A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne review – deliciously dark

John Boyne has created an irresistible protagonist in this story of an aspiring young writer who will stop at nothing to succeed

As Picasso is once supposed to have said: good artists copy; great artists steal. It’s a motto by which Maurice Swift, the sociopathic and mesmeric antihero of John Boyne’s latest novel might well live his life.

Maurice is an aspiring young writer working as a hotel waiter in West Berlin in 1988 when he meets celebrated German novelist Erich Ackermann. Erich, a 65-year-old gay man who “had long ago given up on the idea of romance”, is our narrator for the first section of the novel. Intoxicated by Maurice’s “powerful blend of vitality and impulsive sexuality”, Erich invites the younger man to assist him on his international book tour, during which Maurice teases from Erich the story of his youth in Nazi Germany, his unrequited love for a ...

The Lido; The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes review – the power of unlikely friendships

Novels by Libby Page and Ruth Hogan each use odd couples to deal compassionately with themes of ageing, fear and grief

“Rosemary is 86 but in the water she is ageless.” In Libby Page’s moving debut, The Lido, swimming is both personal therapy and a great social democratiser. It is where the elderly can rewind time: “She is a young girl swimming in the morning under the watchful gaze of the big clock.” And the pool is where Kate, a lonely, shy reporter on the local newspaper and 60 years Rosemary’s junior, comes in an endeavour to conquer her panic attacks: “It is all around her, filling up the tiny cubicle… There is not enough air. Her lungs will not breathe like she wants them to.”

When their lido is threatened with closure, both women are profoundly affected. For Rosemary, her memories are put in jeopardy. ...

Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer-winner: ‘I have to watch I don’t get arrogant’

The US novelist on winning the big literary prize, anxiety at 3am and why gay characters deserve a happy ending

American writer Andrew Sean Greer is the author of six novels, including the bestselling The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Last month, he was awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction for his most recent novel, Less, a tragicomic story about the life, loves and disappointments of a 49-year-old writer. Greer divides his time between San Francisco and Tuscany, where he is executive director of the Santa Maddalena Foundation, a writers’ retreat.

How have the first few weeks been as a Pulitzer prize-winning author?
I’ve been very touched. I had seven Pulitzer winners contact me within 24 hours: Donna Tartt reached out to say congratulations and enjoy yourself. I have to watch out that I don’t get arrogant! I tipped into that last week and somebody called me out on ...

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao review – teenage trial by misogyny

Two Indian friends endure rape, prostitution and trafficking in a brutal, evocative yet slightly implausible debut

In the opening chapter of Shobha Rao’s debut novel, there is a tale about an old, childless woman who has cultivated a grove of trees in her Indian village “as a way to care for something, as a way to nurture something fragile and lovely”. When a journalist comes to interview her, and she says that she sees the trees as her children, he congratulates her on having so many sons. The woman replies: “You’re mistaken, young man. These aren’t my sons… These are my daughters.”

The cultural value of sons versus daughters and the human need to find something – or someone – to care for are themes that pervade Girls Burn Brighter.

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Ordinary People review – a deft portrait of marital angst

Two modern black couples add parenthood and marital woes to those of cultural identity in Diana Evans’s humorous, insightful novel

There is a moment in Diana Evans’s third novel when one character observes: “Marriage, it was all about the kids… The romantic love from which they sprang becomes an old dishevelled garden visited on rare occasions fuelled by wine and spurts of spontaneity, and the bigger, family love is where the bloom and freshness lie.”

The capacity of the four protagonists – two black couples in their 30s struggling to balance the demands of family life with the desire for independence and romantic love – to accept this shift in their relationships is at the heart of Evans’s thoughtful and intelligently observed novel.

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Gone Girl’s gone, hello Eleanor Oliphant: why we’re all reading ‘up lit’

With Gail Honeyman and Joanna Cannon on the Women’s prize for fiction longlist, uplifting stories about kindness and community are proving a hit on bestseller lists

Last week, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. The debut author, who has gone from writing competition to publishing bidding war to the Costa first novel prize, joins Joanna Cannon, with her second novel Three Things About Elsie. What’s more surprising than two relative newcomers sitting alongside heavyweights including Arundhati Roy and Nicola Barker is that these novels are decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers.

Branded “up lit” by publishers, novels of kindness and compassion are making their mark on bestseller lists, with Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things also proving a hit, and this summer’s The Lido by Libby Page continuing the positive trend.

