The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon and Schuster)

Cruz Smith will probably always be most associated with his classic novel Gorky Park but he has written many other great books since then.

His latest is set in Venice in 1945 as the war comes towards a messy end.

Lagoon fisherman Cenzo tries to keep himself to himself but is dragged into murky waters when he comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon – and then finds she is still alive and in lots of trouble.

Giulia was born to a wealthy Jewish family and is now on the run from the SS. Rather than hand her over to the Nazis, Cenzo chooses to protect her – a move that leads them both into a world of danger and deception.

The first part of the story follows the days just after they meet. The later part of the book moves the action to Mussolini’s decadent puppet regime in Salo.

It is here that Cruz Smith’s tremendous ability to evoke a time and place – in this case a town where order is swiftly falling into chaos – really comes to the fore.

The Girl From Venice includes some memorable characters, including Cenzo’s brother Giorgio, at once self-serving, treacherous but perhaps also loyal at root to his brother.

The writing remains first class throughout. There are rare moments of extreme violence, which are the more shocking because the author does not signpost them in advance or describe them in massive detail.

The Girl From Venice is another excellent book from one of the best thriller writers in the business.

The Sudden Appearance Of Hope by Claire North (Orbit)

This is a really clever and interesting book from the author of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August.

Hope Arden lives a normal life until the age of 16 when, suddenly, people start to forget her. Her father forgets to pick her up from school and her mother sets the table for three, not four. She meets people but, minutes after they have stopped talking, they cannot remember they have ever met her.

Hope eventually forges out a new life, which involves gaining as much knowledge as possible (she can attend educational taster classes as many times as she wants as no-one remembers she's been there before) and theft (she can't get a job as her employer will have forgotten who she is the next day).

It's a lonely existence but she gains a fresh purpose when she learns about a new app - Perfection - which encourages people to eat, drink and shop in the 'best' places and rewards them for living the kind of lifestyle usually only enjoyed by rich celebrities.

But when someone she meets commits suicide because she feels that she is not worthy in this new 'perfect' world, Hope decides to destroy the company behind the app.

The action ranges across numerous locations and involves some dangerous characters who will do anything to stop Hope - if only they could find out who she is.

This is a fascinating novel which also asks some serious questions about identity and self-worth.

Shock And Awe by Simon Reynolds (Faber and Faber)

The era of glam and glitter rock is often regarded as a somewhat skin deep period of rock and roll history and perhaps seems an unlikely topic for a a serious study.

However, Simon Reynolds' super book does not just describe some of the movement's major artists but also examines in detail the influences that led to this explosion of colour and sound and puts them in the context of a complex and shifting social scene.

The opening chapter on Marc Bolan and T Rex is magnificent in recalling the early 1970s and just what an impact Bolan made on popular culture at that time.

There is much, of course, concerning David Bowie and his ever-changing artistic personas.

Other artists which feature heavily include Roxy Music, The Sweet, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the New York Dolls.

Slade warrant suitable coverage - they are often unfairly consigned to a footnote in rock history but for a couple of years they were huge.

I enjoyed the examination of the early career of Steve Harley - one of my favourite artists from that era - and also the sections on Mott The Hoople and 'shock rocker' Alice Cooper.

The latter's song Hello Hurray contains the line: 'Ready for the audience, who's coming here to dream' and Reynolds argues the glam era was a time when people sought escapism in music and at gigs and dizzying role models to hero worship.

The book raises fascinating questions about the nature of art, performance, identity and reality and is a great read, particularly for those who recall the early 1970s music scene.

Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts (Weidenfield and Nicholson)

I recently read this book, originally published in 2001, and found it fascinating. So, while it is not new, I would recommend getting hold of a copy. It would make an ideal gift for anyone interested in European history.

There have been hundreds of books about Napoleon and Wellington but Roberts' angle is to look at the relationship between the two great generals, who were both born in 1769 and became national heroes.

The two only met, albeit not face to face, on one day - June 18, 1815, at the battle of Waterloo. But their lives were intrinsically linked and what they said about each other - both publicly and privately - is hugely revealing.

Wellington commanded Britain's forces in Portugal and had great success against Napoleon's troops. Napoleon was dominant almost everywhere else in Europe at this time but the Peninsular War kept some of his troops tied up and gave hope to other nations that he could be defeated.

Napoleon praised Wellington's ruthlessness in private while publicly deriding him as a mere 'sepoy general'. In contrast, Wellington publicly lauded Napoleon, saying that his presence on a battlefield was worth 40,000 men, but privately wrote long memoranda lambasting Napoleon's campaigning techniques.

On the morning of the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon declared that the Duke of Wellington was a bad general, the British were bad soldiers and that France could not fail to have an easy victory. Forever afterwards historians have accused him of gross overconfidence, and massively underestimating the calibre of the British commander opposed to him.

However, Roberts takes a revisionist stance, arguing that Napoleon's generals were pessimistic on the day of battle and Napoleon had to do something to raise their morale. His words did not necessarily reflect his true feelings about Wellington's abilities.

After Napoleon was exiled to St Helena he did everything he could to criticise Wellington, who he wrongly believed had been instrumental in the decision to send him to the Atlantic island. Wellington, meanwhile, collected memorabilia relating to Napoleon, including statues that had once stood in his adversary's home.

This is a tremendous study of two intriguing characters, who were both driven and determined to ensure that their legacy was one of greatness.

