Milkshakes and Morphine by Genevieve Fox review – a moment of revelation

A cancer memoir with a difference, this book’s originality comes not in its account of experiencing the disease but its delving into the past

Cancer memoirs are such a fixture of our bookshops these days that it’s jolting to realise just how recent an innovation they are. The genre came into being in the late 1990s, when journalists Ruth Picardie and John Diamond chronicled their experience of the disease in national newspapers; two decades later, on the other side of the rubicon, it’s hard to recall, or comprehend, the controversy this caused. Debate raged over the responsibility of their public airing of the details of an illness that had, to date, been shrouded in fear and shame: the writers were lauded as brave by some and accused of “emotional pornography” by others, but indifference wasn’t an option.

Fast forward to 2018, and the legacy of those accounts is clear: cancer’s ...

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor review – a new light on Reservoir 13

The Costa award-winner returns to the scenes of his success with a collection of linked stories

Last April, when his Costa award-winning novel Reservoir 13 was published, Jon McGregor gave an interview in which he took polite issue with the praise heaped on him throughout his career for writing about “ordinary” lives. “It’s quite an othering statement,” he said. “My take is that nobody is ordinary to themselves. Everyone’s life story is interesting, complicated and nuanced.”

As a position, it’s irrefutable – but to me it seemed to undercut McGregor’s formal experiment. Despite Reservoir 13’s classic crime-fiction set-up (it opens with the New Year’s Eve disappearance of a 13-year-old girl), the book soon reveals itself to be the chronicle of a community, in which the lives of the inhabitants are merely threads in the wider warp and weft of village life. The novel is delivered almost entirely in ...

21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox review – rich and glorious rural brew

Cats, scarecrows and Devon are just a few of the ingredients in this melange of nature writing, memoir and more

Tom Cox’s latest foray into non-fiction is, he tells us, “the result of my stubborn conviction that something that a lot of people told me wouldn’t be ‘marketable’ enough to work would be a much better book than the marketable stuff they recommended that I did instead”. He was right – but spare a thought, if you can, for the publishing types to whom he’s referring. Consider the thing from their side: in an industry where the first essential of marketing consists of being able to distil your author’s work into a pitch of a single sentence, Cox’s book presents a formidable challenge. Although superficially it shares characteristics with the nature writing-cum-memoir subgenre that’s been giving the medical writing-cum-memoir subgenre a run for its money in recent years, it quickly ...

21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox review – rich and glorious rural brew

Cats, scarecrows and Devon are just a few of the ingredients in this melange of nature writing, memoir and more

Tom Cox’s latest foray into non-fiction is, he tells us, “the result of my stubborn conviction that something that a lot of people told me wouldn’t be ‘marketable’ enough to work would be a much better book than the marketable stuff they recommended that I did instead”. He was right – but spare a thought, if you can, for the publishing types to whom he’s referring. Consider the thing from their side: in an industry where the first essential of marketing consists of being able to distil your author’s work into a pitch of a single sentence, Cox’s book presents a formidable challenge. Although superficially it shares characteristics with the nature writing-cum-memoir subgenre that’s been giving the medical writing-cum-memoir subgenre a run for its money in recent years, it quickly ...

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng review – hidden passions

A burning house sparks tensions within an all-too-perfect suburban community in a story exploring race, identity and family secrets

Is it possible to plan a community; to construct it from scratch, instil it with virtues and benefits, and order it to your satisfaction? The founders of Shaker Heights, Ohio, certainly thought so: in 1905, railroad magnates the Van Sweringen brothers picked a wide place in the road and set about developing one of the United States’ first garden cities. Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from its fug and bustle: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation, with rules regulating every aspect of communal life, down to the colours you could paint your house (“slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan”) and how high (“six inches”) your lawn was permitted to grow.

...

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng review – hidden passions

A burning house sparks tensions within an all-too-perfect suburban community in a story exploring race, identity and family secrets

Is it possible to plan a community; to construct it from scratch, instil it with virtues and benefits, and order it to your satisfaction? The founders of Shaker Heights, Ohio, certainly thought so: in 1905, railroad magnates the Van Sweringen brothers picked a wide place in the road and set about developing one of the United States’ first garden cities. Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from its fug and bustle: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation, with rules regulating every aspect of communal life, down to the colours you could paint your house (“slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan”) and how high (“six inches”) your lawn was permitted to grow.

...

Little Labours by Rivka Galchen review – when a baby is like a puma

The Canadian-American writer has produced a fragmentary set of observations about new motherhood that lodges in the memoryOne of the most conspicuous things about the novelist and short story writer Rivka Galchen’s collection of essays on new motherhood is how clearly resistant she was to the writing of it. She “didn’t want to write about” her baby, she says, a few pages in. “Mostly because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Post-birth, however, she is unexpectedly ambushed by her own preoccupation; she finds herself “in the position (now interested in babies) of those political figures who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an ‘issue’, like, say, Dick Cheney, with his daughter who married a woman.” This is not, we are to understand, a ...

