Paperbacks: Discovering Dorothea<br/> A Perfect Red<br/> Revolution!<br/> Take a Girl Like Me<br/> DC Confidential<br/> The Ice Queen<br/> The Lonely Londoners

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The Independent Culture

Discovering Dorothea, by Karolyn Shindler (HARPER £8.99 (390pp))

Living with aging parents in rural Gloucestershire, Dorothea Bate might have followed the Victorian template and become the dutiful daughter at home. Fortunately, an obsession with the natural world provided her with an escape route. After working her way into the bird room of the Natural History Museum, an all-male redoubt rendered even more unhealthy by clouds of arsenic preservative, she specialised in palaeontology and undertook an expedition to Cyprus in 1901 at the age of 22. One of the great delights of this steadily enthralling book is the wealth of detail that Shindler weaves into her story. We learn, for example, that Dorothea had to pack " dinner, ball and afternoon tea gowns" for the occasions when she was not excavating fossilised pigmy hippos. On later expeditions, she discovered the bones of dwarf and full-size elephants in Crete. Despite her tireless work on the fossil record, she became a Christian Scientist. While there is a tendency among biographers to end up loathing their subjects, the reverse is true of Shindler, who comes to view Dorothea as "witty, acerbic, clever and courageous". CH

A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield (BLACK SWAN £7.99 (430pp))

Mounting the scaffold in 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots showed a final act of defiance in her red bodice, the colour of "martyrdom, courage and royal blood". A dyer herself, Greenfield tells the fascinating story of the deepest, most stable form of red. Discovered by Cortes in an Aztec marketplace, cochineal arrived in Spain in 1520, but it was not for another two centuries that the source of the dye was discovered to be animal rather than vegetable. A colourful story indeed. CH

Revolution!, by Peter Cowie (FABER £9.99 (286pp))

In this wide-ranging but highly readable survey, Cowie asserts that the flowering of film in the Sixties was far from a purely American phenomenon. The revolution initiated by such works as Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (" the most exhilarating film of its period") included the " exhilarating fluency" of Fellini's La Strada and Antonioni's L'Avventura, which "soared" despite being received with "boos and jeers". Aside from the masterpieces, Cowie reminds us of Godard's Weekend, which announced: "The end of cinema." CH

Take a Girl Like Me, by Diana Melly (VINTAGE £7.99 (280pp))

The obverse of George Melly's comic autobiographies, this book reveals that Diana's 44-year marriage to a jazz hollerer was not all beer and skittles. Punctuated by numerous mortalities, the story gets very dark at times. But the breezily candid Diana is a buoyant soul, who appears to regard George's repeated infidelities with irritation rather than anger. When his mistress threatens to cut her head off, Diana responds by Tippexing over her lunch date with George in his diary. CH

DC Confidential, by Christopher Meyer (PHOENIX £8.99 (301pp))

Though described by John Prescott as a "red-socked fop", the former British ambassador to the US deserves a medal. The language of his memoirs may be undiplomatic, but his views are in line with traditional diplomacy. Meyer notes the disadvantages of Blair's devotion to "the highest of high moral ground" and "unconditional support to an ally in service of an idea": "They fly above the tangled history of Sunni and Shia. They discourage descent into dull detail." It is a damning conclusion. CH

The Ice Queen, by Alice Hoffman (VINTAGE £6.99 (211pp))

The narrator of this hypnotic, and extremely touching, fairy tale for adults grows up with a splinter of ice in her heart, and is then struck by lightning. No, this is not a laboured metaphor but a dramatic metamorphosis at the heart of a tale of love, loss and chaos theory - otherwise known, in this charming novel, as life. CP

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon (PENGUIN £8.99 (160pp))

Sam Selvon was one of the first novelists to portray the experiences of the Windrush generation and he remains one of the best. His first draft, written in standard English, was discarded for this sparkling celebration of the voices, and courage, of the first wave of Caribbean immigrants in London. It's a tale of hope and energy, but also of casual racism in a cold climate. Every Londoner should read it. CP

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