Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst

Tales of the New Babylon by Rupert Christiansen (Minerva, pounds 7.99)

The dysfunctional royal family provides a spectacle of swaggering vulgarity, a ghastly multiple murder rivets the nation, a controversial work of art is besmirched with ink. Sounds like home, sweet home, but we are in fact in Second Empire Paris. This superb book begins with a guide to this dazzling, sexy, diseased, volatile city. The pace hots up as the capital is besieged by Prussia and then embroiled in civil war.

Years of Hope by Tony Benn (Arrow, pounds 9.99)

Diaries covering 1940-1962, in which our hero, known then as Jimmy, enjoys a "real pukka dog fight" in the RAF (no enemy planes involved) and tours the United States before entering the Commons. Benn's account of politics in the Fifties has a nice antique quality - sputniks and Suez - but it's hard to see how his battle to renounce the peerage says much about "the shallowness of democracy".

Take It Like A Man by Boy George with Spencer Bright (Pan, pounds 5.99)

It was love of the make-up box rather than any urge to hit the charts that whisked George O'Dowd away from Eltham. His first wavering note only emerges on page 177. Soon, it's global success and Garcon Georges is the "Elvis of Hampstead", pigging out on Mr Kipling cakes and, subsequently, more addictive confections. This book puts paid to all that nonsense about preferring a cup of tea to sex.

I Am the Blues by Willie Dixon and Don Snowden (Quartet, pounds 10)

A giant of the blues, Dixon is under-appreciated today. Yet many of his 500 songs, from "My Babe" to "Spoonful" (which, he insists, has nothing to do with heroin), have been recorded more than those of any other bluesman. His memoirs are entertaining and acute, particularly on financial matters. We learn, for example, that the Stones were less than prompt with royalties from "Little Red Rooster".

Revelations: The Clergy Questioned by Mary Loudon (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

Loudon's technique worked well in her previous book on nuns. But this topic is too big and complex for the same approach. Her in-depth probing of 12 clerics produces a mass of amorphous information, with personal details jumbled among questions of faith and church politics. Though she excises her presence during the interviews, Loudon's giggly, self- centred introductions are oddly intrusive.

The Nuremburg Trial by Ann Tusa and John Tusa (BBC, pounds 14.99)

Ten men hanged (one avoided the rope through suicide), seven imprisoned, three acquitted: this was the outcome of the century's most extraordinary trial. Adroitly handling an Everest of material, the authors have produced a superbly readable account packed with moments of high drama, such as the virtuoso performance of Goering and the devastating prosecution summary by Sir Hartley Shawcross.

Matricide at St Martha's by Ruth Dudley Edwards

(HarperCollins, pounds 4.99)

The Senior Common Room of St Martha's, Cambridge, is divided into three factions: the Virgins, the Dykes and the Old Women (i.e. men). Into this maelstrom of sexual politics and gender confusion,bursar "Jack" Troutbeck infiltrates her old friend and ex-civil service colleague, Robert Amiss, in a last-ditch attempt to do down the Dykes. A bluestocking farce of Sharpean proportions and howling bad taste.

The Rose Crossing by Nicholas Jose (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

17th-century incest is the starting point for one of this year's more peculiar offerings. Marooned on a desert island with only his daughter for company, botanist Edward Popple thinks he has found Paradise - that is, until the arrival of a Chinese prince and a boatload of roses. The resulting frenzy of stamen-dusting (and something nasty to do with green tea) makes for a weird and wonderful brew.

Scenes from a Poisoner's Life by Nigel Williams (Faber, pounds 5.99)

Fans of The Wimbledon Poisoner will be glad to know that nothing much has changed for Henry Farr since he tried to murder his wife at a summer party six years ago. The large-arsed Elinor continues to prefer giant hardbacks to Henry's attempts at intimacy, and daughter Maise has developed a taste for cider and boys as ugly as herself. Back in the land of SW19, Williams is at his best.

Crazy Paving by Louise Doughty (Touchstone, pounds 5.99)

This very funny first novel tracks the fortunes of three mis-matched office mates: Annette, Joan and Helly (the office junior from hell). Cloistered in a tiny office near Victoria Station, they do daily battle not only with each other, but with Richard, their S-and-M-loving boss. A story of lonely lust, petty disappointments and late arrivals: twentysomething commuters will know exactly where Doughty is coming from.

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