Top 10 novels about burning issues for young adults


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From Black Lives Matter to the south London modelling circuit, the tangled mess of real life provides plenty of raw material for YA fiction

Newspapers and novels – fact and fiction – are often seen as polar opposites. But as a writer of both, I have come to find that fiction and non-fiction are simply two sides of the same coin.

My YA Nordic thriller, The Sharp Edge of a Snowflake, was inspired by two of the biggest news stories of last year and the fearless women behind them. In 2018, the journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed that a British company called Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent and used it to influence elections. Around the same time the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum. In 2018, the actor and activist Rose McGowan released her captivating book, Brave, in which she ...

Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth review – the repercussions of childhood suffering


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Dark humour, drunken rants and dreams of escape in a bestselling autobiographical novel from Norway

“It is terrible that someone who has been destroyed spreads destruction, and how hard that is to avoid.” There are three generations of destructive parents and children in Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament. The protagonist, Bergljot, was sexually abused as a child by her rich and powerful father, who once half excused himself by alluding to the terrible experiences of his own childhood. Now in her 50s, Bergljot fears that she too has been a destructive parent, and her daughter writes a moving letter to her grandmother and aunts telling them that her mother’s childhood has impacted on her own: “I’ve seen Mum as broken and distraught as a human being is capable of without dying.”

The book was a bestseller when it was published in Norway in 2016, partly because readers recognised ...

Joe Abercrombie: ‘I think the combination of violence and humour wasn’t an immediate easy sell’


This post is by Alison Flood from Books | The Guardian


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The leading grimdark author, known for his cynical and violent fantasy novels, is back in the world of the First Law – along with a lot more women ...

British author Joe Abercrombie may have sold five million copies of his violent, darkly humorous fantasy novels, and had his books praised by reigning overlord of the genre, George RR Martin (“bloody and relentless”). But the first time he sat down to write what he believed would be “the great British fantasy novel”, it didn’t go well.

Growing up on David Eddings and Dragonlance, Abercrombie was aiming for full-blown epic fantasy when he made a stab at his own novel in his early 20s. He managed a few chapters, but it was “absolutely pompous”, he admits now, away from his home in Bath to meet with his publishers in London.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is charming, but it is also racist


This post is by Sam Jordison from Books | The Guardian


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Winifred Watson’s daffy characters are inclined to cheerful antisemitism, at a time when Nazism was taking over Europe. Can we still enjoy it?

In last week’s article on Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I started with a silly but sweet bit of innuendo. It seemed a good way to introduce a book that is, for most of its 233 pages, a light, frothy delight and widely loved as a feelgood read, so much so that it was chosen as our “fun” book for September.

I understand readers’ affection; for the most part, I share it. But there’s no getting around the feel-bad aspects of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, specifically – as a few of you have pointed out – some distinctly racist passages.

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Not the Booker: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James review – agonisingly meta


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This fractured, disparate narrative can feel like a lecture from a stoner undergraduate - but it’s also a lot of fun

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas opens with the warning that “this book is dangerous”. But don’t let that put you off.

Its author, Daniel James – or, at least, someone claiming to be Daniel James (we’ll get to that) explains in New Writing North that this book is “an unorthodox hybrid of literary fiction, biography and detective story, written by a former journalist and told through a combination of prose fiction, biographical chapters, news clippings, academic footnotes, emails, phone transcripts and more. Given these origins, the novel occupies a unique space at the intersection between truth and fiction, history and myth.”

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Not the Booker: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James review – agonisingly meta


This post is by Sam Jordison from Books | The Guardian


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This fractured, disparate narrative can feel like a lecture from a stoner undergraduate - but it’s also a lot of fun

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas opens with the warning that “this book is dangerous”. But don’t let that put you off.

Its author, Daniel James – or, at least, someone claiming to be Daniel James (we’ll get to that) explains in New Writing North that this book is “an unorthodox hybrid of literary fiction, biography and detective story, written by a former journalist and told through a combination of prose fiction, biographical chapters, news clippings, academic footnotes, emails, phone transcripts and more. Given these origins, the novel occupies a unique space at the intersection between truth and fiction, history and myth.”

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Won’t stick: reports of Margaret Atwood’s 2019 Booker prize win greatly exaggerated


This post is by Alison Flood from Books | The Guardian


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Organisers rush to clarify that judges have not yet decided beyond the shortlist after bookshop brands copies of The Testaments as the winner

The Booker prize has stressed that it has not – yet, anyway – selected Margaret Atwood’s much-heralded sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale as this year’s winner, after a bookseller mistakenly displayed copies declaring it the 2019 victor.

Novelist and academic Matthew Sperling posted an image from an unnamed bookshop of Atwood’s The Testaments on Twitter on Monday. Pictured alongside Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which bore a sticker highlighting its shortlisting, The Testaments instead boasted a sticker branding it the winner. “Don’t think you were supposed to use those stickers yet, lads...” wrote Sperling.

