The English Job by Jack Straw review – portrait of Iran’s fixation with Britain


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The former foreign secretary examines why Iran, for all its domestic flaws, has just cause to fear foreign influence

Almost four years ago, the former foreign secretary Jack Straw went on holiday with his wife and a couple of friends to Iran, where he experienced what he calls a “forced conscription into a thriller”. Visiting the cypress of Abarkuh, a tree estimated to be up to 5,000 years old, the foursome were confronted by a group of men dressed in religiously observant black. They were members of the Basij, the thuggish volunteer offshoot of the Revolutionary Guards, and they handed Straw a leaflet explaining why he was unwelcome in their country.

The document detailed Britain’s perfidious 19th- and 20th-century track record in Iran and claimed that the recently retired Straw was a subversive agent of the British state, using his visit to sow discord. Thereafter the Basij followed the ...

Expectation by Anna Hope review – intelligent and humane


This post is by Hannah Beckerman from Books | The Guardian


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The disappointed lives of three women add up to high reader satisfaction in Anna Hope’s perceptive new novel

“You must keep hold of your friendships, Lissa. The women. They’re the only thing that will save you in the end.”

Such is the advice a mother gives her daughter in Anna Hope’s profoundly intelligent and humane third novel, Expectation, about the disjunct between the lives we once imagined for ourselves and the lives we end up living.

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Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston review – a spoof too far


This post is by Johanna Thomas-Corr from Books | The Guardian


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There’s some clever parody in this comic novel by Twitter’s ‘unofficial poet laureate’, but it’s short on bite and wit

Britain has a rich tradition of literary diarists, from Samuel Pepys and James Boswell to Frances Partridge and Alan Bennett. We also have a rich tradition of spoof diarists, who seem realer than real to many readers: Charles Pooter, Bridget Jones, Adrian Mole.

Brian Bilston falls somewhere between the two. Like Mole, he’s a poet, only a real-life published poet with a large social media following. But Brian Bilston is a pseudonym, the creation of a man named Paul Millicheap, who has now written a fictional diary. While the “real” Bilston is known as “the poet laureate of Twitter” for his minimalist musings on Jeremy Clarkson and Ocado deliveries, fictional Brian is struggling to attract more than 43 tweeple to retweet his daft doggerel. “Beat poets” is one ...

American Carnage by Tim Alberta review – the ‘riddle’ of Trump’s rise


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An investigation of Donald Trump’s unlikely ascent offers uncomfortable echoes of our political situation

Like trauma victims replaying the calamity that befell them while they wonder how much they are to blame, Americans have spent almost three years asking themselves the anguished question that Tim Alberta poses in the stark first sentence of his book: “How did Donald Trump become president of the United States?”

Answering this “riddle”, as Alberta calls it, is like rationalising the fall of man or coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis. Along with WikiLeaks and the KGB, higher powers seem to have been in play. Former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders recently suggested that Trump was God’s personal choice to occupy the Oval Office. Or is he the result of a diabolical jest? Paul Ryan, who decided when he was speaker of the House to collaborate with Trump and educate him about ...

Colm Tóibín: ‘A book wouldn’t improve Trump’


This post is by Lisa O’Kelly from Books | The Guardian


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The author of Brooklyn and The Master discusses fathers and families, the new wave of female Irish novelists – and the only time he wishes he owned a TV

Colm Tóibín is an award-winning Irish writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is also a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, New York. He was born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, the setting for several of his books, and educated at University College Dublin. His novels include The Master, Nora Webster and The House of Names. The film adaptation of Brooklyn, about a young Irish emigrant to New York, earned three Oscar nominations in 2015. His latest book, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, is published by Penguin this week.

When did you get the idea to write a book about the fathers of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde?
It began ...

Book clinic: which fiction best depicts therapy and therapists?


