Paperbacks: The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland<br/>Fatal Purity<br/>The Big Oyster<br/>The Judgement of Paris<br/>The Last Mughal<br/>The Emperor's Children<br/>My Father's Notebook

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The Independent Culture

The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland, by Christ Scarre (THAMES & HUDSON £12.95 (160pp))

Scarre reminds us of the inconceivable labour involved in the structures that continue to amaze after four or more millennia. The construction of the enclosures around Avebury required the quarrying of 200,000 tonnes of chalk, but this was dwarfed by the labour demands of Silbury Hill. Containing a third of a million cubic metres of chalk, the great mound is now thought to have originally been a straight-sided polyhedron with up to nine walls. Scarre also reveals new theories concerning Stonehenge, where the surface shaping of some of the stones may have replicated the bark of oak and beech. The great ring could have been a monument for the dead that imitated the wooden dwellings of the living. Unfortunately, Scarre's survey is written in utilitarian prose that does little to convey the wonder of these stone survivors. At the passage grave of Maes Howe on Orkney, we're informed that entering the 12.5ft-high central chamber via a 23-ft passage is "one of the most memorable experiences offered by British megalithic monuments", but it would have been immeasurably better to describe this experience. CH

Fatal Purity, by Ruth Scurr (VINTAGE £8.99 (388pp))

More vividly than Schama's blockbuster, this cool, intelligent biography of Robespierre conveys the relentless trajectory of the French Revolution. A liberal, hesitant lawyer who once opposed the death penalty, Robespierre became the "living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral". Fastidious and eloquent, the man who urged the execution of Louis XVI did not care to witness the spectacle. Despite the ferocity of the Terror he instigated, Robespierre the Incorruptible was condemned for his moderation. He met the guillotine on revolutionary date 10 Thermidor Year II (28 July 1794) aged 36. CH

The Big Oyster, by Mark Kurlansky (VINTAGE £8.99 (307pp))

Even if you're lukewarm in your desire to learn about molluscs on the US eastern seaboard, Mark Kurlansky's latest venture into culinary history is a compelling read. In a book full of surprises, Kurlansky reveals that the oyster beds of New York harbour were savoured by a population of 15,000 prior to the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century. Containing little nutrition, the oysters seem to have been eaten purely for pleasure. European colonists also tackled this offshore hors d'oeuvre with gusto, though Thackeray disliked their size. New York's oyster feast was destroyed by overfishing and contamination, but a few (sadly inedible) have recently reappeared. CH

The Judgement of Paris, by Ross King (PIMLICO £8.99 (448pp))

In this superb study, Ross portrays the ferment of Paris in the decade from 1863. He contrasts the revolutionary canvases of Monet - both "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe" and "Olympia", which featured the shocking naked form of Victorine Meurent, known as La Crevette ("The Shrimp") for her diminutive stature - with the epic but stodgy renditions of leading academician Ernest Meissonier, a perfectionist who built a railway in his garden in order to depict a galloping horse. The artistic duel at the Salons took place against the real bloodshed of the Paris Commune. CH

The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (578pp))

The Lear-like protagonist of this enthralling history is Zafar, descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, Marlowe's Tamburlaine. A poet, the last Mughal emperor acted as puppet ruler for the "rapacious multinational" East India Company until 1857. Aged 80, he reluctantly supported the mutiny by the company's native army of sepoys. The resulting bloodbath destroyed Delhi, a cultured city of half a million. Victory hung in the balance until the old man fled. Captured by the British, he died in exile in Burma. The only good to come out of this nasty business was the end of the East India Company. CH

The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud (PICADOR £7.99 (581pp))

Claire Messud's hugely enjoyable and wise tale of pre- and post- 9/11 New Yorkers is that rare thing: a book with sweep that doesn't sag, one which combines glittering intelligence with sympathy for characters you at first want to slap. Bravely, she has attempted nothing less than a state-of-the-nation novel at a moment of historic crisis. Amazingly, she has succeeded. CP

My Father's Notebook, by Kader Abdolah (CANONGATE £7.99 (325pp))

Two worlds join, magically and movingly, in a captivating novel from an Iranian exile in Holland. The narrator - a refugee now far from roots and family - pieces togther his deaf-mute father's progress from a remote village steeped in Persian myths through the ordeals of Iran's Islamic revolution. This intimate epic (translated by Susan Massotty) proves as sturdy, and as delicate, as the gorgeous carpets woven back in Saffron Village. BT

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