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Won’t stick: reports of Margaret Atwood’s 2019 Booker prize win greatly exaggerated


This post is by Alison Flood from Books | The Guardian


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Organisers rush to clarify that judges have not yet decided beyond the shortlist after bookshop brands copies of The Testaments as the winner

The Booker prize has stressed that it has not – yet, anyway – selected Margaret Atwood’s much-heralded sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale as this year’s winner, after a bookseller mistakenly displayed copies declaring it the 2019 victor.

Novelist and academic Matthew Sperling posted an image from an unnamed bookshop of Atwood’s The Testaments on Twitter on Monday. Pictured alongside Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which bore a sticker highlighting its shortlisting, The Testaments instead boasted a sticker branding it the winner. “Don’t think you were supposed to use those stickers yet, lads...” wrote Sperling.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


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Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with a Canadian writer. No, not that one. Brooke Sherbrooke actually recommends Michael Crummey’s The Innocents:

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A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier review – hidden hurts and secret longings


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A thirtysomething spinster looks for purpose and companionship in a bittersweet evocation of Britain after the great war

Just twice in Tracy Chevalier’s bittersweet new novel does its heroine, Violet Speedwell, think to herself: “I want to do that.” Her wishes are self-sacrificing enough: to embroider a kneeler in Winchester Cathedral and to ring its bells. Given that the year is 1932, the first is more easily realised than the second, yet both, in their way, are radical.

Don’t be fooled by the ecclesiastical backdrop. For Violet, who lost first her fiance and then a brother to the trenches, God died in the great war. More than 16 years have since passed but only now, as a 38-year-old spinster, has she finally plucked up the nerve to leave behind her overbearing mother and their Southampton home and make a life of her own.

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The Institute by Stephen King review – tested thrills with a topical spin


This post is by Xan Brooks from Books | The Guardian


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The master of horror returns to favourite themes, but weaves them into a portrait of the US in crisis

“Ever been to Pleasure Island?” asks Lampwick, the rowdy, doomed delinquent from Disney’s Pinocchio, as the stagecoach spirits a cargo of children through the darkened streets and clear out of the world. At Pleasure Island, behind high, bolted gates, the town’s tearaways are promised a life free from societal interference. They can drink and smoke and shoot pool at their leisure, blissfully unaware that the theme park is, in fact, a nightmarish factory or sulphurous processing plant. Come daybreak they will have been transformed into donkeys, herded into crates and put to work in the mines.

Misguided or not, the kids in Pinocchio are at least clamouring to visit Pleasure Island, which is more than can be said for the pint-sized inmates of Stephen King’s meaty, satisfying slab of ...

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood review – hints of a happy ending


This post is by Julie Myerson from Books | The Guardian


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Atwood’s angry, pacy sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale admits a ray of light into Gilead’s toxic world

Those of us lucky enough to read The Handmaid’s Tale back when it first appeared in 1985 will remember the shock of a novel that felt both claustrophobically precise and shatteringly prescient. The newly born Republic of Gilead, with its abuses and abominations, its hideously misogynistic vocabulary and gruesomely rationalised constraints, was just about far enough from our own world to seem beguiling, but also close enough to feel like a wake-up call.

Still, no one could have guessed the extent to which recent history (as well as a superb TV offshoot) would bring it eerily, terrifyingly back into focus. With the implacable rise of the Christian right in the US, never has it felt more urgent for women to guard both their bodies and their reproductive systems against (some) men and ...

First novel at 12, gone at 25: the mystery of Barbara Newhall Follett


This post is by Jackie Morris from Books | The Guardian


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When she published her debut The House Without Windows, Follett was hailed as a child genius. Then she disappeared …

This is a tale of presence and absence. A mystery, a fantasy. It begins more than a century ago, on 4 March 1914, in a small house in Hanover, New Hampshire, when a child called Barbara Newhall Follett was born.

Or perhaps it begins in 1918, when she was four? See in your mind’s eye a small girl standing silent outside the door of her father’s study. She can hear music. Curious taps and clicks and whirrs and tings of a small bell. She knows what she is hearing is the music of writing. And even at the age of four she understands how this music translates to words, how words gather to become stories, and she wants this with the clear sharp focus of a fierce four-year-old. So she ...

Fly Already by Etgar Keret review – a dazzling short story collection


This post is by Matt Rowland Hill from Books | The Guardian


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The Israeli writer’s whimsy often conceals gut-wrenching wisdom, while heartache comes laced with hilarity

In the title story of Etgar Keret’s new collection, a father and his young son are walking down the street when they spot a man on the roof of a four-storey building. “Don’t do it, please!” shouts the father, begging the man to give life another chance. Meanwhile his son, convinced they are witnessing a superhero about to take flight, is growing impatient. He urges the man to jump: “Come on and fly already, before it gets dark!”

