Book: Paperbacks

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The Life of Thomas More

by Peter Ackroyd,

Vintage, pounds 8.99, 435pp

IT ONLY seems two minutes since his excellent life of Blake, but don't be put off by the relentless productivity of Ackroyd Industries Ltd. This is a wonderful portrait of the great lawyer and his milieu. Versatile and intelligent, More seems close to us in many ways. His concerns ranged from sewers to care of the insane. His wit is revealed by the mulberry (morus in Latin) in his Chelsea garden. Yet he was vigorous in burning heretics, remarking that the soul of one "went strayte from the shorte fyre to ye fyre euerlasting." Far from being a man for all seasons, More's unswerving traditionalism cost him his head.

Toward the End of Time

by John Updike,

Penguin, pounds 6.99, 344pp

JOHN UPDIKE's latest novel has a futuristic tinge. Set in 2020, America has recently been at war with China. The rest of New England may be in upheaval, but retired banker, Ben Turnbull, safe within the walls of his second wife's well-tended home, still enjoys the privileges of his adopted class: golf, a good health plan and adulterous sex. As usual, Updike's aphorisms can't be bettered (on marriage: "a mental game of thrust and parry played on the edge of the grave"), though some of the novel's SF moments (such as time travel to Ancient Egypt) have you impatient to return to Boston and the local store.

The Mask of Command

by John Keegan,

Pimlico, pounds 12.50, 366pp

DESPITE ITS offputting sub-title "A Study of Generalship", this work by the UK's finest military historian will enthral anyone who reads even a single page. Packed with fascinating detail, it is, in fact, a study of the heroic ethic as variously embodied by Alexander the Great ("theatricality was at the very heart of his style"), Wellington ("the most perfect embodiment of the gentlemanly ideal"), Ulysses S Grant (brave, pathologically modest, he is Keegan's own hero) and Hitler ("a charade of false heroics"). Keegan concludes that in a nuclear age, leaders "must find conviction to play the hero no more."

The Teardrop Story Woman

by Catherine Lim,

Orion, pounds 6.99, 392pp

PORK DUMPLINGS and Second Grandmothers don't always guarantee Wild Swans-type sales figures, but the latest family saga from Catherine Lim - one of Singapore's most prolific novelists - lives up to its oriental promise. Set in a small town in occupied Malaya, the novel relates the story of its Chinese heroine Mei Kwei, who meets bad luck at every turn. Almost abandoned at birth for being female, she ends up married to to a local restaurateur (preparing roast beef dinners for the remaining white population) while secretly pining for the arms of the local French priest.

The Devil's Chimney

by Anne Landsman,

Granta, pounds 6.99, 276pp

GIN AND large dogs are the only two things that mean much to Connie, a South African farmer's wife stuck out in a dusty corner of the veldt. That's until she starts hallucinating about Miss Beatrice, a turn-of-the- century ostrich farmer whose green dress is preserved in the local museum. Connie, who goes as far as re-imagining the long dead woman's erotic fantasies (involving three-way sex with the servants), is as much poisoned by life in South Africa as by her own self-loathing. Atmospheric and fantastical, Anne Landsman's impressive first novel buzzes with creative energy and an eccentric wit.

Eating the Flowers of Paradise

by Kevin Rushby,

Flamingo, pounds 7.99, 322pp

QAT IS the Yemen's biggest cash crop, though this soporific herb receives no mention in the government handbook. Rushby's meandering pursuit of the drug has resulted in a travel classic. This unlikely mix of Chatwin, Waugh and Leary is not to be missed. His pages throng with quirky characters. With a welcome lack of prevarication, Rushby does not disguise his fondness for the leaves (they are chewed), which induce: "quiet contemplation and calm... tinged with sadness". Helpfully, he concludes with a buyer's guide. One feels tempted to hop on the next plane to San'a. Incidentally, qat is legal in Britain.

The Angel of Darkness

by Caleb Carr,

Warner, pounds 6.99, 808pp

REINTRODUCING PSYCHIATRIST and sleuth Dr Laszlo Kreizler, Caleb Carr's follow-up to his best-selling novel The Alienist luxuriates in the enervating heat of a New York summer. It's 1897 and the young daughter of a Spanish diplomat goes missing in Central Park. She's later spotted on a train in the company of a sinister-looking woman. The author's wonderfully confident recreation of fin-de-siecle New York (al fresco lunches in University Place, carriage rides through Sheep Meadow) is what lifts this satisfying period thriller of child murders and gangsters out of the ordinary.

High Concept

by Charles Fleming,

Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99, 294pp

ADDICTED TO sex, food, cosmetic surgery and, fatally, drugs, film producer Don Simpson was largely responsible for the tumble in Hollywood standards over the past decade. He invented a template for schlockbusters known as "high concept": a film that can be described in one sentence. The result was a series of empty, glossy crowd-pleasers, peaking with Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun. Fleming's relentless probing of this grotesque figure is scarcely elevating - we learn Simpson suffered infection after penile enhancement and 2,000 pills were found in his home after his death at 51 - but it's an addictive read.