Katerina by James Frey – digested read

‘I am fabulously rich. I’m more than a writer, I’m a brand. I have an agent to keep Hollywood at bay. I am going to burn the world down’

Los Angeles 2017
It started with an anonymous message request on Facebook. Hi. Hi. Do you remember me? I don’t know.

Paris 1992
I’m here in France drinking fucking and writing with little punctuation because I have delusions I’m the new Henry Miller and that I am going to burn the world down. Leaving the US was hard and and and yet it wasn’t hard I had to leave, leave behind the girl who loved to fuck me on the car trunk. For the three months before I did nothing but sell coke until I had $20,000 and then I booked a flight and knew I wouldn’t come back until I had burned the world down did I mention that I ...

A Keeper by Graham Norton review – O father where art thou?

A woman’s search through her late mother’s belongings initiates a journey into the past in Norton’s perceptive tale of identity and loss

Graham Norton’s 2016 debut novel, Holding, surprised critics with its empathy, delicate characterisation and strong plotting. His follow-up again demonstrates these virtues.

Elizabeth Keane has returned to the Irish village of her childhood, after the death of her mother. She is a university lecturer, separated from her husband, and living in New York with her 17-year-old son. Her return invokes a series of unanswered questions, not least her mother’s refusal to shed light on Elizabeth’s paternity. As she clears out her mother’s personal effects, she discovers a bundle of letters that appear to be from the father she has never known. And when Elizabeth finds she has been left a seaside cottage in the will, the quest into the truth of her origins begins.

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From Lolita to Winnie-the-Pooh: Juno Dawson on the best banned books

From the ‘unrestrained pornography’ of Nabokov’s classic to Harry Potter’s witchcraft … the This Book Is Gay author looks at literary works that have fallen foul of censors

We are all familiar with the gut-wrenching, disturbing images of the German Student Union burning books under the Nazi regime. It’s less well known, perhaps, that the photograph we often associate with this time shows the burning of the libraries of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, the first man – that we know of – to use the term transsexual and perform gender confirmation surgery on Lili Elbe (as seen in the film The Danish Girl).

Rarely would we see book burnings today, but routinely books are challenged or banned on grounds of impropriety. Let’s start with a personal example. My guide to gender, sexual identity and LGBTQ sex education, This Book Is Gay (2014), was challenged in Wasilla, Alaska, when a parent ...

Yan Lianke: ‘The situation for writers in China is complex’

The Chinese author on his new novel The Day the Sun Died, writer’s block and his regard for Graham Greene

Yan Lianke published his first story in 1979 at the age of 21, and has gone on to produce a formidable body of work. Some of Yan’s novels have been banned in his native China for their satirical take on contemporary life, including his latest work, The Day the Sun Died, which had to be published first in Taiwan. The novel, about 14-year-old Li Niannian, who tries to save his fellow townsfolk from themselves during one dreadful night of “dream walking”, has been read in the west as a critique of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” of national greatness. Yan has won the Man Asian literary prize and the Franz Kafka prize, has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker international prize, and has been widely tipped for the Nobel. ...

The Litten Path by James Clarke review – saga of the miners’ strike

A mining family experiences despair and liberation in a passionate debut novel set during the 1984-5 strike

James Clarke’s sprawling debut novel, a family saga set during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, can be clumsy and cliched, but it is an ardent, energetic piece of work, with shades of Barry Hines’s classic A Kestrel for a Knave and Iain Banks’s The Crow Road.

The fictional village of Litten in rural south Yorkshire, home to generations of miners, lies in the shadow of Brantford colliery; the book opens in the cold early spring of 1984 on the eve of the crucial strike ballot. The Newman family is as seething, tight-knit and intense as any picket line: laconic Arthur, who supplements his colliery wages with petty theft; his older brother, die-hard miner and semi-recluse Het, and Arthur’s shy, diffident teenage son, Lawrence, dragooned into grammar school to give him a chance of ...

The Guardian view on lengthening books: read them and weep | Editorial

The judges of the Man Booker prize have complained that some entries needed editing. As titles grow longer, the patience of readers can shorten

At 500 pages, The Overstory is a “majestic redwood” of a novel. Its place on this week’s Man Booker shortlist is testament that long books are fine by the judges. It’s the long-winded ones they rejected: “We occasionally felt that inside the book we read was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signalling to be let out,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, their chairman.

Most readers can empathise, and may feel that the word “occasionally” was tactful. One book survey found that the average number of pages had increased from 320 to 400 pages between 1999 and 2014. Some think that the shift to digital formats has contributed, not least in removing the fear of being crushed beneath your duvet by your ...

