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Feb 17, 2021

The co-founder of Microsoft looks to science and tech to end climate crisis ... but can nations cooperate?

Bill Gates has changed our lives through his Microsoft software; he has improved countless lives through his foundation’s work to eliminate polio, TB and malaria; and now he proposes to help save our lives by combating climate change.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster details the transformation necessary to reverse the effects of decades of catastrophic practices. We need, Gates calculates, to remove 51bn tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere every year. Failing to do so would cost more than the 1.5 million lives already lost to Covid-19 and could cause, he calculates, five times more deaths than the Spanish flu a century ago.

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Feb 16, 2021

The long-awaited follow-up to The Raw Shark Texts falls into some plot holes, but remains ingenious fun

Thomas Quinn, the protagonist of Maxwell’s Demon, is a novelist who has failed both artistically and commercially; he is also the son of a great and famous writer, now dead. As the book opens, we find Thomas still haunted by his estrangement from his father – but even more so by another writer, the enigmatic genius Andrew Black, who was his father’s protege. Black’s only book, Cupid’s Engine, was a masterpiece and an industry-changing bestseller. Years ago, Black vanished after refusing to fulfil a publishing contract because his publisher would not agree to his demand that they never publish any ebooks again. The existence of ebooks, according to Black, is going to bring about the apocalypse.

Then Thomas receives a letter from Black that consists of a single line – What do you think this is? – with a photograph of a mysterious black sphere. Despite a warning from the agent he shares with Black (“He will walk you right over a cliff,” she says), Thomas sets out to find him and solve the mystery. Soon characters from novels are showing up in real life and entire towns are turning out to be fictional constructs. By the time Thomas is finished, everything he thinks he knows about the world will be shattered.

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Feb 16, 2021
Does a Tiger Come to Tea? Harriett Gilbert finds out
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Feb 16, 2021

The Seventy-Five Pages, out next month, contains germinal versions of episodes developed in In Search of Lost Time and opens ‘the primitive Proustian crypt’

For everyone who decided to bite the madeleine and read all 3,000-odd pages of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time during lockdown, what’s one more book? French publisher Gallimard has announced that it will be releasing a never-before-published work by the great French writer: Les Soixante-quinze feuillets, or The Seventy-Five Pages, on 18 March.

The texts in The Seventy-Five Pages were written in 1908, around the time Proust began working on In Search of Lost Time, which was published between 1913 and 1927. The papers were part of a collection of documents held by the late publisher Bernard de Fallois, who died in 2018. During his lifetime, De Fallois oversaw the posthumous publication of several Proust works including Jean Santeuil, Proust’s abandoned first novel from the 1890s.

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Feb 16, 2021

Who's Loving You is a vibrant new collection of romantic fiction from women of colour and boasts contributions from some of the most exciting contemporary literary voices. Featuring an introduction from the anthology's editor Sareeta Domingo, we are delighted to share an extract from Sara Collins's short story Brief Encounters.

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Feb 16, 2021

The British poet, inspired by the tale of a California couple who shared their home with a migrant, examines the nature of hospitality in this TS Eliot prize-winning book

Bhanu Kapil, poet and performance artist, recently won the TS Eliot prize for How to Wash a Heart. Kapil, born in Britain to Indian parents, recently returned to the UK after years in North America. She explains, in her afterword, how the work was triggered by a news item about a “couple in California who had offered a room in their home to a person with a precarious visa status”. Kapil was unsettled by the photograph of the citizen host in the newspaper, observing “taut muscles around her mouth as she smiled”. She felt “something I could not put words to when I read her ornate way of describing the hospitality she was offering”.

Finding the necessary words became Kapil’s project. In her earlier work, she has written about trauma in the south Asian diaspora. Here, trauma is amplified by displacement. There is a deliberately uncomfortable sense of breaking a taboo in being critical of hospitality, of seeing its – in this instance – self-serving complexity and nouveau colonialism. This is an extended song about “host-guest chemistry”, about mutinous dependence. By implication, it establishes that real hospitality should not be merely about food and shelter, let alone about a host’s self-congratulation. It should be about creating the conditions in which a guest can feel free.

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Feb 15, 2021

An account of a teenage affair with a teacher feels like therapy and lacks deep thinking

Teenagers are so vulnerable. Like ripe peaches, they’re too easily bruised. But Alisson Wood was more defenceless than most. At 17, she had already undergone ECT in an effort to treat her depression; beneath her clothes, her arms bore the marks of self-harm. If her American high school was a place to be endured – the other girls, in their locker-room sententiousness, had decided she was a “psycho” – home was hardly a refuge. Her parents, who would soon divorce, were more preoccupied with their own troubles than with those of their exhausting, Sylvia Plath-loving daughter.

