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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book reviews roundup: How to Build a Girl, Village of Secrets and A Broken World

Caitlin Moran 'She writes with breathtaking brio' … Caitlin Moran. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

"Any novel that begins with its 14-year-old narrator masturbating in the same bed as her sleeping little brother can't be all bad. Indeed, Caitlin Moran's spirited coming-of-age tale romps from strength to strength. After her popular essayistic memoir How to Be a Woman, Moran's first novel for adults, How to Build a Girl, follows the remaking of Johanna Morrigan, a pudgy, smart-mouthed teenager from the West Midlands". Lionel Shriver in the Times pronounced herself "a Moran fan … At 39, the author can still summon the raw, jangled experience of being a teenager." "There's a lot about masturbation here – as much an age of coming as a coming of age novel", noted an equally admiring Julie Burchill in the Spectator: "She writes with breathtaking brio, like a great professional hoofer who has been toe-tapping since tot-hood but has never grown tired of performing: very much a 'Ta-da! – see what I did there?' type of writer." But Liz Jones in the Evening Standard didn't agree: "The problem is, this novel has no depth or pathos. Even though it's based on what she knows, there is no sense that this new girl is real … It's all quite glib … Moran hasn't stretched herself … It would be easy to give this book a good review … But I feel it's my job … to warn young women when I think they're wasting their money."

Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead, an account of Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, the "remote mountain village", as Sinclair McKay wrote in the Daily Telegraph, "that provided sanctuary and escape for numbers of Jewish people … is riven with complexity". It is "also about ownership of history. Moorehead analyses how, in recent years, the story … has been fluffed up as a sort of national comfort blanket – a beacon of redemptive light in Vichy darkness … at the expense of difficult truth … If anything, Moorehead's pacy, headlong narrative, zigzagging across the war years and different territories with so many piercing vignettes and close detail, packs too much in and the structure suffers. A longer book would have given more room for reflection …" Alan Judd in the Spectator praised the book for pointing out "the brute facts. France was one of only two sovereign states (the other was Bulgaria) to do the Nazis' work for them, rounding up and deporting over 150,000 – half of them Jews – to death or slavery. From the start, Vichy 'consistently offered more than Germany asked for, more and also sooner'."

On the cover of the anthology A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War, edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf, the author of Birdsong is "for obvious commercial reasons", wrote Libby Purves in the Times, put first "and much bigger". Wolf's "area of research in war writing includes 'miniature narratives and popular form (anecdotes, jokes, cliches, memes)' and Faulks himself handsomely acknowledges in his introduction that the book's merits are largely due to her search for the oblique, the overlooked and the international. He is right … the pleasure of the book is in the straightforward human responses." According to Gerard Henderson in the Daily Express "it is the pain, the suffering and the confusion that dominates this impressive work – the awful reality of warfare summed up by Private Frank Cocker, who wrote from the front in 1915, following the loss of his brother: 'My heart is so stunned I don't know whether it is broken or not.'"

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The World Cup is political theatre of the highest order

2014 FIFA World Cup, Group G, Germany v Portugal, Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador, Brazil - 16 Jun 2014 Germany has a football team to match its ambition and character. Photograph: Rex Features

Is anything more global than football? Fifa believes that the 2014 World Cup will exceed the total world audience of 3.2 billion that watched the 2010 South African tournament. The USA team's games have attracted record viewing figures at home, and, in an increasingly fragmented media world, national team's games have truly exceptional audiences everywhere. Few singular events – not a man on the moon, not the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – have held humanity's attention like the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina that awaits us.

Alongside the 75,000 people in the crowd at Rio's Maracanã on Sunday the global digital chorus will be immense. Facebook announced more than a billion World Cup-related interactions during the first half of the tournament among 220 million people. In the first week alone, the 459m exchanges exceeded those reported for Sochi 2014, this year's Super Bowl and the Oscars combined. The semi-final between Brazil and Germany generated 35m tweets peaking at more than half a million a minute when Germany's fifth goal went in.

Among the tweeters inside the Maracanã on Sunday we can expect commentary from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, seated alongside the rest of the BRIC premiers: Brazil's president Rousseff, Russia's Vladimir Putin, South Africa's Jacob Zuma and China's Xi Jinping. The Brazilian foreign service will need to find some space for the finalists themselves: chancellor Merkel and presidents Gauck and Kirchner. No doubt the heads of state of Costa Rica, Mexico, Iran and the US, all of whom have been engaging via social media, will put in their 1o cents' worth too.

In this respect the World Cup is political theatre of the highest order – an instrument of soft power, a node in the global networks of power – but its dramatic structure is a complex and shifting thing. For the devotee, the early rounds are like gorging on an addictive DVD box set. Suddenly one is watching two, three, even four episodes a night. A significant part of the world has been rearranging its sleeping and working patterns around the tournament. In China, reports suggest this has triggered a wave of deaths through nervous overexhaustion.

Alongside the spectacle has run the counterspectacle of the protest movements and the Kevlar-plated leviathan of the Brazilian security forces. This feels more like an experimental parallel-universe novel, where two worlds run alongside each other reflecting and commenting but only very rarely actually touching. The protests have taken many forms – street art, computer hacking of sponsors' websites – but the demonstrations dwindled to almost nothing. The cost of this has been the militarisation of public space and the absurdly aggressive policing of dissent, making the few brave forays by dissidents the critical grit beneath the glitter.

The multi-character, multi-layer stories that the tournament has generated, the highly structured dramatic climaxes of the games, and the mad chatter of public running commentary on characters and private lives, makes the World Cup feel like a great global soap opera. Cameroon and Ghana are consumed by fights over money between the players and their notoriously rapacious football officials. Luis Suárez loses his emotional control and is punished, globally lampooned but lauded in Uruguay.

While the games in Brazil are the fulcrum of any one of these many plotlines their most dramatic and meaningful expressions occur at home. This is more the territory of a multi-authored international collection of short stories and essays. England's journey seemed a textbook exposition of the private opulence of the Premier League and the public squalor of the national team. In Iran, it is the female characters who are strongest. Officially banned from viewing football with men, they have followed the national team surreptitiously in mixed cafes and then paraded through central Tehran in defiance of the theocracy. Hundreds of thousands of ecstatic Colombians welcomed home their team as if they were champions rather than defeated quarter-finalists – their best World Cup performance ever serving as a suitable marker for a nation finally moving beyond the protracted drug wars of the last three decades.

These nations and stories are no longer tied to just one place but are diasporas. Mexico's victory against Croatia saw LA Chicanos take to the streets of South Central in such numbers that the LAPD intervened. Algeria's passage to the second round was met by ecstatic crowds and magnesium flares in Algiers, but also in Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Roubaix, where celebrations turned into street fights with the police.

Is there something grander at work than this global kaleidoscope? Is there no clearer arc of meaning at work? There are certainly recurring themes. The global inequalities of ethnicity, gender and class were surely on display when one compared the makeup of the crowds with their teams, and the teams with their coaching staff. But it is narrative that we crave. As teams have been eliminated and the incredible cacophony of games and goals quietens, the semi-finals have focused our attention on the plotlines of just four nations.

The Dutch are returning home to contemplate the limits of being a small nation in the global order and by some way the smallest population of the four. However much team and economy are nurtured by brilliant coaching and innovative education, there seems to be a ceiling on their progress. Brazil has had a bitterer pill to swallow – the manner of their departure from the competition, comprehensively humiliated by Germany 7-1, forensically laid bare the illusions of Brazilian football. Brazil no longer plays good or beautiful football: the game, like many of its institutions, has been poisoned by corruption, elite mismanagement, cynicism, a brutally Hobbesian will to win, and no amount of overwrought patriotism, mawkish crying and fist pumping can disguise it.

The backdrop to the Argentinians' almost impregnable nerve and defensive concentration on the field is president Kirchner's bitter fight with US-based vulture funds over its rescheduled debt obligations. Under immense economic pressure and looking a major debt default in the eye, the country still aims to cock a snook at the international order. The huge numbers of Argentinian fans have been the most voluble and unruly at the tournament. The idea that they might win the final is their host's nightmare scenario.

Germany, still described in the hapless cliches of efficient machines and ruthless, clinical finishing, were actually dazzling: precisely the word that the French press used to laud the Brazilians at the 1938 World Cup when they surprised the world and showed us what the new football looked like. Now the positions are reversed. Germany, finally emerging as what it has been for decades, the pre-eminent European power, has a football team to match its ambitions and its character: brilliantly organised but instantly flexible, individually accomplished but telepathically networked, technically superior to the Brazilians in touch, positioning and anticipation. Yet they carry other German traits too: a collective solidarity that disdains the egotistical, and a realistic conservatism about an uncertain world, for no one feels victory is assured.

Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist wrote: "Culture is the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves." If there is a global culture and a global humanity, then the World Cup, more than any other phenomenon, is where those tales are told. We are fortunate then that the game we have chosen as our collective avatar should be so inventive a storyteller that a single game of football – the World Cup final – can, for 90 minutes, bind so many strands of this turbulent planet together.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Best holiday reads 2014 - top authors recommend their favourites

I loved Akhil Sharma's novel Family Life (Faber) because it feels emotionally true. I also loved Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko (Pintail), a debut novel set in western Nigeria, which on the surface is about a young woman coming of age, but is really an exploration of social taboos, gender and family. I have just started reading – and am really enjoying – Lily King's novel Father of the Rain (Atlantic); it's so well done.

Stoner by John Williams

First I am going to read John Williams's Augustus (Vintage Classics). His "campus novel" Stoner was last year's rediscovery, but the epistolary story of the first Roman emperor looks even better. I shall also be packing Edith Hall's Introducing the Ancient Greeks (WW Norton). Great to see how a feisty woman does the "introduction".

Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Berlin vies with London, currently, as the coolest city on the planet. MacLean's wonderfully knowledgable overview of the city's history helps explain the place's enduring fascination. Hollow Mountain by Thomas Mogford (Bloomsbury) is the third novel in a highly original and compelling Mediterranean noir series featuring the resourceful and all-too-human Gibraltar-based young lawyer Spike Sanguinetti. Tremendous atmosphere, rich characterisation and ideally complex plotting. I Knew the Bride by Hugo Williams (Faber): it's rare that a book of poetry exhibits "grace under pressure" with such laconic aplomb. Williams's superb poems about his visits to a dialysis ward pull off a near-impossible balancing act: a haunting memento mori leavened with wry, worldly amusement.

Philip Hensher, The Emperor Waltz

I recommend two novels that have just been published – Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus) and Philip Hensher's The Emperor Waltz (4th Estate). The former takes place in Bengal in the 1960; the latter in the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany and 1970s London, with brief visits to fourth-century Rome and a present-day hospital ward. Both novels are splendidly thought out and extraordinarily readable. And then I'd like to add Jane Gardam's collection – The Stories (Little, Brown) – full of wit, unexpected turns of events and splendid writing. Every summer I bury myself in one author I read avidly late at night – this year it is Alan Furst, whose compulsive thrillers are just as exciting when revisited.

Shami Chakrabarti 'Eleanor Marx: A Life' is a wonderful book … Shami Chakrabarti. Photograph: David Fisher/Rex Features

I've just finished Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury) and have already given copies as gifts, for holiday reading. It's a wonderful book: part biography of a great woman of letters and activism; part family drama and whodunnit. Feminism began in the 1870s not the 1970s and Eleanor Marx's progressive internationalism as translated by Holmes is so relevant today. A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury) is my holiday novel as I love Shamsie's beautiful painting with words. I've enjoyed her previous books for the way that the sweep of human history touches and turns the intimate lives of her characters. Unsurprisingly, this book, like the Eleanor Marx biography, has already achieved widespread critical acclaim.

For those with the luxury of late post-school-holiday breaks, there are some really exciting offerings out in September. I am looking forward to The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse (Orion), Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett (Macmillan) and Women in Dark Times by Jacqueline Rose (Bloomsbury).

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

As I am a Man Booker prize judge this year, my summer reading list consists of 160 new novels that I can neither name nor (currently) endorse, although in late July my fellow judges and I will announce a longlist recommending 12 or 13 novels for everyone's summer reading lists. Then, once I have reread the longlist, I am immensely looking forward to catching up on some non-novels, including (after a surfeit of 600-plus-page tomes) several short-story collections: Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro (Vintage), Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury) and Bark by Lorrie Moore (Faber). I also crave the astringency of some non-fiction, and am especially eager to read Jill Lepore's Book of Ages (Knopf), the story of Benjamin Franklin's sister, Ian Leslie's Curious (Basic), and Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Penguin). Once I can face a novel again, I look forward to being the last reader in Britain to finally begin Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle (Vintage).

For a moving and highly contemporary story full of suspense, take Bernardine Bishop's new novel Hidden Knowledge (Sceptre). If you're going to Italy (or even if not), I recommend a couple of books that illuminate Italian history of the fascist period: Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike (4th Estate), an entertaining biography of the outrageously colourful poet and man-of-action Gabriele d'Annunzio, to be offset by Antonio Pennacchi's epic novel The Mussolini Canal (Dedalus). The latter will make you want to head off at once to the Pontine Marshes.

I can't recommend A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie too strongly – this is her best novel yet, which is high praise to give to the author of Burnt Shadows. A young Englishwoman – an archaeologist in Turkey before the first world war, then a nurse to wounded soldiers – searches for her lost love whom she may have unwittingly betrayed. The narrative moves to the struggle for Indian independence and the boy she befriends, against the custom of culture and class, in a subtle tapestry in which love, history and archaeology all have their place. Exciting and, in the end, profoundly moving, this will solace you during the grimmest holiday. I intend to read Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane), believing that his characteristically well researched and lively account of the imperial legacy in Boston, Bridgetown, New Delhi, Melbourne and so forth will serve as a substitute for sitting at airports on my way to visiting these colourful cities.

Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

George Saunders's Tenth of December, which won the inaugural Folio prize has been somewhat overshadowed by the very different but equally wonderful A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar), also shortlisted for the Folio prize and which went on to win several other awards including the Baileys. So I think it should be pointed out that reading both books is compulsory.

I was recently sent an advance copy of H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Jonathan Cape), which is out in August. It's about the author TH White and grief and training goshawks and is, as I promise on the cover, very hard to put down.

I'm also looking forward to reading Letters of Note edited by Shaun Usher (Canongate), a collection of "correspondence deserving of a wider audience" in both facsimile and typescript. Jack the Ripper writes to the chairman of the Whitechapel vigilance committee. Mary, Queen of Scots writes about her impending execution. A telegram is sent from the sinking Titanic. Elvis Presley asks Richard Nixon if he can become a "federal agent at large". If you're not tempted by those four alone, you have a heart of stone. One last suggestion – if you're unwilling to leave the hammock or open your eyes – I'm re-re-listening to Seamus Heaney reading his own translation of Beowulf (Faber). The original poem is one of the great works of literature; Heaney's genuinely thrilling translation will make you understand why – and he was blessed with one of the most beguiling voices I have ever heard.

Mohsin Hamid Mohsin Hamid is looking forward to reading Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

The first in my towering pile of books is Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide (Hamish Hamilton), because I think the government spying that he uncovered via Edward Snowden is terrifying and I'd like to know more. And the second is Decoded (Allen Lane), Mai Jia's debut novel about a Chinese secret-service cryptographer, which I've heard is brilliant – and is also, come to think of it, probably not unrelated to the first.

Most of my reading this year is of forgotten or neglected British short stories for a big Penguin anthology. But I'll take a break from Sapper, Stacy Aumonier, Lanoe Falconer and HA Manhood for a couple of special new novels. Early copies of Sarah Waters and David Nicholls look beautifully promising; Waters's The Paying Guests (Virago) is a sumptuously subdued story of making do and getting by after the great war, Nicholls's Us (Hodder & Stoughton) is a wrenching examination of a journey through Europe that goes terribly wrong and a consideration of what it means to be a parent today. Apart from that, it's going to be the usual strategy of alternating PG Wodehouse and Elmore Leonard, their sunny temperaments perfect for the beach.

Nicholson Baker, Travelling Sprinkler

Nicholson Baker's Paul Chowder novels, The Anthologist (Pocket) and Travelling Sprinkler (Serpent's Tail), are wonderful: chatty, bizarrely informative, wise, kind, unpredictable and funny. Chowder is a lovelorn, impoverished poet who, in the second book, has hit the Three Fs – Fifty Fucking Five – and is no nearer to achieving financial or emotional stability. He knows a lot, though. The Anthologist is brilliant on the unlikely subject of rhyme (Chowder thinks blank verse is a fascist conspiracy); in Travelling Sprinkler, Chowder tells us about bassoons, cigars, Logic software, Debussy and protest songs. Will Hermes's Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (Viking) is a book about more or less every piece of music made in NYC between 1973 and 1977 – Television, Blondie and Talking Heads, of course, but also salsa, disco, free jazz and the first days of hip-hop. It's as authoritative a piece of social history as you'll come across – Hermes is David Kynaston with a rhythm section. I am intending to read J Anthony Lukas's Common Ground (Vintage), a Pulitzer-winning book first published in the mid 1980s about race and class in Boston. After very strong recommendations from people I trust, I found that I owned it already. This seemed like a sign.

