Erin Morgenstern’s captivating new novel The Starless Sea refers to a “a book-centric fantasia” – and there is certainly a wonderfully eclectic mix of styles and forms in this month’s publications.Julian Barnes’s tale of La Belle Epoque, built around the story of the celebrated French doctor Samuel Pozzi, is fascinating history, biography and philosophy rolled into one. In The Man in the Red Coat, Barnes is the ideal guide to a hysterical “hyperventilating era” (1870-1914) when “prejudice could swiftly metastasise into paranoia”. It was also a period when the gun lobby wielded significant power in French politics. More than a century later, the United States has its own pro-gun president, who has boasted about owning a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Right in time for Christmas shopping, this month sees the publication of She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices by Yvette Cooper. A collection of humdinger speeches by women who have changed the course of history – from Boudica to Benazir Bhutto – it’s a wonderful book that I would happily unwrap and spend half of Christmas avoiding the family with. It’s also part of a slow-burning trend for anthologies that champion women’s long marginalised stories, including Wonder Women, A History of Britain in 21 Women and a whole slew of jauntily feminist children’s titles aimed at raising girls who will put down the Play-Doh and lean in.As a phenomenon, it gives me mixed feelings. To start with the obvious: these books are a much-needed rebuttal to a culture that gives off the ineffable impression that the only woman who did anything of note in the past two millennia was Marie Curie. Leaders included in She Speaks like Sojourner Truth, a former slave turned powerful activist, should be part of the collective consciousness, but they’re not. As recently as the mid Nineties, as Cooper points out, The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches blithely noted that “women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough.”
Lindy West is as tough as nails. She shouldn’t have to be, but it comes with the territory when you’re not only a woman writing on the internet, but one who writes about divisive topics such as bodies, sexism and privilege. Her first book, a memoir titled Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, came out in 2016 and was adapted into a TV series on Hulu starring Aidy Bryant.West is back with a new volume, a collection of incisive essays titled The Witches Are Coming. In it, West once again demonstrates a knack for dissecting just about any pop-cultural phenomenon with the right level of acerbity.
Is there anything more satisfying than a brilliant plot twist? A truly great one can make a work of fiction unforgettable, turning everything that you thought you knew upside down. Sometimes they’re achieved through an unreliable narrator, others by a string of red herrings that trick you into reaching the wrong conclusion.In crime thrillers, part of the fun is trying to work out how the story will end, with the knowledge that you are likely to be tripped up before the resolution. But the best plot twists in literature are when you least expect them, whether it’s the discovery of Mr Rochester’s lunatic wife in Jane Eyre, or the heartbreaking truth that is revealed in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Acclaimed American writer Sylvia Plath would have been 87 on Sunday, and the date is being marked by Google with a stunning Doodle aimed at capturing the mood of her work.Her painfully honest poetry and prose touched generations of fans, and helped many to understand mental illness.
When a film becomes more famous than the book it’s based on, you can understand why the author might feel aggrieved. But Andre Aciman was anything but when his debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, became an Academy Award-nominated adaptation 10 years after the book’s release. “I adored the film,” Aciman tells me down the phone from his home in New York. “I think I’m probably one of the very few writers who doesn’t feel cheated by an adaptation of their work. I had no idea how great it would be.”Now, Aciman has finally written a sequel, and he’s aware of the expectation. When Call Me By Your Name came out in 2007, it earned its author comparisons to Proust and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Its plot captures the furtive thrills, frissons and torments of first love between two young American men, whose romance unfolds amid the Italian Riviera’s soft, muscular hills and sun-pummelled cobbles. It made for evocative reading, but intoxicating cinema, because on screen, everything that happens between Elio and Oliver is intensified: exchanges more lascivious, kisses more urgent. “Obsessive love is the only kind that exists,” Aciman declares when I ask if he thinks that level of fervour exists exclusively in adolescence. He doesn’t. “We long for people at any age. And if you’re in love with someone and you’re not obsessed by them: what are you?”
Roberta, a character in Zadie Smith’s captivating new collection of short stories, says she knew Debbie Harry back in the old New York East Village days. "Whatever happens to old punks?" she muses. "Enquiring minds want to know.” Well, they go on to publish their life stories. Harry, the iconic figurehead of Blondie, tells her tumultuous tale in Face It.Harry’s book attempts to look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of a confusing world, a quest that is also apparent in the new autobiography from comedian Lenny Henry and in the fictional journey of Lyra Belacqua, the central character in Philip Pullman’s latest novel The Secret Commonwealth.
