A keen intellect plagued by fear of damnation, a lumbering giant who "was a very seducing man among the women when he chose it", a depressive who remained productive and sociable, no wonder this contradictory figure has attracted three fine biographies in the past 30 years. First published in 1971, this is an absorbing human portrait from the ever dependable Hibbert. The main reason for our fascination is that Johnson is so entertaining, perceptive and right. It is like meeting an old, if odd, friend. His famous view of an amoral acquaintance still rings true. "If he really thinks there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons."
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Flamingo, pounds 6.99)
As haunting and strange as the continent in which it's set, Arundhati Roy's masterful first novel tells the story of an Indian family whose lives are swallowed up by tragedy. With a divorced mother and assorted "vinegar-hearted" relatives, inseparable twins Estha and Rahel are already beyond the pale - but with the dramatic death of their eight-year-old cousin from London, their lives are blighted in more serious ways. A novel bursting with exotic colour and sub-continental misery. Winner of last year's Booker Prize.
The Circuit by Jacqueline Davis (Penguin, pounds 5.99)
"He slashed me with a carpet knife, across the knee, blood everywhere..." and that's just a shoplifter. The Medellin cocaine cartel and the Saudi hostage rescue are yet to come. Davis plunges us headlong into her fast- moving world of "covert operations", from disabling a yacht in Nice to nobbling a fraudster in the V&A. We're told rather too much about what she did to a tender part of an errant copper: "I bared my teeth and bit hard... like snapping a big carrot". A more sympathetic side is revealed at Greenham Common: "In my view, the camp was one big lesbian lustfest." The torrent of action is peppered with hard-boiled dialogue. It could almost be fiction.
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross (Quartet, pounds 7)
Pope Joan is a popular literary figure these days, and about to be a big movie star, too - when Andrew Davies adapts her story for the big screen. Donna Woolfolk Cross's dynamic re-telling of the story of the legendary "lost" female pope - the woman who disguised herself as a man and occupied the papal throne for two years - manages to steer well clear of historical kitsch; quite an achievement given the novel's supporting cast of Vikings and monks.
How We Live by Sherwin Nuland (Vintage, pounds 7.99)
This vivid, lucid guide to human physiology by a Yale surgery professor is not for the faint of heart. It starts with a chapter-long account of emergency abdominal surgery ("The entire front of his gown was soaked in blood...") before moving on to more literally emetic matters ("A powerful wave of reverse peristalsis in the stomach"). In the section "The Act of Love", Numan tackles the indescribable: "A sudden outpouring of ecstasy that overpowers the senses at every level of awareness." Fizzing with ideas, deeply personal, this is a book of wonders.
Neurotica by Sue Margolis (Headline, pounds 9.99)
Once you've adjusted to the author's wall-to-wall rudeness (pubic-hair shaving, scrotum pulling and lots of KY jelly), Sue Margolis's first novel is as cosy as a nap on Vanessa Feltz's bosom. Anne Shapiro is a 37-year- old journalist desperate for a good shag. Her husband is a hypochondriac, frightened to make love in case he has a heart attack. So when Anne is asked to write a feature on the "Clitoris-Centred Woman", she decides to do a spot of research on her own. A saucy romp through some of North London's chintzier bedrooms.
Ghosts in the Cloisters edited by Mark Bryant (Hodder, pounds 6.99)
For obvious reasons, spires and spectres go together like beef and horseradish. Though Bryant includes a chiller from Ruth Rendell about a deadly rectory, the bulk of his spiritual spine-tinglers are from the era of gaslight. They are a mixed bunch, with tedious whimsy from Thackeray and plodding gothic from William Morris, but R H Benson hits the right note: "One leaf struck me softly on the cheek and I shuddered as if it had been a toad." M R James, genius of the genre, is at his best in Canon Alberic's Scrapbook. His influence is apparent in Robert Aickman's disturbing tale of ghostly abduction in Ghent.Reuse content