Cross Channel by Julian Barnes (Picador, pounds 5.99) "Barnes est delicieux" simpers the shout-line from a Paris magazine about these 10 tales of Franco- Saxon attitudes. Well, Barnes's nicely-turned anecdotes of Brits in France melt in the mouth but seldom feed the soul. His penchant for bookish whimsy (a fatal attraction since Flaubert's Parrot) leads to such wan gags as the codger uncle mistaken for an avant-garde artist because he sells real beeswax polish: "Cire realiste". At times, we're not far from Peter Mayle with a postgrad degree. On the other main, the tender portrait of postwar grief in "Evermore" escapes the rather twee formula to stand on its own as one of Barnes's very finest shorter works.

Christopher Wood by Richard Ingleby (Alison & Busby, pounds 14.99) This intriguing biography covers 10 tempestuous years, between Wood's ambition at 19 to be "the greatest painter that has ever lived" and his presumed suicide in 1930 beneath an express train. A patchy talent, he is best known for a handful of late canvases, especially the surreal masterpiece "Zebra and Parachute". Wood's hectic coupling (Anthony Powell remarked scathingly on his "convenient bisexuality") is almost a parody of the Jazz Age. His drastic exit might have been prompted by opium, blackmail or sad acknowledgement of his "genius in small things".

The Russian Century by Brian Moynahan (Pimlico, pounds 10.00) In 250 superb pages, Moynahan records the incomparable drama of Russia over the past 100 years with verve and compulsive readability. The sweep of events is illuminated by telling details: there were 2 million nobles, including 2,000 princes, before the revolution; Lenin puzzling a posh wigmaker by demanding an elderly-looking grey wig for disguise; Stalin's secret police so numerous that they filled whole suburbs. After a century of upheaval, this great land, "freighted with the venal, the cynical, the confused and the plain crazy", has still to find peace.

Famous Last Words edited by Sean Costello and Tom Johnstone (Mercat, pounds 9.99) This diverting trawl of 35 obits from The Scotsman ranges from "the poor but interesting dog" Greyfriars Bobby to Marie Stopes, sexologist and "authority on coal". The sketches reflect their times as much as the person. Of Victoria's squiffy ghillie John Brown, we learn only that "his manner may have appeared abrupt if not brusque", while Nicholas Fairbairn is baldly described as "a victim of John Barleycorn". The overall effect is unexpectedly uplifting, as in the suggestion that Marxist poet Hugh MacDiarmid should be celebrated by a "two-minute pandemonium".

Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz (Oxford pounds 15.99) The American- born author has lavished infinite pains on a monumental life of a man who demanded to be "left in oblivion". Music-lovers should be grateful that Phillips-Matz put her qualms to one side. Verdi's genius is triumphantly celebrated, but the man behind the music proves to have feet of clay. This is literally so, since Verdi was a keen farmer, devoting so much time to his crops that his musical output was threatened. Industrious to the end (he wrote Falstaff at 79), Verdi is easier to admire than love, being irascible with associates and a cold domineering husband.

The Monsters & the Critics by J R R Tolkien (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99) It is hard to think of another academic who would be honoured by having such arcane essays reprinted in a popular edition. Surely there have been more interesting developments in Beowulf studies since the 1936 lecture which gives this volume its title? Such musty material only sees the light of day because Middle-Earth fans cannot get enough of Tolkien - but it is doubtful if any of them will make it to the end of his essay on Gawaine and the Green Knight. But fantasy freaks might enjoy "On Fairy-Stories", where J R R reveals the spooky word "mooreeffoc " is "coffeeroom" seen from inside.

Sugar and Other Stories by A S Byatt (Vintage, pounds 6.99) First published in 1987, these stories deserve to be reissued. Unlike the rather unappealing fairytales she brought out a couple of years ago, this collection is concerned with women in real-life situations, though there's a hint of post-modern self-reference in the allusions to reading, writing and storytelling. In the best pieces a schoolgirl battles with a headmistress; a middle- aged writer unlocks her creative potential only to die; and Byatt anticipates her Booker-winning novel Posession with an exploration of fact, fiction and Victorian literature.

The Progress of Love by Alice Munro (Vintage, pounds 6.99) Unlike A S Byatt, the Canadian writer, Alice Munro has built her reputation on short stories, and her mastery of the form is unmatched by anyone else. Mostly set in small town communities, her tales offer a yearning depth of emotion and an exquisite use of detail comparable with Chekhov. By some sleight of hand, she can condense a complex human relationship into a few pages or even sentences without compromising the relaxed, roomy feel of her style.

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