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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

A Good Country is a thought-provoking coming-of-age story which explores racism and stereotyping in contemporary America, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

A Good CountryA Good Country
Laleh Khadivi, Bloomsbury, R290

Rez Courdee is the good, obedient 14-year-old son of Iranian immigrants in sunny California. His marks are top notch, and he’s winning prizes for chemistry. He keeps to himself and is home every night for supper with his stern, demanding father and meek mother, until a new friendship and his hormones draw him into a world of surfing and smoking weed.

Laleh Khadivi’s description of the lazy days of privileged adolescence and teenage angst and transformation are nuanced and vivid, with a powerful sense of how mutable and scarily vulnerable we are at this age. Nonetheless, Rez’s trials and tribulations are fairly standard fare – until a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon, followed by a bloody attack at a mall close to home. His world changes.

Suddenly, he’s a threat, an outsider. For the first time, he experiences racism and stereotyping. As his white friends turn away form him, he bonds increasingly to charismatic Arash and beautiful Fatima. Like him, they are of immigrant descent.

Like him, they’d thought themselves regular American kids. Now they find themselves under suspicion. Their response is to look to their faith to make sense of their changing world. Rez starts to explore Islam, first through his friends and then, increasingly, online.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking coming-of-age story, with a twist. Rez asks himself ordinary teenage questions – who am I? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? – in extraordinary circumstances. His radicalisation and the choices he makes are quite devastating. – Kate Sidley, @KateSidley

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Light on the darkness: Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel paints a gripping picture of Bulgaria as it emerges from a grim past, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

The Shadow Land
Elizabeth Kostova, Text Publishing, R360

How do you put an entire country into a novel? American novelist Elizabeth Kostova had done just that and more in her third novel, The Shadow Land. But not before she pondered the question for over two decades.

The country is Bulgaria, which she first wrote about in her bestselling 2005 novel, The Historian, and first visited as a 24-year-old student of Balkan folk music in 1989, a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She not only met her Bulgarian husband Georgi on that trip, but ventured to remote corners of the country collecting songs.

“I was fascinated by the place. I went back with him a lot to see his family, acquired friends there, and over the years made a lot of notes. I wanted to write a novel that somehow covered this chaotic post-communist world that I’ve gotten to know over 25 years but wasn’t sure how to do it, it just seemed overwhelming.”

It was 20 years later when she was completing her second novel, The Swan Thieves, that she awoke from a dream in which entire scenes as well as the narrative arc of an entirely different novel revealed themselves. “I woke from that dream just stunned. Not that I understood a lot of the detail, but it was coherent enough that I could work on it. And I worked on that same story for eight years,” says Kostova, who has deployed, just as she did so potently in The Historian, a rich blend of historical fact, travelogue and fictional detail to give shape and form to the labyrinthine mystery that is The Shadow Land.

A capacious, Victorian-esque novel with more than a whisper of romance, it deftly conveys the beauty and mystery of this ancient land, all the while ensnaring you in a web of intrigue that encompasses the darkest horrors of Bulgaria’s hidden history.

It begins when a young American, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in Sofia to teach English in the summer of 2008, and mistakenly picks up a funerary urn in a bag belonging to an elderly couple and their middle-aged son when she helps them into a taxi. Her subsequent attempts to return the urn to its rightful owners form the engine of the novel, which plies between the present and the past: between Alexandra’s story, and the story of the urn’s occupant, Stoyan Lazarov, a brilliant musician who suffered brutal repression in a secret labour camp during the communist era.

For Kostova, the man in the urn, who arrived in her dream, was an absolute gift.

“There is such a long tradition of literature that is about proper burial, which is why I chose an inscription from Antigone. And our ancient need to lay people to rest with honour, which Faulkner, too, wrote about in As I Lay Dying.

She has often described the myth of Dracula, which she wrote about in The Historian, as “a metaphor for the horrors of history that won’t go away”. But in writing The Shadow Land Kostova immersed herself in accounts of those who survived Bulgaria’s forced-labour camps, recorded in oral histories collected in the ’90s. “I felt like I plunged into real and worse history. In The Historian there is a lot of dark history but the essential story was metaphorical, but The Shadow Land, although fiction, deals with a lot of real things that happened – representative of some of the worst things that humans do to each other. It was really hard material to work with sometimes.”

