The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack review – a vivid closeup of island life

From breakup to crofting … this restrained debut captures the emotional journey of a man who returns home to remote Shetland and the viewpoints of the people who live there

A writer’s career is like any other career: some people get going early, get lucky and go straight to the top; others take a little time to find their way; some of us are forever stopping off, becoming waylaid or detained; and some never follow an obvious path.

The Valley at the Centre of the World is Malachy Tallack’s third book, and even now it’s difficult to know which direction he is going to take. Originally from Shetland, he has returned again and again in his books to the question of islands and isolation. His first, 2015’s 60 Degrees North, was a classic young man’s travelogue, with added grit. His second, an illustrated guide to imaginary and invented islands, ...

Patient X by David Peace review – portrait of a tortured artist

‘The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’ presents 12 scenes from the life of the writer known as the father of the Japanese short story

We expect biographies to portray events in the real lives of real people; we expect novels to portray imaginary events in the lives of imaginary people. David Peace is not a writer who obeys the usual conventions and assumptions: his work defies expectations.

Peace is best known for the Red Riding quartet, his ferocious series of novels set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, and for his football novel The Damned Utd, the only truly great novel ever likely to be written about Brian Clough. He has lived for most of his adult life in Tokyo and several of his most recent works have been about post-second world war Japan. His new book engages with Japan in an entirely new and unexpected way. ...

The best stocking-filler books of 2017

We pore over tomes for the coffee table, plus almanacs, anthologies and rappers’ offerings on food and hip-hop

And so they emerge again, washed up like an unwanted box of Guylian chocolates on the far distant shores of Amazon, Waterstones and the remaining independent bookshops: the seasonal range of novelty books, coffee table books, quirky reference books and the otherwise unclassifiable and unreviewable. How to sort the shiny, pretty things from the dreck and the dross; what to gift, regift and give to yourself?

Coffee table-wise, there is the usual choice, from the likes of Vogue: The Covers (Abrams), which is astonishingly heavy, to Agata Toromanoff’s Couples in Art (Ullmann), which might make a nice ironic gift for an ex, and Chris Roberts’ Beyoncégraphica (Aurum), which is an infographic-style biography of Beyoncé. Outstandingly rare and precious is Polly Devlin’s New York: Places to Write Home About (Pimpernel), a peek into the ...

Mother Land by Paul Theroux review – vivid and vicious family vignettes

Hurt, rage and contempt … a novel captures the author’s experiences of family life

Just as people are now living for longer, so writers are now writing for longer. Martin Amis published his first novel in 1973. Margaret Atwood started in the 1960s. It’s almost 20 years since the publication of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. In the future, careers the length of Agatha Christie’s and Barbara Cartland’s may become the norm.

Paul Theroux offers one example of how to cope with literary longevity. Starting out as a novelist – with Waldo, published in 1967 – Theroux then began publishing short stories, travel books, yet more novels, and more and more, dozens and dozens of books, including fiction and non-fiction which often blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction. How on earth has he managed to keep it up?

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Room Little Darker by June Caldwell review – junkies, sex slaves and ghosts

The Irish fiction renaissance continues with a gothic collection of short stories that shock and fascinate in equal measure
As Leonard Cohen asked: you want it darker? How about a story about a couple kept as sex slaves in a farmhouse in Leitrim, their desperate antics livestreamed to an audience of perverts worldwide? Or a junkie who gets a beating and a shoehorn “scoopslide right in and up on over” his “stink tunnel”? A story narrated by a foetus? The tale of a paedophile who is enrolled on a “dynamic new domestic-environment therapy with 100 per cent effectiveness demonstrated in trials across twelve countries on three continents”, which involves him adopting his own boy robot that he can abuse in the comfort and privacy of his own home? Room Little Darker, June Caldwell’s debut collection, couldn’t get much blacker. It reads like boiling tar. As Irish fiction once again ...

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist review – a deeply personal account of loss

In the latest manifestation of our craze for autofiction, a Swedish poet sets down his experience of bereavement
This book begins like a pitch for a TV hospital drama: “The consultant stamps down the wheel lock of Karin’s hospital bed. In a loud voice he addresses the intensive care nurses, who are cutting open her tank top and sports bra: Pregnant woman, week thirty-three, child reportedly in good health, started feeling ill about five days ago with flu-like symptoms, fever, cough, slight shortness of breath yesterday which was put down to her pregnancy, condition severely deteriorating today, acute respiratory difficulties, arrived at the maternity unit about an hour ago.” Cue title, cue backstory, cue human tragedy as human entertainment. There will always be books about extreme and painful experiences: without them literature would be reduced to so much analytical philosophy, avant-garde poetry and Janet and John books. The recent ...