In the early 90s I studied philosophy at Warwick University, at a time when the department was an incubator for radical ideas about the impact of new technologies on culture and society. A number of people from that time have gone on to do significant work in theory, literature and even music. This summer I'm looking forward to books by two former colleagues/fellow inmates. #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader edited by Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, is published by Mackay's own Urbanomic press, which is rapidly becoming one of the most significant philosophy publishers in the world. "Acceleration" is this year's theoretical buzzword and this collection examines its current usage and excavates its roots, which go back to the 19th century. Mark Fisher's essay collection Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books) faces up to his own experience of depression and links it to wider cultural and political concerns. Someone who wasn't at Warwick in the 90s, at least as far as I know, is Hassan Blasim, who has just won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize for his story collection, The Iraqi Christ (Comma Press), which is also in my hand luggage.

Michael Lewis, Flash Boys

Constantine Phipps's What You Want (Quercus) is unlike any other book published this year, indeed this century: a long verse-novel in rhyming couplets, about, as its subtitle says, "the pursuit of happiness". Dante, adultery, theme parks, psychotherapy – it's all here, but unjokily so, and one of the most moving things about the book is the unusual texture of its melancholy seriousness. Patricia Lockwood's poems, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin), funny, dirty and sex-mad, is a book I'll be taking on my summer travels; to get a flavour of her work, look online for the devastating prose poem "Rape Joke". Finally, this season has been unusual for seeing the publication of three very important books about money: Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard), Atif Mian and Amir Sufi's House of Debt (Chicago) and Michael Lewis's Flash Boys (Allen Lane), three very different, but not necessarily contradictory, takes on the great subject of the age.

Two long-awaited lives that I couldn't wait until summer to read were Updike by Adam Begley (Harper) – which gives equal weight to my favourite novelist's life and books and the often eye-watering overlaps between them – and Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell (Jonathan Cape), which achieves an equally impressive balance between policies and peccadillos. Two works that I will read in the summer months are: John Carey's memoir The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Faber) and Philip Hensher's novel The Emperor Waltz, which, from flicking, seems to continue his bold experiments with form.

Road Ends (Chatto & Windus) is the latest intricate and thought-provoking story of a remote Canadian community by Mary Lawson, author of Crow Lake. Olivia Laing's To the River (Canongate) is a fine instance of the new school of landscape-writing pioneered by Robert Macfarlane, vividly charting a slice of Sussex. But my find of the year has been Sarah Moss: I revelled in Cold Earth (Granta), a brilliantly tense mix of archaeology and conflicting personalities, and at once sought out her next novel, Night Waking (Granta). More please, Sarah.

Hilary Mantel Hilary Mantel recommends Toby Clement's Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims, 'a savage and tender adventure story'. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims (Century) is a savage and tender adventure story, deeply researched and lightly told: Game of Thrones for real, with the bonus of style and sardonic wit. The climate is mostly chilly in Toby Clement's novel, as his characters struggle to survive civil war in 15th-century England, but the heart warms to his skilful, intelligent fiction. Stranger than fiction but just as gripping is How to Ruin a Queen (John Murray), Jonathan Beckman's masterly exploration of the "diamond necklace" affair, a bizarre scandal that some claim set Marie Antoinette on the road to the guillotine. Well-travelled imaginations will enjoy a jaunt with fiery polymath Christopher Potter; How to Make a Human Being (4th Estate) is a quirky investigation into our deepest nature, and calls on evidence from PG Wodehouse and Marcel Proust, Christopher Robin and Francis Crick, the Book of Revelation and the Worm Breeder's Gazette.

I am a notoriously bad holiday book packer; I tend to panic and bring, say, Hard Times. This year I want to read: Michael Cunningham's The Snow Queen (4th Estate) because he's my favourite writer; Sarah Waters's The Paying Guests (Virago), because she's also my favourite writer; the Maudes's translation of War and Peace (Oxford), because it's the best novel in the world; and enormous amounts of very bleak Rendellesque crime fiction.

A robust translation programme in India is finally making the richness and diversity of Indian fiction accessible to a broader audience. I am looking forward to reading Hangwoman (Hamish Hamilton) by KR Meera, an acclaimed novelist in Malayalam. Other books on my list are Bilal Tanweer's novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Jonathan Cape), Rüdiger Safranski's Romanticism: A German Affair (Northwestern University Press), an account of one of the most influential, intellectual and literary movements of the modern age, and Hisham Aidi's Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (Pantheon).

Meteorologists are predicting a hot summer so I'll be reading books designed to keep me from feeling too sunny: Pete Ayrton's weighty anthology No Man's Land (Serpent's Tail), featuring accounts of the first world war by 47 writers, some of them combatants, many of them from other parts of the world; Marion Coutts's memoir The Iceberg (Atlantic), which describes the three years between the diagnosis of her husband Tom Lubbock's brain tumour and his death; Hugo Hamilton's novel Every Single Minute (4th Estate), about two friends, one of whom is terminally ill, spending a weekend in Berlin; an early proof copy of Epilogue by an English-born, US-based writer called (no kidding) Will Boast (due from Granta), which recounts the deaths of his mother, father and brother; and a battered paperback of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (Oxford), with its portrait of youthful nihilism, thwarted love and parents grieving for absent children.

Sigrid Rausing: 'We didn't particularly have wealth when we were growing up.' Andrew Motion recommends Sigrid Rausing's Everything Is Wonderful.

Everything Is Wonderful, by Sigrid Rausing (Perseus), may not be exactly a typical beach read, but it is – because and in spite of its severities – a marvellously interesting piece of writing. An account of her time on a collective farm in Estonia in the 1990s, all brought back with compelling and melancholy accuracy. Damon Galgut's new novel Arctic Summer (Atlantic) is also preoccupied by varieties of sadness – but is so crisply written, with a deceptive simplicity and directness, that it feels full of affirmations. And then there's The Odyssey, which I reread every year, this time accompanied by Adam Nicolson's intriguing account of his own Odyssey addiction, The Mighty Dead (William Collins).

Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday). Having recently acquired a meadow, I'm eager to learn from someone who knows not only all about the different kinds of life in such a place and how they all fit together, but who can also write so vividly. I've enjoyed Philip Hensher's previous books so much that I'm greatly looking forward to The Emperor Waltz (4th Estate), which is satisfactorily hefty. And I'm going to reread Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (Vintage Classics) to marvel again at how a 25-year-old could have the impudence to take on such a huge subject and the genius to deal with it so majestically.

Ian Rankin Ian Rankin 'can hardly tear himself away' from Linda Grants Upstairs at the Party. Photograph:Rex Features

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine (Faber) – cumbersome title but a terrific read. Two sides of a record, with side one being the birth of punk and rise of Albertine's band the Slits, and side two comprising her life afterwards, filled with huge challenges. Gripping and moving. I've just started Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (Virago) and can hardly tear myself away from it. Grant always writes with incisive elegance and here paints a compelling picture of 1970s England in a plot that revolves around the disappearance of a charismatic student. She's been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize before, and this is shaping up to be a stunner. The Secret Place by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton) isn't published until August, but I've managed to snatch a prepublication copy and will be taking it with me on holiday. Her previous novel, Broken Harbour, was a clever and compelling mystery set in post-crash Ireland. No idea what this one's about but that doesn't matter – Tana French always delivers.

Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing

I don't much like the word "thriller", especially when it's applied to serious, thoughtfully written novels such as Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard (Faber), the first of her books I've read. It's about a passionate love affair but has its own extraordinary originality. Since I read a lot, I like to be able to say that I've never read anything like it. Much the same applies to the very different Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey (Viking). Maud is very old and aware of the slow coming of dementia, while her daughter does her best to control her impatience with her mother's vagaries and what she sees as absurd assumptions. Yet, as the tension mounts, the reader knows Maud is right. A novel I've just read for the second time but look forward to reading again is Edward St Aubyn's Never Mind (Picador), the first volume in his brilliantly written nightmarish sequence. I have already read the other four in the Melrose Family box set, but will read them again, ending with At Last where Patrick hopes that, with his parents gone, he may find freedom at last.

Sabrina Mahfouz is one of the most original, smart, and interesting younger voices in the UK, and The Clean Collection (Bloomsbury Methuen) brings together her plays and poems. There's no shortage of first world war material around, but for me the most surprising and affecting remains Indian Voices of the Great War – Soldiers' Letters 1914-18, edited by David Omissi (Palgrave Macmillan). And Tobias Hill's What Was Promised (Bloomsbury Circus), which tells the stories of three families of Londoners from 1948-88, is as textured, beautifully written and ultimately gripping as anyone who knows his work would expect.

Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver was immediately hooked by James Lee Burke's Wayfaring Stranger. Photograph: Richard Saker/Rex Features

I'm not a big crime reader, but James Lee Burke is unusually literary, and his novel Wayfaring Stranger (Simon & Schuster) is unusually literary even for him. The first couple of pages hooked me right away. Besides, he wrote a lovely note to me this year, though we'd never crossed paths, and he seems like the nicest man in the world. (Writers are all too rarely spontaneously generous with other writers.) I always like Amy Bloom's books, and Lucky Us (Granta) entails a complex relationship between two girls that becomes an even more complex relationship between two women. Finally, Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson (Hodder) – something old and borrowed; why, part of the cover is blue! Strongly recommended by a reliable friend, and bound to take me back to my buried southern American roots.

Don't go on holiday without Lorrie Moore's Bark, short stories remarkable for their sharpness of wit and depth of feeling. I'd also pack Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories (Jonathan Cape), her first collection in 20 years and well worth the wait. A grippingly unputdownable novel for the beach is Thomas Mann's family saga Buddenbrooks, to which Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast (Peirene Press), written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall around the figure of a tyrannical father, provides a darkly funny chaser.

I am reading Roy Foster's Vivid Faces (Allen Lane), which, on the basis of the early chapters, will change the entire way we see the 1916 Rebellion in Ireland. He has explored the social, intellectual and sexual lives of the revolutionary generation, man and women, and thus created a vivid picture of a world much more various and daring than previously seen. By widening the scope of the study of the rebellion, he has created a template for future historians. On the subject of sex and generations, I have also read Peter Stamm's Seven Years (Granta), in Michael Hoffman's translation. With his delicate touch, his way of using the minimum of means to suggest the maximum of emotion, Stamm has been a big discovery for me, I am looking forward to his new book All Days are Night.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Holly Baxter, The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media

The Vagenda by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Coslett (Square Peg) is a brilliant expose of women's mags and marketing – laugh-out-loud and painfully funny. This gives me hope for women and for feminism and for fun. Five hundred pages at the beach may seem like a lot but Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes is a well-paced, well-written biography: clever, moving and a joy to read. Kamila Shamshie's A God in Every Stone has strong storytelling and is a page-turner that is also a literary delight. Mrs Moneypenny's Financial Advice for Independent Women (Penguin) should be in every woman's beach bag and it will help you to pay for the holiday.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Traditional publishing is 'no longer fair or sustainable', says Society of Authors

Nicola Solomon 'Authors need fair remuneration if they are to keep writing' … Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon

After figures released this week showed professional authors' median annual incomes have collapsed to to £11,000, The Society of Authors' chief executive has claimed that traditional publishers' terms "are no longer fair or sustainable".

Earlier this week, the Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society released a survey of almost 2,500 writers which found that the median income of a professional author last year was £11,000, down 29% since 2005 – a period in which median earnings for UK employees have fallen by 8%. By this year, according to the survey, just 11.5% of professional authors said they earned their income from writing alone, compared with 40% in 2005.

The ALCS set its findings against Department of Culture, Media and Sport figures which show that in 2014, the creative industries were worth £71.4bn per year to the UK economy. "In contrast to the decline in earnings of professional authors, the wealth generated by the UK creative industries is on the increase," it said. "If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK."

Nicola Solomon, who heads the 9,000-member strong Society of Authors, said that publishers, retailers and agents are all now taking a larger slice of the profit when a book is sold, and that while "authors' earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing".

"Authors need fair remuneration if they are to keep writing and producing quality work," she said. "Publisher profits are holding up and, broadly, so are total book sales if you include ebooks but authors are receiving less per book and less overall due mainly to the fact that they are only paid a small percentage of publishers' net receipts on ebooks and because large advances have gone except for a handful of celebrity authors."

On top of that, said Solomon, "publishers are doing less for what they get. There are still important things they do – a traditional publisher can edit, copy edit, design, market, promote, make your book better, deal with foreign sales. With ebooks, though, publishers' costs are less, so authors should get a better share. They do not have to produce, distribute or warehouse physical copies. Even on traditional books, publishers' production costs have gone down but authors have not benefited from these costs savings. And, increasingly authors are being asked to do a lot of marketing and promotion themselves."

Earlier this week, the award-winning children's writer Mal Peet told the Guardian that his royalties for the last half of 2013 were £3,000. Evie Wyld, who has won prizes including Australia's Miles Franklin award, said that she earns around £8,000 per year from writing novels. "This is because although I got a generous (I think) advance for my last book, it takes me a long time to write the books," she said. "On top of that I write articles which are time-consuming, which I don't necessarily enjoy, and that I'm not terribly good at, and do events, as well as running a bookshop. Winning the awards has been vital for staying afloat this year. It's meant, most importantly, that I'm able to start a new book."

The ALCS survey of writers – which covered members of ALCS, the Society of Authors, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and the National Union of Journalists – also found that writers are still making most money from printed books, but digital earnings are on the rise. Compared with a 2007 survey, when "only a small proportion of writers had received any money from digital publications", digital books were found to be the third largest sector in terms of financial importance to writers.

Self-publishing, meanwhile, is becoming an increasingly attractive option for writers, according to the survey, which found that just over 25% of writers had published something themselves. Writers were investing a mean of £2,470 in publishing their own work, with the median investment at £500, and typically recouping their investment plus 40%. Eighty-six per cent of those who had self-published said they would do so again.

Mark Edwards is an author who topped Amazon's charts with the self-published thrillers he co-wrote with Louise Voss before landing a deal with HarperCollins. Unhappy with his deal, he then returned to self-publishing, and released The Magpies, which he says sold 160,000 copies before Amazon Publishing acquired rights.

"I spent 15 years trying to get a deal before self-publishing. When I finally got a deal it was a disappointment so I returned to self-publishing, which rescued my writing career. Lots of writers are seeing other writers having success via self-publishing and deciding to try it themselves. I would encourage any mid-list author to try it. A lot of writers who've got back the rights to their novels are now self-publishing them and having a lot of fun in the process," he told the Guardian.

It offers, he said, "freedom and control", and higher royalties. "As the writer, you will always be the person who cares most about your work, and if you can channel that passion and energy and know what you're doing, this can be more effective than having a team of people who have 10 other books coming out that week." But it is not a simple route. "Some aspiring writers think it will be easy, but your chances of success are as slim as getting plucked from an agent's slush pile. Writers shouldn't see self-publishing as an easy way to find success. It's hard work and you need to be obsessive, smart and talented to make it work. But if you do, the rewards can be great."

The Society of Authors includes self-published writers among its members if they have sold 300 copies of a single title in print form, or 500 copies in ebook form, within a 12-month period. According to Solomon, most writers would "still prefer a traditional publishing deal but the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable".

"What a writer needs to do is to consider very clearly, at the very beginning, what they are getting into," she said. "It's a Dragon's Den. You could go out and do it yourself, or you could go with a traditional publisher. There is still an imprimatur of quality from going with a traditional publisher, and you may well sell more copies, particularly in physical, but you are giving a vast amount away for that: probably well over 90% of the list price of the physical or ebook. More importantly almost all publishers ask for those rights for the whole lifetime of copyright with very limited possibilities of getting your rights back, even if sales are woeful. Authors need to look very carefully at the terms publishers offer, take proper advice and consider: is it worth it, or are you better off doing it yourself?"

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket - review

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events (2) - Book the Second - The Reptile Room

The Reptile Room really attracts the reader's attention. This book will make you confused about a bunch of things. When Stephano, who was really Count Olaf, came to Uncle Monty's house to be his assistant, it was the last thing I was expecting! Then when he murdered Uncle Monty, I knew it was him, but didn't know how or if he was going to be caught. So read this book, I highly recommend it to a person who likes mystery. It is a book that leaves you in suspense.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Judy Blume: 'I thought, this is America: we don't ban books. But then we did'

Judy Blume 'I don't know that you become a writer: you just are' … Judy Blume. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Judy Blume, tiny and smiley and as warmly open as befits the author of seminal novels about growing up Forever…, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is sitting in a hotel in London and talking about the hate mail she has received. It comes, she says, every time she speaks out on behalf of Planned Parenthood, an American pro-choice group for mothers.

"I went to a couple of places two years ago and I got seven hundred and something hate-mail warnings – 'We know where you are going to be and we'll be there waiting for you', that sort of thing," says Blume. "My publisher sent me with a bodyguard. He was wonderful, I loved knowing he was there. And nothing happened and probably nothing would have happened, but it was very scary."

It is an incongruous revelation. Blume, 76, is the sort of author who is beloved by her fans, who stretch from the children of today to the adults who read her books when they were growing up, and were astonished at finding a novelist who spoke so clearly, so uncondescendingly, so directly, to their concerns, whether masturbation (Deenie), periods and boobs (Margaret), sex and birth control (Forever…), or death (Tiger Eyes).

