Books: Paperbacks

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Into Africa: a journey through the ancient empires by Mark de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle,

Phoenix, pounds 14.99,400pp

IT SOUNDS a great idea. Veteran hack de Villiers takes a clockwise circuit of the ancient continent from Zanzibar to the Rift Valley, supported by historical background by Hirtle. This ambitious project doesn't come off, due to the domination of de Villiers's reporting. Usually this is colourful and interesting, such as being pursued by vigilantes in Mozambique while riding pillion with a one-legged bicycle taximan, but, in his determination to extract copy from every encounter, de Villiers often ends up describing nothing in particular. Visiting a crowded bar in an Aids-ridden area of Zambia, he helpfully notes, "It was impossible to have a conversation. Not that I needed to know much." Still, a colourful primer for anyone planning an African jaunt.

Better than Schama, David has re-cast history as addictive narrative. A perfect panto villain, Cardigan is best known for destroying the 11th Hussars. Ironically, the Charge of the Light Brigade temporarily restored the reputation of this frothing martinet whose career was all but sunk by a series of scandals, often unbelievably petty in nature. A national brouhaha ensued when he court-martialed an officer for drinking un-decantered wine at a dinner. David insists Cardigan was no inbred idiot, but his besetting sin was arrogance compounded by insecurity. This dazzling portrait of an unpalatable figure is not to be missed.

Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society edited by Digby Anderson & Peter Mullen (Penguin, pounds 7.99, 217pp)

It is unlikely that these 12 essays would have shot into the best-sellers were it not for a seven-page fragment on Princess Diana by Anthony O'Hear, whose unarguable views ("Feeling was elevated above reason") were condemned by Tony Blair. Other contributions are equally bracing. Peter Mullen's opinion of contemporary religion ("cosy, patronising and babyish") will have been confirmed by many Christmas sermons. Though acute, Mark Steyn's dissection of American TV news is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, while Ian Robinson is on thin ice citing the deeply cranky DH Lawrence as a bulwark against sentimentality.

The Brontes: A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker (Viking, pounds 9.99, 415pp)

The acclaimed Bronte biographer has brilliantly crafted these verbal snapshots into an epic home movie - touching, passionate and amusing. While the three girls giggle at suitors ("he began to season his conversation with Hiberian flattery") and scribble like maniacs, we see Branwell decline from arrogant young Turk to decrepit sot ("contrive to get me Five pence worth of Gin"). The star of the show is Charlotte. Her view of the Crystal Palace as "strange, elegant but somewhat unsubstantial" is oddly familiar. She describes Filey in June as: "Dark, stormy and bitterly cold." Some things never change.

Scorn with Extra Bile edited by Matthew Parris (Penguin, pounds 5.99, 320pp)

Q: Who wrote that a royal demise caused "the total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a fortnight"? A: GBS on the death of Queen Victoria. This dyspeptic pocket book is the perfect accompaniment for January hangovers. Of course, the famous verbal assassins are well- represented: "The rage of the sheep is terrible" (Whistler on Wilde); "The Teasy-Weasy of Fleet Street" (Littlejohn on Worsthorne); "A tadpole of the Lakes" (Byron on Keats). But Parris's trawl ranges far and wide. "With all my heart," replied John Horne Took to the suggestion that he should take a wife. "Whose wife shall it be?"

The Final Passage

by Caryl Phillips,

Faber, pounds 6.99, 205pp

LEAVING THE "life-supporting" blue skies and seas of the Caribbean behind, 19-year-old Leila, her husband Michael and baby son leave for England. But the mean streets and small-eyed inhabitants of their new country do nothing for Leila's already "leaky" new marriage. Michael's drinking gets worse, and Leila is left with only the health visitor for company. Alternating between England and the matriarchal world of St Kitt's, Phillip's acclaimed first novel (originally published in 1985), shows him to be a shrewd observer of frustrated lives. He is an author who lays the blame as much at history's door as on too many hours spent sleeping it off on the steps of the "Day to Dawn" bar.