There hasn’t yet been as much public discussion within Bulgaria about the labour camps as in other former communist nations, adds Kostova. “They were very secret, yet not so secret, in the way that totalitarianism used to be so that people knew just enough to be terrified of what might happen to them if they were arrested.”

Kostova is aware, too, that, despite not planning it that way, The Shadow Land serves as a timely tale about the perils of autocracy.

“I’ve had interesting discussions with American audiences…We’re courting this awful danger of repression and censorship and surveillance and a lot of other things that traditionally only totalitarian governments engage in. We just don’t understand what we have brought upon ourselves.” – Bron Sibree, @BronSibree

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“What did you edit out of The Cull?” “One sex scene” – a Q&A with Tony Park

Published in the Sunday Times

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

Deon Meyer, the late John Gordon-Davis and Margie Orford.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

Biggles of 266 Squadron. Jingoistic and un-PC these days, but my mum gave it to me when I was young and it got me into reading.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, given to me by my mother-in-law – the best book written about how to write fiction. I re-read it every year before starting a new novel.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Anything by travel writer Bill Bryson.

What are you most proud of writing?

A friend in Zimbabwe, who lost his farm during the land grabs, said to me: “Please write one of your novels about what’s going on here so the rest of the world knows what’s happening.” His request moved me to write African Dawn, which charts Zimbabwe’s turbulent history from 1959 to the present through the eyes of three families.

What keeps you awake at night?

I am living a life I could never have dreamt of, writing for a living and splitting my life between Australia and Africa. I still feel insecure every time I submit a new novel to my publishers – I don’t want to wake up from this dream.

Books on your bedside table?

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling, The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson and The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr (his series about PI Bernie Gunther in Nazi Germany is brilliant).

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

I learnt how to sabotage a fighter plane and hijack a ship carrying cars.

What book do you wish you’d written?

Hold My Hand I’m Dying by John Gordon-Davis, probably the best action/romance/thriller/tragedy/historical novel set in Africa.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t listen to everyone who tells you you’re wasting your time. Be brave and quit your day job sooner.

What did you edit out of The Cull?

One sex scene.

How do you select the names of your characters?

I support charities promoting wildlife conservation, healthcare and aged care in various African countries so I offer the rights for people to have their name or that of a loved one assigned to a character. I get some brilliant names. I decide who they will be, although I did have one man, a policeman in real life, beg me to be an evil villain in my novel.

What words do you overuse?

Beginning sentences with “well” or “so”. It’s been pointed out to me that one too many of my heroines has “long tanned legs”.

The Cull

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Can this local author’s children’s book change the way we think about family?

Via Danielle Hess, for Beautiful News

On Wednesday, 25 October 2017 Beautiful News released Elena Agnello’s short-film that relooks the chapter on diversity and shows a variety of families through her storybook. To watch the video click here.

In South Africa, only a third of our children are raised in homes with both parents. Agnello from Cape Town, seeks to address the misperceptions and representations by rewriting the script on family diversity.

The mother of one is a children’s book author. Her first book, I Am Alex, was published last year and deals with diversity in family structures. When Agnello had her daughter she was surprised by the uniformity of the homes represented in literature. Having grown up in a household headed by a single mother, she understands the need for kids to see themselves and their unique family structures in the stories they read. “I think it’s vital that we have this conversation with our children,” says Agnello. “I wish that children would be taught more about others and their traditions.”

Her book is set at a birthday party and introduces readers to different families through the characters depicted as guests. Like Agnello, one child at the party has a single parent, while another is being raised by adoptive parents. The point is for kids to feel included in society and to develop a culture of incorporating others into their world views. Families aren’t defined by numbers or the closeness of relatives, but by an environment of care formed between people who love one another.

