Kerry Andrew on writing supernatural fiction: ‘I had to spook myself out’

The musician and writer on her debut novel, Swansong, inspired by a 17th-century ballad, her inspirations and the wisdom of Robert Macfarlane

Kerry Andrew is a London-based composer, performer, writer and educator. She has a PhD in composition, has won four British composer awards and is the current BBC Ten Pieces commissioned composer. In 2014 she released Hawk to the Hunting Gone, an avian-themed alternative-folk album under the name You Are Wolf. Swansong, her debut novel, is set in the Scottish Highlands, where a London student flees after a disastrous night out.

Swansong is based on a ballad probably originating in the 17th century. What appealed to you about it?
It comes from the same root as the Swan Maiden myth – or it might do – and the version I came across was more supernatural. It’s very dark and romantic and tragic. Quite often in ballads you ...

Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North review – Horatio Clare signs on for a journey of discovery

A seemingly bleak 10-day mission in the Bay of Bothnia is the source of surprisingly vivid insights into the Finns’ national character

“Would you like to travel on a government icebreaker? I think if you do the journey, something will come of it.” Something does and to Horatio Clare’s great credit, since this could have been a book-length advertorial, he recognises the invitation by the Finnish embassy, to mark the centenary of the country’s independence from Russia, for the PR exercise it is. Nevertheless. Clare, whose Down to the Sea in Ships (2014) chronicled his experiences sailing with the Danish Maersk container company, leaps at the chance.

His berth is aboard the Otso: 7,000 tonnes, 100 metres long, 40 metres high. Its bridge bristles with technology; its engine room, provisioned with 50,000 spare parts, roars with scarcely contained power. It has two saunas (one for officers, one for the ...

Carmen Maria Machado: ‘I’m interested in messing with genres’

The author of Her Body and Other Parties on the art of writing sex scenes, engaging with dead writers, and the readers who give her flak

Carmen Maria Machado’s acclaimed debut collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for America’s National Book award. She is writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives with her wife in Philadelphia.

Women’s bodies – and what they are subject to – seem to be central to this collection…
It was something very personally important to me, which I think a lot about. It’s weird because people keep saying it’s so relevant right now, but our bodies have been oppressed for all of human history.

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Everything You Do Is Wrong review – dark laughs and plot twists

The mystery of an amnesiac woman found on a beach is the setting for family woes in Amanda Coe’s third novel

Contemplating the eating disorder she is trying to cultivate, lumpen, horny, 15-year-old Harmony is reminded of a Möbius strip: what to do when you need, but can’t afford, both Senokot and KitKats? Similar flares of mordant wit, as well as more painful spasms, punctuate Amanda Coe’s third novel, whose unfolding secrets eventually bring us full circle, back to the stony beach where her story begins. It is here that a mute, amnesiac woman is discovered by Harmony’s aunt, but perhaps the greater mystery surrounds Harmony’s mother, who has retreated into the vacancy not of silent forgetfulness, but depression. Coe’s bleak coastal town is a fitting backdrop for a novel that, for all its dark laughs and plot twists, ultimately seems to resign its central characters to the unhappy loops ...

Richard Flanagan: ‘Fiction is not a lie, but a truth, a necessary truth’

The Booker prize winner on his new novel and why it’s not always possible to separate fact from fiction

Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In First Person, would-be novelist Kif finds himself embarking on the ghostwriting job from hell.

This is a very different novel to The Narrow Road. Was that always the plan?
Plan? I had no plan. First Person is the book I began before the Booker and which I finished after, while at the same time, trying to surf the mudslide that the Booker brings on without falling off and being buried alive.

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Heidi Julavits: ‘This is a way to lasso moments that were about to be lost’

The author on writing a diary that honoured her childhood, emotional honesty and staying creative in the face of today’s current affairsAuthor of four novels, co-editor, with Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, of the compendium Women in Clothes and co-founder of the Believer magazine, Heidi Julavits teaches creative writing at Columbia University and lives between New York and Maine. The Folded Clock: A Diary was inspired by rediscovering her childhood journals. The book moves backwards and forwards in time. Why did you structure it like that?
It was something I struggled with. The structure of the diary was a generative structure, but I then needed something to make it a more curated experience. I played around with organisational systems, including dividing all the entries into topics, but the categories kept collapsing. So I decided to stop being overanalytical and start building the book like a mixtape that I used ...

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – review

A young woman combats her depression by moving to the countryside in this finely calibrated, affecting novel

This is, explicitly, a book about art and “sadness”, but it is neither affected nor mawkish. When its narrator, 25-year-old art student Frankie, hacks off her hair in response to her grandmother’s death, her not uncaring mother’s first thought is for her shears. “‘It knackers them if you use them on anything that isn’t fabric,’ she said.”

Frankie’s grandmother has been dead for three years when Irish writer Sara Baume’s novel begins, but her depression has only lately come to a head. Jacking in her job at a Dublin gallery, she has fled to the country and her grandmother’s empty bungalow to “get better or die altogether”.

