Books: Paperbacks

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Drink: a social history by Andrew Barr,

Pimlico, pounds 12.50, 401pp

THOUGH BRILLIANTLY readable on alcohol, Barr gets a serious case of the grumps when he turns to teetotal refreshments. He expresses surprise that the sales of mineral waters in the UK have soared despite Perrier's benzene scandal. In similar vein, he underestimates the growing popularity of espresso bars and hectors readers about the "lowered mood states, headaches and drowsiness" caused by caffeine. But is Barr right when he claims that "a cup of espresso may contain as much as 300 millilitres of caffeine, whereas a cup of instant coffee contains only a quarter as much"? In fact, instant coffee is made from robusta beans which contain twice as much caffeine as the arabica beans used in espresso.

Woman with Three Aeroplanes

by Lilian Faschinger,

Review, pounds 6.99, 183pp

AUSTRIAN WRITER and translator Lilian Faschinger, acclaimed author of of the erotically charged bestseller Madalena the Sinner, delivers everything you expect from a European writer with style: cafe society, serious sex and plenty of sophisticated melancholy. In the collection's opening story a beautiful 16-year-old boy taunts his male lover from the depths of a sumptuous marble bath, while in the story "Beautiful Things" a middle-aged war veteran narrowly avoids murdering his wife with a deer rifle, and goes shoplifting instead. Set on the black sands of Santorini, the collection's title story gets to grips with sexual jealousy and the extremely irritating habits of Danish backpackers.

Show Business

by Mark Radcliffe,

Sceptre, pounds 10, 232pp

A RADIO One jock reminisces about his inexplicably unsuccessful attempts to become a rock god: "We opened with a particularly fiery ska rendition of Ging Gang Gooly." As much effort was devoted to coming up with a good name as to the music. Starting with a heavy metal band called Zoot Suit and the Zerolds, he moved on to the Brilliantines (Dr Feelgood rip-offs), Bob Sleigh and the Crestas (Stevie Dore and the Dockers was a rejected option) and the Everly Built Brothers. Moaning about his 7am slot at the Beeb (his listeners are characterised as "milkmen, postmen, and residents of psychiatric institutions"), Radcliffe is still bashing the skins with no-hopers. Hilarious stuff - but skip the nine pages about interviewing Bowie in New York.

Berta la Larga

by Cuca Canals,

Anchor, pounds 6.99, 172pp

IF FABLES and fairy tales aren't your usual cup of tea, Spanish writer Cuca Canals might just change your mind. This first novel by the co-writer of the film Jamon Jamon and The Tit and the Moon tells a story as romantic as Romeo and Juliet and as mischievous as her film scripts. Born under a rainbow, Berta the publican's daughter is destined to grow up blessed. Instead she just grows, and doesn't stop. Life is miserable for the tallest woman in Navidad until, at the age of 16, she falls in love with a good-natured postman from the neighbouring village. A breezy comedy of meteorological miracles and steamy fiestas, and a cast of Mediterranean-style locals straight out of a pizza advertisement.

Promises Lovers Make When it Gets Late

by Darian Leader,

Faber, pounds 7.99, 248pp

NOT THE title of a hip independent movie straight out of Sundance, but psychoanalyst Darian Leader's latest investigation into male and female sexual relations. Drawing on the writings of Freud, Lacan, Scooby Doo and Daphne du Maurier, not to mention the secrets of several confiding friends, Leader asks why it is that men are more likely to make promises at the start of an affair than women, and what relation language has to anything that goes on below the duvet line. Discover at least two spot- on explanations of your own romantic past; why men who are on time may be a little too punctual in bed, and why women end up dating their rejected suitors but quickly forget the rest. Like reading Alain de Botton without the made-up bits in between.

The Church of Dead Girls

by Stephen Dobyns,

Penguin, pounds 5.99, 441pp

LIKE MANY sleepy towns on America's East coast, Aurelius, New York, has seen better days. Its municipal buildings are crumbling, its pizza joints shabby, and the local strip mall is as exciting as it gets. But when three local girls go missing (their clothes returned washed, ironed and neatly folded), this small college town wakes up in a hurry. A convincingly drawn list of suspects includes the book's narrator (a high-school biology teacher), the pony- tailed editor of the local newspaper, and several student misfits. A high- class whodunit, Stephen Dobyns (best known for his Saratoga Mystery series), delivers atmospheric thrills in Stephen King-sized portions.

Coming Home: an anthology of prose

by John Betjeman,

Vintage, pounds 8.99, 537pp

CONTRARY TO Jane Bown's classic cover shot of the guffawing laureate, Betjeman often fell prey to depression. On turning 50, he brooded: "Never made the grade, not taken seriously by the TLS, Penguin Books, the Institute of Sanitary Engineers." Though his literary judgements are sound - in the Forties he asserted "Wodehouse and Joyce have made the greatest impression on the English language since the last war" - his architectural observations from 18th century gravestones to Thirties cinemas, are the gems here. Betjeman revelled in unexpectedness: a tribute to Gilbert Harding, a love of Australia, a dislike of archaeology. The man was a joy, gloom and all.

Manhood,

by Steve Biddulph, Hawthorn Press, pounds 9.95, 256pp

FIRST PUBLISHED in 1994, Steve Biddulph's blueprint for the fledgling "men's movement" gained a cultish following in Australia, and you can see why. Lying seductively somewhere between a self-help manual and a dumbed-down re-telling of Robert Bly, the book gives men carte blanche to feel much sorrier for themselves than they already do. Exploited by faceless corporations, misunderstood by their feminist wives and betrayed by their fathers, it's time for them to get out the drums, or in Biddulph's case, the didgeridoo. A man who has survived the "long, dark night of the penis" and lived to tell his Yorkshire-born dad the tale. Pick up the phone. It's good to talk.

Collapse of Stout Party

by Julian Critchley and Morrison Halcrow,

Indigo, pounds 7.99, 288pp

IN VITRIOLIC diary entries, ex-Tory MP Critchley chronicles his party's electoral defeat and subsequent leadership contest. The background to this implosion is outlined by Halcrow, a veteran observer. Though supportive of Major and, bizarrely, the Hamiltons, Critchley is less amiably disposed to the Tory leadership. Michael Howard is unpleasantly described as a "Welsh Jew [who] married a Sixties model whose face appeared on Lux soap", while Portillo is the "Spaniard who blighted our lives". But Critchley's bitterest bile is reserved for William Hague, "a man of utmost insignificance". Predicting a Tory defeat in 2002, he concludes: "The next millennium belongs to the Lib-Labs".

A Kentish Lad

by Frank Muir, Corgi, pounds 7.99, 427pp

WHAT A treat to read a showbiz self-portrait that is literate, modest and trauma free. Muir even says that a stint in a carbon-paper factory "which sounds as Dickensian as you can get" was "actually interesting and enjoyable". His pin-sharp recollections of BBC Light Entertainment are liberally laced with gags ("How about Mr and Mrs Titty-Belt and their son Chas?" muses Kenneth Horne.) Muir's move to TV proved less fulfilling - "TV is a technical miracle, but it is, unlike radio, fundamentally a gadget" - despite the success of "Whack-O", a show riddled with ironies. Combining laugh-out-loud jokes and learning lightly worn, Muir's memoir is an unalloyed pleasure.

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