Books: Paperbacks

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Africa: a biography of the continent

by John Reader,

Penguin, pounds 14.99, 803pp

A BREATHTAKING idea, stunningly realised. So much about Africa is astonishing. It is the oldest land mass, dating back 3,600 million years. The first known life-forms came from here, as did earliest man. In modern times, Reader overturns a host of received opinions. Africa's most distinctive contribution to history, he says, has been "the art of living fairly peacefully together not in states". Equally, "Merrie Africa" was a myth: slavery was common prior to European exploitation. Reader also notes the prevalence of disease. A typical Nigerian banknote carries bacteria causing boils, sties and gastroenteritis.

10lb Penalty

by Dick Francis,

Pan, pounds 5.99, 307pp

IF YOU read Dick Francis for the gee-gees, you might be disappointed by his 36th novel, which strays from the racecourse into the less inviting corridors of No 10. At 17, Benedict Juliard's greatest ambition is to be a steeplechase jockey. His father, the good-looking and terrifyingly anal George, however, has other plans. With designs on parliament, he gets his son to help him in his bid to win a by-election. Within pages, Ben is charging round the country in a daisy-garlanded Range Rover, fending off West Country matrons, and even the odd murder attempt. Said to be inspired by that most unlikely of muses, John Major.

Sketches in Pen and Ink

by Vanessa Bell,

Pimlico, pounds 10, 214pp

A RARITY: a mass-market paperback which is also beautifully produced. The artist's memoirs reveal a beguilingly human side of the daunting Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa recalls with horror a black sequined frock ordered by her starchy half-brother George. She emphasises the ordinariness of much Bloomsbury chit-chat: "I wonder what those who imagine a rarified atmosphere of wit and intelligence would have made of the rather stiff young ladies to whom it did not occur not to talk about the weather". Irresistibly, she tells a girl's school: "What does it feel like to be an idiot and a revolutionary? It is really quite pleasant."


by Mary McGarry Morris,

Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99, 246pp

MARY MCGARRY Morris knows how to scare the pants off America's book-reading mothers. Republished 10 years after it was nominated for the National Book Award, Vanished tells the story of Aubrey Wallace (a slow-witted manual worker) and Dotty Johnson (a disturbed teenager) who disappear from a small Vermont town, snatching a toddler en route. Wring your hands as the blonde cutie grows up thinking of Dotty's pick-up truck as home, and developing a nice line in pink-eye and head lice. Not as good a writer as the Queen of Poor White Trash, Dorothy Allison, Mcgarry Morris's scenarios tend to make better film scripts than novels.

Getting Away With It: the inside story of Loaded

by Tim Southwell, Ebury,

pounds 9.99, 260pp

"I REMEMBER James being sick in a bin and it really smelling." A Proustian moment from this chronicle of high jinks in the lad's rag. Charmless and embarrassing, this must be one of the most tedious memoirs ever produced by the media world. The author emerges as an unmitigated prat. He boasts of "making lewd, bizarre remarks to people" after dropping acid at an awards ceremony, but pompously adds "there was nothing hallucinogenic about our success". No wonder that editor James Brown dropped Southwell after two years. There is only one thing more gormless than writing such puerile stuff: reading it.

Frida: a biography of Frida Kahlo

by Hayden Herrera,

Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99, 443pp

THE MEXICAN artist Frida Kahlo once admitted she had suffered two accidents in her life: a terrible streetcar crash at 18 which left her crippled and unable to bear children; and her marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera. Almost beautiful, with a wicked sense of humour, Kahlo dressed her fractured body in long Mexican costumes and poured her pain into her art. Reissued, with a new edition of her diaries, Herrera's richly illustrated biography cuts through the myths around Kahlo's life, and explains the woman who painted some of the most dramatic imagery of 20th-century art.

Scientific Blunders

by Robert Youngson,

Robinson, pounds 7.99, 338pp

THIS ENTERTAINING, if quirky book reminds us that scientists are also human. Newton "practically abandoned" science in his forties, devoting himself to "prophecies, magic and alchemy". Though regarded as the discoverer of oxygen, Priestley was "remarkably wrong-headed", sticking to his theory of "phlogiston", despite disproving it himself. Youngson's enlightening survey is bulked out by odd inclusions. Cavendish, who isolated hydrogen, appears merely because of his taciturnity. The book concludes that the rejection of religion by many scientists is "the greatest blunder of all".

Trial by Ordeal: one nurse's hell in a Saudi jail

by Lucy McLauchlan with William Paul, Mainstream pounds 9.99 223pp

IN AN attempt to clear her name, McLauchlan, one of the nurses tried for murder in Saudi Arabia, has unwittingly produced a book that reveals more about her herself than the system that convicted her. Her naivete is irritating rather than compelling, and her horror at the conditions in which she was kept ("Usual crap to eat... nothing happening") sounds like petulance. But it's impossible not to be disturbed by her account of police brutality, or not to sympathise with her desperate need to be believed. "I did the only thing [confess] I could do at the time" she says. "If people think I am stupid then fuck them...".

Napoleon: a biography

by Frank McLynn,

Pimlico, pounds 12.50, 739pp

THOUGH HIS subject is scarcely terra nova, McLynn's account is a triumph of lucid perception. Napoleon emerges as an unlikely hero - indecisive, neurotic, misogynistic, if "superabundantly endowed with intellect". McLynn scotches the notion that Napoleon was a tyrant like Hitler. But in one respect, they mirrored each other - each brought about his own downfall: "It is surprising that Napoleon's great name has survived the errors he committed [at Waterloo]." McLynn suggests the conflicting prescriptions of two British doctors, both manipulated by his enemies, killed the Emperor.

The Adventures of Brian

by Eric Thompson,

Bloomsbury, pounds 5.99, 168pp

FOR ANYONE born in the Sixties, the words "`Time for bed' said Zebedee" conjure up memories of marmite toast and the thrilling possibility of being allowed to stay up for Z Cars. Now published in their entirety, Eric (father of Emma) Thompson's transcripts of The Magic Roundabout will be lapped up by those erstwhile toddlers who showed a sophisticated appreciation of magic realism and psychedelic scenery. For the rest of us, it's the domestic detail that counts: Brian is said to be Thompson's alter ego, and Ermintrude was inspired by his wife, the actress Phyllida Law.