In Byron’s Wake by Miranda Seymour – the Lord’s ladies

Byron’s wife and daughter - Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace – can’t escape the shadow of the great libertine in this in-depth account of their lives

On 18 September 1814, Lord Byron was dining at his house, Newstead Abbey, with his apothecary and Augusta Leigh, the half-sister with whom he had recently had a baby daughter, when a gardener brought in his late mother’s wedding ring, disinterred from a nearby flowerbed. The man’s timing was eerie. Also delivered to the breakfast table that fateful morning was a letter from a clever and impetuous heiress called Annabella Milbanke in which she accepted his (somewhat grudging) proposal of marriage. Seeing both, the superstitious Byron turned a little white – though his shivery mood seems to have had no effect on his acerbity. “It never rains but it pours,” he is reported to have said, on reading Milbanke’s note.

Thus was a doomed marriage sealed – though ...

Upstate by James Wood – review

The hero of James Wood’s midlife novel spends too much time with his implausibly well-organised thoughts

Alan Querry is a moderately successful property developer from Northumberland with a couple of largish problems on his plate. First, there is his company, provider of his comfortable life and payer of his elderly mother’s care home bills, which is teetering on the edge of trouble. Second, there is his daughter Vanessa, an emotionally frail philosopher at an American university who is struggling under the weight of depression.

However, as his name suggests – the extra “r” didn’t stop me from reading it as “query” – perhaps his greatest problem is his character, which seems at times to be little more than a repository for high-minded questions mostly to do with happiness and acceptance. Alan Querry thinks, and thinks, and thinks: in bed, in the car, in front of the blue screen of his ...

Blake Morrison: ‘You must write a memoir as if you’re writing a novel’

The author of And When Did You Last See Your Father? on his new novel, the story of a literary executor

Blake Morrison is an award-winning poet, novelist, journalist and librettist, and a professor of creative and life writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is best known for his acclaimed memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which was made into a film starring Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson and Colin Firth, and for his study of the murder of James Bulger, As If. His novel The Last Weekend was adapted for television in 2012. His latest novel is The Executor (Chatto & WIndus, £16.99).

Your new book is about a journalist, Matt, who reluctantly agrees to become the literary executor of an old friend, a poet called Robert Pope, only for him to die unexpectedly. What drew you to this situation?
A very old ...

Red Winter by Anneli Furmark review – small-town Maoist’s secret love affair

A far-left activist falls for a woman from a rival party in Furmark’s engrossing tale, set in 70s Sweden

Just about any subject can be interesting in the hands of the right artist or writer: glory lies in the telling, not the raw material. All the same, I was a bit surprised to find myself so utterly charmed by Red Winter by the Swedish cartoonist Anneli Furmark. Yes, at the heart of this graphic novel is a clandestine love affair, and yes, it comes with plenty of snow and subtly lit interiors. But it’s also a cold-eyed and occasionally chilling analysis of the ruthlessness, bullying and groupthink indulged in by a certain kind of small-time, small-town Marxist. It is, in other words, a book in which the difference between, say, the APK (a Swedish Leninist political party) and the SKP (which is, or was, Maoist) actually matters – at least ...

Hearts and Minds and Rise Up, Women! review – two sides of women’s struggle for the vote

Jane Robinson’s story of the suffragists’ pilgrimage to London unearths new heroines, while Diane Atkinson’s detailed study of the militant suffragettes is truly thrilling

Movements demand figureheads and so too do those who, much later, will try to tell their stories, whether on paper or on screen. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in the 21st century, the campaign for women’s suffrage has been reduced, in the popular imagination, to a series of star names: the Pankhurst women, in their huge hats, brave and brilliant but also rather autocratic; poor Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself beneath the king’s horse on Derby Day, 1913. Some may even remember that it was a woman called Mary Richardson who on 10 March 1914 walked into the National Gallery and slashed Velaquez’s Rokeby Venus with an axe she had hidden in the sleeve of her jacket (Richardson was protesting against the rearrest ...

What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories – review

Laura Shapiro’s account of how food shaped the lives of six notable women could do with spicing up a little

Between 1933 and 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt served revenge, cold or otherwise, up to three times a day to her philandering husband Franklin, a feat performed courtesy of her housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, who combined a quite stunning lack of talent when it came to the preparation of food with a self-confidence so varnished that when her stint in the White House finally came to an end, she proudly donated her papers, menus and all, to the Library of Congress (Eleanor, who’d hired her personally, would never give in to demands that she be fired). What kind of dishes appear on these menus, exactly? Tempting as it is to devote this review entirely to her ghastly recipes, I’ll simply note here that she once presented as a starter sticks of pineapple ...

