The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine (Penguin, pounds 5.99) The reader is swept along like a twig in a torrent by this account of two doomed love affairs separated by decades. Jenny, a superstitious care-assistant in an old people's home, is approaching the 13th year of a loveless marriage when she strikes up a rapport with Stella, a resident suffering from cancer. Bit by bit, Stella recalls the terrible events which freed her lover but destroyed their relationship. In her razor-sharp depictions of both character and milieu, Barbara Vine (alias Ruth Rendell) is utterly convincing.

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber, pounds 5.99) These shards of American home-life have attracted the soaring epithet "Chekovian" from the New York Times but that is overstating the case. Many of Kingsolver's stories are akin to diary entries of a peculiarly traumatic nature - a car-crash, a near-drowning, an arrest on a picket-line - but they are strangely lacking in focus, despite her fine, laconic dialogue and eye for shabby detail. She writes with great tenderness about society's outsiders, but, laudable though it is, this kind of material does not make for addictive page-turning.

Trust by Francis Fukuyama (Penguin, pounds 12.50) Despite its daunting bulk and title, this is a stimulating read. Fukuyama's enlightened thesis is that "a healthy and dynamic civil society" - in other words "trust" between individuals and institutions - is vital for stable prosperity. Overly centralised states have trouble achieving this; so do those where any institution larger than the family is distrusted. The author cites the example of Wang Computers whose fortunes plummeted as a result of "blatant nepotism". This wide-ranging, lucid work is a welcome rebuff to extremists of both right and left.

The Austrians by Gordon Brook-Shepherd (HarperCollins, pounds 8.99) Britain's greatest expert on Mitteleuropa has condensed a lifetime's research into this history. Austria's imperial past is delineated at a cracking rate - from Charlemagne to Metternich in 60 pages. The pace slows for the momentous events of our own century in which this pocket-sized state played such an explosively catalytic role. Fortunately for all concerned, the last half-century has been remarkable for its lack of drama, though the author notes how the Waldheim scandal shattered Austria's complacent view of itself.

Howard Hughes: the untold story by Peter H Brown and Pat H Broeske (Warner, pounds 7.99) Rich beyond belief, Hughes was once a formidable operator. But by 1951, his aides were issued with a "nine-point programme for opening a tin of peaches." His harem of starlets had similar rules: no leg-shaving and no pork ("Howard hated to be in bed with women who had gas"). His celebrity lovers ranged from Ava Gardner to Kate Hepburn. Doubtless the "millions of dollarsworth of jewels he threw at their feet" helped them overlook any character defects. Despite the authors' assiduous research, the man remains a mystery - perhaps there is little to know.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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