me over Zoom from Oakland, California, his home since 2016.

Where did The Red Arrow start?
The writing really got going in 2019 after I finally underwent psychedelic therapy for the depression that had controlled my life for a long time. I was able to write in a way I hadn’t before because my brain had just been so clouded. The therapy showed me all the ways that depression had run the show; it was hard to realise how much the disease had allowed me to hurt people I care about. I was given a dose of psilocybin mushrooms at 10 in the morning, and by 4.30 in the afternoon it felt like a 50lb tumour had been cut out of my back. I wanted to carry that energy into the writing.

The Red Arrow isn’t a drug book, but it does try to inhabit certain qualities of psychedelic experience, one of which is the complete destruction of linearity. A lot of the time when people try to write about that, they write incoherent, scrambly text, like something from the era of the beats, but psychedelic experience can actually be very lucid: it isn’t a wild and crazy light show so much as an elegant revelation of how things are connected. Psilocybin, especially, gives you this real sense of momentum, and I wanted that for the book.

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May 14, 2022

A companion to 1998’s The Fire People, Kayo Chingonyi’s anthology creates a space for a new generation of voices to express the wide range of their work

Putting together an anthology is, as the American poet Katrina Vandenberg once said, like making a mixtape. It’s an artefact filled with various resonances. Much like the painstaking process of recording cassettes for one another in the pre-playlist age, editing an anthology is intimate, a gesture towards the reader. And just as you never used to be able to put absolutely every tune you wanted to on tape, the same goes for anthologies. The beauty of the form is in the suggestions it makes, the ways it invites further exploration. In More Fiya, the anthology of Black British poets I’ve edited, a selection of poems stand together as a gesture to the wider and more expansive community to which these poets belong.

Thinking again about the close-reading and listening I did when putting this book together, I’m struck by how phrases, how whole lines from poems, can stay with you. Sometimes I’d be talking to someone and something they said would chime with a line I’d read, and that poem and the conversation would begin to dance together in my head. Then the poems would begin to dance among themselves; the glistening signet ring in Dean Atta’s poem chiming with the knife in a poem by Dzifa Benson; the fires that burn in poems by Janette Ayachi and Momtaza Mehri; Inua Ellams’s reflection on the consequences of wounded masculinity and Kim Squirrell’s poem about those first moments in which girlhood comes under the toxic gaze of men.

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May 14, 2022

Mounting tensions with Russia, a global pandemic and a reckless scramble for nuclear energy: the echoes of 1957 are alarming – we would do well to heed them

On 10 October 1957, Harold Macmillan sent a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower. The question he asked his US counterpart was: “What are we going to do about these Russians?” The launch of the Sputnik satellite six days earlier had carried with it the threat that Soviet military technology would eclipse that of the west. The prime minister was hoping to boost British nuclear capabilities, and was desperate for US cooperation.

On that same day, however, the UK’s most advanced nuclear project went up in flames – putting the knowledge and bravery of its best scientists to the test, and threatening England’s peaceful countryside with a radiological disaster.

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May 14, 2022
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May 13, 2022

Six interlinked stories from a superb new writer about young Londoners and their smartphone addictions

In recent years, much of the most innovative work in the anglophone short story has come from Ireland, from writers such as Colin Barrett, Wendy Erskine and Nicole Flattery. New debut collections by gifted British authors Saba Sams and Gurnaik Johal have shown the unmistakable influence of their Irish peers. The publication of Reward System by Cambridge-born Jem Calder provides further evidence that the medium is attracting some of the most talented young writers of fiction at work today, on both sides of the Irish sea.

Strictly speaking, Reward System isn’t quite a short story collection. It’s a book of six tales, most of which are slightly interlinked through the reappearance of two main characters, and one of which – about an assistant chef in a restaurant kitchen who has an affair with her older boss – is long enough to be classed as a novella. But as up-to-date as these stories feel, Reward System belongs firmly in the tradition of fictional miniaturism: Calder’s stories are all granular portraits of micro-interactions between people in ostensibly mundane settings, tapped out on six inches of LCD glass.

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May 13, 2022

Sara Nović on writing a novel amid the current Deaf creative revolution and how ASL allowed her to understand herself

In the years since I wrote my first book, deaf creatives have undeniably gained mainstream visibility, particularly in film and television. Thanks to the tireless work of deaf and disabled advocates, the majority of deaf characters on screen are now being played by deaf actors. From the Oscar-winning ensemble of Coda and superheroes in Marvel’s Eternals to the recent Spider-Man video game and reality stars such as Nyle DiMarco and Rose Ayling-Ellis, deaf performers have repeatedly smashed through longstanding barriers. Deaf screenwriters Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern even showcased dual talents by starring in and writing the Sundance television series This Close.

In literature, too, we have seen prominent works by deaf writers. In poetry, the brilliant Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic was published to widespread critical acclaim, and Raymond Antrobus became the first poet ever to win the Rathbones Folio prize. Last month there were two deaf authors – DiMarco and me – on the New York Times bestellers list.

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