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  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar review – whirlpools of desire in Georgian London
    A mermaid is a perilous catch, and so is a courtesan, in this vibrant debut of fantasy and illusion

    Roll up, roll up, a true wonder is on display: a mermaid magicked out of words. The author of this debut set in Georgian London gulled me, by the zest of her writing and sustained authorial sleight of hand, into forgetting for a second that they do not exist. Witness the briny blast of ozone coming off the page in this letter from one Captain Tysoe Jones: “She had been caught up in the Nets of a fishing-boat, which mistook her at first for a school of Herring, so vast and glinting was she. They hauled her aboard all silver & shining, but no sooner had they done so, then she burst the Net and sprang out again.”

    Related: Guide to pleasures of late Georgian London acquired by Wellcome Collection

    Gowar explores the line between sham and showmanship, sincerity and sensationalism, promoting and pimping

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  • The Light Jar review – thoughtful and empathetic
    Lisa Thompson brings bags of empathy to a deftly plotted tale about an 11-year-old suddenly left to fend for himself

    Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy, about a troubled 12-year-old with OCD investigating the disappearance of a toddler, was one of 2017’s bestselling children’s debuts. Her follow-up, The Light Jar, is another mystery/thriller wrapped around psychological themes. Nate’s dad ran off with a colleague when he was six. Now 11, Nate and his mum are bedding down in an abandoned cottage, on the run from Gary, her emotionally abusive boyfriend. When his mother fails to return from a shopping trip, Nate must fend for himself – and convince Kitty, a girl who lives in the neighbouring stately home, that he has not been abandoned.

    Domestic abuse is tricky territory for young readers (this is a “middle-grade” novel, as Americans have it), and there are moments here when Nate – and Kitty’s – predicaments feel almost unbearably bleak. There is a terrifying passage in which Nate has a panic attack in an enclosed space, and we come to understand his attachment to a jar filled with fairy lights that he keeps by his bed.

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  • Letter to Louis by Alison White review – the courage of care

    Alison White’s admirable, beautifully written account of raising a child with cerebral palsy offers an essential insight into the lives of carers

    There are many heartbreaking moments in this beautifully written book, but the first comes before it even begins. In a dedication to her son Louis, author Alison White says how she wanted to write it so that people would understand disability and caring, but also, “to be totally honest, I wanted to write something that would make people consider being Louis’s friend”. Beneath that simple plea lies the great fear of so many parents who nurse a severely disabled child through to adulthood: “What will happen when I’m gone?” It’s a measure of this unsentimental and clear-eyed account that White never labours this point, or any other of the myriad anxieties that accompany long-term caring. Instead, she just tells us what it’s like: and it is, in equal measure, admirable, uplifting, terrifying.

    White’s story begins with Louis’s premature birth and an account of his time in an intensive care unit, where he comes close to death. When the story moves back to the later stages of White’s pregnancy and the catastrophic failure of a midwife to check White’s blood pressure at a vital moment, you are already primed to shout at the page: “Check her blood pressure, for God’s sake!” White goes into pre-eclampsia, a condition that can be fatal for mother and child, and Louis is later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

    It is shocking to learn that at Louis’s most disabled, the family are only entitled to two hours’ help a month

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  • OUT: LGBTQ Poland by Maciek Nabrdalik review – Poles apart
    A book of portraits and testimonies from Poland’s LGBTQ community speaks volumes about entrenched rightwing zealotry and intolerance

    In 2015, the newly elected president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, immediately announced that he was against marriage equality and, when asked if he would employ gay people in his office, replied: “I can’t imagine half-naked people parading around the chancellery.” His father, Professor Jan Tadeusz Duda, has said he views homosexuality as an acquired affliction that the state should do all it can to prevent.

    In his illuminating introduction to OUT: LGBTQ Poland, journalist Robert Rient provides the cultural and historical context for these kinds of views. “The concentrated contempt for non-heterosexual people in Poland,” he writes, “is the product of a medieval, patriarchal culture reinforced by the state and the powerful Catholic church, to which the vast majority of Poles belong. It is a culture where chauvinism and misogyny, and therefore homophobia and transphobia, thrive.”

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  • A Long Way from Home review – Peter Carey’s best novel in decades
    The acclaimed writer’s 14th novel is a nuanced story of racial identity set in postwar Australia

    Writers are by nature chameleons, with each new character a new disguise to take on, a fresh skin to inhabit. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that racial passing has such a rich literary history. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing, is a near-forgotten classic, telling of two mixed-race women, Clare and Irene, who identify as white and black respectively. More recently, we’ve had Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which the African American Coleman Silk attempts to pass for a Jewish academic. Then there’s Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, whose concluding revelation about one of the characters’ racial identities does what all good end-of-book twists ought to, shedding new light on the entire novel.

    A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey’s 14th novel, uses the story of a light-skinned Indigenous Australian who has been brought up white to address the country’s brutal history of racism. It seems strange at first that Carey – surely Australia’s greatest living novelist, even if he hasn’t dwelled there for decades – has taken so long to get around to the subject. In a recent interview in the Australian, he said that he’d always felt that it was not the place of a white writer to tell this tale. Then something changed: “You can’t be a white Australian writer and spend your whole life ignoring the greatest, most important aspect of our history, and that is that we – I – have been the beneficiaries of a genocide.”

