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Scarlet, emerald, Schiaparelli pink, lilac and royal blue - the new series from Penguin, Syrens, may be insignificant in size (small enough to slip into a jeans pocket, and never longer than 80 pages) but the brightly coloured covers ensure that they stand out on any bookshelf. The introductory titles include Voltaire's comic fable Micromegas, Kafka's The Collected Aphorisms, Flaubert's The Dictionary of Received Ideas and Proust's essay On Reading. At Pounds 2.99 each, they are the perfect stocking filler for those whom you wish to dazzle.

They prove conclusively the adage that "less is more"; something of which the poet and short-story writer Raymond Carver, who died in 1988, never needed to be reminded. As revealed by Harvill's reissue of Fires (Harvill Pounds 7.99), a collection of his essays, poems and stories, his genius was for encapsulating aspects of American life in just a few lines (or pages).

Carver's view of the United States is rather different from that portrayed in Colonial American Travel Narratives (Penguin Pounds 8.99). He describes the broken-hearted, broken-down and just plain broke; the seedy drive-in and the debris-strewn back streets. But these journals display optimism, determination and extraordinary bravery. A minister's wife is captured by native Indians in 1676 but escapes, a lone horsewoman travels from Boston to New Haven along unused tracks, the "Pepys of the Old Dominion" humorously records the bureaucratic wranglings over land, and a Homer-reading medical man journeys along the Eastern seaboard in 1744.

Once these early travellers waved goodbye to those left behind in the comforts of home, they were uncontactable, freed from all mental and emotional shackles. Not so now, bewails Dervla Murphy in her introduction to The Ukimwi Road: From Kenya to Zimbabwe (Flamingo Pounds 6.99). She set off for Nairobi in 1992, aged 60, with a mountain-bike and told her family and friends that she would be away on a "four-month mystery tour". She was accused, inevitably, of being "perverse, selfish, irresponsible, and neurotic", but she persisted, to discover that she had left behind one set of problems only to confront another.

Everywhere she went she came across evidence of Ukimwi (Aids). But her book is about much more than this terrible disease. As in the accompanying volume from Flamingo, In Ethiopia with a Mule (Pounds 6.99), she writes with such clear-sighted honesty and immediacy that you feel that you, too, have biked under an equatorial sun to Entebbe or plodded through the land of Prester John, Rasselas and the Queen of Sheba.

John Hale's huge, sweeping study The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (Fontana Pounds 14.99) is insignificant neither in size nor in scope or scholarship. Yet it is very readable, filled with ravishing illustrations, and is a valuable key to understanding what we mean by the phrase "we Europeans". At 784 pages, A D Harvey's Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793-1945 (Phoenix Pounds 14.99) is another blockbuster but, once again, it is marked by an impressive ability to compress a vast subject into an accessible and illuminating narrative.

Pauline Baynes's Aslan the lion in A Book of Narnians

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