Book review: To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek

I first knew James Meek as a writer of quirky and imaginative short stories. Then he became a journalist, reporting on the First Gulf War for The Scotsman. A spell as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent followed, and as a result of his Russian experience, he wrote a remarkably fine novel, The People’s Act of Love, which won the Ondaatje Prize. More recently he has been best known as a social and political essayist, contributing chiefly to the London Review of Books. The only consistent feature of his career has been his ability to change tack unexpectedly but always successfully.

Mrs Winchester's Gun Club, by Douglas Bruton

Book review: Mrs Winchester’s Gun Club, by Douglas Bruton

At a time when it seems as if a new mass shooting takes place in the US almost every day, the publication of Scottish writer Douglas Bruton’s Mrs Winchester’s Gun Club could hardly be more timely. Set in America at the turn of the 20th century, and based on a true story, the novel tells the tale of Sarah Winchester, a grief-stricken woman who has lost both her husband and her daughter. Having inherited a fortune thanks to her husband’s ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah is plagued by a sense of guilt for the deaths of people who have been killed by guns manufactured by the firm.

Matt Damon played the murderous Mr Ripley in the film version of Patricia Highsmith's novels (Picture: Jim Cooper/AP)

Bloody Scotland’s lesson for public figures who tell lies – Alexander McCall Smith

Bloody Scotland is with us again. That is not a deliberate echo of Hamish Blair’s infamous wartime poem, Bloody Orkney, but a reference to the festival of crime fiction that takes place in Stirling at this time every year. Bloody Scotland was set up in 2012 by two well-known Scottish crime writers, Alex Gray and Lin Anderson. Over the seven years since its inception, it seems to have gone from strength to strength, as more and more people have succumbed to the pleasures of tartan noir, Scotland’s answer to the immensely popular crime fiction genre, Scandinavian noir.

John Sellars

Book review: Lessons in Stoicism, by John Sellars

There is a subtle but still significant difference between describing somebody as a stoic and describing them as a Stoic. The former simply means one who endures suffering without complaint (or, occasionally, one who is also indifferent to pleasure). If you’re a Stoic, however, then you are probably a student of the three great Roman writers, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, all of whom were followers of the Greek philosopher Zeno, who taught in the Stoa Poikile (painted porch) in Athens until his death around 261BC, and whose writings are now lost.

William Dalrymple

Book review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise Of The East India Company, by William Dalrymple

One of the great advantages non-fiction has over fiction is that you cannot make it up, and in the case of the East India Company, you cannot make it up to an extent that beggars belief. William Dalrymple has been for some years one of the most eloquent and assiduous chroniclers of Indian history. With this new work, he sounds a minatory note. The East India Company may be history, but it has warnings for the future. It was “the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok”. Wryly, he writes that at least Walmart doesn’t own a fleet of nuclear submarines and Facebook doesn’t have regiments of infantry (yet, I would say, there is a reason for the phrase “keyboard warrior”).

Detail from the cover of Surfacing, by Kathleen Jamie

Book review: Surfacing, by Kathleen Jamie

Reviewing a collection of essays, the temptation is to review the writer and not the book. What, you wonder, is there to get hold of when you are taken from a “Reindeer Cave” in the West Highlands to Alaska and the edge of the Bering Sea, to a Neolithic site on the Orkney Island of Westray, to the Chinese border with Tibet (entry forbidden), back to Scotland and an ageing father who won’t eat the food his daughters bring him, and then to being lost in a Scottish wood? Easier surely to reflect on Kathleen Jamie the poet and the quality of her good poet’s prose which is never poetic?

Margaret Atwood PIC: Lisa O'Connor/AP/Getty Images

Book review: The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

In the afterword to this new novel, Margaret Atwood explains its genesis. “One question about The Handmaid’s Tale that came up repeatedly is: How did Gilead fall? The Testaments was written in response to this question.” As one might expect this sequel is fluent, imaginative and provocative. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, was ambiguous – at the end we do not know if Nick, Offred’s lover, is an agent for the Mayday Resistance against Gilead’s theocratic and misogynistic regime, or one of the “Eyes,” the secret police, the Stasi of the imagined state. It was further complicated by an epilogue by Professor Pieixoto, who supposedly discovered Offred’s tapes and casts some doubt on their validity. To make things more complicated, the original has become a very successful television series (now outstripping George RR Martin in terms of producers producing plots the author has not yet written). In this new novel, with a title resonant of Biblical themes, Atwood gives us the how of the downfall of Gilead, but not a scene-by-scene set of pitched battles.

Edna O'Brien PIC: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Book review: Girl, by Edna O’Brien

Maryam is a Nigerian girl who is taken captive when her school is raided by Islamist jihadis, and carried off to their training-camp to suffer genital mutilation and multiple rape before being given to a wounded fighter as a reward for his service. Surprisingly he turns out to be gentle and kindly – a convincing touch. Edna O’Brien doesn’t deal in clichés.

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