The Homicidal Earl: the life of Lord Cardigan

by Saul David,

Abacus, pounds 10.99, 527pp

BETTER THAN Simon Schama, Saul David has re-cast history as addictive narrative. A perfect panto villain, Lord Cardigan is best known for destroying the 11th Hussars. Ironically, the Charge of the Light Brigade temporarily restored the reputation of this frothing martinet whose career was all but sunk by a series of scandals, often unbelievably petty in nature. A national brouhaha ensued when he court-martialled an officer for drinking un-decanted wine at a dinner. David insists Cardigan was no inbred idiot - after leaving the army, he became a respected parliamentarian - but his besetting sin was arrogance compounded by insecurity. This dazzling portrait of an unpalatable figure is not to be missed.

se 12 essays would have shot into the best-sellers were it not for a seven-page fragment on Princess Diana by Anthony O'Hear, whose unarguable views ("Feeling was elevated above reason") were condemned by Tony Blair. Other contributions are equally bracing. Peter Mullen's opinion of contemporary religion ("cosy, patronising and babyish") will have been confirmed by many Christmas sermons. Though acute, Mark Steyn's dissection of American TV news is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, while Ian Robinson is on thin ice citing the deeply cranky DH Lawrence as a bulwark against sentimentality.

The Brontes: A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker (Viking, pounds 9.99, 415pp)

The acclaimed Bronte biographer has brilliantly crafted these verbal snapshots into an epic home movie - touching, passionate and amusing. While the three girls giggle at suitors ("he began to season his conversation with Hiberian flattery") and scribble like maniacs, we see Branwell decline from arrogant young Turk to decrepit sot ("contrive to get me Five pence worth of Gin"). The star of the show is Charlotte. Her view of the Crystal Palace as "strange, elegant but somewhat unsubstantial" is oddly familiar. She describes Filey in June as: "Dark, stormy and bitterly cold." Some things never change.

Scorn with Extra Bile edited by Matthew Parris (Penguin, pounds 5.99, 320pp)

Q: Who wrote that a royal demise caused "the total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a fortnight"? A: GBS on the death of Queen Victoria. This dyspeptic pocket book is the perfect accompaniment for January hangovers. Of course, the famous verbal assassins are well- represented: "The rage of the sheep is terrible" (Whistler on Wilde); "The Teasy-Weasy of Fleet Street" (Littlejohn on Worsthorne); "A tadpole of the Lakes" (Byron on Keats). But Parris's trawl ranges far and wide. "With all my heart," replied John Horne Took to the suggestion that he should take a wife. "Whose wife shall it be?"

Other People's Children

by Joanna Trollope,

Black Swan, pounds 6.99, 320pp

IF YOU'VE yet to be convinced by Joanna Trollope, her latest novel may well convert you. Not a welly-booted Home-Counties girl in sight, as this page-turning read examines the impact of divorce and remarriage on two very different families. Eight-year-old Rufus is taken away from his dad and elegant town-house in Bath to start again in a middle-England terraced housing estate; meanwhile his new stepbrother and sisters leave suburban bliss for life in an isolated, bitterly cold cottage in the Herefordshire countryside. Trollope is wonderful at describing children under pressure, and the best scenes here recount the misery of waking up to an empty fridge and a mother who prefers atmosphere to central heating.

Faking It: the sentimentalisation of modern society

edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen,

Penguin, pounds 7.99, 217pp

IT IS unlikely that these 12 essays would have shot into the bestsellers were it not for a seven-page fragment on Princess Diana by Anthony O'Hear, whose unarguable views about a moment of national hysteria ("Feeling was elevated above reason") were bizarrely condemned by Tony Blair. Other contributions are equally bracing. The Rev Peter Mullen's opinion of contemporary religion ("cosy, patronising and babyish") will have been confirmed by many Christmas sermons. Though acute, Mark Steyn's dissection of American TV news is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, while Ian Robinson is on thin ice, citing the deeply cranky D H Lawrence as a bulwark against sentimentality.

The acclaimed Bronte biographer has brilliantly crafted these verbal snapshots into an epic home movie - touching, passionate and amusing. While the three girls giggle at suitors ("he began to season his conversation with Hiberian flattery") and scribble like maniacs, we see Branwell decline from arrogant young Turk to decrepit sot ("contrive to get me Five pence worth of Gin"). The star of the show is Charlotte. Her view of the Crystal Palace as "strange, elegant but somewhat unsubstantial" is oddly familiar. She describes Filey in June as: "Dark, stormy and bitterly cold." Some things never change.

