My Name Is Why

Lemn Sissay

Canongate, £9.99

He’s now an admired poet, playwright and Chancellor of Manchester University. But, as a boy, Lemn Sissay was condemned to a marginal existence that denied him his heritage and badly affected his mental health. Separated from his Ethiopian mother at a Wigan home for unmarried mothers in 1967, he was renamed Norman and placed with a white foster family. Bullying at school and an oppressive brand of Christianity at home led to his removal to the first of several children’s homes when he was 12, unaware that his mother had been pleading for him to be returned to her. Sissay’s memories of the harsh, loveless regimes are accompanied by their reports on him, obtained after a 30-year battle with Wigan Council. A damning indictment of a system that frequently fails young people, this is a heartbreaking and eloquent memoir providing insight into the forces that shaped Sissay into the poet he is today.

Emperors of the Deep

William McKeever

HarperOne, £9.99

Sharks. They’re regarded first and foremost as the most iconic predators of the natural world. But William McKeever wants to downplay their reputation as the ultimate killing machines and focus instead on the role they play in “maintaining the health of the world’s oceans”, in the hope that greater appreciation will help protect the creatures and, ultimately, the sea. Reading McKeever’s book, one comes to understand that being an apex predator is like being a custodian of the ocean. Sharks are essential to keeping their ecosystems balanced and maintaining greater biodiversity. As well as travelling as far afield as Cape Cod and Australia to study the animals themselves, McKeever investigates the commercial and recreational fishing industry that kills a staggering 100 million of them a year. Like its subject, Emperors of the Deep is awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, but it’s the carnage inflicted by humans that prompts the greatest terror.

Passionate Spirit

Cate Haste

Bloomsbury, £12.99

Dying in New York in 1964 at the age of 85, Alma Mahler had not only been married to Gustav Mahler, but also Walter Gropius and after that the less celebrated but still respectably prestigious author Franz Werfel. Growing up in Secession-era Vienna, surrounded by culture and artists from an early age, she was drawn to creative, artistic men, and has often been disparaged as a gold-digger or groupie, or more kindly as a muse. Here, biographer Cate Haste tries to even the score a little, drawing attention to Alma’s abilities as an accomplished pianist, with a particular affinity for Wagner, who wrote her own music – of which, sadly, little survives. It’s not a complete rehabilitation of this “passionate spirit”. Her ambition, self-absorption, indiscretion and anti-Semitism are all undeniable. But although no angel, she makes a compelling subject for a vibrant biography: a charismatic, indefatigable woman living through an exciting and turbulent era.