Books: Paperbacks

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The Greatest Benefit to Mankind

by Roy Porter,

Fontana, pounds 14.99,

833pp

PORTER'S EPIC braids together the history of medicine with an account of how disease exploited man's restless motion round the planet. Typhus entered Europe with the Crusades, while Columbus "unleashed the worst health disaster" ever. As preventative medicine, Cicero's advice from the 1st century BC sounds uncannily familiar: "Take moderate exercise and just enough food to restore strength". In a prescient view of psycho- spiritualism, Porter notes it "uncannily echoes the victim-blaming doctrines of the moral majority". Feeling well, Mr Hoddle?

Blind Date

by Frances Fyfield,

Corgi, pounds 5.99,

413pp

LIKE CHARACTERS in a PD James novel, Frances Fyfield heroine's aren't like anyone you've ever met. The central character of her latest murder mystery is Elisabeth Kennedy, a disgraced ex-police officer who lives alone in a converted London bell-tower. Convalescing from two traumas: the death of her beautiful younger sister, followed by a life-threatening accident of her own, Elisabeth relies on best friend Patsy. While Patsy regales her with stories of her dating adventures, Elisabeth awaits another gentleman caller - her sister's killer. London's lonely hearts get lonelier.

Seeds of Change

by Henry Hobhouse,

Papermac, pounds 12, 381pp

NEWLY EXPANDED, this classic work explores the far-reaching impact of quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, the potato and now the coca plant. A wonderful read, provocative and well-informed. Pursuing the story of cocaine, Hobhouse notes: 1) Distances in the Andes were measured by the cocada - how long it took to chew a quantity of coca leaves; 2) The success of Coca-Cola, which once "undoubtedly contained cocaine", partly stems from its popularity as a post-coital douche (users maintain neither Diet Coke nor Pepsi are as efficacious); 3) All Hollywood knew that Popeye's "spinach" was cocaine.

Leaving Earth

by Helen Humphreys,

Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99, 214pp

BASING HER novel on actual events in the Thirties, Canadian poet Helen Humphreys tells the story of female aviators Grace O'Gorman and Willa Briggs, who fly over Toronto in an attempt to set a new endurance record. Set largely in the cockpit of a small Tiger Moth, you keep reading to see how the author will keep the women's relationship, and the reader's interest, airborne over 25 days. The novel's breathtaking descriptions of Canada's open spaces, and even wider skies, are grounded in plenty of authentic-sounding aeronautical know-how (and the logistics of excreting at high altitude). Poetry in motions.

A Recipe for Bees

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz,

Virago, pounds 9.99, 311pp

SET IN rural British Columbia, Gail Anderson-Dargatz's second novel reads like a candy-flossed version of Carol Shield's The Stone Diaries. Switching between a Little House on the Prairie-like past, and more comfortable present, the book tells the story of Augusta Olsen, married at 18 and left to repent in leisure. It's only when she resurrects her mother's bee-keeping equipment that life on the range starts to buzz with possibilities: 60 years on she's still harvesting the benefits. Well-written hokum: the reader's only stumbling block is sorting out Olafs from Olsens.

Culture of Complaint

by Robert Hughes, Harvill, pounds 6.99, 177pp

A FIERCELY articulated, if somewhat rambling polemic against the dictatorship of the bien-pensants, particularly those with academic tenure. Hughes rails against PC language ("the old American love of euphemism"), while noting that "the old division of left and right has come to look more like two Puritan sects". He is telling on his home turf of the art- world, attacking would-be censors of the right, but reserving his bitterest words for the museum directors who beatified Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bracing stuff, but sometimes Hughes indulges in invective at the cost of clarity.

A Certain Justice

by PD James,

Penguin, pounds 5.99, 482pp

THE CONFIDENT manner in which the first victim is announced in the first sentence (though the event does not take place until page 130), the limpid prose, the taut construction - all confirm that a titan of the murder genre is on peak form. James uses the musty milieu of Middle Temple to excellent effect. There is an ample supply of suspects when the body ofQC Venetia Aldridge is discovered by her clerk: "What met his eyes was so bizarre in its horror that he stood rooted in disbelief...". Commander Dalgliesh negotiates a legal labyrinth, its morality as murky as the gaslit alleyways.

War of Words: women and men arguing

by Elizabeth Mapstone,

Vintage, pounds 7.99, 360pp

IGNORE THE ludicrous cover puff ("all you need to know about arguments to win"). Based on the immodestly named Mapstone Argument Questionaire (MAQ), the author surveys 57 varieties of argy-bargies, from lovers' tiffs and family feuds to bust-ups with bosses. Though she argues against stereotyping, Mapstone still sends round her "old-fashioned, gentlemanly" husband to sort out disputes with neighbours. She says happy couples "relate to each other as individuals rather than as representatives of the other sex". Surely an element of vive la difference is central to heterosexual partnerships?

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