Books: Paperbacks

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Ribbentrop by Michael Bloch, Bantam pounds 9.99. 'The sore vanity of a peacock in permanent moult' was Sir Robert Vansittart's description of the social-climbing wine merchant who became the Third Reich's sales-rep in London, Hitler's Foreign Minister and, ultimately, an executed war criminal. This thorough, sardonic life of a man who was a laughing stock in diplomatic circles is particularly interesting in showing how 'Brickendrop' believed the best way to woo British public opinion was to allow himself to be patronised by Nazi-inclined English aristocrats.

Memories of the Ford Administration by John Updike, Penguin pounds 5.99. The historian hero Alf Clayton is invited to contribute to a symposium of memories of Gerald Ford's tenure of the White House, but 'the more I think about the Ford Administration the more it seems I remember nothing'. So he compiles instead a chronicle of erotic adventures during the three years in question, interleaved with passages from his rather pompous, unfinished work about an earlier (no more memorable) president, James Buchanan. The resulting sprightly Nabokovian hybrid will delight Updike's disciples.

Mrs Shakespeare: The Complete Works by Robert Nye, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Anne Hathaway's account of her 'only visit' to her sweet-toothed, sweet-talking but physically unappealing husband in London. And a sexy week they have of it, in the palatial bed he's been given by the Earl of Southampton (aka Mr W H ) for poetical and sexual services - hence the famous 'second- best' (Stratford-based) bed in Will's will. The wife's commentary on her husband is pleasantly scathing, but Nye's original short story becomes rather overstretched as a novel.

For God, Country and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergrast, Phoenix pounds 12.99. Coke was invented as a quack nerve tonic by an Atlanta morphine addict. Today Big Red, the maker of 'America's secular communion wine', has the economic muscle of a medium-sized country. With wit and insight, Pendergrast takes us through the endless battles over cocaine and caffeine, the war with Pepsi, the penetration of Russia, the disastrous attempt at 'New Coke'. He's even discovered the original formula itself, supposed to be one of the world's most inaccessible secrets.

Afternoon Raag by Amit Chaudhuri, Minerva pounds 4.99. This very short second novel has a self- effacing narrator - an Indian university student in Britain - and a minimal story, aiming instead for the evocation of memories and moods. Locations - Oxford, Bombay, rural India - are skilfully described by the gradual accretion of details and impressions, not unlike a very high- quality travel book.

The Japanese by Joe Joseph, Penguin pounds 6.99. A slick overview of the world's newest superpower by the former Times correspondent to Tokyo. Joseph keeps a cool head amid the madness of work-worship, xenophobia, overcrowding, child suicides, sumo wrestling, dental hygienists for dogs, endurance TV game shows and 'home- phobia'. He points to some puzzles - the Japanese dislike foreigners but love foreign travel; are self-indulgent but hung up on discipline; revere tradition but worship innovation - but doesn't really try to solve them.

The Diversity of Life by Edward O Wilson, Penguin pounds 7.99. Wilson's is a sobering message passed on with intoxicating enthusiasm. With all the vigour of a Victorian clergyman-botanist, he plunges into the teeming cauldron of nature to find evidence for his oracular generalisations: 'Biodiversity is our most valuable but least appreciated resource' is the linchpin of his argument. The paucity of our knowledge about the biological mystery of life (it might have got no further than one mono-cellular creature covering the earth) means we have very little idea how the planet's ecological engine works, yet our century's blind extinguishment of species continues at holocaust levels - 10,000 times faster than would be natural.

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow, Viking pounds 9.99. In Turow's third memorandum from the world of legal angst, a rather thoughtful psychological novel exchanges fluids with an efficient formula thriller. Alcoholic law partner Mack Molloy is charged with tracking down a missing dollars 5m of his firm's money. The more he learns about the mystery the more bemused he becomes by the puzzle of his own character.

Song from the Forest by Louis Sarno, Corgi pounds 6.99. The author, an American adrift in the world, became obsessed with the music of central African pygmies and journeyed to the most remote group he could find to record it. In a book worthy of the tradition of Thesiger and his Marsh Arabs, Sarno recounts his passionate involvement with these forest-dwellers, whose lives are caught between materialism and magic.

Haughey: His Life and Unlucky Deeds by Bruce Arnold, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. There was something of the dictator in the last Taoiseach: he wanted, says Arnold, 'absolute power'. Haughey's countrymen were passionately divided on him: most would agree he was a demagogue, a showman, a parvenu, a drinker, a bully, a Jack-the-lad, a sportsman. But his followers saw him as an awesome force of nature, fearless and inspired, while his detractors point to his massive wealth (never satisfactorily explained), his political judgement (flawed and erratic), and his aggressive attitude to criticism.

Virtual Light by William Gibson, Viking pounds 9.99. Gibson's stylish and pacy articulation of his fictional near-future America hardly ever flirts with abstraction. It consciously mimics a computer game, so that each new level in the plot reveals not some higher-order truth, but instead a new accretion of concrete detail. This linear piecing-together of Gibson's dystopia is just one of the pleasures of his SF thriller.

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