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig (Canongate)

There has been a number of books in recent years which have focused on characters who break the usual conventions of time. If you like The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Time After Time by Kate Atkinson of The First 15 Lives Of Harry August by Claire North, then the chances are you will like How To Stop Time.

Its protagonist is Tom Hazard, who has a genetic anomaly - he might look 41 but, in fact, he ages incredibly slowly and is more than 400 years old.

He was around in Elizabethan England and survived the plague, spent time with Captain Cook in the South Seas and was a pianist in Jazz Age Paris.

But throughout that time has has had to keep his condition secret - as once people realise that he does not appear to get older, suspicions and prejudices step in and his life, and the lives of those he loves, are put in danger.

Now, weary and seeking a quiet life, he is working as a history teacher at a London secondary school, teaching people about a past he experienced and walking streets that have changed almost beyond recognition since he first saw them.

Adding to his problems is the fact he is part of a group of similar people, whose aim is to help each other but keep their condition secret - whatever that takes.

This is all good fun and Haig is good at revealing what it might feel like to have lived so long, have so many memories but see people you know grow old and die while you stay the same.

I was less convinced by the episodes where Hazard meets real historical figures like Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald - they seemed more there for effect rather than anything else.

However, How To Stop Time is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville (The Lutterworth Press)

BACK in 1973 a film crew and actors descended on the Lake District to make a full-length feature film of author Arthur Ransome's classic children's story Swallows and Amazons.

The group included 12-year-old Sophie Neville, who had been cast as imaginative Titty Walker, along with Virginia McKenna (as Mrs Walker) and Ronald Fraser (as Captain Flint).

Sophie's book focuses on the making of the film and how it influenced her life.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) will be of interest to anyone who has seen the film, but also to everyone who is a fan of Ransome and his famous book, which tells the story of a summer in 1929 when a group of children camp on an island in the Lake District, meet new friends and have lots of adventures exploring the wonderful landscape in this area.

Sophie Neville was encouraged by her mother to keep a diary during the seven weeks or so of filming and extracts from it are interspersed among her memories of the cast and crew. The book therefore gives a child's-eye view of filming, backed up by her adult perspective and knowledge gleaned from having since spoken to many of those involved with the creation of the film.

It was not an easy shoot. The weather was cloudy and unpredictable most of the time and the director had to try to make the most of any brief moments of sunshine.

It is clear that the child actors had great fun, fitting in filming scenes with sessions spent on school work.

The book offers insights into the exact locations where some scenes were filmed - including Windermere, Coniston Water, Peel Island, Elterwater and Derwentwater, plus a scene at Runnymeade.

This an enjoyable read that adds to the collective knowledge surrounding one of the country's best-loved children's stories.

l The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) is published by The Lutterworth Press. Sophie Neville is the current president of The Arthur Ransome Society.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre (Viking)

Spy novel supremo John Le Carre returns to some of his best-known characters in this terrific new book.

Peter Guillam, formerly of the British Secret Service, has retired to a farmstead in France but is called back to London when accusations are made by children of people who died during a Cold War operation back in the 1960s.

Guillam is at first defiant but is soon forced to accept that he must trawl through ancient documents to try to marshal a defence that he and former colleagues acted recklessly and illegally.

The early scenes in which Guillam tries to brazen it out but current Secret Service officers chillingly refuse to allow him to muddy the waters are chilling and beautifully-written.

The action weaves between modern times and the events surrounding one of Le Carre's earlier novels The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Le Carre fans will revel in the fact that A Legacy Of Spies includes fresh scenes involving characters like George Smiley, Bill Haydon, Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, Inspector Mendel and Smiley henchman Fawn.

Le Carre is one of the best writers around and this new book is a marvellous addition to his canon of spy novels.

Defectors by Joseph Kanon (Simon and Schuster)

This novel, set in Russia in 1961, brilliantly conjures up a world of fear, suspicion and betrayal surrounding a group British and American spies who defected at the height of the Cold War.

The story focuses on Simon Weeks, a former State Department officer who was forced to resign some years earlier when his brother, CIA agent Frank, defected to the Soviet Union.

Simon, now a successful New York publisher, get a surprising invitation from a Soviet agency to visit Russia to publish his brother's memoirs. It is an opportunity to see again the brother he hero-worshipped growing up - and to try to understand what motivated him to betray his country, colleagues and family.

There is a lot of dialogue in this book and you really need to read it in longish sessions to get into its rhythm. Do that and you will be rewarded by a chilling tale, where words spoken often have two meanings.

There is some fairly underplayed violence but the emphasis is more on character. And, as you might expect from a story featuring spies, things are rarely as they seem and there are some great twists and turns along the way.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham (Pan)

The hugely-popular television series Poldark is based closely on a series of books by Winston Graham.

I had not realised that the first in the series – Ross Poldark – was written as far back as 1945. It has a clear, crisp writing style and a pacy narrative style that feels much more modern.

The novel focuses on brooding an principled Ross Poldark, a young man who returns from the American Revolutionary war to find his father dead, his copper mine failing and his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful Elizabeth Chynoweth, engaged to his cousin.

There is a whole host of memorable and well-drawn characters, including Demelza, a half-starved urchin girl Ross rescues from a street brawl and takes home to be his kitchen maid. As the years pass and Demelza grows into a woman, she and Ross find love together.

The background to the story is the landscape and poverty of late eighteenth century Cornwall, the reliance of local people on the harvest of the sea and the unpredictable fortunes of the coastal mines.

Themes include the role of class in society and the fact that whether people are rich or poor their real wealth lies in their ability to make the most of life and to think about the needs of other people.