Jackie Kay

(Faber & Faber, £9.99)

First published in 1997 and now enjoying a new lease of life, this is as much a love letter to the Empress of the Blues as a biography. Introduced to Bessie Smith’s music by her adoptive parents, the future Scots Makar identified with her at once. The most successful female blues singer of her time, Smith was a bold and flamboyant Black woman who lived large, slept with both women and men and met adversity with grit and determination. But Kay also sees her songs as premonitions of a future in which she would marry “one of the dirty no-gooders she sang about” and see her rags-to-riches story descend once more into rags. Kay’s research is enhanced by her lifelong investment in Smith and the iconic figure she represents, her personal reflections, poetic licence and an abundance of heart bringing a story “so full of drama” back to full-blooded life.


Matt Haig (Canongate, £8.99)

Lonely, unfulfilled and unemployed, 35-year-old Nora attempts to kill herself. But instead of dying she finds herself in an infinite library, each of its books a life she could have led if she had made different choices. Nora can sample them, and if she finds one she likes enough she can live it. Upon entering a book, she has to figure out who she is and how her choices have affected her and those closest to her. But, based on only brief glimpses, how can she know that eliminating one regret won’t have unforeseen consequences that will ultimately leave her worse off? It’s the same basic appeal as all “alternate timeline” stories, but Haig’s variation on the theme is a great one, deftly handled. Nora’s eventual decision might not be hard to guess, but The Midnight Library continually engages its readers by forcing them to examine what they truly value in their own lives.


Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, £8.99)

Manhattan couple Oscar and Mina have been together 10 years and married six months, and Mina’s mental health is in a downward spiral. She tried to overdose on their wedding night, and the story opens with police having to get her down from a ledge on the George Washington Bridge. Oscar can’t understand what she’s going through. Thinking a change of scene will do her good, he accepts a job in London, but then he’s called back for a meeting, leaving Mina with only her new friend, Phoebe, for company. The fact that Mina is a Classical scholar studying female survivors in Graeco-Roman myth is an intriguing thread that could have been taken further. But Buchanan’s novel is a committed and compassionate study of depression which takes account of the pressure felt by the partners of sufferers and poses questions about love, coping and the responsibilities two people have for each other.