Paperbacks: The Record Men<br></br>Gunpowder<br></br>Maeve Brennan<br></br>Blood and Oil<br></br>The Book Nobody Read<br></br>Hardboiled/Hard Luck<br></br>The Book of Ash

Looking at various aspects of economics, the "Atlas" series from Profile includes Tim Parks on Medici Money; James Buchan's study of Adam Smith will appear shortly. However, it seems a safe bet that few entrepreneurs in the series will compare with Chicago-based record boss Leonard Chess for lack of scruple. When one of the great bluesmen on the Chess roster came in to renegotiate his contract, the artist would be left alone with a bottle of whiskey for an hour. "Is he drunk yet?" Chess would ask his secretary, before going in to lay his proposition on the table: "We just can't come up with the scratch, but how do you feel about a boss set of tyres?" Yet the result of this unorthodox technique was, according to the Atlantic records boss Jerry Wexler, "the finest blues repository in history", including Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf. But the greatest Chess star was Muddy Waters. Jimi Hendrix said that his music "scared me to death". Even Muddy was scared of his own music when he happened to hear it in his open convertible: "I thought I'd died." As this fine and stirring book reveals, the apoplectic Leonard Chess was almost a caricature of the vulgar record producer, but the music that emerged from his legendary Chicago studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue changed the world. CH

Gunpowder, by Jack Kelly (ATLANTIC £8.99 (260pp))

In the 10th century, the Chinese came up with an explosive compound called huo yao ("fire drug"). First used in fireworks, then for military purposes, gunpowder reached Europe in the 13th century. Jack Kelly pursues its volcanic trajectory in intriguing directions. It was much used in Elizabethan theatre: a stage direction in Henry V demands "Alarum, and chambers go off". A large gunboat consumed half a ton in a minute. The 1605 Plotters were hopeless at using it, but Lavoisier discovered oxygen while transforming French gunpowder into the world's best. Today, it is once more used primarily in fireworks. CH

Maeve Brennan, by Angela Bourke (PIMLICO £7.99 (333pp))

Published under the odd title of "The Longwinded Lady", Maeve Brennan's idiosyncratic essays were a highlight of the New Yorker in the Fifties. In this perceptive biography, Angela Bourke describes how the writer reinvented herself as a New York sophisticate following a childhood in Dublin's nationalist circles. "To be around her was to see style being invented," said a New Yorker editor. But by the late Sixties, she fell prey to the mental demons that were almost an occupational hazard at the magazine. "Maeve was a woman without a kitchen," writes Bourke. "Outside the drudgery but excluded from all their warmth and comfort." CH

Blood and Oil, by Michael Klare (PENGUIN £7.99 (265pp))

In a 2001 book, Klare said "endless hostilities" would result from competition over oil, water, land and minerals. After 11 September and the Iraq war, he views oil as by far the greatest potential casus belli. The basis of his case is that, because cheap petroleum is crucial to the preservation of "a distinctly American way of life", the US military is "being converted into a global oil protection service". The consequence will be "bloodshed abroad and hardship at home". Klare's argument is wholly persuasive, aside from its conclusion: "We must select the path of automony, self-restraint and innovation." Self-restraint? America? CH

The Book Nobody Read, by Owen Gingerich (ARROW £7.99 (306pp))

This absorbing work of popular science is the story of Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). Gingerich, a Harvard astronomist, spent 30 years refuting Arthur Koestler's claim in The Sleepwalkers that it was utterly ignored at the time. By tracking down every extant copy of Copernius's tome, Gingerich proved that Revolutions had been widely read and annotated at the time. His account interweaves astronomy, the history of printing, the Reformation, the Papal Index (Roman Catholics were banned from reading Copernicus until 1835) and, finally, the FBI. CH

Hardboiled/Hard Luck, by Banana Yoshimoto (FABER £9.99 (149pp))

Although Yoshimoto's lost, questing heroines meet many ghosts in memory and fantasy, "it's living people that frighten me the most". These bitter-sweet novellas (translated by Michael Emmerich) mix ancient software - the autumnal pathos of much Japanese art - with the modern hardware of tough urban life. In one, a dead lover appears in a dream. In the other, a dying sister sharpens all the joys of life: "if we couldn't catch that sparkle, only the agony would remain". BT

The Book of Ash, by James Flint (PENGUIN £7.99 (405pp))

Glowing with energy and passion, James Flint's road-novel of the nuclear age and its human fall-out gives DeLillo a run for his money. A troubled geek goes in search of his sculptor-hippie father's life. Cooper follows his errant dad's obsession with atomic research across the US to a desert dystopia, Atomville - where bomb culture still rules. Pacey, often comic, and always radiant with bright ideas. BT

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