Books: Paperbacks

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Frozen Desire

by James Buchan,

Picador, pounds 7.99,


Surprisingly, the brutally mechanistic topic of money inspired this soaring work, packed with wonders and extraordinary insights. On his voyage down the river of lucre, Buchan moves from Jesus's "cussedness on money matters" to Maynard Keynes's "catastrophic self-disgust", from family history (his great-grandfather was ruined in a bank collapse) to America's "delight in credit", which means its citizens "must work till they drop". The conclusion by this former City trader could have come from William Morris: "As interest and profit fall away... humanity will be at peace in the world". In telling the story of hard cash, Buchan has opened a window on the human heart.

The Magician's Wife

by Brian Moore,

Flamingo, pounds 6.99, 215pp

A novel by Brian Moore is always a sure bet. A skilful narrator, and a sensitive observer of the human state (particularly the female one), Moore exchanges locations, periods and moral dilemmas with sleight of hand. His last novel was set in Vichy France, his latest in the only slightly more enlightened court of Emperor Napoleon III. Henri Lambert is Europe's most famous magician. Called on by the emperor to use his magic tricks in a war of attrition against Algeria's holy men, he and his wife Emmeline - a self-conscious provincial from Rouen - are shipped off to the deserts and white-washed cities of North Africa. Marriage, faith and wilting hairdos are put to some exacting tests.

Dead Certainties

by Simon Schama,

Granta, pounds 8.99, 333pp

While commencing with graphic account of Wolfe's assault on Quebec, most of this impressionistic oddity is concerned with the murder of a Bostonian called George Parkman (brother of Wolfe's biographer) and the dubious conviction of Harvard professor John Webster. This discursive yarn is punctuated by imaginary contributions from a number of first persons, somewhat in the style patented by Peter Ackroyd ("Well, it was an affliction and no mistake..."). In an afterword, Schama explains that "to have an inquiry is surely to require the telling of stories", but it is noticeable that he adopts the historian's omniscience as the story reaches its climax.

Concerning Lily

by Sally Brampton,

Arrow, pounds 5.99, 410pp

Brushing a Marks & Spencer prawn-crisp crumb from her cashmered bosom, Elizabeth Delaware wonders if her dinner party was such a good idea. Inviting young, friendless Lily Clifton to meet her husband and friends seemed sensible at the time, but now chums Daisy and Bella (both fortyish, both in unhappy relationships) are giving her black looks, as the not so innocent Lily makes small talk with their men. Like Deborah Moggach, Sally Brampton (ex-editor of Elle) is a shrewd connoisseur of contemporary relationships, and her classy tale of metropolitan ennui is strewn with enough sex, trips to Harvey Nicks and smart interiors, to keep the pages turning. Real estate to die for.

Healing the MInd

by Michael H Stone,

Pimlico, pounds 15.99, 516 pp

Despite its textbook layout, this comprehensive history of psychiatry contains much of interest to the lay reader. We learn, for example, that experiments in lobotomy won a Nobel Prize for neurologist Egas Moniz, "though many patients were rendered, albeit calmer, mere shadows of their former selves". Similarly, Wilhelm Reich, who maintained that his orgone box could "undo the ill effects of Communists", is described as "a problematic figure", while R D Laing is damned as being "as coarse as he was charismatic". But most practitioners are laudable figures whose ways of healing, as Stone notes, have "changed very little over the past three millennia".

The Bog People

by P V Glob,

Faber, pounds 12.99, 200pp

Blessed with a singularly euphonious title, this classic study of Iron Age corpses found in Danish peat bogs was first published in 1965. Tollund Man, the best-known example, bears some similarity to our own "Pete Marsh", otherwise Lindow Man. Though described as having "a gentle expression", the 2,000-year-old Jutlander was found to have been garotted, with the noose left in place. According to Glob's informative text, he was a sacrifice to a fertility goddess. The surviving totems of the cult, including a stupendous ceremonial cauldron and a semi-abstract sculpture of the goddess, are in striking contrast to such grisly tributes.

Britain on the Couch

by Oliver James,

Arrow, pounds 7.99, 402pp

Bridget Jones is unhappy, and clinical psychologist and agony uncle Oliver James knows why. Take any group of British women, and a high percentage of them will be depressed - about their jobs, their love lives, or both. The result: too little serotonin pumping through their systems, and too many croissants and cigarettes. Life in the "emotionally toxic" Nineties, with its high premium on personal fulfilment, says James, has made us more unhappy as a race than at any time during the last 40 years. Whether or not you agree with his central premise, read James for his empowering chapters on "Gender Rancour" and the healing power of pharmacology.

Lipstick on the Host

by Aidan Mathews,

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 307pp

Mathews generates a heightened sense of reality with few parallels in modern fiction. Not much seems to happen in this clutch of six tightly focused short stories, but you have a sensation of swirling undercurrents. Ireland is exotically infused by Africa in the unsettling novella Moonlight the Chambermaid, an account of the quiet tick-tock of priestly life which turns out to be literally about life and death. Precisely constructed, the title story concerns Maggie, a bookish teacher, whose mind comes unstuck when a late-flowering love turns out to be a one-night stand: "I take him into my arms, like clean washing. I inhale him, the good laundry."

Brokeback Mountain

by Annie Proulx,

Fourth Estate, pounds 3.99, 58pp

Cowboy fantasists will revel in Annie Proulx's classic long short- story of life on the open range. Set in the sage-scented mountains of Wyoming 30 years ago, ranch hands Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, hired for a summer of sheep herding, are glad to have found each other for company. But over the baked beans and flickering firelight, some good-hearted rumpy- pumpy turns into something more akin to love. Funny, stark and unsentimental, Proulx's wilderness is as evocative as an Ansel Adams print, and her prose as finely wrought. Full-blown Americana - the kind that goes a long way to explain John Wayne's interesting walk.

Beyond Forgiveness

by Caro Fraser, Orion, pounds 9.99, 295pp

Caro Fraser's gently told romance reverberates to the sound of bird song and village fetes. Seduced in her late thirties by the handsome Lord of the Manor, Ruth Owen lives to regret her short-lived affair. Pregnant and abandoned in her hour of need, she's left to bring up her child alone, as his Lordship gets it together with a more suitable girl. Thirty years on, her eyes still an attractive cornflower blue, Ruth is invited up to the Hall for a poached salmon lunch. Within weeks the two geriatrics are exchanging vows and heart pills in the local registry office. More Wesley than Cartland, Caro Fraser keeps her more mellifluous moments in commendable check.