Paperbacks: The Oxford Murders<br/>Modern Ranch Living<br/>Inner Circle<br/>The Creation Myths<br/>The Mind Gym: Give Me Time<br/>Collapse<br/>The Place at the End of the World

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The Independent Culture

The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez (ABACUS £6.99 (197pp))

Nothing could be more English than a murder mystery set in Oxford, but Argentinian writer Guillermo Martinez manages to appropriate Morseland with surprisingly assured results. As in all good detective stories, the novel features an unlikely sleuthing twosome - in this case, a young mathematical student from Buenos Aires and his mentor, the fusty Oxford logician Arthur Seldom. The contrast between old and new-world sensibilities is what lends the novel its low-key charm. On arrival in Oxford, our nameless Latin narrator finds himself a room in the home of Mrs Eagleton, a Second World War code breaker. But she's soon found murdered, suffocated on her chaise longue. The only clue to her murder is a cryptic mathematical symbol. Called in to advise the police is family friend Arthur Seldom. With the help of our young Latin American visitor, he attempts to solve Mrs Eagleton's murder by answering the mathematical riddle. In this novel of cerebral tricks, Martinez's fluent style (translated by Sonia Soto) is as well suited to describing an English tennis match as the finer points of Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem". Read it, and be temporarily convinced that applied mathematics is suddenly within your grasp. EH

Modern Ranch Living, by Mark Poirier (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (294pp))

Mark Poirier has always been more interested in the offspring of America's flakier parents than the original dropouts themselves. Kendra Lumm and Merv Hunter have very little in common aside from their catty corner proximity on the Rancho Sin Vacas estate. She's a 16-year-old bodybuilder; he's the 30-year-old manager of a local water park. Their paths occasionally cross but never enough to create narrative fireworks. Another novel of suburban disaffection, but one lightened by a gentle optimism that makes life on the arroyo a little less desiccated than it at first appears. EH

Inner Circle, by T C Boyle (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (418pp))

American mavericks are close to the heart of Californian writer T C Boyle. His 1994 novel The Road to Wellville satirised the life of cereal huckster Dr Kellog, while his latest work takes an unflinching look at the work of Fifties sexologist Dr Kinsey. The novel's fictionalised narrator, John Milk, is a whey-faced freshman who becomes Dr Kinsey's right-hand man. His induction into the academic's inner circle exposes him to the practicalities of open sex, and the newly-minted idea that all sexual activity is morally acceptable. A visceral and accomplished period piece that lustily investigates the confused marriages of Kinsey's younger followers. EH

The Creation Myths, by Clare Brown (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (312pp))

If Clare Brown's insightful debut about the crisis points of modern marriage were not a novel, it would sell just as well as a self-help book. The fallible heroine, Cressida, finds herself in a pickle. Pregnant with her lover's child, she feels she has no other recourse than to tell her husband - a cuddly clinical psychologist with a fearsomely loyal streak. Meanwhile Cressida's lover, Tom, finds out his wife is also newly pregnant. Other characters prove not so lucky on the baby front. A light-hearted, winningly frank portrait of modern marital mores. EH

The Mind Gym: Give Me Time, by The Mind Gym (TIME WARNER £12.99 (272pp))

"I haven't got time to read this book" screams the cover. Tell me about it! If, however, you manage to find a window for a quick flick through, it promises a "radically different approach", based on "extensive psychological research". Are you, for example, a hawk or a dove? No, not a Dick Cheney versus a Colin Powell, but someone who is "destined to always be frustrated" about lack of time versus one who is "happy that life is full of choices". Not as banal as this stark choice might suggest, this manual for modern living offers some intriguing insights -- and handy hints for change. Fingers crossed. CP

Collapse, by Jared Diamond (PENGUIN £9.99 (575pp))

Diamond's sweeping tour of the past and the globe to explore why societies break down - ecological calamity, war, population stress - isn't quite as bleak as you might think. Its scope and ambition enthrall, and he points not only to the disasters (from the Maya to Easter Island) but to places where cultures in crisis adjusted and came through - from Iceland to the South Pacific. Thanks to current knowledge, he argues, we may hope and plan to do the same. BT

The Place at the End of the World, by Janine di Giovanni (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (414pp))

Circle by bloody circle, this book often reads like a guided tour of hell. Foreign correspondent di Giovanni spent much of the past decade listening to victims of messy modern war: in Sierra Leone, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan. So why does this collection of her vivid, cliché-free reports inspire more than depress? Hope comes from the vigour of her prose, the breadth of her compassion and (finally) a celebration of birth that halts this tide of grief. BT

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