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

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

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

Let’s start with something “grubby”. Sara Richards reports on John Preston’s A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder:

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Inside stories: Turkey’s grim tradition of publishing behind bars

Former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş has published a short story collection, written while in jail awaiting trial – just the latest example of a writer clashing with Turkey’s government

At the Istanbul book fair last November, there was a signing for the politician Selahattin Demirtaş’s short story collection Seher (Dawn). Demirtaş, former leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has been in pre-trial detention since November 2016, and 20 authors stepped in for him as an act of solidarity. It lasted more than six hours as hundreds queued to get their copies signed.

Demirtaş wrote the stories in prison and the book is his first work of fiction, selling more than 200,000 copies. It is being published in 11 territories, including the UK next spring. Some of the stories are political satire – one is addressed to the prison letter-reading committee that vets what he writes ...

Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

A mermaid parade, a naughty gran, the coming of war and a reworked Eugene Onegin

The stand-out title this month is a picture book, Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker). When Julian sees three women dressed as mermaids, he wants to be one too; but how will his Nana react? In this bravura feat of understated storytelling, the richness of Julian’s day-to-day reality and free-floating imagination is caught in images layered with colour, movement, muscle and life, celebrating black and Latin experience. Julian invents a tail and flowing hair, and Nana’s acceptance, as she accompanies him on a wild parade of mermaids, will leave the reader filled with joy.

Nadia Shireen’s Billy and the Beast (Penguin) also celebrates the experience of those often left out of picture books, with its brave brown heroine and the outrageous array of props she stores in her huge cloud of hair. Lively, ...

Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up?

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Edward St Aubyn – authors are using their own life stories in their fiction. Does the boom in autofiction spell the end of the novel, asks Alex Clark

Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella

“That was the morning that white people finally realised the president of the United States was a white supremacist, he’d as good as said so, there was a cartoon in the Guardian of the White House with a Klan hood over the roof. Why were people surprised, weren’t they listening to anything? ... People weren’t sane anymore, which didn’t mean they were wrong. Some sort of cord between action and consequence had been severed. Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway the space between them was full of misleading data, ...

Jon McGregor on Norwich: ‘I could walk the city blindfolded’

The novelist and patron of the new National Centre for Writing explains why Norwich will always feel like home

I wasn’t born in Norwich, and I haven’t lived there for a long time, but it’s still where I feel most at home. The geography of childhood leaves imprints in the brain that are hard to shift, and although the city has changed a lot in the last 30 years all those physical outlines are the same as when I left. Sometimes when I get off the train I feel like a salmon leaping up the last waterfall, knowing innately I’ve arrived. I almost believe I could walk the city blindfolded. Veer left from the station for the football ground (cutting through the retail and leisure park, but remembering the flour mills and wire factories that used to line the river bank); head straight up the hill for the city (towards ...

Jon McGregor on Norwich: ‘I could walk the city blindfolded’

The novelist and patron of the new National Centre for Writing explains why Norwich will always feel like home

I wasn’t born in Norwich, and I haven’t lived there for a long time, but it’s still where I feel most at home. The geography of childhood leaves imprints in the brain that are hard to shift, and although the city has changed a lot in the last 30 years all those physical outlines are the same as when I left. Sometimes when I get off the train I feel like a salmon leaping up the last waterfall, knowing innately I’ve arrived. I almost believe I could walk the city blindfolded. Veer left from the station for the football ground (cutting through the retail and leisure park, but remembering the flour mills and wire factories that used to line the river bank); head straight up the hill for the city (towards ...

Dave Eggers: ‘I always picture Trump hiding under a table’

The Circle author talks about Facebook, why immigrants are not the enemy and his first novel for children

I am attracted to purpose,” Dave Eggers says. People need it, he believes, and so do nations. Much of his fiction has reflected on the loss of an American sense of purpose, the decay of the dream; much of his non-fiction has told the stories of immigrants to the US who have shown the drive and generosity missing from the country as a whole. In person, as in his work, Eggers combines an openness to describing darkness and tragedy with a faith in the essential goodness of “everyday people”. He tells me that “whenever there’s a moment when people are inspired to make the world better, I get interested. I’m super corny that way.”

The most recent of Eggers’s many books is The Lifters, a magic realist tale written for ...

Free love, flower power and fallouts: how kids cope with communes

Nostalgia for 1960s counterculture is everywhere – on Instagram, TV and in fashion. But what was life really like for the children of hippy parents?