Was this why the teacher chose her? Or was it simply that having been assigned to give her extra support, Mr North had an excuse for favouring Wood above other students? Either way, she was an easy target. At their first meeting, she took in his hair, which was too long, and his clothes, which were from Abercrombie & Fitch, as if he were a teenager, too, and felt stunned: “like an animal across a meadow”. Soon, she was meeting him every night at a diner in the next town. It was there that he gave her a copy of Lolita, his favourite novel. “This book is lust, yearning, and occupational hazards,” read his inscription, which I guess is one way of putting it.

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Feb 15, 2021

To celebrate the arrival of Klara and the Sun – the much-anticipated new novel from the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – we have a special treat for our readers. In this exclusive Q&A, Kazuo Ishiguro talks about Klara and her world and the inspiration behind this stunning story of artificial intelligence and human emotion. 

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Feb 15, 2021

A snowy night camped out under the stars provides the stage for a close encounter with a mysterious creature

Sleeping Out

No wind in the pines —
I didn’t believe the forecast
yet pulled my bivvy bag
part-way under the awning
where I could still see the stars.

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Feb 15, 2021

A young woman grapples with selfhood in the social media age in the combative American critic’s sharp debut novel

A danger for the debut novelist who makes her name writing combative book reviews is that, when it’s time to step into the arena, her targets’ friends, fans and flatterers will line up to throw rocks. Lauren Oyler, a critically active young American, comes bearing a reputation for shanking celebrated millennials in the likes of the New Yorker, LRB and Guardian. Her antipathy towards the “moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction” – a consistent pulse in her essays and reviews – seemed promising with regard to the fiction she was gearing up to produce. Rumours that her novel concerned a young woman’s relationship with a man from the wrong side of the internet led me, wishfully, to envision a foray into online cultures usually shadow banned from fiction’s ideologically monochromatic mainstream.

Fake Accounts is not that book (closer to it would be Hari Kunzru’s superb Red Pill). What it is, instead, is an unexpectedly playful portrait of a spiky, sceptical young woman grappling with questions of selfhood, narcissism and duplicity in the social media imperium. The seemingly Oyler-like narrator – more on her in a moment – does fall for a guy who, she discovers, secretly maintains a popular Instagram account pushing inane conspiracy theories. But that’s as far as it goes in terms of behind-enemy-lines internet incursions. The boyfriend’s second life is a MacGuffin that allows Oyler’s narrator to expatiate on her true theme: the amount of time she spends on her phone, and how bad this makes her feel.

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Feb 15, 2021

After being diagnosed with a severe respiratory illness, the poet was forced to live in isolation. Her response offers great insights into how to cope, writes her biographer

The expression of frustration could have been sent from any tier in travel-restricted Britain: “Where do you go in July? For me, I cant answer. I am longing to go to London, & hoping to the last. That is all. For the present, ... certainly the window has been opened twice – an inch – but my physician shakes his head or changes the conversation (which is worse) whenever London is mentioned. But if it becomes possible, I shall go – will go! Putting it off to another summer is like a never.”

In fact, it was mailed from Torquay in June 1840, by someone who had already spent two years in virtual lockdown there. Its recipient was Richard Hengist Horne, a literary man about town. Horne has since fallen into obscurity, but the letter writer would go on to become world famous as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of many pioneering works, including one of the best-known poems ever written, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”.

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Feb 14, 2021

This welcome reissue of the poet’s 1997 book about the ‘empress of the blues’ combines fact, personal memory and poetry to create an eloquent ‘herstory’

Blueswoman Bessie Smith was a complex character, a self-made superstar whose biography is often stranger than fiction. Her deeds became the stuff of legend. Smith was formidable, reputedly facing down single-handedly an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to burn down her show tent. But Smith sang of female suffering and lived out the tragedies of her songs, often in reverse order. Jackie Kay, author of this eloquent and emotive biography, underlines how frequently Smith wrote lyrics with terrible prescience.

Originally published in 1997, Kay’s biography was a joyous and formally daring undertaking. Then, it formed part of a series called Outlines, which sought to document “an unofficial, candid and entertaining short history of lesbian and gay art, life and sex”. Now, a Spice Girls reference dates it only momentarily: Bessie Smith remains an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.

