The Best by Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore
Would Serena Williams have achieved such greatness without a big sister to play against? Why do so many of France’s top footballers come from one Parisian suburb? This deeply researched exploration of nature versus nurture aims to do for sport what Freakonomics did for society, uncovering the truths of success and failure. Despite the insights from an impressive cast of interviewees – top quote goes to Judy Murray, who observes of her sons’ success: “It helped that I was the national coach” – the central truth remains that great sportspeople are encouraged, not made.
John Murray, 368pp, £20
Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay
Growing up black in an all-white neighbourhood in Glasgow in the Seventies, Jackie Kay (now the national poet of Scotland) found in Bessie Smith an idol, a comfort and a friend. Kay mixes personal reflection and biography, lyrics and prose, to tell the story of how the Empress of the Blues went from an orphan singing for nickels in Tennessee, to selling 780,000 copies of her debut record, to dying in a much-mythologised car crash in 1937, aged 43. The original was published in 1997 but this reprint, with a new introduction by the author, hasn’t dated a day.
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £9.99
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson
For years, DNA seemed to be a non-event. Unravelling the human genome was an extraordinary bit of science, but what to do with it? It was Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist, who helped find the answer. She developed a gene editing tool called Crispr that allows for efficacious tweaks of DNA which could counteract diseases from sickle cell anaemia to coronavirus. However, Crispr also opens the way to more morally tangled developments, such as designer babies. Walter Isaacson looks at the issues in the round and his compelling book is a mixture of biography, science guide and ethical primer.
Simon & Schuster, 560pp, £30
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross
The author’s third novel is a bold and bizarre story set over one day on a fictional Caribbean archipelago. In Popisho, everyone has a “cors” – some small piece of magic that is entirely their own. We follow star-crossed lovers Xavier, a master chef who can flavour food through the palms of his hands, and Anise, who learns of someone’s ailment simply by touching them. Ross spins delight from utter mayhem – at one point, the vulva of every woman on the island drops out of their bodies, for no apparent reason – resulting in a work that is unpredictable and wonderfully fearless.
Faber & Faber, 480pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold