Books: Paperbacks

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The Prince of Wales

by Jonathan Dimbleby,

Warner, pounds 9.99, 760pp

WORTHY, LONG-winded, intelligent, wrong-headed, this pantechnicon of a book is an accurate reflection of its subject. Typical of Dimbleby's plodding defence of the heir is his observation that the Taj Mahal photo overshadowed a visit that "helped to promote a pounds 1.5 billion arms deal". The intractible problem for Dimbleby lies in the impossible postion of the monarchy: ordinary people granted extraordinary privilege. Who can blame Prince Charles for quoting Henry V: "Oh hard condition! ... subject to the breath of every fool"? In a tabloid age, Dimbleby's cri de coeur, to grant the Royals "a little of our love", won't cut much ice.

Singling out the Couples

by Stella Duffy,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99, 262pp

A PRINCESS, with long limbs, full bow lips and long red hair arrives in London from "far away, but really very close", and sets up home in Notting Hill. Her mission: to break up hand-holding couples everywhere. The first three victims on Cushla's list are suburban Jonathan and Sally (snug in their Saturday night videos and micro-waved pizzas), media stars Josh and Martin (the ultimate inter-racial, Islington couple) and Frances and Phil (thirtysomething parents with expensive tastes). As wicked as Fay Weldon, cult crime writer Stella Duffy hurls the wedding-list china on the floor and dances on the pieces.

The Vintage Book of Fathers

edited by Louise Guinness,

Vintage, pounds 8.99, 356pp

PERHAPS BECAUSE the editor's father died aged 41, when she was 12, this is an outstanding anthology, often deeply poignant. Paul Bailey dreams of the father who died 30 years earlier: "Daddy, please come back to me". Jon Silkin writes of his son, who died in a mental hospital aged one: "And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones, and he died". Cyril Connolly is deliberately cruel to his father: "He fingered his grey moustache while a tear trickled down his cheek". In case we turn too sentimental, Evelyn Waugh eats the three bananas his children received as a postwar treat. A bittersweet tribute to the overlooked parent.

Wild Ways: new stories about women on the road

edited by Margo Daly and Jill Dawson,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99, 226pp

THIS COLLECTION of road stories for girls includes writing by Yorkshire, Australian and Canadian women, plus a couple of writers you've heard of (Louise Doughty and Joanna Briscoe), but not one American among them - which seems a bit like serving up the bun withough the burger. And, just to belabour the point, the best stories in the book are set in the States. Emily Perkins's "Can't Beat It" is a wry tale of two New Zealand Arts Council scholars who have a strange encounter with a Kerouac look-a-like, while Catherine Ford's "A Hundred Years as a Snail" is a stylish conversation between two sisters in a New York hotel room.

Lifelines

by Steven Rose, Penguin, pounds 8.99, 333pp

THIS FERVENT, well-argued rebuttal of ultra-Darwinism should be compulsory reading for certain media figures - are you there Lord Bragg? - in thrall to the mechanistic arguments of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. After dismissing such gurus with a casual sideswipe ("these are people who no longer do science or never did it"), the OU Professor of Biology attacks their "naive - even vulgar - reductionism and determinism". Stressing the complexity of life, especially human life, Rose notes that ultra-Darwinism is now used to justify the diversion of funds "from the social to the molecule". We are fiddling with genes while Rome burns.

The Matter of the Heart

by Nicholas Royle,

Abacus, pounds 6.99, 303pp

THE DINGIER reaches of the South Circular, Hyde Park Corner and Seven Sisters - Royle's latest novel is an addictive read for anyone who shares the author's psycho-geographical map of London. The city's roads are "emotional routes", and, as each of the characters travel along them, they find all paths lead to Hyde Park Corner and a room in St George's hospital, once the site of a secret heart transplant, now, 100 years on, a twin room in a luxury hotel. Royle's absorbing novel unravels the mystery of the room, taking Chris, the narrator, and Joanna his girlfriend, to America to solve it.

A Short History of Byzantium

by John Julius Norwich,

Penguin, pounds 14.99, 431pp

CUTTING THE 1,285 pages of his original by two-thirds must have been a painful act of self-surgery for Lord Norwich. However, those drawn to this epic drama are surely better served by the detail of the full three volumes, especially since their total cost (pounds 29.97) is only twice that of the condensation. Perhaps Geoffrey of Monmouth's mistaken belief that Constantine's mother was the daughter of Coel, otherwise Old King Cole, is no great loss, but the lopped details about the murder of Rufinus (soldiers cut off his hand and pulled the tendons so his fingers opened and closed, crying "Give to the insatiable!") bring history to life.

Crucifix Lane

by Kate Mosse,

Hodder, pounds 10, 309pp

RIVERSIDE LONDON in 2008 is the setting for Kate Mosse's likeable, if clunkily constructed, futuristic thriller. Leaving a dance club at five in the morning, the book's streetwise heroine, 22-year-old Annie, is knocked unconscious and wakes up to find herself in another world. Mosquitoes buzz across the tideless blue waters of the Thames and the cannabis-smoking locals are heavily involved in the illegal trafficking of DNA. With the clearest explanation of genetic engineering you'll find outside a textbook, Mosse reveals how Annie saves the future from environmental disaster. Jolly genre writing.

Close Encounters

by Paul Gambaccini,

Omnibus, pounds 9.99, 255pp

HEROICALLY SELF-serving, these brushes with celebrity ("Linda McCartney was the first person to call me `Gambo'") are a useful reminder that an intelligent disc-jockey is an oxymoron. Although indifferent to titles, Gambaccini reveals: "Charlie Althorp was one of my favourite Englishmen." Curiously, his propensity for name-dropping does not extend to Princess Margaret, who pops up merely as "one of England's princesses" in a reminiscence of Peter Cook. With typical self-effacement, Gambo notes: "Cook's passing... was a reminder to me that my time is not unlimited".

Christopher Lee, Tall, Dark and Gruesome

by Christopher Lee Vista, pounds 5.99, 448pp

WHILE CHRISTOPHER Lee was still in his mother's womb, F W Murnau was putting the final touches to his great silent film, Nosferatu. The son of a society beauty and an army officer, Lee had all the genetic makings of a matinee idol, but instead became the future face of Dracula and Fu Manchu. His anecdote-rich memoirs, ghosted by ex-Guardian journalist Alex Hamilton, recall an adolescence well-suited to a career in acting and horror (sadistic Wellington housemasters; an absent father and wartime traumas in Africa and Italy). Ironically, Lee's lifelong ambition was to be an opera singer.

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