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Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan, Picador pounds 7.99. "Man's great inventions are words and money"; "Money ... replaces violence in human intercourse". Buchan has a fine knack for startling aphorisms, and an eye for other people's: "Money is human happiness in the abstract," Schopenhauer said, and Buchan reckons that this is the best definition anybody has come up with. This elegant, endlessly fascinating study of how money behaves, and how we behave because of it, is shot through with the weariness of real obsession. Something of the obsession communicates itself, though, as he tracks money to all sorts of improbable hiding places, obscure corners of literature and history, like the concentration camp at Terezin/Theresienstadt, where the Jewish authorities printed their own money - possibly the most futile gesture in lucre's filthy history. Part poetry, part economics, and deeply impressive.

Zeros + Ones by Sadie Plant, 4th Estate pounds 6.99. A fast and loose polemic on women in the world of digital technology, Zeros + Ones is a raw hash of the derivative, the ingenious and the plain barking. Plant's thesis is, very very roughly, that men are trapped in their rigid, binary logic of yesses and nos, truths and falsehoods, and women are more open and flexible and hence better suited to life in the age of hypertext. It's hard to summarise her accurately, though, because of the way she hops about, in imitation of hypertext, snapping up quiddities and quotations from all over the place. This packing together of disparate bits of information is entertaining and sometimes creates an illusion - I don't think it's anything more than that - of profundity. But it also provides room for confusion, as Plant tirelessly searches out significance in meaningless conjunctions and resemblances (do you really think ones are thrusting and masculine, and zeros are open and feminine?). A rollicking read, but not to be taken seriously.

The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer, Abacus pounds 6.99. Mailer's first-person rewrite of the greatest story ever told was mauled by the reviewers on first publication, with rather too many of them succumbing to the temptation to crack the obvious joke about Mailer thinking he's God. As it turns out, this may not be a good book, let alone The Good Book, but it isn't the feast of kitsch awfulness you may have been led to believe: just an earnest, insipid rewrite of the Gospels with some nods in the direction of historical accuracy. Mailer has adopted a sub- Biblical vernacular for the occasion - lots of "whereupons" and "it came to passes" - which grates at first. But as you read on, the central conflict isn't Jesus' struggle with temptation, or the battle between his human and divine sides; it's the author's struggle with a style, a voice, self- consciously humane and direct. And this struggle is itself strangely touching.

The Emigrants by Gilbert Imlay, Penguin pounds 8.99. This is published by Penguin Classics, but we're stretching the definition of a classic here: as the introduction admits, few people on either side of the Atlantic have ever heard of this book, one of the first American novels. Imlay is remembered, when he's remembered at all, as the blackguard who drove Mary Wollstonecraft to two suicide attempts; and he was also something of a crook and a plagiarist. On the credit side, he had impeccable radical credentials, and one of the most interesting facets of The Emigrants is its apparently heartfelt plea for women's rights within marriage and easier divorce laws - advanced stuff for 1793. Otherwise, it's a conventional, sometimes charming, sometimes sententious epistolary romance set among the genteel classes of Pittsburgh, in the days when Pittsburgh was the frontier.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Papermac pounds 12. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Ow! After an opening sentence of such blinding clarity and self-evident truth, you wonder what there is left to say. And to be honest, Malcolm's book does lose conviction as it progresses. The Journalist and the Murderer - first published in 1990 - is an account of the MacDonald-McGinniss trial of 1987: Jeffrey MacDonald was tried in 1979 and convicted for the murder nine years earlier of his wife and children (at the time he had pinned the blame on shadowy Manson-style hippies). Throughout the trial and afterwards, MacDonald spoke freely to Joe McGinniss, a well-known journalist who was going to write a book which MacDonald believed would be sympathetic to his case - he had more than 40 letters from McGinniss professing friendship and belief in his innocence. When McGinniss's book portrayed him as a murderous psychopath, MacDonald sued for fraud. It's an extraordinary case, perhaps too off-the-wall to support the moral conclusions Malcolm attaches to it; but her steely prose and absolutist moral logic are wholly enviable.

The Warlock of Strathearn by Christopher Whyte, Indigo pounds 5.99. A dryly appealing, assured novel of the supernatural, with echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan - not the Hannay novels, but Witch Wood, Buchan's historical novel about Covenanters and witches in 17th-century Peeblesshire. This one is set at around the same time in Perthshire, where a young man is born with mysterious powers to heal and to talk to the animals. He is caught between sterile, puritan Christianity and a pagan netherworld. As the cover photo of a naked, muscular young man hints, this can be read as an allegory of gay life (Whyte's most recent novel was The Gay Decameron); or, if you prefer, not - Whyte never pushes the parallels, and there's little in here to bring a blush to the cheek of a maiden aunt.

Robert Hanks

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