Her books have sold 82m copies worldwide since The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, her first book, was published in 1969. She has been given an award for lifetime achievement from the American Library Association, the Library of Congress living legends award and the 2004 National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. But Blume is also the recipient of a more dubious accolade: she is one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century. Her books have drawn fire from parents ever since the 80s for their frank depiction of puberty and sexuality, from Deenie, the 13-year-old who touches herself in "this special place and when I rub it I get a very nice feeling", to Katherine and Michael, the teenagers who fall in love and have sex – ever so responsibly – in Forever ….

"Deenie, Forever …, every year, somewhere, they're challenged," says Blume. "When I started, in the 70s, it was a good time for children's book writers. Children's reading was much freer than in the 80s, when censorship started; when we elected Ronald Reagan and the conservatives decided that they would decide not just what their children would read but what all children would read, it went crazy. My feeling in the beginning was wait, this is America: we don't have censorship, we have, you know, freedom to read, freedom to write, freedom of the press, we don't do this, we don't ban books. But then they did."

Blume's theory is that children read over what they aren't yet ready to understand. Sometimes, she says, "kids will actually go to Mom or Dad and say 'What does this mean?', which is the perfect time to talk to them about it. But that's when sometimes parents get hysterical. Really. It's like, 'Argh, I don't want to talk to you about this, let's get rid of this book, I don't ever want to talk to you about this, I don't ever want you to go through puberty.'"

Judy Blume

Blume most famously tackles puberty is in Margaret, her story of a sixth grader who talks to God like a friend, worries about being the last to get her period, and longs for breasts. "Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. I just did an exercise to help me grow. Have you thought about it, God? About my growing, I mean. I've got a bra now. It would be nice if I had something to put in it."

"There's a lot of me in Margaret," says Blume. "I talked to my own private God the way Margaret does. I would plead, 'Just let me be normal', which meant let me have my period, give me some breasts, and hurry up ... You know, the 50s, the body image for women was round and curvy, and I was this skinny little thing, very small, and I wanted to be round and curvy the way round and curvy women today want to be skinny things."

"Everybody who writes fiction draws from their own life, but if it ended there, it would be very boring," she says. "When I talk to kids and they say, 'How do you become a writer?', well, I don't know that you become a writer: you just are. I always had stories, they were always there inside my head. I never told anyone, but they were there."

She trained as a teacher but never taught; she was married before she graduated from college. "It was ridiculous, [the idea] that any marriage would work that starts that early, before you have any idea who you are." She recalls: "It was the most traumatic time of my life. My father had just died and the wedding was scheduled. I was 21, we got married and I did my final year at college. Then, before that ended, I was pregnant, and had two babies by the time I was 25, and then started to write."

She'd make up rhyming stories when she was washing the dishes at night and added her own illustrations, sending them off to publishers. Then she decided she wanted to write novels, took a writing course, and out came Iggie's House, the story of Winnie, a girl whose quintessentially white surburban-American street gets its first black family, and who is confronted with – and confronts – racism.

"Writing saved my life," she says, seriously. "It saved me, it gave me everything, it took away all my illnesses. I loved having little kids, I relate to little kids, but something was missing, and I don't think about this every day, but when I think about it, it's that creative energy. I was an imaginative, strange little girl, and in school I had a lot of creative outlets. I danced, I sang, I painted, there was a lot of that, and suddenly I didn't have any of that. I've thought about this – I think that's why I was having such a bad time. And there was the marriage, too, but that's another story." Her marriage, she says, lasted 16 years and "we're very good friends now. But it was very tough, and I felt lonely and didn't have the friends I had when I was in school. I missed that female friendship." She left, along with her children, in 1975. In 1976 she married again, and moved to New Mexico, but the marriage didn't work out. She has been married to her third husband, George Cooper, since 1987.

Blume talks a lot about friendship, female friendship – as well as George, her best friend, Mary, is here in London with her. It's a key theme of her novels, too – Summer Sisters; Here's to You, Rachel Robinson; Just As Long As We're Together.

What followed Iggie's House was an extraordinary period of creativity: between 1970 and 1977 she published most of the books she is now most famous for, including Blubber; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing; Then Again, Maybe I Won't and Starring Sally J Freedman As Herself, her most autobiographical book. "I was very prolific in those years ... I was young and I remembered everything. I had total recall," she says. "I think I wrote Margaret in six weeks; now it's like four years. It was spontaneous, it just poured out. And in the middle of that I was writing the Fudge book."

Fudge, the naughty toddler who drives his brother Peter wild, was originally drawn from her son; Forever…, she says, was written after a request from her teenage daughter (it's dedicated to her: "For Randy as promised … with love"). "She was reading all these books, where a girl succumbed [to sex], she would be punished, sometimes she would die. And Randy said, 'Couldn't there ever be a book where two nice kids do it and nobody has to die?' And I thought 'Yes, I need to write this'."

Blume's protagonists range in age from toddler Fudge to the adult Caitlin and Vix of Summer Sisters, but perhaps her best work centres on the crossover from child to teenager, whether it's Tony; in Then Again, Maybe I Won't, making sense of a world where his friend is shoplifting, or Margaret. "I love the cusp," she says. "I always wanted to write, but I wasn't interested in writing about teenagers, because, looking back, I felt teenage Judy was very boring and bland. It was the 50s, and I hated the 50s. We all just wanted to fit in and none of us, not even with a best friend, were willing to go deeper. The 50s was such a time of 'Pretend everything's OK, pretend it's all good.' Our parents had just come through the war, everyone just wanted their families to be happy, we didn't want to rock the boat."

The younger Judy was more interesting, she thinks. The family hadmoved to Florida when her brother was sick, leaving her father, a dentist, behind in New Jersey. "I was making all kinds of bargains with God, feeling that I had to protect my father ... I adored my father, not only worried about him flying, which was a very scary idea, but worried about him being safe. It was a bad year, and I became ritualistic. I took on the burden of feeling responsible for his wellbeing, at nine, but never telling anybody. God, what a burden, when I think about it now, for a child."

Blume's recall of her childhood is exact. She says she finds it easy to "connect with children, to see their side of the story". "I'm very attached," she says. "I don't know why. I think some people just are. And I don't think it's necessary to have children to be like that. Maurice Sendak never had children but he was so connected to the child inside that he never lost that."

She's currently working on a new novel for adults, her first since 1998's bestselling Summer Sisters. The untitled novel is set in the 50s, partially, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Blume grew up, and sees her tackling again a topic which preoccupies her – young pregnancies, and young motherhood. One of the main characters has a baby right after high school, and never tells the father.

"I come back to that again and again – what if, what if – it could so easily happen," she says. "It was a very scary idea that you could get pregnant, and three of the best girls in my school were pregnant, at graduation, and it changed their lives. There was no abortion, you know. Yes, some girls got shipped to Aunt Betty's house in the country and came back without a baby, and some girls had a hasty marriage."

"I think we got married young because we wanted permission to have sex, all the way sex, and so yeah, we all got married young, my generation. Our parents didn't because they came of age during the depression, they had one, maybe two children later. My mother was 34 when I was born, which today is nothing, but in my generation that would have been old. We rushed into marriage and having children before we had any idea what we were doing."

When her American publisher announced publication of the new novel in summer 2015, the news was greeted with rapture and covered by outlets from Time to the New York Times. An earlier New Yorker piece called her books "talismans that, for a significant segment of the American female population, marked the passage from childhood to adolescence".

Blume's younger fans have poured their hearts out to her for years – she even published a book of their letters, and had to go to counselling to learn "how to be supportive without feeling that I needed to save them". Her adult fans recall her as the author who understood. "It's hard to understand, now that YA fiction is so widely written and accepted, that in the early 80s no one else wrote like Judy Blume," says novelist Charlotte Mendelson. "It wasn't only that her protagonists were funny, and sympathetic; they lived in a totally recognisable ordinary world, and had real, painful, modern problems; reading them made one feel much less alone. She signed a copy of Deenie for me recently, and my joy was uncontained."

The musician Amanda Palmer has even written a song about Blume: "You told me things that nobody around me would tell ... I don't remember my friends from gymnastics class, / But I remember when Deenie was at the school ... Margaret, bored, counting hats in the synagogue ... All of them lived in my head, quietly whispering: / "You are not so strange." (Blume loves it: "She's sitting at the keyboard in her bustier and garter and she's singing this song, it's so beautiful.")

Palmer says she'd struggled for years to name her "influences", when asked by journalists, "and then it hit me: I totally forgot about Judy Blume. As I traced myself back, I realised that she'd opened up all these emotional doors and windows that started off locked, and I'd taken it totally for granted. It was such a eureka moment that I had to write her a song. And thanks to Twitter, she heard it. I cry pretty much every time I play it."

