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Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms

by Stephen Jay Gould

Vintage pounds 7.99

This is Gould's eighth collection of essays, and it's business as usual. He is still pumping out gripping yarns from the history of science and astounding facts about nature: the history of the aquarium, a 19th-century controversy over the structure of a gorilla's brain, the parallel tragedies of the dodo and the Bahamian Taino people, and some parasites with a wacky life-cycle. But he is still too fond of folksy baseball anecdotes, quotations from Gilbert and Sullivan and clunky pedant's humour (the joke about the Diet of Worms is an example); also, despite his anglophile leanings, he's terribly Americocentric, or he wouldn't suggest that Isambard Kingdom Brunel is now a forgotten figure. Brilliant, but kind of annoying.

The Extremes

by Christopher Priest

Scribner pounds 6.99

In previous novels - The Glamour, The Affirmation - Priest has puzzled over the fuzzy line between perception and reality, the imperfect fit between our physical bodies and the selves that inhabit them. So virtual reality ought to be child's play for him (he wrote - pseudonymously - the novelisation of Cronenberg's eXistenZ). In this one, a widowed FBI agent, trained on VR "Extreme Experience" scenarios, tries to exorcise her grief by investigating a mass killer - whose shooting spree may have been triggered by a VR experience. Reality and fantasy blurred, pornography of violence, blah blah - the concerns and the outline of the plot are a shade predictable; but Priest's quietly unshockable prose is always a treat.

The Bread and Butter Stories

by Mary Norton

Virago pounds 7.99

Norton, who died in 1992, is remembered for children's books (The Borrowers). These stories for grown-ups aren't likely to change that. Written mainly for American magazines in the 1940s and 1950s, to put bread and butter on the table, they are inconsequential tales, often with the mildest of twists. But she has an appealing voice - self-contained, self- doubting - and her daughter's introduction is packed with intriguing snippets. She remembers, when they were living in Portugal in the 1930s, having to chaperone her mother when she entertained the nice English boys, Communists and poets, who lived down the road - their names were Wystan, Christopher and Stephen; and you suspect that a chaperone wasn't really called for.

Trumpet

by Jackie Kay

Picador pounds 6.99

Joss Moody, a great jazzman, dies; and turns out to have been a woman all along. Kay's novel - very loosely based on a true story - unravels the aftermath from the point of view of his wife, his adopted son, a muck- raking journalist and sundry friends and acquaintances. The achievement of the book is the sympathetic picturing of Moody's marriage - the way in which love makes the strange natural. But Kay falls down when she tries to show the mentality of those who find Moody's secret harder to accept, the ones who refer to Moody as "she": the shocked son has a cod-butch, socks-stuffed-down-his-shorts manner; the journalist is a simple-minded, venal caricature. The limits of Kay's sympathy and imagination are all too obvious.

Iris

by John Bayley

Abacus pounds 7.99

Bayley's memoir of his wife, Iris Murdoch, was written when she was already stricken by Alzheimer's. It's impossible not to be touched and appalled by the tenderness that suffuses the book, and by the picture of one of the great brains of literature reduced to childishness. But you can still appreciate the apparently effortless patterning of the book - the way, for instance, that images of water and swimming flow through it - and you can still be knocked down by the oddity of parts of it: take Bayley's description of Murdoch's premarital love-life, which involved a really startling amount of "generosity" to elderly men. A strange and haunting book.

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