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  • In brief: The Peer and the Gangster; Tennis Lessons; To Calais, in Ordinary Time – review

    A riotous 60s scandal revisited, an ace coming-of-age debut, and a haunting, medieval plague tale

    Daniel Smith
    The History Press, £20, pp256

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  • Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo review – immigrant swansong

    An aspiring Colombian couple in Connecticut feel their marriage falling apart in this sharply observed novella

    Colombian novelist, essayist and short story writer Margarita García Robayo is well known across Latin America, and widely translated, though only one collection, Fish Soup, has been available in English. Now, Charco press has followed that with Charlotte Coombe’s translation of García Robayo’s 2017 novel Holiday Heart, a novella that dissects a failing marriage with surgical precision.

    After 19 years, Lucia and Pablo have stopped even “wondering why they’re still there, oozing indifference towards one another”. Then Pablo ends up in hospital with “holiday heart” – cardiovascular disease that often strikes around Christmas and new year, due to overindulging in rich food and booze. It’s not the only thing he’s been indulging in: Lucia is informed that Pablo was delivered to hospital by one of his students. She leaves their home in Connecticut to go to her parents’ holiday apartment in Miami, taking their twin children with her.

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  • Fat Cow, Fat Chance by Jenni Murray review – well meaning but haphazard

    Murray’s memoir-cum-polemic about her lifelong struggle with her size is a lightweight in a crowded field

    Jenni Murray’s book about her long struggle with her weight begins as a memoir. The presenter of Woman’s Hour grew up in Barnsley, a beloved only child in a working-class family. Having been through rationing, her parents and grandparents regarded food as an expression of love, sugar as the greatest possible treat, and the cleaning of one’s plate as a moral duty. To be full was to be happy, and a sign of success. Both her grandmothers were fat.

    All this contented eating, however, ran alongside ideals in the matter of female bodies that were, for her as for most women, hard to meet. Pressure came from within, and without: there was Twiggy, with her swizzle-stick figure, and there was Murray’s mother, Win, who had firm ideas about women who “let themselves go”, and who took huge pride in her tiny ankles. Win, though, seems also to have been motivated by a certain envy in the case of her daughter. When Murray went to university, where she put on a lot of weight, her mother didn’t hold back. “What the hell has happened to you?” she asked. “You look like a baby elephant.” Her daughter’s success, in later life, did nothing to mitigate this attitude. No wonder Murray gravitated towards radio, rather than television, where the double chin with which Win was so weirdly and cruelly preoccupied could not be seen.

    By trying to do everything, Fat Cow, Fat Chance does nothing properly

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  • Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge – review

    The author lets the music do the talking in this pithy new biography, which uses the composer’s works to shed new light on his life

    A book about the most famous composer in the western canon, a “dead white male” at that, isn’t an obvious place to look for insights into our current plight. Yet from the opening paragraph, Laura Tunbridge’s short, illuminating study of Beethoven (1770-1827), published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of his birth, casts a loose net across the centuries and deftly gathers in the connections. Not that she could have known quite how pertinent her starting point would be. Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces opens with a prolonged campaign, begun soon after his death and lasting nearly two decades, for a monument to the composer to be built in his birth city, Bonn. If our current preoccupation is more about knocking down than erecting, this statuary episode reminds us of our compulsion to honour, in lifelike replica or exhaustive biography, those we celebrate.

    How can anyone say anything new about a composer who ranks alongside Shakespeare and Dante? Beethoven biographies have poured forth steadily since his death: from Johann Aloys Schlosser’s in 1827, to key works by Alexander Wheelock Thayer (three volumes, published 1866-79), Maynard Solomon and, most recently, and massively, Jan Swafford. If you can’t add musicological novelty, fiction could be the answer. Paul Griffiths (former music critic of the New Yorker) and Jessica Duchen (the Independent critic, and a blogger) have produced novels to coincide with the inevitably thwarted anniversary: Griffiths’s Mr Beethoven (Unbound), with a formidable display of fantasy scholarship, depicts him living in and travelling to America. Duchen’s Immortal (Unbound) explores the enduring mystery of Beethoven’s unidentified “immortal beloved”, if she existed at all.

    Tunbridge challenges the presumption that Beethoven was curmudgeonly, friendless, loveless. Eccentric, yes

    Related: Beethoven: where to start with his music

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  • Too Much and Never Enough review: Mary Trump thumps Donald

    The president’s niece follows John Bolton’s right hook with a sharp left to the ribs. Revenge Trump-style is grimly engrossing

    Mary Trump’s tell-all will not make her uncle’s re-election bid any easier. The president’s late-night walk of shame is already a classic campaign moment. His niece’s allegation that he paid someone else to take his college entrance exams resonates as true, because of his reported disdain for reading and capacity to inadvertently invent new words like “swiffian”.