This post is by Bijal Shah from Books | The Guardian


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The counsellor and author Bijal Shah recommends novels from the psychiatrist’s chair and beyond

Q: I’m studying to become a therapist. What are the best depictions of therapists and therapy in fiction?
Georgia Smith, 43, North Carolina, US

A: Bijal Shah, a counsellor, ‘book therapist’, author and poet, writes:
Fiction offers thoughtful insight into the conscientious work of therapists. Using the full breadth and depth of the creative licence, client cases are examined in blistering detail. The book that jumps to mind is Irvin D Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept. A perennial literary guide for both therapists and therapists-in-training, it marries philosophy and psychoanalysis. Modern psychoanalysis founder, Joseph Breuer, attempts to treat the influential philosopher, Nietzsche, who is on the brink of suicide. Breuer, himself, is recovering from a broken heart. They form a therapeutic alliance, each attempting to heal the other’s depression. Yalom’s other notable novels with protagonist therapists, ...

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti review – a slippery love triangle


This post is by Jonathan Gibbs from Books | The Guardian


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An enticing novel about love and betrayal from a revered Uruguayan writer whose work is being translated into English at last

Mario Benedetti was a hugely cherished writer in his native Uruguay, amassing a bibliography of some 80 books by the time of his death in 2009, but he was not translated into English until recently. Now Nick Caistor has translated two short, splendid novels, both built around love triangles in which a woman – regretfully, cautiously – leaves her husband for another man.

In Springtime in a Broken Mirror, published last year, that wrench is made more poignant by the fact that the abandoned man is imprisoned abroad, a political prisoner. In Who Among Us? the setup is more straightforward, but still the woman’s choice to leave is a fraught one. Alicia’s 11-year marriage to her childhood sweetheart Miguel has given them two children, but it has faded ...

Will Eaves on Bath: ‘I could imagine Anne Elliot going for a walk’


This post is by Will Eaves from Books | The Guardian


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The novelist remembers the Somerset city as a hodgepodge of styles and classes where tolerance and prejudice coexisted

Georgian Bath was built within a century, and a lot of it disappeared inside a decade – the 1960s – when I was born. Calton Road and many rows of listed buildings were still coming down when I was learning to walk, and the Ballance Street flats going up, but the Brussellisation of the city was something I grew to love, something I associate with the freedom to roam I enjoyed as a kid. Bath always had a violent side, but my parents weren’t overprotective. I walked to Beechen Cliff comp every day with my friend Rachid, and the route took us through all the architectural ages of man – the Corn Market, the Roman baths, the abbey, Southgate shopping centre (demolished 20 years ago) and, in the shadow of the cliff ...

From Clytemnestra to Villanelle: why are we fascinated by women who kill?


This post is by Sean O'Connor from Books | The Guardian


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In both pop culture and reality, women killers both seduce and repel us. The writer behind The Archers’ gaslighting storyline explores our enduring obsession

About 2,500 years ago, an audience took their places at a theatre in Athens for the premiere of a new murder drama. The protagonist, a returning war hero, was savagely stabbed to death, naked in his bath. The crime was thought particularly heinous as the killer was the victim’s wife, Clytemnestra. Her name has become notorious for a uniquely feminine sort of villainy, and the story of the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, seen in Aeschylus’s play of the same title in 458BC, has become an archetypal domestic murder plot.

Even though female murderers are much rarer than male murderers in reality, the image of the female killer continues to fascinate. Killing Eve is just the latest example of popular culture’s preoccupation with attractive young women ...

The Great Successor by Anna Fifield review – the secrets of Kim Jong-un


This post is by Julian Borger from Books | The Guardian


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From spoilt child to ruthless dictator ... farce sits alongside horror in this excellent study of the North Korean leader

Wishful thinking is an underappreciated yet potent force in western foreign policy. When Kim Jong-un inherited his family’s dictatorship in North Korea at the age of 27, there were widespread predictions that his youth and Swiss education would make him an enlightened reformer. Who could experience the benefits of western democracy and not want it for their own country? The same optimism accompanied the rise of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a British-trained ophthalmologist, and that of Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, who liked to hang out with tech entrepreneurs in California.