Patrick deWitt: ‘I couldn’t finish The Magic Mountain. I was loving it, too. What happened?’

The author on discovering that Richard Brautigan was not a sweetheart, and his love of Asterix comics

The book I am currently reading
Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. Blackwood was heiress to the Guinness fortune, and her knowledge of that rarified world is put to use in this darkly funny book, an often biting study of the bizarre behaviours of the aristocracy.

The book that changed my life
I can’t name a single book that changed my life, I don’t think. It was a general realisation that books were going to be a constant in my life.

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People in the Room by Norah Lange review – voyeurism and dreams in Buenos Aires

The first English translation of a 1950 work by the groundbreaking Argentinian author is darkly irresistible

A 17-year-old girl spends her days by her window, watching the house opposite in an affluent part of Buenos Aires. She is transfixed by a room where three women sit, the “pale clover” of their faces barely perceptible in the dim light. The unnamed narrator compiles a list of things they could be, or be made to be, in her imagination: spinsters, criminals, “wayward women”, “three governesses, with little joy in their lives” or “simply … three women who liked to pass the time in their drawing room”.

One day she intercepts an unsigned telegram addressed to the objects of her obsession. How does she guess the sender is a man? Why does she hate him straight away? As she spies on his visit to the room, her feelings – resulting, perhaps, from the ...

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – the entire cosmic catastrophe

An astonishing amalgam of murder mystery, dark feminist comedy and paean to William Blake from the Polish winner of the 2018 International Man Booker prize

Olga Tokarczuk, whose 2007 novel Flights was awarded the International Man Booker in 2018, is a figure of considerable stature and controversy in her native Poland. An outspoken feminist and public intellectual, she has been castigated as a targowiczanin: an ancient term for a traitor. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – first published in 2009, and now arriving in a deft and sensitive English translation – provides an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature.

When a victim is found with deerprints all around him, it seems entirely feasible that animals are committing murder

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‘It’s uncanny’: acclaim at last for Gerald Murnane, lost genius of Australian letters

Giving a rare public appearance that he vows will be his last, the 79-year-old welcomes recognition for works such as The Plains

“I have something to say first,” says Gerald Murnane, to around 250 people who have come to hear Australia’s difficult literary genius in a rare outing. “You people here tonight can count yourselves fortunate … because this is going to be my last public appearance.”

Everyone laughs, including Murnane, who at 79 has said that before and stopped writing for many years before resuming. He’s finished with it now, he says, and Border Districts, released last year, will be his final novel.

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Jack Kerouac letter to mother recounts ‘On the Road’ adventures

Written 10 years before the book that defined the Beat Generation, appeal for a $25 sub is now on sale in California for $22,500

He may have been the godfather of the Beat Generation, a self-styled crazy hobo mystic who hit the US’s highways looking for himself, but Jack Kerouac wasn’t above asking his mother for money to tide him over on the epic journey he immortalised in On The Road.

In a letter from 1947, written at the height of the travels that would form the basis of his classic roman a clef published 10 years later, Kerouac begs his mother, Gabrielle, for $25 to help him get from Denver to California.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews review – rape in a Mennonite colony

The experiences of 100 women and children in Bolivia inspired the ex-Mennonite author to write a fable for our times

“We are women without a voice,” says Ona Friesen near the start of Women Talking. “We are women out of time and place.” Between 2005 and 2009, more than 100 girls and women were drugged and raped at night in a remote religious Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For years the women were accused of lying, or of being attacked by God or Satan. Eventually a man was caught in the act and eight men were convicted. Now the Canadian novelist Miriam Toews, whose own childhood in a Mennonite community featured in her prize-winning novel All My Puny Sorrows, has written a novel based on these events, which is also a fable for our times.

When Toews’s story begins, the men are about to be released on bail and ...

Man Booker 2018: Daisy Johnson becomes youngest ever author shortlisted for prize

The 27-year-old British author’s debut Everything Under is up for the £50,000 award, while Michael Ondaatje and the first nominated graphic novel are knocked out

The 27-year-old debut novelist Daisy Johnson has landed a place on the Man Booker prize shortlist, making the British author the youngest writer ever to make the final cut for the £50,000 literary award.

Johnson was chosen ahead of bestselling longlisted novels from former winner Michael Ondaatje and the widely acclaimed Irish novelist Sally Rooney. Johnson’s novel Everything Under is about a lexicographer searching for her mother. Judge Val McDermid called it a “modern variation on Sophocles’ Oedipus”, in which “the natural world is evoked with sinister sensitivity”.

