Click to follow
The Independent Culture
! The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leakey, Phoenix pounds 4.99. Physical anthropology owes a great deal to the Leakey family, who blazed two previously contested, now generally accepted trails. One is that humanity originated in Africa (Darwin first suggested this) while the other traces the split between the human line and the apes to a relatively recent date - 5 to 7 million years ago instead of Darwin's guess of 20 million. But Kenyan Richard Leakey, the author of this useful, well-written introduction to the evolution of the body and mind, is a man of action as well as a scientist. The former head of the Kenya National Museums and controversial Director of its Wildlife Service has now become a politician in opposition to his former friend President Moi. So it's interesting that he believes the evolution of self-consciousness depended on an ability to use "tactical deception".

! The Blue Woman by Mary Flanagan, Abacus pounds 6.99. Flanagan's territory is Irish-America and London, with excursions to Greece, where she adds to the literature of holiday paranoia in the excellent title story. This is an impressive, ambitious collection which visits a variety of inner landscapes, from that of an abused American child to the lusty inhabitants of an Essex old folks' home. Some stories turn on the awareness of sexual threat, or the failure to recognise it. Others articulate the fear and fascination of ageing and the tyranny of the body's image.

! The First World War by Martin Gilbert, HarperCollins pounds 9.99. Images of mud, gas and gore on the Western Front mean we forget the other active fronts: the Dolomites, the Caucasus, Northern Russia, Poland, the Balkans, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Persia, Palestine, Turkey, Tripoli, Romania and the North Atlantic. Gilbert tells the whole story, from Sarajevo to Versailles, in clear, concise terms which are both unsensational and deeply compassionate. He adds much to the store of memorable images: the Kaiser in his uniform as a British Admiral of the Fleet on the day of the Grand Duke's assassination; a son killed next to his father in the trenches at Gallipoli; the captain of the Lusitania washed from the bridge as a thousand of his passengers drown. Epic narrative history.

! Rushing to Paradise by J G Ballard, Flamingo pounds 5.99. Battling for the soul of Saint-Esprit, an atoll threatened by the not-so-pacific plans of the French military, the ruthless Dr Barbara leads an environmentalists' invasion of the island. But this is a novel that twice changes gear, and in Dr Barbara's choice of the albatross as an indigenous bird put at particular risk by French policy we see Ballard's tongue probing further into his cheek. When the island is abandoned by the French, the invaders settle down to live there as a utopian experiment. But the novel now changes gear again, and paradise lurches into dystopia, a small-scale killing field. "Nothing provokes people more," says Dr Barbara, early on, "than acting from the highest motives.".

! The Life & Death of Petra Kelly by Sara Parkin, Pandora pounds 9.99. In 1992 the German green politician Petra Kelly (b 1947) was shot by her lover Gert Bastian, who then killed himself. This book is both a memorial and an explanation of her death: Parkin believes Bastian, a former Bundeswehr general who embraced the green cause, feared the imminent publication of his Stasi file. Kelly worked for Bobby Kennedy and Humphrey; her stepfather was an officer in the Nam-era US army; she found herself in Prague during the Russian invasion; she postgraduated in "alternative" Amsterdam. Her ideas came from belief in non-violence and hatred of the nuclear industry, two defining strands of the Sixties.

! Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years, a Memoir 1946-1965 by Wole Soyinka, Minerva pounds 6.99. For his opposition to the military regime, Nigeria's most famous writer is once again in "undeclared exile". It's tempting to say exile must be good for him if it produces books as life-enhancing as this one. "Faction" is his own description, since he compresses, enlarges and reshapes events as he chooses. I suspect he would trade all his literary skills for democracy and justice in Nigeria. Since he can't, be grateful for his unparalleled gifts.