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What the critics liked 

How Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green found the energy to write Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus (Hodder £20) is beyond me, says James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. What they went through “sounds punishingly exhausting”. This “urgent and sometimes rather raw” book is told by Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, and Green, a specialist in vaccine manufacture, in alternating chapters. Broadly speaking, it spans a year, beginning on New Year’s Day 2020, when Gilbert spotted Wuhan on a specialist website that reports disease outbreaks. By January 3, she was thinking: “We are in trouble.” By January 10, the day the first death was reported in China, it was already clear how the Oxford vaccine could be made.

It is impossible to read Vaxxers without feeling new respect for Gilbert and Green’s ability to juggle multiple tasks, says Mark Honigsbaum in The Observer, “while sounding coherent in front of the TV cameras after another sleepless night wondering where the funding for the next stage of their research will come from”. Home life is severely compromised: Gilbert has a long-term partner, Rob, and their triplets are at university, Green is a single mum to nine-year-old Ellie. Gilbert writes wearily of days “when we seemed to be battling against our employer, or the media, or a swarm of wasps, as well as the virus”.

One of their motivations in writing Vaxxers was to reassure people that a greatly accelerated development programme “did not cut corners or jeopardise safety”, says Clive Cookson in the FT. Green describes a “chance encounter” last August with a sceptic at a pizza van during a holiday in Snowdonia. “That was the moment I knew that we, the Vaxxers, need to come out of our labs and explain ourselves… how we get out of this mess and how we prepare for the… next one.”

Inevitably, this is a highly selective account of the Oxford vaccine effort, the “most regrettable omission” being the business angle – there’s hardly any discussion of the dealings with AstraZeneca in commercialising the vaccine, for example. Still, this is a “vivid account” of research in action and the way “individuals respond in the face of a scientific emergency”. It will continue to be read long after the pandemic is over.

Available as an audiobook on Audible.

Last year Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known became must-see TV as The Undoing, says John Dugdale in The Sunday Times, “a tale of murder, adultery and suspicion” starring Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman. Fans of the drama “will be just as riveted” by her latest outing, The Plot (Faber £8.99), a “droll, elegantly written” satire that turns “decisively into a dread-driven… psychological thriller.”

It’s a twisty page-turner, says Isabel Berwick in the FT, “built on the disputed ownership of a novel, or at least the plot of one”. Jake, once a promising novelist, now teaches creative writing at Ripley College, in “a rainy bit of Vermont”. When a student, Evan Parker, boasts that his novel idea is so good, “Oprah will pick it for her book thing”, Jake listens to the summary and has to agree. A few years later, “out of ideas and out of luck”, he discovers that Evan has died of an overdose and the “brilliant plot is unused”.

He writes the book, it’s a huge success, there is talk of a film. Then the email he has secretly always dreaded arrives: “You are a thief.” Did Jake earn his new life or is it all just stolen finery, asks Elisabeth Egan in The New York Times. Korelitz “keeps us guessing until the very end”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.

At last, a sensible Booker longlist 

How dare the Booker prize’s judges produce a longlist “so free of controversy”, asks Robbie Millen in The Times. For once, the judges, who include former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and actress Natascha McElhone, haven’t tried to grab headlines with the 13 novels nominated for the £50,000 prize. (The winner will be announced in November.) There are five authors of colour, although it doesn’t feel “as though a point is being made” and even a couple of middle-aged white men. Literary superstar Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is a notable omission and there aren’t many laughs – why no nomination for Shalom Auslander’s Mother for Dinner, which is “funny, in bad taste and a satire of identity politics”?

Mainly, though, the list is so sensible, “it feels almost radical”, says Claire Allfree in the Telegraph. No graphic novels, no 200-page poems, no “brain-scrambling first-person narratives”. Instead we have 13 novels that hark back “to the Booker’s glory days” by being a pleasure to read. Unlike some of their predecessors, the judges haven’t ostentatiously ignored the biggest hitter of the year, nominating Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb fable about AI and human consciousness, Klara and the Sun. Several of the novels excel in the “old-fashioned joys of storytelling”, not least Francis Spufford’s “gorgeous” Light Perpetual, which imagines how five children killed by a bomb in 1944 might have gone on to live. Yet to decide your summer reading list? “This longlist is, for once, a good place to start.”

The 2021 Booker longlist

A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam
When a young man travels north through war-torn Sri Lanka to attend a funeral, old memories are stirred.

Second Place, Rachel Cusk
A brutal, funny psychodrama based on a real-life memoir about a woman’s painful encounter with DH Lawrence

The Promise, Damon Galgut
Set in South Africa before and after the end of apartheid, this novel deals with two generations of a white family and its black servants.

The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris
A bestseller in the US, this debut novel is set in the Civil War and follows two newly freed brothers working for a plantation owner mourning the loss of his son.

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Nobel laureate returns to the territory of his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, imagining the “life” of a solar-powered “artificial friend” to a teenage girl suffering from a genetic disease.

An Island, Karen Jennings
The life of an old lighthouse keeper off the southern coast of Africa is disrupted by the arrival of a shipwrecked refugee.

A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson
The lives of a child, a young man and an old woman collide in small-town Canada, in a novel that has been favourably compared with Anne Tyler’s writing.

No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood
An internet celebrity confronts a family tragedy in this “infuriating and very entertaining” novel about social media and real life.

The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed
A Somali sailor (and charming chancer) is accused of murder in 1950s Cardiff. This fictional treatment of a true crime is an intriguing portrait of an era.

Bewilderment, Richard Powers
An astrobiologist is forced to turn his gaze from the stars when his young son is expelled from school for an act of violence – should he put him on drugs?

China Room, Sunjeev Sahota
The British writer’s third novel links a trio of child brides in 1920s Punjab and the British great-grandson of one of them, who travels to India to kick his heroin habit.

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead
The American author’s huge second novel intertwines the lives of an Amelia Earhart-like aviator who disappears while trying to circumnavigate the globe and a troubled Hollywood actress portraying her on screen.

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford
“One of the finest prose stylists of his generation” imagines the future lives of five children killed in a V-2 attack in London.