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The year's best paperbacks line up on the shelf

Alastair Mabbott selects a few of his favourite soft-cover reads

BAD PHARMA

Ben Goldacre (4th Estate, £13.99)

It's no exaggeration to say that Ben Goldacre uncovered an international scandal with this book, connecting the dots to complete a picture which confirmed what most of us already suspected. The myth that drugs are tested in a completely scientific, above-board manner before they're released to the medical profession is completely exploded here. In the follow-up to his book Bad Science, which made short work of alternative quackery and sloppy science journalism, Goldacre lifts the lid off a pharmaceutical industry based on rigged drug trials, the results of which are only selectively released, and propped up by salesmen and biased medical journals. It's a shocking indictment of a field which we instinctively feel should somehow be exempt from the usual corporate chicanery, as its abuse can result in very real suffering. A qualified doctor himself, Goldacre backs up all his claims with hard evidence, arguing passionately but rationally for new procedures to be put in place.

THE TALIBAN CRICKET CLUB

Timeri N Murari (Allen & Unwin, £9.99)

A feelgood tale with a core of steel, this novel is based on the true story that, although sport was banned under the Taliban, the authorities decided to exempt cricket so that Afghanistan would have some pursuit that would allow it to compete on the world stage. This sets the scene for a group of boys who see it as a perfect opportunity to flee the country. First, they have to learn cricket, and the best person to teach them is Rukhsana, a female journalist who was forced to give up her career and don the burkha. The premise is faintly amusing, their efforts inspirational, but Cool Runnings this isn't. The seriousness of the predicament these characters face is never undermined by Murari's touches of humour. Threats lurk around every corner, chief among them being Rukhsana's nemesis, Zorak ("Women should only be seen in the home and in the grave") Wahidi, who well remembers the woman who dared to answer him back.

TRACKMAN

Catriona Child (Luath Press, £9.99)

Culty and geeky, but with a broad appeal that transcends such boundaries, Trackman is the first novel by an Edinburgh-based author which celebrates her adopted hometown (its own Google Maps page is still online) while telling the story of a magical mp3 player given by a homeless man to the protagonist, Davie. Davie finds that this device plays exactly the song people need to hear at that moment, something that will calm them, stem the flow of tears. Suddenly given a purpose in life, Davie becomes the Trackman, a superhero bringing solace to those who need it. But Davie, being young and directionless, doesn't have the responsibility that such an awesome possession demands, and instead of gaining greater control over his life he finds it slipping away. The question is, can this mp3 player help Davie come to terms with the unresolved issues of his own past? A highly accomplished novel for a debut author that whets the appetite for more.

HEFT

Liz Moore (Random House, £9.99)

Another novel with potentially wide appeal (oh, come on – who gives Georges Perec or Robert Musil books as Christmas gifts?), Heft is based, like many of the best books this year, on the relationship between a grown-up and an adolescent. Philadelphian Liz Moore does it charmingly, coming up with two memorable and compelling central characters, Arthur Opp, who weighs 500 pounds and hasn't left his house for a decade, and teenager Kel, the working-class boy at a prestigious school. Both of their lives are touched by sadness, and it's the same sadness: Kel's mother, Charlene, whom Arthur remembers as a vivacious young student but is now killing herself with alcohol. While establishing them as two very contrasting individuals on the surface, Moore reaches deeper to show how they're united in their desire for the closeness of family. Her humane and compassionate portrayals, as well as her simple, unadorned prose, generate a real warmth and a sense of connection.

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