Teasingly, Blume says right at the end of the interview that she's now planning, sort of, a memoir up until the age of 12; she's not, she ends by chuckling, "going to do a Philip Roth" and announce her retirement.

"George just read me a really funny one [a blog in the New Yorker], it was, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Philip Roth has announced he has eaten his last sandwich.'" She laughs. George is waiting. She heads off to enjoy London.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

The Saturday Poem: Extremophile

'White tubeworms heap in snowdrifts around hydrothermal vents' 'White tubeworms heap in snowdrifts around hydrothermal vents' … Sheenagh Pugh's Extremophile. Photograph: Ralph White/Corbis

Two miles below the light, bacteria
live without sun, thrive on sulphur
in a cave of radioactive rock,
and, blind in the night of the ocean floor,
molluscs that feed only on wood
wait for wrecks. White tubeworms heap
in snowdrifts around hydrothermal vents,
at home in scalding heat. Lichens encroach
on Antarctic valleys where no rain
ever fell. There is nowhere
life cannot take hold, nowhere so salt,
so cold, so acid, but some chancer
will be there, flourishing on bare stone,
getting by, gleaning a sparse living
from marine snow, scavenging
light from translucent quartz, as if
lack and hardship could do nothing
but quicken it, this urge
to cling on in the cracks
of the world, or as if this world
itself, so various, so not to be spared
as it is, were the impetus
never to leave it.

• From Short Days, Long Shadows (Seren, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.19 with free UK p&p go to or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Malorie Blackman: why you should read YA novels with pride

Malorie Blackman Malorie Blackman: I happily proclaim myself a book nerd and a read geek – and I'm proud of it! Photograph: Tom Pilston

When Orli Vogt-Vincent confessed here on the Guardian teen's books site that she loved reading and asked "Does that make me a nerd?" – and then went onto reveal that she had kept her position as a children's books reviewer and her reading habit as a secret, I felt my heart sinking.

If someone so engaged with books feels the need to keep the fact that they moonlight as a young literary journalist, interviewing top authors such as Michael Morpurgo a secret, what hope is there for our teen readers? I for one think it's time to reclaim reading for pleasure as a "cool" activity and to also reclaim the word "nerd".

I subscribe to the online urban dictionary's definition of nerd – "one whose IQ exceeds his weight". I'm also keen on the same urban dictionary's definition of geek – "the person you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult". I happily proclaim myself a book nerd/reading geek and proud of it.

When I was a teenager, reading for me was as normal, as unremarkable as eating or breathing. Reading gave flight to my imagination and strengthened my understanding of the world, the society I lived in and myself. More importantly, reading was fun, a way to live more than one life as I immersed myself in each good book I read. I have visited other planets, alternate dimensions, other countries, survived wars, obtained super powers, had numerous adventures, walked in the shoes and lived in the head of countless characters, laughed with them, cried with them, lived with them, died with them? How is that uncool?

That's why I was so keen in my role as Waterstones children's laureate to create a forum where teen books was celebrated in the same way that film, TV and computer games are in popular youth culture. And so the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) , at which 50 of the top YA authors will be appearing, was born. And what better place and space to do this than the summer London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) at Earl's Court this weekend.

YALC, an integral component of this year's LFCC, fits perfectly with the celebration of narratives, something which is at the heart of the convention. If you're loud and proud about your love of genre films, immersive TV programmes such as Game of Thrones and computer games, then why can't you be just as excited and vocal about books, many of which have been adapted into blockbuster films, TV and games?

YA novels are for all those who love great storytelling, it's that simple. Ruth Graham's recent article proclaiming that adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading Young Adult was not only wrong but misguided (see UKYA writer Non Pratt's defence on this site ). It's exactly this kind of rhetoric which seeks to divide and isolate all of us – teen and adult - who read for pleasure by stating that some books are perhaps more "worthy" than others.

A good book is a good book. End of story. Why is its worth diminished if it is written specifically for teens?

Quite rightly, every year more adults are discovering the joys of reading young adult novels. These adults have discovered that young adult novels can and do have all the depth, sophistication and complexity of books written for adults. It is a truth universally accepted by writers of YA novels that teens are an honest audience. You have to grab them and keep them with your story or they will have no qualms about abandoning the book. Therefore the storytelling has to be top-notch.

Another criticism levelled at YA novels by Ruth Graham was the accusation that YA endings are simple and "uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world – is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction." I'd love to meet this woman and put Kevin Brook's Carnegie winning The Bunker Diary, and a host of others in her hand.

Any YA author worth their salt knows that a teen readership expects a truthful narrative, one that doesn't hold back from painful and gritty realities.

When I took on the mantel of children's laureate in June 2013, research showed that only three in 10 young people read daily out of class, with a fifth of young people saying they'd be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading. Recent National Literacy Trust research reveals that children and young people's reading enjoyment has reached its highest level for eight years, but teens are still three times as likely as seven-to-11-year-olds to say they don't enjoy reading at all.

Although there has been some improvement, no doubt boosted by film adaptations of YA novels, it is vital that these statistics are improved upon. I want YALC to help reclaim and reposition young adult reading as a desirable, enjoyable activity for teenagers, rather than a mandatory chore. In the US, where YA has been celebrated for many years, there is a vibrant fan culture, something which is starting to blossom over here. US authors such as John Green have fans as passionate as those of Ryan Gosling and Lady Gaga (Green's fans call themselves his "nerdfighters", whereas Gaga's devotees refer to themselves as her "LittleMonsters").

YA book sales over here are booming, and are up 18% from last year. But 17 out of the top 20 bestselling YA books are by US authors. Book sales and teens reading is always a fantastic thing, but we should also be celebrating and consuming the huge wealth of UK and UK-based writing and illustrating talent. Authors such as Charlie Higson, Darren Shan, Holly Smale, Tanya Byrne, Catherine Johnson, Sophie Mckenzie, to name but a few. This weekend's YALC is just one way to do that.

I hope to see you there!

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Out of Control by Sarah Alderson - review

Sarah Alderson, Out of Control

Wow, I did not expect to be hooked when I started to read Out of Control. It is fast-paced, super addictive and it feels like you've just watched a movie. I really enjoyed the mystery that was present in the book and I think Sarah Alderson did a great job keeping the reader in suspense. I literally didn't know what was going to happen in the next chapter which was what kept me going.

I think the character development was brilliant and what was really interesting was that the book is set in two days which was really cool in my opinion. It isn't one of my favourites but I think it's a good stand-alone to try after finishing a series or trilogy. If you're looking for a nice fast-paced and action-packed story then I really recommend this book! Especially if you have read Alderson's other books. I give it 4/5 stars.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Arrowhead by Ruth Eastham review Vikings, magic and murder mystery

Lewis Chessmen Class wars … Eastham's schoolmates become violent savages under a Viking curse. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Two-thirds of the way through Ruth Eastham's powerful new thriller the story's hero, 13-year-old Jack, enters a museum and stands before the dragon prow of a restored Viking ship, gripped by its beauty and menace, his skin prickling with fear. At that point I was gripped myself. Jack is desperately searching for a way to defeat an ancient evil, but I was simply desperate to know what was going to happen next.

The museum is in a Norwegian town, a place to which Jack has been brought by his Norwegian mum after the accidental death of his English father. Grief has tipped Jack's mum into mental illness, and Jack isn't doing very well either. He's struggling with grief, too, and worrying about his mum, but he also has to deal with being the new boy in school. Jack chooses not to join the class bullies, and stands up for their victim instead, a boy called Skuli, a choice that has momentous consequences.

For Skuli has made a discovery that he wants to share with his new friend. The local glacier is shrinking, uncovering the preserved body of a boy murdered more than a thousand years ago, in the Viking age. Before he died, the boy carved a warning in runes on the ice with the mysterious and clearly magical arrowhead of the title. Its reappearance, however, is definitely A Bad Thing. Before long, Jack realises they have unleashed an ancient curse that could lead to the destruction of everything he loves.

The curse works on both people and the natural world, turning Jack's schoolmates into the kind of violent savages that would give the wild boys in Lord of the Flies a run for their money, while also causing storms, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions. There are time-slips, too: Jack suddenly finds himself in the past and a terrifying ghost warrior breaks into the present. And there is plenty of cool Viking stuff – magic runes and spooky ravens, quotes from Beowulf and references to Odin.

You could say that it's all been done before. Fans of Alan Garner will certainly feel they're on familiar territory – an ancient curse, contemporary children, creatures of myth and legend erupting into the modern world, a great battle between The Good Guys and The Forces of Darkness. There's nothing original, either, about other elements of the story – the struggles of a new boy in school, the impact of grief on a family, even an underdog called Jack taking on a much bigger opponent.

