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George RR Martin PIC: Rich Polk/Getty Images

Book review: Fire And Blood, by George RR Martin

George RR Martin has described Fire And Blood as his equivalent of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is a backstory, telling the events that happened in Westeros 300 years before the events in A Song Of Ice And Fire. But there are significant differences. Tolkien’s work was written before The Lord Of The Rings, submitted for publication, rejected and published posthumously. In addition, it dealt with god-like entities and creation myths. The rejection of The Silmarillion (“too Celtic” according to the publisher; actually ersatz Norse) spurred him into telling a different story in the world he had built. Martin’s work is an extension to the stories already told in various spin-off books – The World Of Ice And Fire, the various short stories in Rogues and Dangerous Women. It is as if, having built his sandpit and played with his toys for a time, he now has set himself to engrave, elaborately, the railway-sleepers of the framework. Most fans will pounce on the book; more would rather they have The Winds Of Winter. But with the television series having outstripped the novels, and with HBO announcing a prequel series, at least they will have a good deal of material with which to work.

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St Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower

Book review: Stalin’s Secret Weapon, by Anthony Rimmington

It’s no surprise that Joseph Stalin’s obsession with weapons of mass destruction included the promotion of biological weapons (BW), but the background to his regime’s development of this type of warfare, with its triumphs and failures, makes for eye-opening and sometimes grim reading. Anthony Rimmington’s book pulls together his 30 years of research and specialist articles, showing first how Russia’s interest can be traced back to the late 19th century when a St Petersburg guards officer was bitten by a rabid horse. The officer’s treatment led to the establishment of groups of physicians and veterinary surgeons studying ways to combat the likes of brucellosis, glanders and rabbit fever, as well as diseases that affected humans, such as smallpox and pneumonic plague. During the First World War the focus shifted to military uses of this knowledge: horses and mules deliberately infected with dangerous bacteria could disrupt entire campaigns, and many of these animal diseases could transfer to enemy troops.

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Simon Jenkins PIC: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Book review: A Short History of Europe, from Pericles to Putin, by Simon Jenkins

“This book,” Simon Jenkins writes, “is aimed at those without the time or inclination for a longer one.” Nothing wrong with that; he doesn’t believe that history should be taught in depth rather than breadth. On the contrary, without a knowledge of the outline of history, detached episodes or studies are meaningless and “those who cannot speak history to each other have nothing meaningful to say”. So he offers a short, invigorating gallop over two and a half thousand years. If, generally ignorant of history, you read this book from start to finish, you will at last have an understanding of how Europe comes to be as it is today, and you will have learned a lot that is interesting.

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Catriona McPherson PIC: Ian Rutherford

Book review: A Step So Grave, by Catriona McPherson

This period thriller is set in the 1930s on the remote Applecross peninsula. Amateur detective and society wife of a Perthshire landowner, Dandy Gilver sets off to meet her son’s prospective bride and his in-laws at their rough and ready estate, before a murder interrupts the festivities.

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Jonathan Coe

Book review: Middle England, by Jonathan Coe

Middle England is a “Condition of England” novel, rather as James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still was a “Condition of Scotland” one. It’s a familiar type of novel, dating back to the 1840s at least, to the novels of Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens and, later, Trollope. One may think they had it easier than a novelist attempting this sort of thing today. The Victorian novelists had more freedom to invent; they were scarcely even loosely chained to actuality. They could, for instance, give a Prime Minister a fictional name. Dickens could set Hard Times in “Coketown”. Today the novelist – Jonathan Coe in this case – is a prisoner of the Information Age. His fictional characters must respond to real-life events: the general election which led to the Conservative/LibDem coalition and the programme of austerity, the city riots of 2012, the London Olympics, the 2015 election, the 2016 EU referendum. How they respond, what their responses tell us about the Condition of England, this is what must concern the novelist.

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AL Kennedy Picture: Deadline News/Rex/Shutterstock

Book review: The Little Snake, by AL Kennedy

As demonstrated by the recently concluded Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which eight contemporary authors were invited to write novels inspired by some of the Bard’s best-loved plays, using an existing work of literature as a jumping-off point for a new one can either work brilliantly (as in Edward St Aubyn’s formidably intelligent update of King Lear) or hardly at all (Jo Nesbo’s take on Macbeth). Happily, AL Kennedy’s The Little Snake, written to mark the 75th anniversary of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, falls unconditionally into the former category.

