Rachel Kushner: ‘I’d say I stand with guilty people’

The US author on going behind bars to research her new novel, The Mars Room – and why Donald Trump is not the worst president

After the intercontinental sweep of her dazzling second novel, The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner has fixed upon a more circumscribed milieu for her third. The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) takes place in Stanville, a prison based upon California’s notorious Chowchilla, the biggest women’s jail in the world. The novel is largely told from the perspective of Romy, a young mother locked away for killing her stalker.

Kushner grew up in Oregon and California, the daughter of unconventional parents who had her working in a feminist bookstore from the age of five. She undertook a degree in political science at Berkeley at 16. She has twice been a finalist in the National Book awards. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer ...

Michael Chabon: ‘Parent properly and you’re doing yourself out of a job’

The Pulitzer prize-winner on combining writing with raising kids, his freakozoid tendencies and the authors he returns to

Michael Chabon is one of America’s best-loved writers, the author of nine novels, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which won the Pulitzer prize), Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Moonglow. In 2009, he published Manhood for Amateurs, a series of reflections on his early years as a father. Now, with Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, 54-year-old Chabon has collected his essays about parenting four teenagers.

A few years ago, Chabon’s wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, wrote a controversial essay for the New York Times in which she claimed to love her husband more than her children (and to be the only one of her married friends still having regular sex). Chabon’s meditations on fatherhood are less likely to offend – they’re generous, very Californian ...

The Drugs That Changed Our Minds by Lauren Slater – review

Twenty years after hailing antidepressants in her memoir Prozac Diary, a now jaded, sceptical Lauren Slater revisits the psychopharmacological industry – with uneven results

In Prozac Diary (1998), Lauren Slater wrote powerfully of the way fluoxetine had transformed her previously chaotic life. While the author recorded a handful of negative side-effects – a profound loss of libido, for instance – the reader was left with the sense that Prozac had pieced back together the shards of Slater’s existence. In some ways, The Drugs That Changed Our Minds is a sequel to that book. Slater is now in her mid-50s, recently divorced, and on a cocktail of antidepressants. She’s “a consumer of polypsychopharmacy”, having taken fluoxetine, venlafaxine, olanzapine, aripiprazole, clonazepam, lisdexamfetamine “and probably one or two other tablets I’m forgetting because there are so many”.

The book weaves between Slater’s personal history and a wide-ranging narrative of the development of the psychopharmalogical ...

The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher review – home truths and horrors abroad

Family life in Sheffield meets the brutal history of Bangladesh in Philip Hensher’s finest novel yet

Philip Hensher’s Ondaatje prize-winning Scenes from Early Life (2012) was a strange book. Ostensibly the lightly fictionalised story of his husband’s childhood, it was as much about the birth of a nation as the life of a man; or rather, perhaps, it showed how the two are often inextricable. To have been born in Bangladesh in 1970 was to be immersed in a struggle in which it was necessary to take sides. One of the themes that runs through Hensher’s latest novel, The Friendly Ones, is the staggering ignorance in Britain of the 1971 Bangladeshi genocide, and the book shows how the country’s brutal and divisive war with Pakistan left its traces down through generations, both at home and in the diasporic community.

The Friendly Ones is a novel of reflections. It ...

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala review – coming out and coming of age

The son of devoutly religious parents realises he is gay in Iweala’s tentative follow-up to the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation

Related: The gentrification of Washington DC: how my city changed its colours

It has been 13 years since Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published to extraordinary reviews and a slew of prizes. The book, the moving story of a child soldier, Agu, caught up in an African war of relentless brutality, was turned into a film starring Idris Elba. The film was as forgettable as the book was memorable, highlighting the really remarkable thing about Iweala’s novel – the daring and unusual rendition of the protagonist’s perspective and linguistic register (something that Cary Fukunaga was unable to convey in his film). Agu’s voice in the book is a pidgin English that is, at first, difficult to comprehend, but increasingly forges a kind of ...

The Only Story review – Julian Barnes goes back to Metroland

The author returns to the themes of his first novel in this story, of an affair told from two vantage points, with captivating results

When asked what he thought of his son’s books, Kingsley Amis said: “Martin needs to write more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room.’” Amis père would approve of many of the sentences in Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, which steps through familiar Barnesian territory, giving us the English suburbs, an aged protagonist looking back over an unfulfilled life, all told in deceptively affectless prose. It would appear that the muted critical response to Barnes’s dazzling meta-fictive portrait of the life of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, has persuaded him to return to the style and subject matter of the Man Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011).

The Only Story opens with a ...

