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Jul 23, 2021

The author of the book behind TV smash The Undoing talks about her new novel The Plot, a thriller about plagiarism – and how she fell for Hugh Grant

In January 2020, the American novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz was “all in all, not in a great place”, despite the runaway success of the HBO series The Undoing, based on her novel You Should Have Known. She was extremely anxious about a new virus in China that she was reading about (she reads a lot of books on epidemiology). “I was pretty much the only person I knew at that point who was really freaking out,” she says cheerfully from her bedroom in upstate New York, her dog Sherlock snoozing serenely beside her. “And I was really freaking out. It felt like we were in the opening chapters of Stephen King’s The Stand.” She was also furious about the first impeachment of President Trump, the outcome of which seemed all too clear. “I think if I had been scared without being angry, or I had been angry without being scared, it wouldn’t have been so combustible, but I was both.”

More personally, she was exhausted by wrestling with the second draft of a novel that was refusing to come together. She was so nervous about a meeting with her editor, who had already turned the book down once, that she forced her husband, the Pulitzer prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, to come with her. He waited in a nearby coffee shop while she went off to her publishers in a state of “total meltdown”. Her editor still didn’t think the book was ready, but suddenly an idea “just popped” into Korelitz’s head, and she began outlining a story that she barely knew herself. “I’d gone into that meeting unable to sell one novel and apparently I had left with a two-book deal, which I’ve never had before.”

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Jul 23, 2021

Widespread Panic by James Ellroy; People Like Them by Samira Sedira; Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby; The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell; and Whitethroat by James Henry

King of macho noir James Ellroy has taken time out midway through his second LA Quartet for a standalone novel, Widespread Panic (William Heinemann, £20). Star of the show is Fred Otash, a real-life police officer turned PI and collector of celebrity scuttlebutt for Confidential magazine, who died of a coronory in 1992. Using pile-driving alliteration – Old English epic meets 50s scandal rag – Otash recounts from purgatory his life in postwar Hollywood when, fuelled by a potent cocktail of Dexedrine and Old Crow bourbon, he dug and (for a suitable fee) sometimes reburied dirt on the real-life stars of the day. He also embroiled himself in their lives, arguably breaking his own rules (“I’ll do anything short of murder. I’ll work for anyone but the Reds”) in the process. The various plot strands include arranging Rock Hudson’s marriage blanc, protecting Jack Kennedy’s political career and turning police informer, but these are only a few landmarks in a sleazy landscape of dirty laundry, some already well aired, some less known and some invented. Cynical, relentless, and – to Ellroy fans, at least – familiar territory, but well worth the read.

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Jul 23, 2021

The author on his envy of Philip Pullman’s world, imitating Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and struggling with Don Quixote

The book I am currently reading
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. He has pulled off the most extraordinary thing, of putting the reader inside an artificial mind. He makes it look so easy.

The book that changed my life
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I read it right before my final department exams (art history) in my senior year in college and was so smitten that I attempted to imitate its style on my exam answers, with predictable results. This book might be the reason I’m not an art historian.

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Jul 23, 2021

Twelve essays drawing on years of research into artificial intelligence ask challenging questions about humanity, art, religion and the way we live and love

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, a scientist creates life and is horrified by what he has done. Two centuries on, synthetic life, albeit in a far simpler form, has been created in a dish. What Shelley imagined has only now become possible. But as Jeanette Winterson points out in this essay collection, the achievements of science and technology always start out as fiction. Not everything that can be imagined can be realised, but nothing can be realised if it hasn’t been imagined first.

Take artificial intelligence. For now AI is a tool that we train to address specific tasks such as predicting the next Covid wave, but plenty of people have imagined that it could be something categorically different: a multitasking problem-solver whose capacity to understand and learn is equal or superior to ours. Many labs are working on this concept, which is called artificial general intelligence (AGI), and it could be a reality within decades. That’s how far imagination in technology has brought us. What can the artistic imagination add?

