Christopher Tolkien, the son of The Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, has been hailed as a “titan” of fantasy literature following his death aged 95.The Tolkien Society, which promotes the life and works of the revered fantasy writer, confirmed the news in a statement on Twitter.
It’s the new year. I could have given up booze and bacon, or embarked on a punishing new fitness regime. But these seemed too harsh for the drab days of January and besides, I had more ambitious plans for personal transformation. Namely, to turn myself into a witch.At this opening of a scary new decade, we’re in the midst of a resurgent interest in all things mystic, superstitious or more than a little bit woo. As the New Yorker magazine observed, “astrology is currently enjoying a broad cultural acceptance that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s”. And its cousin in dogged resistance to logic, specifically witchcraft, is also having something of a moment, refitted for the age of self-care as a way for women to reconnect with themselves and the natural world. Think crystals, not cauldrons. Last summer, Publishers Weekly noted that witchcraft was one of the strongest trends in the “mind-body-spirit” category, and the interest shows no sign of abating.
One evening in October 1969, Elizabeth Kendall went to a bar in Seattle with her friend Angie. Kendall had just received a parking ticket, which had left her – a divorced mother of one – upset. In a counter-intuitive move, Angie’s roommate’s boyfriend had suggested she go out to celebrate the ticket, rather than lament it.At the Sandpaper Tavern, two men invited Kendall to dance. One of them was a “tall, sandy-haired” stranger, while the other “turned out to be a creep”. Luckily for Kendall – she thought – the sandy-haired man was still there, providing her with the perfect escape.
We all have cherished memories of the books we read and shared as children. Big friendly giants, honey-loving bears, hungry caterpillars, iron men: these figures populate the vivid imaginary landscapes of our childhoods. Everybody will remember the book that made them laugh and cry, the one that they turn to again and again. Like totems, we pass them on to our own children, each book a spell in itself.But there isn’t room in this list for everything. I’m sure that every single reader will gasp at omissions and query the order. There are many personal favourites that I’ve left out, and many more 20th- and 21st-century writers whom I would have liked to include.
If January is anything to go by, 2020 will be a terrific year for books. Two outstanding new novels share a theme of holding on to love during desperate flight. Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea and American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins are also linked by the work of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. The late Chilean chartered the SS Winnipeg to bring migrants from fascist Europe to his homeland, a journey taken by the refugee doctor Victor in Allende’s haunting novel.A quote from Neruda’s The Song of Despair (“there were grief and the ruins, and you were the miracle”) is used in the epigraph that opens American Dirt, a sensational story about the gruelling experience of illegally crossing the US-Mexico border. The stories by both women, although full of despair, are also life-affirming triumphs.
According to the Vegan Society, there are three and a half times as many vegans as there were in 2006, and since the Veganuary campaign started back in 2004, more than 500,000 people have registered with reasons for taking part, which include health, environment and animal welfare.In fact some of the biggest news stories of the year have centred around this growing movement, with Greggs’ vegan sausage roll making the headlines and the realistic plant-based bleeding burgers from Beyond Burger and the like gaining huge popularity.
From the cultural splendour of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur to the glamour of Bollywood, India is a fascinating place.It’s the second most populous country in the world and there’s no better way to learn about its diverse culture and complex history than to read about it.
“The truth isn’t going to bend itself to suit you” – Malorie Blackman“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat” – Ralph Ellison
Whether you’re a first-timer or a parent to many, pregnancy – and navigating life with a newborn – can be exhilarating, overwhelming and daunting all at the same time.Whether it’s sleepless nights or a lack of routine, maternity and motherhood can be a trying time, with self-care often going out of the window, too.
There’s no cure for being on Earth, Samuel Beckett used to joke. In 1938, one event in his own life had all the elements of absurdity, black comedy and fatalism that pepper his finest works, such as Waiting for Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape. It happened on a Paris street, when an argument ended with the writer being stabbed by a small-time pimp. He narrowly escaped dying of his wounds.There was a whiff of farce, too, with the newspaper accounts of the attack, Le Figaro reporting that “Samuel Peckett” had been stabbed in Paris. Beckett survived the assault, went on to win the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, and kept going until his death, in the same area of the French capital on 22 December 1989, at the age of 83.
