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  • Till Time’s Last Sand by David Kynaston review – the Bank of England from crisis to crisis
    A history of the ‘Old Lady’ from 1694 to 2013 reveals the bank as very different from the comfortable establishment fixture of popular assumption

    At the apex of the British state nothing is straightforward. Conventions, open and unacknowledged, reign alongside statute, with an enfeebled monarchy’s significant prerogative powers largely exercised by ministers, and a parliament whose semi-redundant, seemingly aristocratic chamber defers to a notionally sovereign House of Commons, which in turn now appears to bow to the will of the people when expressed in a referendum.

    History alone makes sense of the quirks in our institutions, and the Bank of England, founded in 1694, is no exception. Is it a proper bank or merely a branch of government? Is it staffed with bankers or with what are, to all intents and purposes, civil servants? Is the Bank’s governor on a par with the permanent secretary at the Treasury or with the chancellor of the exchequer? As David Kynaston makes clear in an engaging and absorbing account of its history, the Bank is an enigmatically hybrid creature, like a centaur or sphinx – a hybrid that has undergone significant mutations over three centuries of adaptation and evolution.

    Banks, insurance companies and other financial firms in the EEA – the EU along with Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – are able to do business in the UK with separate regulatory approval. The system is known as passporting and allows firms to trade freely across borders.  It applies the other way round, so that UK firms can operate in other EEA countries.

    Normality becomes a will-o’-the-wisp; we get the impression of a Bank lurching from one disaster to the next

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  • Darker With the Lights On by David Hayden review – stories of the subconscious

    An undercurrent of primal violence runs through this Irish author’s brilliantly disturbing and unclassifiable debut collection

    Once in a blue moon, a book comes along that really is like nothing you’ve ever read before. The 20 stories in this debut collection from David Hayden are strange, uncomfortable fables of memory, metamorphosis, time, disassociation and death: hard to fathom, but impossible to ignore; twisty and riddling, yet with a blunt impact that reverberates long after the final page. They are dreamlike, but they feel like one’s own dreams, with the ability to change you from the inside out. A kind of primal violence runs through all of them, as though they are taking place in some collective unconscious. People come apart or are chopped into pieces, change from one thing into another, move through scenes that shift by the sentence yet are as starkly delineated as a child’s drawing.

    In the first story, “Egress”, a man steps out from a high ledge on his office building, to fall “with fresh delight” – and keeps on falling, somehow outside the laws of gravity and time, as the seasons turn and in four and a half elegant, surprising pages civilisation reaches its end. “Many years have passed since I stepped off the ledge,” he concludes. “All that I wanted to keep was saved.”

    In 'Memory House' every object is described as something else – it's a riot of synaesthesia, or one hell of an acid trip

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  • Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House by Luke Harding – review
    Secret meetings and dirty money in a compelling investigation of the US president’s 30-year relationship with Russia

    The subtitle of Guardian investigative reporter Luke Harding’s comprehensive and compelling volume hints at the scope here. Trump’s interactions with Russia go back more than 30 years – Vladimir Putin is perhaps the only person in the world who will never have to worry about being attacked on the president’s Twitter feed.

    Many of the incriminating facts reported in Collusion won’t be new to serious students of this saga, but the experience of reading them all in one place can be almost overwhelming. When, less than halfway through the book, ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele describes the Trump-Russia conspiracy as “absolutely massive”, it sounds like classic British understatement.

    How serious are the allegations?

    Related: How Trump walked into Putin’s web

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  • The Bedside Guardian 2017 review – 12 months that shook the world
    From Trump to tragedy, Wonder Woman to The Maybot … a compelling roundup from an eye-opening year

    This has hardly been a year for sweet dreams, and the latest edition of The Bedside Guardian is not in the business of pretending otherwise. In the 67 pieces selected here from the newspaper’s annual output – including everything from reportage and reviews to obituaries and analysis – we are plunged back into the 12 months that shook the world. Starting with Trump’s shock win in November 2016 (The Bedside Guardian runs from autumn to autumn) and ending with the row in which a transgender model was sacked by L’Oréal for claiming that all white people are racist, this was the year that didn’t so much shake things up as take a wrecking ball to them.

    In his introduction, editor Gary Younge explains his decision to reprint an extract from the Guardian’s liveblog on the night of Trump’s election victory. Blog prose is necessarily terse and unadorned, at times little more than telegraphese. But the story that this transcript tells as it moves from relaxed and hopeful preliminaries at midnight to the aghast “this was not how the night was supposed to go” at 3.56am is all the more vivid because it feels as if we are watching certainty unravel in real time.

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  • Stories by Susan Sontag review – the great essayist’s experiments in short fiction
    Marriage, loss and meeting Thomas Mann … these stories are rich in autobiographical insights, but Sontag lacks the craft to carry them off

    In her essays, Susan Sontag spoke with one of the great, sure voices of the last century. From her salon at the centre of the cosmopolis, marvellously at one with her books and her learning, she considered, renamed and renewed our relationship with camp, with photography, with illness: a living legend of braininess and cool.

    Sontag, was not, though, as her editor Benjamin Taylor admits in the introduction to this gathering of stories from across her career, a committed short-story writer. She turned to the form in order to evade what Chekhov called “autobiographophobia”, which Taylor uses to mean the fear of writing and reflecting directly about one’s life. Evading this fear, Sontag clearly found the name “stories” very helpful: half of them are pure autobiography. “Pilgrimage”, for example, which opens the volume, is a memoir of Sontag’s youth in southern California, and an account of her visit with a boyfriend to the home of an ageing Thomas Mann. The only reason why this did not become an essay, it seems, is that the encounter was dull and disappointing, and so difficult to reflect on: Mann had “only sententious formulas to deliver. And I uttered nothing but tongue-tied simplicities, though I was full of complex feeling. We were neither of us at our best.”