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George Saunders

Book review: Fox 8, by George Saunders

Every author is allowed to write a little bagatelle, and if, as George Saunders has done, you have also won the Man Booker Prize – with Lincoln In The Bardo – such a frolic is more than excusable. Fox 8 is an animal fable and it will take most readers less than an hour to get through. It is illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal, whose line drawings in red and black are effectively sweet and simple; since this is a sweet and simple book. It has a lot of charm, and, as one would expect, a degree of melancholy and anger given Saunders’ previous work.

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Robert J Harris

Book review: Castle Macnab, by Robert J Harris

John Buchan was a prodigious writer who produced biographies, a multi-volume history of the First World War and 29 novels, five of them featuring Richard Hannay, most famously The Thirty-Nine Steps. Castle Macnab is the second new Hannay novel from Robert J Harris (who also writes young adult fiction), after last year’s Thirty-One Kings, which brought back some familiar friends and foes.

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Jonathan Franzen PIC: Hector Guerrero / AFP / Getty Images

Book review: The End of the End of the Earth, by Jonathan Franzen

I tend of think of Jonathan Franzen as being younger than he is. This may be partly because he has written only five novels. All the same, it’s a surprise to think that he will be 60 next year. His novels are good, serious and very readable in the sturdy, American middlebrow tradition of writers like Sinclair Lewis, John P Marquand and James Gould Cozzens. Franzen himself is an old-style WASP, “raised,” he writes, “with a Midwestern horror of yakking about myself.” Happily he has overcome the horror. As an essayist published in the New Yorker he has become accustomed to yakking about himself, and doing so agreeably.

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Lost Railway Journeys from Around the World

Book review: Lost Railway Journeys From Around the World, by Anthony Lambert

Rail’s loss has been cyclists’ – and walkers’ – gain. Spectacular bike routes have been created on old lines, and Anthony Lambert’s book highlights how this has become a successful phenomenon across the world. While Lost Railway Journeys is in some parts a requiem for train trips no longer possible, in others it is unexpectedly upbeat, chronicling the transformation of tracks into popular trails, along with some partial rail re-openings or at least the prospect of them.

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Louise Penny PIC: Jean-Francois Berube

Book review: Kingdom Of The Blind, by Louise Penny

The premise of this novel is an intriguing one. A group of three people, including Louise Penny’s usual central detective character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec provincial police force, and Myrna Lander, another regular character and a bookseller, are summoned to a small village in a rural area of the Francophone Canadian province.There, they are told that they have been named as executors of the will of a woman who none of them know or have ever met. Within a short space of time, the woman’s son is found dead and the plot kicks off.

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Daniel Shand

Book review: Crocodile, by Daniel Shand

A kind critic would describe Daniel Shand’s second novel as “something of a curate’s egg”; another might say “a dog’s dinner”. It is a novel which is ethically interesting and aesthetically all over the place. The central character is usually referred to as “the girl” but we learn, at four points, that her name is Chloe. That is an interesting choice, since Chloe was one of the epithets of the Greek goddess Demeter when she was “verdant” or “blossoming”. Chloe is about to go to the big school; is discovering boys and alcohol and pornography for the first time; and has been sent to stay with her grandparents because of her mother’s chaotic life, which involves men and alcohol and sexual violence.

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Donald S Murray

Book review: As the Women Lay Dreaming, by Donald S Murray

Years ago the first novel of Andreï Makine’s which I reviewed here was Confessions of a Lapsed Standard-Bearer. Its evocation of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s rang with such compelling authenticity that I was sure it must be autobiographical, drawn from memory. Then I looked at the author’s note in the inside back cover and saw that Makine was born in 1959.

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The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Claire

Book review: The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Clare

The concept of the stiff upper lip has surely never been as unfashionable as it is today. We live in an age of perpetual overshare, an era in which talking about your innermost thoughts and feelings is not just acceptable but actively encouraged. No factual TV show is complete, it seems, until at least one person involved has been on some sort of emotional “journey,” and every sad or unfortunate event that befalls a person in the public eye is met with torrents of “thoughts and prayers” on social media. Not sure how to put your feelings into words? Never mind: simply select the appropriate emoji from a range of options now available.

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Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin

Book review: Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One, by Alasdair Gray

Dante is a poet whom everyone acknowledges as canonical, and whom very few actually read. I have several translations of the Divine Comedy to hand: Henry Carey’s earliest one of 1814, the Penguin Classics version by Dorothy L Sayers – yes, the crime novelist – Mark Musa, Robin Kirkpatrick, Ciaran Carson, Clive James – yes, him off the telly – and others. All have their virtues and their faults.

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