Angels of Albion: women of the Indian Muntiny by Jane Robinson (Penguin, pounds 8.99) By 1750, it is estimated that 90 per cent of British men in India made native or Eurasian marriges. A century on, it was de rigueur for young gentlemen to ship over home-grown wives with the bloom of English summers still fresh on their cheeks. But as Jane Robinson's enthralling collection of contemporary letters, journals and diaries demonstrates, these memsahibs were neither the pale flowers nor small-minded gorgons of popular myth. Caught up in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the lives of these women were forever changed as they were forced to flee into the night, give birth by the roadside and survive months of incarceration in 135-degree heat.
Women in the Background by Barry Humphries (Mandarin, pounds 5.99) Humphries's first novel tells the tale of a middle-aged Aussie who makes a highly successful living impersonating a suburban housewife on British TV.
In "real life", Mrs Petty lives in a mansion block behind Victoria Street with his collection of Piranesi engravings and young girlfriend, and spends his time avoiding the attentions of an unattractive obituary writer, the unfortunately named Kenneth Grocock - a down-at-heel hack who is intent on exposing the star's steamy sexual past. It's part of the fun of this first novel to guess which details, if any, Barry Humphries has had to make up.
Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman (Harvill, pounds 6.99) An engaging history of the author's Jewish family, who lived happily in Alexandria from the turn of the century until forced to flee in the aftermath of the Suez invasion, 60 years later. Typically colourful is Uncle Vili, a swindling auctioneer who spied for the British while posing as a Fascist sympathiser.
Amid an exotic melange of polyglot grandmothers and curiously pungent servants, the young Aciman developed a keen nose for social nuance and chocolate. His brilliant evocation of unease amid Mediterranean warmth is reminiscent of Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
The Virus Hunters by Joseph B. McCormick & Susan Fisher-Hoch (Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99) Drawn together by a shared fascination in the world's most deadly viruses, this husband-and-wife medical team has produced an account that is simultaneously riveting and stomach-churning. Almost inevitably, it begins with one of the authors suffering possible contamination with Ebola in the Sudan (he survives). Though both the joint authorship and the plethora of ghastly diseases cause occasional confusions, their story is not without its lighter moments. In Sierra Leone, the bio-hazard suits worn by an excessively cautious RAF crew later came in handy for a fancy-dress party.
Damned to Fame: the life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (Bloomsbury, pounds 8.99) In contrast to his subject's anorexic output, Knowlson's judicious biography rolls on for more than 870 pages. Every one bubbles with fascinating detail, both literary and personal. We learn of his unexpected sportiness (he is the only Nobel winner to appear in Wisden) and that he wore excessively narrow shoes in emulation of his hero Joyce. Undeniably brave, Beckett was unsuited to the role of war hero, absentmindedly writing his real name in an hotel register while trying to escape from the Gestapo. Though anxious for privacy in later years, he used mirrors to communicate with inmates of the gaol below his flat. A remarkable man.
The End of Time by Damian Thompson (Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99)
From the earliest times, there has been a widespread belief that the end is nigh. In this level-headed study, Thompson pursues millennarian beliefs from the pre-Christian era to the newly departed Heaven's Gate cultists. He notes that few made a fuss in 1000AD because there was no universal dating system. The idea has gained momentum since the Middle Ages - despite the Great Disappointment when the world failed to end on 22 October 1844 - and has now peaked with credulous New Agers. The journal End Times News Digest says that Christ will return by 2030.Reuse content