Penguin's wonderful 600-page compendium (edited by David Pascoe) chooses highlights from the magazines that the mature Dickens founded and ran, Household Words and All the Year Round. He goes on duty with the "detective police', sails to Calais on the night mail, joins strikers in Preston, attacks the empty pomp of state funerals and digs deep into every niche of London life, high and low. Superb writing and tremendous value.
Sap Rising by A A Gill (Black Swan, pounds 6.99) How do you sell a novel that received notoriously mixed reviews? Simple. You print "`Do not buy this book': The Guardian" on the front cover. In fact, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. Gill's portrait of energetic couplings in Knightsbridge is little different to dozens of other smutty, sniggering yarns published every year, though stylistically he aims higher (Tom Sharpe out of E F Benson) and sexually he goes further (bestiality with an alsatian) than most. Many pages show signs of an overstretched imagination in a work that succeeds neither as comedy nor porn.
The Prehistory of Sex by Timothy Taylor (Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99) In this persuasive survey, Taylor imparts an erotic frisson to dry-as-dust archaeology. Noting that "megaliths are undeniably phallic", he insists that humans have always regarded sex as much more than reproduction. Ice Age sculptures from Siberia were possibly bondage pornography. The contraceptive properties of plants (the seed of Queen Anne's lace is a "morning after" remedy) have been known for thousands of years. In Roman brothels, illustrative tokens specified the service required. Their imagery reveals that there's nothing new under the tongue.
Stiff Lips by Anne Billson (Pan, pounds 5.99) It has always been Clare's ultimate fantasy to own a flat in Notting Hill in London. So, when best friend Sophie (of the naturally glossy hair and Harvey Nicks charge card) gets there first, it's a little too much to bear. That is, until Miss Perfect starts to complain of unexpected bumps in the night and nocturnal visitations from the long-dead members of a Sixties band. Not as off the wall as it sounds, film critic Billson's sardonic, sexy ghost story explores the nastiness of close friends and the allure of W11 - a location, it seems, people are willing to die for.
James Stewart by Roy Pickard (Hale, pounds 9.99) Sadly fortuitous in timing, this portrait is as workmanlike as its subject. Stewart's low-key style suited directors such as no-nonsense Henry Hathaway ("Don't ask questions. It's a load of crap"). Erstwhile lover Gloria de Havilland saw him as "a grown-up Huck Finn". This was as true in life as on the screen. Though a brave wartime pilot, he ended up in Birmingham when driving from London to Norwich. His versatility ensured work in 80 films - but Ford bawled him out during Liberty Valance and the legendary It's a Wonderful Life bombed on release.
Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson (Minerva, pounds 6.99) Rarely has Belfast sounded so appealing: city of bombs and knee-cappings, but also leafy avenues, green hills and whimsical street names. Written with ease and gabby panache, McLiam Wilson's fourth novel describes the coming of age of Chukie Lurgan - fat, Methodist and lucky in love - and Jake Jackson, a Catholic/atheist dumped by his English girlfriend, as they get to grips with grown-up sex and less than grown-up politics.
Mars and Venus on a Date by John Gray (Vermilion, pounds 7.99) Men are from Mars and women are from Venus and international love guru, John Gray, is from California. But his take on the extra-terrestrial dating game is decidedly down to earth. Martians are advised to dress in uniform ("even when off duty"), compliment women lavishly on their choice of sunglasses, and be seen in the company of gurgling babies; while Venusians are advised to hang out by the loos on long haul flights and cruise the aisles for potential soul mates. Life on the mothership gets complicated.
Back Door to Byzantium by Bill and Laurel Cooper (Adlard Coles, pounds 12.99) A voyage by barge from Calais through the cockpit of Europe to Turkey should make a great travel book. Unfortunately, this yarn is marred by excessive detail. We're told of every sleeping pill swallowed, every bill paid and every local cat encountered. Bad jokes proliferate: "There was no crock of gold at the end of the Rimbaud." Though a trifle pleased with themselves ("Laurel is very fond of her cats and Bill is very fond of Laurel"), the Coopers are keen observers. Lost somewhere among the twee humour is a perceptive portrait of Mitteleuropa.Reuse content