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes review – an Oedipus myth for the 21st century

Sidelined by Sophocles, two women find their voice in this reimagining of his three plays Natalie Haynes has found success in the fields of journalism, broadcasting, children’s fiction and comedy – but she is a classicist by training, and it’s to her first love that she returns in her second novel. The Children of Jocasta, which joins a slew of classical retellings this year from Colm Tóibín, Kamila Shamsie, David Vann and others, takes the story of Oedipus as it unfolds in Sophocles’ trio of Theban plays, and attempts to recast it for the 21st century. Haynes’s aim, as she explains in a lengthy afterword, is to rescue two of the plays’ minor characters from unjust obscurity. In Oedipus Tyrannos, it is the doomed, anguished king who stands in the limelight. (Haynes has no truck with those who reach for the tragedy’s Latin name: “I can’t stop you from calling it Oedipus Rex, ...

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry review – deeply moving study of loss

A rising poet draws on Freud in a piercing, highly intelligent interrogation of her response to her mother’s death

Emily Berry’s second collection opens with an epigraph from Sigmund Freud. “The loss of a mother,” he muses, in a letter in 1929, “must be something very strange …”. It’s a peculiar – and peculiarly unsympathetic – quotation, conveying as it does the sense of the great psychoanalyst examining the condition of motherlessness with lofty detachment, and viewing the afflicted not as objects of empathy or even pity, but of clinical curiosity. But in her book-length interrogation of her response to the loss of her own mother, to whom the collection is dedicated, it is this strangeness to which Berry cleaves, articulating and then wrestling with it in an attempt to make sense of a situation that is fundamentally senseless; to exert control over an event that could not be controlled. “If ...

The Blot by Jonathan Lethem review – high-stakes backgammon and brain surgery

A professional gambler’s journey from board games to the operating table dazzles then loses its way Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, The Blot, is a story about – well, I’m not entirely sure. Better perhaps to say that The Blot takes backgammon as its subject matter. Alexander Bruno, Lethem’s detached and disaffected antihero, has spent his life as a professional gambler: shuttling around the globe from one blandly luxurious venue to the next; offering rich men the revitalising thrill of being parted from their money. He is a board game prodigy, a scalp hunter in an impeccable tuxedo, and he’s invariably victorious – until an encounter in Singapore leaves him on the back foot Related: Jonathan Lethem: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a dark writer, but this is utterly different’ Continue reading...

My Grandmother’s Glass Eye: A Look at Poetry by Craig Raine – a gripping and combative study

Insight and vendettas in a guide to the right and wrong ways to read a poem “I believe,” says Craig Raine, midway through My Grandmother’s Glass Eye, “that the first and most important question you can ask a poem is, ‘what does it mean?’ The poet … relies on his reader to try to make sense of the poem … We will get nowhere with poetry if we stall at the start and decide it cannot be understood.” On the surface, Raine’s proposition appears to be a modest, even innocuous, one. The centrality of meaning to poetry – the absolute necessity of getting at it, and getting it right – is at the heart of his argument, and he makes it in terms that are hard to gainsay. “Poetry”, he declares, “isn’t diminished by clarity” – and after all, what is? Anyone familiar with the field of poetry criticism ...

Fen by Daisy Johnson review – an impressive first collection

Johnson’s surreal and atmospheric stories are set in a liminal landscape where girls become eels There was a time when East Anglia’s fenland was nothing more than a silty mix of fresh- and saltwater marshes into which people rarely ventured, an unstable place with one foot on solid ground and one in the sea. Attempts were made to drain it as far back as Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that technology advanced to the point where its freedom from flooding could be guaranteed. Today it is heavily cultivated, its fertile soil providing some of the country’s richest farmland. But for all that, it remains conditional: a tricksy, liminal landscape lying below sea level whose web of fields and schools and houses is wholly dependent on the system of pumps and embankments that has been constructed to protect it. There is an uncanniness to the fens that derives both from their ...

Sjón: I’m one of the few people who’ve had Björk as a backing singer

The Icelandic writer self-published poems at 15, was Oscar-nominated for his lyrics for Lars von Trier and gave Björk’s Sugarcubes a hit – but novels are his bedrock The first thing I notice about Sjón is that he’s bleeding. As we shake hands outside a north London cafe, a bright-red drop beads on his upper lip, trembles for a moment, then spills. The sight is so surprising that it throws me completely: I exclaim; he apologises; we ditch the hellos and cast around for a tissue. He cut himself when he was shaving, he explains, hand held self-consciously to his mouth; just a nick, but sometimes they’re the worst. “Is it very bad?” he asks, with a mortified grimace. “Oh dear. Oh no. I’m so sorry.” We are here to discuss Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, Sjón’s 12th novel. Published in his native Iceland in 2013, ...

Deborah Levy: ‘Space Oddity’ seemed to be about leaving the land I was born in. Being unable to return. It can still make me cry

The Booker nominated author of Swimming Home on success, exile and being too literary to be published In February 2013, Deborah Levy found herself on her feet in front of a room of students at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. A fellow countrywoman by birth, she moved to England with her family at the age of nine in 1968, after her father, who’d been jailed as a member of the ANC, was released from prison. Although she’d made several return visits since, she had always felt, she says, “like an intimate stranger” there; viscerally attuned to the substance of the place, its “birdsong and bright sky”, but emotionally at one remove. This time, though, things were different: five months earlier, her novel, Swimming Home, had been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. “I was coming back with something of my own,” she explains now, in a north ...