But it's done with terrific verve and great skill, the action zipping along with plenty of cliffhangers and surprises. A complex backstory can be a curse itself in this kind of tale, with characters delivering large chunks of exposition to each other, but here it's all handled well, information being imparted in the right amounts to keep the mystery alive. The language is crisp, precise and unshowy and better for it, a hard-edged prose that does a solid job and sometimes soars.

There's a sketchiness about the characters, but that's often the case in stories with a mythological feel where action predominates. I'd also be a bit worried about the effect the story might have on school parties who visit Viking exhibitions at museums. No spoilers, but the climax is thrilling and can be summed up in two words – "Viking funeral".

• Tony Bradman's most recent book is an anthology, Stories of World War One. To order Arrowhead for £6.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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Monday, July 21, 2014

John Mullan on The Old Ways Guardian book club

Robert Macfarlane Perambulatory writing … Robert Macfarlane. Photograph: Rex Features

Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways records 15 journeys – two in sailing boats across the Hebridean Sea, the rest on foot – undertaken by the author. He goes where others have once gone, both geographically and textually. He takes old tracks and rediscovers an old genre of British literature – not so much "nature writing" as perambulatory writing: a type of descriptive text that follows the path of a walker. In English literature this idea of writing-as-walking was pioneered by poets in the late 18th century. In the 1760s, Oliver Goldsmith turned his footsore wandering across Europe into a best-selling poem, "The Traveller". "My prime of life in wandering spent and care / Impelled, with steps unceasing, to pursue / Some fleeting good, that mocks me with the view". The melancholy William Cowper wrote "The Task", two of whose books, "The Winter Morning Walk" and "The Winter Walk at Noon", "retrace / (As in a map the voyager his course) / The windings of my way through many years". To ruminate poetically and to walk became synonymous.

When you walk down a path, someone has been there before you. As well as being rich in natural description, The Old Ways is a bookish book and invokes many literary precedents for its attempts not merely to describe the journeys that the author has undertaken but to re-experience them. So Macfarlane will narrate not only what he saw and heard, but also what he thought as he walked. Sometimes this means historical speculation or geological explanation; sometimes, as in his account of a long walk over the Cairngorm massif, it is something more personal: a string of memories of his grandfather, who lived his last years among the same mountains. In every case, narrative moves to the rhythm of journeying.

Macfarlane's title signals that he has gone back to routes – and implicitly a rhythm of experience and observation – that have some ancient hold on human beings. He frequently insists that walking a path can be a way of returning to the past. For the greatest of all English literary walkers, William Wordsworth, this was an autobiographical imperative. Near the beginning of The Old Ways, Macfarlane cites Thomas De Quincey's estimate that Wordsworth walked 180,000 miles in the course of a long life. (In contrast, but hardly competition, Macfarlane thinks that he might have managed 8,000.) Wordsworth's greatest poem, his autobiographical epic The Prelude, begins with a walk on a lakeland hillside and includes several other closely described walks, including an extraordinary "variegated journey step by step" across France and the Alps.

Wordsworth composed in verse as he walked, reciting and then remembering; writing it down only came later. Macfarlane invokes "the compact between writing and walking". His hero, the early 20th-century poet Edward Thomas, seems to have done the same. "In Thomas's imagination, text and landscape overlap". Macfarlane must have taken notebooks with him, for though his prose may be called "poetic", it is prose still, and relies on an accumulation of sharp particulars that must often have been immediately recorded. "A rainless gale rushing out of the east, deer tracks in moor mud, a black sky, gannets showing white as flares above the sea. Dawn on the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis. Thin light, cold and watery." The verbless sentences are characteristic, the first job of his narrative being simply to set down what was of the moment. (The book is as attentive to meteorology as to landscape, and even offers an index to the different kinds of weather it covers.)

Macfarlane has a special diction for the quiddities of weather and landscape. A glossary at the end of his book explains terms such as albedo ("The proportion of light reflected from a surface") or serac ("A bulging tower of ice on a glacier"), but does not reach to the verbs and adjectives he digs up for the effects of sound or light: yabber, jabbly, sintering, bermed, moshed. He enjoys collecting odd terms of topography from the Hebrides or the Himalayas, as if they were geological samples that he has carried home as evidence of where he has been and what he can remember.

Some of his figurative language has a precision that allows anyone to see what he is describing, as when a heron takes off, "a foldaway construction of struts and canvas, snapping and locking itself into shape just in time to keep airborne". But often his distinctive similes are both highly specific and teasing. Some British readers will surely be perplexed to hear of a tern beating upwind, "its movement within the air veery and unpredictable as a pitcher's knuckle-ball". When he tells us that water in a pool "shone black and thick as lithography ink", or that he saw "billows of rain like candle-blacking dropped into water", do we immediately see what he has seen? What colour is something "dark as mafic glass"? It is as if the writer must prefer the precise analogy to the likeness that we might easily share. You might take the same walk, but you will not see the same thing.

• To order The Old Ways for £5.39 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to Robert Macfarlane will be at the Guardian book club on 29 July at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1. Tickets: £9.50 online/ £11.50 from the box office.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Touched by Joanna Briscoe review who or what is taking the children?

Briscoe 'Instagrammed intensity' … Joanna Briscoe. Photograph: Jason Alden

Hammer is the new imprint from Random House, working in association with the recently revived British film company, adored and deplored for its lurid 60s horror movies. The object is to bring out new tales of the eerie and macabre from literary authors, and the latest is by Joanna Briscoe. Touched is a gripping novella, a waking nightmare in the home counties that is both erotic and claustrophobic. There's a woozy atmosphere of menace, a satirical stab at Britain's postwar commuter-belt aspirations, and an elegant, postmodern, cine-literate twist.

The book is set in the early 1960s in the picture-perfect Hertfordshire village of Letchmore Heath – here renamed Crowsley Beck – which was used for filming by nearby Elstree studios, and became known as the "village of the damned" when it was the location for a 1960 sci-fi movie of that name, based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos, about alien blond children appearing in a cosy rural community. I myself was brought up there, and Briscoe brings a brilliant, Instagrammed intensity to the leafy lanes, pub and village green, which did indeed look faintly sinister once you'd seen the film; I felt about it the way I imagine inhabitants of Portmeirion felt after The Prisoner appeared on TV.

Rowena is the beautiful, harassed mother of five young children who has been chivvied by her husband into moving away from London to this sweet little village, a convenient half-hour drive from the capital. They have turfed Rowena's ailing mother-in-law out of her cottage, bought the one next door and are now trying to knock them through to create a family house and commuter base. But the cottage itself seems to resist this proto-yuppification. Haunted with resentment, the walls groan and bulge. Rowena's children start behaving oddly, forming a friendship with the local builder and his wife, Mr and Mrs Pollard – and then they begin to disappear. Rowena finds herself faint with desire for her handsome neighbour Gregory and begins to sense the presence of Freddie, the imaginary friend of her disturbed daughter Evangelina.

Is Rowena having a breakdown – or is it something else? This stifling situation reaches a climax when Rowena's daughter Jennifer gets a small role in a film with the unimprovable title of Blush, being shot on the village green. Rowena gets to visit nearby Elstree studios and watch the rushes in the dark projection room: her daughter's calm loveliness is reduced on celluloid to an alien blankness as her stilted line is repeated over and over again with each take. Rowena's cottage is visible in shot and, in some takes, Rowena can see an unexplained face at the window. It is as if the ghostly qualities of film have spread outwards into the fabric of the real world.

Touched has something of The Turn of the Screw, certainly, but with it, the brasher influence of Ira Levin, or Anthony Shaffer, screenwriter of The Wicker Man. And Briscoe is, of course, influenced by that strange and fascinating B-movie, the Twilight Zone chiller Village of the Damned. She is not influenced, thank heavens, by the exasperatingly obtuse and dull original novel by Wyndham, with its burbling Shavian speeches about mankind's future. This is a haunting and disquieting parable of children's safety set in an era when society was less troubled by this issue – when their vulnerability was less publicly visible. Briscoe has a shrewd sense of the sometimes featureless suburban Hertfordshire landscape, derided by EM Forster in Howards End as neither country nor city, a place in which an insidious malign force comes to flourish. Touched would make a terrific 1960s black-and-white film.

• To order Touched for £7.99 with free UK p&. call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy review

Wrens breaking German codes at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Victory is achieved because one side has more capable personnel … Wrens at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Photograph: Rex Features

In this impressive historical study of five campaigns in the second world war, including the Battle of the Atlantic and Operation Overlord, Paul Kennedy's aim is to direct attention away from the high-profile leaders (the generals and politicians) and instead to highlight the vital contribution of the middle personnel – the problem solvers – and the systems they managed: "What happened to Caesar's cook is lost to history, but, assuredly, he played a role."

