Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Culture
Good Benito by Alan Lightman (Sceptre, pounds 5.99)

Lab technicians headed for the bookstores when M.I.T. professor Alan Lightman's first novel Einstein's Dreams came out. His second - a sweet nerd-comes-of-age story set in surburban Memphis - shows that physicists too have a heart. Quirky and imaginative. But the very short sentences. Get on your nerves.

Aunt Margaret's Lover by Mavis Cheek (Faber, pounds 5.99)

On the death of her sister (whose body has ended up scattered all over the motorway) Margaret Percy selflessly devotes her life to caring for her niece. Then at the age of 39, decides it is time for a romantic adventure of her own. A little high on the ''I'm nearly 40 and wearing a short skirt!'' factor, but a yarn well spun none the less.

The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine (Sceptre, pounds 5.99)

The residents of Pequot, New England, live in picture postcard white clapboards, jog on the beach and frequent Helen MacFarquar's bookstore. Captive to Helen's charms is a handsome college student and sure enough, 150 pages on, we are treated to pasta and some Mrs Robinson-type sex. Enjoyable schmaltz.

A Child of Air by Alan Clews (Headline, pounds 5.99)

Alan Clews's first novel is an old-fashioned ghost story of rolling mists, Scottish lairds, and something nasty behind the curtains. Returning to the remote village of Millarston for a family funeral, the book's narrator finally discovers the identity of the figure who haunted his childhood dreams. Cue roaring fires.

Grey Area by Will Self (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

Will Self, like John Updike, is the kind of writer women shouldn't spent too much time around. In his second collection of short stories, his cold eye ponders with clinical detachment their chaffing tights and dirty M & S underwear. Men will love these slick stories. Women will consider them a lot more cock and bull.

Spies and Other Secrets by Nicholas Bethell (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

Bethell's extended ''war against the Soviet System'' did not begin well. His 1970 translation of Cancer Ward resulted in libel action against Private Eye (he won) and an angry disavowal by Solzhenitsyn (the edition remains in print). Later campaigns on behalf of dissidents had happier results. More case documentary than vivid memoir.

A Dishonoured Society by John Follain (Warner, pounds 8.99)

A soberly related, gore-spattered indictment of the Mafia. In thrall to the Sicilian saying ''Blood washes blood'', the Cosa Nostra (as it is known to insiders) is obsessed by vengeance and deeply conservative - men whose mothers or sisters have had a lover are excluded - yet earns pounds 5 billion a year from drugs alone and seems impervious to state control.

Attila, King of the Huns by Patrick Howarth (Constable, pounds 9.95)

Enjoyable racy account of the 5th century nomad leader - a decent sort of chap apparently - who conquered a vast swathe of the Roman Empire from Orleans to Constantinople. Attila ruled for just eight years, dying not in war but of a burst artery sustained on his honeymoon night. A colourful cast of eunuchs and princesses emerges from this obscure period.

Aspects of Aristocracy by David Cannadine (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

Impeccably sourced and researched, Cannadine's essays on the upper orders are fuelled by a deep distaste for the nostalgia and snobbery which permeate Britain today (he notes how our national airline calls business class ''Club''). The reassessment of reputations is effective with, amongst others, Curzon and Churchill emerging in less than flattering light.

Letters to a Young Politician by Alister McAlpine (Faber, pounds 6.99)

A curious espistolary concoction based on Machiabelli: a wordly-wise, cynical old hack dishes out political advice to his thrusting nephew who turns out to be even more cynical than he is. The pols loved its purring, in-the-know tone. It reveals much about the machinations of Westminster, but few outsiders will be able to read far without feelings of nausea.

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