All three dauphins have proved more bloodthirsty and implacable than their fathers. Growing up in the cosseted confines of a ruling dynasty and being treated as a demigod from birth can warp the humanity out of anyone.

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Colson Whitehead: ‘We have kids in concentration camps. But I have to be hopeful’


This post is by Sukhdev Sandhu from Books | The Guardian


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The Underground Railroad made him a household name. Now the author is back with a ‘Trumpian novel’ – inspired by a horrifying but ignored part of US history

It is the summer of 2019 and Colson Whitehead is sitting in midtown Manhattan thinking back to the birth of his new novel, The Nickel Boys. “It was 2014,” he recalls, “and it was a rough summer in terms of race and police brutality. Michael Brown was shot by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner, who was selling bootleg cigarettes in Staten Island, was choked to death by a cop. And no one was being held accountable. No one was being disciplined or going to jail. And then I came across Dozier School.” The Arthur G Dozier school, more formally known as the Florida School for Boys, existed from 1900 to 2011 as a reform institution for ...

Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto review – an architectural romance


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The richly imagined story of an affair between Le Corbusier and Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect, Minnette de Silva

There’s an air of romance to nearly all the places Shiromi Pinto describes in Plastic Emotions, her novel about a love affair between two great 20th-century architects. Some of those places are tropical and alluring. In Sri Lanka, we head to Kandy with its verdant hills, and then Colombo with its chattering bourgeoisie. In India, Pinto takes us to Chandigarh and its elegantly experimental modernist buildings. Even in Paris and London, we are surrounded by the glamour of bohemians and their postwar parties. But it’s in the mildly prosaic confines of a conference in Bridgwater, Somerset, that the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier seems first to have collided with a Sri Lankan architect called Minnette de Silva.

It’s there that the illustrious Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne descended in 1947 for a ...

From Ted Hughes to HG Wells: Jeanette Winterson picks the best books about the moon


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Fifty years since Apollo 11 landed, the novelist shares her favourite books and poems about Earth’s mysterious satellite

There she is, 239,000 miles from Earth. A lover’s moon, a poet’s moon, a painted moon, made of green cheese, home to the Man in the Moon, visible above the lights of Moscow and Manhattan, Tokyo and London. Hanging as the silent guardian of rivers and woods. Symbol of the mystery of the universe.

None of this has changed since Apollo 11 landed on that broken silent surface 50 years ago. The moon is just as familiar and just as remote. The mythical and magical moon, the lunatic moon that drives men mad, Earth’s moon, lifting tides and raising sap.

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The best recent crime and thrillers – review roundup


This post is by Laura Wilson from Books | The Guardian


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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson; The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby; The Chain by Adrian McKinty; The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood; The Reunion by Guillaume Musso and The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun by Sébastien Japrisot

If your idea of a cold war thriller is a “white saviour” hero with conservative values rescuing the world from the Soviet menace, think again: American Spy (Dialogue, £14.99), Lauren Wilkinson’s intelligent and pacy debut set against the background of a real coup d’état, injects new life into this tired formula. It’s 1987, and black FBI agent Marie Mitchell, her career stalled by racism and sexism, is recruited by the CIA as the bait in a honeytrap. The target is Burkina Faso’s president Thomas Sankara, and the aim is to destabilise his fledgling government, whose Marxist leanings run counter to American interests. Despite misgivings, Mitchell ...