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Feb 14, 2021
Elizabeth Day talks to actor Ethan Hawke about his new novel.
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Feb 14, 2021

A woman hanged for her part in a real-life 17th-century scandal narrates a scintillating exploration of female sexuality and class

Anne Turner, narrator and heroine of Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes, feels like she steps straight from the stage of a Jacobean masque. To an extent, she does. Turner, the widow of a London doctor, was a historical figure hanged at Tyburn for her part in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. She became an instant celebrity, vilified by contemporary playwrights. Turner was the subject of the anonymous play The Widow, and features in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The World Tossed at Tennis.

This is Jago’s first foray into adult fiction – having made her name with an award-winning biography of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (The Northern Lights) and a YA novel, Montacute House – and she presents a different, more sympathetic Turner. She concentrates on the friendship between Anne and Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, her fellow defendant in what would become known as the “Overbury scandal” in this superb exploration of female agency, sexuality and class in early 17th-century England.

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Feb 14, 2021

The British author weighs the worth of a writer’s life in this intimate blend of memoir and fiction

Narrated in the second person, this short autobiographical novel follows a black British writer living in Berlin. Dumped over dinner by the woman he loves – before his pizza has even arrived – he finds himself zigzagging between zestless dates and crying himself to sleep. He’s abused by racists online and in the street, and his freelance journalism doesn’t always pay the bills. Added pain comes from the fact that he is about to turn 40 – the age at which his father died in a helicopter crash during the civil war in 80s Uganda.

The thought of what his father, a noted surgeon, might have made of his career brings despair

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Feb 13, 2021

Two eminent voices on the climate crisis present clear strategies for tackling emissions, deniers and doomsayers

President Joe Biden has promised a new era of American leadership on global climate action, after four years of unscientific denial and misinformation under Donald Trump. Two important new books by prominent American authors, both written before the result of the presidential election was known, should help to capitalise on the new spirit of cautious optimism by laying out bold but well-argued plans for accelerating action against climate change.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates presents a compelling explanation of how the world can stop global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions effectively to zero. Gates and his wife, Melinda, are well known for their foundation’s tremendous work on improving health and tackling disease around the world, particularly in poor countries. It is this concern for the most vulnerable people on the planet that has meant Gates has occasionally appeared equivocal about climate and energy policies that he thought could undermine the fight against poverty and illness. However, this book lays out forcefully his understanding that the impact of climate change poses a far bigger threat to lives and livelihoods in developing countries – it is thwarting efforts to raise living standards because poor people, in every country, are the most at risk from droughts, floods and heatwaves.

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Feb 13, 2021

The Scottish crime writer on working in a newsroom in the 70s, coping with lockdown and the transformation of attitudes to gay couples in her home nation

Val McDermid, 65, is sometimes referred to as the queen of crime, and her triumphantly Scottish oeuvre is dubbed “tartan noir”. She has written four series, the best-known featuring clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill. She has sold more than 16m novels and been translated into 40 languages. Her latest, Still Life, now out in paperback, is tremendous, an effortlessly gripping read.

Why is it we relish violent crime in fiction that we would be appalled to encounter in real life?
Watching lightning strike in somebody else’s house can be almost talismanic – seeing off the possibility of evil in your own life. It can be comforting reading crime novels where endings offer resolution. I don’t mean that everything gets tied up with a neat little bow as in Agatha Christie novels – there are more flexible, open endings now – but something gets resolved.

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Feb 13, 2021

From Wentworth’s letter in Persuasion, to a bedside proposal in Tales of the City, authors share their favourite scenes of love and intimacy

Chosen by Kathy Lette, author of 14 comically romantic novels including HRT: Husband Replacement Therapy

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Feb 13, 2021

The bestselling novel was initially inspired by Nicholls studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a teenager – but he didn’t begin writing about Emma and Dexter for another 20 years

Sometime in the mid-80s I was studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles for A-level. Seventeen was the optimum age for doomed romance, and I still recall reading the passage in which Tess “noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year” and realised that, as well as a birthday, there was “a day which lay sly and unseen … that of her own death … giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it”. Hidden anniversaries! Days we pass through without knowing their significance! Perhaps I said “wow”. Certainly the notion seemed profound enough for me to talk about it at parties. I did well in the exam, less well at parties.

Twenty-two years later, I was struggling to find an idea for my third novel. A new parent approaching 40, I was predictably preoccupied with the question, how did we get from there to here? How do we become our adult selves, what changes and what stays the same? I thought I might write an epic love story on the theme, but 20 years of biography seemed unwieldy and intimidating. Besides, I was distracted by a dream screenwriting job, adapting Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the BBC. There it was again; that ordinary day that turns out not to be ordinary at all. Twenty set-piece scenes seemed far more manageable and by leaving out the obvious events – the first encounter, first kiss, the wedding days – perhaps the reader might be pulled forward, filling in the other 364 days as they went along.

