A week in books

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Readers don't generally notice the publishers of books, any more than they bother with the by-lines on newspaper articles. But when one small-to-middling firm snatches half the slots in the Top 10 of hardback bestsellers, something's going on that merits a close look at the spine. That has just happened to Fourth Estate, at exactly the time that its flagship - Dava Sobel's Longitude - moved into a second year in the charts and passed 300,000 UK sales. Since then, Carol Shields's novel Larry's Party has joined the gang, while David Nokes's biography of Jane Austen - released this week - may well follow soon.

For an independent outfit without mounds of cash for marketing, such a thick cluster indicates some fingers firmly on the pulse of their times - especially those of founder Victoria Barnsley and Christopher Potter, the editorial director. Their magic works most promptly with non-fiction, while the less glittering fiction list still rests heavily on the doughty duo of Shields and E Annie Proulx. Yet even Fourth Estate's weaker links benefit from alluring designs. The books invariably look like covetable objects: witness the silvery sheen on Sadie Plant's new account of women in cyberspace, Zeros and Ones.

Inside their smart jackets, these works cannily mix digestible doses of worthwhile knowledge (mostly about science) with narratives of aspiration. It's no accident that Longitude portrays a gifted Yorkshire clockmaker who trounces the patronising toffs. Sadie Plant celebrates the emancipating force of new technology; and even the harrowing Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, fulfils the paralysed author's quest for an exit from his isolation and despair.

Consciously or not, Fourth Estate's non-fiction triumphs tell us tales of becoming and overcoming. The imprint's brace of major lives for this autumn - of Jane Austen and Isaac Newton - deal with figures who scaled the heights from marginal homes. As for Swampy's Eco-Warrior's Handbook, it will give a fresh wind to the idea of rags-to-riches.

These, if you like, are Blairite success stories. Rooted in talent and toil, they take paths very different from bestselling accounts of Thatcherite flashes-in-the-pan procured by force, luck or stealth - all three, in the case of SAS blockbusters.

This week, Fourth Estate also publishes Spike Lee's basketball memoir, Best Seat in the House (pounds 9.99). Many firms would have turned it down, as the sport lacks mass appeal over here. But Lee's sparky fan's journal is all aspiration - for him, the black Brooklyn kid who jumped into cinema's front rank; and for the stars of his beloved Knicks, who literally leap out of the ghetto. Besides, basketball does thrive on these shores - in the New Town Britain that old-school publishers (the sort who snigger at the name of Milton Keynes) have probably never even visited.