Paperbacks: Backroom Boys<br/>Better Than Well<br/>Robert Emmet<br/>Adam's Navel<br/>The Peloponnesian War<br/>Anthem<br/>The Hamilton Case

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For males of a certain age, this highly engaging book will be like coming home.

Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford (FABER £8.99 (252pp))

For males of a certain age, this highly engaging book will be like coming home. In lively, lucid prose, Spufford explores the world of the backroom boffins, the real-life equivalents of James Bond's Q. In the Fifties, these tweedy, pipe-smoking, quietly patriotic, brilliant characters played a distinctive role in British culture. Spufford's first chapter concerns Black Knight, an underfunded rocket project dating from the days when Britain still had ambitions to develop its own missile system. One of the main figures engaged on the task was Roy Dommett, "a keen Morris man" who was "more Falstaff than Dr Strangelove". The rocket was small, efficient and ingenious. Unfortunately, a series of test shots at Woomera revealed various flaws. After one disaster, an Aussie inquired, "Did your match go out?" and there was a fight. With the bugs ironed out, the boffins finally produced a perfect flight, but the government had already withdrawn funding. Spufford maintains his trajectory with a revealing account of Britain's role in Concorde. Subsequent chapters show that our national inventiveness is still alive and kicking. In Spufford's final section, the old-style eccentric scientist makes a splendid return in the form of whiskery planetary scientist Colin Pillinger ("At weekends, he relaxes with his herd of dairy cows"). CH

Better Than Well by Carl Elliott (W W NORTON £10.99 (357pp))

In this highly readable work, Elliott explores American social conformity and the use of prescription drugs to achieve this dubious goal. "The significance of life," he writes, "has become deeply bound up with self-fulfilment." He notes how GlaxoSmithKline advertises the Prozac-like drug Paxil: "Relieve the anxiety and reveal the person." Elliott suggests the assumption is that Americans are all "uninhibited, cheerful and outgoing... under the skin". His book concludes by pointing out that Elvis Presley's autopsy revealed the presence of 12 prescription drugs, "some in 10 times their lethal doses". CH

Robert Emmet by Marianne Elliott (PROFILE £9.99 (292pp))

Shelley wrote of him: "Thy foes shall pass like a mist from the light of thy name." A potent symbol of Irish republicanism, Robert Emmet led an abortive rebellion on 1803 and was executed in Dublin at the age of 25. In this perceptive reassessment, Elliott reveals how the legend of Emmet, reinforced by a tragic love affair, was utilised in the nationalist cause. In fact, we know little of him. He left no writings or even a portrait. A relative called him "a very young giddy man". Yet his very vagueness assisted the myth-makers. In her conclusion, Elliott notes: "Dying stoically is not the same as heroic sacrifice. The former is real, the latter is legend." CH

Adam's Navel by Michael Sims (PENGUIN £8.99 (348pp))

This is a deeply fascinating book about surfaces. In particular, our surfaces. Sims explores "the outward form of the body". We learn that the human foetus grows a moustache, then becomes "completely hairy", but swallows this hair before birth. Lipstick has been used throughout human civilisation because it duplicates the flushed pout of adolescent females. The Shirley Eaton character in Goldfinger wouldn't have died when painted gold because oxygen absorbed by the skin does not reach internal organs. Finally, our hair does not grow after death but it gives that impression by standing on end. CH

The Peloponnesian War by Nigel Bagnall (PIMLICO £12.99 (318pp))

The final work by the distinguished soldier, who died in 2002, explores the 27-year war between Athens and an alliance led by Sparta. The war destroyed the Greek empire and restored the power of Persia. With exemplary clarity, Bagnall sets the scene, informing us of the background and dramatis personae before guiding us through the bloody conflict. Bagnall's analysis of Athenian failings - changing policy led to "mission creep", the commanders were "singularly undistinguished" - have powerful contemporary resonances. CH

Anthem by Tim Binding (PICADOR £7.99 (410pp))

If British fiction sometimes seems a little short of the grand sweep, then here's a novel to fill the gap. Set largely in a suburban cul-de-sac in 1982, it charts the lives and loves of a group of neighbours more closely intertwined than even they know. Most compelling are Richard Roach, a downtrodden shoe salesman, and flirty Suzy, who's working on the cruise ship Canberra when the Falklands war breaks out. A hugely ambitious and absorbing novel of love and war in a (fairly) cold climate. CP

The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser (VINTAGE £6.99 (297pp))

In the colonial Ceylon of the 1930s, dapper lawyer Sam Obeysekere enjoys all the privileges that Empire can bestow on a "native". Yet in Sam's background stir the shades of family madness, of social revolt, of private breakdown. This monsoon storm of a novel is jungle-thick with rich description, cunning twists, clever shifts of view. It's a murder story, domestic saga and political epic in one lavish package, and won two prizes for its Sri Lankan-born author. BT