The scene contains several elements that will be familiar to readers of Keret’s eight previous books of stories: mordant humour, a wry take on family life and the juxtaposition of the existential and the mundane. The 52-year-old Israeli author inspires devotion among his fans– Clive James has called him “one of the most important writers ...

The Art of the Body by Alexander Allison review – cruelty versus compassion


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This bold, unflinching debut about power and dependency explores the relationship between a disabled art student and his carer

Sean is in his early 20s, an art student, and lives with cerebral palsy. It’s the cerebral palsy that gives him an “accent” – that’s how Janet, the young woman employed to care for him, describes it. Janet has learned to distinguish “biscuits” from “business” and, as the narrator of this skilful debut novel, she translates Sean’s experience for us just as she navigates the world for him. But there’s an unsettling air of detachment to her own voice that allows her to describe Sean’s pained body and the unlovely work of care – baby wipes, bibs, suppositories – with an unflinching precision.

Is it really possible to provide care and feel detached? And what happens to your own life when it is put to the service of another? These are ...

Michael Morpurgo on fighting Brexit: ‘I’ve been spat at. It’s almost civil war’


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The world’s getting nastier, says the writer, and Britain no longer cares. So he’s hitting back – with a Gulliver’s Travels update that targets Trump, Brexit and the refugee crisis

Michael Morpurgo has all the trappings befitting a prolific, bestselling and beloved children’s author. There is the National Theatre production (War Horse, still touring the globe) and its Spielberg movie adaptation; the stint as children’s laureate (a post he helped create); the gold Blue Peter badge and the knighthood. But as a vocal campaigner against Brexit, he is getting used to rather a different kind of reception.

“I’ve been spat at,” Britain’s storyteller-in-chief says nonchalantly over lunch at his local pub in an idyllic Devon village. “I went to Sidmouth folk festival – quite a peaceable part of the world, you would have thought.” The trouble began when he bought one of the “little blue ...

Ian McEwan announces surprise Brexit satire, The Cockroach


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Out this month, the Kafkaesque novella sees a man wake up as prime minister and is described by the author as a ‘therapeutic response’ to Brexit turmoil

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awoke to discover that he had been transformed into a monstrous beetle. Now, in Ian McEwan’s unexpected new project, Jim Sams wakes and finds he must endure a worse fate: he has become the British prime minister.

Announced on Thursday, and to be published in just two weeks time on 27 September, The Cockroach is McEwan’s 16th work of fiction and his second to be published this year, after the novel Machines Like Me. Following the transformation, Sams – who was “ignored or loathed” in his previous life – finds himself with new powers and a new mission: to carry out the will of the people.

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Doxology by Nell Zink review – punk rock and devotion


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This multi-generational novel about music, environmental politics and the condition of innocence is generous-spirited and very funny

“Doxology” is the name given to a short hymn of praise in the Christian liturgy. Nothing to do with doxxing – putting people’s private information on the internet – though the implicit pun ghosts through Nell Zink’s new novel all the same. The title is a bit of a challenge, then: it asks the reader, why is a long book mostly set between Washington DC and Manhattan between the late 80s and the present day, and mostly about families and punk rock music and environmental politics, called after a semi-obscure bit of devotional jargon?

The term itself appears in the text only once that I noticed, on the second page, when – the story moves pretty fast – the protagonist’s mother is being buried. That protagonist is Joe Harris, who has a rare ...

To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek review – a triumphant medieval fable


This post is by Jon Day from Books | The Guardian


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An unruly band of characters travel from England to France in this exuberant 14th-century tale with contemporary parallels

In Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, his book of reportage about the EU referendum, James Meek identified two myths that, he said, provided the “psychic maps” by which the Brexit debate was navigated. The myth of Robin Hood, with its injunction to take from the rich and give to the poor, was the remainer’s myth. It represented a belief in slow, almost invisible political change – effected through things like the NHS and progressive taxation – which, while worthy, was in the end slightly boring. In contrast, the leaver’s favoured myth, George and the Dragon, was dramatic and triumphant. It celebrated beating your oppressors and not worrying too much about what came afterwards. As such, it was inevitably more attractive at the ballot box. “The Brexiteers succeeded,” wrote Meek, not because ...

Bone China by Laura Purcell review – a homage to Du Maurier


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A Cornish family’s history is shrouded in dark intrigue in a novel packed with melodramatic flourishes

Laura Purcell’s new novel is billed as a “Du Maurier-esque chiller”, which may be putting it mildly. We meet Hester Why aboard a mail coach as it lurches through the Cornish night. From Falmouth, she proceeds by pony and trap to her destination, announced in the time-honoured manner by a grizzled driver. “We be on Morvoren land now,” he croaks.

We be veering towards outright staginess, too, it must be said. The effect isn’t just Du Maurier-esque; it’s Du Maurier-tastic. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. She could ham it up with the best of them – indeed, she was the best of them – and sometimes readers like to know exactly what they are getting. It’s an approach that has certainly worked for Purcell so far: she won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read ...