Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce – review

Colm Tóibín’s examination of three writers’ relationships with their fathers is full of insight and intrigue

Does every man secretly desire his father’s death? The great biographer Richard Ellmann believed there was something in this idea, noting that it recurs in the work of, among others, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Edmund Gosse and JM Synge; and in his new book about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce, the novelist Colm Tóibín quietly suggests that it was only thanks to a certain paternal absence that their sons were able to release their genius into the world. Death itself, of course, often took its time: John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce both lived into their 80s. But while their sons patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, waited – even if they didn’t know exactly what it was that they were waiting for – they also, in various ...

Square Eyes by Anna Mill and Luke Jones review – dystopia to die for

A tech pioneer loses control of her creation in this striking, intoxicating book

I’m always telling people how little time, relatively speaking, it takes to read a graphic novel, something that can often make the experience all the more powerful. But I’d be lying if I told you that Square Eyes by Anna Mill and Luke Jones can be gobbled quickly.

This exquisite book, which began its life in 2010 as an entry for the Observer/Cape graphic short story prize, isn’t a very talky comic; its subject matter, which has to do with the dangers of the digital future, dictates that the dialogue is ever minimalist, Mill’s incandescent images doing all the work, and more, of words.

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Has the Booker prize lost its mojo?

Rows, gaffes and disdainful speeches – the Booker prize has always been in the news. But now, a creeping sense of bad decision-making is undermining its cachet

Documentaries about contemporary writers do not tend to liveliness – which is, perhaps, one reason why the BBC is increasingly reluctant to commission them. But Barneys, Books and Bust-ups: 50 Years of the Booker prize, to be screened on BBC Four on 15 October, the night before the announcement of this year’s winner, could not be boring even if it tried. There are no vengeful former muses; on this score, even Salman Rushdie gets off scot-free. But those who live in fear of lingering shots of honeyed bookshelves and the scratchy sound of a fountain pen moving across a sheet of paper can relax. Fifty years is a long time when it comes to gossip, feuds, giant egos, rank stupidity and ...

A graphic history of the rise of the Nazis

As nationalism and antisemitism rise again, new graphic novels on prewar and wartime Germany offer salutary lessons in how quickly politics can turn to poison. We spoke to their creators

In 1996, Jason Lutes, a cartoonist with just one slim graphic novel to his name, was leafing through a magazine in the house he shared in Seattle when his eye fell on an advertisement for a book of photographs about Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin. The ad briefly described the German capital in the 1920s, with its wild cabarets, seedy bars and jostling population of artists, architects, writers and philosophers, and in as long as it took him to read it, his life was changed. Lutes had never visited Berlin. He knew almost nothing about the city beyond what the copywriter at this university press had to say about it. But, no matter. Here it was in black and white: his ...

Behind the Throne by Adrian Tinniswood review – all the king’s men… and mistresses

A history of the domestic arrangements of British monarchs makes for some juicy tales

Kings and queens tend towards extravagance: crown on head, the royal personage feels perfectly entitled to prise open the public purse. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, for instance, simply could not make do with the homes already in their possession, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle among them. In 1844, they bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, an unassuming Georgian building that they soon transformed into an Italianate palazzo; and, in 1848, they began leasing Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, “a pretty little castle in the old Scotch style” whose replacement, an ugly granite confection comprising turrets, battlements and, in the servants’ quarters, tartan linoleum, they started to build in 1852. No wonder, then, that when, years later, ministers informed a dismayed queen that her expenses were rising far beyond the limits set by the Treasury, she ...

Behind the Throne by Adrian Tinniswood review – all the king’s men… and mistresses

A history of the domestic arrangements of British monarchs makes for some juicy tales

Kings and queens tend towards extravagance: crown on head, the royal personage feels perfectly entitled to prise open the public purse. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, for instance, simply could not make do with the homes already in their possession, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle among them. In 1844, they bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, an unassuming Georgian building that they soon transformed into an Italianate palazzo; and, in 1848, they began leasing Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, “a pretty little castle in the old Scotch style” whose replacement, an ugly granite confection comprising turrets, battlements and, in the servants’ quarters, tartan linoleum, they started to build in 1852. No wonder, then, that when, years later, ministers informed a dismayed queen that her expenses were rising far beyond the limits set by the Treasury, she ...

Passing for Human by Liana Finck – review

A New Yorker cartoonist’s candid search for selfhood offers solace to anyone who feels different from others

The New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck calls her graphic memoir a “neurological coming-of-age story”, and it’s true that one thread running through her tender, complicated narrative has to do with a certain kind of difference: Finck has often found it hard to bond with other people, and she suffers from an anxiety that is, at times, debilitating. But there is much more to her story than this. For one thing, she isn’t much interested in labels such as Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, finding them in her own case more restrictive than liberating. For another, her book is also about love, family, creativity and the quest for selfhood – in other words, with stuff that concerns us all. If reading it makes you think long and hard about neurological difference and the isolation ...

