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  • Poetry book of the month: Wing by Matthew Francis – review

    This shimmering new collection dissects the natural world with a wondering, meticulous eye

    It is becoming harder to find modern poetry that is unequivocally at the service of nature. I am not sure why the ability to observe in an unmediated way – with the humility involved – is so often sidelined or treated as second-rate. Matthew Francis has earned the bouquets thrown his way – he has been nominated for the Forward prize a couple of times – but should be more vigorously championed.

    His gifts are quiet but his name deserves to be broadcast loudly. Nature does not go out of fashion and we need poetry of this quality more than ever. Wing, his new collection, is a joy.

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  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann review – plague, war and practical jokes
    The talented Austro-German has created a dazzling, picaresque romp but he squanders the potential of his best character

    Time and again, Daniel Kehlmann’s novels feature an artist whose success depends on leaving his wife and children. (His last book broke with the formula to follow a harassed screenwriter on holiday with his family; it’s called You Should Have Left.) The creative travails of men, and the collateral damage they inflict, may not seem a surefire draw for book-buyers, yet Kehlmann, who writes in German, is translated into more than 40 languages – he’s fun to read, and his books travel light, uncluttered by cultural references.

    Not so Tyll. Set in early 17th-century Europe, it takes place during the thirty years’ war, a sectarian power struggle over the Holy Roman Empire, which ravaged Germany and left millions dead. Wikipedia wormholes await the reader unfamiliar with, say, the battle of Zusmarshausen, the poet Martin Opitz, or indeed the novel’s eponymous hero, lifted from a 16th-century folk tale about a lawless practical joker who roams the land exposing hypocrisy (Michael Rosen once adapted the story).

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  • The Call of the Wild review – old-fashioned shaggy-dog story with bite

    Disney’s adaptation of the classic Jack London adventure, starring Harrison Ford and a pack of CGI critters, is enjoyably corny

    Beethoven meets Gladiator in this old-fashioned doggy adventure from Disney, which basically jumps out of the screen and starts licking your face. It’s digital in its effects but analogue in its heart.

    A big, silly, sloppy, adorable pet St Bernard collie called Buck is forced to toughen up and find his inner survivor-warrior after he is effectively sold into slavery by evil dognappers in early-20th-century North America. He is put to work on a sled team in the freezing Klondike, where the gold rush has drawn thousands of desperate souls searching for riches. At first Buck has to be one of the dogs in the rear, behind a mean alpha canine called Spitz. And that joke about the view not changing unless you are lead dog originates from this very story. But Buck finds a soulmate and pal in a grizzled old prospector called Thornton – played by Harrison Ford – who has sadness in his heart and cares more for freedom than for gold. Ford also supplies the growly narration.

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  • The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather review – portrait of an unseen hero

    Humanity’s limits are laid bare in the gripping story of a Polish soldier who chronicled Hitler’s genocide from within

    This year will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war, probably the most revisited period of history in history. And yet this looming event – and in particular the genocide at its heart – continues to yield revelatory stories and inspire exceptional writing.

    Four years ago, Philippe Sands’s East West Street traced the roots of modern human rights law back to two Jews who emerged from the “bloodlands”, to use the historian Timothy Snyder’s term, of Lviv in what was Poland and is now Ukraine. If that extraordinary book grappled with the meaning of law in the depths of depravity, then Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer, the deserved winner of the Costa book award, explores the limits of humanity in the same dreadful context.

    Related: Dispatches from hell: the extraordinary story of the hero who infiltrated Auschwitz

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  • Antisocial: How Online Extremists Broke America by Andrew Marantz – review

    A US journalist infiltrates the toxic world of alt-right ‘news’ peddlers in an absorbing study of online propaganda and its threat to democracy

    Andrew Marantz is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a pretty good one. He’s written a lot of perceptive stuff about the tech industry in recent years. One morning in 2016, he was in his office exploring “a particularly foul part of social media undergrowth”, when the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, came in, looked at the screen and asked: “What the hell is that?” Marantz told him to sit down and watch.

    He repeated some of the Facebook searches he’d been doing, bringing up toxic memes and propaganda posts and reading out the “engagement” statistics below each one: 5,000 shares here, 15,000 “Likes” there. Then he pulled up the New Yorker’s Facebook page. A recent landmark piece got just 87 shares; Remnick’s own piece about Aretha Franklin had even fewer – 78 shares. And so on. “I get it,” said the editor. “It’s not auspicious, but where’s the story in it?” Marantz pressed on, exploring the maze of pro-Trump propaganda and viral memes. “What if I could find the people who are peddling this stuff?” he asked. “That could be a story,” Remnick replied.

