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  • Children’s and teens roundup: the best new picture books and novels

    A superhero snail, bibliophile bunnies, a story about grief filled with folkloric menace and more

    Picture books this month range from the anarchic to the meditative. Elys Dolan, award-winning author-illustrator of Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory, returns with Super Snail (Hodder), the tale of an ordinary slug with extraordinary ambitions. When Kevin dons his shell, he becomes Super Snail – but hampered by his slowness and slime, how can he prove himself to the League of Heroes? Dry asides from Kevin’s owl butler lend additional humour to this superbly silly story.

    From Flying Eye, Joe Todd-Stanton’s A Mouse Called Julian offers Brambly Hedge-style charm spiced with a pinch of peril. Julian, a solitary mouse, regrets his aloofness when a fox breaks into his home, determined to eat him – but fox and mouse become unlikely friends. Cross section illustrations of glowing, cosy rooms, slyly funny dialogue and a nuanced happy ending add up to a picture book as warm as a candle-lit burrow.

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  • The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack by HM Naqvi review – nostalgic fictionalised memoir

    Set in seedy modern Karachi, this conjures a lost city of jazz, cabarets and hard drinking Soviet delegates

    “Abdullah the Cossack”, the antihero of HM Naqvi’s follow-up to the award-winning Home Boy, is the personification of Karachi’s decaying soul. The 70-year-old revels in nostalgia at the Sunset Lodge, the crumbling family estate he is at risk of losing. His was a Karachi defined by jazz quartets, Goan rockers, cabarets, theosophists, landmark synagogues and drinking Soviet delegates under the table. A self-styled intellectual, he has in the twilight of his life decided to document aspects of society ignored by historians. He notes, for instance, that in contrast to the emphasis on mourning at funerals, the death anniversaries of Sufi saints are “commemorated with song and dance until daybreak”. His observations, compiled and edited by former protege Bosco, form the narrative of Naqvi’s new novel, The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack. Through his protagonist, Naqvi sheds light on an older and more enlightened Karachi.

    The Cossack’s deteriorating physical condition is a reflection of the city’s body politic and the problems that plague it. However, the arrival in his life of potential love interest Jugnu marks a physical and mental revival. The relationship breaks class and gender taboos: while it is clear to some of the other characters that Jugnu is transgender, Abdullah remains oblivious. Like the romance of old Karachi, which is selective in its portrayal of the past, Abdullah sees in Jugnu what he chooses.

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  • Airhead by Emily Maitlis review – up close with Trump and the Dalai Lama

    The chief presenter of BBC Newsnight vividly chronicles the pains and perils of news television

    Emily Maitlis’s book isn’t an autobiography. By the end we are none the wiser about what she was like as a child, her personal relationships or the pivotal moments that led to her becoming arguably the BBC’s sharpest interviewer and lead presenter of Newsnight. While she does devote a chapter to her experience of being stalked, Airhead is mostly a compendium of her biggest interviews with politicians, celebrities, thinkers and, in one case, an actual living god. In showing us what happens in front of the camera as well as the chaos behind it, her aim is less to tell her life story than reveal the blood, sweat and tears that go into planning and delivering the news. “Unlike print there is no room for annotation or commentary as you go along,” she writes in the introduction. “What appears on the screen is what people see. Everything else is just interpretation.”

    And so we accompany Maitlis as she is dispatched to Paris to cover the Bataclan terrorist attack; to Hong Kong to report on the umbrella democracy protests, and to Boone County, Iowa, for a Democratic caucus in a snow-smothered farmhouse. There are one-to-ones with Donald Trump, Tony Blair, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the former civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal, Emma Thompson, James Comey and more, and here the presenter is able to share the build-up and comedown around each exchange. Some accounts work better than others: her awe at David Attenborough’s utterances make you briefly question her role as one of BBC TV’s interrogator-in-chiefs, while interviews with Simon Cowell and Russell Brand yield little of interest. She doesn’t get much out of the Dalai Lama, whom she meets at the “Prestige Suite” of an airport hotel, though her dawning realisation that, even with his sacred status, he is no different from your average blustering politician makes for amusing reading.