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Gone Girl’s gone, hello Eleanor Oliphant: why we’re all reading ‘up lit’

With Gail Honeyman and Joanna Cannon on the Women’s prize for fiction longlist, uplifting stories about kindness and community are proving a hit on bestseller lists

Last week, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. The debut author, who has gone from writing competition to publishing bidding war to the Costa first novel prize, joins Joanna Cannon, with her second novel Three Things About Elsie. What’s more surprising than two relative newcomers sitting alongside heavyweights including Arundhati Roy and Nicola Barker is that these novels are decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers.

Branded “up lit” by publishers, novels of kindness and compassion are making their mark on bestseller lists, with Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things also proving a hit, and this summer’s The Lido by Libby Page continuing the positive trend.

Continue reading...

Gone Girl’s gone, hello Eleanor Oliphant: why we’re all reading ‘up lit’

With Gail Honeyman and Joanna Cannon on the Women’s prize for fiction longlist, uplifting stories about kindness and community are proving a hit on bestseller lists

Last week, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. The debut author, who has gone from writing competition to publishing bidding war to the Costa first novel prize, joins Joanna Cannon, with her second novel Three Things About Elsie. What’s more surprising than two relative newcomers sitting alongside heavyweights including Arundhati Roy and Nicola Barker is that these novels are decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers.

Branded “up lit” by publishers, novels of kindness and compassion are making their mark on bestseller lists, with Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things also proving a hit, and this summer’s The Lido by Libby Page continuing the positive trend.

Continue reading...

Gone Girl’s gone, hello Eleanor Oliphant: why we’re all reading ‘up lit’

With Gail Honeyman and Joanna Cannon on the Women’s prize for fiction longlist, uplifting stories about kindness and community are proving a hit on bestseller lists

Last week, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. The debut author, who has gone from writing competition to publishing bidding war to the Costa first novel prize, joins Joanna Cannon, with her second novel Three Things About Elsie. What’s more surprising than two relative newcomers sitting alongside heavyweights including Arundhati Roy and Nicola Barker is that these novels are decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers.

Branded “up lit” by publishers, novels of kindness and compassion are making their mark on bestseller lists, with Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things also proving a hit, and this summer’s The Lido by Libby Page continuing the positive trend.

Continue reading...

Gone Girl’s gone, hello Eleanor Oliphant: why we’re all reading ‘up lit’

With Gail Honeyman and Joanna Cannon on the Women’s prize for fiction longlist, uplifting stories about kindness and community are proving a hit on bestseller lists

Last week, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. The debut author, who has gone from writing competition to publishing bidding war to the Costa first novel prize, joins Joanna Cannon, with her second novel Three Things About Elsie. What’s more surprising than two relative newcomers sitting alongside heavyweights including Arundhati Roy and Nicola Barker is that these novels are decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers.

Branded “up lit” by publishers, novels of kindness and compassion are making their mark on bestseller lists, with Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things also proving a hit, and this summer’s The Lido by Libby Page continuing the positive trend.

Continue reading...

Three Things About Elsie review – the tricks of memory at an old folks’ home

Joanna Cannon’s new novel focuses on the mysteries of its protagonist’s past, but is at its best in its tender descriptions of those on the fringes of society

Joanna Cannon’s 2016 debut novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, was that rare literary phenomenon: a bestseller, swiftly optioned for TV and spawning a devoted readership. But beyond that, it was to lead a new publishing trend, latterly described as “uplit”: fiction in which empathy and kindness drive the narrative and where protagonists exist on the periphery of society, at best overlooked and at worst rejected entirely.

Cannon is now back with her second novel, which similarly explores the inner lives of society’s outsiders. Eighty-four-year-old Florence Claybourne is a resident at the Cherry Tree home for the elderly and is beset by both nostalgia and dementia: “My mind started to wander. It can’t help itself. It very often goes for ...

Turning for Home by Barney Norris review – great sensitivity

The acclaimed author’s latest novel sees two lives unravel as they wait in dread for a party to begin

Robert, a widower, is waiting at home for the arrival of his family and friends to celebrate his 80th birthday. His granddaughter, Kate, 25, waits with him. They are both dreading the forthcoming party. Robert – a senior civil servant at the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – receives an ominous phone call from a former colleague, saying they need to meet urgently. Kate has unfinished business of her own as she prepares to meet her estranged mother whose cruel treatment of Kate during childhood left her with chronic emotional issues. Both protagonists are prone to lengthy internal monologues, and the novel can feel a little uneven. That said, Norris, whose debut novel, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, received widespread praise, handles his themes – loneliness, ...

