Book review: Maoism: A Global History, by Julia Lovell

What was – what is – Maoism? At the end of the introductory chapter of this exceptional work, Julia Lovell quotes Christophe Bourseiller, announcing that “Maoism doesn’t exist. It never has done. That, without doubt, explains its success.” This book is a wry rebuke to that. Yes, there are paradoxes and contradictions within the thought of Mao Zedong, but by looking at it from a wider perspective, Lovell has produced a work which may well be the most harrowing, fascinating and occasionally hilarious book on the subject thus far.

Khaled Khalifa

Book review: Death Is Hard Work, by Khaled Khalifa

In a recent interview with The National newspaper, based in the United Arab Emirates, the Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa explained that he continued to live in Damascus not because he had to, but because, in spite of offers to live elsewhere, he chose to. “This is really down to a personal choice,” he said. “I am not trying to say or prove anything.”

He also added that, while there has been no fighting in Damascus, “it doesn’t mean that we don’t know there is a conflict going on. We are careful here in all that we do.” He has had his books banned by the Syrian government in the past, yet he remains hopeful that the future for literature in his country is bright, and he has spoken of a wish for artists and the government to come to a compromise over freedom of speech.

Roddy Doyle PIC: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Book review: Charlie Savage, by Roddy Doyle

Reading Charlie Savage reminded me of a time I helped avert a family crisis for the business editor of The Scotsman. It was his sister’s 40th birthday and he had been about to present her with an emergency car repair kit when I intervened. After quizzing him about his beauty counter assistant sibling’s likes and dislikes, I eventually managed to persuade him that a spa voucher was likely to go down better and off we went – the oddest couple you can imagine – to the nearest fancy hotel to purchase one. Standing among the groups of dressing gown-clad, prosecco-sipping women as we waited for the voucher to be printed, my colleague reacted much as you might expect the titular hero of Roddy Doyle’s new book to react: with a combination of awkwardness and bewilderment.

James Runcie PIC: Neil Hanna

Book review: The Road to Grantchester, by James Runcie

James Runcie’s first Grantchester novels featuring Sidney Chambers, the Anglican priest who dabbles or more than dabbles in detection, seemed charming and offered an agreeable contrast to much contemporary crime writing with its gruesome murders and scientific investigations. Runcie himself once remarked that the books were more like John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories than most modern crime novels.

Tideline Feathers by Angie Lewin

From Picasso to Jarman: new book lifts the lid on the endless appeal of pebbles

What is it about pebbles that some people find so fascinating? For the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, their appeal seemed to lie in their connection to the infinite, or, at least, the as-good-as-infinite vastness of geological time: “We must be humble,” he wrote in his famous long poem “On a Raised Beach”. “We are so easily baffled by appearances / And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.”

Detail from the cover of Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi

Book review: Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi

At the beginning of this startling novel the main narrator, Harriet Lee, imagines all the other iterations and bearers of her name – Harriet Li, Harriet Leigh, Harriet Lee, the Essex Princess and the rude sales assistant, the naval officer and the psychoanalyst. It is a kind of miniature of what to expect. Helen Oyeyemi’s work has always prioritised the slippery and the metamorphic, the weird changeability of things. What makes our Harriet Leigh unique, it seems, is her delicious gingerbread.

Melanie Reid

Book review: The World I Fell Out Of, by Melanie Reid

This is an astonishing and riveting book. Melanie Reid was an award-winning journalist, once of the the Herald, then a columnist for the Times, when on Good Friday 2010, aged 52, she put her horse at a routine fence on a cross-country course, was thrown and fell awkwardly, breaking her neck and fracturing her lower back. An air ambulance took her to hospital in Glasgow. She was severely paralysed: tetraplegic. Little except her mind was still working. She could speak and record her words, and use a laptop with one finger. The Times gave her a weekly column. She gave it its title: “Spinal Column.”

Tolsta Beach on the Isle of Lewis. Douglas Skelton's Thunder Bay is set on the fictional Scottish island of Stoirm.

Book review: Thunder Bay by Douglas Skelton

Thunder Bay is Douglas Skelton’s eighth novel, and a fresh departure from a writer whose back catalogue suggests a restless soul – four dark, hard-edged David McCall novels; a pair of Dominic Queste tales that showcase a gallus, gallows humour, and last year’s The Janus Run, a New York-set, Mafia-tinged thriller, all of them slices of solid noir with flawed characters who are all the more real for being less than perfect.

John Burnside PIC: Graham Jepson

Poetry review: StAnza 2019, various venues, St Andrews

“Can poetry save the world?” It’s a brave question to pose at the start of a poetry festival. But St Andrews’ own John Burnside, prolific poet, novelist and professor in the School of English, did not flinch from it when invited to deliver the StAnza 2019 lecture on Thursday. He was referencing an earlier remark by the American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.”

Max Porter PIC: Lucy Dickens

Book review: Lanny, by Max Porter

I ought to begin with the “full disclosure”: I have worked with Max Porter and found him to be a commendably subtle, kind and intelligent editor. His debut work, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, chalked up a staggering number of awards and short-listings. But being an editor and being a writer are different kettles of coconuts; and then there is the problem of a follow-up to a book so successful, the so-called “difficult second album”. So it was with some trepidation that I opened Lanny. Although I am moderately long in the tooth in terms of reviewing, there is still the frisson of panic when a writer, and person, whom you admire brings out a new piece of work.

Alexander McCall Smith

Book review: The Department Of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith

It is amusing to imagine a reader unfamiliar with Alexander McCall Smith’s work picking up this book and finding it decidedly odd. Billed as a new genre of Scandi-blanc (as opposed to Scandi-noir crime novels), The Department Of Sensitive Crimes introduces us to detective Ulf Varg of the eponymous department of Malmo’s police HQ. Fictional Scandinavian sleuths all have their issues. Harry Hole is a chronic alcoholic, Saga Norén wrestles with Asperger’s and Wallender suffers from memory loss. Varg’s problems include his name, which somewhat embarrassingly translates as “Wolf Wolf”, and his pet, Marten, who is deaf but has been trained as the first Swedish lip-reading dog.

Leila Aboulela

Book review: Bird Summons, by Leila Aboulela

When you read in the blurb for this book that “On a road trip to the Scottish Highlands, the women are visited by the Hoopoe, a sacred bird whose fables from Muslim and Celtic literature compel them to question the balance between faith and femininity, love, loyalty and sacrifice,” do you think “great, a bit of magic realism always spices a novel up,” or do you sigh and mutter, “we don’t really need this sort of stuff, do we?” The point is that in such cases the author is always taking a risk, moving from one register to another. Leila Aboulela just brings it off, nevertheless leaving one with the suspicion that this novel might have been more satisfying if she had dispensed with the Hoopoe.

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