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! A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking, Bantam £6.99. The history of this advanced hitch-hiker's guide to everything has been anything but brief: after seven years of phenomenal hardback sales, it's at last in paperback. Hawking is excellent in the first part of the book, inviting us to grapple serially with the curved universe and the "twins paradox" in relativity theory, the particle/wave duality of quantum physics and the uncertainty principle. But when treading the wilder shores of string theory, imaginary numbers and his own discoveries about the energy emissions of black holes, he becomes distinctly hard to follow. If I've got it right, his final position is that the Universe is a finite, four-dimensional space, but without boundaries.

! The Folding Star by Alan Holling-hurst, Vintage £5.99. Last year's Booker shortlist is now emerging week by week in paperback. Hollinghurst's contender, said to have come a close second to Kelman, tells of an English tutor, resonantly named Edward Manners, who comes to work in a small Belgian town. In vigorous, witty prose, we are told how he falls for Luc, his 17-year-old pupil, while at the same time becoming interested in the life and work of an obscure fin-de-sicle Flemish artist. The sudden explosions of rough gay sex heighten rather than undermine the clever, Jamesian tone.

! Machiavelli's Children by Edward Pearce, Gollancz £7.99. The narrow- eyed sage from The Guardian and The Moral Maze gives here a series of readings in modern history, reinterpreting the cold-blooded pragmatism of Niccolo Machiavelli, for whom "a prince must learn to be other than good", via the careers of modern "princes" Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Peron, Franco, Thatcher, Sharon and others. Machiavelli's times, though harsh, were a picnic compared to Auschwitz, the Gulags and the des-aparecidos of the Argentine, but Pearce's analysis leaves you in no doubt that Old Nick would cheer to find his pragmatic precepts ageing so well.

! The Lonely Leader: Monty 1944-5 by Alistair Horne with David Mont-gomery, Pan £6.99 and The Battles of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery by Nigel Hamilton, Hodder £14.99. Montgomery was a short, impatient man who radiated a peculiar sense of emotional isolation. The Americans who worked with him thought he was a son of a bitch, yet he is the only British general since Wellington to win and sustain the label National Hero. In the first of these very readable studies, Monty's son joins a fine historian to summarise his father's last campaigning year; the second is a compressed version of Hamilton's three-volume biography, concentrating on the battles. They don't add to what is known, but both well demonstrate Monty's ability to inspire Other Ranks and/or non-Americans. He was capable of affection, loyalty, compassion and great generosity - qualities which, if more consistently applied, might have made him come down as a nicer man. But nicer men don't win more battles.

! The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability by Paul Hawken, Phoenix £7.99. Capitalism survived the Marxist assault because communism, it turned out, exploits humanity even more than free markets. Now the only direction for the discredited Left is to focus on planetary survival rather than human rights, so it's a pity the "Military-Industrial Complex" (nostalgic phrase, that) hardly rates the Greens as formidable as the Tribune Group, let alone the Viet Cong. Somehow, the confetti of obsessions that is the Environmental Movement must coalesce round the core issue: how to stop economic life harming the planet. Hawken's book is a clever and original attempt to show the way.

! Unsustainable Positions by Esther Selsdon, Abacus £5.99. The author biog is a real come-on: "Esther Selsdon is a criminal barrister and a trapeze artist." In fact swinging, rather than law, is the subject of this first novel, whose three main characters - witches, graces, monkeys - are a spectrum of women's sexuality. Felicity is what men like to call a nympho, incessantly researching zipless experiences with various bohunks and (once) a minotaur. Madeleine is stranded anxiously in the married state, while Eliza floats between the two, suffering from an unfortunate tendency to fall in love. The book is structurally chaotic, but the jokes and predicaments are very funny.

! Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble by Karl Taro Greenfeld, Boxtree £7.99. Greenfeld, a Jewish-American-Japanese with a keen interest in lowlife, begins by explaining that Tokyo, with its 20 million bottled- up citizens, is awash with money in search of a good time. For hustlers it is the most pulsating market in the world. But whether it's a techno- clubbing office girl, a porn video star (for whom nothing's simulated), a bosozoku (Japan-ese Hell's Angel), a hostess drinking scotch all night with drooling businessmen, a debt-collector for the mob, a drug pusher or a hard-right revolutionary, the provision of excitement is serious business. These brilliant pieces about modern Japanese youth culture are part reportage and part fiction, written without flashy tricks but with deep conviction.