    Waiting in 43C heat for Bill Clinton, she changes her clothes in a barn and frets about her 'pothole-jolted make-up'

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  • We Need to Talk About Putin and Putin v the People review – a gut-level patriot

    Putin has convinced many Russians that he has raised their country from its knees. But for how much longer, ask these two books, by Mark Galeotti and by Samuel A Greene and Graeme B Robertson

    One of the silver linings running through the dark clouds of their history is that Russians have developed a strong line in subversive political humour. In one joke that has recently been doing the rounds, Putin asks Stalin: “Why is everything here so bad? What should I do?” “Execute the entire government and paint the Kremlin blue,” says Stalin. “Why blue?” asks a perplexed Putin. “I had a feeling you would only want to discuss the second part,” Stalin says.

    The truth is that Putin does not have the powers of a real dictator; he cannot execute the government or even manage without the myriad officials, oligarchs and fake opposition parties on which his authority and ability to govern depend. And yet far too much western commentary on Putin invokes parallels with the Soviet era when highlighting his suffocation of independent media, his demonisation of internal enemies, his crackdown on protest movements and his hostility towards the west. These two books both offer nuanced and persuasive accounts that demolish this vision of Putin’s dictatorship as the latest incarnation of totalitarianism in Russia.

    Putin is a 'gut-level patriot who believes that Russia should be considered a great power … because it’s Russia'

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  • EL James's The Mister – turns out books and sex can be this bad

    A coked-up lord bonks a trafficked Albanian immigrant as the Fifty Shades of Grey author swaps BDSM for dispiritingly creepy power games

    There is a small moment in EL James’s new novel The Mister that embodies her unique ability for libido-shrinking creepiness. Her new romantic hero, British aristocrat Maxim Trevelyan, enters a shop to buy a nightlight for his attractive, sex-trafficked Albanian cleaner Alessia. While paying for the dragon-shaped light intended for children, he spots condoms behind the counter. “Well,” he thinks, glancing at his traumatised future paramour before asking for a box, “I might get lucky.” Later offering to share his bed, he says: “I won’t touch you. This is just sleep – so the next time you scream, I’ll be right there.’” He then thinks: “Of course, I’d like to make her scream in a different way.

    At least among all this wrongness, James gets one thing right: her randy English earl has a believably stupid name. But Maximum Tinseltrousers is no Jacob Rees-Mogg with a collection of spreader bars. After having made her name with leatherbound rumpy pumpy in her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, The Mister is James’s goodbye to BDSM, and hello to what looks like a long career of writing retrograde romances between powerful men and uncomfortably vulnerable women.

    James writes about sex like a 14-year-old and wealth like her trilogy hasn't sold millions

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  • The Dinosaurs Rediscovered review – a transformation in our understanding

    Colour, speed, how they ate ... our knowledge of dinosaurs has undergone a revolution, as this expert survey makes clear

    “Dinosaur” is still sometimes used as a pejorative. The image of a lumbering swamp monster doomed to extinction has proved too appealing an insult for some to abandon. They should beware, though. Nothing is more out-of-date and stuck-in-the-mud than to imagine that dinosaurs were anything other than astonishingly successful. Over the past half century, a palaeontological revolution has transformed our understanding of them. Recently, it has been picking up ever more dramatic speed. “One by one,” Michael Benton writes, “the speculations about evolution, locomotion, feeding, growth, reproduction, physiology, and, finally, colour have fallen to the drive of transformation.” Dinosaurs these days are the cutting edge.

    Benton’s new book explains why. No one with even the faintest interest in the subject will want to miss it. He is one of the world’s most eminent palaeontologists, and throughout his distinguished career has been at the heart of the step change in dinosaur palaeobiology. He is also, though, a natural communicator. As a child, he had yearned to become a palaeontologist so that he could be paid for doing what he loved: “collecting fossils, drawing ancient creatures, and reading about dinosaurs endlessly”. As a professor, he has made sure to pay back his debt to the amateur enthusiast he once was. He served as a consultant on the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs; he founded an education programme to take palaeontology into schools. Now, with The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, he has written a book for the general reader that explains not just what specialists know about them, but how they have come to that point. It is an account, as Benton puts it, of “the transformation of palaeontology into science”.

    Scientists can now be confident how fast a T rex could move – in a way that would have been impossible when Jurassic Park was released

    Related: The dinosaurs in your garden | Dave Hone

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  • Things in Jars by Jess Kidd review – high-camp crime
    A pipe-smokin’, crypt-crashin’ heroine brings originality and freshness to this Victorian detective drama

    This pacy piece of Victorian crime fiction delivers chills galore: pickled babies, wicked surgeons, a head in a hatbox and other unsettling discoveries. “The baby isn’t suckling the mother’s finger, it’s gnawing it,” is a gasped pronouncement made, of course, in a crypt. Yes, this is a sidestep into genre – Jess Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder, were contemporary and more original – but it is done with panache.

