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About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies, Penguin pounds 7.99. If the Universe is such a brilliant idea, why didn't God create it sooner? Leibnitz was very much puzzled by this question, though it seems a daft one today. It's so easy to regard time as knitted into the fabric of the Universe that the notion of "before the Big Bang" is unintelligible. In other words, all Einsteinians as we are now, it can be easily forgotten how shocking shock-haired Albert really was in his day. Davies ably sketches the genesis of Relativity and goes on to explain some of its abiding problems - the principal one being that it doesn't quite mesh with the latest findings on the origin of the Universe. Davies suggests that a discarded theory of antigravity, once advanced by Einstein in an abortive attempt to refute the Big Bang (which even he only reluctantly accepted) may yet help resolve the issue. Alongside the rather icy Stephen Hawking, Davies comes over notably warm and readable.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Indigo pounds 5.99. Spend an hour with a golden oldies radio station and note the titles of all those Motown, R&B and C&W tracks from the Sixties. Then think about the dominant emotion behind them: self-pity, right? One of the ruling passions of your teens, the Heartache Years, but socially crippling in an adult. Rob Fleming is 35, a "specialist" record shop proprietor and the hero in this very amusing tale of male angst and worn vinyl. Trapped in a world of record-collecting obsessives, child-men capable of reciting the complete works of Captain Beefheart in chronological order but incapable of a tender gesture, he speaks of his addiction to pop as of some old drug habit. He listened to these tracks week after week for years - how, he asks, can that not bruise you, disable your luck with girls, cut you off from the human race? And "what came first, the music or the misery?" If Fever Pitch was about a man's relationship with himself, refracted through the prism of football, this one asks, with wit and considerable wisdom, how on earth you move beyond yourself and out into the sunny uplands of romantic love and good sex.

Billie Whitelaw ... Who He? by Billie Whitelaw, Sceptre pounds 7.99. It was traumatic, and mesmerising, to go to the Royal Court in 1972 and watch Whitelaw's disembodied mouth floating in the darkness as it spouted words for 16 minutes like some broken tap. Not I was not her first Sam Beckett play, and she was already famous in TV, films and theatre, but the impact of that piece, the tragic content compressed like a white dwarf, has been unequalled in her career, or anyone else's. Whitelaw's excellent autobiography gives much space to her work with Beckett. It was an unconventional relationship, but you can easily understand how he thought of her as a muse. Elsewhere she radiates good sense and humanity, scoring particularly with an acute portrait of Olivier.

A Soldier's Way: An Autobiography by Colin Powell with Joseph E Persico, Hutchinson pounds 12.99. Americans of all colours and creeds queued around the block to buy these memoirs, which tell how the son of poor but impeccably respectable Jamaican immigrants grew up in the South Bronx before enlisting and going to Vietnam as one of Kennedy's military "advisers". Powell saw jungle combat, but his defining military skill was staff work, and three decades later he'd worked his way up to the office of Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff - the only black man to have reached that pinnacle. His optimism, eminence and enthusiasm fit him to run for office but, after months of judicious indecision, he pulled out of this year's presidential race. The book fully covers Powell's black identity, but never suggests it did more than create minor contraflows along the drive for success in a white-dominated society.

Paula by Isabel Allende, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Allende has found fame for novels woven out of the stuff of family myth. The rich personalities of her Chilean parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins generate impressive narrative energy, and here, with redoubled force, is a non- fiction account of Paula, the author's daughter, who fell into a coma aged 28. Written as if from beside Paula's hospital bed, the book is a multi-layered stream of storytelling which she believes can stir up a restorative force around Paula and bring her back to life. The mixture of bedside journal and family history is astoundingly powerful and chokingly tragic.

Liliane by Ntozake Shange, Minerva pounds 6.99. A torrent of language drives this story of an American black woman undergoing therapy because she feels alienated from a country "which imagines that we don't exist, don't have loved ones and dreams for our children". Interspersing the appointments with the analyst (in dialogue only) are moments from Liliane's young life. These are not short of couch-sessions of a different kind, because this novelist throws erotic reserve away like unwanted wrapping paper. More significantly, she also tells it like it was on the racial front.

Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto, trs Ann Sherif, Faber pounds 5.99. These very interesting stories about the dislocated lives of young Japanese are dedicated to the memory of Kurt Cobain. Suitably, their author, who was born in 1964, writes much about love and death, now with a sort of mournful cynicism, now with a semi-mystical neo-hippy acceptance of the spiritual. Sudden violence punctures the lives of her characters but the effect on them seems oddly (or grungily?) arbitrary: it may bruise or traumatise them, or simply amuse them, as when a terrorist bomb explodes a building and two lovers who witness it agree that "it looked really pretty".

Napoleon's memoirs appeared in chaotic, unrevised form in 1823, mixing letters, battle commentaries, childhood memories and self-analysis, just as he had dictated them over six years on St Helena. Napoleonic expert Somerset de Chair first edited the jumbled text in 1945; Napoleon on Napoleon (Cassell pounds 14.99) is a revised, illustrated edition incorporating much new material. The exiled Emperor wrote in the stiff, formal third person; de Chair has adopted the more intimate "I" throughout. Above, the youthful Napoleon as First Consul in 1803, painted by Francois Gerard

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