Paperbacks: The Pedant in the Kitchen<br/>George Orwell<br/>The Cradle King<br/>The Bloomsbury Book of the Mind<br/>A Short Cut through Time<br/>Love in Idleness<br/>Q

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The Independent Culture

Many male readers, and possibly some females, will empathise with Julian Barnes's opening declaration that he is a "late onset cook".

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes (ATLANTIC £7.99 (136pp))

Many male readers, and possibly some females, will empathise with Julian Barnes's opening declaration that he is a "late onset cook". Most late onsets are a spot slapdash, but not Barnes. The novelist admits that he now cooks with enthusiasm and pleasure, but with little sense of freedom or imagination. You can understand his pedantry when you learn the result when he allowed himself to deviate from a set text: "an epically filthy dish involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs". Barnes's desire for precision leaves him all at sea when faced by recipes demanding a "lump", "slug", "gout" or, more fashionably, "drizzle". Yet it comes as a refreshing change to encounter a food book more tentative than authoritative. This is not to say that this witty, highly engaging account has no practical purpose. You emerge from its pages determined to try the River Cafe's Penne with Tomato and Nutmeg, while cheering on Barnes's rebellion over deseeding the 2.5kg of cherry tomatoes needed for it. This, he points out, amounts to 300 tomatoes. "All together now: WE'RE NOT DOING THAT." Equally, one is pleased to be warned about the courgette pudding soufflé in Richard Olney's Simple French Food: "Took me four hours... a fucking disaster." CH

George Orwell by Gordon Bowker (ABACUS £8.99 (495pp))

In his introduction, Bowker records the titles of the "three previous major biographies of Orwell". In fact, this is an underestimate by at least two. This thoroughly researched portrait succeeds brilliantly in explaining our continuing fascination with this idiosyncratic moral beacon. Noting that Orwell described himself as a "Tory anarchist", Bowker declares that his subject was characterised by "the ability to hold two opposing views simultaneously... ". He would surely not have been surprised that his dying ban on a biography has been so sedulously ignored. CH

The Cradle King by Alan Stewart (PIMLICO £8.99 (438pp))

Though he lived through the most eventful of eras, James VI and I does not make a particularly riveting biographical subject. Obsessed with witchcraft, he was more concerned with hunting than government. He tended to be of a prickly disposition to anyone who wasn't young, male and good-looking. The strength of this biography lies in the brilliant application of source material rather than powerful narrative. Moments stand out, like Buckingham stamping on his hat when his son Charles swayed toward Catholicism. James referred to one of his councillors as "tall, black and cat-faced", while his son, touchingly, addressed him as "Dear Dad". CH

The Bloomsbury Book of the Mind by Stephen Wilson (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (394pp))

This anthology is an intriguing guide to the subtleties held within the cranium. Even the familiar selections sparkle in this context. From A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains..." illustrates Perception, while Beckett's Murphy ("The sun shone, having no alternative") illuminates Consciousness. But why include a passage from Daniel Dennett ("the second clause expresses a second order judgement about a discriminative state") that even confounds the compiler: "If I have understood him correctly..."? CH

A Short Cut through Time by George Johnson (VINTAGE £7.99 (204pp))

At the US weapons lab in Los Alamos, a new computer can perform 30 trillion operations per second. It occupies an acre. On the same site, scientists are attempting to evolve an equally powerful device that would be just 13 atoms in size. Quantum computers will overcome the Von Neumann bottleneck, caused by a chip being able to work on only one task at a time. With exemplary clarity, Johnson guides the reader through a thicket of theory, from the Turing machine to the "travelling salesman" problem, also known as nondeterministic polynomial time. Accessible, though not necessarily comprehensible. CH

Love in Idleness by Amanda Craig (ABACUS £6.99 (344pp))

"Love is such a disturbing element... You can never predict it." Put-upon Polly's observation to sleek Manhattanite Ellen is the big theme of Amanda Craig's witty reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Set in a Tuscan holiday villa, it brings together a cast of Shakespearean strangeness and diversity, including uptight Theo, Botox Betty and the ghastly, predatory Ivo Sponge. At times the plot creaks, but it's all rip-roaring holiday fun. CP

Q by Luther Blissett (ARROW £7.99 (635pp))

Superbly translated by Shaun Whiteside, this Reformation-era epic of thuggery and theology serves up a feast of heart-pounding, mind-stretching thrills. Co-authored by four Italian pranksters with a Watford striker's moniker as nom de guerre, Q follows its heretic hero through the ruins of the radical fringe of Lutheranism, and into a sly game of cat-and-mouse with a canny Papal spy. Utopias collapse; power endures. The mud and blood, visions and ideals of 16th-century Europe come back to gruesome, glorious life. BT