The End of Science by John Horgan (Abacus, pounds 8.99)

If you pick just one title from the tidal wave of speculative science which has flooded bookshops in recent years, make it this. Not only does Horgan deal in a comprehensible way with the wild frontiers of a dozen different disciplines, he also appends vivid pen-portraits of the leading players, from "icily self-confident" Richard Dawkins to genial Fred Hoyle, who expresses regret that he didn't patent the term "big bang". The big shift of recent years, Horgan insists, is that the "ironic science" of Hawking, Penrose et al keeps us in awe of the universe rather than offering answers. He is a stimulating guide to this exciting, if hazy, territory.

The Man in the Moon by Andrew Barrow (Picador, pounds 6.99)

At home among the strawberry trifles and screaming queens of Sixties cafe society, young William drinks in the endearments of his newly acquired set of friends - a jaunty cast of stand-up comics, ageing character actresses and assorted spongers. Living in over-expensive digs in Chelsea, this ex-public schoolboy has sensibly given up on his dream of vaudevillean stardom and is instead nurturing himself as a Man of Letters. This sequel to Andrew Barrow's prize-winning first novel The Tap Dancer teams with interestingly eccentric characters - the author's remarkable feat is to keep them that way.

Shanghai by Harriet Sergeant (John Murray, pounds 13.99)

A dazzling panorama of the great port during its glamorous, decadent pre-war heyday, when "its name evoked mystery, adventure and licence of every form". This is no exaggeration - Sergeant's gallery of characters includes the white-slave trader Mrs Litvanoff and Grace Gale, a San Franciscan madam who "ensured there were no limits to what a young man might enjoy". However, the intoxicating atmosphere did no harm to the old Shanghai hands whom Sergeant tracks down, still full of pizazz in their eighties. "My bubs have dropped", a White Russian princess, now domiciled in High Wycombe, says regretfully. "I never wore a bra you know."

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool (Robinson, pounds 9.99)

A mildly entertaining ramble through the minutiae which obsessed the great novelists of the last century - though it's doubtful if any of them exploited the dramatic potential of Pool's revelations that railways had no lavatories until 1891, or that dog shit, ironically termed "pure", was collected for tanning kid leather. Some things have not changed. Jane Austen's description of a dining companion "at once expensively and nakedly dress'd" is perfect for today's haute couture. Aimed at the US market, the final third of this book is given over to a glossary which helpfully informs us that "market town" is "any town that regularly held a market" and "tram" is "a streetcar".

Oxford Dictionary of Political Biography edited by Dennis Kavanagh (pounds 8.99)

Relying solely on academic contributors, this worldwide trawl of 20th- century politicos is more judicious than entertaining. One gem is the Democrat, John Garner (1868-1967), who openly drank a glass of whiskey every day of Prohibition and, despite holding the post for eight years, noted that the vice-presidency was "not worth a pitcher of warm piss". Sadly, the entry for Pierre Trudeau does not touch on his wife's fling with the Rolling Stones. However, the titans of the century are concisely summarised: "Lenin... considered any means justified, including terror and deceit", "Churchill was difficult, impulsive... and sometimes plain wrong."

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