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  • In brief: The Crying Book; Right After the Weather; The Lost Properties of Love – reviews
    A personal story of tears, a novel of mid-life epiphanies and a memoir of grief and loss all enthral

    Corsair, £14.99, 207pp

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  • The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag review – girl powers
    A fantasy in which four half-sisters battle against dark forces is let down by cliche and structural flaws

    The fictional worlds of Menna van Praag have often whispered with voices of the fantastic. Her first novel, The House at the End of Hope Street (2013), is the story of a woman who finds sustenance from a building whose former inhabitants include Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie. In The Witches of Cambridge (2016), Van Praag’s protagonist is able to intuit the silent aspirations of those around her.

    Her latest novel confronts these elements of metaphysical apprehension in a more concerted way. The Sisters Grimm follows the fortunes of a quartet of half-sisters – Goldie, Bea, Scarlet and Liyana – who have never met, other than in their childhood dreams of visiting a land named Everwhere. None of the sisters – all living in Cambridge, where they are approaching their 18th birthdays – has a firm recollection of the elemental powers they possessed in their childhood reveries. And none has a clear awareness of their demonic shared father, Wilhelm Grimm, whose army of soldiers now seek their death.

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  • A Bit of a Stretch review – an indictment of Britain’s prison system

    White-collar criminal Chris Atkins’s account of his jail time exposes the dire state of our jails and justice policy

    Chris Atkins, 40, was a public-school educated, Bafta-nominated film-maker and the father of a two-year-old boy, Kit, when he was sentenced, in July 2016, to five years in jail for his part in a £2.2m film investment tax fraud scheme. As prisoner A8892DT, his first nine months were spent in the rat-infested, understaffed, under-resourced, overcrowded, uber-violent, stinking, crumbling ruin, built in 1851, that is HMP Wandsworth in south London.

    A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner gives a surreal, darkly funny, at times horrifying but always humane account of what it’s like to be locked up in a dysfunctional institution in which 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate, mental ill health is rife and it’s easier to obtain spice, a synthetic version of cannabis, than paracetamol, let alone therapeutic support.

    Prison should be about loss of freedom and rehabilitation, not torment and loss of self-respect

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  • Actress by Anne Enright review – boundless emotional intelligence

    Anne Enright’s novel about a daughter unpicking her famous mother’s life is hugely diverting

    Anne Enright’s new novel opens with a question: “People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what she was like as an actress – we did not use the word star.”

    The actress is Katherine O’Dell and her daughter, Norah, tells her mother’s story, intertwined with her own. There is another question: why did Katherine go mad? The people who ask, Enright imagines, are fearful: “as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge”. She reminds us that remembering a mother has its limitations – there will always be a vanishing point beyond which the rest is guesswork. And O’Dell’s story may be further complicated by the possibility that she was at her most real on stage.

    Related: Anne Enright: 'I've never been good with authority'

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  • Emma review – Austen's sweet satire gets a multiplex makeover

    Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation ramps up the comedy, but Anya Taylor-Joy remains wonderfully edgy as Jane Austen’s meddling heroine

    With its heady mix of social satire, romantic intrigue and endlessly reinterpretable gender politics, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma has long proved catnip for film-makers. The 2009 TV miniseries starring Romola Garai followed a string of small-screen productions, dating back to such offerings as a 1948 BBC “telefilm” with Judy Campbell. Recent big-screen adaptations have ranged from Douglas McGrath’s 1996 hit featuring Gwyneth Paltrow (for which composer Rachel Portman won an Oscar) to the 2010 Hindi-language romcom Aisha with Sonam Kapoor. For many, however, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 “queen bee” treat Clueless remains a favourite, astutely transposing the British riffs of Austen’s source to the modern milieu of an American high school.

    This latest colourful incarnation boasts the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy as Austen’s “handsome, clever and rich” heroine Emma Woodhouse, spoilt daughter of a doting widowed father, who has lived nearly 21 years “with very little to distress or vex her”. With no responsibility beyond the care of her draught-obsessed papa (a mournful Bill Nighy, dressed to accentuate his pipe-cleaner limbs), Emma entertains herself by match-making, presumptuously manipulating the relationships of those around her.

    De Wilde, a veteran music-video director, here takes flirtatious liberties with Austen

    Related: Bill Nighy: ‘It takes me a long time to recover if I see myself on screen'

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