Paperbacks: The World of Spice<br/> Lovesick Blues <br/> Megalith <br/> The Google Story <br/> The Gecko's Foot <br/> Rapture <br/> Dancing in the Dark

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The Independent Culture

The World of Spice, by Michael Bateman (KYLE CATHIE £14.99 (240pp))

The fruit of a life-long obsession with spices, this book was the long-cherished project of The Independent on Sunday's celebrated food editor, who died earlier this year. The first half of his final work resembles a conventional cookbook, but the lively introductions to the 200 recipes go far beyond the norm. We learn, for example, that the Romans were the first to plant mustard in Britain. (The spice goes particularly harmoniously with rabbit, also introduced by the Romans.) The Tanzanian dish of salt fish curry was introduced by Portuguese spice traders. The Singapore fusion style known as Nonya, typified by pork with soy sauce, came about through intermarriage, since British colonists did not allow Chinese workers to bring their wives. The second half focuses on specific spices. We learn that poppy seeds are used as a sedative and aphrodisiac. It takes an estimated one million crocus stigmas to make one kilo of saffron. Sassafras, an essential ingredient of gumbo, is "not normally available in the UK" because of its addictive properties. But is Bateman right in saying pepper was "the uniquely hot spice of the Old World"? What about mustard? After this, can we look forward to a collection of articles by this much-missed writer? CH

Lovesick Blues, by Paul Hemphill (VINTAGE £8.99 (207pp))

Describing his first aural encounter with Hank Williams, Hemphill seems unsure whether his subject "loomed like a ghost", "sprouted like a wild dandelion" or was "some primordial beast". The poignant story of the Alabama minstrel, who drank himself to death at the age of 29, is enlivened by engaging Southern detail, such as Williams's radio sponsorship by an entirely benign condiment called Johnnie Fair Syrup, but marred by the verbosity of his biographer. Ironically, Hank's own beautifully spare lyrics ("All I do is sit and sigh-ee-yi-ee-yi-yiii"), admired by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, are only rarely quoted here. CH

Megalith, edited by Damian Walford Davies (GOMER £9.99 (128pp))

Boasting a droll introduction by Jan Morris (she describes a group of Corsican menhirs as being "like hypochondriac senior citizens"), this collection of ruminations on ancient stones ranges from reminiscence to diary scraps, from demands that we should be inspired ("They release the imagination like... a bursting poppy head") to an instance that if "we think we can understand them, we haven't understood anything". Oddly, this overly literary colloquy (seven poets, three novelists, a lecturer and a rock climber) lacks anything by an imaginative archaeologist, such as the excellent Aubrey Burl. CH

The Google Story, by David A Vise (PAN £7.99 (326pp))

Vise's story of the soaraway search engine contains some fascinating detail. We learn that the company builds its own hardware using off-the-shelf PCs customised in a secret facility. Vise also explains Google's world-beating expertise in prioritising search results. But there is an excessive amount of extraneous information here, ranging from an account of the font used on the company's home page to a page of doggerel by the father of one of the founders. Too often, as in a sketchy account of how Google caved in to Chinese censorship, the book is anodyne rather than revelatory. CH

The Gecko's Foot, by Peter Forbes (HARPER £8.99 (272pp))

In this absorbing study, Forbes ranges over a host of fields to discover how scientists and engineers are borrowing tricks from nature. The gecko's use of bands of tissues on its feet to cling to ceilings is being used for new forms of adhesion with bristles. But our imitation goes beyond zoomorphism. The folding mechanism of the hornbeam leaf may banish map-folding misery. The water-repelling engineering of the lotus leaf is being utilised in a prototype spoon. Though some of Forbes's examples have a hint of Dr Strabismus, the result is an admirably comprehensible exploration of "smart" science. CH

Rapture, by Carol Ann Duffy (BLOODAXE £7.99 (62pp))

This award-winning collection, by one of the finest poets of our time, is a paean to psychosis - the process otherwise known as falling in love. Here, in lyrics of breathtaking beauty, is a roller-coaster of passion, longing and gut-wrenching loss. "Falling in love/ is glamorous hell; the crouched, parched heart/ like a tiger ready to kill; a flame's fierce licks under the skin." God, the agony! Perhaps better to read about than to endure. CP

Dancing in the Dark, by Caryl Phillips (VINTAGE £7.99 (209pp))

Caryl Phillips's beautifully crafted novel brings to life the career of Bert Williams: the proud, talented performer from the Bahamas who became the star "stage nigger" of US showbiz in the 1890s and 1900s. This is a tragic story played out in the arena of comedy, and Phillips opens the gap between man and role into an excruciating chasm. Not just a subtle inquiry into the masks of race, but a moving study of a soul lost in limelight. BT

To order these books call: 0870 079 8897