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Jul 22, 2021

A marvellous, confounding debut that moves from eerie Vietnamese forests to rundown zoos and crowded nightclubs


The twin spectres of colonialism and sexualised violence lurk in the humid Vietnamese air as two-headed snakes slither underfoot in Violet Kupersmith’s marvellous and confounding debut novel. Build Your House Around My Body is structured around the disappearance of 22-year-old Winnie, a Vietnamese American who arrives in Saigon in 2010 to teach English and ostensibly reconnect with her heritage. Yet the self-effacing, anxious Winnie seems more intent on drowning her inhibitions in meaningless sex and lukewarm beer. She feels an affinity neither with her expat colleagues nor the locals, but with the stray dogs who roam her street, “rangy and keen jawed and encrusted with ticks ... mixed breeds, like she was, and dirty like she was too”. Neither white nor Asian enough to feel comfortable with either designation, Winnie’s biracial identity renders her a perpetual outsider burdened by microaggressions and self-loathing.

Interwoven with Winnie’s story are spooky vignettes taking place in the days and decades before and after her vanishing. In some of the novel’s most thrilling and original sections, we follow ghost hunters from the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co in 2011, encounter a Vietnamese French schoolboy left on a mountain as the Japanese launch their coup in 1945, and meet a trio of childhood friends in the early 90s – the bland brothers Tan and Long, who pine for the headstrong and rather caricaturish Binh.

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Jul 22, 2021

Once There Was a Bear by Jane Riordan and Mark Burgess will channel the original books’ voice and pictorial style using details from Christopher Robin’s real life

The story of how Winnie-the-Pooh went from a Harrods toy shelf to the home of Christopher Robin and the Hundred Acre Wood is set to be told for the first time, in an official prequel to AA Milne’s original stories.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Once There Was a Bear has been written in the style of Milne by children’s writer Jane Riordan, with illustrations by Mark Burgess emulating the original drawings of EH Shepard. It is the first prequel to Milne’s books and poetry about the bear, and has been authorised by the estates of both Milne and Shepard.

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Jul 22, 2021

Often the best ideas come from people who are not politicians – like the footballer’s campaign to feed hungry children, writes MP Jess Phillips

The accusation that someone is “playing politics” has become a regular slur among my political opponents. Most recently, Natalie Elphicke, who succeeded her husband as MP for Dover while he was under suspicion of sexual offences, accused Marcus Rashford of “playing politics”, suggesting that his desire to speak up about hungry schoolchildren had harmed his football skills and taken his eye off the ball.

The suggestion here is, of course, that politics is solely the pursuit of politicians and that when other people get involved, they are merely acting out a childish game. In fact, Rashford plays politics considerably better than Elphicke, because unlike her, he has led campaigns that galvanised a million people and changed government policy, and has a direct line to the prime minister. I’ll wager he is also better at kicking a ball. Two nil to Rashford.

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Jul 22, 2021

A debut collection from a writer with an outsize gift for metaphor is almost too self-aware

In a rundown shared house “that other people thought romantic”, a woman is sitting on a bed, chatting to a friend. They are young, not long out of college, self-conscious; she is drifting through the summer, composing emails to her high-school English teacher, wondering if her friend, if she told him, would think this to be “in character”. “I knew I should permit myself uncharacteristic actions, but when I did act – and in general I thought about acting more than I acted – I wanted to know if I was acting like me.” Above them, “the remnants of a glow-in-the-dark solar system clustered around the overhead light … The adhesive on the stars was slowly coming off. A comet’s tail wilted, Saturn’s rings peeled at the edges.” Sometimes, when she wakes up in the morning, there’s “a star or an orb or a planet’s ring on the pillow beside me. I had to remind myself not to make everything into a metaphor.”

In this debut collection, Clare Sestanovich displays both an outsize gift for metaphor (over and again, the seemingly mundane arriving with arms full of meaning) and for what is not quite irony, but a kind of invisible running commentary: a flattering nudge to the reader that only deepens the effect. So, early in the first story, “Annunciation”, a young woman about to graduate from college dates a virgin. “Exams are over, and no one has anything left to do except go to parties and throw things away.” The reader will assume this includes virginity, so the narrator adds, deliberately, “On the sidewalk, there are lamps without lampshades and posters without frames”, which only underlines the point.

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Jul 21, 2021

Two urgent and fascinating accounts from the frontlines show how scientists succeeded, and failed, at saving us from Covid-19

What did you do in the pandemic, Mummy and Daddy? Memoirs by battered veterans of the Covid-19 wars are likely to be a growth industry in the coming year. These two, among the first, are both revelations in their own way. Vaxxers, by the two women who led the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine, is a tale of hard work and victory against steep odds, a unique insight into vaccines generally – especially eye-opening, I suspect, for anyone worrying that Covid jabs were made too fast, or that we don’t know what’s in them (the book includes a list of ingredients, with explanations).

