Paperbacks: Editor<br></br>What Just Happened?<br></br>Splendid! Splendid!<br></br>Reviewery<br></br>Science: a history 1543-2001

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Editor by Max Hastings (Pan, £7.99, 405pp)

In keeping with the current fashion for paperbacks to quote from adverse reviews on their covers, this enjoyable memoir carries a damning comment from the author's former employer: "Poor history ... Max Hastings had an attention span of 15 seconds." If Conrad Black has more than a touch of Lord Copper in his make-up, Max Hastings comes over as a bit of a William Boot. He writes that he was "living deep in the Northamptonshire countryside" when invited to edit The Daily Telegraph in 1985.

In the wink of an eye, he found himself sacking the PM's daughter and tangling with The Telegraph's servants. "Can't do that," responded his chauffeur when Hastings said he wanted to drive one night. "I need the car." Among the incidents that enlivened his 10-year stint as editor were a tirade from Paul Johnson and a tip-off that his Brussels correspondent Boris Johnson did not "explicitly decline" when his pal Darius Guppy asked him to hire a hitman.

Hastings obviously enjoyed being "in charge of the rattling train" and relished its perks, such as gossiping with Princess Diana (she told him the Duke of Edinburgh had been "getting away with murder for years"), but his relationship with Black grew increasingly strained: "I learned to dread his nocturnal telephone calls." This is a candid and entertaining book, but Hastings' judgement appears oddly fallible. He now admits that he was wrong to send a wreath to The Independent when its first issue appeared.

What Just Happened? by Art Linson (Bloomsbury, £7.99, 183pp)

This memoir from a middle-ranking Hollywood producer (The Untouchables, Fight Club, Heist) is so revealing and foul-mouthed that you can scarcely believe it's not fiction. But, yes, it is the real Alec Baldwin who throws a volcanic wobbly when Linson asks him to shave a "flowing grey beard" before starting a film. And this is the real De Niro giving the nod to a fleeting appearance in Great Expectations: "Seven days. I could get very interested." But the essential unreality of Hollywood comes down to money. Linson sums up his film Pushing Tin: "Total cost: $38m. Total Domestic Gross: $8.4m. Do the math."

Splendid! Splendid! by Mark Garnett and Ian Aitken (Pimlico, £12.50, 386pp)

In this engaging and lively biography of Willie Whitelaw, the authors explain why such a paradigm of moderate Conservatism should have ended up as deputy to Mrs Thatcher, though at one time he couldn't bring himself to say her name: "Willie valued loyalty above any other quality." They also spell out why he never argued with her before others: "A man of his generation and upbringing could do no other." Whitelaw emerges as an adroit politician, who prided himself on never looking back. He was the one politician who refuted Enoch Powell's dictum "all political lives ... end in failure".

Reviewery by Christopher Ricks (Penguin, £9.99, 386pp)

Ranging from Leavis to Coppola, Ricks's reviews combine readability, concision and good humour. After musing on Waugh's ennui ("At soul he was not disgruntled but anguished"), he relates the novelist's explanation for having an operation for piles: "Perfectionism". Describing a Beatles biography as "a story of great sadness", he also finds room for Lennon's response when first offered mange-tout: "Put them over there, not near the food." Ricks is also often right. In 1972, he wrote about A Clockwork Orange: "Is this film worried enough about films?" Kubrick must have agreed. He later banned his own work.

Science: a history 1543-2001 by John Gribbin (Penguin, £8.99, 674pp)

Combining deft explanations of theory with lively human detail, this is the magnum opus of the industrious Mr Gribbin. An early star is Kepler, who believed astrology to be "utter tosh" but was not above picking up a few bob from credulous "fatheads". Gribbin's great canvas enables readers to pursue intriguing themes. In 1926, the speed of light was pinned down to 299,796 km per second by measuring the return journey time for a beam of light between two Californian mountain tops. Amazingly, the Danish astronomer Romer came up with the figure of 298,000 km per second in 1692.