Rebecca Simon (Mango, £16.95)

Reworking her PhD thesis into an accessible and engrossing book for a mainstream audience, Rebecca Simon strips away the baggage that’s attached itself to pirates since the 17th Century and goes back to primary sources to learn why they became such an iconic, romantic archetype. You won’t find any eye patches, peg legs and treasure maps here. Those were all later additions to the myth. Instead, Simon concentrates on Captain William Kidd – a Scot, from Greenock – whom she believes is responsible for pirates becoming such a staple in popular culture. Kidd, hanged in 1701, saw himself as a legitimate privateer employed by the Crown but failed by the system he served. Piracy from 1650 to 1726 is a well-documented phenomenon, and Simon’s enlightening account shows how pirates’ “dialectic of terror” proved remarkably influential on international relations, paving the way for the British Empire while simultaneously sowing the seeds of American independence.


Zak Mucha (Dockyard Press, £16.99)

Today, Zak Mucha is a psychotherapist living and working in Chicago. But in a previous existence he used to haul furniture, and this novel is inspired both by his own experiences and those of clients he’s treated who were stuck in dead-end jobs and turned to crime. His narrator is Johnny, “an average guy with a babyface”, who has worked for a removal-truck business for five years and fallen in with the “bad boys” on the team. When not griping about their bosses, customers and working conditions, they’re copying keys and robbing homes, fencing stolen goods through a crooked antique dealer – until, inevitably, the law closes in. In prose that’s blunt, direct but eloquent, Mucha summons up the reality of being stuck in no-future jobs and dysfunctional relationships, of men whose lives are defined by tedium, inertia, resentment and empty rituals. A novel that deserves recognition as a street-level classic.


Dorian Lynskey (Picador, £9.99)

Since its 1949 publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has never fallen out of step with the times, and has even been appropriated by people with diametrically opposed views to its author. Here, Dorian Lynskey traces the book’s history, from Orwell’s fateful decision to fight in the Spanish Civil War to the “alternative facts” of the Trump era. He has cogent observations to make at every stage, with British communists denouncing Orwell’s novel, the BBC’s 1954 adaptation sparking a furore, the USSR collapsing and the spread of new technology and the changed landscape of the Wikileaks era opening up new interpretations. Along the way, Lynskey takes in such cultural artefacts as The Handmaid’s Tale, Ridley Scott’s Apple Macintosh advert and Bowie’s planned musical, remarking how most people rightly shaken by Nineteen Eighty-Four in their youth rarely revisit it in adulthood, thus missing out on how much “richer and stranger” a book it actually is.