Books: Paperbacks

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Sanders (Vintage, pounds 5.99) Set in a dystopian future - though, being America, it could even be the present - this darkly satirical collection of six short stories and a novella explores the common theme of false reality. We are plunged into the hallucinogenic world of artificial memories and gimcrack theme parks, such the sleazy CivilWarLand of the title story. This shifting territory has been well explored by writers from Michael Moorcroft to Ray Bradbury and in a host of science fiction films, but Sanders has an original voice and his insidious, twisted yarns lodge in your mind like illicit dreams.

Storms of Silence by Joe Simpson (Vintage, pounds 7.99) After two acclaimed mountaineering books, there is a sense of peak-fatigue in this work which yokes together high-altitude jaunts in Nepal and Peru. Simpson's particular shtick is being a tough-but-tender sort of guy, whether facing up to a drunk in Sheffield or slogging across alpine scree. But his moral qualms ("mountaineers are simply credit card adventurers") are undermined by self-dramatisation, He certainly can write, though he has trouble ordering his material. Seeing the site of a natural disaster in Peru prompts an inappropiate seven-page memoir about a teenage visit to Belsen.

Selected Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Penguin Classics, pounds 9.99) From passionate youth "Ay, Ay, as you say my Dear, Men are vile Inconstant Toads") to wise old age, Lady Mary is one of the most entertaining of all English letter writers. The famous set-pieces are here, such as descriptions of a female invasion of the House of Lords ("The Duchess of Queensbury ...pished at the ill-breeding of a mere lawyer") and a Turkish bath in Sofia ("I excus'd my selfe [by] opening my skirt and shewing them my stays"), alongside the fervent fusillade prompted by a mid-life infatuation with an Italian intellectual. Beautifully edited, these epistles glitter with wit and vitality.

The French by Theodore Zeldin (Harvill, pounds 7.99) This lengthy, amiable dissection of our mysterious, distrusted and envied neighbours has been constantly in print for 17 years. Most of its findings remain spot-on, though Bardot's 1983 statement that she "is now less demanding" has not proved to be the case. The 30 or so themes in the book are usually approached via profiles of individuals, which Zeldin fascinatingly expands: did you know that the French imported both kissing and handshaking from England? France becomes a more enjoyable and intelligible place to visit after reading this book, but the opaque cartoons serve as a reminder of the unbridgeable gulf between us.

Keeper of Genesis by Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock (Mandarin, pounds 6.99) In their first collaborative effort, these best-selling explorers of the arcane tackle the riddle of the Sphinx, which is usually dated to 2,50OBC. They suggest that it has been re-carved from a figure dating back to 10,500 BC. Together with the Great Pyramids, it may form an astronomical diagram from this time. The authors' speculations, based on the phenomenal engineering prowess of the ancient Egyptians, make irresistibly enthralling reading. Sadly, the book is marred by silly, strident language: "the time has come to seek the buried treasure of our forgotten genesis and destiny". Still, that's what the readers want.

Dared and Done: the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus (Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99) Julia Markus believes, quite rightly, that no amount of 20th-century demythologising can exise the romance from the relationship between the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Her lively account of their secret courtship in Wimpole Street and subsequent life in Italy has enough in the way of new angles (if not new data) to intrigue. As well as homing in on Elizabeth's drug addiction and gullible infatuation with spiritualism, she has an original explanation for Mr Barrett's famous refusal to allow his children to marry, linking it to his paranoid fear that the Afro-Caribbean blood in his family might surface in the form of a black grandchild.

The Pope's Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk (Minerva, pounds 7.99) A vast intoxicating binge of a historical novel, spiced with fine dark comedy and stunning erudition. Our Baltic hero gets caught up in the decadence and derring-do of the Renaissance papacy, c1500. The Pope craves a rhino, and the quest for the beast allows Norfolk to unleash a cornucopia of sub-plots and digressions. Grass and Eco spring to mind - but so do the mighty red herrings of Sterne.

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