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SAMUEL PEPYS: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin (Knopf, $30, 448 pp)

Biographer Claire Tomalin explores the life of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), a key architect of England's royal navy and one of Britain's most prolific diarists. Tomalin's extensive research took her from the Pepys library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where she had access to Pepys' papers, letters and bank records, to the sites of Pepys' homes and haunts. Pepys' writing spanned a most turbulent and fascinating period of English history. For nearly 10 years he recorded observations and narratives about public life as well as intimate details of his personal affairs as a young man in Restoration London. Pepys' secret diaries, first published in 1875, effectively gave readers a glimpse into 10 years of one man's life, making the ordinary extraordinary. He abruptly stopped writing in 1669 when he feared he was going blind, but the volumes survived, published in their entirety for the first time in 1970, the opening page exactly as he had written it nearly 300 years before. Though he experienced extremes of great fortune and achievement followed by devastating loss, betrayal and alienation, Pepys managed to stride through all of it undeterred, his sense of identity firmly intact.

CONDI: The Condoleezza Rice Story, by Antonia Felix (Newmarket Press, $19.95, 288 pp)

Who is America's national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, and how did she come to be a confidant of President George W. Bush, frequently referred to as the most influential woman in the U.S. government? In attempting to answer this question, author Antonia Felix interviewed family, friends, teachers, colleagues _ everyone but Rice herself. Felix has put together a comprehensive book chronicling Rice's childhood, education and professional careers as a political science professor, rising later to provost at Stanford University and foreign policy adviser appointed to posts in both Bush administrations.

An only child of two educators, Rice was born and raised in a middle class neighborhood in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. As a youngster she studied piano and was a competitive figure skater. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, university professor and football coach, was a heavy influence on Rice, instilling in her a knowledge and love of sports that became a factor in the forging of her friendship with the Bush family. Felix describes Rice as a driven individual garnering worldwide attention as an African-American woman who has risen to prominence in an arena "traditionally dominated by white men."

Facts and dates aside, Condoleezza Rice is still a bit of an enigma _ how she got here is a story only Dr. Rice can best tell. Hopefully one of these days she will.

JANE AUSTIN: The World of Her Novels, by Deirdre Le Faye (Abrams, $29.95, 320 pp)

Austen biographer Deirdre Le Faye spent 25 years researching this book, a painstakingly detailed encyclopedic look at the world in which novelist Jane Austen lived and wrote. Austen enthusiasts will find the explanations of standards of social behavior mixed in with more esoteric trivia about life in Georgian and Regency Britain illuminating, especially when Le Fay juxtaposes descriptions of Austen's friends and family with her more popular fictional characters (the majority of her work was published between 1811 and 1818).

Le Faye's descriptions of daily life and the social scene in the United Kingdom as seen through the eyes of Jane Austen offers insights into the hobbies, habits and morays of Austen and her contemporaries, to include her characters, down to the most minute details. Chapters cover the finest points of social life: courting, communication, meals, cosmetics, female education and occupations, social rank and travel. Le Fay manages to be instructional and enlightening, providing readers a deeper understanding and "historical framework of now long-forgotten details," found in Austen's novels. A novel synopsis section at the back of the book provides further insights into such Austen classics as Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility.

Lorrie P. Lykins is a writer who lives in Seminole.