Paperbacks: The Looming Tower<br/>The Berlin Wall<br/>Oxford Companion to Scottish History<br/>The Black Hole<br/>Courbet<br/>Pocketful of Names<br/>Nightingale

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The Looming Tower, By Lawrence Wright (Penguin £8.99)

Written in a terse, unshowy style, this is a compulsive, wholly absorbing thriller. To describe an in-depth account of 9/11 as a thriller may sound inappropriate, but it is a simple statement of fact. Every page exerts a visceral hold on the reader as the narrative heads towards its ineluctable conclusion. In his impeccably researched account, Lawrence Wright, a staff writer on The New Yorker, explores the genesis of the attack. One unexpected cause was the Kinsey Report on the Sexuality of the American Male, which helped radicalise Sayyid Qutb, the founder of Islamic fundamentalism executed by the Nasser regime in 1966. But the book is dominated by two figures. One is Osama Bin Laden, who spun a "chrysalis of myth about himself" that he fought for "all persecuted and humiliated Muslims". The other is maverick FBI man John O'Neill, one of the first to recognise the threat of al-Qa'ida. Wright points out that both were "ambitious, imaginative, relentless and each eager to destroy the other and all he represented." In this personal duel, Osama had the luck to be the victor. When the prickly O'Neill was eased out of the FBI, he took a job as security chief of the World Trade Centre, where he died on 11 September 2001. Simultaneously hypnotic and terrifying, this is an astonishing book. CH

The Berlin Wall, By Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury £8.99)

Taylor begins his unexpectedly enthralling history with an account of his first sight of the wall as a 17-year-old in 1965. A snarling tirade about his long hair from an East German officer was undermined by the latter being a) drunk and b) having a "pouting bottle-blonde hanging on his arm" . Built in 1961, the great divide was the creation of Walter Ulbricht, whose "humourlessness and general lack of likeability were the stuff of legend ". In a narrative notable for its telling detail, Taylor relates the nail-biting stories of those who tried to go over or under (a large-scale sewer escape recalls The Third Man) this inhuman barrier. CH

Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Ed. Michael Lynch (Oup £15.99)

With multi-page entries ranging from "Highland dress" to " urban settlement", the approach of this impressively informed volume is thematic rather than specific. In the entry for "Rough Wooing", a graphic term for English attempts to subdue Scotland in the 16th-century, we learn of the largely-forgotten Battle of Pinkie (1547) in which 10,000 Scots were killed. Oddly, there is no entry for Culloden and none of the six references provides a detailed account. Even more inexplicable is the lack of an entry for whisky, only fleeting references in entries such as " Caledonian societies" and "traditional healing". CH

The Black Hole, By Jan Dalley (Penguin £8.99)

This book is an elegant and perceptive scrutiny of the aftermath of the Black Hole of Calcutta, described by Mark Twain as "the first brick... upon which was reared the Indian Empire of Great Britain". Lapidary words record that "146 British inhabitants were confined... from which only 23 came out alive", but recent estimates suggest that deaths were as low as eight or even three. In any case, as Dalley notes, "it was not an exceptional death toll" at that time and place, but its mythic potential was milked to the utmost. As Nirad Chaudhuri pointed out, "it threw a moral halo over the British conquest of India". CH

Courbet, By Linda Nochlin (Thames & Hudson £16.95)

This is a very strange book on a very interesting subject. It is not just the story of Courbet, the wild man of 19th-century art, but also "the story of the intellectual development of one of our leading writers on the arts." Viz: Linda Nochlin. It is typical of her style that a potentially interesting search for the original of Courbet's The Origin of the World ("A hot lead... to a sure address in the 6th arrondissement, left us standing frustrated in the lobby") concludes with an impenetrable statement about the work's "infinite repeatability" being "a metonymy, which, in Lacanian terms, poses the question of lack and desire". CH

P ocketful of Names, By Joe Coomer (Graywolf Press £8.99)

Having deliberately stranded herself on an island off Maine, artist Hannah is naturally perturbed when the tide washes up a big hairy dog. More unexpected visitors follow in a comic, touching and most peculiar parade. A tribute to life's flotsam and jetsom, this book is like a gentler version of Iris Murdoch's The Sea The Sea, but colder, and with a whale. KG

Nightingale, By Peter Dorward (Two Ravens £9.99)

In August 1980, Italy's terror-struck "years of lead" climaxed in the Bologna station bombing – still unresolved – that murdered 85. Around this outrage Dorward wraps a sophisticated thriller, as the daughter of a Scot caught in the dark webs of political conspiracy returns to the scene of the nightmare. A richly imagined companion novel to Hari Kunzru's similarly-themed My Revolutions, grippingly alert to the passions and fashions of its time. BT

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