    The more you read of Sontag’s stories, the more striking becomes her inability to let her characters talk

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  • Corbyn by Richard Seymour review – the strange rebirth of radical politics
    Seymour investigates how the Labour leader proved doubters wrong – and a collection of essays, The Corbyn Effect, asks what might his government look like?

    In these febrile times, writing books about current British politics – and even reviewing them – is a risky business. Richard Seymour’s highly opinionated study of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, and the circumstances that gave rise to it, was first published in April 2016. Labour were in the low 30s in the polls, a middling-to-mediocre position, and Corbyn’s tenure seemed a bold experiment that was not that likely to succeed. Seymour gave his book, “written in sympathy with Corbyn”, an upbeat subtitle, but his predictions were largely pessimistic. A prolific polemicist in the small but prickly space to the left of the Labour left, and pointedly not a party member, Seymour argued that Corbyn’s leadership would be both too radical for the establishment to tolerate, and not radical enough to truly transform the party or the country. “In all likelihood, Corbynism is a temporary phenomenon,” he concluded. “There will be backlashes and disappointments, electoral setbacks and, in the event of government, continual, energy-sapping crises ... Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism.”

    Related: The inside story of Labour’s election shock

    Towns would be financed to become communities again, instead of the deserted edge-places that neoliberalism created. Major infrastructure projects, delayed or cancelled by the cash-strapped Tories, could be implemented immediately – bringing jobs, training, green energy and hi-tech industries to all parts of the UK.

    This sense that Corbyn has many obstacles to overcome, whatever the next election’s outcome, preoccupies these essayists

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  • Spinning by Tillie Walden review – portrait of adolescence on ice

    An intimate graphic memoir of competitive skating feels like a coming-of-age classic

    Spinning, the fourth book in two years by the Ignatz award-winning cartoonist Tillie Walden, is surely her best to date. A memoir of the decade Walden spent as a competitive skater – having taken to the ice as a small girl, she did not abandon it until shortly before she graduated from high school – it conveys brilliantly not only the dedication involved in mid-level competitive sport, but also the occasional (and sometimes more-than-occasional) loathing. In a longish afterword, Walden, the acclaimed author of The End of Summer, insists that her latest comic “ended up not being about ice-skating at all”. But I disagree. Yes, Spinning touches on bullying, her complex relationship with her parents, and her sexuality (for which reason it would, I think, make a brilliant Christmas present for a teenage girl). Nevertheless, the rink is always centre stage. How could it be anywhere else when it’s the place she goes both to lose and to find herself?

    Related: Tillie Walden: young graphic novelist breaks the ice with memoir Spinning

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  • The Box of Delights review – festive treat lifts the lid on a world of wonders

    Wilton’s Music Hall, London
    Matthew Kelly plays good and evil spirits in a magical, visually arresting adaptation of John Masefield’s classic children’s book

    Related: Long before Harry Potter, The Box of Delights remade children’s fantasy

    After two seasons of homespun Roy Hudd panto, this Victorian gem of a theatre brings us a relatively neglected children’s classic: a 1935 novel by John Masefield that, although seen on BBC TV in the 1980s, was new to me. In Piers Torday’s adaptation it provides an unexpected treat in its ability to combine ancient rituals with futuristic fantasy.

    Related: Five Little Christmas Monkeys review – maths plus music equals magic

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  • The Story of the Face by Paul Gorman review – the original purveyor of cool
    Revolutionary style bible the Face deserves a more spirited history

    In September 1988, the style magazine the Face celebrated its 100th issue in triumphal fashion. There was an elaborate fold-out cover, essays by star writers such as Nick Kent and Julie Burchill and fashion stories by leading photographers including Mario Testino and Nick Knight, their contributions all testament to the magazine’s dazzling international profile. “Every art director in New York and Tokyo has to have the Face now,” declared cultural commentator Peter York. “Magazine of the decade,” the publication itself trumpeted on the cover.

    Behind the scenes the mood was less bullish. The magazine’s founder and editor, Nick Logan, was considering ceasing publication, out of concern that a second 100 issues might not match the quality of the first. Logan eventually relented. But the fact that he contemplated closing down the title at the height of its fortunes is a telling insight into his high standards. It’s also an indication of why, 13 years after its eventual demise in 2004, the Face retains a reputation as one of the most influential magazines in British publishing history.

    Related: How we made the Face

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  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz review – fiendish whodunnit
    Horowitz channels Agatha Christie, with a rustic English setting, a tricksy book-within-a-book, and red herrings aplenty

    Anthony Horowitz has ventriloquised Ian Fleming in Trigger Mortis. He’s taken on Arthur Conan Doyle in The House of Silk. And very well too. In Magpie Murders, Horowitz tries something a little different: he pastiches the cosy country murder stories of Agatha Christie, setting his whodunnit in the sleepy 1950s English village of Saxby-on-Avon, where the widely disliked Mary Blakiston has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Pye Hall, the grand house where she worked as a housekeeper.

    Except he doesn’t really do this at all. Blakiston’s death is a story within a story, the work of a crime novelist, one Alan Conway, whose vintage tales of murders solved by the wonderfully umlauted German detective Atticus Pünd regularly top the bestseller lists. Conway’s editor, Susan Ryeland, is Horowitz’s narrator as she settles down to read her author’s latest: “You can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.”

    Related: Anthony Horowitz: 'People used to disagree. Now they send death threats'

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