Books: Paperbacks

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Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare (Mandarin, pounds 7.99)

A beautifully crafted portrait of the soigne songster/playwright. Born in Croydon, Coward's background was grander than usually assumed (he is related to Princess Di). We learn that his clipped speech disguised a lisp and his machine-gun delivery was inspired by Twenties cocaine freaks (the subject of his stage hit The Vortex). Coward emerges as a restless talent - he composed "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in his head while travelling through Vietnam - who tempered sentiment with witty vulgarity. He wanted to cast Hans Unterfucker in Bitter Sweet because of the problems it would cause on billboards.

The Faber Book of Science edited by John Carey (Faber, pounds 9.99) For pure excitement, this trawl from Leonardo to Steve Jones matches Carey's acclaimed anthology of Reportage. Highlights include Priestley on pure oxygen ("Hitherto only two mice and myself have had the privilege of breathing it"), Thoreau on warring ants and Beebe on ocean depths observed from the Bathysphere. More recently, the savage death of a muskrat in Miroslav Holub's empty swimming pool prompts the literary scientist to muse on the chemical messages still zapping through its spilt blood. Carey demonstrates that these brilliant perceptions of reality outshine most fiction.

Frontiers of Heaven by Stanley Stewart (Flamingo, pounds 6.99) Covering a journey from "filthy, rapacious" Shanghai ("I loved it") to Rawalpindi ("in a land of serious moustaches, it is in a league of its own"), this slim, dazzling book reminds you just how enjoyable travel writing can be. Snippets of history and culture are deftly interwoven into Stewart's breezy narrative. He successively pals up with a one-armed centenarian, a sea-sick sailor and a dancing girl. But a fleeting affair with an artist transforms his Chinese adventure. "It is a dream," she insists. But back in London, Stewart can still hear her voice. His book is a rare gem.

Ask Sir James by Michaela Reid (Eland, pounds 8.99) A surprisingly entertaining insight into Queen Victoria's Court emerges from the recently discovered notebooks of Sir James Reid, her personal physician. Though he never applied a stethoscope to (or indeed saw) the regal bosom, few secrets were hidden from him. The alcoholic John Brown suffered from delirium tremens, while Princess Christian had a taste for cocaine. But Reid's most trying patient was a cosseted Indian servant who demanded "ample drugs to kill 15,000 men". The Queen's galloping hypochondria ensured that Dr Reid became the great confidant of her life. She emerges in these pages as a quirky, shrewd old bird.

Cuba and the Night by Pico Iyer (Quartet, pounds 6.00) Richard, a big-shot photo-journalist, falls for a local beauty called Lourdes while on (unfeasibly) protracted assignment in Cuba. Despite her fondness for Havana's racy nightlife, Lourdes is desperate to leave. Unable to marry because his divorce hasn't come through, Richard calls on Hugo, a gawky English schoolmaster, to act as stand-in groom. But things don't go to plan. The book ends with Richard standing in the English rain, staring through a window at the loving newly-weds in their dank cottage. At a guess, authorial trauma prompted this atmospheric, if underpowered, yarn.

Fanny Trollope by Teresa Ransom (Sutton, pounds 9.99) An engaging biography which sets out to rediscover Fanny Trollope - novelist mother of the more famous Anthony - for the feminist canon. Radical, unladylike and supremely self-confident, Fanny didn't publish her first book until she was 53, when her attempt to join a Utopian commune in America ended in bankruptcy. Her sharp-eyed account of American manners was an overnight bestseller, and she went on to support her feckless husband and consumptive children by publishing 40 books in the next 24 years. Her novels were racy and controversial (dealing with unmarried mothers and the evils of child labour) and led Thackeray to wish that females would stick to "making puddings and mending stockings."

Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai (Minerva, pounds 6.99) The mysterious pull of Eastern philosophy provides the theme for this elegantly written, if not always emotionally satisfying, novel. Matteo, an Italian misfit, drags his sceptical wife Sophie round the ashrams of India in search of enlightenment. Eventually, he becomes a disciple of The Mother, a charismatic religious leader. In an attempt to understand her husband's obsession, Sophie sets off on her own voyage of discovery, travelling to Egypt, Venice and the States to uncover the truth about The Mother. The fine descriptive passages and the novel's vivid sense of place aren't matched by the characterisation, which is insipid by comparison.

Jane Austen: A Biography by Elizabeth Jenkins (Indigo, pounds 7.99) Republished to capitalise on recent Austen mania, this amiable, intelligent biography first came out in 1938. Ms Jenkins should be pleased to discover that her work can easily withstand comparison with more recent attempts. Yes, it is old-fashioned, assuming that its reader will share its very Thirties loathing for all things Victorian, and it doesn't have the footnotes and other academic apparatus that are now de rigueur. But it is so much livelier than the clunky prose of Park Honan's 1987 "definitive" life that its dated feel only adds to its charm.

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