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Rewriting history: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Robert Harris’s Munich

Published in the Sunday Times

There’s no changing the fact of World War 2, but Robert Harris gives us an intriguing reinterpretation, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Robert Harris, Hutchinson, R295

“Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination … re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture.”
For three decades, it seems that Robert Harris has been harbouring a fascination with the historical Munich Agreement of September 30 1938 – some would say an obsession. In our telephonic interview, Harris chuckled when I put this to him, but his response was measured. “I may not have felt it with the same intensity throughout that period, but I have been interested in this subject for a long time.”

The backstory is the beginnings of World War 2. After annexing Austria, Hitler demanded parts of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was signed to facilitate this. After Hitler received his piece of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain (UK) and Édouard Daladier (France) hoped a catastrophic war had been averted. However, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the world into war.

With Munich, Harris enters the fray from the unconventional angle of fiction. “Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination. It offered me the possibility of re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture,” he says.

There are real and fictional characters, but it is the latter who provide the clearest lens through which we can see “what really happened”. Two fictional characters in their late 20s — Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat – are the chief literary poles around which the narrative revolves. Through Legat and Hartmann, Harris guides the reader into the inner circle. Through their observations, as well as their unlimited access to the German Führer and the British prime minister, the reader sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels the looming war.

Given their pivotal role in the narrative, were Legat and Hartmann entirely fictional? “Strictly speaking, yes, they are. But there were enough real people like them in the late 1930s, aspects of whose biographies I used to construct these two and other characters.”

Harris’s refined ability to reconstruct setting, to recreate a sense of place and time, and his knack for the creation of believable characters, enable him to tease fiction out of history. In Munich, fiction dances with non-fiction, sucking the reader deeper into a breathtaking literary mirage.

The Hitler of Harris’s novel is neither pleased with himself nor sure of himself, before and after signing the Munich Agreement. He feels outplayed, outmanoeuvred and belittled by Chamberlain. Similarly, Harris’s Chamberlain is imbued with more grace, depth and integrity than many history books suggest. Only time will tell if Harris has done enough to rid him of the Pontius Pilate-like role assigned to him in the popular imagination.

I ask Harris what he wants his readers to feel or know after they have read the book. After speaking briefly about the precariousness of facile notions about the “politics of appeasement”, he said: “Above all else, I would like my readers to feel entertained.”

Few writers can blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as masterfully and as delightfully as Harris does in Munich. The reader must be warned: this book will be hard to put down. – @ProfTinyiko


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Book Bites: 22 October

Published in the Sunday Times

A Gap in the HedgeA Gap in the Hedge
Johan Vlok Louw, Umuzi, R230
Amnesia is a strange thing. How do you remember how to drive a car or make a casserole but you can’t remember what your own name is? In this novel it sometimes feels as if Johan Vlok Louw is leading us up the garden path as Karl gets closer to knowing who he is. The only clues to guide him are an old grey Ford, and a taste for Coke, whisky and Paul Revere cigarettes. As he proceeds, step by step, through his sleazy, bewildering world, you are either drawn along through curiosity or, if you are less indulgent, you leave him to his own devices. – Yvonne Fontyn

The Floating Theatre
The Floating Theatre
Martha Conway, Zaffre Publishing, R295
When the steamer she is travelling on sinks, May Bedloe finds herself, for the first time, in charge of her own destiny. Joining a travelling theatre on the Ohio river, the divides between North and South and between freedom and slavery become apparent and divisive and May is drawn against her will into a dangerous war. She begins to realise that everyone makes a choice and those choices come with costs that can be hard to bear. The book starts off a little slowly, but May is captivating as she stumbles through her discovery of the complexities of life. A beautiful coming-of-age novel. – Jem Glendinning @jemathome

