Paperbacks: Mouths of Babes<br/>The Men Who Stare at Goats<br/>Single Men<br/>State Building<br/>Transmission<br/>Gweilo: a memoir of a Hong Kong childhood

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The Independent Culture

Mouths of Babes by Stella Duffy (SERPENT'S TAIL £10)

The latest Saz Martin mystery sees Saz settled into motherhood with her partner Molly and their baby Matilda, embracing a safe life as far removed from private investigation as possible. Former lover Carrie is still around to tease her, ("Carrie knelt, picked up her bag, planted a careful kiss on Matilda's head and a less gentle one on Saz's lips"), pointing out some of motherhood's shortcomings ("you're still not shagging"); but, in all, Saz seems to have found a happy equilibrium. This all changes when she's visited by an old friend, TV star Rory Gallagher. It's a friendship she'd rather not remember; as part of an elite teenage gang including Rory, or Will as he used to be called, she was partly responsible for the misery the group dished out to other kids. The unhappiness they inflicted didn't end with name-calling, either; on one occasion things went much further, and it's that event which is behind Gallagher's visit.

Duffy has produced unpleasant characters with real sting and sympathetic ones for readers to care about. Although hardly an original story - the idea of nasty childhood secrets catching up on successful adults lies behind many novels - it still has real bite. She also displays a formidable range of narrative techniques, changing perspectives and launching into flashbacks with the kind of brio that most crime writers seem to shun. But this book shouldn't just be seen as a great piece of crime writing; it's a fine novel, as good as anything you'll read this year from a "literary" imprint.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (PICADOR £7.99)

In 1983 Albert Stubblebine III tried to walk through a wall. All he had to do, he sincerely believed, was to merge his atoms with those in the wall: "What is destiny?" he thought. "Am I destined to stay in this room? Ha, no!" Sadly his experiment failed. An innocuous event, but for the fact that Stubblebine was a Major General in the US army, responsible for controlling military spy units throughout the world. Forces higher up the chain of command considered his unusual ideas, for example psychic healing and training men to stop an animal's heart by thought power alone, to be excellent ones. At Fort Bragg, known only to a select group of people (not even Stubblebine), was a herd of goats, retained specifically for the kinds of experiment the Major General had in mind.

Ronson's investigations show just how reasonable the paranoia exhibited by your average conspiracy theorist might actually be. In addition to being fatally stared at, the goats suffered the "quivering palm", where a light stroke delivered in a particular fashion results in death; and prisoners in Iraq are tortured by being forced to listen to a children's song.

Ronson can be incredibly funny, but perhaps the urge to entertain has become an obsession in modern journalism. By swallowing whole Hunter S Thompson's contention that "the writer must be a participant in the scene", he's forged for himself a protagonist's role that is both artificial and distorting. Bonzo journalism: reporting gone to the dogs.

Single Men by Dave Hill (REVIEW £6.99)

Marie is a 22-year-old cleaner with a five-year-old son, Luke. She could have been much more, but was forced to abandon her A-levels when her father died - and of course there's also Luke. Her clients are an implausible range of dysfunctional single men: "lost soul" Marlon, who has issues surrounding celibacy; Dr Jelly, a brain surgeon with a messy love life; and debonair Daniel, father of precocious Elice. An accidental father after a drunken incident with someone he thought was a TV (naturally he has to explain to Marie that this means transvestite), he's the kind of stock gay character who's been cropping up in bad novels for years.

While Marie seems to have her own life neatly under control, the men she works for become increasingly demanding. Marlon smashes up his flat and disappears. His computer shows he's been reading the work of a certain Reverend Tibworth: Why Not Have Sex Before Marriage? Because Waiting For It Works. Dr Jelly has to be sawn out of his car by a passing workman after his lover handcuffs him to the wheel. And Daniel? Elice wants to see more of her mother, a "termagant" according to her father. Finally there's the question of Luke, who begins to ask questions about his absent father. Can Marie cope with being needed so much?

This is the kind of novel-by-numbers that may well have some readers, probably parents, sighing and giggling from the first page; but for those without kids, it can only be recommended as a contraceptive.