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson review – Agatha Christie in peril

The queen of crime is the central character in this audacious mystery, which reinvents the story of her mysterious disappearance with thrilling resultsThe biographer of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath and Alexander McQueen, Andrew Wilson has written fiction before, but A Talent for Murder is an entirely different kind of beast. You may perhaps have read those books in which Jane Austen is a detective, or the Brontës come back as ghosts: fan fiction in which a writer’s enthusiasm for their literary hero leads them towards a reimagining of the hero’s life. James Joyce, secret agent, etc. There are of course some fine examples of the genre: Drood (2009) by Dan Simmons, featuring Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and a number of novels by Matthew Pearl, who specialises in this kind of thing. But no one to date, to my knowledge, has successfully cast the queen of crime herself as ...

The Village News by Tom Fort review – the rich’s love affair with rural England

Fort, an expert on the quieter side of national life, takes a tour and discovers that villages have always been about change
Tom Fort is one of those delightfully curious sorts of fellow who writes delightfully curious sorts of books about delightfully curious sorts of things. He is the author of – among others – Against the Flow (2010), about his experiences fishing in eastern Europe; Downstream (2009), about punting on the River Trent; The Book of Eels (2002), a book about eels; and The A303 (2012), which is … etc. One might describe him as a kind of modern antiquarian. He is the thinking man’s Bill Bryson. Actually no, Bill Bryson is the thinking man’s Bill Bryson. Fort is very much his own man. In The Village News – a kind of history and gazetteer with a touch of the travelogue – Fort rambles, or cycles rather, between various themes ...

Larchfield by Polly Clark review – loneliness, longing and WH Auden

Auden’s years in Scotland take on new meaning for a young poet in this vivid debut
Polly Clark’s first novel is, at least in part, a fictional account of WH Auden’s time living and working in Helensburgh, Scotland, where he was a schoolmaster at the Larchfield Academy in the early 1930s. The book therefore takes its rightful place – alongside, say, Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (1964, subtitle “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life”) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998) – on that long, strange, slightly wobbly shelf marked Fictional Lives of the Great Writers. Auden has been portrayed in fiction many times before, most recently and memorably perhaps in Lydia Davis’s short story, “How WH Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House”, in which she describes, entirely accurately, how he liked to sleep with a great weight on his bed and so used to pull ...

Larchfield by Polly Clark review – loneliness, longing and WH Auden

Auden’s years in Scotland take on new meaning for a young poet in this vivid debut
Polly Clark’s first novel is, at least in part, a fictional account of WH Auden’s time living and working in Helensburgh, Scotland, where he was a schoolmaster at the Larchfield Academy in the early 1930s. The book therefore takes its rightful place – alongside, say, Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (1964, subtitle “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life”) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998) – on that long, strange, slightly wobbly shelf marked Fictional Lives of the Great Writers. Auden has been portrayed in fiction many times before, most recently and memorably perhaps in Lydia Davis’s short story, “How WH Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House”, in which she describes, entirely accurately, how he liked to sleep with a great weight on his bed and so used to pull ...

The Bedside Guardian 2016 – review

In need of comfort or encouragement? Here are some of the most memorable articles from a dramatic yearDefinition of an uneviable task: take a newspaper averaging around 150,000 words a day, which adds up to around about 47m words per year, written by hundreds of journalists and thousands of other contributors, covering news, politics, culture and sport; and then decide what’s the best and most interesting and put it in a book of just 320 pages. Imagine how many people you’re going to offend, for starters: sorry, star columnist, you didn’t make the cut. And then there’s the question of the principles for selection: you’d need 20/20 vision, the wisdom of Solomon and an algorithm. The remarkable thing about The Bedside Guardian, as Dr Johnson might have it, is not that it’s done well but rather that it’s done at all. Fortunately, it is done well. The Bedside Guardian ...

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman review – serious portrait of a shocking standup

A writer of gravitas embraces the world of comedy with this parable-like tale of a repellent Israeli comedian A comic novel by David Grossman, the David Grossman? That would be simply ludicrous, obviously: Grossman is a writer of such high moral seriousness and tone, a writer burdened and possessed with such profound weight, as to render that book quite impossible. It would be like Dan Brown writing art history, or Lydia Davis writing a romcom. So, a comic novel by Grossman: no. But a novel about a comic by Grossman? An unexpected delight. Readers should be warned, however: A Horse Walks into a Bar is neither remotely funny nor an easy read. Related: David Grossman: ‘You have to act against the gravity of grief – to decide you won’t fall’ Continue reading...

The best stocking filler books of 2016

We leaf through Kama Sutra colouring books, career tips from the SAS and the inevitable volumes on hygge

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?I suppose we should begin with hygge (English translation: “Bah Humbug”). Missed out on the whole hygge phenomenon? Not to worry: as far as I can tell, it’s mostly about fairy lights and cable-knits, with a bit of Scandi-nationalism thrown in for good measure. Among the least annoying of the season’s must-have hygge books are Marie Tourell Søderberg’s Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (Michael Joseph) and Signe Johansen’s How to Hygge: The Secrets of Nordic Living (Bluebird), which offer insights such as: “The personal element and wonderful smell of something homemade underlines that what you are about to eat is authentic and unique and far away from mass production” and “time spent outdoors can improve your mental health and reduce stress ...