    The lead character is Bridget “Bridie” Devine, a pipe-smokin’, crypt-crashin’, child-rescuin’ proto-detective who sometimes dons moustaches and male clothing to gain admission to operating theatres. She spends her long walks across Victorian London thinking, divining (her name needs little unpicking), and chatting with her hallucinations. An attractively independent character, she is always “captain of her own ship”. And she is followed around by an amorous ghost. “I’m not in the market for a haunting,” she tells this deceased boxer, as he approaches her in a churchyard one night. But he soothes her nightmares and gives spiritual cuddles; there’s a touching scene when he is unable to protect her from a beating. It’s a lovely idea, wittily done, and its warmth is a welcome respite from the grisly Victorian police procedural.

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  • The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis review – secrets of the world’s most expensive painting

    How much of the famous Salvator Mundi did Leonardo paint? And where is the $450m picture now?

    In November 2011, a small Renaissance painting known as the Salvator Mundi (“Saviour of the World”) went on show at the National Gallery. It was a compelling, moody, somewhat odd picture: a half-length figure of Christ with ringlets of auburn hair, holding a transparent crystal orb. Even more compelling was the label, describing it as a newly discovered work by Leonardo da Vinci.

    This attribution, at the upper end of the art world’s Richter scale, was controversial for various reasons, not least because – contrary to National Gallery policy – it radically enhanced the market value of a privately owned artwork. Its owners were at this point mysterious: an American “consortium” was mentioned. They were, in fact, two mid-table New York dealers, Robert Simon and Alex Parish, who had bought it in 2005 on an intuitive whim, heavily overpainted and in poor condition, from a small auction house in New Orleans. They paid $1,175. Cleaned, stripped and painstakingly restored by Dianne Modestini, authenticated by distinguished Leonardo experts such as Martin Kemp and David A Brown, and launched with the imprimatur of the National Gallery, the Salvator Mundi had arrived. After five centuries of obscurity it was an international celebrity, a fairytale frog turned into a prince of paintings.

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  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams review – a smart and breezy debut
    A Londoner’s low self-esteem leads to a series of ill-advised flings in an amusing first novel

    You can’t help but suspect that literary fiction short-changes readers when it comes to portraying black Britons. A novel such as Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, about middle-class midlife marital crises, felt radical mainly because the alternatives tend to be gritty or nothing: a choice between, say, Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, about estate kids caught up in riots, or John Lanchester’s south London panorama Capital, without a black British character in sight.

    So it’s hard not to hear the double meaning when, at her lowest ebb, Queenie, the titular heroine of Candice Carty-Williams’s smart and breezy comic debut, also set in south London, says “there’s no space” for her. At 25, she’s verging on breakdown, adrift in her job on a newspaper culture supplement, cold-shouldered by her long-term boyfriend, Tom, and unable even to seek comfort at her favourite Caribbean bakery, now a burger joint full of “white kids holding colourful cans of beer”.

    Related: Candice Carty-Williams: ‘You get accustomed to men saying, "You’re pretty for a black girl"’

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  • The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr review – the lure of novel ideas
    The journalist and author’s compelling guide to creative writing reveals how our brains are wired to respond to narratives

    The American novelist John Barth claimed that rather than the traditional “what happened next?”, the real question that every reader is asking him or herself as they read is “the essential question of identity – the personal, professional, cultural, even species-specific ‘Who Am I?’” Stories are ordering, sense-making machines, helping our brains to render the frantic incoherence of chaotic existence into comprehensible narratives. These narratives, as Peter Brooks showed in his classic critical work Reading for the Plot, “follow the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” – stories have beginnings, middles and ends because our lives do. Every time we read a novel, we’re giving ourselves a new way of thinking about the shape and structure of our own lives. And even in the age of AI, the novel remains our most subtle and sophisticated piece of technology when it comes to answering these deep, existential questions.

    It’s surprising, given how many authors now teach creative writing in order to supplement their meagre incomes, that there aren’t more good books on the craft of novel writing. Novice novelists still tend to turn to screenwriting guides when looking for inspiration. Yet as the brilliant send-up of Robert McKee’s Story, one of the many guides that use formalist archetypes to provide film writers with plot blueprints, in the Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation demonstrates, the structures that work for blockbusters don’t always work for more refined narratives.

    He illustrates how we draw on neural models to populate the worlds of the novels we’re reading

    Related: Selfie by Will Storr review – me, my selfie and I in an age of ego

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