Books: Paperbacks

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Sinatra: the artist

and the man

by John Lahr

Phoenix, pounds 8.99, 164pp

"A SHILLING life," wrote Auden, "will give you all the facts." Lahr does much more in this slim text, expanded from his New Yorker obit. Deftly utilising the voluminous literature about the self-styled "Top Wop", this impressionistic portrait is partly a celebration of the singer who "infiltrated the Western world's dream life", partly an expose of the drunken psychopath who literally pissed on the grave of one of his critics.

Lahr notes "Sinatra embraced and bullied the world as his mother had embraced and bullied him." The singer may have been only too eager to flee Hoboken, but he quashed a band-leader's attempt to change his name. By the mid-Forties, he was "Swoonatra", the first pop star. But "his romantic allure infused daily wartime life with a sense of the poetic."

His soaring trajectory briefly dipped when Ava Gardner ditched him in 1950, but he bounced back after a triumphant partnership with arranger Nelson Riddle. By the Sixties, Sinatra was a big business. One insider says that by manipulating the votes of Chicago's mob-run West Side, he won the 1960 election for Kennedy. Lahr suggests that the singer "walked a thin line between respectability and rapacity". The seedy Peter Lawford sums him up as well as anybody: "The lovable landmine."

The Memory of England

by Peter Vansittart

Murray, pounds 10.99, 298pp

JUST AS medieval margins were ornamented with quirky grotesques, Vansittart's enthralling narrative glitters with odd cameos: Charles II securing Paradise Lost by pardoning Milton ("He's old and blind and full of fleas"); a Regency buck betting pounds 3,000 on the speed of a raindrop at White's; Thomas Hardy creepily noting how a hanged woman's "tight black silk gown set off her shape". Vansittart concludes by quoting Eric Hobsbawm: "Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation."

The Extremes

by Christopher Priest

Scribner, pounds 6.99, 396pp

SCIENCE FICTION for non-geeks. Christopher Priest's tightly-written novel is as readable on married love as it is on alternative worlds. The novel's main player, Teresa Simons, is an American Air Force brat who returns to England after her husband is killed by a psychotic gunman in Texas. She winds up in Bulverton - a down-at-heel seaside resort, home to some nasty crimes of its own. Things gets spooky, when Teresa, in search of some answers, begins to experiment with Virtual Reality.