BOOKS: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
Wrinkles in Time by George Smoot (Abacus, pounds 8.99)

Ripples in cosmic radiation, detected in 1992 by a scientific team led by the author, explain why galaxies are patchily spread through the universe. They also provide strong evidence for the Big Bang theory of creation, first advanced as early as 1927 by a Belgian priest. Einstein subsequently acknowledged his own belief in a static universe was "the biggest blunder of my life". In fact, Smoot discovered that our galaxy is whizzing through space at over a million mph. A readable combination of cosmological theory, history of science and adventure yarn. Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts (Phoenix, pounds 7.99)

Despite its heavy-sounding title, this is the best sort of history - revealing, gossipy and acidulous. These debunking studies concern figures prominent during the Churchill era. Backed up by meticulous research, Roberts makes a blistering case for the prosecution. He reveals the Royal Family's support of appeasement in the Thirties and how Tory hatred of Churchill continued well into the war. Mountbatten is savaged for his headstrong pride which cost thousands of lives. Convincing and ruthless, this is history with the gloves off.

The Lure of the Sea by Alain Corbin (Penguin, pounds 8.99)

Ignored since classical times, the seaside became an obsession for the Romantic generation of the late 18th century. This richly detailed study shows how the fashion for the picturesque, the Grand Tour and the invigorating properties of the North Sea combined to rehabilitate the littoral. We learn, incidentally, that leering through lorgnettes became a male pastime whenever a female ankle emerged from a bathing machine. The book is marred by an overly academic style, with phrases such as "modes of coenaesthetic appreciation".

The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Alfred Appel Jnr (Penguin, pounds 11)

Since Nabokov's other masterpiece, Pale Fire, came complete with cod critical apparatus provided by the author, Appel feels obliged to point out that (despite the name) he is no Nabokovian invention. His keen-eyed elucidation, running to 200 pages, teases a host of hidden subtleties from "the most allusive novel since Ulysses". Lotita, we learn, is a diminutive of Dolores, meaning Sorrow and linked both to the Virgin Mary and (via Swinburne) to the well-endowed god Priapus. Full of insights.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (Minerva, pounds 6.99) This munificent novel is based around Pelagia, the feisty daughter of a doctor on the island of Cephallonia, as the daily comedy of Aegean life is overwhelmed by the savage drama of the Second World War. When the genial Italian invader Corelli is billeted on her, Pelagia's loathing slowly turns to affection, before violence rips the community apart. After surviving a German firing squad, the wounded Corelli flees the island. Pelagia grows old alone - but de Bernieres is generous enough to provide a happy ending. Reef by Romesh Gunesekera (Granta, pounds 5.99)

This brief first novel from a word-magician, shortlisted for the Booker, is perfect beach reading. Banished from his family, 11-year-old Triton becomes cook-housekeeper to Mr Salago, a languid oceanographer. Triton's coming of age in prelapsarian Seventies Sri Lanka is told in a series of intensely realised set pieces which convey the enervating heat, shimmering tides and, not least, sensual cuisine of the island. But Arcadia is fraying, its reefs pounded up for cement, its political mayhem ever more intrusive. A book that lives with the reader for days.

Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie (Minerva 6.99)

Lurie's ghosts are refreshingly postmodern. They take up hiding in crystal blue swimming pools, iceboxes and colonial-style living rooms, and adopt the corporeal forms of academics and gay construction workers. They are also visible - as you will have gathered - only to the more intuitive sex. Unusually for ghost stories, Lurie's tales rely little on suspense or atmosphere. What sends a chill down the spine is their unerringly accurate reading of the female heart.

How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays by Umberto Eco (Minerva 6.99) Reading this collection - or "Diario minimo" - one imagines Eco in his Milanese apartment inputting amusing reflections into a sleek Olivetti Micro-Pro. It includes such deliciously Italian problems as How to Eat Ice Cream, Replace a Driver's Licence (call a "Highly Placed Person at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles") and Use the Coffeepot from Hell (without scalding your genitals). The salmon is a bit more complicated to explain.

Come and Tell Me Some Lies by Raffaella Barker (Penguin 5.99) Not unlike Esther Freud (daughter of the painter), Raffaella Barker (daughter of the poet, George) tracks the trials of growing up with "bohemian" parents - parents less keen on regular meals and strict bedtimes, and more interested in red Martinis and unconventional couplings. The resulting "nostalgia- tinted" snap-shots of the author's childhood in an unheated Norfolk farmhouse could not be more deftly composed.

Now That You're Back by AL Kennedy (Vintage 5.99) It always takes a few pages to work out where you're being taken in an AL Kennedy short story. It's usually somewhere chilly, grey and depressing, like a deserted taxi-rank or a badly lit bedsit. The characters' internal landscape will be as bleak as their surroundings. "You're going to slide over the edge just as smoothly as a coffin going backstage at the crematorium", a girl tells herself in one story - and by the end of the collection, you know exactly how she feels.

Mrs Hartley and the Growth Centre by Philippa Gregory (Penguin 5.99) Alice, the heroine of this New Age satire, wears gypsy shawls and popsocks and believes in the healing power of elderflower champagne and sex. So when her professor husband seduces a young student, it goes without saying that she does the same thing. Unlike him, though, Alice is generous with her good fortune, and at her "Growth Centre", offers other faculty wives the services of her eager young lover, plus cheap essence-of-sperm for their skin.

The Long Sleep: Young People and Suicide by Kate Hill (Virago 9.99)

Every month in the UK, suicide accounts for the deaths of about 70 people aged 15-24, and at least 55 of these are young men. The reasons for the dramatic increase in the past 20 years and the glaring gender difference are both looked at in this well-written and researched study. The author's own brother committed suicide five years ago, and the book speaks intelligently to everyone: those who have attempted suicide and those bereaved by it.