    Related: Mary Trump’s book: eight of its most shocking claims about the president

    Related: Inside the 'dysfunctional family' that gave us Trump, according to his niece

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  • Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes review – the trilogy concludes

    Flashes of vulgar energy and trademark cynicism enliven an overlong finale of ageing French rockers

    When the first volume in the punk-feminist writer Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex trilogy appeared in English in 2015, it was a cause for excitement. Here was a big, brash, enjoyable slab of French recession fiction, a social novel full of ageing rockers and party-worn broads who drink cans of lager, DJ in scuzzy clubs and kip on their mates’ couches – the sort of crowd usually refused entry to Parisian literature. Despentes, whose inaugural notoriety was the spree-killing road novel Baise-Moi (she also directed the banned film adaptation), appeared to have matured into a more expansive view of class, gender relations and power dynamics. Vernon Subutex looked as though it might become the kind of generational group portrait that Roberto Bolaño gave us of Mexican youth in The Savage Detectives. The question was whether Despentes, accustomed to snarling her truths over the fictive equivalent of three distorted power-chords, could sustain a project that, by the trilogy’s end, would amass 1,000 pages.

    On reading the second volume, I had doubts. Despite the three-page index of main characters (Vernon Subutex 3 has one too, and I needed it throughout), Despentes kept introducing new ones, splitting off into intensity-draining subplots. The gig was in danger of becoming an interminable encore that no one wanted to hear. Still, there were bursts of entertainingly caustic social comment, and insights on contemporary Parisian life.

    Related: Virginie Despentes: ‘What is going on in men’s heads when women’s pleasure has become a problem?’

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  • British Summer Time Begins by Ysenda Maxtone Graham review – what school summer holidays were like

    What should happen during the summer holidays? Evocative memories of roaming out of parental reach

    In 1966, John Mullan begged his parents for a foreign holiday after a school friend went, with his family, to Majorca for the summer: “My mother shook her head and said: ‘Darling, going abroad is vulgar.’” Instead, they went to shingly Suffolk. Three years later, Harry Ritchie from Kirkcaldy travelled to Majorca on his first foreign holiday. It was a revelation: “Being able to take clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in itself.”

    While researching her delightful oral history of school summer holidays, Ysenda Maxtone Graham found that many people didn’t go abroad until they were adults. Indeed, “going-away type holidays” to faraway places are only a part of the story Maxtone Graham tells. Summers were, she finds, “more a matter of stasis than travel”.

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  • Trauma, resilience, sex and art: a guide to the Miles Franklin 2020 shortlist

    From Carrie Tiffany’s sparse prose to Tara June Winch reclaiming a linguistic legacy, the six chosen novels signal a wealth of literary possibility

    Sometimes literary fiction performs a bellwether function: signalling changes; alerting us to the directions in which a society is headed.

    The shortlist for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary award – which is announced on Thursday 16 July – seems to bear this out in six novels whose topics shimmer with relevance: the continuing wounds of colonisation (for people and the environment); language and all its possibilities and failures; ditto families; and the issues that are intrinsic to fiction, like conflict and character, trauma and resilience, sex and art. And, in the case of these six novels, lost or vanished family members and the uncertain status of the dead.

    Junie can look back on the past, when Anna was there. She can see, behind her, that world, where things were aligned. And then there is a signpost, a marker, which is Anna being gone. And after that the void opens …

    Related: Crime-fighting Australian pigeons take flight to Hollywood with help from James Corden

    The spirit woman was empty-handed and showed me her hands … and she said, ‘Wanga-dyung.’ ‘What’s that mean?’ She said, ‘It means lost, but not lost always.’ I said OK, and she told me to practise it.

    Trouble? Our people have been in one sort of trouble or another from the first day we set eyes on a white person.

    So many people want art to be romantic gestures and a clutch of the bowels, a dazzle born of insanity (first), suffering (second) or heroin, or beautiful lovers or genius from the fucking stars. Oh, art! Our body is made of stardust! No, it’s not.

    You can’t alter historical injustice in the present, he said. Two hundred years after the fact – he was talking about colonisation – the crime continues, only it’s a criminal-less crime now, which means it can never be solved

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  • The best recent science fiction, fantasy and horror

    The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones; The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith; The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde; The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott and Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

    The prolific Stephen Graham Jones has written more than 20 books in as many years, and his latest, The Only Good Indians (Titan, £8.99), combines literary horror, a slasher-revenge plot and a Native American reservation backdrop to great effect. A decade before the main action of the novel, Blackfeet Indian Lewis Clarke and four friends, on a hunting expedition in Montana, trespass on land belonging to tribal elders and embark on a killing spree, slaughtering a pregnant elk in an act that will have terrible repercussions for the quintet. What follows years later is the manifestation of a spirit creature in the form of a woman with an elk’s head and her bloody revenge on the friends. Aside from delivering the staples of the horror genre, Jones is excellent at depicting the anxiety of Native Americans in contemporary society – and the finale is stunning.

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  • Female Husbands by Jen Manion review – a trans history

    Published at a fractious moment in the analysis of gender and sex, this book challenges the argument that ‘reclaiming’ transgender ancestors is ahistorical

    Jen Manion’s new book is a detailed, synoptic history of a fascinating dimension of 18th- and 19th-century cultural history in Britain and the US: it comprises dozens of anecdotes and narratives, primarily drawn from newspapers detailing the lives of people who were considered girls at birth, but who adopted masculine names and appearances and who loved and lived with people Manion cheekily calls “female wives”.

    We meet, for example, James Howe, an 18th-century publican and businessman, who served his customers with ale and bonhomie while his wife did most of the housework. Howe’s name in obituaries was “Mary East”, sometimes “Mrs Mary East”, as though this person – never legally married – had somehow been a wife.

    The question of how we refer to conditions of being that we can't comprehend is a central challenge of trans history

    Related: Top 10 books by transgender authors featuring trans characters

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