It’s not easy being a child of the revolution. While hippies sought to explore alternative ways of living through a spiritual quest for enlightenment and mind-altering drugs, their children weren’t always thrilled to be the guinea pigs in child rearing experiments. In most depictions, hippy kids face a whole spectrum of issues as a result of their parents’ decisions to embrace alternative lifestyles, with mild packed-lunch embarrassment at one end and severe neglect at the other. “You could hear people having orgasmic sex all the time. All night, like mating baboons, gibbons,” Noa Maxwell told this newspaper, recounting his experience of growing up in the ashram featured in the recent Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country. When he was six, he got accidentally stoned eating ...

Gaudeamus by Mircea Eliade review – an ode to the joys of student life

The Romanian-born author beautifully captures the buzz of being a university undergraduate in 1920s Bucharest

The Romanian-born academic Eliade is most famous for his studies of religious history, but his Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, an account of his teenage years first published in English in 2016, revealed he was also an engaging – if not exactly straightforward – writer of his own life. In Gaudeamus, written in 1928 and translated into English by Christopher Bartholomew, the undergraduate Eliade is torn between the rigours of study and the pleasures of company as he escapes “the austerity of adolescence” in 1920s Bucharest.

Eliade has been criticised for his links to the far-right Iron Guard, but two boorish antisemites get short shrift here

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Girl, Balancing and Other Stories by Helen Dunmore review – her final work

This posthumous collection from the much-loved author, focusing on motherhood, war and women under threat, is an act of tender commemoration

When Helen Dunmore died a year ago this month, at the age of 64, it seemed unlikely there would be more of her work to come. After a lateish start as a novelist (she was in her 40s when Zennor in Darkness came out in 1993), her output was prolific: around 50 titles in around 20 years, including novels, poetry and short story collections, children’s books and fiction for young adults. The work kept coming right to the end. Even last year, there were three new books: a novel, Birdcage Walk; a poetry collection, Inside the Wave (winner of the Costa book of the year award); and an illustrated children’s book, The Little Sea Dragon’s Wild Adventure. Her career may have been cut short but, ...

‘It is like being on psychedelic drugs’: Benjamin Myers on the strange world of literary prizes

Heading to the Scottish Borders to win the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, Myers takes a strange literary trip involving Gordon Brown and a lot of potted shrimp

A strange thing happened this week: my dreams came true.

When I received a message several weeks ago to say that I had been shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize, the world’s richest prize for historical fiction, I was struck by one immediate thought: “I didn’t know I wrote historical fiction.” My nominated novel The Gallows Pole is the retelling of a true story of a murderous 18th-century criminal gang of forgers known as the Cragg Vale Coiners, who take on the might of an establishment who want to keep them poor and hungry. Up until then, I simply saw it as an allegorical tale for an austerity Britain ruled by a government not entirely favourable towards literature – ...

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton review – slick identity thriller

A well-worn tale about an unequal friendship in contemporary New York forensically unpicks our relationship with phones

Downtrodden wage slave meets rich soulmate and is swept up into their wild life: from Cinderella to Gatsby, it’s a well-worn tale. Tara Isabella Burton, a journalist and academic, has updated the story to present-day Manhattan, where it’s not a night out unless every instant is Instagrammed.

Louise is struggling to pay the rent on her grotty sublet and knows that, at 29, her chances of being noticed as a hot young writer are running out. (Over 30, in this context, and you’re nothing.) Her fab new friend is socialite Lavinia, an Emma Woodhouse to Louise’s Harriet Smith. Fully half the novel is given over to Louise’s immersion in Lavinia’s extravagant, libertine life, and Burton does a brilliant job of depicting the toxic charm of such a world, the way its artifice ...

Preti Taneja’s ‘awe-inspiring’ reimagining of King Lear wins Desmond Elliott prize

Debut novel We That Are Young takes £10,000 award after early struggles to find a publisher

Preti Taneja’s debut novel We That Are Young, a reimagining of King Lear set in contemporary India that was rejected by multiple major publishers as commercially unviable, has won the £10,000 Desmond Elliott prize.

Judges for the award, which is named after the late literary agent and publisher and is intended to reward a first novel that is “both vividly written and confidently realised”, described We That Are Young as “awe-inspiring” in its “scope, ambition, skill and wisdom”. Chair and author Sarah Perry said that after reading it, she and her fellow judges “sat together shaking our heads, saying, ‘If this is her first novel, what extraordinary work will come next?’”

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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – what it means to be poor and female in America

This unflinching and immersive portrait of prison life is a worthy follow-up to The Flamethrowers

They are strip-searched, shackled, Tasered and put in cages; their babies are taken away at birth. This is not Margaret Atwood’s Gilead – these women wear blue, not handmaid’s red – but Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Proving Atwood’s dictum that all dystopias are “really about now”, Rachel Kushner’s follow-up to her much-praised 2013 novel The Flamethrowers, a high-speed tour through the 1970s Manhattan art scene, is a blistering depiction of mass incarceration in the United States.

