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The Independent Culture
Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton by Flora Fraser, Papermac £9.99. Had Emma Hamilton been merely a flighty young May to Sir William's crabbed old January, her affair with Nelson would hardly have entered legend (and the Music Halls) a s firmly as it did. This enjoyable biography, which surprisingly took nine years to be paperbacked, shows her otherwise: the one-time prostitute who became a style queen, model of fashionable painters, admired singer, linguist, de facto diplomat and a figure tobe reckoned with. Although Nelson was overtly besotted by her, Emma's attitude to him seems to have been a little calculated: ``a good deal of caressing verbiage, some cutting-up of his meat and very few physical attentions. Occasionally she took his good arm.''

8 Life After Life by Tony Parker, HarperCollins £5.99. ``Not much to say that's new is there? Prison yesterday, last month, last year...'' But Tony Parker finds these 10 male and three female lifers with plenty to say and their words, transcribed and edited from his skilfully conducted interviews, are gripping, enlightening, frightening and fearfully sad. Few have much insight into their crimes, but the way in which facts are stated carry their own weight and meaning. ``Unfortunately I then ended her life by smothering her with a pillow,'' says a man who killed his two daughters after his wife left them.

``I caused his life to come to an end'' is how another, who battered his son to death, puts it.

8 Griffr by Christopher Meredith, Seren £5.95. This is the fictional life (as told by himself) of a medieval Welsh poet. There is plenty of authentic mead drunkenness, archers splitting trees and tribal skirmishing, yet Meredith's language is fresh and avoids empty medievalisms. He has his people striking not smiting and screwing not swiving, and so his Middle Ages also manage to be universal. Echoes of our own time are not forced down the throat, though, but lie implicit in the story, as when the poet's comforting belief (or illusion) is ``to articulate chaos, desolation, can be to subdue it'' and it is the same today. Writers are too often tempted to write about writing, and it rarely comes off. Meredith has found a way which does.

8 Rock Odyssey: A Chronicle of the Sixties by Ian Whitcomb, Limelight Editions £13.50. Whitcomb, a Surrey-born student and Mick Jagger lookalike, joined the British music invasion of America in the mid-60s, reaching number 8 with a jokey slice of vinyl called "You Turn Me On". A year later he ``couldn't even get arrested''. A ``golden oldie at 25'', he was a one-hit wonder with nothing to look forward to but his History Finals. This, in an imported American edition, is his rock autobiography,

a blend of music history and personal reminiscence which is very acute, funny and sometimes surreal. He discusses the philosopher Locke with Sam the Sham, the novels of Trollope with Jagger, surfing with the parents of the Beach Boys, Life with Sonny Bono, and recalls along the way many great and not-so-great names of British pop (Davie Allen and the Arrows, Pinkerton's Assorted Colours, Tommy Quickly - remember these?). If you still hanker after the days when record shops filed stock under ``Liverpool'', ``Manchester'' and ``Birmingham'', this book will take you there.

8 A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, trs Linda Coverdale, Flamingo £5.99. In the winter of 1917 five French poilus are sentenced to death for cowardice, but the manner of their execution is peculiar indeed. With hands bound, they are brought to the front line and tossed into No Man's Land, to take their chances with the Boche snipers. Two years on Mathilde, the fiancee of one of the condemned, sets out to discover the truth of this grotesque event. The result is a detective novel which effortlessly bursts the boundaries of the genre, and Mathilde's dogged search, told through documents, letters and interviews, in matter-of-fact style, is all the more moving for that.

8 Where or When by Anita Shreve, Abacus £6.99. In the '50s, when America herself was still a teen-ager, Charles Callaghan and Sian Richards were summer-camp lovers. Now Charles is a middle aged insurance salesman with an uncomprehending wife and the financial skids under him, while Sian is a published poet whose farmer-husband is himself staring into the void of bankruptcy. This novel tells of the reactivated love affair, but it failed to jerk many tears from me. I'm used to Americans expressing their middle-class angst in more lurid colours nowadays, and this is monochrome: a Brief Re-encounter. And the background - the hard times of the Reagan-Bush recession - seems a pallid correlative to the emotional impoverishment of the lead characters.

8 Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China by Richard Evans, Penguin £7.99. To walk the aisles of Toys R Us is to wonder if anyone except Deng's China is making toys nowadays. Since 1980, China has become unrecognisable to any Beijing-watcher of the '70s. Growth averages 9% whilst trade has more than tripled. So what's to stop them some day producing everything on the planet? This short, well-informed biography shows the country's leader to have been ruthless in conflict, deci sive in victory and resilient in defeat. His communism was rooted not in the love of humanity but in nationalism. Many of his generation (including Mao) saw socialism and the purging of feudal society as the only means to confound European imperialists. With that done, Deng could safely switch ideologies and capitalism, once used so effectively to humble Imperial China, has now (suitably modified) become the weapon of choice against the West.

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