Did You See Melody?
Did You See Melody?
Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, R275
Hannah easily transports you to sunny Arizona, to the Swallowtail – a sprawling resort spa with luxury three-bedroomed casitas surrounded by swaying cacti, sparkling pools and seemingly super-friendly staff. There’s an underlying atmosphere of menace and a group of dubious folks (residents, staff, police, and a talkshow host) – all with some sort of agenda. One of the twists is that there is no murder per se, rather a supposedly murdered girl named Melody who has been spotted by the unwitting heroine, Cara Burrows. Burrows herself has things to resolve as she has just run away from her husband and two kids in the UK. This novel works best as a binge read – Hannah is such an accomplished storyteller that solving the mystery of Melody becomes urgent. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Feuding Faiths: Elizabethan England provides the intrigue-filled setting for Ken Follett’s latest blockbuster, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Ken Follett and a sculpture of himself in the Plaza de la Burulleria in Vitoria-Gasteiz, northern Spain.
Picture: © Mikelcg Wikimedia


A Column of FireA Column of Fire
Ken Follett, Macmillan, R350

‘This struggle for religious tolerance is the foundation of the range of freedoms that we enjoy in many countries today.’

On the downside, Follett does take his own sweet time to deliver. On the upside, he is not one for half measures. For the fans of the enormously popular Kingsbridge series of historical fiction novels it has been a decade-long wait for the third volume, A Column of Fire. All 750 pages of it hit the market with the momentum of a brick going through a glass window.

There is nothing modest about the scope of Follett’s work. The first Kingsbridge novel, Pillars of the Earth, covers the lives of the inhabitants in the eponymous town during the 12th century, as they erect its iconic cathedral.

The second, World Without End, carries the tale into the 14th century. The latest novel revisits the townsfolk’s descendants after a 200-year gap, in tumultuous 16th-century England, with plots to dethrone or assassinate Elizabeth I, the plague of the Black Death, the Gunpowder Plot, and the threatened invasion of the Spanish armada.

It’s a rollicking saga of love and death, violence, intrigue and treachery, tracing the roller-coaster fortunes of two families, the Willards and the Fitzgeralds. The backdrop is the religious turmoil that followed the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I to the throne and set all of Catholic Europe against England.

It was the battle between these two religions that made the period an attractive subject, says Follett. “The conflict between tolerance and fanaticism has echoes, has a resonance, in the extremism and religious warfare of today.”

Follett is sceptical, however, of the potential for learning lasting lessons from history or literature. “[But] we do get a wider perspective from history and historical novels. Once one knows about the past, has spent time imagining it, one really can’t come up with such simple views and simple solutions that one otherwise might be tempted to do.”

In A Column of Fire, it is when personal and political worlds intersect that the complexities become especially acute. Families and communities are torn asunder, as power seesaws between the contesting Protestants and Catholics.

While both the Willards and Fitzgeralds are prominent Catholic families in Kingsbridge, the latter are more doctrinaire and have great social ambitions for their daughter Margery. It makes the Fitzgerald clan determined to thwart the love between her and Ned Willard. This divide becomes a yawning gulf when Ned enters the service, while Margery is forced to marry a scion of the aristocracy. Over the next 50 years, while Ned and Margery cling to their individual beliefs, their love apparently doomed, England and the Continent are in a state of upheaval.

One of the determined young Queen Elizabeth’s earliest moves is to set up the country’s first secret service, to neutralise the plots of her many enemies. Young Ned becomes one of her spymasters.

For Follett, who made his name as a writer of espionage novels before making the historical genre his own, it’s something of a full circle to combine the two. “I like writing about spies,” he enthuses. “There are always two stories: the official version that governments tell us and the actual one, the truth behind it all. Spies are interesting, because they know the true story.”

Follett is proud of the historical veracity of his writing. While there are authors who twist history for dramatic effect, and Follett says he has no issue with such creative licence, it is not for him. “I will not violate history. It means sticking to the truth, as best we know it.”

In a narrative that encompasses four centuries of history, in thousands of pages, this is no easy task. Just his draft, outlining the plot and characters of the book, is as long as a shortish novel.

“It is easy, with a minor character, to forget small details, like whether they have blue or green eyes. Readers, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the same problem, and are quick to point out the errors.” He uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track, so the character’s age will automatically be updated by the program as the story progresses through the various chapters.

Accuracy is paramount. The manuscript is submitted to three or four professional historians, whom Follett pays “very well” to scrutinise for anachronisms and dubious interpretations of events.

