Paperbacks: Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable<br/> Gunpowder <br/> Charlotte <br/> Journals <br/> The Tyrannicide Brief <br/> The Bowl is Already Broken <br/> Asboville

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Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (OUP £10.99 (805pp))

Did you know that "cardinal" derives from the Latin cardo meaning "hinge"? Or that "paparazzo" is a character in Fellini's La Dolce Vita? Or that "clogs to clogs in only three generations" was more pithily expressed by Dryden: "Seldom three descents continue good"? From "abaddon" (an alternative word for the Devil that might have Hollywood potential) to "zombie", which comes from West Africa rather than the French "sans vie", this book is packed with excellent gen to enliven dinner parties. In the cowpoke dept., we get "Hopalong Cassidy", "Lone Ranger" and even "Silver Bullet", though this derives "from the traditional belief that only a bullet made of silver can kill a werewolf". But it is in the nature of this sort of specialist work to be a whipping boy ("educated with a young prince and punished instead of him") for wiseacres. How can "thermidor", the French revolutionary month, be included without the associated lobster? (The dish was invented to celebrate a play of that name.) We're told that "pard" is a literary leopard, but not its use by Shakespeare and Wodehouse in "bearded as the pard". And why do we get a long definition of Goldilocks rather than just "goody-goody"? CH

Gunpowder, by Clive Ponting (PIMLICO £8.99 (256pp))

"Flash in the pan." "Going off at half-cock." We daily recall the instability of this compound, both useful and deadly. Though he starts with the eponymous plot, Ponting's explosive tale begins 900 years earlier with the Chinese "fire-drug". Due to our damp climate and lack of saltpetre, gunpowder was slow off the mark in Europe. Yet, despite the palaver involved in loading and firing muskets, Venice replaced its crossbows with guns by 1490. From the South Seas to Mexico, gunpowder proved a devastating colonial tool. A more pleasing application is in fireworks, little changed in the last thousand years. CH

Charlotte, by Kathryn Shevelow (BLOOMSBURY £9.99 (433pp))

Shevelow provides a lime-lit picture of the rackety Georgian stage through her biography of a remarkable actress. Born into the theatrical clan of Colley Cibber, Charlotte Charke refused to be bound by the mores of the era. Starting her own theatre troupe at the age of 21 - its name, the Mad Company, could be reused by today's radical thesps - Charlotte specialised in roles played en travestie. When she took to men's clothes offstage, "abruptly casting the hoop, stays, petticoat and mantua in a heap in the corner", her father disowned her. It must have been a treat to see this hellraiser on the boards or off. CH

Journals, by Robert Falcon Scott (OUP £8.99 (529pp))

In his introduction to this new edition, Max Jones outlines the logistical errors that paved the way to disaster. But Scott's prime failing was "leadership by exhortation rather than inspiration." Many of the entries reveal this bossiness ("It is good to know there remain wild corners of this dreadfully civilised world"), but previously excised entries reveal a more sensitive side: "One must be prepared for a pretty good doing." The mask slipped with Scott's final scribble: "For God's sake look after our people." The last entry is, according to Jones, "noticeably more faded". CH

The Tyrannicide Brief, by Geoffrey Robertson (VINTAGE £8.99 (429pp))

After the prolonged nightmare of the Civil War, Parliament had trouble finding a lawyer willing to prosecute a king who, as Charles I never tired of pointing out, was above the law. The man who finally took on the task was the son of a poor farmer in the village of Husbands Bosworth, south of Leicester. John Cooke not only led a successful prosecution, he also originated the right to silence (under threat from the present government) and pro bono defence of the poor. This brave innovator ended up on the scaffold. You won't find a more enthralling law book. CH

The Bowl is Already Broken, by Mary Kay Zuravleff (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (424pp))

This delightful novel offers a detailed glimpse of a world rarely depicted in fiction - museum administration - and its internal politics, triumphs and oh-so-major disasters. Following the travails of Promise Whittaker, the diminutive, pregnant acting director of a museum threatened with the axe, this richly textured and gentle romp is erudite, funny - and sweet. CP

Asboville, by Danny Rhodes (MAIA PRESS £8.99 (214pp))

At sour 16, JB has an Asbo and a future "shot to pieces". He spends a summer on the north Kent coast, painting beach-huts with his uncle. Subject and setting imply a Loach-like bleakness, but this finely crafted and often lyrical debut novel offers far more than hoodie-hugging sympathy or sink-estate despair. JB, with his great but baffled expectations, shakes hands across time with Dickens's Pip. Let's have a sequel soonish. BT

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