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963 – review

A second hefty tome of Sylvia Plath’s letters is striking only for the poet’s extraordinary correspondence with her psychiatrist

When the first volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath appeared last September, its chief virtue – its only virtue, in my view – was that tucked into its massive bulk were the 16 love letters Plath wrote to Ted Hughes in 1956, the year of their marriage. These notes, so marvellously lucent, did not make the rest of the project – in essence, the publication of dozens upon dozens of quotidian and repetitive letters to Plath’s mother, Aurelia – much more worthwhile; at more than 1,400 pages, the collection as a whole seemed to me to be of interest only to desperate PhD students and snouty scholars. But still, they were quite something, their radiance emitting just a little of Plath’s talents as a poet; her awe that such a ...

Book clinic: which authors can be likened to Julian Barnes?

Comparisons to the Man Booker prize-winner are tricky, but our expert suggests an excellent starting point

I have just finished The Only Story and loved it – as I love all Julian Barnes’s books. Which other authors have a similar appeal?
Monica Verea, 65, Mexico

Rachel Cooke, author and Observer writer/critic, writes:
This is tricky question to answer: there’s no one quite like Julian Barnes, for which reason I’m wary of making comparisons. But perhaps a good place to start might be with a writer he admires. No, not Flaubert; I’m thinking, in this instance, of Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000).

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AN Wilson: ‘Writing novels, I still feel the terror’

The novelist on his love story set in post-earthquake New Zealand, trolls and why Don Quixote is overrated

AN Wilson is a prize-winning novelist (My Name Is Legion, Winnie and Wolf, The Potter’s Hand); a biographer whose subjects have included John Betjeman and Queen Victoria; and a former columnist for the London Evening Standard. He has presented documentaries for the BBC, most recently Return to Larkinland, about the poet Philip Larkin. He lives in London, where he’s working on a biography of Prince Albert: “When I was writing about Queen Victoria, I came to loathe him; he just seemed to want to control her, like Rob Titchener in The Archers. But now I see his genius.”

Your new novel, Aftershocks, is your 23rd work of fiction, and your 44th book. Are you blase about publication, or does it still hold terror ...

Fruit of Knowledge by Liv Strömquist review – eye-poppingly informative

Witty, clever and angry, this book about the suppression of female sexuality is fantastically acute

How I loved reading Liv Strömquist’s Fruit of Knowledge. Mostly, this was down to its sheer, punchy brilliance: should you be in possession of a teenage daughter, you absolutely must buy it for her and all her friends, in addition to those copies you will now immediately purchase for yourself and all of yours (I’m probably addressing female readers here, though there’s no reason why men shouldn’t get with the programme, too; in truth, it’s as likely to change their lives for the better as those of most women). But there was also, I must admit, a certain amount of pleasure to be had in watching people clock its subtitle, The Vulva vs. the Patriarchy: words that are scrawled on its jacket in blood-red letters beneath a photograph of the author with her hands ...

Tumult by John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy review – slippery, powerful comic noir

Twists and turns abound in a graphic thriller from the author of Salem Brownstone

When Tumult begins, Adam Whistler, a cocky, insecure thirtysomething commercials director with aspirations to make movies, is on holiday in the Mediterranean with his long-term girlfriend, Sarah. The scene is idyllic: golden sands, aquamarine sea, an entirely blameless sky. But our hero is restless. Feeling competitive at the sight of some boys diving, he decides to join in – with predictable results; having landed badly, Whistler must spend the rest of the trip laid up, his leg heavily bandaged. Not that this teaches him a lesson. Soon afterwards, Tammy, the beautiful, tarot card-reading daughter of the couple who take Sarah to the beach in his stead, appears beside his hammock. He can’t help himself; the two of them sleep together. By the time he’s on the plane back home, he is in the middle of a ...

The Jonathan Cape/Observer/Comica Graphic short story prize 2018 – enter now!

The annual award for emerging cartoonists offers a £1,000 first prize and the chance to be published in the Observer, with previous entrants going on to land book and film deals

Calling all aspiring cartoonists and graphic novelists: the prestigious Jonathan Cape/Observer/Comica Graphic short story prize, now in its 11th year, opens for entries today. Our guest judges in 2018 are the novelist (and comics fan) Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White, The Book of Strange New Things) and the cartoonist Posy Simmonds (Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery). The winner will receive a cheque for £1,000 and his or her work will appear in the Observer in print and online. The runner-up will receive £250 and have their work published online.

It’s worth remembering that several past winners, and some runners-up, have gone on to land publishing deals, among them Stephen Collins, ...

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson – review

This updated version of a comic book classic beautifully captures the emotional topsy-turvy of travelling alone

Craig Thompson’s travel journal, Carnet de Voyage, is a comic for anyone who has ever travelled alone – and hated themselves for hating it. First published in 2004, it is not a new book. But it has been long out of print, and this lovely edition comes with 32 extra pages, there to provide a kind of update on some of the people he met on his original tour across Europe and Morocco. Clever, funny and disarmingly honest, it is, of course, predictably lovely to look at; Thompson is a master sketcher. What I like about it most, though, is the way it acts as an antidote to the all-seeing, all-consuming power of the smartphone. As its author notes in his opening pages, no cameras or mobiles were used in its making: his ...

