! Ireland and the Irish by John Ardagh, Penguin pounds 7.99. "Ireland has always been a special case." From his opening sentence, Ardagh adopts that hazy focus on Ireland which normally steals over the eyes as a fourth Crested Ten slips down. Every country is a special case, you want to shout, particularly when selling itself to a bemused foreign journalist. Plodding its way through the Irish stereotypes to test them for veracity, the book is larded with I've-been-there pronouncements such as "I liked Northern Ireland much better than I expected". Well, that's all right then. There are undoubtedly insights to be had here, but you'd learn almost as much from Roddy Doyle's Barrytown books and have a better time.
! East, West by Salman Rushdie, Vintage pounds 5.99. For readers intimidated by the author's weightier output, these short stories provide an entirely reader-friendly introduction to Rushdie. The title indicates where the points of his twin compasses are planted: East is represented by three marvellously simple tales set in his native country and West by a trio of more allusive, Eurocentred fictions. The final, previously unpublished three stories are about East-West, the Asian experience of England, the place where the compasses are screwed together. The lovely cadences of the prose and very funny dialogue make this book an unmixed delight.
! You'll Never Be Here Again by Mark Blackaby, Gollancz pounds 5.99. Paul and David went to university together, now they are flatmates. David is the beautiful one who entertains a string of equally gorgeous babes. Paul is the tongue-tied computer nerd who narrates the history of their friendship and the sticky end it comes to, detailing on the way his own stuttering difficulties with girls. In its patient reconstruction of student firsts - poker game, doormat honk, kick in the teeth - Blackaby's Betty Trask winner offers a leisurely, misty-eyed lead-up to an abrupt and bloody finale.
! Going Native by Stephen Wright, Abacus pounds 6.99. With Wright, a novelist of the Robert Stone school, American nihilism is the juice that drives the interstate gypsies, video junkies and crack-pipe suckers who populate his pages. Wylie and his wife are middle-incomers in cake-mix America when, without warning and halfway through his own dinner party, he walks out, steals a car and drives away to become Man With No Name. The incidents in his odyssey are each a short story - hitchers picked up, dreamers and drop-outs met along the way - but though the shifting scenes indicate movement, the moral is static. Motives are artificial. To be natural, to be native, is to act without purpose because life is "a culture for the incubation of mystery".
! Shostakovich: A Life Remembered by Elizabeth Wilson, Faber pounds 12.99. Shostakovich was a musician of astounding natural gifts, arguably the only composer flying on the same plane as Mozart in the known history of music. He was also, by reason of time and place, required to live out the creative dilemma with an intensity rarely visited on artists - a brutal struggle between his private impulses and the political imperatives of Joe Stalin's state. The man's resilience emerges as heroic. This is not a biography but a compilation of contemporary memoirs. It gives a splendidly coherent and occasionally very moving portrait.
! The Quark & the Jaguar by Murray Gell-Mann, Abacus pounds 8.99. No, not a story about German yoghurt smeared across Morse's windscreen, but an attempt (no less) to improve on Hawking and sketch a research strategy to discover the Meaning of Life. As scientific heavyweight, Gell-Mann is entitled to climb in the ring with Hawking. Master of 13 languages, the 1969 Nobel- laureate (he discovered and named the quark which, with the electron, is the ultimate building block of matter) is encyclopedically learned about the world beyond science, and frankly lets it show. You need to be physics-literate to get the most out of this, but even science-flunks might find it worth a dip.