What's the point of a literary festival? Should they be cosy, self-congratulatory affairs, in which writers trot out platitudes and arguments with which the audience already agree? Or should they aim to challenge orthodoxy, even when it risks trouble?It sounds obvious, but even in this contentious political moment, festivals in the UK are not unpredictable. Formulae are followed. Big names will trot out a few spicy opinions about politics, unrelated to their books but in the hope of selling more copies of them. On one or two panel debates there will be bursts of mild crossfire, and afterwards the combatants will drink champagne together at the sponsors' expense. However much they might protest otherwise, there is not much at stake. Brexit or no, Britain is lucky that its core freedoms of speech, thought and assembly remain unassailable.
At 79, Atwood is the oldest ever Booker winner, while Evaristo, 60, is the first black woman ever to win the award.
Elton John is not an artist known for being shy about his personal life. Even so, the candour with which he speaks in his first – and apparently only – autobiography, Me, is astounding.From the off, the "Rocket Man" star plunges into accounts of depression (there are multiple recollections of suicide attempts), drug addiction, break-ups and his prostate cancer diagnosis, but never appeals to the reader for sympathy. His voice, assisted by music critic Alexis Petredis (who worked on the book with John for three-and-a-half years) is warm and genial.
Bill Bryson first shambled onto our shores from his native US in 1973, an instinctive anglophile. Since then he has turned a kindly and satirical eye on everything from the rationing of hot baths in coastal B&Bs; (Notes from a Small Island, 1995) to the elusive genius of Shakespeare (2007) and the fiery birth of the planet Earth (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003).Having graduated from genial travel writing to popular science, Bill Bryson wields a childlike determination to keep asking questions until he understands something well enough to explain it. How do you weigh the Earth? How does a human blood cell work? Why can’t we live forever?
This year has been a bumper year for novels so there’s plenty of choice.Whether you like gripping page-turners or literary novels that give you something to discuss over the dinner table, there’s something for everyone.
Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island, is the most appropriate location in the world at which to suffer an onslaught of existential horror. Not that this was any comfort as I arrived there one summer, my more-than-slightly unenthusiastic girlfriend in tow, only to be confronted by rows of headstones bristling into the horizon. We had come for one grave in particular. But how to find it amid this riot of marble and faded lettering?Our dreaded sunny day at the cemetery gates had already involved a winding drive from central Providence past the Rhode Island School of Design, where the future members of Talking Heads had met in the mid-Seventies (and where Seth MacFarlane created Family Guy).
On National Poetry Day, falling on 3 October, we recognise the moving spirit of poetry and its transformative effect on culture. Each year there’s a different theme and in 2019 the theme is “Truth”.Here are a small collection of singular lines, stanzas, and notions possessing the power to spring the most moving of thoughts and feelings into the humming imagination of the reader.
This list is primed with some top Christmas present ideas, with the likes of Jojo Moyes and Sophie Kinsella delivering absolute gems.
Lucy Ellmann has a lot to say. In Ducks, Newburyport, her 1,034-page novel, Ellmann’s narrator, an Ohio housewife, lets loose an encyclopedic monologue that encompasses modern motherhood; the American health care system; Trump; the tainted water in Flint, Michigan; “the fact that the average teen checks their phone two thousand times a day”; Marie Kondo; the plot of Little House on the Prairie; and other subjects.The book consists mostly of a single, breathless – and utterly compelling – sentence.
At the December 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony, Patti Smith stepped before the king and queen of Sweden, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and a host of tuxedoed and gowned dignitaries and began to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan, that year’s laureate for literature. As Smith later wrote in a piece for The New Yorker, “I had it in my mind to sing the song exactly as it was written and as well as I was capable of doing. I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.” And then, two minutes into her performance, catastrophe: Smith forgot the lyrics.She appeared to, anyway. “I was simply unable to draw them out,” she wrote. Visibly nervous, and with her voice carrying every wounded note of Dylan’s song, Smith faltered, asked the conductor if she could begin again, and apologised with a crushing, worried smile. The sympathetic audience applauded, and Smith returned to the song.
