The Song Of Simon de Montfort

Sophie Thérèse Ambler

Picador, £8.99

Simon de Montfort is one of those historical figures whose name is familiar, even if you haven’t a clue why. It’s high time this neglected medieval knight got more recognition, and Ambler’s biography does an outstanding job. De Montfort was the 6th Earl of Leicester, and a crusader. Frustrated with Henry III’s cruelty to his subjects and refusal to listen to his nobles, he seized power, bringing about a level of constitutional upheaval that wouldn’t be seen again until Oliver Cromwell’s time. That he isn’t better known may be because he and his revolutionary council only ran England for 15 months, de Montfort being killed on the battlefield in 1265. Given that more than 750 years have passed, Ambler was able to draw on an impressive range of sources, her scholarship combining with a flair for storytelling to paint a detailed and compelling portrait of a remarkable, and significant, man.

The World We Knew

Alice Hoffman

Scribner, £8.99

Magical realism might seem like an uncomfortable fit for a Holocaust novel, but the prolific Alice Hoffman knows what she’s doing. She begins in Berlin in 1941, with Hanni Kohn deciding to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Germany and paying a rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, to create a golem to protect her. The golem Ettie summons from the mud is named Ava and shepherds Lea through France after they are separated from Ettie, who joins the Resistance. Over the next three years, as they try to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, Ava becomes increasingly human, which Lea has been warned could be problematic. With Ava representing Hanni’s undying love for her daughter, and having her own romance with a talking heron, Hoffman seems more committed to the magical aspects of her novel than her depictions of the mundane world, but it’s enchanting stuff, finding beauty and hope in unpromising circumstances.

Pablo and Me

Victoria Eugenia Henao

Ebury, £9.99

As the Netflix show Narcos highlights, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar still exerts a ghoulish fascination. The wealthiest criminal in history, Escobar owned a private zoo and sat in the Colombian Chamber of Representatives while making his country the murder capital of the world. Now, his widow has written her own memoir of their bizarre life together. Henao met Escobar when she was 13, married him at 15 and remained at his side for 16 years until his death in 1993, held there by a combination of fear and love, at one point hiring a poet to help her write love letters to keep her husband from straying. She details too how, after his death, she negotiated with Escobar’s enemies to save the life of her son and, rather than continuing to look the other way, made contact with the families of his victims. It’s an incredible first-hand account of a life of surreal extremes.

Alastair Mabbott