The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth
The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke
The Roundabout Man, by Clare Morrall
The Confidant, by Hélène Grémillon
A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence M Krauss

Paperback reviews of the week

The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth Windmill £7.99

The novelist Barry Unsworth, who died in June, is probably best known for his Booker Prize-winner Sacred Hunger (1992), which tells of a revolt aboard a slaving ship in the Atlantic.

The book is not just a stirring adventure yarn, but a parable of capitalist greed: Unsworth's mutineers establish a commune in Florida where whites and freed blacks live in harmony, until the slave trader, Erasmus Kemp, driven by a "hunger" for profit, tracks them down.

The Quality of Mercy is a belated but worthy sequel to that fine novel. The narrative begins in 1767: Kemp has brought the rebellious sailors back to London to have them tried for piracy. Standing in his way is a progressive lawyer, Frederick Ashton, who sees the case as a way of publicising the abolitionist movement, and Frederick's sister Jane, who hopes to charm Kemp into recanting his support for slavery. Woven in is the story of a mining community in Durham, where Kemp has a commercial interest.

This proved to be Unsworth's final book, and it showcases his abundant strengths as a historical novelist.

He renders the texture of 18th-century life in vivid detail, but also insists upon moral values that transcend the specificities of period and place, showing us that when a society begins to confuse moral rectitude with commercial shrewdness, then it is assuredly lost. In doing so, Unsworth both evokes a bygone time and speaks eloquently to our own. His voice will be missed.

The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke Penguin £12.99

The al-Qa'ida attacks of September 2001 prompted 10 years of conflict that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Journalist Jason Burke's The 9/11 Wars is a superb account of that violent decade.

Adopting both top-down and bottom-up perspectives, Burke traces broad socio-political trends, and also pays attention to the messy details of life on the ground. He shows, for example, how the American decision to postpone democratic elections in Iraq fostered militancy, even among those who initially supported the invasion.

In his introduction, Burke relates a fellow reporter's opinion that only a work of fiction "could really make sense of what was happening". Indeed, that is what this book resembles: a vast, gory, surreal novel. The tragedy, of course, is that it is all true.

The Roundabout Man, by Clare Morrall Sceptre £8.99

At the centre of Clare Morrall's quirky novel is a recluse named Quinn Smith. Quinn's late mother, Larissa, was a famous children's author, and he appeared as a character in her much-loved books. Now in his sixties, he lives in a caravan on a roundabout, and survives on leftovers scrounged from a service station café.

Quinn's narration is evasive, and the secret behind his current predicament endlessly deferred. This can be a frustrating ploy, and readers might justifiably feel that they are being led in circles, like the cars around Quinn's home.

However, Morrall's elegant prose and sensitive characterisation hold the attention, and she even locates a certain poetry in Quinn's apparently unenviable life: "I exist in the eye of the storm ... the urgency of the world whizzes past me."

The Confidant, by Hélène Grémillon Gallic Books £7.99

When literary editor Camille Werner receives a collection of anonymous letters, ostensibly documenting a series of events in occupied France, she is perplexed. They tell of a poor young artist named Annie, who agrees to carry a child for her infertile benefactor Madame M, and of the tragedy that ensues. At first, Camille takes the letters to be a work of fiction, but she slowly realises, with horror, that they reveal a truth about her own past.

Hélène Grémillon's debut novel, a prizewinner in France, is well paced, and the various narrative threads are manipulated with impressive skill. Sadly though, there are many flaws: the tone becomes off-puttingly melodramatic; Madame M morphs from nuanced character into pantomime villain; and the ending, jarringly written in free verse, fails to convince.

A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence M Krauss Simon & Schuster £8.99

In this introduction to cosmology, the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explains how recent experimental observations have proved that it is scientifically possible for "something" to arise from "nothing", providing further evidence for the Big Bang.

Krauss' attempts to debunk religious arguments about the origins of the universe resemble those of Richard Dawkins, but lack his pedagogical skill: his writing can be dense, and he often resorts to exclamation marks, as if such emphasis alone will clarify his position. Nevertheless, he shows that science has an answer to what is often regarded as a theological question – and that's certainly not nothing.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015