My Brother’s Husband review – a Canadian gay man about the house

A single-parent Tokyo dad opens his door to an unexpected visitor in this touching, complex tale from award-winning Manga artist Gengoroh Tagame

When a young Tokyo couple called Yaichi and Natsuki got divorced, it was agreed that Yaichi would bring up their daughter, Kana – a decision that makes Yaichi seem like a more than usually modern and sophisticated Japanese man. But this isn’t the whole story. Yaichi has his share of cultural prejudices, or so it seems when a smiling, bear-like Canadian arrives at his door and announces that he, Mike Flanagan, is the widower of Yaichi’s estranged gay twin, Ryoji.

Yaichi hesitates unaccountably before inviting Mike to stay (Mike is in Japan because he wants to see all the places Ryoji told him about before he died). Then he worries that the stranger now sharing his bathroom is about to hit on him: after all, he looks just ...

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein review – a life after deaths

Fiona Sampson’s vibrant, incident-packed biography of the novelist is haunted by all the people she lost

Mary Shelley was born at 20 minutes to midnight on 30 August 1797, at the top of a house in the Polygon, Somers Town, an aspirational address before the arrival of the railway, after which it became a notorious London slum. A healthy baby, no sooner had she arrived than her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sent a message to her husband, the radical writer William Godwin, at work in rooms nearby, to come and meet his new child. Wollstonecraft, the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, did not hold with long confinements; the introductions having been made, she intended to rest only for a few more hours. The following evening, she planned to join him for dinner as usual.

Back at home, however, Godwin found himself waiting and waiting downstairs. All was ...

Nonfiction to look out for in 2018

Spies, suffragettes and Mary Shelley feature heavily in next year’s nonfiction lists – along with essays from the likes of Zadie Smith, Graham Swift and Amos Oz

Glance even for just a moment at the nonfiction lists for the first half of 2018, and the trends all but leap from the shelf. One can, for instance, see immediately that the three S’s – spies, suffragettes and Mary Shelley – are going to be a thing next year; ditto essays, a form, newly invigorated, that perhaps connects more than most with our frenzied and confused times. But while publishers continue to indulge the trend for books  about reading, they seem to be tiring both of nature writing and traditional biographies (though the juggernaut that is memoir rolls noisily on).

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Carrington’s Letters, edited by Anne Chisholm review – life, love and the Bloomsbury group

Dora Carrington’s observations of the Bloomsbury set via her obsessive admiration for Lytton Strachey are revealing but exhausting

Dora Carrington was the star of her year at the Slade School of Art. But her life’s work was, in the end, not her painting; it was Lytton Strachey, the writer to whom, in spite of his homosexuality, she almost certainly lost her virginity. Was ever a woman more dotty about so highly unsuitable a man? In the annals of literary biography, certainly she takes some beating. Although she and Strachey lived together for most of her adult life, first in a mill house at Tidmarsh in Berkshire, and then nearby, at Ham Spray House, proximity did nothing to cool her fever, which burned from 1916 until 1932, when she took her own life following his death from cancer. Her long, cloying letters to him, compulsively scribbled whenever he was up ...

Spinning by Tillie Walden review – portrait of adolescence on ice

An intimate graphic memoir of competitive skating feels like a coming-of-age classic

Spinning, the fourth book in two years by the Ignatz award-winning cartoonist Tillie Walden, is surely her best to date. A memoir of the decade Walden spent as a competitive skater – having taken to the ice as a small girl, she did not abandon it until shortly before she graduated from high school – it conveys brilliantly not only the dedication involved in mid-level competitive sport, but also the occasional (and sometimes more-than-occasional) loathing. In a longish afterword, Walden, the acclaimed author of The End of Summer, insists that her latest comic “ended up not being about ice-skating at all”. But I disagree. Yes, Spinning touches on bullying, her complex relationship with her parents, and her sexuality (for which reason it would, I think, make a brilliant Christmas present for a teenage girl). Nevertheless, ...

Rachel Cooke’s best graphic novels of 2017

There were fine memoirs and a deluxe life of Chris Ware, but the year belonged to Joff Winterhart’s moving portrait of masculinity

If it were down to me, every person in Britain would get a copy of Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel Driving Short Distances (Cape £14.99) for Christmas; I simply can’t see how this marvellous, moving book about men – meet Sam, a gentle former student who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and his employer, Keith, a boastful hairy ball of a fellow whose work seems mostly to involve sitting in his car eating pasties – could possibly fail to spread joy. But since it’s not down to me, I’ll just quietly note here that Winterhart’s book is undoubtedly my favourite comic of 2017 – and that this is really saying something, given the competition.

What a bumper year this has been for graphic books of all kinds. ...

Fun Home creator Alison Bechdel on turning a tragic childhood into a hit musical

The acclaimed graphic novelist, who gave the world the famous movie equality ‘test’, on exposing her family, appearing in The Simpsons and why comics are her Trump therapy

Last summer, Alison Bechdel returned to the small Pennsylvania town where she grew up (population: 700) to see a production of the musical based on her 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home a comic that, to sum it up rather brutally, tells the story of how her closeted gay father killed himself a few months after she came out as a lesbian. “It was super-surreal,” she says. “It was the same theatre where my mother would do her amateur dramatics and my father was on the board. I was a little afraid. I felt anxious, like, oh my God, I’m going to see all these people and they’re going to be pissed off with me. Because there were people in my hometown ...