Spike, a top scientific insider’s account of the political handling, and mishandling, of England’s pandemic, is a different tale entirely. That tale isn’t over, either, as Boris Johnson was determined to lift all pandemic controls, despite rising cases and scientists’ appalled protests. His insistence on making Covid control an individual choice – an absurdity when infectious disease is by its very nature profoundly a collective problem – simply confirms one of Spike’s main messages: from the start, people died unnecessarily in England because political leaders rejected any science that didn’t suit their extreme libertarian ideology.

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Jul 21, 2021

Far from the outdated stereotype of mafia domination, these works reveal an island of great variety and rich culture

For decades, articles about Sicily were invariably accompanied by grim, black and white images of bloodied streets and exploded cars. The island was synonymous with Cosa Nostra, whose violent rule eclipsed all else. Organised crime is still a problem, yet thankfully some progress has been made. Today, democratically minded Sicilians are gaining influence against considerable odds. Culture and tourism are key to their vision of the future. Ever since Unesco recognised Palermo’s Arab-Norman buildings as sites of Outstanding Universal Value in 2015, institutions have been scrambling to valorise other lesser-known heritage. The baroque villas of Ragusa and Noto, which had long been left in decline, are now being restored to their former glory. Publishing houses are commissioning anthologies of forgotten medieval and Renaissance writers, art galleries are organising exhibitions about underrated modernist artists, while chefs and restaurateurs are rebranding the island’s vegetable-rich cuisine to appeal to a growing vegan customer base.

My book The Invention of Sicily offers one itinerary through this rich culture. But it is by no means definitive. As the novelist Gesualdo Bufalino once put it, Sicily is not “a homogeneous blob of race and customs”, but a place where “everything is mixed, changing, contradictory, just as one finds in the most diverse, pluralistic of continents”. With that in mind, I’ve chosen 10 books that show the island’s miscellaneous character, leaving the mafia in the margins where it belongs:

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Jul 21, 2021

The bestselling author of I Am Not Your Baby Mother is back, with a collection of frank and funny essays about money, friendship and the things some women will do to their hair

Candice Brathwaite leaves no doubt about who she thinks of as Sista Sister’s audience. “I want black girls and women to read my books and to know that first and foremost, I am entering a dialogue with them”, she writes in her introduction. Placing the black female experience at the centre of her writing is a project she began in the bestselling I Am Not Your Baby Mother, and she continues it admirably in this new collection of essays.

Sista Sister is arranged into 11 punchy lessons, in which Brathwaite recounts experiences from her past and what she has learned from them. She writes “On Friendship”, “On Colourism” and “On Money”, for example, breaking the book into chapters that can be read in order or dipped into at will. Her writing is direct, accessible and in parts, very funny – little changed from the approachable style that originally made her so beloved on social media.

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Jul 20, 2021

The narrator of this ingenious fable about Germany, nationalism and the tides of history is a century-old Joseph Roth novel


The Austrian writer Joseph Roth, best remembered for his masterpiece Radetzky March, anticipates several of its themes in his third novel, Rebellion, first published in 1924. It tells the story of Andreas Pum, a survivor of the first world war who has “lost a leg and been given a medal”. The book is at once grainily realistic and a kind of parable, and shows how an initially accepting spirit is turned towards fury by disappointment. Pum clings to life only “in order to rebel: against the world, against authorities, against the government, against God”.

For his 10th novel, Hugo Hamilton, the son of a German mother and an Irish father, has seized on Rebellion as a way of developing Roth’s preoccupations with the heartlessness of state politics while deepening his own commitment to writing about nationalism and identity. He uses the adventurous device of employing a copy of the first edition as his narrator. “I came to life,” it tells the reader, “between the wars ... Between what was first thought to be the fields of honour and later became the fields of shame.” The Pages is a peculiar sort of audio book, ingeniously sympathetic to its inspiration.

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Jul 20, 2021

This brilliant debut collection explores the intensity of teenage ennui and female friendship, with a deft feel for its slights and tensions

Almost without exception, the gorgeous, clever short stories in Lizzy Stewart’s It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be are preoccupied with girlhood, as seen through the eyes of women who are now old enough and wise enough to understand all the stuff that was once beyond their comprehension. Several touch on place and the idea of escape, and at least one explores, quite brilliantly, how women are both seen, and not seen, out in the world. The very best of them, however, encompass both teenage boredom, the fretful ennui that we tend to mourn as adults even as we recall how we longed to escape it, and the special intensity of female friendships, particularly those that go all the way back to the awkward, geeky years before we reinvented ourselves.