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The Fall Guy by James Lasdun review – a twisty, slick thriller

Deception and adultery among the rich and disgraced make for a gripping readWith its Occupy backdrop, The Fall Guy seems rooted less in America’s recent past than another, pre-Trump era. But global inequality isn’t really the focus; instead, it’s the skewed relationship between Matthew, the son of a Lloyd’s “name” who vanished with his clients’ money and family’s reputation, and his super-rich American cousin Charlie. Moreover, who is indebted to whom, and how, reveals itself only in the fullness of time – although from the moment that Matthew slips into Charlie’s (albeit empty) marital bed, we feel safe in assuming what’s on the horizon. But nothing is straightforward in this slick, Highsmithian thriller, and while the damaged Matthew’s capacity for self-deception is flagged early, Lasdun’s skill lies not least in letting us think that we might therefore have his number. Wrong – and yet the novel’s denouement feels fated ...

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep review – secrets and sorrow

An English suburb is the setting for Joanna Cannon’s bestselling tale of a woman who goes missing in the 1976 heatwavePrior to its publication last January, Joanna Cannon’s debut novel was tipped as a likely hit of 2016 and the author appeared in the Observer’s annual New Year feature about debut novelists to watch. Expectations were fulfilled and The Trouble With Goats and Sheep became a bestseller; less foreseeable was quite how prescient this winning parable would come to seem over the course of the year. Cannon, a psychiatric doctor, suggests with sensitivity the secrets, shame and sorrow that lurk behind every net curtain Continue reading...

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein – review

The Sleater-Kinney riot grrrl delves into her early years and musical motivations with an engaging, unself-pitying intelligenceBrownstein’s lyric turned title is of course ironic, her use of the “G” word in particular. Sleater-Kinney, the Washington trio that she co-founded in 1994,were riot grrrl not girl power – the opposite end of the spectrum to the Spice Girls’ “dumbed down” feminism. “I didn’t want to be a girl with a guitar,” Brownstein writes. “‘Girl’ felt like an identifier that viewers, especially male ones, saw as a territory upon which an electric guitar was a tourist, an interloper.” It’s perhaps the only duff sentence in the book, its stylistic failings evidence of the freight it carries. The sexism of the industry is all-pervasive, but “territory” is also a key word for Brownstein, her search being less for a room of her own than a way of inhabiting her flesh. Retreating ...

The Essex Serpent review – love, faith and geology

Sarah Perry’s blend of historical romance and gothic mystery is pure pleasure Just what is the Essex serpent? Foul beast of legend, divine judgment or, as widowed young amateur geologist Cora suspects, a living fossil that somehow eluded extinction in the inscrutable depths of the Blackwater estuary? Curiosity piqued, she decamps to briny Aldwinter, where her friendship with local vicar Will blossoms, and faith and reason – indeed faith and freedom - tussle. A Victorian-era gothic with a Dickensian focus on societal ills, Perry’s second novel surprises in its wonderful freshness. There’s a sense of Llareggub about close-knit Aldwinter, its flint church, historic oak and ribby shipwreck instantly present, while the tapestry of voices that results from the use of letters amplifies the Under Milk Wood echo. Perry’s singular characters are drawn with a fondness that is both palpable and contagious, and the beautifully observed changing seasons permitted space to ...

The Sport of Kings review – a breathless Kentucky tale

A story of horse-breeding and the legacy of slavery from prize-winning US author CE MorganIf the author’s name rings a bell, it might be because she won one of Yale University’s Windham-Campbell prizes, established to “call attention to literary achievement”. That Morgan’s second novel is an achievement is beyond doubt; dedicated “to the reader” it is also, at more than 500 pages, a test of the reader’s dedication. Yet Morgan barely draws breath as she chronicles the fortunes of Henry Forge, the racehorse-breeding scion of Kentucky planters. Horses, however, are only half the story: the selfish gene and the legacy of slavery; creation myth, oedipal struggle and torrid melodrama – all are grist to the voracious narrative surge. As for overegging it, that charge too is entertained and overruled: “There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words… we’re infants before the Ohio coursing its ancient way, the icy ...

Conspiracy by SJ Parris review – return of the Dominican detective

Sixteenth century Paris provides monk-turned-spy Giordano Bruno with another murder to solve in an entertaining addition to the seriesRecently returned to France from England, SJ Parris’s monk turned spy, Giordano Bruno, is hoping to return to the favour of his former pupil, Henri III – if he can only get his sentence of excommunication for heresy lifted. Yet the king’s own future is looking shaky: France’s ills are widely laid at the doors of the Louvre, the nation’s decline blamed on debauchery and Henri’s decadence, and with the Duke of Guise, leader of the fanatical Catholic League, fanning the flames, civil war seems imminent. Related: Forget 'serious' novels, I've turned to a life of crime Continue reading...

