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.