Books, books, books. They will increase your lifespan, lower your stress and boost your intelligence. They will give you fuller, thicker hair.Whatever the breathless claims about reading, one thing is certain: losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s most enduring and dependable joys. Job satisfaction comes and goes, partners enrapture and abscond, but you can always fall back on the timeless ability of literature to transport you to a different world. From Jane Austen’s mannered drawing rooms to the airless tower blocks of 1984, novels do something unique. They simultaneously speak to the heart and mind. They teach you about the history of our world, the possibilities of our future and the fabric of our souls.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” So said Oscar Wilde – and it’s witticisms like this that remind us how important it is to put pen to paper in this digital age.You’d be forgiven for thinking everything had gone digital, but paper diaries are still very much in demand.
The history of calendars goes back to ancient times, where our ancestors used them to keep track of solar and lunar cycles.Thousands of years later, we still use planners to organise what we’re doing over the coming weeks and months. There’s something innately satisfying about noting down friends’ birthdays and planning holidays months in advance.
For stationery nerds and the hyper-organised, a new year means the chance to start a brand new planner. It is also a time the perpetually shambolic pledge that “this year it will be different”.They – and by “they” we mean numerous studies – say that if you write something down you’ll remember it, which is why paper planners are still popular in a world that is increasingly and often overwhelmingly digital.
Peter Handke, the Austrian author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature on Tuesday, said recently that he hated opinions.“I like literature,” he added, in a bad-tempered exchange during a news conference in Stockholm last week.
Selecting the books that can be said to have defined a decade as turbulent and introspective as the 2010s has been a tough task. But the fiction and nonfiction works here have entertained, challenged and moved us, and many of the books would be hailed as great in any era.The extraordinary books chosen by our critics – Ceri Radford, Olivia Petter and Martin Chilton – span a vast array of settings and situations. The 40 books cover everything from a blood-tinged Tudor court to supernatural limbo, from India in the wake of the partition conflict to a painstaking study of 21st-century female desire.
The Literary Review has been handing out the infamous Bad Sex in Fiction award since 1993, every year highlighting those authors behind the most “egregious passages of sexual description”.Previous nominees have included a famous horror author (Stephen King), an Oscar-nominated actor (Ethan Hawke), an Ivor Novello award winner (Nick Cave), a former Prime Ministers(Tony Blair), and – perhaps most famously of all – Morrissey. “I have many enemies,” the former Smiths singer said of winning the award in 2015, “and their biggest motivation, as you know, is to try to use all your achievements against you.”
Santa’s sleigh is likely to be heavy with empowerment books this Christmas, as the publishing world brings out its usual December glut of guides to mental wellbeing, bodily cleansing and dieting (collagen seems cool this year). There’s nothing wrong with new year’s resolutions, of course, but this splurge of advice brings to mind the late George Carlin’s routine: “If you are looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help – that’s help. Try to pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on.”Sarah Knight’s F**k No! How to stop saying yes when you can’t, you shouldn’t, or you just don’t want to is a manual for learning to say “no” with confidence. One person it was dangerous to refuse was Henry VIII. In the entertaining Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies, historian Hayley Nolan repositions Boleyn as an enlightened progressive. She made the mistake of marrying a “high-functioning narcissistic sociopathic”.
Erin Morgenstern’s captivating new novel The Starless Sea refers to a “a book-centric fantasia” – and there is certainly a wonderfully eclectic mix of styles and forms in this month’s publications.Julian Barnes’s tale of La Belle Epoque, built around the story of the celebrated French doctor Samuel Pozzi, is fascinating history, biography and philosophy rolled into one. In The Man in the Red Coat, Barnes is the ideal guide to a hysterical “hyperventilating era” (1870-1914) when “prejudice could swiftly metastasise into paranoia”. It was also a period when the gun lobby wielded significant power in French politics. More than a century later, the United States has its own pro-gun president, who has boasted about owning a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Right in time for Christmas shopping, this month sees the publication of She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices by Yvette Cooper. A collection of humdinger speeches by women who have changed the course of history – from Boudica to Benazir Bhutto – it’s a wonderful book that I would happily unwrap and spend half of Christmas avoiding the family with. It’s also part of a slow-burning trend for anthologies that champion women’s long marginalised stories, including Wonder Women, A History of Britain in 21 Women and a whole slew of jauntily feminist children’s titles aimed at raising girls who will put down the Play-Doh and lean in.As a phenomenon, it gives me mixed feelings. To start with the obvious: these books are a much-needed rebuttal to a culture that gives off the ineffable impression that the only woman who did anything of note in the past two millennia was Marie Curie. Leaders included in She Speaks like Sojourner Truth, a former slave turned powerful activist, should be part of the collective consciousness, but they’re not. As recently as the mid Nineties, as Cooper points out, The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches blithely noted that “women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough.”
