Books: Paperbacks

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Victor Hugo

by Graham Robb,

Picador, pounds 8.99,

682pp

FROM THE lapel-grasping opening about a plaque marking Hugo's conception at 3,000 feet in the Vosges to the post-mortem tribute of Parisian whores who "draped their pudenda in black crepe", Robb's wonderful, witty biography never fails to grip. Not only a literary titan who prefigured modernism, Hugo was an energetic painter and a revolutionary beacon (an attack on Napoleon III led to his expulsion to Guernsey). Robb notes, however, that "the work on which Hugo lavished the greatest amount of love and ingenuity [was] his life". This rocket of a book reminds us how much more there was to Hugo than Les Miserables.

Playland

by John Gregory Dunne,

Granta, pounds 6.99, 494pp

MELBA MAE Toolate, Hollywood's favourite ringletted "cinemoppet", disappeared at the age of 20 amid rumours of an illegitimate child and dealings with a Vegas hood. Forty-five years on, and famous eyebrows still intact, she reappears in a VR park outside Detroit. Reading like the well- turned obituary of any number of half-remembered Forties stars, Dunne's fictional biopic (as related by playboy screenwriter Jack Broderick) plumbs Hollywood's more sensational myths. An LA insider, Dunne (brother of Dominic, husband of Joan Didion) has the knack of making dinner at Spago sound like the most exciting event on earth.

The Food of Italy

by Claudia Roden,

Vintage, pounds 9.99, 437pp

"THERE IS no such thing as Italian cooking", asserts the excellent Claudia Roden in this newly-expanded classic. The incomparably rich regional cuisine of the country stems from the patchwork sovereignty which succeeded the Romans. Roden gives a potted account of the gastronomy in Italy's 18 regions and provides about a dozen recipes for each area, from Piedmontese risottos and Venetian polenta to Apulian broad-bean puree and Sicily's raw tomato pasta sauce. Thorough, informative, accurate and more practical than certain glossy rivals, this book is mandatory for all Italophiles.

New York Mosaic: three novels

by Isabel Bolton,

Virago, pounds 12.99, 482pp

ON PUBLICATION of her first work nearly 50 years ago, Isabel Bolton was hailed by the influential New York critic, Diana Trilling, as "the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years". Reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen, her novels of Upper East Side high society recall a long-gone era of Algonquin drinks parties, Newsreel Theaters and sleigh rides in Central Park. The three novels (Many Mansions, Do I Wake or Sleep and The Christmas Tree), all feature an upper-middle-class heroine with a cherished childhood and a closet full of dark secrets and very expensive frocks.

Loach on Loach

edited by Graham Fuller,

Faber, pounds 11.99, 147 pp

THOUGH DISDAINING the notion of the auteur, Ken Loach remains our most distinctive film-maker. His views are fascinating and trenchant. It is hard to imagine any other UK director slamming Channel 4 for "hypocrisy", or praising a tight budget ("people had to move fast... which makes performances better"), or turning down a Hollywood film because "it needed an American sensibility". Oddly, Fuller claims that such sentimental confections as Brassed Off and The Full Monty are part of the "Loach diaspora". As Loach says, "a lot of cinema now touches situations that are quite profound, but reduces them to a facile cinematic style."

An Embarrassment of Tyrannies: 25 years of Index on Censorship edited by WL Webb & Rose Bell,

Indigo, pounds 10.99, 347pp

INDEX MUST be one of the few magazines which might wish that it did not have such a rich archive. From 1972, George Mangakis reminds us how recently Greece suffered tyranny: "In a cell 10x10... I live with a number of ideas that I love." Herberto Padilla's poetry explores the mental confines of Cuba: "One: be an optimist/ Two: be discreet, correct, obedient/ (Do well at sports)". But the most outstanding item, not only because of the Pinochet affair, is an allegory by Ariel Dorfman comparing Chilean censorship to a doorbell: "Bell frees our pathways of the drunk, the filthy, the unemployed, all who ask God's favour...". A chilling treasury.

Cold Heart

by Lynda La Plante,

Pan, pounds 5.99, 486pp

IN THE last in this series of West Coast thrillers, Lynda La Plante says goodbye to the Hollywood Hills in a blaze of gunfire and beaver shots. Newly empowered by a face-lift and an efficient male secretary, private investigator Lorraine Page is back on the Beverly Hills beat. Her first case involves the death of a sleazy producer, Harry Nathan, found buttocks up in his azure blue swimming pool. A trail of porno video evidence implicates his wife in the murder, but Lorraine (ex-LA cop, ex-hooker) is determined to clear the young super-waif's name. A better read than Sue Grafton, La Plante slips effortlessly into the macho world of the LAPD.

Jacob's Hands

by Aldous

Huxley and Christopher

Isherwood

Bloomsbury,

pounds 6.99, 122pp

THIS FILM treatment, unearthed by Sharon Stone, inhabits familiar territory - the naive, benevolent Jacob finds he has the ability to heal sick animals, and is coerced into curing humans. He moves to LA in search of his beloved, where he falls prey to a duo of unsavoury entrepreneurs. Though not stylistically identifiable with either author, it is a decent, undemanding read. Two introductions are superb: the first provides insight into the authors' dalliances with Hollywood, the second elucidates Huxley's thoughts on the morality of healing. Of most interest to the writers' fans, but entertaining enough to be worth a glance from the rest of us.

A King's Story: the memoirs of the Duke of Windsor

Prion, pounds 12, 440pp

DESPITE PHILIP Ziegler's lukewarm intro ("it could have been a good deal worse"), these part-ghosted memoirs are unexpectedly enjoyable, mainly because of their odd Pooterish details. The great highlight of Edward's Oxford days appears to have been a trick performed by a servant involving "a banana in the neck of a bottle filled with burning paper". A major triumph of his brief reign was carrying his own umbrella, "as useful a convenience to a Briton as a ten-gallon hat is to a Texan". Tantalisingly, he notes that Wallis Simpson "was, and still remains, complex and elusive". Sadly, he gives no details of the sexual arts she is said to have acquired in the Orient.

The Death of a Joyce Scholar

by Bartholomew Gill, A&B Crime, pounds 5.99, 391pp

WHEN DUBLIN'S foremost Joyce scholar, Kevin Coyle, is stabbed through the heart near Glasnevin Cemetery, the city's most eminent policeman, Inspector Peter McGarr, is summoned from his vegetable garden to help. As literate a cop as Morse (and with as nice a sitting-room), McGarr starts scanning his bookshelves in search of clues. Luckily for him, and us, he doesn't have to plough through the whole of Ulysses to find them. Like PD James, Gill's mysteries have a strong sense of place but are a little over-clever to be called fun. Part of a new series of austere-looking mysteries issued under the Allison & Busby imprint.

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