If you found Emma Donoghue through Room, the 2010 bestselling novel that landed her on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, then you should know that Akin, her first contemporary novel for adults since Room, is very different in tone, style and substance. This isn’t in any way an indictment on either novel – if anything, the differences between the two only highlight Donoghue’s range – but knowing this might enable you to appreciate Akin for what it is: a touching, keenly observed novel (if less suspenseful than Room, told from the persepective of a boy held captive with his kidnapped mother), examining the complex dynamics of family.It all begins when Noah (or Noé, as he was known during his childhood in France) meets Michael, his great-nephew, who’s in need of a new caretaker. Michael’s father, Victor (Noah’s nephew) died a year and a half prior, his veins “full of heroin and fentanyl”. His mother, Amber, is behind bars after the police “found crack cocaine, meth, and oxycodone in her car”. His grandmother Ella, who had been entrusted with his care, has just died. This all means that Noah, who has never even met his great-nephew, must now act as a temporary guardian for the 11-year-old boy. Neither Noah nor Michael is particularly pleased with this arrangement, though Noah – an almost 80-year-old, retired, widowed professor who’s never had children of his own – feels a pull of duty towards his relative.
"Let me talk to you about this book, because I have a lot of emotions going on,” begins one Bookstagram caption. Another describes a novel by Gabriel Garcia Maquez as “too flowery at times, but overall, the story moves well… would recommend.” A third frets over Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Sula: “I can’t fault the quality of her storytelling but I felt so set apart from her words... it didn’t settle in my soul.”Literary instagram, known as Bookstagram, has changed the way fiction is marketed, reviewed and read. Book blogging has always existed on the internet, but on Instagram it collided with the influencer economy. Particularly successful users are now able to sell copies with their Instagram posts, which are more colloquial than formal reviews.
When senior politicians leave or are ejected from their jobs, there’s an order to what comes next. First comes the tear-stained speech, during which they will wax lyrical about the privilege of public service. Next, the holiday, where they can reintroduce themselves to the spouses and children whom they have barely seen since they were elected. Finally – and this is the crucial bit – comes lunch with a literary agent.Rare is the major political figure who, disgraced or otherwise, doesn’t walk out of Westminster and into a six-figure book deal with a large publisher. A memoir provides the ultimate payday for former statesmen and stateswomen facing ill-defined professional futures. On paper, it all makes perfect sense. The author gets to tell their side of the story while revealing the human behind the diplomatic automaton (good luck with that, Theresa). As for the readers, who wouldn’t want to know what really takes place in the corridors of power: the backroom deals, the backstabbing and the suppressed scandals? Except that the political memoir rarely contains anything in the way of indiscretion or revelation. More often, they are vanity projects in which their authors get to settle scores and, reflecting on their low points, claim they were undervalued and misunderstood all along.
Every movement needs its iconography, and for feminism in the age of women’s marches, few could be more striking than the Handmaid. Shrouded in a red dress, blinkered by a white bonnet, Margaret Atwood’s gloriously chilling symbol of sexual oppression makes for the protest costume to end all protest costumes.Handmaids have taken to the streets to support abortion rights in Northern Ireland, they have marched against Donald Trump in London, they have campaigned in Buenos Aires. Such is the impact of The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 novel catapulted into today’s pop culture stratosphere by the twin forces of Hulu and resurgent misogyny, that you can even buy a Handmaid Halloween costume for your dog. Yes, here in the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve entered a curious dystopia where people dress their pets as victims of ritualised rape.
Edna O’Brien made her name in the 1960s with The Country Girls trilogy, banned in her native Ireland for its depiction of young women’s sex lives; in 2012, she released her acclaimed memoir, Country Girl. But while the 88-year-old’s latest novel may be called Girl, its subject is a world away from her own experience: this is the imagined story of one of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.The subject, really, is lost girlhood, as declared by its heart-breaking opening line: “I was a girl once, but not anymore.” And the heart breaks over and over: this is a devastating read, horror and misfortune and injustice piling on its protagonist till you think you can’t bear it, till you remember how many real teenage girls have had to bear worse. Yet it’s told with a spare economy; never sentimentalised, nor sensationalised.
Finishing a good book always leaves you yearning for more – but is the sequel ever as good as the original?With the publication of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Testaments on Tuesday (10 September), this is a question every fan of her 1985 dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale is wondering.
Novelist Margaret Atwood has dismissed the suggestion that she made her follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale an easier read for its new, TV audience.The Testaments is published around the globe more than 30 years after her original classic, which sparked a recent hit TV series starring Elisabeth Moss.