PAPERBACKS

! Wagner by Michael Tanner, Flamingo pounds 6.99. For Wagnerian apologists, their man presents formidable problems, not least that he was an out-and- out Aryan supremacist. Of Parsifal, Tanner admits, there are those who feel the music "needs to be firmly separated from the repulsive drama": but isn't this an impossible task? Far from existing outside politics, the music-dramas stir Wagner's ugly world-view into a solvent of intensely skilful musical persuasion. The result, in Tanner's enthusiastic eyes, is an almost hallucinogenic hit, a "mixture of something like sex and religion", "the prolonged artistic equivalent of an orgasm". Considering the use of the Valkyries by US Marines in Vietnam, synthetic testosterone seems to be an ingredient. Another, if Tanner is right, must be equally addictive, something capable of removing all "the tortures of being a self". Tanner's apologia, like many of its kind, will play better to the converted than to the sceptical.

! The Psalm Killer by Chris Petit, Pan pounds 5.99. Divided cities, dirty wars, extortion rackets, unauthorised weaponry, madness: place these alongside a "normal" life of cornflake breakfasts and school-runs and you have the stock-in-trade of the thriller writer. Petit, for a long time a reviewer of the genre, has himself become an exponent with this highly readable story set in Belfast. Cross, his hero, is a familiar type - the emotionally restricted policeman who buries himself in work to avoid thinking about his disintegrating marriage. But the novel has a sure grasp of the city at the height of the 1980s violence, and is also willing to cast back and examine the roots of the conflict, finding personal greed and political machination as much as civil inequity. In this way Cross's professional round is shown in deep-focus as he tries to track a serial killer in a city poisoned by a cocktail of hatred, cordite and blood. Mixing fiction with fact (including the death of the protestant paramilitary leader Tommy Herron and a shadowy army figure called Baker) Petit has struck on a powerful way of telling the truth about cities like Belfast, where veracity is not so much a victim as a commodity traded in a secret marketplace.

! Companion to the Cosmos by John Gribbin, Phoenix pounds 11.99. Gribbin, one of our most prolific pop scientists, has a real, anorakless gift for putting over the fascination of science. This 600-pager is arranged alphabetically, from absolute zero to ZZ Ceti stars, and includes a timeline for the history of cosmic science. For browsing or reference it is a useful thing to have about the house, with abundant astronomical jargon that will impress your friends (blue stragglers, the free lunch universe, the Heinz soup parameter) as well as lucid mini-essays on astronomy and astrophysics and biogs of all the significant boffins.

! The House Guest by Barbara Anderson, Vintage pounds 6.99. English lecturer Robin Drumgoole gives up his thesis on "Henry James as the Unreliable Narrator" to set off on the posthumous trail of Alice O'Leary, a runaway American novelist who died in his native New Zealand. Literary sleuthing is a common enough theme in fiction but, in this case, the answer to the puzzle of why O'Leary's work dried up a decade before her death turns out to be woven into the texture of Robin's own life, giving an unusual integration between the sleuth and his quarry. Anderson herself is a highly reliable narrator, whose light, witty style ensures that her plot - though it revolves continually around grief and sudden loss - keeps clear of bathos and melodrama.

! Steven Spielberg: A Biography by John Baxter, HarperCollins pounds 8.99. Spielberg's name translates as "game-mountain", superbly appropriate to a man who has so made such gargantuan celebrations of the things he enjoyed as a kid. The name lies easily alongside those others among Kennedy's children (Gates, Madonna, Branson - complete your own list) in whom maverick personal style has combined with unprecedented drive towards global success. Baxter, already the successful biographer of Fellini, Ken Russell and Bunuel, has done his customary excellent job, making sense of Spielberg's childhood and early TV career, analysing the film successes and failures (especially 1941, which "I'll spend the rest of my life disowning") and detailing aspects of film making which publicity machines never spew out. Is Spielberg's art significant and enduring? For the moment, while he uses a forklift truck to count his money, the question seems hardly to matter. J G Ballard (who wrote Empire of the Sun, which SS filmed) called him the Puccini of film. That judgement sounds spot-on to me.

! Culture & Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940 by Robert Hewison, Methuen pounds 12.99. What is "the shaping moral medium of all social activities"? Once the readiest answer to this poser would have been religion; today we have the similarly abstract noun, culture. Using it, with all the brisk energy of an adult education lecturer, as a lens through which to scan postwar England, Hewison charts the shifting definitions of art- culture and the political battles fought over it, whether in the name of national identity, social equality, business opportunity or raw anarchy. He argues that in future we need a common and critical culture which is organic rather than commercially manufactured: not exactly a new position, nor a very clear one. But what Hewison's history does show is that, in replacing Thatcherite negation, we don't want a muddled compromise between Fifties paternalism and a time-diluted version of Sixties counter-culture. Chris Smith: please note.

Sun pours into a cistern at the fortress of Masada in Judea, defended by rebel Jews for three years after the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. The great excavation (1963-65) is vividly remembered by its chief archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, in Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (Phoenix pounds 12.99)

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