Books: Paperback round-up

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Singling out the Couples by Stella Duffy, Sceptre pounds 6.99. "I am only singling out the couples. Because I hate the couples. The f------ couples. The f------, kissing, smiling, simpering, love you, love me, make our baby, we'll be a family couple." Stella Duffy has previously written quirky crime fiction featuring a lesbian private dick who has quickly turned into a cult figure. Here she turns her hand to Nineties-style romance with a story that does credit to her noir background. Princess Cushla is blessed at birth with all the virtues except one - the compassion fairy was held up on the Tube and so could not bestow her gift. No one seems to notice that Cushla is utterly heartless, and her mother, the Queen, is hanging on to her throne, so Cushla holes up in London, on a mission to destroy happy couples. This is not the literary heroine we have come to expect from young, female writers; Cushla is manipulative, not falling apart, and men, poor creatures, are putty in her hands. Duffy is a pitiless observer of love's young dreamers, pinpointing the narcissism and self-delusion that keeps them in thrall. But Cushla doesn't get off too easily, either. This brittle, funny, urban fairytale ends with a moral, delivered like a sly poke in a princess's eye.

Promises Lovers Make When it Gets Late by Darian Leader, Faber pounds 7.99. More devastating news for couples who thought they were happy: the promises of undying love we make to each other in the first (and final) pangs of passion don't mean a damn. In his latest exercise in popular psychology, Darian Leader sets out to prove that these sincerely delivered promises reveal far more about our personal inadequacies than the love to which we lay claim. Leader draws largely on the work of Freud and Lacan, and there is no doubting his erudition, but he has the nous to make himself accessible to Cosmo readers. His references are to popular culture; Bruce Willis in Die Hard embodies the fantasies of a frustrated employee who couldn't think of a cutting rejoinder to his or her boss's bad-tempered rebuke (but not in that nasty, sweaty T-shirt, surely?). Equally, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca does duty for all the theories he can pack in. Nevertheless, his light touch ensures that the gamut of human desires and failings that are so quintessentially de nos jours should not be taken too seriously. What with a barrel-load of witty (but not too high-falutin') theorising on fidelity, God, sex and power, he certainly knows how to deliver an entertaining and self-indulgent read.

A Perfect Wife by Christina Odone, Phoenix pounds 6.99. Over the course of her career, Christina Odone, deputy editor of the New Statesman and former editor of the Catholic Herald, has amassed a wealth of knowledge on journalism, politics and religion. But, besides this, she can write gracefully and humorously on any subject you care to mention, and can always be depended upon to offer an original point of view. However, although they are deployed to the full in her second novel, these are not the requisite skills of a novelist. The hypocrisy that is attendant with power is her subject, and she starts with (another) seemingly perfect couple. We already know there's no such thing, but Odone plots her story neatly to dissipate any lingering misconceptions. Nina and Michael are beautiful, talented, glamorous etc etc. Michael is ambitious. Nina is religious. The charismatic Reverend Alexander is the rock "in a landscape of deceit" to whom she is fatally drawn when Michael starts working late. The writing is elegant and the tone is knowing, but so much is spelt out that the reader is left no room in which to engage with the characters, or to care much about what befalls them.

The Conservative Party: From Peel to Major by Robert Blake, Arrow pounds 10. This self-styled "definitive one-volume history of the Conservative Party" has been deemed "essential reading" by William Waldegrave, and he should know. Lord Blake has updated his 1970 commentary on the history of the party from 1830 to 1955 to include last year's disastrous election. Initially, his aim was to end with the demise of the illusion that Britain was a world power; it "vanished within two years of Churchill's departure". But, Blake continues, "its consequences are still unfolding in every aspect of public life, not least in the Conservative party itself". And so he gives an author-itative overview of Macmillan, Heath and Thatcher. The whole amounts to a learned and thoughtful assessment of his party, whose downfall was brought about in the same way that the Reform Act of 1832 felled Wellington and Peel: "They [the Tory landed gentry] failed to see their own interest in terms of political success."

Berta la Larga by Cuca Canals; translated by Sonia Soto, Anchor pounds 6.99. This is the first novel by Spanish scriptwriter Cuca "Jamon Jamon" Canals. It is the story of a girl born under a rainbow, which, as legend has it, should bestow her with special gifts. In Berta's case, it simply means that she is very, very tall. At 16, she measures six feet two inches, and is the tallest human being in her village. Poor Berta is depressed by her height and ignored by the boys: "no man wanted a woman so tall she could look over his shoulder". But then she falls in love with the postman, and soon discovers that her moods have an extraordinary effect on the weather. Passion and extreme weather conditions combine in a delightfully daffy, magic-realist fable.

Napoleon: A Biography by Frank McLynn, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Napoleon Bonaparte is one of history's great men, and possibly the most famous that ever lived. Frank McLynn is Visiting Professor in the Department of Literature at Strathclyde University and a full-time writer. In his biography for the lay historian, McLynn incorporates the most recent scholarship to present a compelling portrait of the "little Corporal". He acknowledges the Great Man but deliberates on the flawed human being, he praises the existential Hero, but exposes the plaything of historical forces. His achievement is to construct a clear narrative, but his failure lies in regurgitating received opinions and trite analyses that he seems to lack the expertise to discount.

Lilian Pizzichini