Born Trump: Inside America’s First Family by Emily Jane Fox review – it will make you weep

A gossipy study of the Trump clan reveals little of note besides their obsession with keeping up appearances

When Melania Knauss, a Slovenian-born model, married Donald Trump in Palm Beach at 7pm on 22 January 2005, all was right with the world – at least in the eyes of the groom. At his wedding to wife No 2, Marla Maples, in 1993, only a load of B-listers had turned up. “It’s just like I was afraid of,” the radio star Howard Stern would tell a reporter. “I’m the biggest name here.” Now, though, Trump looked around and saw among those gathered at the Episcopal church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea not only Billy Joel, Barbara Walters and Simon Cowell, but also, infamously, Hillary and Bill Clinton. No wonder that once the vows had been exchanged he was moved enthusiastically to kiss his new wife three times in a row (the doomed Maples ...

Born Trump: Inside America’s First Family by Emily Jane Fox review – it will make you weep

A gossipy study of the Trump clan reveals little of note besides their obsession with keeping up appearances

When Melania Knauss, a Slovenian-born model, married Donald Trump in Palm Beach at 7pm on 22 January 2005, all was right with the world – at least in the eyes of the groom. At his wedding to wife No 2, Marla Maples, in 1993, only a load of B-listers had turned up. “It’s just like I was afraid of,” the radio star Howard Stern would tell a reporter. “I’m the biggest name here.” Now, though, Trump looked around and saw among those gathered at the Episcopal church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea not only Billy Joel, Barbara Walters and Simon Cowell, but also, infamously, Hillary and Bill Clinton. No wonder that once the vows had been exchanged he was moved enthusiastically to kiss his new wife three times in a row (the doomed Maples ...

The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson – review

A terrorist and a president vie for supremacy in Bill Clinton’s daft fiction debut

In Martin Amis’s 1995 novel of literary enmity, The Information, Richard Tull, failing writer, walks the entire length of the plane that’s taking him to the US, from economy, where he is ignominiously marooned, to first class, where his super-successful rival, Gwyn Barry, lies “practically horizontal on a crimson barge”. During this perambulation, he somewhat loftily observes the books his fellow passengers are reading and thus is able to boost his increasingly wobbly amour propre. In economy, you see, it’s all Daniel Deronda and the first world war. Move towards the front of the plane, though, and the guys in “prestige stockings and celebrity slippers” are majoring exclusively in “chunky chillers and tub-like tinglers”: Cartel and Avarice and The Usurers; Magenta Rhapsody and Of Kingly Blood.

The much-hyped fictional “collaboration” between Bill Clinton, the ...

Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh – review

US journalist Seymour Hersh recounts in fine detail the stories that made him, from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib

Ten years ago, not long before the election that put Barack Obama in the White House, I went to Washington to interview Seymour Hersh, the reporter who, in 1969, single-handedly uncovered the atrocities that had been committed by an American platoon in My Lai, South Vietnam, 12 months before: a story that hastened the end of the Vietnam war and for which, in 1970, he won a Pulitzer prize. I remember our encounter vividly: the chaos of his office, with its filthy walls and toppling piles of notebooks; the unstoppable flow of his conversation; the wolfish greed with which he scoffed his eggs at breakfast. Above all, what has stayed with me was his almost total lack of interest in anything other than his reporting (by his own ...

Making Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn – review

A sinister response to Oscar Wilde’s image is revealed in a new account of his early tour of the US

In January 1882, Oscar Wilde, an ambitious and highly educated young man with one terrible book of poems and a pretty much unstageable tragedy to his name, landed in America for a 50-date lecture tour. Sponsored by Richard D’Oyly Carte, whose production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience was shortly to embark on a similarly long journey across the US, it would take in not only the smartest universities, but the midwest and the deep south, too: Americans everywhere would have the chance to see a real-life fop ahead of the production’s spirited send-up of the species (the opera ridiculed the cult of aestheticism with which Wilde was strongly associated). “Anything is better than virtuous obscurity,” Wilde noted on accepting this unlikely gig. Anything? It wouldn’t be long before ...

Girl With Dove: A Life Built By Books review – lost in the fog of childhood trauma

Literature helped the young Sally Bayley survive, but there is a yawning gap at the heart of her book

Sally Bayley, a writer who teaches at Oxford University, grew up in a filthy and dilapidated house in a Sussex seaside town (Worthing, I think, though I can’t be wholly sure; as she notes herself, facts are thin on the ground in her book) with her mother, several younger siblings, an aunt, and her grandmother, Edna May Turner, AKA Maze. Men were not really permitted to enter this realm, though occasionally one might visit. A bloke called Laurie, for instance, who seems to have been Bayley’s father, once briefly appeared on the horizon; the family trooped out to the Beach hotel with him, where they had grapefruit as a starter. In the end, though, her mother, Ange, sent him packing, furious not only at his failure to provide financially for ...