Books: Paperbacks

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Churchill and HItler

by John Strawson,

Constable, pounds 12.99, 540pp

More than in most conflicts, the progress and outcome of World War II depended on the personalities of the opposing leaders. Strawson's account of their titanic struggle is compulsive reading. For him, the two men represent the honourable obverse and ignoble reverse of the human character. However, he notes some shared characteristics: "Both were accomplished amateur strategists, both were prodigious orators, neither could give up". Like Hitler, Churchill demanded victory "at all costs", but his finest hour came in 1940. As Strawson points out, Britain has always shown a singular "aptitude [for] avoiding defeat".

Blue River

by Ethan Canin,

Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99, 206pp

A product of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Ethan Canin produces classic New Yorker style fiction. Set in a comfortable Californian suburb, Blue River tells the story of two brothers - one a wealthy opthamologist, the other a no-hope drifter - forced to iron out their differences during a sticky June weekend. A writer who revels in life's minutiae (see his near-perfect description of a bologna and sweet-pickle salad sandwich), Canin often loses sight of the larger picture in his enthusiasm for the kitchen fittings. First published in 1991, this tale of western-style redemptions is worth a second turn around.

Van Morrison

by John Collis,

Warner, pounds 7.99, 256pp

A deft portrait of the world's least likely-looking rock star. Collis expresses wonderment at Morrison's early output, though he overdoes things by quoting 22 lines of the Prelude in an attempt to elucidate Moondance, which the singer described as "getting stoned off nature". Covering the past decade, Collis begins to lose patience with his subject: "His paranoia is... simply offensive." Sometimes quirkily generous, but often irascible and graceless, Morrison remains an enigmatic figure. A surprisingly perceptive view comes from Cliff Richard, who suggests that Morrison is "filled with self-loathing".

Thrones, Dominations

by Dorothy L Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh,

New

English

Library, pounds 5.99, 367pp

Dorothy L Sayers abandoned her 13th Lord Peter Wimsey novel in 1936. When a fragment was recently discovered in her agent's safe - whether a sentence, or a chapter isn't revealed - the Sayers estate cannily nominated fellow blue-stocking Jill Paton Walsh to finish the story. Sharing Sayers's descriptive powers, Paton Walsh conjures up Thirties Mayfair (and its whippet-eyed socialites) with dazzling flair. A fascinating portrait of the marriage of the now middle-aged Lord Peter and his "foreheady" wife, detective writer Harriet Vane, as they talk strangulation and subterfuge over the spotted dick.

Standing in the Sun

by Anthony Bailey,

Pimlico, pounds 14, 478pp

In this superb biography of J M W Turner, Bailey explores the evolution of Britain's greatest artist from an accomplished technician admired for his grasp of naval detail into a visionary genius who declared: "Indistinctness is my forte." Turner so adored visual effects that he rose early to stare at the sunrise every morning. At least the work of this protean personality was appreciated in his own lifetime - he once turned down pounds 100,000 for his hoarded oeuvre - though one buyer was perplexed as to which way up a work should be hung. "You may hang it as you please," Turner snapped, "if you only pay for it."

The Collected Stories

by John

McGahern,

Faber, pounds 8.99, 408pp

John McGahern, one of Dublin's top literary exports, can get away with many things - including 60-word long first sentences. Lyrical, melancholic and at one with the elements, he describes an Irish landscape that readers, especially American ones, hope for and expect. Included in the collection are classic stories of silent fathers and angry sons ("Gold Watch", "Wheels"), alcoholic husbands and disappointed wives - their quiet dramas played out in lonely farmhouses and cosy bars. Also reissued this month are McGahern's acclaimed novels The Barracks and The Pornographer.

The Pimlico Companion to Fashion

edited by Colin

McDowell,

Pimlico, pounds 12.50, 452pp

Though the brittle apercus of Diana Vreeland ("I love Royalty. They're so clean.") are much in evidence, this excellent anthology is more about clothing than haute couture. Among many gems are Anthony Powell's Major Fosdick, who dons an evening dress before settling down with pipe and book. McDowell reveals James Bond's unexpected eye for fashion: "Her dress was of grey soie sauvage with a square-cut bodice." Fashion victims would do well to note Beau Brummel's wise words: "If John Bull turns to look after you, you are not well dressed but either too stiff, too tight or too fashionable."

The Second Half: thoughts from a male mid-life crisis

by John Crace,

Vista, pounds 5.99, 223pp

Though not to be confused with his more literary namesake, Booker Prize nominee Jim Crace, journalist John Crace can probably tell a better joke. His latest production is a perky investigation into the neuroses of the middle-aged male. Summoning up the usual list of suspects - fear of balding, erectile dysfunction, cancer and death - he speculates on the size of Nick Hornby's manhood (impressive), John Prescott's girth (ditto), and why certain middle-aged folk decide to retrain as counsellors and therapists (to feel one up on the other saddos).

The Mammoth Book of How it Happened

edited by Jon E Lewis,

Robinson, pounds 6.99, 600pp

This bargain basement version of John Carey's Book of Reportage stresses the darker side of human life, from Thucydides on plague in Athens (430BC) to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia (1992). There are some lighter moments - we learn that Attila the Hun was not much of a dinner companion ("neither by word nor gesture did he seem to share in the merriment") and Al Capone was a great patriot: "My rackets are run on strictly American lines." Oddly, the book's "great historical moments" include T E Lawrence's imagined account of Turkish beastliness and Adam Ant on the debut of the Sex Pistols.

Violin

by Anne Rice,

Arrow, pounds 5.99, 367pp

The streets of New Orleans are heavy with the scent of magnolia blossoms and car fumes, but inside Triana's Corinthian-style mansion, the air reeks of death. Perhaps her most striking novel so far (and she's written 22, including the phenomenally successful Vampire Chronicles), Anne Rice's latest dose of Southern gothic draws directly from her own life. Like her creator, Triana is one of four sisters, in her fifties and no stranger to loss, having witnessed the deaths of both her mother and her young daughter. To the rescue comes a long-haired violin player - part incubus, part revelation.

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