Books: Paperbacks

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Some Girls Do by Margaret Leroy (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99)

Despite the faux-trashy cover, this is an intelligently argued polemic which asks a single, important question: why shouldn't women ask men out? The proposal is explored from many viewpoints. A woman declares: "It feels so good to go out with somebody you've chosen", but a pursued man groans about being viewed as a "walking dildo". In making her case, Leroy adduces some odd evidence: "sperm dithers: its tail propels the head sideways with a force 10 times stronger than its forward movement". But her conclusion is sound common sense: "The only hurdle is our fear; we can do anything if we dare". The truth is we're all humans first, men or women second.

Signalling from Mars: The Letters of Arthur Ransome (Pimlico, pounds 12)

An entrancing portrait of the rather overlooked author emerges from this rich haul. Observant (particularly of nature), wise and lucid. the letters reveal that a writer does not need acid in his ink in order to be a pleasure to read, Ransome's buoyant geniality occasionally gives way to storms, both literal (he was a great yachtsman) and familial. Engagingly, he views his own writing with a scathing eye: "wretched", "ghastly" and "the dullest ditchwater I have ever produced". His drawings are a splendid bonus, particular the 1918 sketch to his daughter which portrays Ransome vomiting: "Politics is what keeps Dor-Dor [himself] in Russia and makes him SICK."

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo (Vintage, pounds 5.99)

North Bath, a depressed blue-collar town in Upstate New York, has seen better times. So has Sully, a grouchy construction worker with a bad leg. Set across a Thanksgiving weekend, Russo's classic novel of small-town America tells how Scully and the town's antsier residents find redemption of sorts in each other's befuddled company. First published in 1994, and made into a film starring a very crusty Paul Newman.

Sotheby's: Inside Story by Peter Watson (Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99)

In 1996, the giant auction house fell for a juicy bait. Its catalogue included a painting by the 18th-century master Nogari, which Sotheby's Italian man had arranged to be smuggled. According to Watson, a veteran watch-dog of the art world, Sotheby's was "caught red-handed". Though his narrative of this sting is flawed - there are no fewer then four starting points - it is nail-biting stuff, revealing that, while only one Sotheby's employee ended up in gaol, several others were lucky not to join him. Other dubious practices by the smooth-tongued operators of Bond Street include "chandelier" (imaginary) bids and acceptance of items known to be stolen.

Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle (Penguin, pounds 5.99)

As comic thrillers go, Peter Mayle's isn't bad. Set in New York, Cap Ferrat and the Bahamas, the book's suave hero - a photographer for a New York glossy - stumbles upon a multi-million dollar plot to defraud the world's rich and famous of their favourite paintings. It's up to smoothie Alain, a cute girl in a waterproof beret, and a limp-wristed fellow called Noel, to track down the missing masters. Oh, la la!

The Beggar and the Professor by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Chicago, pounds 11.95)

In a finer work than even his acclaimed Montaillou, Le Roy Ladurie opens a window on the 16th century through the story of Thomas Platter (1499-1582), a scholar and entrepreneur, and his son, Felix, who became a professor of medicine in Basel. Ladurie reveals the surprising permeability of medieval society - though plague assisted Thomas's rapid rise (a brief infection gave him immunity). Packed with detail, the text recalls the teeming canvases of Breughel the Elder. We learn that, as a student, Felix was fond of beach parties and ate coq au vin on grave-robbing forays. This family history should be slowly savoured.

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