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War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Machine Age by Daniel Pick, Yale pounds 12.95. Before the 19th century, war was not a seen as a machine but as an apocalyptic force, like floods and pestilence, or an intellectual exercise like chess. Pick shows how the machine (and by extension the production-line) came to be the preferred analogue of warfare, coinciding (as he explains in a fine central section) with the appearance of factory-style abattoirs. There's a brilliant gloss on Wilfred Owen's phrase about men being sent to die "as cattle". With war now going digital, the military machine age is rapidly passing away, making this a timely study.

Marked for Life by Paul Magrs, Vintage pounds 5.99. Magrs's protagonist, Mark, has had every square millimetre of his skin tattooed; he is shunned, refused service in restaurants, talked about behind his back. As this - and Mark's admitted bisexuality - puts added strain on his rather provisional marriage, the tattoos emerge as symptoms of Mark's deeper malaise, his refusal to believe in "the inner man". Meanwhile he is stalked by a wraith- like ex-lover who must wear gloves and make-up to become visible. Add to this a 450-year-old lesbian who used to be a man and you've got the Illustrated Man meets the Invisible Man at Orlando's place. There are many witty flights of fancy, though the reader sometimes has to work hard to join the dots.

Brewer's Cinema: A Phrase & Fable Dictionary, Cassell pounds 12.99. Lord Attenborough's preface hyperbolises cinema as "surely the most complex industry in the world" (as against, presumably, the doddle of the Human Genome Project or interplanetary space travel). Nevertheless, this is a useful resource if you want to disentangle your dolly from your best boy or intercutting from intertitling (but not, sadly, the interval). There are cribs on notable men, women and movies, though some (Ozu, John Ford, Veronica Lake, Planet of the Apes) elude the net. And there are phrases but not enough of them: why no witticisms under Welles and Wilder?

The Aachen Memorandum by Andrew Roberts, Orion pounds 5.99. Roberts is brilliant, icon-bashing historian and his first novel, a thriller set in 2045, has as its hero a brilliant, icon-bashing historian, improbably named Horatio Lestoq. In this England, abjectly subject to the humourless rationality of the US of E, hardly an hour goes by without someone saying "bet your bottom euro" or "federal" as a synonym of "cool". Little Englanders will love Roberts's vision of a Fourth Reich, its people living in fear of "Europol", their vid-fones and g-mail tapped, common law abolished and King William exiled to New Zealand. Meanwhile a resistance movement ("ERM") rises from the maquis of North Yorkshire. Among all the fun the plotting - Lestoq's discovery of the rigged referendum that set it all up - seems oddly incidental.

Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell by Paul Mariani, Norton pounds 11.50. Lowell imagined an afterlife in which he is preserved in his own poems like a dead bee embalmed in a honey-cell, waiting "for the sweet-toothed bear to desecrate". Mariani is not that bear but a sympathetic, laid-back chronicler. He doesn't entirely supersede the earlier work of Ian Hamilton, who was perhaps more sensitive to the verse but did not have as many letters to quarry (for example a rich 30-year correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop). There are moments of superb drama, as when the young Lowell punches his father to the floor of their Boston drawing room, an action which the poet will worry at for the rest of his life. Lowell is possibly the greatest post-war English-language poet (his bad poems are usually better than most poets' good ones) and there is much more to be written about him. But this is a lasting contribution.

! Family Life: Birth, Death & the Whole Damn Thing by Elizabeth Luard, Corgi pounds 6.99. This is both a memoir and a handbook on how to bring up a family and stay sane. Luard tells how she and husband Nicholas, both writers, raised their four children through the Sixties and Seventies in London, Andalusia and France. It is really an album of family anecdotes, with the likeable inclusion of dozens of their favourite recipes, from almond macaroons to tortilla espanola. However, the peroration, written not by the author but by her daughter Francesca, strikes a completely different note: an account of her discovery in her twenties that she was HIV positive and of her subsequent illness. After what has gone before, this chapter is almost unbearably poignant.

Muggeridge by Richard Ingrams, HarperCollins pounds 7.99. Biography is easier with high-achieving subjects: to justify a gadfly like Muggeridge is missionary work and Ingrams's heart isn't altogether in it. At one point he slyly refers to another way of dealing with his man: "He also at this time re- read St Augustine's Confessions." The life of St Mugg was in fact a ludicrous parody of St Aug, enthusiastically embracing world, flesh and devil, before lapsing into sermonising asceticism. The years of sin are smoothly recounted, falling at times almost into name-dropping. Things improve when the latterday Prophet of Robertsbridge is remembered, with Ingrams unable to conceal the fact that Muggeridge was by now a Pantaloon. I only wish he had written more in this vein. As it is, you close his stubbornly tolerant book wondering why such a life was worth the attention.

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