Books: Paperbacks

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W G Grace

by Simon Rae,

Faber, pounds 9.99,

548pp

COMMENTATORS CLUCK at the recent fashion for batsmen disputing the umpire's decision, but Rae reveals this is nothing new. In an 1896 game, W G refused to walk when clearly caught and only departed when two of his stumps were demolished. "Surely you're not going, Doc?" the bowler crowed. "There's still one stump standing." Normal rules never applied to the bearded panjandrum. One match was held up so that he could finish his medical exams. Rae's portrait of England's greatest all-rounder is an ideal companion for a soggy test match.

The She-Pope

by Peter Stanford,

Arrow, pounds 7.99,

205pp

AN ENGAGING rummage in the Vatican archives probing the existence of the semi-mythical Pope Joan. Though Stanford found no hard evidence, he maintains that a female pontiff, born in Mainz of English extraction, reigned from 853 until her cover was blown by pregnancy two years later. Bernini was also a believer, as revealed by a risque carving over the main altar in St Peter's. Perhaps the most significant indication of Joan's existence is a "pierced chair" used to examine the sexual apparatus of newly elected Popes until 1492.

Travolta: the life

by Nigel Andrews,

Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99,

346pp

LIVING PROOF that American lives do have second acts, Travolta was coasting downhill, providing voice-overs for the Look Who's Talking series, when Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction. An unforgettable performance, though Andrews reveals that the syringe-in-the-chest trick is unfeasible. Since then, the sky's been the limit. In this snappy biography, let down by poor editing, Andrews traces the surprising trajectory of Travolta's career. A true star and a fine actor, he seems to be universally admired and protected, but the Scientology business remains a mystery.

About a Boy

by Nick Hornby,

Indigo, pounds 6.99

286pp

A WHOLE new world of shagging opportunities opens when 36-year- old Will Freeman stumbles upon the life-changing realisation that some of north London's most attractive women are up for grabs - just by virtue of being single mums. Inventing a two-year-old and failed marriage of his own, Will starts attending a single parent support group, notching up a result sooner than you can say picnic in the park. Wall-to-wall blokeish good humour and Nineties savvy make Hornby's third novel a must-read book for the non-nuclear family.

The Catastrophist

by Ronan Bennett,

Review, pounds 6.99,

312pp

JAMES GILLESPIE, an Irish historian turned novelist, arrives in the Congo in 1960 just in time to see history in the making. He also arrives too late to save his relationship with a young Italian journalist - a woman who, in his absence, has transferred her energies to the cause of rebel leader Patrice Lumumba. While neither of the characters is sympathetic, the author is, and the cooling of Ines and James's relationship is told in painful, intimate detail. Like his fellow Irishman Brian Moore, Bennett isn't afraid to mix love and history.

The Migration of Ghosts

by Pauline Melville,

Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99, 209pp

SPIRITS ARE abroad in Pauline Melville's collection of short stories. Her ghostly apparitions include a dead South American dictator (remembering his not-so-noble student days at the LSE); a depressed wife who dramatically humiliates her husband at a Guildhall banquet in front of Gordon Brown; and a famous mime artist with one foot in the death camps. As exotic a read as her award-winning novel The Ventriloquist's Tale, Melville switches continents, moods and bodies without missing a beat. One of the most enjoyable collections out this spring.

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