If Stewart, a London-based illustrator who teaches at Goldsmiths, intended this collection of comics, her first, to be a showcase of her talents, then she should soon be deluged by fantastic commissions. She can do everything. Sometimes, she’s plangent in black and white; sometimes, she’s vivid in full colour. One minute, you look at her drawings and think of Isabel Greenberg, that great weaver of modern mythologies; the next, you find she has brought Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) or the Israeli artist Rutu Modan irresistibly to mind. But there’s a certain consistency here, too. So much goes unsaid. She is so good at capturing ellipses and difficult silences, the way people talk at cross purposes. And her way with time is incredibly deft. In one story, set at a wedding reception, two women talk for the first time in many years, the weight of which you feel in every frame. In another, a couple of young women meet up in a pub. One lives elsewhere now, having left for university. Their conversation begins with jolliness and ease, but rapidly descends into inadvertent slights and hurt.

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Jul 19, 2021

This fascinating insight into our relationship with mind-altering plants weaves personal experimentation with cultural history

Michael Pollan has written for many years, brilliantly, about our relationship with food and farming, in particular for the New York Times. In 2018, in what seemed like a midlife departure, he published a book on “the new science of psychedelics”, which was a personal report on renewed scientific interest in experiments with LSD and Ayahuasca, after decades of taboo. Pollan saw no change of direction in that project, however; he insisted to me at the time that it was simply a natural evolution of his “abiding interest in how we interact with other plant and animal species and how they get ahead in nature by gratifying our desires”. The desire to change consciousness was a fundamental element of that relationship, he suggested. This book, which concerns our species’ symbiotic entanglements with three other potent plant-derived substances – opium, caffeine and mescaline – is a further development of a lifelong inquiry, which began, he writes, when he took up gardening as a teenager and attempted to grow cannabis.

His essays on perhaps the three most dramatically efficacious medicinal compounds proceed in a similar way, weaving personal experimentation with each of the “drugs” into informed histories of the ways in which they have taken such a hold of different human cultures. At the root of each case study is a pair of questions: the first asks why, as a species, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to propagate and disseminate these consciousness-changing molecules, and the second is why they are subject to paranoia and regulation in differing degrees.

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Jul 19, 2021

A defiant assertion of the poet’s power to overcome physical separation from her beloved

Sonnet Six from Sonnets from the Portuguese

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore –
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

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Jul 19, 2021

A female architect’s life is destroyed by a supernatural entity in a seductive and disturbing novel first published in 2003

Harpies, doppelgangers, possessive spirits: once confined to horror writing, these supernatural entities prowl the pages of literary fiction with increasing confidence. In the past couple of years, novelists such as Daisy Johnson, Megan Hunter and Helen Phillips have harnessed them to probe female passions and frustrations, but Sara Gran beat them to it in 2003.

Newly reissued, her lean, seductively mean novel Come Closer evokes a turn-of-the-millennium world in which thirtysomethings could still afford urban lofts and mobile phones hadn’t become ubiquitous. The compromises and contortions required to succeed as a woman, however, haven’t aged a bit.

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Jul 19, 2021

From This Land Is Our Land to Why Rebel, the message is that if we take heed of the natural world, we can heal ourselves

English nature writing can be a bit polite. Decorating nature with adjectives has become something of a fashion in the last decade, but there are some books whose verve is a wildflower seed bomb to the neat lawns of English prose.

Principal among these are any of the books written by the magus of human experience in the wild, Jay Griffiths. From Wild, to Kith, to Why Rebel, her latest collection of essays, there is an energy in her words that feels like being chased by wolves. Best of them all is Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, which describes with hyperreal force the electrical storms of the mind, the eerie twilight of mania.

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Jul 19, 2021

This lyrical dive into rock pools illuminates the interconnectedness of all natural habitats

There’s a WTF moment about a third of the way through Adam Nicolson’s new book, The Sea Is Not Made of Water. The first chapters largely follow in the footsteps of his last book of nature writing, The Seabird’s Cry, applying the same characteristic form of lyrical scientific investigation into the creatures of the rock pool that he’d deployed on the birds of the cliffs and wide oceans. The opening section of this book is called Animals and we leap from sand hopper to winkle to prawn, understanding the complex interconnectedness of these underexamined lives, learning a new and perspective-altering fact on every page. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a chapter on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.

