Books: Paperbacks

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Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan (Picador, pounds 6.99)

"It's far from easy for a drowning bloke to see the wretched truths of his family unfold." This is no metaphor, for the narrator Aljaz Cosini is trapped under a Tasmanian waterfall. In the last moments of life, his unfettered mind ranges over salty anecdotes about rambunctious relatives and his own rackety history leading to this watery end. As death encroaches, he soars beyond his brief span to the convict era and Tasmania's dreamtime. This first novel combines the narrative ingenuity of Golding's Pincher Martin with the imaginative detail of de Bernieres' Captain Corelli. It's a torrent of a book - take the plunge.

Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (Virago, pounds 7.99)

Gilot was 21 when she first met Picasso in Paris. He was 61, not as good-looking as she expected, and sharing his life with an entourage of sycophantic flunkies and inscrutable chambermaids. They spent 10 years together, but the price for living with this monstrously moody man was high. First published in 1964, Gilot's memories of these years - meeting Matisse, eating sticky buns with Gertrude Stein - were condemned as being in poor taste. Thirty years on, they seem incredibly polite.

Free Association by Steven Berkoff (Faber, pounds 7.99)

Though Berkoff intermittently refers to his offstage existence - particularly a tender recollection of his East End childhood - this is very much an actor's life, sometimes reading like a stagecraft manual. Of a Jerusalem rabbi's prayer, he notes: "I wouldn't have minded a little more projection and some variety of pacing." The skittish narrative can be mystifying. A photo caption tells us that actress Shelley Lee was Berkoff's second wife but there is no reference to her in the index. Though egotistical to the point of self- parody, Berkoff is a powerhouse of creativity.

The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley (Penguin, pounds 8.99)

The UK's finest scientific journalist maintains a hectic pace in this investigation of the biological origins of human nature, bringing together theory and evidence in an absorbing synthesis: Kropotkin's anarchism is exemplified by honey bees and, less predictably, the Portuguese man o'war. Every page is freighted with interest. Ridley concludes that the fortuitous outcome of Dawkins' "selfish gene" is that our minds are "social and trustworthy". We must capitalise on this by devolving power to small communities. Kropotkin was right.

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus, pounds 6.99)

As richly populated as a Henry James novel, Bainbridge's retelling of the last days aboard the Titanic sparkles with intrigue. Cosy in their furs and first-class cabins, the Duff Gordons, Tafts and Van Hoppers are only dimly aware of life below "C" Deck. But the book's narrator, a young man with a Dickensian background, sees past the highballs and dinner dances and smells disaster. The book's final chapter is as exciting as they come.

Darling Ma: Letters to her Mother, 1932-44 by Joyce Grenfell (Sceptre, pounds 7.99)

Not only was this quintessential English gel a devotee of Christian Science (which may have shortened her life), but she also had an all-American mom living in North Carolina. The comedienne emerges as a very decent sort - though a spot of Waugh-style malice would not have come amiss in her accounts of upper-class festivities: "The King and Queen looked so right so good, so lovely." War sharpened her observations. "How wonderfully English," she declares of a soldier who described his aunt's decapitation by a 500-pound bomb as "quite a nasty experience". Her encounters with long-forgotten thesps disprove the notion of ars longa vita brevis.

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder (Phoenix House, pounds 5.99)

There's something very charming about Christmas stories set in Scandinavia, and Gaarder's (author of Sophie's World) is no exception. Travelling through the windows of his magical advent calendar, a Norwegian boy passes down the centuries and across the frozen wastes of Europe to reach Palestine in time for the birth of Christ. En route he meets cherubs, Roman Emperors and the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

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