Books: Paperbacks

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Restoration London

by Liza Picard,

Phoenix, pounds 8.99,


Venice must be the nearest we can come to experiencing Pepys's metropolis today. Either you negotiated "narrow and incommodious" alleyways, choked with traffic and made treacherously slippery with horse droppings, or you risked a river voyage, which for 17th-century ladies involved "trying to keep your long skirt out of the filthy bilge, while wearing a rigid corset down to your navel". From a former civil servant, this absorbing, minutiae-packed exposition comes close to time travel. And while we might envy Pepys's relaxed office routine, which included a reviving "mid-morning draft", the grisly medical treatments on offer make you thank God for living in the 20th century.

The Switch

by Olivia Goldsmith,

HarperCollins, pounds 9.99, 265pp

It's only when her husband comes home sporting freshly pedicured feet and shell-pink toe-nails that piano teacher Sylvie Shiffer suddenly realises that he's having an affair. But when she confronts his mistress (a reflexologist by the name of Marla) she is shocked to discover a woman so identical in appearance to herself that they might have been twins. In a scenario that could have sprung straight from a Fay Weldon novel, Sylvie (who longs for romance) and Marla (who just wants a husband) switch places, and pyjamas, and put Bob through his paces. Another burst of brightly- lit humour from Hollywood revenge-mistress Olivia Goldsmith (author of The First Wives Club and Bestseller).

The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm,

Papermac, pounds 12, 145pp

Acclaimed for her psychoanalytic writings, Janet Malcolm, the veteran New Yorker reporter, probes her own "morally indefensible" trade in this account of the relationship between star journalist Joe McGinniss and his biographical subject Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of triple murder in 1970. Though McGinniss appeared supportive during the extended interviews, MacDonald was shocked to discover that, instead of the expected exoneration, McGinniss's book only confirmed the guilty verdict. While marred by Joe McGinniss's refusal to discuss the case and her own fondness for Freudian analysis, Malcolm's brooding report is obligatory reading for anyone concerned with journalism.

Vita Brevis, A Letter to St Augustine

by Jostein Gaarder,

Phoenix, pounds 5.99 164pp

The latest head to roll under the axe of Norwegian debunker Jostein Gaarder (bestselling author of Sophie's World and The Solitaire Mystery) is that of St Augustine of Hippo - a thinker who blew it, according to this writer, when he renounced his girfriend, Floria Aemilia, for the joys of chastity (and full-time cohabitation with his mother). Gaarder's passionate letter to the author of the Confessions (as penned by the jilted and thoroughly sensible-sounding Floria), urges Augustine to reconsider a faith that "lays waste to a woman's life, to save a man's soul", and to remember their afternoons spent under the fig tree and romantic strolls along the banks the Arno. The history of the early church made easy.

The House of Lords: an anecdotal history

by John Wells,

Sceptre, pounds 7.99, 298pp

Though there are no shortage of gags - such as the backwoods peer gasping at the Bench of Bishops "Good God! Women!" - Wells's final book is also an impressively intelligent account of the Upper Chamber's first millennium. He notes that a medieval belief in divine hierarchy underpins the House of Lords. This high-flown twaddle is amusingly contrasted with sharp-eyed observation of the Gormenghast-like reality, where chinless hereditaries spout Wodehousian banalities, while flunkies skive in dank basements decorated with Sun pin-ups. But how Wells's ghost must regret missing the notorious flock wallpaper now adorning the walls of the current Lord Chancellor.

Jane Austen: a life

by Claire Tomalin,

Penguin, pounds 7.99, 358pp

Jane Austen's novels are always to the point, a virtue shared by her clear-sighted biographer, Claire Tomalin. Not that Austen's story is awash with extraneous detail. The author didn't record any autobiographical details, and only 160 of her letters remain (most were destroyed after her death by over-zealous relatives). But despite this, Tomalin fleshes out a far more appealing picture of Austen than the usual scribbler-by- the-window version allows: from healthy infant (she suckled for three months), to good-hearted sister, to determined young woman - the kind brave enough to turn down a proposal of marriage and a guaranteed "life of event".

The Detainees

by Sean Hughes,

Touchstone, pounds 6.99, 322pp

Almost as gabby as Irvine Welsh - and with a similar vomit per page ratio - Irish comedian Sean Hughes writes with boys in mind. When young and thrusting Dublin antiques dealer John Palmer isn't drunk or high or throwing-up, he's fantasising about Vanessa Feltz's rear end and, with less satisfactory results, the Spice Girls. But when something happens that really depresses him - like the time he accidentally squashes the dog, or catches his wife in the arms of another man - John's considerable imaginative powers spill over into criminal intent. An expert in the ways of self-disgust, Hughes vividly records life in an Irish town.

Lord Hailsham

by Geoffrey Lewis,

Pimlico, pounds 15, 408pp

Not a very sympathetic figure for our times, Hailsham's background (Eton and Christ Church) laid the foundations for his rock-solid Toryism, viewed by one observer as "total belief without fanaticism". To his credit, Hailsham immediately sundered with Enoch Powell following the "River of Blood" speech. In this era of spin doctors, Hailsham's boisterousness, which ensured that he never had a sniff of the leadership, is refreshing. Objective and well-judged, Lewis's portrait reveals a powerful intelligence behind the bluster. A pity, however, that he omits Lord H's famous critique of the lords spiritual, muttered from the Woolsack: "Bloody fools!"

Ghost Children

by Sue Townsend,

Arrow, pounds 5.99, 267pp

Coming across a discarded hospital

bin liner containing the bodies of several aborted foetuses, dog-walker Christopher Moore helps himself to a little girl and takes her home to a warm cot by the fireside. Prompted by his unexpected discovery, he decides to go in search for his long- lost girlfriend, whose secret abortion 17 years before, sent both spiralling into a state of semi-permanent decline. As absorbing as a Ruth Rendell mystery, and sharing that author's fascination for the disturbingly mundane detail, Sue Townsend's compelling tale of suburban misfits gets to grips with love, loss and tiny booties.

Revolutionary Empire

by Angus Calder,

Pimlico, pounds 15, 548 pp

Calder's dazzling account of the early years of the British Empire (a term first used by the polymath John Dee) has been sharpened in this abbreviated, but still monumental, edition. Cleaning away a thick layer of patriotic varnish, Calder reveals that Drake's destruction of the Armada was a "myth" (two-thirds of the Spanish fleet survived) and, in a fit of cruelty, Wolfe paid five guineas per Indian scalp prior to assailing Quebec. Similarly, the Black Hole of Calcutta resulted from British drunkeness and may have cost only 18 lives compared to the 143 claimed. But the blackest pages in the book are devoted to the West Indies and Ireland. A sobering reassessment.