It’s a segment of exquisite beauty, a bravura act of writing that seems not only to provide a model for the rest of this book, but changes the way you understand the whole dizzying Nicolson oeuvre. This is a writer who has moved from memoir to literary criticism to nature writing via The Mighty Dead, one of the best books on Homer ever written. In his chapter on Heraclitus, Nicolson reads a rock pool through the work of the great philosopher, bringing to the crucible of tidal life “a systemic understanding whose wholeness relies on its union of opposites”. We begin to understand that the thread that links Nicolson’s books is precisely this – a philosopher’s wish to provide a way of comprehending the place of the individual in a vast and shifting world, the quest for a good life, the search for new answers to old questions.

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Jul 18, 2021

Wolff concludes his jocular trilogy of books about the chaotic Trump administration by absolving the former president of blame

Prohibited from tweeting, Trump still has Michael Wolff as his megaphone. Landslide is Wolff’s third book in as many years on a man he despises but whose absurd antics he can’t help enjoying. Other Trump chroniclers worry about his glowering autocratic menace or his haphazard approach to governance. For Wolff, who began his career on the Hollywood Reporter, not the Washington Post, such liberal qualms are secondary. He sees Trump not as a political phenomenon but as the monstrous spawn of showbiz and PR – an exhibitionistic performer whose only talent is for self-advertisement and who, like many other celebrities, has made a career out of behaving badly.

Wolff is exasperated by the determination of the Democrats to impeach Trump all over again after 6 January

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Jul 18, 2021

This immersive novel, expanded from a story in the New Yorker, follows a New Mexico household facing challenges and chances of redemption

The Five Wounds began life in 2009, as a story in the New Yorker. In the run-up to Easter, in a village in New Mexico, Amadeo – a 33-year-old unemployed, deadbeat alcoholic who lives with his mother – is preparing to be Jesus in a ritual re-enactment of the crucifixion. He carries the cross and then has his hands nailed to it in front of the watching crowd, which includes his 15-year-old daughter, Angel, who is eight months pregnant.

Quade was asked by her editor if she’d considered turning the story into a novel; she thought it was finished, yet found herself repeatedly coming back to the same family dynamics. And so The Five Wounds returns as a fully formed novel about three generations striving for the redemption that Amadeo aims for and misses in spectacular fashion on the cross. Quade picks up her story with Angel’s frustrated reaction to her father’s display: what she really needs is a dad who can actually help her, not perform empty gestures. How will he hold the baby with holes in his hands?

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Jul 18, 2021

Two weighty books on the debate around gender-critical feminism and transgender rights strike different tones

Last month, the Royal Academy dropped the feminist artist Jess de Wahls’s work from its gift shop after objections to her views on trans rights. To some, it looked like a textbook case of so-called “cancel culture”, in which anyone challenging the idea that trans women are women in the fullest possible sense supposedly risks a career-ending backlash. But the story did not end there. After a flood of emails from women threatening to boycott the Academy’s exhibitions in protest, the institution swiftly un-cancelled De Wahls, who is now swamped with orders. Something, in short, seems to be shifting.

And that broadly fits the thesis of the Economist writer Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, which argues that a tide is now turning. She sees support for the idea that individuals can change biological sex as a “crony belief”, one people mostly hold to look good in front of others, and that may be dropped quite easily if enough of those others start publicly challenging it. As the former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, vilified for arguing that trans athletes shouldn’t compete in female sporting categories, puts it: “It’s not that people disagree with me, it’s that they’re frightened of the activists.” Since recent YouGov polling finds falling numbers of Britons strongly agreeing that “a transgender woman is a woman”, and rising numbers either somewhat disagreeing or only somewhat agreeing, Joyce may be right about the broad trajectory of public opinion. Whether you find that heartening or terrifying determines whether you’ll want to read both this book and Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, or throw them across the room.

