Paperbacks

Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett (Phoenix, pounds 8.99) The perfect example of a second-rate subject resulting in a first-rate biography. Unsurprisingly, Fleming turns out to be a moody, snobbish, fantasist with a penchant for sadism: "All women love semi-rape." When his wife's pregnancy forced him to lay aside the whip, he channelled his energies into Casino Royal, the first volume of Bond.

The Hallelujah Revolution by Ian Cotton (Warner, pounds 7.99) Despite its intriguing subject - the boom in charismatic Christianity - this book is hard going. The reason for the profusion of references, one-word sentences and forest of exclamation marks is made plain on page 34, where there is a long quote from Tom Wolfe - a risky stylistic model. Cotton discovers much of interest: a cultist who depends on prayer for income; believers who insist they can cure illness by talking in tongues; a woman whose faith leads to bankruptcy.

Hannibal by Ross Leckie (Abacus, pounds 6.99) A superior sort of toga-saga in which the Punic generalissimo tells his own story. Free of awkward archaisms, Leckie's vivid style is enthralling, particularly in the childhood section. The politics of Hannibal's makeshift alliances, the corrosion of his humanity and the ghastly mechanics of war, are brilliantly described.

Madame Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington (Secker, pounds 12.99) A spritely canter through the "western gurus" who emerged from the cult of theosophy and influenced artists from Yeats to Isherwood. Blavatsky was the first and oddest, a 17-stone chain-smoker who cobbled together theosophy from the novels of Bulwer-Lytton. The spiritual baton was taken up by the "self- pitying and egotistical" Krishnamurti, along with Rudolf Steiner and Gurdjieff. Though his book is packed with revelations, Washington does not judge the colourful figures who fill our religious vacuum.

No End of a Lesson by Anthony Nutting (Constable, pounds 9.95) Nutting's promising parliamentary career was brought to an abrupt halt when he resigned as Minister of State at the Foreign Office because of Britain's deceitful and ignominious role in the 1956 Suez crisis. His revealing account of this sad, bad business shows admirable objectivity. Occasionally, deep emotion breaks through Nutting's prose: "I hope I shall never know a sadder moment than the last quarter of an hour before I left the Foreign Office for good."

The Shrine by Cristina Odone (Phoenix pounds 5.99) Workmanlike, if cliched, first novel from the ex-editor of the Catholic Herald, set in an Italian village. The shrine in question is proposed by the local priest when a beautiful girl begins to see visions of the Virgin Mary. The rest of the plot centres on the fading fortunes of the Ferrati family: when the old patriarch dies, the son and daughter are forced to sell off the land to pay his debts. Various love affairs, dodgy deals and pasta recipes spice up the action, but the novel remains stronger on local colour than on theme or characterisation.

A Burmese Legacy by Sue Arnold (Sceptre, pounds 6.99) Although Sue Arnold had the most English of upbringings, both her grandmothers were Burmese. In her youth, she felt painfully ambivalent about her Eurasian heritage - which is unsurprising given the racism she encountered both at boarding school and as a young journalist. In 1985, she decided to rediscover her roots, and visited Rangoon in search of her relatives. The resulting memoir is chattily introspective, with fascinating insights into colonial history and a chilling account of the oppressive regime in present-day Burma.

The Drowning Room by Michael Pye (Penguin pounds 6.99) While researching a history of New York, Michael Pye found the name Gretje Reyniers coming up again and again in the law court reports of New Amsterdam, the 17th- century Dutch settlement on Manhattan. He was intrigued by this abrasively litigious woman, who worked as a prostitute and money-lender, revelled in foul language, and used her broomstick to measure the members of visiting sailors. This compelling novel is an imaginative reconstruction of Gretje's life.

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