Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer
Allen Lane

Joshua Foer reports on one memory championship and challenges himself to take part in the next.

This is an endlessly fascinating book as it deals with an endlessly fascinating subject - the mysterious corridors and capacities of the human brain.

The main thread of the story - and perhaps the least interesting - concerns the techniques deployed by memory champions to hold information in their brains.

Our amiable, self-deprecating and refreshingly sceptical companion on the journey is Joshua Foer, who reports on one world championship and challenges himself to be a player in the next.

He does better than he expected, which provides for a conventional nail-biting narrative. But it is the digressions that are the joy of this accessible work.

He meets a man who has no short-term memory at all and greets the world anew every few seconds. He hears of others who can remember every single thing and have to learn to forget to stay sane.

He talks to so-called savants who have a capacity to remember phenonemal amounts but are hindered by social handicaps. And he meets the charlatans, the gurus, the obsessives and the eccentrics who people the memory circuit.

Foer asks: If memory is identity and memory is increasingly delegated to smartphones, Google and Post-Its who are we and what have we lost.


The Big Machine, by Victor LaValle
No Exit

Victor LaValle's redemptive book flies into the UK from the US on the back of such critical praise that, turning its cover, you'd expect an entirely new language for the novel.

While it doesn't quite match its hype, it is an inventive and imaginative work which sees a disparate group of underachievers - who may have heard the voice of God - appointed "Unlikely Scholars" and sent into the world where they encounter all sorts of manifestations of good and evil.

Sometimes too confused by its own ambition, this is nonetheless intriguing.

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene
Allen Lane

This is no bedtime drop-off read. Brian Greene may be an arch populiser of cosmology and the quantum world but he pulls no punches as he explores the real possibility of parallel universes, extra dimensions and other stuff that would pack a series of Star Trek.

His own specialist area - string theory - is intangible yet could hold the key to the Holy Grail - a grand theory of everything.

So it is into this world he dives for the mathematical theories that make the seemingly impossible totally plausible. Requires investment but it is mind-blowing stuff.

The Stones Of London by Leo Hollis
Orion Books

Author Leo Hollis may be on to something here, taking the commonplace and grand buildings of London and reconstructing the stories of their origins, milestones and significance.

Greenwich, Keeling House in Bethnal Green and 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields are three such (eastern) jumping-off points for the exploration of a complex city.

It is a fine, laudable and authoritative endeavour somewhat spoiled by a skittish writing style and some esoteric meandering that makes it more inaccessible than it should be.