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Joy Division inspired me to write – but could I write about their music? | Sophie Mackintosh

Man Booker longlisted author Sophie Mackintosh explains how writing a short story based on Unknown Pleasures led her back to the music that made her want to be an author

Two years ago, I received an email inviting me to contribute to a short-story anthology on Joy Division. It would be a literary reimagining of their 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures – the only Joy Division album released during singer Ian Curtis’s lifetime – with each author assigned one of the songs and left free to interpret it however they liked. I was intrigued, especially when I was assigned New Dawn Fades, one of my favourites. I hadn’t listened to Unknown Pleasures properly since my difficult teenage years in the Welsh countryside, but I still remember the vertiginous feeling of hearing it for the first time and thinking, knowing, this album will change my life.

In those days, Joy Division ...

Top 10 real-life monsters in fiction

Bringing the very worst humans – from Joseph Stalin to Idi Amin – to life in novels is a tough call. But it can be done well, if you can bear to read

Depicting monsters from real life in fiction is tricky. Novelists thrive on intimate detail, but this is precisely the kind of information that is lacking when one researches a character such as Adolf Hitler, say, who was famously secretive about his private life; Stalin, likewise.

In researching my own novel, The Tristan Chord, I was lucky. My source material was August Kubizek’s 1953 memoir The Young Hitler I Knew, a remarkable account of his friendship with the adolescent future dictator. It is a three-dimensional portrait: all the traits of the adult megalomaniac are apparent at an age when Hitler is still recognisably human and capable of loneliness, visible insecurity and grief. But translating this into fiction ...

Not the Booker: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan review – thriller lost in plot

Opening with a powerful, sensitively drawn portrait of two bereaved children, this book’s drama soon becomes mechanical

Dervla McTiernan’s path to publication has been unusually smooth. That’s not the same as easy. She clearly had to put in plenty of hard yards, writing at nights after finishing up at her day job and putting her children to bed. But still. She says she started writing in earnest in 2014, having given herself five years to make a go of it – but that within just two years (by early December 2016) she found herself the subject of publishing auction and signed up for a two-book deal.

“It helped,” she has said, “that I had a story, or at least the beginning of one. It was a single image, really. A girl, 15-year-old Maude Blake, sits on the stairs in a ...

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart review – hugely entertaining and acute

The story of a hedge fund manager’s Greyhound bus journey shines a light on America on the eve of Trump’s victory

Barry Cohen has a lot of assets under management, as he likes to tell anyone he meets, but they don’t include a stable marriage, a functioning relationship with his son or a future in which he is not about to be subpoenaed for insider trading. And so, blitzed on $33,000-a-bottle Japanese whisky and bleeding from an altercation with his wife and their son’s nanny, the 43-year-old hedge funder makes good his escape, pausing only to gather up his collection of highly expensive watches.

Flinging himself on to a Greyhound bus, he sets off in pursuit of… what? An earlier version of himself, an authentic America, and his college girlfriend Layla, now living in El Paso, are some of the rabbits Barry chases down holes in the course of Gary Shteyngart’s ...

How novelist Dominick Donald followed killer John Christie into London’s Great Smog

The debut author explains how some very dark history provided him with the seeds for his gripping thriller Breathe

The serial killer John Christie, who murdered at least seven women, was hanged in 1953. But when Dominick Donald was growing up in in Notting Dale, west London in the 1970s, there were traces of Christie everywhere.

“He’d been executed for 20-odd years,” Donald says, “but everybody had their Christie story: ‘My mum worked with him in the ticket office,’ or ‘We used to see him in church,’ or, ‘My dad drank with him in the pub.’”

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Lethal White by Robert Galbraith review – twists, turns and tangled emotions

JK Rowling’s wonderfully complex detective confronts devious politicians and the perils of unwanted fame, but his fourth outing could have done with some editing

Lethal White, the fourth in JK Rowling’s crime series featuring the disabled war veteran turned private investigator Cormoran Strike and his partner in the agency Robin Ellacott, arrives with the customary fanfare, declaring itself “the most epic Robert Galbraith novel yet”. At nearly 650 pages, it’s a big book and it certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

It’s set amid the 2012 London Olympics, that last precarious moment of national unity. There are whispers of blackmail and double-dealing in the corridors of power and something suitably nasty and gothic that happened in the country seat of a Conservative MP. Strike and Ellacott must walk the line between corrupt Tories, devious coalition Liberals and brutish proto-Momentum activists. Each chapter is headed with a quote from Ibsen’s state of ...

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.

Alex42 describes his contribution this week as a “slightly strange rant.” But it’s well worth reading:

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