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker – review

Barker’s fictionalised biography of Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna is typically audacious but a little hit and missWhen, in 1965, Christopher Isherwood published his biography of the mid-19th century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna (Ramakrishna and His Disciples), it was to general head-scratching. “It is still a bit difficult to regard Herr Issyvoo as a guru fancier,” one critic sniffed, a response that Isherwood recorded resignedly in his own memoir of spiritual questing, My Guru and His Disciple (1980). Nicola Barker’s interest in Ramakrishna, whose life forms the meat of The Cauliflower, is less of a surprise. Ramakrishna’s own Skimpole-like unworldliness is the source of a perpetual headache for his devoted nephew Hriday Continue reading...

Noonday by Pat Barker review – awesome prose

Among nightmarish images from the blitz, a grotesque new character brings Pat Barker’s second trilogy to a dark conclusionThe first world war has proved fertile territory for Pat Barker, notably in the form of the 1990s Regeneration trilogy, but more recently in Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012), which introduced an entangled triangle of Slade School artists, Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke. Barker’s decision to situate Noonday, the final instalment in this second trilogy, during the blitz, is thus a bold one, although perhaps not as bold as the introduction of a new character bearing the name of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason. Grossly overweight, a former prostitute, Barker’s Bertha now subsists as a medium: “She mightn’t have been much use giving birth to the living, but my God she was a dab hand giving birth to the dead.” Related: ...

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster review – keenly observed

A woman with a terrible secret seeks refuge in Cumbria – only to find a nosy neighbourIn the late Margaret Forster’s final novel, a woman with a terrible secret seeks to escape her past. Tara Fraser has murdered her husband in cold blood; newly released from prison in London, she flees north to start a new life. The premise is pure grip-lit but it is Forster’s acute scrutiny of the economy of friendship – what is taken, given and traded, and at what cost – that hooks. In Cumbria, Tara’s arrival piques the interest of elderly widow Nancy, a stalwart believer in keeping oneself to oneself but unfortunately possessed of a “devouring curiosity, a trait much frowned on by her mother”. Tara’s backstory may not always convince, but Nancy – forged by her tough upbringing and long solitude; drawn with sympathy and wit – is a memorable creation, and ...

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray – review

The follow-up to Skippy Dies is a playful, sometimes chilling farce set in an Irish investment bank Amid the bounce and twinkle-eyed hilarity of Paul Murray’s third novel, set in the Irish investment banking industry, there are several moments that strike a chill – the scene, for example, in which one trader explains that his monstrous institution is still too small, because it isn’t yet “setting its own agenda, reality-wise”. Reality and fiction are the themes at the heart of this philosophical shaggy dog farce, which proves to be a more than worthy successor to the much-loved Skippy Dies. Continue reading...









Hostage review – an audacious, satisfying thriller

Observer journalist Jamie Doward’s second novel links murder, terrorism and big tobacco in a winning globe-spanning, quickfire plot Smoking kills – and ending up as a human ashtray isn’t to be recommended either. That’s the fate of Antony Carrington, one of the many corpses littering Observer journalist Jamie Doward’s audacious second thriller, which also sees the return of his marathon-running, financial analyst heroine, Kate Pendragon. Having previously been seconded to MI5, Pendragon is now in the pay of Carrington’s former employers, tobacco giants Smith and Webb. But the deceased’s serial slaying is just the start of it: Doward’s chewy plot – black markets, blackmail and a big, fat, satisfyingly diabolical conspiracy – speeds the reader confidently around the globe from Washington DC to Belize to the Sahara, where an arch terrorist is holding US and British energy workers hostage. The bleak Kent coastline – Pendragon’s adopted patch – is put ...

Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare review – in search of a bird often thought extinct

The travel writer traces the slender-billed curlew’s migratory path in a book that’s full of both wonder and gloomNot any old curlew, this, but the slender-billed variety, a white and gold creature with a scientific name, Numenius tenuirostris, “the slim beak of the new moon”, as evocative as its cry. The plangent sound of the latter captivates the author even as it issues from a Greek ornithologist’s mobile, which, it turns out, is the nearest Clare comes to a bird seen so rarely its extinction is often assumed. Yet as the acclaimed memoirist and travel writer knows well, the quest is what counts and here the focus is on the passionate conservationists he meets as he traces the birds’ migratory passage through southern Europe and the Balkans. There is much gloom – hunting, pollution, land drainage – but Clare is ultimately buoyed both by the efforts ...

David Eagleman: ‘Humans are real storytelling animals’

The American neuroscientist on the brain and free will, literature, science and humanity – and the possibility of space travel in digital form

The Brain investigates ways we might “hack” our neural hardware to substitute and add senses. Can you give an illustration?
In my lab we’ve developed a Vest [Variable Extra-Sensory Transducer] that’s covered with little vibratory motors so that we can pass new kinds of data streams to the brain as moving patterns on the skin. And what we’ve already been able to demonstrate is that we can circumvent deafness by capturing sound and converting it to patterns on the torso so that a deaf person can come to understand the auditory world. For a deaf person their only option is a cochlear implant, which is $40,000 (£26,311) and an invasive surgery. This Vest costs less than $1,000, and that opens it up as a global solution.

You ...