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack review – an extraordinary hymn to small-town Ireland

One family man’s Day of the Dead in County Mayo after the boom and bust Excellence is always rare and often unexpected: we don’t necessarily expect masterpieces even from the great. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is exceptional indeed: an extraordinary novel by a writer not yet famous but surely destined to be acclaimed by anyone who believes that the novel is not dead and that novelists are not merely lit-fest fodder for the metropolitan middle classes. McCormack is not entirely unknown. In 1996, he won the Rooney prize for Irish literature with his first collection of short stories, Getting It in the Head.The prize is a sure predictor of future greatness, responsible for bringing to wider public attention the work of Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and the two mighty Kevins, Barry and Power. McCormack’s second collection, Forensic Songs, was published in 2012, and he is also the author ...

A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare review – learning to live with the dead

Melodrama, tragedy and myth illuminate the relationship between individual and state in a fine novel from the Albanian writer ‘I have tried,” remarked Ismail Kadare in a 1998 Paris Review interview, “to make a sort of synthesis of the grand tragedy and the grotesque.” In this, for better and for worse, he has succeeded. Kadare is a writer who excels in the cataloguing of human errors and horrors, in a style and in forms that one might rightly describe as synthesised. Born in Albania, and having lived in Paris for many years, he is one of those rare writers of international reputation who has managed to avoid the pitfalls and indulgences of bland, postmodern, transcultural “world literature” and whose work remains truly peculiar, local and challenging. This does not necessarily make for easy reading. A Girl in Exile is a book about a gone girl – but it ...

The best stocking-filler books of 2015

Forget quiz books and quirky almanacs, this year treat your loved ones to A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice or the Jeremy Corbyn colouring book

Having dutifully ground through improving literature with your book group, it’s time to kick back, relax, and read something you wouldn’t usually sample but might actually enjoy, such as the Bible or the Radio Times Christmas double issue. Given that this has been a year of unprecedented global misery, the best place to start is, of course, with a lightweight celebrity autobiography. ’Slebmoirs that won’t plunge you further into despair about the plight of humankind include Danny Baker’s Going Off Alarming (Phoenix) and Guy Martin’s When You Dead, You Dead (Virgin). But Patti Smith’s M Train (Bloomsbury) is better than all of them put together. Honestly, just read that.

As for the other staple Christmas fare, as bland and predictable as turkey ...

Public Library and Other Stories review – campaigning collection from the establishment experimentalist

Interleaved with statements about the importance of libraries from friends and acquaintances, these stories showcase Smith’s talents

She is now officially a national treasure: Ali Smith FRSL CBE, the establishment experimentalist. Winner of more prizes than most of us knew existed – the Saltire, the Encore, the Whitbread, the Goldsmiths, the Costa, the Baileys – and perpetually shortlisted for just about every other, Smith produces books that hover between fiction and non-fiction. There are novels that read like lessons in art history (How to Be Both), there are short story collections that read like mini biogs (The First Person and Other Stories) and there are lectures that are actually stories (Artful). With her new collection, Smith now establishes for herself an entirely new role and purpose, as a campaigner for the cause of public libraries.

Kind of. The 12 short stories in the book ...

Tightrope by Simon Mawer review – meet the female James Bond

This stylish cold war thriller brings impeccable period detail to a tale of deception and derring-do

Tightrope is effectively a sequel to Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. So it’s probably worth a quick recap, for those struggling to keep up with the great avalanche of books that tend to feature a beautiful woman on the cover in a trenchcoat, beret and red lipstick, and sporting a 1940s up-do. There’s a lot to explain – both about Mawer’s books, and about the whole phenomenon of second-world-war fiction featuring young female protagonists, often written by late-middle-aged men who presumably grew up on a diet of Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley.

Let’s begin with The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and daring Special Operations Executive officer Marian Sutro being dropped by parachute into south-west France. Marian’s job is to make contact with nuclear physicist Clément Pelletier, an old family friend, and to help smuggle ...

Hear the Wind Sing/Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami review – super-elliptical pop-noir

Two early short novels, translated into English for the first time, reveal a fully formed writer laying the foundation for his future themes

Magical, mystical and magnificent? Messy, middling and monotonous? Whatever. It doesn’t matter what you think, because the publication of these two early novels by Haruki Murakami is only going to further enhance his reputation.

Murakami has reached that stage – 40-plus years into a stellar career – where he is unassailable, where the early work and the juvenilia are read in the vast bright burning light of the later work, which lends it all a lovely lambent glow. Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980) – commercially available here in English translation, by Ted Goosen, for the first time – could be absolute drivel and still people would find interesting things to say about them, how they prefigure certain themes, how they indicate the early ...