Paperbacks: Salmon <br/>City of Cities <br/>The Book of Lost Books <br/>Santa: a Life <br/>The Pineapple <br/>Modern Poetry in Translation <br/>Silk

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Salmon, by Peter Coates (REAKTION £12.95 (216pp))

All salmon are "true gentleman", wrote Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies, but in fact they are monomaniacs. Peter Coates begins his fishy tale with a succinct biography: "The salmon's entire life is geared towards a single act of reproduction in the frigid place of its birth." It is thought that salmon achieve this astonishing, fatal return (the longest recorded journey was 5,630km) by utilising celestial navigation, then discovering their home stream by odour. On entering fresh water, the salmon stops eating and undergoes bizarre physical metamorphosis. After negotiating waterfalls, the fish procreate and die. As Ted Hughes noted, they are "mortally wounded by love and destiny". Coates touches on virtually every aspect of the salmon, ranging from the art of fly-fishing (favourite pastime of the Queen Mother) to poaching and ceremonial rituals. We learn that the salmon famously rejected by medieval apprentices were "tough as old boots", but the tender farmed salmon are liable to be contaminated by colourants, lice and toxins. Though far more space is devoted to the use of salmon skin for bikinis (three full-page colour photographs) than to culinary applications for the salmon, this is an engagingly written and handsomely produced account of a phenomenal fish. CH

City of Cities, by Stephen Inwood (MACMILLAN £12.99 (538pp))

The explanation for London's endless stretches of late-Victorian housing is simple. Between 1884 and 1914, its population increased from 5 million to 7.5 million. Stephen Inwood's atmospheric account of this 30-year boom is populated by the likes of Barney Burnato, ex-prize fighter, who doubled his diamond-mine fortune in the stock-market boom of 1895, lost it in the crash of 1896 and drowned himself ("mad, drunk or both") in 1897. Ranging from journalism to suffragettes, sex workers to shopping (the Edwardians had a very modern fondness for retail therapy), this book pulsates with life, like the era it describes. CH

The Book of Lost Books, by Stuart Kelly (PENGUIN £8.99 (390pp))

Kelly admits that this compendium of unfinished, lost or destroyed books stems from a "near compulsive necessity for completeness and closure" in his teenage years. This book-length therapy begins with the rich losses of classical times. There is a novel, a film, a kennel club and a rock band named after the Greek playwright Agathon, but no plays survive. More recently, Georges Perec, the man who wrote a novel without an "e", did not complete his inventory of everything he ate in a year or a tantalising project entitled Beds I Have Slept In. Borges would have loved this quirky, erudite guide to a phantom library. CH

Santa: a Life, by Jeremy Seal (PICADOR £7.99 (292pp))

The familiar image on the cover has his origins in St Nicholas of Myra, now Demre in Turkey. Seal pursues this mysterious figure (c 280-c 352) from the abandoned island of St Nicholas to Istanbul, where 25 churches were dedicated to the Saint. In Bari, he learns that the Saint's bones were said to produce a miraculous seepage that became known as myrrh (hence, possibly, Myra). A church in Venice claims to have his bones. "Had there been any kind of fragrance?" "No. All that happens is someone dies every time they open the boxes." In these recondite spots, Seal senses the dark magic behind today's sugary Santa. CH

The Pineapple, by Fran Beauman (VINTAGE £12.99 (316pp))

Pineapple wine intoxicated the Caribs of Guadeloupe, where the fruit was encountered by Columbus in 1493. By 1516 King Ferdinand was equally transported: "Its flavour excels all other fruits." This lively, brilliantly researched biography of the tropical treat explains how pineapple became the king of fruits. By the 18th century, it had become an ostentatious centrepiece at the dining table, "passed on from party to party until it stank". It cropped up in Locke's philosophy, Cowper's poetry and Scottish architecture (a 53ft stone folly). Though democratised by canning, the fresh fruit still "retains vestiges of its celebrity incarnation". CH

Silk, by Alessandro Baricco, trans by Ann Goldstein (CANONGATE £5.99 (148pp))

The contemporary fable is not a genre to set the heart singing, conjuring up images of ghastly New Age journeys. This one is different. Set in the 19th century, it tells the tale of a French silkworm breeder who travels to Japan and loses his heart. Baricco writes with a brevity bordering on the pretentious, but his tale of love glimpsed and lost is strangely mesmerising. CP

Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by David and Helen Constantine (£11 (191pp))

"Poetry," said Robert Frost, "is what gets lost in translation" - but not all poets are so defeatist. The current edition of Modern Poetry in Translation, the sixth in the third series, offers a taste of Brecht from Adrian Mitchell and Lavinia Greenlaw, some of Michael Hofmann's brilliant translations of German wunderkind Durs Grünbein and exquisite ghazals from Mimi Khalvati. A feast. CP

To order these books call: 0870 079 8897