Books: Paperbacks

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Constantinople by Philip Mansel (Penguin, pounds 9.99)

Mansel notes that this fabled city seemed "expressly created to receive the wealth of the four corners of the earth". Every page of his acclaimed history, which covers the Ottoman era (1435-1924), sparkles with wonders: harem eunuchs carry out regal fratricides (19 siblings were eliminated before a coronation in 1597); sequestered women pass the time with embroidery and architecture; rich families use only the left legs of chickens (the right was considered tough); Dracula's brother becomes the Sultan's lover; a special type of loaf is baked for the dogs which roam the streets. Like the city it documents, this book is not to be missed.

A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities by Jay Bondeson (I B Tauris, pounds 10.95)

Ranging from "bosom snakes" which allegedly reside in the human body to Julia Pastana, the "baboon lady" of Mexico, this trawl of oddities is carefully assessed by a London physician. He is doubtful about spontaneous human combustion - but accepts that the gruesome "lousy disease" (tumours filled with small insects), may be based on fact. Brondeson is equally fascinated by the fraudulent Mary Toft, who claimed to have given birth to 14 rabbits, as the rare, but well- documented, instances of tailed humans. Though we may feel uneasy at intruding in this delicate field, the author treats his subjects with scrupulous respect.

Furious Interiors by Justin Wintle (Flamingo, pounds 8.99)

This quirky, ambitious book explores Welshness via a perceptive biographical study of R S Thomas - the vicar-poet who declares that he finds it "very difficult to believe in a personal God". Laced with Thomas's dazzling verse, this book offers no easy answers. Instead, Wintle celebrates his subject's cussedness and the ambiguous milieux - geographical, literary and theological - in which he moves. Despite Thomas's less-than-warm welcome ("Those who crowd/A small window dirty it/With their breathing"), the result is enthralling.

Ella and the Mothers by Rachel Morris (Sceptre, pounds 6.99)

Dr Madeleine Kingdom is spiky, dark and teaches EngLit at London University. Gina Kaufman is beautiful, rich and indolent. They meet briefly at a fertility clinic where their eggs are mixed up and Madeleine gives birth to Gina's child. If all this genetic meddling sounds a little Weldonesque, that's because the two writers are related - though Morris is no mere clone to her more famous aunt. Her witty, sexy novel explores what happens when women love their children more than their men.

Double Your Salary, Bonk Your Boss, Go Home Early by Guy Browning (Virgin, pounds 7.99)

This relentless torrent of business gags will doubtless be photocopied by office bores throughout the land. A few contain a degree of humour, such as Browning's advice on presentations: "Never speak from a lectern taller than you are." Or his warning not to fancy someone on the phone: "It is an immutable law of business life that people who sound gorgeous on the phone turn out to be truffling ground hogs in real life." But too much is thin and laboured. Why bother inventing "Ten brand extensions too far: Armitage Shanks Eau de Toilet: Lamborghini stair lifts... " when the reality is even odder? Lamborghini really is a tractor company.

Passion and Anger: volume I of a fictional biography of Ludwig Van Beethoven by John Suchet (Warner, pounds 6.99)

John Suchet doesn't just present the early evening news, he's also spent the last few years researching the life of Beethoven - helped in his labours by his wife, Bonnie, who filled him in on the women in the great man's life. The first volume in a trilogy, this "true novel" traces Beethoven's early years from lank-haired schoolboy to composer of Symphony No 1 in C Major - inspired, according to Suchet, by the heaving bosom of a tasty peasant girl.

A Life Less Ordinary by John Hodge (Penguin, pounds 5.99)

Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge's first novel (also recently released as a film) is a surreal road story set in corporate America, but with a wise-cracking Glaswegian as its star. When Robert loses his job, his girlfriend and his apartment in the same day, he abandons all pretensions to a sensible life, kidnaps his boss's daughter and ends up on the run. Two angels - celestial love police whose mission is to persuade the two young fugitives into bed with each other - are hired to track them down.

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