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The Understanding of Jenner Ransfield by Imogen de la Bere, Cape, £10, 329pp

The Understanding of Jenner Ransfield by Imogen de la Bere, Cape, £10, 329pp

THEODORA POTTS is a product of the New World ­ a blonde veterinary scientist with skin as firm as an Australian beach, and a set of sparkling feminist credentials to match. Dr Jenner Ransfield is a middle-aged academic with a brilliant mind, and a reputation for lunging at young female students. That the comely Theo ends up defending Ransfield before a jury of his peers is at the heart of Imogen de la Bere's latest black comedy ­ an Oleanna-style tale of sexual harassment, transferred to a muddy corner of Somerset.

Theodora has been looking forward to a chance to study under the great Dr Ransfield, the world's leading authority on bull semen and its harvesting. But within hours of her arrival at "Nightingale Farm", all romantic notions are dashed. Ransfield isn't the genial boffin of her imagination, and no cosy B&B has been booked. What awaits Theo is an English Addams family ­ the hirsute Ransfield, his unreadable wife Agnes, and their two geekily talented children. De la Bere's first novel, The Last Deception of Palliser Wentwood ­ the life story of a New Zealand butler ­ was set in a gloomy country house, and the author's fascination with the inadequacies of British plumbing remains. Theo spends her first few weeks encased in an expensive fleece, her body screaming out for a decent shower.

With an original turn of phrase and an unfussy style, De la Bere gives an unfamiliar shine to the ordinary. Ranfield's house acquires an otherwordly quality. She's just as good at beaming light into the darker recesses of the female psyche, and when Ransfield's past catches up with him, and he is accused of trading grades for sexual favours, Theo finds herself in the unlikely position of acting as his chief character witness. What lifts de la Bere out of the ordinary is her likably contradictory heroine, and the book's breezy brand of antipodean feminism. EH

The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins, Papermac, £12, 497pp

THE MAJOR-Lamont barney reminds us that No 11 can be a place of high drama. Lord J applies his mastery of the biographical sketch to 19 chancellors. We learn why Hugh Dalton resigned after blurting to a hack that his budget would include "a penny on beer". But it is also pleasing to know that "aggressively joyless" Bonar Law was indifferent to food save "a great fondness for rice puddings", and Sir John Anderson became chairman of Covent Garden despite having "little appreciation of either ballet or opera".

The Testament by John Grisham Century, £10, 435pp

TROY PHELAN is a self-made billionaire, one of the richest men in America. A reclusive soul, confined to a wheelchair, he has decided the time has come to cut his losses. Finishing his last meal of crackers, honey and a can of Fresca, he leaps out of his chair, and makes a dash for a 14th-floor window ­ scaring a lowly payroll clerk en route. A refreshingly kooky start for a Grisham novel, but the author soon reverts to form as Washington litigator, Nate O'Riley, tries to implement Phelan's will, and ends up exchanging downtown Washington for the jungles of Brazil.

Conspiracy Theories by David Southwell & Sean Twist Carlton, £6.99, 313pp

TACKLING 96 topics from Elvis to NASA, the authors swing between reasonable supposition ("JFK's seven wounds... make a single gunman fairly unfeasible"), far-fetched associations ("the Pont de l'Alma tunnel was built on a ritual site connected with the cult of Diana") and X Files wackiness (the undertaker at the alleged alien landing site of Roswell received a call for "small, hermetically sealed coffins"). Fewer conspiracies in more depth would have a mde a better book, but it is a relief to learn that bar-codes are not satanic in origin.

Crime Wave by James Ellroy Arrow, £6.99, 288pp

EVEN GIVEN the large canvas of a novel, Ellroy's prose is staccato as a drum solo. In this trawl of journalism and short stories (often hard to distinguish), his style is pared down to a compacted burst of raw data. The author of LA Confidential repeatedly probes the raw wound of his mother's murder in 1958: "My debt grows. I will not diminish your power by saying I love you." His hard-boiled pastiche "Hollywood Shakedown" is Ellroy extreme, more Burroughs than Chandler. There's no one like him, but this one is for hard-core fans only.

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