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Philip Hensher PIC: Pako Mera/Shutterstock

Book review: A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher is an engaging writer, always readable, even if you may sometimes wish that the word “economy” was to be found in his lexicon. Lacking it, his novels move slowly. Scenes go on too long. Detailed description is piled on detailed description, and yet he holds the attention. “There is no there there,” wrote Gertrude Stein , speaking of her home town Oakland. There is always a “there” somewhere in Hensher’s novels , though you may have to wait or search to find it.

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave ''PIC: Tom de Freston

Book review: The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Historical novels require research. This is obvious. Yet the research should not be obtrusive. It should be absorbed and lived with so that the novel seems to have been remembered rather than made from books and documents. The difference is evident in Scott’s Waverley novels. All those set in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries are made from material that had matured in his memory since boyhood, so their roots are deep. His mediaeval novels owe more to bookwork, to what we recognize as research. Yet in the best of them – Quentin Durward, for example – his imagination so plays on 15th century France that the novel has some of the rich qualities of the Scottish novels.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates PIC: Anna Webber/Getty Images

Book review: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is the first novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, although he has already enjoyed remarkable and sometimes troubling success as a journalist, a memoirist and as the writer for Marvel Comics’ Black Panther (his father was a Black Panther, and a noted publisher of forgotten African-American texts) and Captain America. His work has analysed race in America, and it has not been uncontroversial. We Were Eight Years In Power, his study of the Obama regime, its title derived from a Southern, 19th century congressman, looked at the legacy of radicalism and whether or not Obama’s presidency was the culmination of a trend going back to more radical figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, or a capitulation to the structures of power. So it is of little surprise that his first novel deals with slavery.

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Francine Toon

Book review: Pine, by Francine Toon

Tartan Gothic appears to be having a bit of a moment. Up in Carnoustie, the acclaimed novelist Sandra Ireland is busily weaving together uncanny tales steeped in Celtic folklore; in Perth this month, you can catch a touring production of Ali Milles’s spooky new play The Croft, starring Gwen Taylor; and now here’s published poet Francine Toon with a debut novel that’s carefully calibrated to make every single hair on the back of your neck stand up on end as if you’d just heard a twig snap behind you in a forest at midnight.

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Leith Late festival founder and Super Power Agency volunteer Morvern Cunningham, with acrobatic friends

David Robinson: Super Power Agency is revolutionising writing in Edinburgh Schools

I don’t know about you, but I can hardly remember the last time that I had a conversation with a child I didn’t already know about their thoughts, hopes, and imagination. That all changed last October, when I found myself back at school for the first time in almost 50 years, wearing a yellow cape and feeling faintly ridiculous in front of a class of S1s. There were four other grown-ups alongside me, also wearing brightly coloured capes. We were, our leader told the class, the Super Power Agency.

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Jane Alexander PIC: Lisa Ferguson

Book review: A User’s Guide to Make-Believe, by Jane Alexander

Cassie McAllister has lost her job and been deprived of something that went with it and mattered even more to her: the ability to be transported for two hours at a time into the world of Make-Believe. The company Imagen is a high-flier in the world of advanced technology, offering clients the exciting and compelling experience of virtual reality. It is also a fine example of predatory capitalism, marketing its clients’ data. Its form of virtual reality experience was originally directed towards healthcare, and approved by the Ministry of Innovation, but Make-Believe is also marketed as entertainment, and this is the easy and rapid-growth area.

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Helen Sedgwick

Book review: When the Dead Come Calling, by Helen Sedgwick

Down under the cliffs in the village of Burrowhead in the north-east of England is a cave full of ancient inscriptions and deep, stale recesses, with waves crashing against the pebbles at its hidden entrance. It is a claustrophobic shrine to past horrors, and early on in this new novel from Helen Sedgwick, we get the impression that whatever lies within it provides the key to both the past and the present. Following the gruesome murder of a Greek psychotherapist with a local practice, it becomes apparent that the village above the cave is also in thrall to old folk memories, and is similarly claustrophobic.

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William Gibson PIC: Keystone/Zuma/Shutterstock

Book review: Agency, by William Gibson

It is difficult to review William Gibson’s new novel without resorting to oxymoron. Is it a serious romp? A comic apocalypse? A cerebral caper? 
Well, in some ways it is all of these things. Gibson is often cited as the inventor of the word “cyberspace” and his futurological fictions seemed to predict, or at least imagine, virtual reality and interconnected digital platforms. All this is true, but it omits to mention that he can pace a plot like few others and has a sardonic and incisive sense of humour. This new work shows him at his lightest, if angriest, compared with novels such as Neuromancer or Virtual Light. Despite the magnitude of the issues he addresses, it is handled with a vim and vamoosh that are a delight to read.

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Isabel Allende PIC: Daniel Roland / AFP via Getty Images

Book review: A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea, admirably translated from the Spanish by Nick Caister and Amanda Hopkinson, is an agreeably old-fashioned novel. There is nothing clever or tricksy about it, and, though it is set mostly in Chile, there is no pretentious and tiresome magic realism. Instead we have an easy-flowing narrative and credible characters. It’s the kind of novel that used to be more common than it is now, reminding me of good, if for the most part forgotten, novelists of the mid-20th century such as RC Hutchinson and Thomas Armstrong.

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Steam trains, seaplanes and ocean liners all feature prominently in James Hamilton-Paterson's book

Book review: Trains, Planes, Ships & Cars – The Golden Age 1900-1941, by James Hamilton-Paterson

Extraordinary images and bizarre facts make this book – although it is not simply a volume of pictures, it has barely a page without some amazing form of transport, whether real or imagined. Among the latter category, there are designs for a nine-deck seaplane with a gymnast and a librarian amongst its crew, a futuristic bullet-shaped car from 1913 and an ocean liner modelled on a torpedo. These are accompanied by some of the classic visions that did get built, from streamlined Coronation class steam locomotives to the Queen Mary liner and the Douglas DC-3 aircraft.

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Charlotte Runcie's Message From The Skies text projected onto the Northern Lighthouse Board building on George Street

Read Charlotte Runcie’s contribution to Edinburgh’s Message From The Skies

Message from the Skies returns to Edinburgh this month, with five celebrated writers reflecting on Scotland’s relationship with our waters, coasts and maritime heritage. Their words will illuminate and animate landmarks around the city until Burns Night, 25 January. Here, Charlotte Runcie offers a meditation on Scotland’s lighthouses... 

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Robin Robertson's text for Message From The Skies is projected onto the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill

Read Robin Robertson’s contribution to Edinburgh’s Message From The Skies

Message from the Skies returns to Edinburgh this month, with five celebrated writers reflecting on Scotland’s relationship with our waters, coasts and maritime heritage. Their words will illuminate and animate landmarks around the city until Burns Night, 25 January. Here, Robin Robertson takes a whistle-stop tour around Scotland’s coast...

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