Denise Mina

Book review: Conviction, by Denise Mina

Denise Mina’s work is increasingly intriguing. She has written detective novels and police procedural novels, and recently a marvellous non-fiction fiction. Her newest novel might be described as a fictional non-fiction. It is a thriller that often evokes an almost Hitchcock-like air of paranoia, doubt, double identities, sexual frisson, gadding around over several countries from Fort William to Venice, with sinister train journeys and mordant wit. I half expected a character called “Denise Mina” to make a cameo appearance, possibly carrying a small ukulele, especially since the last line of the novel is: “That could mean only one thing: I was going to have to write this f***ing book.”

Cover of The Sea Journal, by Huw Lewis-Jones

Seafarers’ Sketchbooks: historic journals capture drama of life on the ocean wave

For as long as humans have been adventuring, it seems, we have had an innate desire to communicate our experiences to others when we return home. “We would not take a sea voyage in order never to talk of it,” wrote the French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal in 1669, “and for the sole pleasure of seeing without hope of ever communicating.” These days, of course, there’s a whole chunk of the tech industry which caters to modern-day adventures wishing to share their exploits with the world: from gadgets like GoPro cameras and selfie sticks right through to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the denizens of Silicon Valley are labouring night and day to ensure that no heroic gap year bungee jump need ever go unrecorded again. In the past, however, men and women journeying to far-off lands had to resort to simpler means to record the things they saw, thought and felt, and in many cases the medium they chose was the humble notebook or sketchbook: portable, more-or-less indestructible (as long as you’re able to keep it dry) and infinitely adaptable. And as demonstrated by The Sea Journal: Seafarers’ Sketchbooks, a new book by Huw Lewis-Jones, paper and ink has another significant advantage over the tech toys of today: it encourages the user to concentrate on the things they see around them, rather than constantly putting themselves at the centre of the story.

Doug Johnstone. Pic Neil Hanna

Book review: Breakers, by Doug Johnstone

Much of Doug Johnstone’s work falls into two camps: action-packed (Smokeheads, Crash Land) or psychologically powerful (Gone Again, The Jump). Last year’s Fault Lines saw him weld these strands together and in Breakers he goes further, giving us pacey action punctuating a painfully beautiful study of 17-year-old Tyler, who is trying to hold himself and his family together despite having been dealt one of life’s crappier hands of cards.

Elizabeth Macneal' PIC: Mat Smith

Book review: The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory scarcely needs a review. It is already a success and, according to its publishers, is “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession.” Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award and has been sold to “28 territories so far,” while TV rights “have already been snapped up.”

Robert Macfarlane

Book review: Underland - A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane

“Facilis descensus Averno”, as the Roman poet Virgil wrote: “It is easy to go down to the underworld.” Robert Macfarlane’s new book is also a retort to that line. It is not easy at all to find your way into the “underland”; and, as Virgil cautioned, it is even more difficult to take the route back.

Niall Campbell

Book review: Noctuary, by Niall Campbell

A friend with three children under 12 describes the first few years of parenthood as “the donkey years”. All parents can do during this period of extreme sleep deprivation and endless nappy changes, he reckons, is to accept their new roles as beasts of burden, put their heads down and get on with things. It’s a philosophy captured perfectly in “Packhorse”, a poem in Niall Campbell’s new collection, Noctuary, in which he reflects on his new life as the father of a baby boy.

CA Fletcher

Book review: A Boy And His Dog At The End Of The World, by CA Fletcher

Dystopian novels are all the rage. The genre isn’t new of course. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World remains one of the best, prophetic and disturbing, and, if the world lasts till 2032, which it probably will, his book will be 100 years old. Still it’s a rare month now when a new dystopian novel isn’t published, and what was once classified as sci-fi or fantasy has elbowed its way into the mainstream. Writing in the New Statesman recently Erica Wagner (former literary editor of the Times) suggested this might be due to “the pressures of the 21st century.” Perhaps, perhaps, though these pressures may be no greater than in previous centuries; for Climate Change now, read Nuclear Winter 60 years ago. Moreover, no fictional dystopia matches the historical realities of the Nazi death-camps or the Soviet gulag.

