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Europe: a cultural history

by Peter Rietbergen,

Routledge, pounds 16.99,

516pp

DESPITE ITS textbook appearance, this lively account of our continent's evolution is freighted with treasures. We learn about Greek debates on democracy ("monarchy is neither pleasant nor good"), Michelangelo's scathing view of Flemish contemporaries ("their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar"), how public bathhouses and kissing became suspect following the importation of syphilis by Columbus's crew, and that an English scientist insisted that a fundamental distinction between humans and apes was scientifically untenable. Darwin? No, Edward Tyson in 1698.

Missing the Midnight

by Jane Gardam,

Abacus, pounds 6.99, 180pp

A CHRISTMASSY selection of short stories from one of England's less showy literary stars. Cut off by snow, or non-appearing taxis, Jane Gardam's characters find themselves adrift. In the story "Old Filth", two lawyers are forced to share Christmas in a remote Dorset cottage; in "Missing the Midnight", a depressed student travelling south on Christmas Eve finds comfort in the eyes of a priest. Scattered among these gems are some more eccentric stories, particularly "The Pillow Goose", a tale of two "green" sisters, who anaesthetise a flock of geese to spare them the pain of being plucked.

Complete Prose

by Woody Allen,

Picador, pounds 7.99, 474pp

IT'S ARGUABLE that Allen's reputation would have been higher if he had stuck to prose. As an auteur, he's not quite Bergman. But as an author, at least in the best of these 52 pieces, he's up there with S J Perelman. Stories like "The Kugelmass Episode", in which Emma Bovary causes havoc in New York ("I want to see the Jack Nicholson character you always talk about"), or "The Schmeed Memoirs", about Hitler's barber ("An attempt was just made on the Fuhrer's moustache") are classics. Like his films, Allen's stories are short and ingenious; unlike them, they're funny.

Over Here

by Raymond Seitz,

Phoenix, pounds 7.99, 358pp

READING RAYMOND Seitz's memoirs of his years as America's ambassador to the Court of St James's, you're left with the impression that the job is not as top drawer as you might think. For a start, the ambassador's Regent Park residence suffers from bad plumbing and gloomy decor. Not that Seitz is complaining. A natural diplomat, his book reads like a series of faultless after-dinner speeches. Class, cricket and tea with John Major are handled with authority, though the author gets hot under the collar when describing Clinton's controversial appointee to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith.

A Second Skin: women write about clothes

by edited by Kirsty Dunseath,

Women's Press, pounds 7.99pp, 215pp

AN ENJOYABLE prowl round the wardrobe of the soul. In her paean to brothel creepers ("beauty and truth, genius personified"), Deborah Levy says of going sockless: "To not wear socks is to not pretend that love is forever." Caryn Franklin's platform sandals "were like family to me." Joan Smith extols the all-in-one Body: "wearable, sexy and I can open the door in it." A L Kennedy has tender memories of a basque: "here it controlled flesh, kept it pleasantly confined; elsewhere it left me complicitly free." Beloved jeans, hated shorts, a precious scarf: these clothes resonate.

Crazy Think

by Elly Summers,

Penguin, pounds 5.99, 310pp

YET ANOTHER tale of suburban yukkiness, this debut mystery rounds up all the usual suspects. New York accountant Richard Hayes has spent his adult years trying to forget his traumatic childhood. Then one evening he receives a call from his sister saying that she has just murdered her husband. Claire will go to jail, unless her lawyer can prove that she was abused as a child. Some unpalatable scenes with daddy, and a plot that manipulates more than it entertains: Summer describes that unsettling made-for-TV world where dads rape babysitters and moms bake cookies.

Albert Camus: a life

by Olivier Todd,

Vintage, pounds 8.99, 435pp

TERSE, IRONIC, lucid, Todd's style is wonderfully suited to his likeable but uneasy subject. Born into a working-class pied noir family, Camus's literary creativity was sparked by the tensions of his Algerian background. Despite lungs ravaged by TB and Disques Bleu, he was an energetic womaniser. His humane morality, which led him to petition on behalf of collaborators, prompted a massive bust-up with Sartre. Camus's "endearing human warmth and goodness" are reminiscent of Orwell. But how many readers will enjoy L'Etranger after being enthralled by this gutsy portrait is debatable.

The Safety of Objects,

by A M Homes, Anchor, pounds 6.99, 189pp

THE OBJECTS in A M Homes's stylish short stories may be safe (plastic garden chairs, kitchen floors, plant pots) but what happens to them is always unpredictable, and usually slippery. In "Jim Train", a lawyer saves up his afternoon pee to urinate in his superior's potted plant; in "Chunky in Heat" a fat teenager pleasures herself in her mother's favourite lawn chair; and in "A Real Doll" a young boy makes it with a Barbie doll. The least provocative story in the collection, "Adults Alone", is a wickedly humorous account of a couple forced to spend time together without the children.

The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles

compiled by Penelope Farmer,

Virago, pounds 9.99, 567pp

THIS COMPILATION arose during the death of Farmer's twin sister from cancer. Poignantly, the impact of a twin's death is tackled by Marquez: "He had the certainty that if he had gone over to a mirror, he would have found it blank." More cheerful aspects of the "apple cleft in twain" (Twelfth Night) are explored with P G Wodehouse and Mark Twain. But it is the dark magic of identical siblings which echoes in the mind, whether Marjorie Wallace's The Silent Twins or Oliver Sacks's encounter with moron twins who exchanged prime numbers, "like two connoisseurs wine tasting".

The Shell House

by Jane Thynne, Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99, 282pp

JANE THYNNE'S wartime romance switches between life in London black-outs and a less than glamorous present. Accompanying her boyfriend to a conference in deepest Sussex, Westminster lobbyist Jessica Leigh is left with time on her hands. Exploring the grounds of the hotel, once the country seat of pioneering geneticist Sir Lewis Appleby, she stumbles upon the great man's long-forgotten secret. In a novel of two halves, Thynne's writing perceptively brightens when she enters the Mary Wesley- esque world of grey-eyed debutantes and Ribbentrop flunkies.

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