‘I was in shock!’: all the winners of our graphic short story prize interviewed

On the 10th anniversary of the Observer/Cape/Comica graphic short story prize, we talk to previous prizewinners from Isabel Greenberg to Julian Hanshaw, and to 2017’s star, Tor Freeman

No one can remember exactly how, 10 years ago, we came to start the graphic short story prize. Naturally, I would love to take the credit. But in truth, the idea must have come originally from Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape, publisher of the UK’s most prominent list of graphic novels.

In 2007, comics were finally beginning to take off in Britain: the animated film of Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis was just about to be released; Guy Delisle’s travelogue, Burma Chronicles, and Rutu Modan’s novel Exit Wounds, set in Tel Aviv during a period of bomb attacks, had both been critical hits.

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Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard – review

In tracing the roots of misogyny to Athens and Rome, Mary Beard has produced a modern feminist classic

This book is a mere slip of a thing: at 115 pages, small enough to fit into the most diminutive of bags or even (should you be in striding out mood) the pocket of an overcoat. But size, in this instance, is irrelevant. There are two things you need to know about it. The first is that what Mary Beard has to say is powerful: here are more than a few pretty useful stones for the slingshots some of us feel we must carry with us everywhere we go right now. The second is that most of its power, if not all, lies in its author’s absolute refusal to make anything seem too simple. Even as she tries to be concise and easy on the ear – the book is adapted from ...

Of Women: In the 21st Century by Shami Chakrabarti review – tell us something we don’t know

This essay on global gender inequality professes to be the product of long rumination but feels like the opposite

In an interview earlier this month, Shami Chakrabarti insisted that her new book about global gender inequality should not be seen as an attempt on her part to scramble back on to safe liberal ground following the trouble of last year – when, as you will recall, her report into allegations of antisemitism within the Labour party was widely condemned as a whitewash (in an act that brought her integrity into further doubt, she accepted a peerage from Jeremy Corbyn just a few weeks later). It’s not only that she stands by the work she did then. Such a volume has, she said, been “coming for some time”.

She is in favour of female quotas, sometimes, and wishes children's clothes and toys could be less gender-bound

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The Jonathan Cape/Observer/Comica graphic short story prize 2017 – enter now!

The annual award for aspiring cartoonists offers the chance to be published and win a cheque for £1,000, with past winners going on to further success The brilliant and inspirational Jonathan Cape/Observer/Comica Graphic short story prize, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year, is now open for entries. All entrants must do (all!) is draw and write a four-page comic designed to run over a double-page spread in the Observer New Review. Our guest judges this year are the writer (and comics fan) Philip Pullman, and the cartoonist (and a former winner of the prize) Stephen Collins. Continue reading...

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki review – picture-perfect short stories

This collection of graphic short stories, quirky and ephemeral though they seem at first, are indelible in the mindIn Jillian Tamaki’s graphic short story Half Life, a young woman called Helen tries on a previously too-small dress to work out whether or not she has lost weight. And, yes, it seems that her friends, half-jealous and half-admiring, were right. Ta-dah! She really is smaller. Before the mirror in her guest bedroom, she performs a delighted little twirl. After this, though, things begin to get weird. She is visibly shrinking – and fast, too. In the street, she is mistaken for a child; at home, she can only stir the pan on her hob if she stands on a chair. Her sister, keen to protect her ever more miniature dignity, gamely stitches her a new wardrobe of doll-sized clothes but, alas, she doesn’t get to wear them for very long. In ...

You’re the Only One I Can Tell by Deborah Tannen – review

The US linguist’s examination of the way women talk to one another seems stuck in the last centuryWhen Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation came out in 1990, I was at university, and should have been reading Beowulf or Milton or something. Except I wasn’t. Tannen’s book, which went on to spend almost four years on the New York Times bestseller list, was passed to me by a girlfriend, and I devoured it instead, essays (and everything else) on hold for as long as it took. I’d had my share of boyfriend trouble; I’m sure that was part of it. Mainly, though, my hope was that it would explain why the hierarchy that operated in our seminars and tutorials continued to be so very male – and that such an understanding would, in turn, help me to make my own voice, then rather weedy, ...

Livestock by Hannah Berry – review

A government uses teen stars to spin the message in this timely satire on pop and politics Imagine – and to be honest, it shouldn’t be too hard – a world in which teenage pop singers are run not by rapacious Simon Cowell types, but by political spin doctors who sign them up to this or that party, with benefits for both sides. The stars get what we might call some free content, even if they don’t wholly understand the causes they’re taught to espouse at award ceremonies and on TV shows, while the political parties are provided with an almost endless source of distraction from scandal. Worried about what that minister said in an unguarded moment? Well, put it from your mind, and listen to the gossip. Last night at the Twannies, someone had an embarrassing “nip slip”. The Twannies are the creation of Hannah Berry (Britten & ...