The Dig Tree, by Sarah Murgatroyd

Where the Stress Falls, by Susan Sontag

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, by David Gilmour

Primo Levi, by Ian Thomson

Cigarettes, by Tara Parker-Pope

The Dig Tree, Sarah Murgatroyd, Bloomsbury, £7.99, 373pp

Though undeniably brave and charismatic, Robert Burke was not an ideal choice to lead the first trans-Australia expedition in 1860. As Sarah Murgatroyd points out in this thrilling yarn, the Melbourne policeman "was notorious for getting lost on his way home from the pub". His deputy John Wills, a quiet scientist, was more practical, but neither man was aware of conditions in "the driest region of the driest inhabited continent on earth". Their expedition was financed in some style by Melbourne citizenry (hence the choice of one of their own to lead it): 16 men and 25 camels set out. Their 12 tonnes of equipment included four enema kits and 12 dandruff brushes.

After a hellish time getting halfway across the endless Outback, Burke whittled his unwieldy force down to four. Burke and Wills made it to within 20 kilometres of the coast, but impassable mangrove swamps prevented them reaching the sea. Deserted by their waiting colleagues, Burke and Wills died on the return journey. The sole survivor died a few months after returning to Melbourne. The main reason for Burke's precipitate and ill-fated trek is that a rival expedition from Adelaide was hard on his heels. Led by John Stuart, an indomitable sourpuss, the Adelaide party made it to the north coast and back again, but it is the doomed Burke and Wills who are remembered. The death of Murgatroyd from breast cancer last year, aged 35, casts a sad shadow over this excellent book.

Where the Stress Falls, by Susan Sontag, Vintage, £7.99, 351pp

Ironic self-deprecation is not Susan Sontag's strong suit. Several items in her latest collection of essays might be Craig Brown parodies. From her catalogue for a Jasper Johns show: "The spoon is not quite grown-up in the way that the knife and fork are." Her account of directing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo is particularly cringe-making: "The play now belonged to the actors and I knew it was in good hands ... my eyes began to sting with tears." Yet her essays are always passionate and perceptive. Many, such as the title piece about narrative pacing in novels, are unexpectedly enjoyable.

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, by David Gilmour, Pimlico, £15, 351pp

This is one of those rare biographies that leaves the reader clamouring for more. Gilmour's elegant account concentrates on Kipling the public figure. Much of what you learn is endearing. Kipling was free of humbug, writing openly about prostitution in 1895, when a quarter of the British army in India had syphilis. But he also harboured a mass of prejudices. He was against suffragettes, democracy and bungalows. His authorial identification with the glory of Empire switched to doom-mongering as the Imperial grip on India relaxed.

Primo Levi, by Ian Thomson, Vintage, £8.99, 626pp

Wonderfully perceptive on so many levels, it is all the more remarkable that this biography was written by a man who is neither Italian nor Jewish, born 16 years after Levi's release from Auschwitz. Thomson's account of the novelist's wartime experience – a scar as indelible as the number electrically tattooed on his arm – is graphic and chilling. Surprisingly, Levi's life after the war as a senior chemist, while writing The Periodic Table, was also profoundly stressful. Recurring depression prompted him to take his own life in 1987, yet this book is so beautifully written, so precise in its construction, that it is a joy to read.

Cigarettes, by Tara Parker-Pope, The New Press, £9.95, 192pp

Unlike Ian Gately's La Diva Nicotina, this is no paean to the dread weed, but neither is it an all-guns-blazing excoriation. The author is an ex-smoker who recognises that the tobacco industry is both remarkable and deadly. She snappily explores the history, promotion and risks of tobacco. A link was suggested between snuff and nose cancer as early as 1761. Today, tobacco is the "known or likely cause" of 25 diseases. Yet, as Parker-Pope points out, since smokers in the past have risked torture and execution, it is unlikely that lawyers, politicians or dire health warnings will kill the habit.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game