Ann Fleming, née Charteris, was born into the aristocracy and married wealthy men. Photograph: ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby'sAn extraordinary stash of letters that shine a light on the tangled relationship between the James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, and his wife, Ann, from their intense and secret affair to the bitter end of their marriage, are to appear at auction.Sotheby’s is selling more than 160 letters between the couple, written over 20 years. Gabriel Heaton, a specialist in books and manuscripts at the auction house, said the letters in their scope and scale provided what “must surely be an unmatchable record of the life of the author as his fortunes changed”.They also provide insight into the rise of Bond. Heaton said it was no coincidence that Fleming wrote his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in the year of his marriage.Ian Fleming had numerous flings and affairs with other women. Photograph: ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby'sIt was “both as an outlet for his libido and imagination, and also in an attempt to make money for a woman who was used to being unthinkingly rich”.Ann Fleming, née Charteris, was born into the aristocracy and married wealthy men. Her first husband was Shane O’Neill, the 3rd Baron O’Neill. After his death in military action in 1944, she married the newspaper magnate Esmond Harmsworth, the 2nd Viscount Rothermere.During both marriages she and Fleming were lovers, an intense relationship that had sado-masochistic elements. “I long for you even if you whip me because I love being hurt by you and kissed afterwards,” Ann once wrote to Fleming.In 1948 Ann became pregnant with Fleming’s child, a girl who was a month premature and lived only eight hours. The collection includes a number of sad and gentle letters written by Fleming on Gleneagles stationery shortly after he played golf with Rothermere, the cuckolded husband.‘I have nothing to say to comfort you,’ Ian Fleming wrote in one letter to his wife, Ann. Photograph: HandoutIn one letter he writes: “I have nothing to say to comfort you. After all this travail and pain it is bitter. I can only send you my arms and my love and all my prayers.”Fleming had numerous flings and affairs with other women and when the couple finally married in 1952 that was never likely to stop.Ann once wrote to him: “You mention ‘bad old bachelor days’ – the only person you stopped sleeping with when they ceased was me!”A letter from Fleming written on British Overseas Airways Corporation stationery reads: “In the present twilight, we are hurting each other to an extent that makes life hardly bearable.”Heaton said the letters were packed with stories of high society, travel, love of nature and gossip.“They are quite something, it has been a real treat,” he said. “They are an extraordinary read because Ian Fleming is pretty much incapable of writing a dull sentence.”Fleming wrote all of the Bond novels at GoldenEye, his house in Jamaica, a place visited by many of Ann’s remarkable circle of friends. The artist Lucian Freud, for example, and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, with whom she had a long affair.A letter from Ian Fleming. Photograph: HandoutThere were also surprising visitors. “Truman Capote has come to stay,” Fleming writes. “Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me. On the heels of a telegram he came hustling and twittering along with his tiny face crushed under a Russian Commissars’ uniform hat [...] he had just arrived from Moscow.”The letters consist of more than 500 typed and handwritten pages, at least three written on endpapers torn from books. Two of the letters from Ann are written on the back of a gin rummy card and a hospital temperature chart.They will be offered in Sotheby’s online literature sale between 3 and 10 December and come with an estimate of £200,000-300,000.It was important to keep them together, said Heaton. “They are much more than the sum of their parts, the correspondence as a whole is far more substantial and interesting and revealing and exciting than simply an accumulation of individual letters.”
Lindy West is as tough as nails. She shouldn’t have to be, but it comes with the territory when you’re not only a woman writing on the internet, but one who writes about divisive topics such as bodies, sexism and privilege. Her first book, a memoir titled Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, came out in 2016 and was adapted into a TV series on Hulu starring Aidy Bryant.West is back with a new volume, a collection of incisive essays titled The Witches Are Coming. In it, West once again demonstrates a knack for dissecting just about any pop-cultural phenomenon with the right level of acerbity.
Is there anything more satisfying than a brilliant plot twist? A truly great one can make a work of fiction unforgettable, turning everything that you thought you knew upside down. Sometimes they’re achieved through an unreliable narrator, others by a string of red herrings that trick you into reaching the wrong conclusion.In crime thrillers, part of the fun is trying to work out how the story will end, with the knowledge that you are likely to be tripped up before the resolution. But the best plot twists in literature are when you least expect them, whether it’s the discovery of Mr Rochester’s lunatic wife in Jane Eyre, or the heartbreaking truth that is revealed in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Acclaimed American writer Sylvia Plath would have been 87 on Sunday, and the date is being marked by Google with a stunning Doodle aimed at capturing the mood of her work.Her painfully honest poetry and prose touched generations of fans, and helped many to understand mental illness.