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Feb 13, 2021

The bestselling Chilean American novelist talks about her foundation for women, laughing too much to write romance - and what she’s learned from her grandchildren

The Chilean American author Isabel Allende was a feminist long before she knew what the word meant. At the age of three, she saw her mother, Panchita, abandoned by her father and left to raise their three small children alone. Panchita moved back to her parents’ house in Santiago, where her father immediately took control of her finances. Following the annulment of her marriage, she was excommunicated by the church. Observing her mother’s disempowerment, the young Isabel railed against male authority. In her new book, The Soul of a Woman, she recalls her resentment as “an aberration in my family, which considered itself intellectual and modern but according to today’s standards was frankly Paleolithic.” Such was her fury, her mother took her to a doctor, suspecting colic or perhaps a tapeworm.

Allende, now 78, says she was frustrated on Panchita’s behalf but also at her refusal to stand up for herself. “She thought you couldn’t change what God had made this way,” she tells me. “When she saw me so willing to go out there and fight, she was scared and thought I would be ostracised. She was also worried I would never catch a husband. In my generation in Chile, if you didn’t have a formal engagement by age 23, you were a spinster.”

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Feb 13, 2021

The author’s new thriller revolves around a deadly neurotoxin. He talks about its parallels with the poisoning of Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny - and why today’s protests in his homeland give him hope

The Russian novelist Sergei Lebedev is currently based in Berlin. But it is the popular uprising in Moscow that hangs darkly over our conversation. Hours before we speak, protesters calling for the release of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny take to the streets in towns and cities right across Russia. The Kremlin’s response is a familiar one: thuggish violence.

The TV images make a Mordor-like tableau. Faceless riot police clash their shields together in a rhythmic display of power; demonstrators raise their arms in a plucky counter-clap. There are arrests, many thousands of them. Young men are savagely beaten and dragged through grey slush into waiting police vans. One sets himself alight in an apparent act of rebellion.

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Feb 13, 2021

The Guardian and publisher 4th Estate’s annual award for unpublished writers of colour offers £1,000 to the winner, and publication on theguardian.com

The Guardian and 4th Estate’s short story prize dedicated to writers of colour has been running for five years. And as Black Lives Matter protests and the subsequent boom in reading lists and publishers’ statements showed, more than ever, that UK publishing must do more to elevate and celebrate a more diverse range of voices in literature – every year, not just when it is in the news.

Back with a new name, the 4thWrite short story prize is open for entries for 2021, with all unpublished writers of colour invited to submit a short story of up to 6,000 words by 30 April. This year, the stories will be judged by Nelle Andrew, literary agent at Rachel Mills Literary; Liv Little, writer and founder of gal-dem; poet and playwright Inua Ellams; Aimée Felone, co-founder of the publisher Knights Of; Anna Kelly, the editorial director at 4th Estate; and Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s associate culture editor.

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Feb 12, 2021

A chain of letters links five refugees in the Lebanese writer’s searing prizewinner

“That country is now gone,” observes an unnamed woman in Voices of the Lost. “It is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase. To attempt to bring any of this back … could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.” The woman is waiting in a hotel in an unnamed European country for a lover she has not seen in decades. As the hours tick by, hope of reunion fades.

In the hotel directory, the woman finds a love letter written in Arabic. Its author reveals himself to be manipulative and abusive, but our nameless narrator feels a bond with him: “It was as if, as soon as my fingers even touched the page, I sensed that the man … [was] familiar, a person I already knew.” She begins a letter of her own.

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Feb 12, 2021

Rare pamphlet includes roistering criminal’s surprisingly enlightened attitude to the advances made to him by an innkeeper’s son

An “incredibly rare” deathbed confession from an 18th-century highwayman, written just before he was “hung in chains” for robbing the Yarmouth Mail and detailing his enlightened response to a failed gay seduction, has been acquired by Horsham Museum.

The Life of Thomas Munn, alias, the Gentleman Brick-Maker, alias, Tom the Smuggler runs to 24 pages and was printed in 1750. It is part of the once-popular genre of deathbed confessions, a precursor of true crime, and purports to be an autobiography handed by Munn to the Yarmouth gaoler on the morning of his execution on 6 April 1750.

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Feb 12, 2021

Becoming a parent for the first time can feel like a very daunting task. From (not) sleeping to feeding to getting the right baby monitor and crib, it can feel like there are a million different choices and that everything depends on making the right one, all the time. Fortunately, there are plenty of books out there that are packed full of sound advice and reassuring testimony from other mothers - here is our pick of the best of them.   

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