Paperbacks: The Subterranean Railway<br/>The Infinite Book<br/>Mind the Gap<br/>Beatrice's Spell<br/>Does Anything Eat Wasps?<br/> Grace &amp; Truth<br/>Wild Dogs

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The Independent Culture

The Subterranean Railway, by Christian Wolmar
ATLANTIC £9.99 (351pp)

Written in muscular, fast-moving prose, this account of the Tube is so packed with surprises and pleasures that it deserves an audience far beyond transport buffs and Londoners. The system began with the Metropolitan line, which was constructed with considerable difficulty between Paddington and Farringdon. The 79-year-old Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, excused himself from the opening ceremony in 1863, stating that "he wanted to remain above ground as long as possible". Despite the sulphurous fumes from the steam locos, which the Metropolitan Railway with typical Victorian verve turned to its advantage by advertising the line as "a sort of health resort" for the asthmatic, this efficient and hidden transport system steadily spread across the capital. Noting that "London would not be London without the Underground", Wolmar laments the scant commemoration of the world's first underground railway. His book glories in the quirks of the Tube, ranging from the collection of stuffed animals killed by the electrified District line to the revelation that the London Transport HQ at 55 Broadway, once the tallest office block in London, caused a furore when it opened in 1929 because of two Epstein nudes, one of which "displayed the male organ in all splendour."

The Infinite Book, by John D Barrow
VINTAGE £8.99 (328pp)

Risky idea, the infinite. As John Barrow notes in this mind-expanding study, "Infinity has haunted human minds for thousands of years. What does 'forever' mean?" Georg Cantor, the mathematician who "first made sense of the paradoxes of infinity", was first plunged into depression, then declared himself a "mouthpiece of God". Though lucidly described by Barrow, David Hilbert's celebrated concept of the Infinite Hotel did not do much for this reader. But there's plenty here, from Borges to Blake, to engage the mathematically allergic.

Mind the Gap, by Ferdinand Mount
SHORT BOOKS £8.99 (316pp)

"Even a few months ago, I did not imagine I would be writing a book about class," admits the patrician Conservative author. "The subject seemed passé." The wellspring for his provocative analysis can be found on page 12. Why has "a British working class that was the envy of foreign observers in the 19th century" been transformed into "a so-called underclass which is the subject of baffled despair"? More descriptive than prescriptive, Mount blames a host of factors, particularly education, geographical separation and cultural deprivation. This passionate, unequivocal book could be a key text for a Tory Renaissance.

Beatrice's Spell, by Belinda Jack
PIMLICO £8.99 (196pp)

The immensely stimulating work investigates the legacy of Beatrice Cenci, a "hauntingly beautiful" 16-year-old who was executed in 1599 for the murder of her father, Francesco, a psychopathic Roman grandee. Jack explores how this potent Oedipal tragedy inspired edgy work by a host of writers and artists, including Shelley's play The Cenci ("Was Shelley's fascination bound up with Beatrice or did he catch terrifying glimpses of himself in Francesco), Melville's "hopeless, last ditch" novel Pierre and Artaud's "catastrophic" play Les Cenci. The result is enthralling, insightful and not a little chilling.

Does Anything Eat Wasps? Ed Mick O'Hare
PROFILE £7.99 (218pp)

Though enlightening, this trawl from New Scientist's "Q&A" column is primarily interesting for the insight it offers into the scientific mind. Who else would come up with these teasers: How many species live on the human body? How fat would you have to be to be bulletproof? Why is earwax different colours? Why does the cream on top of Tia Maria circulate? The answers are: more than 200 (80 in the mouth alone); you would need at least a 60cm layer; time, dirt and light affect wet and dry earwax; surface-tension convection. And, yes, loads of creatures eat wasps, including larger wasps, crabs and humans.

Grace & Truth, by Jennifer Johnston
REVIEW £7.99 (250pp)

Jennifer Johnston's 14th novel begins with a war and a revelation. The war, in Iraq, is a leitmotif of distant anguish, mediated through the telegenic presence in Sally's sitting room of Rageh Omaar. The revelation is that her husband, Charlie, is leaving her. Grief-ridden, Sally seeks solace in visits to her only surviving relative, an old man of Bergmanesque grimness. The secret that emerges is hardly a shock, but it's beautifully, grippingly done.

Wild Dogs, by Helen Humphreys
MAIA PRESS £8.99 (229pp)

There's more than a touch of early Atwood to this lyrical collage of six characters in pursuit of their newly feral dogs in the Canadian woods. For Rachel the wolf expert, Malcolm the drunken artist, lovelorn Alice and the rest, the canine culture they try to grasp mirrors their own struggles between the pull of love and home, and the thrill of autonomy, a "great enabler". Not so much a conventional novel as a piece of eerie word-music, harmonised with nocturnal howls of grief and joy.

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