He works a conventional nine-to-five workday week and says he is not unusual in his approach. Even the “bad boys” of writing, with reputations for carousing, tend to have a disciplined, measured approach to their work.

“It’s a fascinating, challenging, completely absorbing task. There’s an enormous satisfaction taking every bit of knowledge, wisdom and skill that one has, and turning that into novels that millions of people enjoy.”

He has already embarked on the drafting of his next book, although he is cagey about what it is, “mainly because it is early days and I don’t yet know whether it is going to work out”. However, he leaves the door open for a continuation of the Kingsbridge series.

After all, “this struggle for religious tolerance that we see just starting in the 16th century is really the foundation of the wide range of freedoms that we enjoy in many countries today”.

“That’s because once you have the right to make up your own mind about your God, you can’t help but wonder why you shouldn’t make up your own mind about the king and the laws.” @TheJaundicedEye

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Book Bites: 15 October

Published in the Sunday Times

Late Show
Michael Connelly, Orion, R275
Fierce, flawed and fallen from grace, Detective Renée Ballard now works “The Late Show” – the graveyard shift at the LA police department. Every night she opens cases and every morning turns them over to an investigating unit. Then she lands two cases she’s determined to keep – a multiple shooting and an assault on a transgender prostitute. Although Ballard senses the presence of “big evil”, she can’t know that her investigation will loop back to her department. Ballard is not as nuanced or compelling a character as Harry Bosch, and Connolly is perhaps too eager to show us he’s done his research, describing every detail of police paperwork and procedure, but this is nit picking. The book is fast-paced, clever, and delivers a gritty view of LA’s seedy underbelly. – Joanne Macgregor @JoanneMacg

Believe Me
Eddie Izzard, Michael Joseph, R340
This is not a shock-horror celebrity memoir; there is no profanity, gossip or exaggerations. It’s a story of damn hard work, passion and determination. Eddie Izzard knew from a young age that he wanted to be a performer. It took 12 years for him to officially break into the entertainment world. Out of each failed attempt, his determination grew, until he became the international celebrity he is today. At the same time, Izzard knew his sexuality was not easy to define. Being a self-proclaimed “action transvestite” has meant that he has taken on a unique view of the world and presents this in his performances and daring fashion choices. His well-deserved self-confidence is inspiring and catchy. – Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

The Rhino Whisperer
Evadeen Brickwood, Sula Books, R250
Brickwood turns an observant eye on Southern African problems, setting much of her story in the fictional Shangari Safari Park. When rhino poaching and murder come to Shangari, it’s like the serpent entering the Garden of Eden. We are given a cast – Tom and Sofia, who run the park; Barry the alcoholic vet; Sofia’s best friend Gugu, and Gugu’s dodgy billionaire boss Stan Makeroff (think Sol Kerzner meets Radovan Krejcir) – with the suspicion that one of them is Mr Big, the criminal mastermind behind it all. Delightfully exuberant, but needs editing. – Aubrey Paton

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Lincoln in the Bardo wins 2017 Man Booker Prize

The 2017 Man Booker Prize has been announced!

As per the press release:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is named winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Lincoln in the Bardo is the first full-length novel from George Saunders, internationally renowned short story writer.

The 58-year-old New York resident, born in Texas, is the second American author to win the prize in its 49-year history. He was in contention for the prize with two British, one British-Pakistani and two American writers.

Lola, Baroness Young, 2017 Chair of judges, comments:

‘The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.’

Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on a single night in the life of Abraham Lincoln: an actual moment in 1862 when the body of his 11-year-old son was laid to rest in a Washington cemetery. Strangely and brilliantly, Saunders activates this graveyard with the spirits of its dead. The Independent described the novel as ‘completely beguiling’, praising Saunders for concocting a ‘narrative like no other: a magical, mystery tour of the bardo – the “intermediate” or transitional state between one’s death and one’s next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism.’ Meanwhile, the Guardian wrote that, ‘the short story master’s first novel is a tale of great formal daring…[it] stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.’

