Books: Paperback roundup

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A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Fintan O'Toole, Granta pounds 8.99. Why is it that biographies often seem to come in pairs? Last year saw not only two new Jane Austens, but two Sheridans: this one, and one by Linda Kelly. O'Toole came off rather better in the reviews, not surprisingly: he is a strikingly gifted writer, with a terrific eye for anecdote and a knack of picking out quirky snippets that give a full sense of the vitality and wit of Sheridan's writing. I have to confess to being a little disappointed, though. O'Toole is too occupied with detecting ironies, with demonstrating how Sheridan's life plays out the conflicts between Ireland and England, how his drama plays out his life. Noting that Sheridan was baptised Thomas, but that his parents changed their minds and started to call him Richard, he says: "From the very start, the spoken word mattered more than the written. Richard Brinsley Sheridan came into the world as a figure of speech, an improvised identity." Oh, come on. The critical assessment of the plays is also oddly pedestrian. But when he's not trying too hard, he is a marvellous story-teller and Sheridan's complicated, scintillating personality and event-packed life provide an excellent story.

Green Mansions by W H Hudson, OUP pounds 4.99. Hudson's rainforest romance was a bestseller in its day - big enough to found the fortunes of the publishing company Knopf - but has rather fallen out of fashion in recent years. Oxford has calculated, probably rightly, that the modern enthusiasm for environmental issues has bred a new audience for this prototype eco- fantasy (though present-day greens may have trouble with the novel's picture of marauding Venezuelan Indians needing a sensitive European to teach them a lesson in respecting nature). The plot is pretty ripe stuff: a love story between a white man and a wood nymph named Rima, but Hudson, a naturalist by profession, describes the flora and fauna with great intimacy. You might also admire the unobtrusive way that Abel, the narrator, is drawn away from civilisation - stripped one by one of his ambitions for power, fame and wealth - towards the primeval joys of the woods. It adds up to an appealing oddity.

Guilty Men by "Cato", Penguin pounds 6.99. Military Errors of World War Two by Kenneth Macksey, Cassell pounds 5.99. "Cato" was the pseudonym jointly adopted by Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen for this stinging polemic, first published in 1940, against the inept and apathetic politicians who had, as they saw it, brought Britain to the brink of defeat. The pace and verve of the attack are irresistible, and it's also an essential historical document: more than any other single book, Guilty Men formed our view of what we were doing in the war and what sort of nation we were. Macksey's book, part of a new series of "Military Classics", makes an intriguing comparison: both books are stuffed with hindsight, though Macksey dishes it out more evenly. This gets wearing - all right, smarty- pants (you feel like saying), you go out and lead a campaign in the Western Desert and let's see how far you get. But a lot of myths - the invincibility of Rommel, the overwhelming superiority of the Luftwaffe - get scotched along the way.

T Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez, Penguin pounds 7.99. No doubt many will be sad to discover that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Marc Bolan; it doesn't have an awful lot to do with dinosaurs, either, despite the title and the monster gracing the cover. Instead, it is a highly readable pop-geology text about the 10km-wide comet (or possibly an asteroid) that smashed into the earth 65 million years ago, putting a full stop to the Cretaceous period, and in the process wiping out a substantial chunk of life on earth, dinosaurs included. There is a vogue these days for scientists to leaven the text with autobiographical episodes, presumably to make the subject seem more human. While I don't doubt that Mrs Alvarez is a lovely woman and their honeymoon mapping the Guajira peninsula was a fascinating and romantic experience, things do get a little icky from time to time. But Alvarez's blow-by-blow account of what happened when the comet hit is a great piece of reconstruction, and his explanation of how the impact theory was formulated treads just the right side of patronisingly simple.

Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh, NEL pounds 5.99. Possibly it's a mark of the age's lack of confidence that there is such a mania for finishing the unfinished works of old masters: Elgar's Third, Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs, and now this, the last Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, abandoned in 1937. It is set around the death of George V, and awash with period detail - perhaps a little bit too much. Paton Walsh does a good job of mimicking Sayers's style, although knowing that a lot of it is contemporary pastiche sometimes leaves you wondering how to take it. At one point, Harriet Vane (Lord Peter's humourless wife) suggests that if you put a murder committed at random by a mad killer into a novel, nobody would believe it. Is this quaint period detail or overdone modern irony? Anyway, Sayers's fans have little reason to be outraged, and I can't imagine anybody else being very interested.

The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore, Flamingo pounds 6.99. The magician is Henri Lambert, greatest illusionist in all France, who in 1856 accepts a commission from the emperor Louis Napoleon to travel to Algeria and demonstrate to Muslim holy men the superiority of French miracles. He takes along his wife, Emmeline - much younger, very beautiful, and feeling trapped in a dusty illusion of marriage. Effortlessly clean prose, sharp narrative lines and an intelligent, artistic meditation on different varieties of illusion - power, love, fame. Enough said.

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