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Jul 18, 2021

A young woman struggles to find a home and stable job in a smart and acerbic debut that inverts the coming-of-age arc

Set during the pre-Brexit tumult that did for Theresa May and anointed Boris Johnson, this cerebral and slyly caustic debut is told by an unnamed young woman of colour who, born under the New Labour mantra of “education, education, education”, belongs to a hyper-qualified yet precariously employed cohort that has found itself having to foot the bill for the recklessness of a deregulated banking industry. All she wants is a stable job and a place of her own. Yet, three degrees down the line, it remains a pipe dream – something she refuses to accept.

We meet her as she moves into a student residence at Oxford for a short-term contract as a postdoctoral research assistant in English. Later, she lands a job as subeditor on a London society magazine resembling Tatler (where, the dust jacket tells us, Hamya once worked), using up her day rate to rent someone’s sofa while ignoring her mother’s pleas to move back home or, as she sees it, give up.

As in Ali Smith’s Summer and Will Burns’s The Paper Lantern, both set during the first lockdown, verbatim snatches of headlines and speeches waft through the text, from backstop quarrels to Johnson’s leadership victory address, preserving the recent past as if to assure us the last three years weren’t some kind of collective hallucination. The narrative itself – part campus novel, part office satire – unspools largely as a sinuously discursive meditation comprising the narrator’s tart exchanges with other mostly unnamed characters, from a Leave-voting fellow postdoc to a senior colleague who patronisingly recalls railing against Thatcher (“all I see from your generation is a lot of shouting on Twitter”).

Her reflexive despair over Brexit is subjected to a withering scrutiny that we aren’t invited to dismiss out of hand

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Jul 18, 2021

The award-winning Turkish-British writer, whose new book explores love and politics in Cyprus and London, talks about generational trauma, food in exile and how heavy metal helps her write

If trees could talk, what might they tell us? “Well,” says the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak, smiling at me over a cup of mint tea, her long hair a little damp from the rain. “They live a lot longer than us. So they see a lot more than we do. Perhaps they can help us to have a calmer, wiser angle on things.” In unison, we turn our heads towards the window. We’re both slightly anxious, I think, Shafak because she arrived for our meeting a tiny bit late, and me because this cafe in Holland Park is so noisy and crowded (we can’t sit outside because yet another violent summer squall has just blown in). A sycamore or horse chestnut-induced sense of perspective could be just what the pair of us need.

Shafak, who is sometimes described as Turkey’s most famous female writer, has a reputation for outspokenness. A fierce advocate for equality and freedom of speech, her views have brought her into conflict with the increasingly repressive government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In person, however, you get no immediate sense of this. Gentle and warm, her voice is never emphatic; she smiles with her (green) eyes as well as her mouth. And while her new novel, The Island of Missing Trees – her first since the Booker-shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – is certainly political, its themes to do with violence and loss, it’s also a passionate love story, one of whose most important characters just happens to be – yes – a gentle and sagacious tree.

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Jul 17, 2021

Russian hacking, smear campaigns and livestreamed massacres are the price of Mark Zuckerberg’s quest for connectivity, grippingly probed by two New York Times journalists

How many books are there about Facebook? I’ve lost count. Many of them belong to the genre of the “insider” story – by an early investor in the company, perhaps; or by a supposed intimate of its founder and Supreme Leader; or by an ex-employee with a bad conscience for the societal damage for which he (and it’s always a he, by the way) has been responsible; or (occasionally) by a vigorous critic of social media such as Siva Vaidhyanathan or Franklin Foer.

I’ve read most of these and so approached An Ugly Truth with a degree of scepticism on account of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. For one thing, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of experienced New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer prize. Much more importantly, though, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if this is an “insider” account, it’s better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre.

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Jul 17, 2021

The Labour MP on the sit-down strike she organised in primary school, how she copes with death threats and what she reads to relax

Jess Phillips, 39, has been Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015 and is an outspoken crusader for women’s rights. She is married to a former lift engineer and they have two sons. Her new book, Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life As an MP, is a robustly autobiographical, entertaining attempt to demystify life in Westminster. Her mission is to enlighten the indifferent about what she does for a living, and why politics matter.

Have you always been outspoken? I bet you were a handful as a child – what did you protest about?
My parents had two older teenagers, so I flew under their radar. I probably was a handful but was seen as a bossy madam. At primary school, I was really good mates with a young black lad called Leon Burnett. I remember vividly a teacher scolding him for something he hadn’t done. I organised a sit-down strike in the playground. I was 10. The strike didn’t work, I got into trouble and had to stand with my face to the wall.

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