    Related: Peter Carey: 'You wake up in the morning and you are the beneficiary of a genocide'

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  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – hallucinatory history of Uganda
    An 18th-century curse afflicts a tribal leader’s modern-day descendants in Makumbi’s engaging but gruelling debut

    This epic about Uganda’s history from a debut author who grew up in the country and now lives in Manchester starts with a man beaten to death outside Kampala in 2004. Then we wind back to the mid-18th century to watch his distant ancestor, a tribal leader named Kintu, accidentally kill his adoptive son while on an expedition to pledge fealty to a new king. Kintu’s failure to confess provokes a curse that his latter-day descendants spend the rest of the novel trying to escape. While the scene of his original sin is immediately engaging - his portrait as a sort of bumbling everyman intriguingly out of step with his renown - the energy of what follows dips and soars, as gruelling vignettes of gender injustice jostle with hallucinatory dream sequences and occasional bouts of explainer-type description (“In the 60s and 70s, the Soviet Union was a major sponsor of postgraduate study for Ugandans”).

    Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is published by Oneworld (£14.99). To order a copy for £11.24 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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  • Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan review – a political page-turner

    Themes of harassment and privilege are at the heart of this gripping tale of dark goings-on at Westminster

    This page-turning novel reveals the precarious nature of existence as the seemingly perfect lives of Sophie and her husband James unravel. Part psychological thriller, part courtroom drama, and reminiscent of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard, the book centres on a scandal that hits at the heart of Westminster when James, a junior minister and the prime minister’s closest friend, is arrested and stands trial accused of rape. The narrative moves deftly between the present-day and a long-buried secret from university days. Shifts in perspective between Sophie, James and prosecuting barrister Kate add considerable suspense. Running throughout are timely issues of consent, harassment, privilege, and anachronistic attitudes to women in politics as the author anatomises the inner workings of the corridors of power, as well as the hidden recesses of the mind and heart.

    Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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  • White King review – Charles I as you’ve never seen him before
    Leanda de Lisle’s beautifully written biography offers fresh perspectives on the English monarch and those who surrounded him

    Leanda de Lisle’s engrossing biography of Charles I is both revisionist and traditional. Its revisionism comes in the refreshing form of placing the women in Charles’s life centre stage; his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, is thus transformed from a simpering appendage into a politically adept schemer. Likewise, Henrietta’s lady of the bedchamber and the “last Boleyn girl”, Lucy Carlisle – the likely model for Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers – is given an engaged psychological portrait that deals with her agency on both sides of the divided country. Yet many of the strengths of White King also lie in its traditional virtues of being an engaging, well-researched and beautifully written biography. Emphatically not another book about the civil wars – Cromwell doesn’t appear until halfway through – this instead offers a nuanced and detailed examination of one of our most complex monarchs. It is probably the definitive modern work about Charles I.

    White King by Leanda de Lisle is published by Chatto & Windus (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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  • Three Things About Elsie review – the tricks of memory at an old folks’ home
    Joanna Cannon’s new novel focuses on the mysteries of its protagonist’s past, but is at its best in its tender descriptions of those on the fringes of society

    Joanna Cannon’s 2016 debut novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, was that rare literary phenomenon: a bestseller, swiftly optioned for TV and spawning a devoted readership. But beyond that, it was to lead a new publishing trend, latterly described as “uplit”: fiction in which empathy and kindness drive the narrative and where protagonists exist on the periphery of society, at best overlooked and at worst rejected entirely.

    Cannon is now back with her second novel, which similarly explores the inner lives of society’s outsiders. Eighty-four-year-old Florence Claybourne is a resident at the Cherry Tree home for the elderly and is beset by both nostalgia and dementia: “My mind started to wander. It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away.” She has fallen over in her room and as she lays on the floor waiting for someone to find her, she remembers the events of the past month: the arrival of a man at the home whom she is convinced is someone from her past, albeit someone who supposedly died many years before. But no one in the home believes her – neither staff nor fellow residents – bar Florence’s lifelong friend, Elsie, so Florence sets out to unravel her past and prove them wrong.

    Related: Author Joanna Cannon: why I’m going back to the psychiatric wards

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  • Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life – review
    Nick Coleman’s analysis of pop’s most thrilling singers brims with joy and well-turned phrases, but doesn’t dig deep enough

    What do we want or expect from a voice, someone else’s voice, a stranger’s voice? After nine months of deafness, documented in his 2013 memoir Train in the Night, Nick Coleman realised he only wanted to hear voices that would “nourish and sustain” him. He found nourishment in the heightened naturalism of 60s girl group records, exemplified by the Shangri La’s’ Mary Weiss and the Marvelettes’ Gladys Horton, and in Aretha Franklin, who became a more personal prop for him, offering sisterly advice. Whenever he put a record on, he was always conscious that his hearing might go again, at any moment, and maybe this time it would never return.

    This urgency gives Voices a slightly claustrophobic feel. The book covers the rock era, and Coleman has a varied enough palate to appreciate “the weird disturbance wrought by Suzi Quatro” as well as more familiar and predictable names like Dylan, Jagger and Lennon. He’s not afraid to go out on a limb and throw his arms wide for effect, so Little Richard’s voice is “the most exciting sound in the world”. Neither is he afraid to venture into synaesthetic descriptions, as with Elvis Presley: “This sound is like burnished gold; it shines”. The notion that Kate Bush’s voice “fills the sky like weather” is quite beautiful.

    Coleman believes that emotion is more affecting when it doesn’t make a spectacle of itself

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