State Building by Francis Fukuyama (PROFILE £6.99)

When the Berlin Wall fell, Fukuyama proclaimed it as the end of history; rampant liberal democracy had swallowed up communism and, in vanquishing the last great rival ideology, had achieved the final, ideal form of human governance. Since then he's spent all his time trying to salvage some credibility among the debris of ethnic cleansing, religious wars and large-scale corruption that in fact stemmed from the fall of communism. State Building seems to indicate that he's finally given up and decided to change the subject with a book dealing with the "weak states" commonly seen as a threat to global security.

Weak states, he contends, can be strengthened by rebuilding their institutions according to his preferred model: the USA. But restructuring legal or educational institutions, for example, can never be done without ignoring the traditions they are based on; only imperialism can erase cultural bias on such a scale. Fukuyama remains silent on this, instead trying to rationalise liberal ideology as it appears in this country and the US: "Many Europeans assert that they and not the Americans are the true advocates of universal values" - a complex ethical debate which boils down to Europeans believing an outside power can't impose state building, and Americans thinking it's the only way to go. Put differently, Americans see state building as a pragmatic means of guaranteeing global security, whereas Europeans see a safe world as a social responsibility. Anyone reading this book would do well to look at the author's earlier work.

Transmission by Hari Kunzru (PENGUIN £7.99)

Naïve Indian computer-geek Arjun Mehta travels to America for the job opportunity of a lifetime only to find he's been duped: the company employing him is actually an agency specialising in selling on cheap foreign labour. Against the odds, Arjun eventually lands a job at the "holy of holies", a computer virus-busting outfit called Virugenix where he's seduced by a bisexual programmer and fired when the market crashes... "Amrika", as his family call the US, is not all he hoped for. Fortunately, he has a plan. He releases a deadly computer virus: click on a link in an email and, while a beguiling image of Bollywood actress Leela Zahir dances jerkily on your computer screen, Arjun's code eats its way through your files. Surely if he can show his bosses at Virugenix how to defeat the virus they'll re-employ him?

Meanwhile, we follow the progress of Guy Swift, struggling to prop up his ailing branding company. As one pitch after another fails, a meeting in Dubai takes on major significance - a pity then, that the client decides to hold the meeting on a golf course, rendering the hundreds of hours Guy's creatives have spent preparing audio, video and still imagery, useless. Forced simply to talk sense, Guy finds he has very little to say.

Kunzru is a clever author. He ties up his various plot strands immaculately and consistently writes with great wit about a world he seems to know very well. If only that world wasn't so small. A caustic dissection of branding and identity, but one perhaps also far too obsessed with appearances.

Gweilo: a memoir of a Hong Kong childhood by Martin Booth (TRANSWORLD £7.99)

Martin Booth makes it clear at the start of his memoir that, had he not been "diagnosed with the nastiest type of brain tumour around", this book would never have been written. Prompted, however, by his adult children and without the aid of diaries or notes, he spent his remaining months concluding this extraordinary vision of childhood.

Booth was only seven when, in 1952, his civil servant father was posted to Hong Kong. A month-long voyage via exotic ports such as Algiers, where his mother had an altercation with a camel, and the paradise of Colombo with its beaches, sand and coral, eventually gave way to the small houses of Hong Kong - and, extraordinarily in the author's eyes, a golf course. It wasn't the last strange thing he saw. Blessed with blond hair, which the Chinese consider lucky, he was able to roam relatively unchecked around the streets and alleys near his lodgings. He found a family of four living in a packing crate that once housed a Heidelberg printing press (the family and the crate disappeared without warning); and was chased away from a butcher's shop after discovering a dead chow dog hanging from a hook round the back. Eating dogs was illegal in Hong Kong because gweilos (slang for a European male, literally ghost or pale fellow) liked to keep them as pets.

It's possible to take against Booth's occasionally jaunty tone, particularly in the colonial setting. But this is meant to be a child's world and, to that extent, the book is an outstanding success and a fine epitaph to the author, who died shortly after completing it.