Books: Paperbacks

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With Chatwin by Susannah Clapp (Vintage, pounds 6.99)

Every page in this portrait of Bruce Chatwin, a tough restless, elfin figure, sparkles with interest. The preciousness of the man - his bed- sheet from the King of Hawaii, his moleskin notebooks from Paris - drives you nuts, but he was a whirlwind of energy and ideas. Clapp, his former editor, recalls he "got as much joy from expelling an adjective... as an ornament from his flat". We dip into his successive careers as art expert ("I'm not showing my Renoir to a 16-year-old kid!" yelped a New York dowager), erratic journalist and professional nomad. Like its subject, the book is irresistibly seductive.

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson (Vintage, pounds 6.99)

A best-seller in the States, Diane Johnson's novel about a young Californian in Paris more than lives up to the transatlantic hype. Newly arrived at the rue Maitre-Albert, Isabel Walker looks forward to helping out her pregnant sister and investigating the nearest Agnes B. Instead she finds herself plunged into a mystery involving her missing brother-in-law, the inconstant Charles-Henri, and a custody battle over a priceless family oil painting. A funny, waspish portrait of Paris's expat community, and a none too generous take on the French themselves.

Thomas Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Yale, pounds 12.50)

This epic Life, which drew a slew of prizes, probes the combustible mix of religion and politics. MacCulloch gives a detailed and enthralling account of the bright boy from Notts who was the architect of The Book of Common Prayer. He reveals that this prose masterpiece was, in fact, a patchwork by many hands: "today, he would face crippling lawsuits for breach of copyright." The anguished oscillations of Cranmer's final days, as he first acknowledged, then, en route to the stake, renounced the rule of Rome, provide a dramatic finale. Thankfully, we learn from an eyewitness, he was "very soon dead".

With Friends Like These by Nicholas Coleridge (Orion, pounds 5.99)

If Nicholas Coleridge (head honcho of Conde Nast) hadn't been quite so determined to show off his inside knowledge of print runs and "hot" cover lines, his thriller, set in the world of glossy magazines, might have got off to a better start. Instead, his literary alter ego Kit Preston (also the boss of a magazine company) takes so long to decide whether to make copy changes to an expose of the richest man in Europe, that by the time the plot becomes clear, you've already put the book to bed.

Jesus: who is he? by Tim LaHaye (Marshall Pickering, pounds 8.99)

Not a bad question - but you won't find the answer here. This accumulation of snippets is primarily designed as ammunition for the hard-sell evangelist. The notion of doubt is not allowed a foot in the door. "Do you worship him?" enquires the American author, "If not, I suggest you do so today." Similarly, LaHaye angrily dismisses any notion that the Resurrection was a metaphor: "That is not only false, it is blasphemy!" He reluctantly includes a few words by unbelievers in praise of Christ - but these views are somewhat undermined by his descriptions: "Spinoza, apostate Jew"; "Rousseau, immoral atheist". A book for the Bible Belt.

Child's Play by Clare Nonhebel (Lion, pounds 6.99)

Sonia is at her wits' end. Fired from her last job and stranded at Victoria Station with a hungry four-year-old, she has no money and no place to go. But after a fortuitous encounter with an elderly gentleman, she lands herself a housekeeping job and a room in his rambling house in Herne Hill. Life looks up for mother and daughter until little Lois takes to playing Red Indians in the old man's back garden. If you've overdosed on Ruth Rendell, but still crave a little domestic terror in your life, Nonhebel's readable novel is just the thing.

Before the Beginning by Martin Rees (Touchstone, pounds 7.99)

The Astronomer Royal offers an elegant and (fairly) comprehensible account of how cosmologists have utterly transformed our view of the universe in the past half-century. He brings us up to speed on the latest thinking concerning the big bang, black holes and particularly the "multiverse", an "infinite ensemble" of universes each starting with its own big bang. Rees also explores ideas that went wrong, such as the Cambridge physicist's putting a precise figure, 80 digits long, on the number of photons in the universe. Today's scientific cleverdicks would do well to ponder on such certitude.

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