Ewan Morrison

Book review: Nina X, by Ewan Morrison

There are some novels which are euphemistically described as “lightly fictionalised”; usually when the occurrences in the book have a close relationship to real-world events. The other euphemism is “loosely inspired by” to refer to, say, Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge, or Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, or Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost.

Michelle Paver PIC: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Book review: Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver

The bestselling author of Dark Matter, Thin Air and the award-winning Chronicles Of Darkness, Michelle Paver, surely has another hit on her hands with her new Gothic horror, Wakenhyrst. The book begins in the 1960s, with a journalist trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Wakenhyrst manor in Suffolk: an unexplained murder, an old man sectioned in an asylum who spent his last days painting mysterious figures, and a woman who might know something but has refused to divulge any details of what happened. Desperate to know what really took place, the reporter manages to track down Maud, the tight-lipped character at the heart of the story, and is invited to hear the story of her life.

Walking, by Erling Kagge

Book review: Walking – One Step at a Time, by Erling Kagge

Norway’s Erling Kagge is perhaps the quintessential explorer for our Google-mapped age. Having become the first person ever to reach the three “poles of inaccessibility” – the North Pole, the South Pole and Mount Everest – and the first to walk alone to the South Pole, he started to look for other, more esoteric challenges. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading his fascinating 2015 book Under Manhattan, in which he explores the network of tunnels and sewers hidden beneath the Big Apple, I can thoroughly recommend it. Not only does it offer a fascinating insight into a world that very few people get to see (largely because very few people would ever want to) it also serves as a sort of manifesto for a new kind of exploration. Just because there are no longer any blank spots on the map, Kagge seems to be saying, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still countless hidden places that are worth exploring.

Patrick McGuinness

Book review: Throw Me to the Wolves, by Patrick McGuinness

Agatha Christie’s novels were rarely more than 50,000 words long. Simenon’s were even shorter. But what was good enough for them isn’t for crime writers, their publishers and – I suppose – readers today. Crime fiction is big business and the books swell accordingly. Patrick McGuinness’s second novel is no more than a middle-distance runner by today’s standards, but it is still too long, too long by at least a hundred pages. There’s a very good novel inside this one, and if it is not quite smothered, it is because the author is intelligent.He is also a poet which makes his disdain for economy surprising and an academic which – perhaps – explains it. One should add that, though the narrator is a policeman investigating a case, this isn’t a police procedural. Indeed, I would guess that a policeman proceeding in the narrator’s way would soon be shunted into administration. This doesn’t matter. Novelists are rightly granted a deal of latitude.

Outpost, by Dan Richards

Book review: Outpost - A Journey To The Wild Ends Of The Earth, by Dan Richards

At some point in the future, I’m pretty sure Dan Richards is going to write a book that I can fall in love with. I enjoyed big chunks of 2016’s Climbing Days, in which he took an entertainingly off-kilter approach to writing a biography of his great-great aunt, the noted mountaineer Dorothy Pilley, by following in her footsteps in the mountains of Wales and Switzerland. However, while some of the meandering digressions proved intriguing or illuminating, others were simply frustrating, and the book also suffered from questionable editing from the folks at Faber & Faber. Richards’ new book, Outpost, has clearly been properly proofread (kudos to the team at Canongate) and some of the descriptive writing is wonderfully vivid – cinematic even – but, as with Climbing Days, there’s a niggling sense that the author keeps getting distracted from the main thrust of his story, and the intellectual wandering off and ping-ponging around can get so convoluted that you’re left wondering if there is even a main thrust to return to.

Mary Miller

Book review: Jane Haining, A Life Of Love And Courage, by Mary Miller

Jane Haining was scarcely a name to the general public even here in Scotland till Sally Magnusson’s TV documentary – The Scot Who Died In Auschwitz – was shown in 2014. Her story was of course known and her memory cherished in certain Church of Scotland circles, and books and articles had been written about her without making a great impression. Now Mary Miller has written a detailed and very moving biography, and Jane Haining is widely recognised as a woman of rare and noble character.

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