Saunders told TIME magazine that he didn’t really want to write about Lincoln, ‘but was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instil the same reaction I’d had all those years ago.’

Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury, making it the third consecutive year the prize has been won by an independent publisher, following Oneworld Publications’ success in 2015 with Marlon James and 2016 with Paul Beatty. Bloomsbury has won the prize three times before, with Howard Jacobson (2010), Margaret Atwood (2000) and Michael Ondaatje (1992).

Saunders’ win comes in the month that 1989 Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro was named as this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature recipient. Ishiguro follows in the footsteps of other Booker Prize-recognised authors who have gone on to win the award including: V. S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, William Golding, J. M. Coetzee and Doris Lessing.

Luke Ellis, CEO of Man Group, comments:

‘We are pleased to congratulate George Saunders, along with each of the shortlisted authors, for his fantastic achievement this year. At Man Group, we are extremely proud to be sponsoring the world’s foremost literary prize and celebrating exceptional literary talent for a fifteenth year. We understand the importance of intellectual capital and creative thought – and indeed, the ability to view the world from different lenses matters more than ever today, in this age of rapid and inexorable change. We also believe that businesses like ours have an important duty to advance progress in education at every level: from prizes like this, which recognise global talent, to the local grassroots initiatives championed by the Booker Prize Foundation and the Man Charitable Trust, which we are honoured to support.’

Lola, Baroness Young was joined on the 2017 judging panel by the literary critic, Lila Azam Zanganeh; the Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Sarah Hall; the artist, Tom Phillips CBE RA; and the travel writer and novelist, Colin Thubron CBE. The judges considered 144 submissions for this year’s prize.

George Saunders’ win was announced by Lola Young at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. He was presented with a trophy from HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and a £50,000 cheque by Luke Ellis, Chief Executive of Man Group. Saunders also receives a designer bound edition of his book and a further £2,500 for being shortlisted.

At the event, which was broadcast live on the BBC News Channel, actors Maxine Peake, Rhashan Stone and Olivia Williams, read extracts from the shortlisted books. All the shortlisted authors attended alongside a number of former winners.

George Saunders will take part in his first official public event as winner at a New Statesman-partnered event at Foyles Charing Cross Road on Thursday 19 October 2017.

Royal Mail is again issuing a congratulatory postmark featuring the winner’s name, which will be applied to millions of items of stamped mail nationwide on Wednesday 18 October and Friday 20 October 2017. It will say ‘Congratulations to George Saunders, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize’.

Man Group, an active investment management firm, has sponsored the prize since 2002.

Lincoln in the Bardo

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On evil’s own trail: Michele Magwood reviews Retribution Road

Published in the Sunday Times

Retribution RoadRetribution Road
Antonin Varenne, MacLehose Press

Don’t be put off by the cowboy on the cover and the words “adventure story”. This is no cartoon Wild West tale, although guns are slung and whisky is drunk in quantity. Antonin Varenne is a French author who has won several prestigious awards in France for his noir novels. Here he travels back to the 19th century, where we meet the British mercenary Arthur Bowman, one of the East India Company’s private army of some 300 000 soldiers. He’s a vicious killer and a charismatic leader, but a mission in Burma ends up with his company captured and tortured.

Bowman barely survives and returns to the slums of London where he sinks into alcohol and opium addiction. When a corpse turns up bearing the same markings of torture that he suffered in Burma, he sets off to hunt the killer, convinced it is one of his men.

Bowman trails the man to America and follows his tracks across the vast young country. It is a pacy, vivid tale that moves at rapid speed for 500 pages and twists and turns like a thriller. Varenne breathes extraordinary life into history, from the junks on a Burmese river, to the Great Stink of London when the Thames dried up, to the gold mines of Colorado and virgin ranches of the Sierra Nevada. He captures the creak and suffocation of stagecoaches, the terror of working women protesters shot in New York, the tedium of sea crossings and the blinding vistas of the New World.

It is an intriguing blend of quest tale, detective story, Western and war drama, with an unusual love interest stirred in – but underneath it all are serious questions about the nature of courage and honour, and whether an evil man can ever be redeemed. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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