Love & Fame by Susie Boyt – going through the emotions

The novelist’s sixth outing is good on life’s great challenges but suffers from a tendency to be too clever with language

Halfway through Susie Boyt’s sixth novel, the protagonist, Eve, comes home to find her new husband reading Freud. They have a discussion about psychoanalysis, criminals and guilt in a scene that feels oddly self-referential given that Freud is the author’s great-grandfather and the scene serves little other purpose in the novel.

Love & Fame is a novel slightly ill at ease with its purpose throughout. It opens with Eve heading off on her honeymoon with new husband, Jim. Eve is a failed actress – highly strung, deeply neurotic and overindulged: “Her parents adored her. She knew they chatted about her endlessly – she was their weather, their politics, their sport… She was almost their religion.”

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin review – haunting and terrifying

This devastating debut novel about maternal sacrifice, eco-fear and supernatural goings-on demands an instant second reading

A young woman lies in a hospital bed with just hours left to live. Next to her, a boy urges her to remember what has brought her there in a riveting novel that is as devastating as it is profound.

In one way Fever Dream is simply a conversation between the woman, Amanda, and the boy, David. But this powerful and at times deeply sinister tale is anything but straightforward. The two characters inhabit a world in which ecological disruptions have led to catastrophic effects on a rural Argentinian community, not least on its children. There are elements of the supernatural and witchcraft that infuse the story with a sense of horror and, at times, terror. Amanda is frantic to find out what’s happened to her daughter, Nina, and is preoccupied with the notion ...

Tin Man by Sarah Winman review – an exquisitely crafted tale of love and loss

Two boys and a girl are caught up in a tender love triangle in the third novel from the author of When God Was a RabbitIn the prologue to Sarah Winman’s third novel, a woman defies her husband at the local community centre when, upon winning a raffle, she chooses as her prize not the whisky her husband desires but a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: “It was her first ever act of defiance. Like cutting off an ear. And she’d made it in public.” The transformative power of art and the untapped potential in quotidian lives are themes that pervade Tin Man. In a novel of two halves, the first narrator is 46-year-old Ellis, who works nights in the paint shop of an Oxford car plant, smoothing out dents so that no imperfection will ever be detected. Ellis had wanted to be an artist but ...

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell review – 1930s decadence in the Med

A grand tour of the social whirl of Maxine Elliott’s chateau on the Côte d’Azur – frequented by Churchill and Anthony Eden In 1930, American actress Maxine Elliott bought an unpromising piece of land on the Cote d’Azur – “a long 20-metre-wide strip of rocks lying between the sea and a stretch where the railway line and main highway ran next to each other”. To most people, it would have seemed uninhabitable, but to Elliott it had huge potential: a star of stage and screen she had, over the previous two decades, ingratiated herself into the favour of the upper echelons of English high society, and here she saw an opportunity to create a Mediterranean retreat befitting that social world. Over the following three decades the house Elliott built – the Chateau de l’Horizon – became synonymous with glamour and power. Elliott played host to politicians and royalty, from Anthony ...

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce review – hits all the right notes

Joyce’s heart-warming fourth novel follows a band of shopkeepers in the 80s struggling to halt redevelopment plansSince her bestselling debut in 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce has established a reputation for novels that celebrate the dignity and courage of ordinary people and the resilience of the human spirit. Her fourth novel, The Music Shop, is driven by the same impulse. Set in 1988, it follows record-shop owner Frank, who has a rare gift for music therapy: he can find the perfect piece to remedy any emotional or psychological woes his customers are suffering from. Continue reading...

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor review – courage in abundance

The late author and screenwriter contemplates the end of life in this eloquent, unflinching memoirWhen screenwriter and novelist Cory Taylor discovered that the cancer she’d been suffering from for a decade was no longer treatable, she began writing a book chronicling her thoughts on death: “You do reflect on your past when you’re dying… You have the urge to relate the story of your life for your children so that you can set the record straight.” The resulting memoir is an unflinching exploration into the experience, culture and language of dying. At the outset, Taylor confesses that she has acquired a euthanasia drug, which she doesn’t intend to use but which gives her “a sense of control”. What follows is an excoriating and unsentimental analysis of the laws preventing assisted suicide. Taylor has no desire to die alone, but neither does she dare risk implicating her loved ones ...