Paperbacks: The Naming of Names<br/>The Godfathers<br/>Origin of Everyday Things<br/>The Lion and the Unicorn<br/>The Best American Magazine Writing 2007<br/>A Case of Two Cities<br/>When We Were Bad

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The Independent Culture

The Naming of Names, By Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury £16.99)

Led by this paper's gardening correspondent, we scramble through the jungles of Guyana, tramp the Kent countryside, ride on horseback in Kazakhstan – and we're still in the introduction. Pavord's epic account of the botanical pioneers who named and classified plants before the over-esteemed Linnaeus is a fabulously interesting read. We learn, for example, that the pioneer Theophastus (372BC-287BC) was scorned for applying philosophical principles to the study of plants, though his suggestion of citron as an emetic antidote to poisonous aconite is more viable than the solution advocated by his medical contemporaries (swallowing a whole mouse). Pavord's pursuit of half a dozen heroes culminates in John Ray (1627-1705), who laid down the principles for modern plant names. A similar devotion to principles prompted this man of the Commonwealth to resign his fellowship at Cambridge rather than pay obeisance to the restored monarchy. Making this one of the most handsome volumes published in recent years, the 150 illustrations range from Dürer's sublime clod of grass from 1503 to an 1485 drawing of cannabis. If this suggests illegal use, Pavord notes that its cultivation was mandatory for landowners under Henry VIII, though the purpose was naval (hemp for ropes) not narcotic. CH

The Godfathers, By Roberto Olla (Alma £8.99)

From Don Vito Ferro, the proto-mobster who signifies changing times in Lampedusa's The Leopard, to Bernardo "the Tractor" Provenzano, Olla tells the story of the men who have controlled the restless tentacles of the Mafia for the past century. Along with the usual suspects, the index includes one unlikely figure. "Elizabeth II, Queen of England" stayed with the Prince of Vincenzo, an alleged Mafioso, during a visit to Palermo. Whether the Prince was "arrested and sentenced to eight years imprisonment" (p.157) or "managed to make his getaway" (p.219) is typical of this book's garbled narrative. CH

Origin of Everyday Things, By Johnny Acton et al (Think £8.99)

It sounds like one of those book ideas people get during the third bottle at lunch. "Where did sugar first appear?" New Guinea 6000BC. "And condensed milk?" New Yorker Gail Borden had the idea in mid-Atlantic when children died after drinking fouled milk. However, the heavy American weighting (is the Stetson hat an "everyday thing"?) suggests that this work might be the result of a commission from the US. The entry for "mascara" cites Maybelline, made from coal-dust and Vaseline in New York in 1913, as the very first in the field, though invention is customarily ascribed to Frenchman Eugene Rimmel. CH

The Lion and the Unicorn, By Richard Aldous (Pimlico £12.99)

It was partly the protracted nature of their joust and partly the very real animus between them that makes the rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone of such compelling interest. When Disraeli died, the Grand Old Man's verdict was unforgiving: "All display, without reality of genuineness." A few months earlier, Disraeli was equally vitriolic in return: "A vindictive fiend." Aldous's enthralling narrative is notably judicious, but it is hard not to be swayed by Dizzy. His appeal is exemplified by his reason for declining to see the Queen before he died: "She would only ask me to take a message to Albert." CH

The Best American Magazine Writing 2007 (Columbia UP £9.95)

For anyone accustomed to the brevity of British journalism, these 20 features may seem grandiose in scale. Janet Reitman spent nine months writing her 44-page report on Scientology for Rolling Stone. But the rewards of such prodigious investment are evident. Running to 56 pages, CJ Chivers's investigation of the 2004 Chechen school siege is hypnotic, like a slow-motion horror film. You feel cheated when Paul Theroux's wonderfully observed recollection of goose-rearing on Hawaii runs to only 11 pages. Magazine journalism is one of the things that America does very well indeed. CH

A Case of Two Cities, By Qiu Xiaolong (Sceptre £7.99)

Leisurely, atmospheric and rich in behind-the-scenes detail, Qiu Xiaolong's mysteries pit the poetry-loving Inspector Chen of Shanghai against criminality and corruption in the new China. Here, the Morse of the Far East tangles with bathhouse sex (and murder) and massive kickbacks as he traces, to St Louis, the path of a cadre-cum-crook on the run. As enjoyable as the scrumptious Shanghai meals often scoffed. BT

When We Were Bad, By Charlotte Mendelson (Picador £7.99)

With not a word wasted, this elegant and witty drama is part family saga and part romantic comedy, with a twist of Schadenfreude about the sorts of families who appear to have everything. Beginning at the wedding of Leo, son of the domestic goddess Rabbi Claudia Rubin, it describes what happens when the ceremony – and the family – begins to unravel, with a rather Larkinesque take on family life. KG

Pick of the picture books

As any tourist in the Far East will no doubt have been reminded, most countries were adorning vast temples with lapis and gold leaf while the folk on these islands were still scratching stick men on cave walls with burnt twigs, but the illustrations and texts here represent the few narrow shafts of light that did fall upon the English Dark Ages. Manuscripts From The Anglo Saxon Age, by Michelle Brown (British Library, £25) is compiled from among the 150 million items in the British Library's collection, and represents our written heritage from the sublime (The Book of Kells, Beowulf) to the familiarly tedious (writs, law books and taxation surveys). Many pieces, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (right) from AD 715-20, are truly impressive. Others make you wonder why ancient artists never could do hands.