AT THE START of a new chronological age Western health care appears to be turning a corner, at least to judge by this selection of titles. Thirty years after the social revolution of the 1960s spawned a re-evaluation of previously unchallenged principles of conventional health care, mainstream medicine seems at last to be embracing alternative therapies. Michael Castleman's Blended Medicine (Rodale $200) is a comprehensive 700-page reference volume, presenting clearly and accessibly a wealth of information on how to get the most out of available therapies by sensibly combining the most appropriate of them, new or old, for a range of ailments. Each ailment is described carefully and the background to each therapy explained in detail. It is well written, as you might expect from a leading United States health writer (according to the Library Journal). But, equally, the author's primary qualifications being in journalism and not medicine inevitably deprives it of some authority. This notwithstanding almost 2,000 claimed sources (published separately) and a quoted 'board of advisers' - 11 medical professionals in various fields. Perhaps surprisingly for the author of Nature's Cures and The Healing Herbs, synthetic supplements and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals loom large in many of Castleman's suggested regimens. He goes so far as to exhort taking Ibuprofen - until a few years ago a prescription-only drug in the US - for harmless exercise soreness. He suggests the same drug, among others, as a painkiller to be taken 'at the first twinge of back pain'. Just as Castleman frustrates the general reader by addressing an American audience, so Louis Vanrenen's splendid 220 page handbook Power Herbs (Tarcher/Putnam $130) lists exclusively American resources and suppliers. This is perhaps the only notable disappointment of an information-packed guide that also acknowledges the contribution to healthcare of technological as well as natural medicine. Vanrenen confines himself largely to the 50 Asian and American 'power herbs' he has identified as most useful after more than 20 years researching and working as a health professional. His passion for his subject is evident as he explains the history and rebirth of herbal medicine, its principles and actions, how and why to use them. He structures his book with appropriate notes on format, scientific references, and cautions on potential hazards of self-administering remedies, before running through his top 50, from arnica to valerian. Fascinating accounts are given of the antecedents, emergence and popularity of each of the fabulous 50, in a well written, thoroughly readable style. There is also a handy section of suggested herbal applications for various specified diseases and ailments. Magnet therapy is making a comeback, according to Sherry Kahn, who refers to its use throughout recorded history in diverse cultures. It was administered in England by William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, and in the US was so popular after the Civil War that 'cure all' magnet products were sold through mail order catalogues, she says. Kahn, an integrative medicine consultant to Cedars Sinai medical centre in Beverly Hills with a degree in public health, makes a persuasive argument for the curative power of magnets, in Healing Magnets (Three Rivers Press $120). Touching briefly on the legend of Cleopatra, who supposedly wore a magnet to stay young and beautiful, and anecdotal evidence of many who claim to have alleviated symptoms that defeated conventional medicine, Kahn confines herself where possible to solid scientific data. She points to the magnetic properties of the earth, and evidence that humans, indeed all living creatures, have their own magnetic fields, respond to magnetic impulses, and can sense direction magnetically. She contrasts this with descriptions of confused electromagnetic fields created in homes and workplaces by emissions from computers, microwaves, television, radio and other electrical appliances. Therapeutic magnets heal, she suggests, by somehow restoring balance and enhancing natural processes - from depression to disease, post-surgical recuperation and pain relief. Applications for a range of ailments from insomnia to headaches, skin problems, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy are given, along with advice on types of magnets, what to look for, frequently asked questions, and sources for further information (again, exclusively North American). If there is substance in the words the book is relatively slim; the well-spaced main text runs to only just over 100 pages. But, as Khan honestly points out, the surface has barely been scratched in this field of study. She looks forward to magnet therapy taking its place alongside other treatments no longer derided by the medical mainstream as fanciful.