Consent by Leo Benedictus and Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit – review

Two literary writers bring both thrills and psychological nuance to the subject of stalking

There is a whole sub-genre of novels about stalking, out there in the land where literary criticism fears to tread. Straddling the realms of both crime and erotica, you can see why it’s such rich territory for popular fiction. With a handful of notable exceptions, though – Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, James Lasdun’s fascinating but morally wonky Give Me Everything You Have, Patricia Highsmith (of course) – few serious authors have taken on the subject. Now two have arrived at once, both ostensibly thrillers, but each more nuanced and interesting than you might expect.

After a surprise bequest makes him fabulously rich, the unnamed narrator of Leo Benedictus’s Consent decides to spend his time stalking women. “I do secretly follow strangers on the street,” he says in his creepily ...

A Long Way from Home review – Peter Carey’s best novel in decades

The acclaimed writer’s 14th novel is a nuanced story of racial identity set in postwar Australia

Writers are by nature chameleons, with each new character a new disguise to take on, a fresh skin to inhabit. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that racial passing has such a rich literary history. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, is a near-forgotten classic, telling of two mixed-race women, Clare and Irene, who identify as white and black respectively. More recently, we’ve had Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which the African American Coleman Silk attempts to pass for a Jewish academic. Then there’s Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, whose concluding revelation about one of the characters’ racial identities does what all good end-of-book twists ought to, shedding new light on the entire novel.

A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey’s 14th novel, uses the story of a light-skinned Indigenous Australian who has ...

Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Leïla Slimani… the best fiction for 2018

…Rupert Thomson, Aminatta Forna and a clutch of brilliant debuts – the novels to look out for this year

It feels like 2018 has more than its share of debut novels to get excited about. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker) by Imogen Hermes Gowar nails the 18th century as convincingly as Francis Spufford in Golden Hill, but with supernatural elements that bring to mind Susannah Clarke and Sarah Perry. More fantastical still is Zoe Gilbert’s Folk (Bloomsbury), out in February. Set on an uncanny island called Neverness, the interlocking stories build into a novel that is that rare thing: genuinely unique. It’s part-myth, part-allegory, wholly wonderful.

Peach (Bloomsbury Circus) by Emma Glass is a short and brutal tale of sexual assault and its resulting traumas that carries clear echoes of Eimear McBride. It’s a harrowing story but the language is scintillating, the emotional heft remarkable. Equally powerful ...

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”.

...

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 ...

House of Names by Colm Tóibín – brilliant retelling of a Greek tragedy

The writer takes us behind the scenes of The Oresteia in ‘a celebration of what novels can do’When Peter Hall staged Aeschylus’s The Oresteia at the National in 1981, his all-male cast wore long, ghoulish masks for the nearly six-hour duration of the trilogy. The masks served partly to illustrate the distance between these ancient figures and their modern spectators, some two-and-a-half millennia later. They also, though, made the point that Aeschylus’s characters were not characters at all, at least as we might understand the term. They were elemental figures in a morality play about the progress of a society from chaos into civilisation, a play that sought to establish new rules about the relationship between gods and men. House of Names, Colm Tóibín’s ninth novel, is ostensibly a retelling of The Oresteia through the voices of its principal characters – Clytemnestra and her children, Orestes and Electra. ...

How real books have trumped ebooks

The digital revolution was expected to kill traditional publishing. But print books are ever more beautifully designed and lovingly cherishedBooks have always had a fetishistic quality to them, with their dusty secretiveness. Now, though, it feels like we’re living through a special moment in the history of book design and beautiful books are everywhere. Take George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo with its marmoreal endpapers or Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, with its cover inspired by mosaic from the Imam mosque at Isfahan; Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, its sumptuous jacket inspired by the tiles of William Morris; 4th Estate’s gorgeous repackaging of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s backlist, based on vibrant African headwrap patterns; the glimmering Penguin Hardcover Classics reissue of the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, or its clothbound editions of Austen, Brontë and Dickens. It’s hard to know whether to read these books or caress them. Continue reading...

How real books have trumped ebooks

The digital revolution was expected to kill traditional publishing. But print books are ever more beautifully designed and lovingly cherishedBooks have always had a fetishistic quality to them, with their dusty secretiveness. Now, though, it feels like we’re living through a special moment in the history of book design and beautiful books are everywhere. Take George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo with its marmoreal endpapers or Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, with its cover inspired by mosaic from the Imam mosque at Isfahan; Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, its sumptuous jacket inspired by the tiles of William Morris; 4th Estate’s gorgeous repackaging of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s backlist, based on vibrant African headwrap patterns; the glimmering Penguin Hardcover Classics reissue of the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, or its clothbound editions of Austen, Brontë and Dickens. It’s hard to know whether to read these books or caress them. Continue reading...