We first meet Romy Hall on the bus to Stanville some time in the first decade of this century: she is 29, a single mother, and about to begin two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker. “I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at ...

Top 10 books about the afterlife

From The Lovely Bones to Lincoln in the Bardo, the best novels to take up this imaginative challenge do so with meticulous conviction

Few lives are lived without a passing thought for what happens after death, but it’s a notion that only creeps cautiously into contemporary novels. I suspect this is because – unlike time travel, that other perennial “what if?” – it’s difficult to write about without tackling the religious question. Tellingly, most recent afterlife fiction sidesteps God entirely.

Having decided whether or not it will be a binary heaven/hell situation, there are hundreds of other rules to devise. It’s impossible to think of a “heaven” to please everyone, for example, so one must develop ingenious ways of tailoring the experience. The afterlife in my new novel Felix Romsey’s Afterparty is mildly pleasant but deliberately unexciting, the population kept in check by a mysterious sedative known to the ...

History of Violence by Édouard Louis review – complex, subtle and shocking

This autobiographical novel by the author of the acclaimed The End of Eddy relates a rape and its traumatic aftermath

I read this autobiographical novel when it first came out in French in 2016 and I’m delighted to say that thanks to translator Lorin Stein it has retained its complexity, its startling physicality and its moral subtlety in English.

The book speaks with many voices. Édouard, after being raped and threatened at gunpoint on Christmas Eve, takes refuge with his sister Clara. Unbeknown to her, he overhears from the next room as she tells her husband the whole story of the night’s violence. The husband seldom comments, but Édouard takes mental exception to what she is saying, adds detail and silently corrects the narrative. Clara is obviously sympathetic to her traumatised brother but, speaking to her husband, she simultaneously reproaches Édouard for taking excessive risks and dealing with the situation ineptly. ...

What is it like being a first-time novelist today? – books podcast

In some ways, it has never been easier to become an author – but in others, it has never been harder. While self-publishing, blogging and crowdfunding have opened up opportunities, there are also unprecedented financial pressures that determine who can and can’t afford to write, with books cheaper than ever and advances getting lower.

On this week’s show, Sian sits down with two first-time novelists to discuss the challenges and joys of publishing a book today: Paula Cocozza, author of How to Be Human and Preti Taneja, author of We That Are Young. Both women are up for the Desmond Elliott prize, an award intended to help debut writers to get on with their next book.

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Does Elon Musk really understand Iain M Banks’s ‘utopian anarchist’ Culture?

The tech entrepreneur has endorsed a vision of monolithic totalitarianism overseen by machiavellian machines – and one that is neither entirely utopian or anarchist

So, Elon Musk has claimed he is a “utopian anarchist” in a way he claims is best described by the late science fiction author Iain M Banks. Which leads to one very relevant question: has Musk actually read any of Banks’s books? In a series of novels, the Scottish author explored “the Culture”: a post-scarcity, hedonistic society where you could create your own drugs in your own body, change gender at will and where freedom was the highest and noblest sign of a civilisation.

Related: 30 years of Culture: what are the top five Iain M Banks novels?

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Reading group webchat: Rebecca West’s biographer on her feminism, HG Wells and politics

Carl Rollyson, the expert chronicler of this fascinatingly complex author, joined us to answer your questions

Thank you to everyone who posted a question. And a huge thanks to Carl for joining us today and answering them – it is much appreciated.

Next Tuesday, we’ll announce our theme for the July Reading group. A clue: it involves voting on the best of 52 books ...

And Carl signs off, with a final comment about West and Wells’s nicknames for each other – Panther (West) and Jaguar (Wells):

Forgot to reply about Panther and Jaguar. It’s a writerly thing to do, I don’t know why. Ted Hughes and Sylvia did something similar. And Faulkner thought in terms of animals too when it came to human relationships. Jaguar is also kind of amusing to think of in relation to the paunchy Wells. I don’t know if he ...

A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits – review

A US tennis pro’s vexed home life forms the basis of this hugely enjoyable novel

US writer Benjamin Markovits has long been interested in what it means to be moderately successful – what the narrator of 2010’s Playing Days, his autobiographical novel about his time as a basketball pro in the German second division, calls “honourable mediocrity”.

His new novel follows Paul Essinger, an American tennis player who reached a grand slam quarter-final at 21 but has never come close since, despite once beating Nadal when, Paul suspects, the Spaniard had “a flight to catch”.

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