Scorn with Extra Bile edited by Matthew Parris (Penguin, pounds 5.99, 320pp)

Q: Who wrote that a royal demise caused "the total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a fortnight"? A: GBS on the death of Queen Victoria. This dyspeptic pocket book is the perfect accompaniment for January hangovers. Of course, the famous verbal assassins are well- represented: "The rage of the sheep is terrible" (Whistler on Wilde); "The Teasy-Weasy of Fleet Street" (Littlejohn on Worsthorne); "A tadpole of the Lakes" (Byron on Keats). But Parris's trawl ranges far and wide. "With all my heart," replied John Horne Took to the suggestion that he should take a wife. "Whose wife shall it be?"

A Hard Time To Be a Father

by Fay Weldon,

Flamingo, pounds 6.99, 262pp

FAY WELDON gets more appealing with age. In her latest collection of short stories, therapists and geneticists are given all the best lines. These clinicians of female destiny seem both to fascinate and annoy Weldon. But whether dealing with procreation or termination, the author's agenda is clear: mothers must die for children to move on; husbands must leave if wives are to prosper; and foetuses must take their chances where they can. She's humorous, too - particularly the stories "My Mother Said" (about the perils of maternal advice) and "Inspector Remorse" (the ethics of adultery). Weldon tackles life's more intractable dilemmas with gusto.

Scorn, with Extra Bile

edited by Matthew Parris,

Penguin, pounds 5.99, 320pp

Q: WHO wrote that a royal demise caused "the total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a fortnight"? A: GBS on the death of Queen Victoria. This dyspeptic pocket book is the perfect accompaniment for January hangovers. Of course, the famous verbal assassins are well-represented: "The rage of the sheep is terrible" (Whistler on Wilde); "The Teasy-Weasy of Fleet Street" (Littlejohn on Worsthorne); "A tadpole of the Lakes" (Byron on Keats). But Parris's trawl ranges far and wide. "With all my heart," replied John Horne Took to the suggestion that he should take a wife. "Whose wife shall it be?"

The Many Lives and Secret Loves of Josephine B

by Sandra Gulland, Review, pounds 9.99, 438pp

TOLD IN the form of diary extracts, the first volume in American Sandra Gulland's straightforward and likeable re-telling of the life of Josephine Buonaparte is laced with ribbons and period detail. Brought up in a Jean Rhys-like Martinique of sugar plantations and voodoo spells, Rose (as she is then known) is shipped off to France at the age of 15 to secure a suitable marriage. But with her new title of Vicomtesse comes tight corsets, painful childbirth and the terrors of the French Revolution. As the novel ends, so does Josephine's marriage, leaving her just the right side of 35 to catch the eye of the upwardly mobile Corsican, Napoleon Buonaparte.

The Brontes: a life in letters

by Juliet Barker,

Viking, pounds 9.99, 415pp

THE ACCLAIMED Bronte biographer has brilliantly crafted these verbal snapshots into an epic home movie - touching, passionate and amusing. While the three sisters giggle at suitors ("he began to season his conversation with Hibernian flattery") and scribble like maniacs, we see brother Branwell decline from arrogant young Turk to decrepit sot ("contrive to get me Five pence worth of Gin"). The star of the show is Charlotte. Her view of the Crystal Palace as "strange, elegant but somewhat unsubstantial" is oddly familiar. She describes Filey in June as: "Dark, stormy and bitterly cold." Some things never change.

Scorn with Extra Bile edited by Matthew Parris (Penguin, pounds 5.99, 320pp)

Q: Who wrote that a royal demise caused "the total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a fortnight"? A: GBS on the death of Queen Victoria. This dyspeptic pocket book is the perfect accompaniment for January hangovers. Of course, the famous verbal assassins are well- represented: "The rage of the sheep is terrible" (Whistler on Wilde); "The Teasy-Weasy of Fleet Street" (Littlejohn on Worsthorne); "A tadpole of the Lakes" (Byron on Keats). But Parris's trawl ranges far and wide. "With all my heart," replied John Horne Took to the suggestion that he should take a wife. "Whose wife shall it be?"

Forgotten Life

by Brian Aldiss, Abacus, pounds 6.99, 313pp

TEN YEARS on, the second book in Brian Aldiss's Squire Quartet has lost none of its vibrancy. In a generous and funny novel, Aldiss slips happily between life in contemporary North Oxford and wartime Burma. Clement Winter, analyst and don, has the job of sorting out his dead older brother's papers. A young soldier with the Forgotten Army, Joseph has never settled down. Clement's life, by contrast, is secure and successful. Married to a best-selling authoress of "Epic Fantasy", the only blips in his comfortable Oxford existence are his wife's affairs. The closer Clement comes to understanding his brother, the less he knows about himself.

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