Alex Preston’s best fiction of 2017

George Saunders’s moving Booker-winner lived up to his masterful short stories, Salman Rushdie turned his gaze on America, several debuts dazzled, and then there was Hollinghurst and Pullman…

This was the year in which George Saunders – long recognised as one of the masters of the short story – took on the novel. Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury £18.99), set in a Washington cemetery over the course of one tragic night, was a worthy winner of the Man Booker. Focusing on Lincoln’s grief at the death of his beloved son, Willy, the story is narrated by the carnivalesque ghouls who inhabit the graveyard. It’s as wildly imaginative and profoundly moving as anything I’ve read for a long time. Joining Saunders on the shortlist was another Great American Novel, Paul Auster’s 4321 (Faber £20). While it wasn’t roundly praised by critics, it feels like the kind of book that will ...

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively review – green fingers, silver trowels

Despite its strong focus on gardeners from the upper classes, Penelope Lively’s horticultural memoir is a book to treasure

When a really good book comes along, one of the things it does is to draw attention to the absence of such a book on your shelves before it arrived. I hadn’t really thought much about the state of the once venerable art of garden writing until I read Life in the Garden. It brought home to me how few recent gardening books come anywhere close to its style, intelligence and depth. I enjoyed Dan Pearson’s A Year in the Garden; Alys Fowler is always worth reading; I couldn’t care less about Monty Don’s gormless retrievers, but he does write stylish if faintly patrician prose when describing Longmeadow. Other than these worthy exceptions, garden books have become, as Penelope Lively herself points out, nothing more than “vehicles for lavish photography”.

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Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne review – worlds collide on the beach

This tale of two wealthy women coming across a Syrian refugee on their Greek beach holiday fails to convince

In a speech about the Arab spring at the Edinburgh world writers’ conference in 2012, the Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif questioned the place of the novel in the white heat of political turmoil. “Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple,” she said. “The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form… Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality, not as fiction.”

Five years later and the hopefulness of those early days has been lost amid the horrors of Syria and Libya, the watery deaths of refugees fleeing the bloodshed. Against this dismal backdrop, Soueif’s statement appears to hold largely true. There have been some ...

RisingTideFallingStar by Philip Hoare review – a love of the ocean wave

Part nature writing, part memoir and part travelogue, Hoare’s erudite and intimate account of his obsession with the sea is a masterpieceThere’s a radiant passage at the end of Philip Hoare’s prize-winning 2008 book Leviathan, where the author describes diving with a group of sperm whales off the Azores. He gazes into the ocean around him, endlessly deep, endlessly wide. “It was as if I were looking into the universe,” he writes. A vast whale swims towards him. “Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant and yet not quite.” Leviathan can be seen as the first in a loose trilogy – along with 2013’s The Sea Inside and RisingTideFallingStar – and this encounter feels like it encapsulates the impulse that animates each of the books. These are works of sublime self-dissolution. Continue reading...

RisingTideFallingStar by Philip Hoare review – a love of the ocean wave

Part nature writing, part memoir and part travelogue, Hoare’s erudite and intimate account of his obsession with the sea is a masterpieceThere’s a radiant passage at the end of Philip Hoare’s prize-winning 2008 book Leviathan, where the author describes diving with a group of sperm whales off the Azores. He gazes into the ocean around him, endlessly deep, endlessly wide. “It was as if I were looking into the universe,” he writes. A vast whale swims towards him. “Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant and yet not quite.” Leviathan can be seen as the first in a loose trilogy – along with 2013’s The Sea Inside and RisingTideFallingStar – and this encounter feels like it encapsulates the impulse that animates each of the books. These are works of sublime self-dissolution. Continue reading...

The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor review – an unexpectedly fascinating creature

This absorbing study of Britain’s fastest land mammal lacks the epiphanies of some nature writing but is replete with leporine loreA couple of years ago, two nature writers carried out a polite but pointed exchange in the pages of the New Statesman. They were Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane, and the argument – which came first in an essay by Cocker, then in a lucid response by Macfarlane – was about “the new nature writing”. Cocker’s contention was that the successful books published by the likes of Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and Kathleen Jamie were products of the library rather than the field – they privileged poetry over hard science. Macfarlane’s riposte spoke of the transformational power of good nature writing, of the way a well-turned sentence can “revise our ethical relations with the natural world”. I thought of this reanimation of CP Snow and FR Leavis’s old “Two ...

The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor review – an unexpectedly fascinating creature

This absorbing study of Britain’s fastest land mammal lacks the epiphanies of some nature writing but is replete with leporine loreA couple of years ago, two nature writers carried out a polite but pointed exchange in the pages of the New Statesman. They were Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane, and the argument – which came first in an essay by Cocker, then in a lucid response by Macfarlane – was about “the new nature writing”. Cocker’s contention was that the successful books published by the likes of Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and Kathleen Jamie were products of the library rather than the field – they privileged poetry over hard science. Macfarlane’s riposte spoke of the transformational power of good nature writing, of the way a well-turned sentence can “revise our ethical relations with the natural world”. I thought of this reanimation of CP Snow and FR Leavis’s old “Two ...