by Paul Theroux

The 18 stories in this book recount the experiences of a U.S. Embassy officer in London. He is a bright bachelor, turning 40, who is given to such cavalier comments as: "Language is deceptive; and though English is subtle it also allows a clever person—one alert to the ambiguities of English-to play tricks with mock precision and to combine vagueness with politeness. English is perfect for diplomats and lovers." Upon his arrival in Britain the narrator falls in love with a beautiful woman who, it turns out, is simply using him. In The Exile, he deals with a famous American poet who is pitifully insane. The 16th story, describing a dinner at the American Ambassador's home, is the best because Theroux has as two of his characters Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband, Denis. They seem more alive in this fiction than they ever have in newsprint. Theroux has the Prime Minister speak "in a hearty headmistressy shout." Her husband, on the other hand, "was kindly, he was funny, and he had...a way of throwing his head back and braying his approval." This is lightweight stuff, but deftly done, and far more entertaining than Theroux's overwrought 1982 novel The Mosquito Coast. (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95)

by Robert Mapplethorpe

Lisa Lyon, who won the First World Women's Bodybuilding Championship in 1979, is the subject of this bizarre, enigmatic book of photographs. There is a brief text by Bruce Chatwin (author of the splendid novel On the Black Hill, published earlier this year) in which he describes the book as "the visual counterpart of a novel, which, like all good novels, mixes fact and fantasy to reveal a greater truth." The problem is determining what great truth is being revealed. In some shots Lyon strikes poses like male body builders, flexing her strong arms and shoulders. In a bikini, she can look as seductive as any bathing beauty. Nude, she sometimes seems an emasculated male. She wears black lingerie and hats with veils, black leather pants and gauntlets, a blond wig and choir robe, a bride's gown and a whole high-fashion wardrobe. Why is that dagger in her hand? Why, lounging in draped white satin, does she pointedly lift a languid arm to reveal dark hair in her armpit? Why does she sit on a throne with a live python coiled around her nude body? At the end she presses a gun to her breasts. These are carefully arranged poses, many very striking. And Mapplethorpe, a Manhattan-based photographer, treats them seriously. Is there some kind of sick joke about the blurring of sex roles? Let's laugh, if uneasily. (Viking, $31.25)

compiled by Terrell Dougan, Lyn Isbell and Patricia Vyas

The 35 people who contributed to this powerful book, including Dougan, Isbell and Vyas, are parents or siblings of retarded children. There is even a brief essay by a young woman who is retarded. Their stories are painful, startling, engrossing. The insensitivities of some social agencies and doctors are astonishing; so is the amount of red tape involved. One woman describes a protracted series of visits to a Social Security office and concludes with the hope that "maybe this will all be simpler someday.... If your trips to the Social Security office have some peculiarities, laugh at them and keep plodding onward." A couple's session with a school staff and a psychologist who patronizingly quizzes them about the cause of their daughter's disability is a horrifying tale of sheer meanness. The organizers of this book provide a wide range of experiences—and emotions—that offer much more than mere comfort to any reader who might have a similar problem. The book is inspirational when it deals with the grit of day-to-day coping. It is least effective when one contributor attempts humor, such as an imagined conversation with God on the impossible question: "Why me?" (Abingdon, $9.95)

by Alan Furst

An ex-CIA officer has recruited a computer expert as his partner and set up a private intelligence business in New York City. Their firm takes on a job providing a look-alike for an international terrorist who wants to mislead authorities so he can travel. With enough money, the theme seems to be, anything is possible in this dark world. The firm operates on the theory that every person has a duplicate—duplicates can be used for blackmail film too—and its computer can also reconstruct an image of the face of an elusive enemy. The villain is another ex-CIA officer, who has a larger private-spy company and wants to take over the hero's operation. There are a tough redheaded woman agent with the face of an angel, complex plotting, some violence and a couple of good twists. This novel is a professional job by an expert suspense writer. (Delacorte, $14.95)