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North review – when a camera brings life into focus

This richly realised US debut gives us multiple perspectives on its elusive protagonist Who is Sophie Stark? This is the question that drives Anna North’s gripping, gracefully constructed debut. Sophie’s tale is told posthumously by the six people who knew her best: her lover; her brother; her husband; her college crush; her colleague; and the journalist who tracked her film-making career from its artless beginning to its sad and shocking end. Through their stories we see Sophie and her brief life in a series of snapshots, from the wide-angled (her humdrum childhood in smalltown Iowa; the twists and turns of her odd, brilliant directorial career) to the close-up: her esoteric wardrobe; her fondness for chicken and oatmeal; her vast, candid eyes, on which each of the narrators separately fixates. Their accounts overlap like the circles in a Venn diagram, but rather than finding the real Sophie at the centre, we are confronted instead by a conundrum: a series of angles that refuse to ...

Liz Lochhead: ‘You’re stuck writing something until you go, “To hell with it, I’ll tell the truth”’

The new Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winner on learning how to be a Scottish writer and why becoming the national poet saved her life Liz Lochhead is one of nature’s talkers, asking as many questions as she answers, and her anecdotes are thick with mentions of friends: good friends; dear friends; oldest, closest, best. It’s impossible not to experience her conversation as an extension of her poetry; a looser, less structured version of what Carol Ann Duffy, in her foreword to Lochhead’s 2011 A Choosing: Selected Poems, called her “warm broth of quirky rhythms, streetwise speech patterns, showbiz pizzazz, tender lyricism and Scots”. Lochhead’s voice, as in her verse, is rich and sensitive, frank and cheerfully vernacular. And the themes are there, too: nationality; female experience; a profound awareness of time, how we move through it, and how it moves through us. Dates matter to her: she sprinkles them in the titles of ...

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers – a weighty novel that still thrills

This is a mystery that encompasses large questions of life and love – and your verdict on the case will swing my judgment of you

Books, as I’m sure you all realise, make the perfect gifts. Firstly, as anyone who found themselves unwrapping a paperback can attest, they’re economically efficient: stick to paperbacks and you can furnish someone with a world entire for under a tenner. Secondly, they’re easy to wrap. Thirdly, and crucially, they’re a brilliant means of expressing regard: by matching your recipient with just the right book, you’re demonstrating how well you know them, and how much you care. The best book presents are those that say something about, and to, the person doing the opening; the acme of my own book-gifting career came when I gave my dad ...

Patrick Ness: ‘You’re 10, a refugee in a foreign country. What the hell do you do?’

The award-winning young adult novelist on how he helped to raise $1m for the Syrian refugee crisis with one tweet

On 3 September this year, 24 hours after the first images of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, stretched out on a Turkish beach, appeared online, the novelist Patrick Ness took to Twitter. “Okay, I don’t know if this’ll work,” he said. “but I’ll match donations up to £10k to do something to help this refugee crisis”.

Ness’s tweet turned out to be the pebble that caused an avalanche. The image of the little boy, limp and lifeless with his face in the sand, had succeeded where campaigners and aid-workers had failed, carving a clean line through the media’s anti-immigration rhetoric and forcing the west to see, in human terms, the horror of what was happening. After a moment of appalled paralysis, everyone began to cast around for a ...

The Seasons: the Nation’s Most Treasured Nature Poems review – a soothing greatest hits

From Philip Larkin to Alice Oswald, this collection drawn from Radio 4’s Poetry Please lures with the familiar then hooks with the new

Forget for a moment what you know about books and their covers, and consider Faber’s latest anthology with a judicious eye. From the heavy, silky card to the tasteful artwork and the title font’s restrained serif, it’s a masterclass in elegant, unthreatening nostalgia. The illustration (stamped straight on to the boards: no fiddly dust jacket here) is a thing of seemly beauty: a linocut of a spare winter landscape of low hills and bare black trees, richly lit by a brace of pheasants and a spray of red rose hips. We know it’s a British landscape (frankly, we suspect it’s an English one) thanks to the subtitle’s adroit deployment of “the Nation”, and the sense of cosy patriotism is amplified by a discreet tagline in the top-left corner ...

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris review – small-town stories

A graceful debut captures the banalities and blessings of ordinary life

Small towns get a bad press in the UK. In the US, they are the setting for the nation’s idealised vision of itself: collections of Main Streets, mom-and-pop stores and picket fences, in which neighbours lend each other cups of sugar and everyone is on nodding terms with the sheriff. Here, though, we prefer to identify with thrusting metropolises or chocolate-box villages, and small towns are consigned to a dreary no man’s land between the two. They exist in the popular imagination as drab, deindustrialised zones of dead-end jobs and boarded-up high streets, where the schools are on the slide and the young people either get out or give up. Occasionally, there’s a move to romanticise their mundanity and view them as somehow more authentically British than the villages or cities. Speaking as a small-town girl myself, I’d say the truth lies somewhere ...