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers who Turned the Tide in the Second World Warby Paul Kennedy Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

He also agrees with Correlli Barnett who has said war is the "great auditor of institutions". As Kennedy's examples demonstrate, victory is achieved not just because one side has superior intelligence or more bombers than the other, but because one side is better organised: it has more capable, can-do personnel at all levels working in efficient and responsive systems that encourage a culture of innovation. For, as he shows, new weapons, processes and tactics are often decisive. Out of the fog of war, Kennedy distills the crucial elements in each campaign that brought final victory to the Allies. A masterly analysis of grand strategy.

• To order Engineers of Victory for £7.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant review when Bowie ruled the world

Linda Grant Captures the absurdity of the times … Linda Grant. Photograph: Geraint Lewis/Rexv

This is the story of friendships that cohere at a northern university in the 70s. The narrator, Adele, was born and brought up in a Jewish family in Liverpool: "I grew up to be the leader of a circle of schoolgirls, bolshy, sophisticated, ambitious, supercilious, a little bit cynical already, who smoked and wore plum-coloured lipstick and very short skirts."

She has a terrible secret: her father, Harry, a petty criminal, killed himself when he was exposed as the organiser of a small Ponzi scheme. The family and their world are changed for ever. But, like her mother, Adele is a strong woman. She takes a job at the perfume counter of Lewis's in Liverpool. She quickly finds it stultifying, but is determined to do better and talks herself into one of the new universities in Yorkshire by pretending to be Allen Ginsberg's cousin.

At university she is soon involved with a new group of friends, and the novel revolves around their fates. It is an era when students believed that they could change the world; that false consciousness was a blight to be overcome; that people could elect to be gay or straight; that socialism, along the lines of Marcuse, would triumph; and that mental illness should be understood, as RD Laing prescribed, as an aspect of normality. On the campus there is a vogue, no doubt influenced by David and Angie Bowie, of dressing up to suggest that there are no absolutes of sexual orientation. Adele takes none of these notions seriously.

The centre of the story is Evie, who arrived at the university as Lorraine, but changed her name when she took up with Stevie, also known as Stephen Platt. They swap clothes, and in some ways became one androgynous person, but their relationship breaks down. Stevie leaves after a few terms – and dies on the night of Adele's 20th birthday.

"If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes, acts, or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend," muses Adele, many years later. "If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don't know how to explain."

Linda Grant gives the impression of looking for an organising principle for the novel: the mystery of Evie's demise. For many years after they have all left university, Adele is obsessed by what happened on the fatal night. Who saw her last? Who could have helped? Who is to blame? But the problem with this otherwise fine novel is that there is not much of a mystery to be solved. Her family secrets, revealed in some handy notebooks, are not really very significant. Evie was a troubled child, ethereally beautiful, and caught up in something she didn't fully understand.

But Grant excels in capturing the absurdity of the times, and the phenomenon of a university consciously trying to introduce societal change through exposure to brutal architecture and experimental teaching. She is also brilliant on the naivety and vulnerability of the young students, from flamboyantly gay Bobby to Gillian, the viola player turned revolutionary. Rose, who becomes a successful barrister, acknowledges at the friends' final meeting that she was exactly the graduate the university was trying to produce: "My life has never departed from the plan. It all worked, didn't it? It worked terribly, terribly well."

You could read into this Grant's feeling that the higher banalities have come to roost and have not left us. "There was a revolution," says Adele, "just not the one they had in mind."

It is a great talent to be able to keep afloat so vividly and so plausibly this many characters. While not exactly a feelgood book, Upstairs at the Party has the great virtue of being a wonderfully and perceptively written story, which rings utterly true, and as a consequence lifts the spirits.

• Justin Cartwright's latest novel is Lion Heart (Bloomsbury). To order Upstairs at the Party for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Joshua Files: Apocalypse Moon by M.G. Harris - review

M. G. Harris, Apocalypse Moon (The Joshua Files)

This book is about the apocalyptic surge that Joshua goes forward in time to see and then has to prevent, using clues from the four books.

Joshua is by far the best character and I like him as he is very mysterious, talented and brave because of his Dad dying, his long-lost sister being killed, and the long, hard journey to get the IX Codex.

This series is awesome and I have really enjoyed it. I would definitely recommend this to anybody. 5/5 stars!!!

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My hero: David Foster Wallace by Colin Barrett

David Foster Wallace David Foster Wallace. Photograph: Gary Hannabarger/Corbis

I was in the long, sullen afternoon of my early 20s, contentedly directionless, occupying an office cubicle from Monday to Friday and writing gruesomely mannered and mercifully short poems, hungover, on Sundays. I wanted to be a writer, but was worried I only wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be a writer.

I read Infinite Jest on my weekday tram commute over a summer. Just over 1,000 pages long, heavily influenced by the dense, formally daunting works of Pynchon, Gaddis and McElroy, Infinite Jest is a crypto-apocalyptic, science-fiction-tainted satire and tragedy. It's about a great many things, from tennis and addiction to roving packs of giant feral hamsters and militant Quebecois wheelchair assassins, but beneath its almost defensively elaborate postmodern conceits is a novel brimming with extraordinary compassion and empathy.

The two main characters, teen tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and recovering addict and ex-con Donald Gately, have stayed with me as few fictional entities do. Like Ulysses, Infinite Jest is a book that seems to echo and anticipate many other books. And it's no accident that its two central characters are a gifted, vulnerable but insufferably snide little prick, and an older, wiser, fundamentally decent man; or that the narrative hinges tantalisingly on the prospect of their exasperatingly deferred, but surely inevitable, connection.

The book left me euphoric and burdened. Here it is, it seemed to say: here is the torrential spate of the mind talking incessantly back to itself, the bottomless aporias and fleeting ecstasies that you, as a human, must suffer alone, like everyone else. Here is the head that pounds like a heart.

Infinite Jest gave me back to myself, and left me with nowhere to hide. I stopped writing my brittle, evasive poems. I began to wonder how on earth you do something like this.

• Colin Barrett's debut collection Young Skins won this year's Frank O'Connor international short story award, announced this week.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Scroobius Pip and Kate Pullinger on self-publishing books podcast

As the squeeze on author earnings continues, writers are looking for ever-more-inventive ways of getting their work to their readers.

The award-winning novelist Kate Pullinger tells us why she decided to sign a conventional publishing deal in Canada for her latest novel, Landing Gear, and then publish an electronic version herself. She describes how it developed online, out of a collaborative storytelling project. Many more writers are going to have to take control of their publishing careers, she argues, in order to tackle what she calls a "crisis in the mid-list".

Two months after the launch of the Guardian/Legend Press self-published novel of the month, we look back at the first two winners, and talk to Legend's Tom Chalmers about the challenges of seeking them out from the 500 entries that pour in each month.

Finally, we turn to a poet who has never had any truck with conventional publishing. Fresh from Glastonbury, and en route for the Latitude festival, Scroobius Pip demonstrates his unique form of performance poetry.

Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger (
Scroobius Pip Live at the Edinburgh Fringe will be available from from August 4

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Whos the poet: Pamela Anderson or Sylvia Plath? Take our quiz

Actor, model and former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has published a 1,209-word epic poem, expressing her feelings after she filed for a second divorce from her two-time husband Rick Salomon. Its themes include love, technology, economic inequality and genetic determinism.

You can read it in full on her Facebook page.

But first, why not see if you can tell her apart from Sylvia Plath?

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - review

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

This is a gripping and captivating novel that I enjoyed reading very much. The characters were believable and interesting, and I found there was a lot of symbolism and depth in the book too, which accounted for the sadness of it. The poems that Hazel recited were amusing as well.

However, despite how much I liked the book, there was one thing that bugged me as I read: the subject matter of it. To me, glamorizing illness and sensationalizing cancer is even more heartbreaking than the sadness that hangs over the book. At my school, you can hear people all day every day yelling things like, 'Have you seen The Fault in Our Stars yet? Did you cry? I cried!' and, 'I'm trying to draw a cannula but it just won't work.' And also, 'I have to find a cannula for sale so I can dress up as Hazel for Halloween.'

Why is this so distressing? you ask. What about the poor people who actually have cancer? If they saw somebody dressed up with a cannula, they would think, 'Well, they can take that off at any point – but I can't.' Also, I despise the way The Fault in Our Stars has been made into an acronym. There is even a #TFIOS. It's like saying, #cancer. It is just like news corporations sensationalizing news stories.

One day, this book will go out of fashion and so will cancer. How depressing for people with cancer. The book has been made trendy by hashtags and Twitter accounts.

Even though I disliked the subject of the book, I would recommend it to anybody who is sensible enough to realize that cancer and illness is not a fashion.

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