Ilya Kaminsky: ‘Deaf culture is such a beautiful thing’


This post is by Claire Armitstead from Books | The Guardian


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Until his family migrated to the US when he was 16, the Ukrainian-born poet lived without sound. He discusses his family’s persecution and his first collection in a decade

Ilya Kaminsky has only published two poetry collections in 15 years, but his second, Deaf Republic, has been hailed as “a contemporary epic”, “a perfectly extraordinary book” from a poet described by the writer Garth Greenwell as “the most brilliant of his generation, one of the world’s few geniuses”. The man who has attracted all this hyperbole has a wraparound smile, and responds to a photographer’s demand to look more animated by reciting poetry in Russian and English. “Here is some Mandelstam,” he says. “Now I am going to give you some Emily Dickinson.” His speech drags slightly and he is apologetic about his accent: “After all this time, it should really be better,” he says, “but I only ...

Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage to be adapted for London stage


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Nicholas Hytner will direct an adaptation of the His Dark Materials prequel at the Bridge theatre

More than a decade after Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy first dazzled theatre audiences, his prequel novel La Belle Sauvage is set to be adapted for the stage at London’s Bridge theatre in autumn 2020.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the Bridge theatre confirmed that plans were under way to adapt Pullman’s 2017 novel for the stage. Bridge artistic director Nicholas Hytner will direct the show, which will be written by Bryony Lavery.

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Lily Allen: ‘The book I wish I’d written? Harry Potter, for obvious reasons’


This post is by Lily Allen from Books | The Guardian


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The singer and memoirist on the appeal of Enid Blyton, Russell Brand, and why George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is overrated

The book I am currently reading
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I haven’t finished it yet, but I really like the way she writes – short, shocking, personal sentences. This is the first book I have read by her, and I think I will be picking up the other one.

The book that changed my life
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. All of her writing comforted me as a child, and her words helped a lot with my imagination and storytelling.

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Not Speaking by Norma Clarke review – tight trousers and celebrity hairdressers


This post is by Kathryn Hughes from Books | The Guardian


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This is an explosive family memoir ... but the remarkable stories are also an exploration of the effect Thatcherism had on Britain

When Rena Clarke was widowed in 2006 at the age of 83, her six middle-aged children duly stepped up to the plate. Nicky, the richest, installed Rena in a luxury flat and continued to take her to church on Sunday. Another son, Michael, managed her money, while daughters Linda, Norma and Tina took turns with marathon sessions of tidying up and chucking out. But then, in the run-up to Christmas 2014, it all started to go wrong for reasons that remain obscure, even now that Norma, the clever one in the family, has set it all down in this intriguing memoir. It’s something to do with Nicky thinking that the others should make a bigger financial contribution to Rena’s upkeep, and Michael being cross about rising property prices in ...

I Am Sovereign by Nicola Barker review – The Author strikes back


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A metatextual farce set during a house viewing in Llandudno is a timely critique of political and narrative authority

Nicola Barker is literary royalty. Her last novel, the visionary dystopiaH(a)ppy, won the Goldsmiths prize for innovative fiction. Her territories are large, fertile and expanding. She is Queen of the Hinterlands of Quirk but also Empress of the Quotidian.

Time and again, while reading I Am Sovereign, I thought a detail or name had been invented by Barker because it seemed comically exaggerated. But Adam Wallwork really is the name of a ceramicist known for making wall tiles, and there is a self-help course called How to Silence the Inner Critic Fast by Richard Grannon. This is the particular prank that great comic writing pulls. The reader laughs along with a book but puts it down saying, “That’s just clowning around.” And the moment they walk ...

Should books include credits like films?


This post is by David Barnett from Books | The Guardian


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Books are generally presented as the work of one person, but almost 60 others worked on mine. But will readers care enough to read about them?

We writers lead a necessarily solitary life – at least, that’s what we like to think. Though the act of writing can involve lots of lonesome glaring at an open Word document (with occasional breaks for coffee and Countdown), the process of turning deathless prose into an actual book involves a lot more people than the name on the cover suggests.

This is why my publisher Trapeze, an imprint of the Hachette company Orion, is starting to put full, movie-style credits at the back of their books. They asked me if I was amenable to this for my forthcoming novel Things Can Only Get Better, after trialling it in Candice Carty-Williams’s hugely successful Queenie. Of course I said yes – not only because I ...