Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Culture
Life of the Party

by Christopher Ogden

(Warner Books pounds 8.99)

Pamela Harriman's great talent was always to leave her exes on very good terms, particularly financially. The one man she failed to do this with was Christopher Ogden, a journalist for Time, who, when sacked as her official biographer, decided to go it alone. All the more entertaining for that, Ogden's enthralling book tells how "this very tasty morsel" charmed men as diversely unappetizing as Randolph Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton.

The Kenneth Williams Letters ed Russell Davies (HarperCollins 7.99)

How lovely to have a friend like Kenneth Williams, whose long, sympathetic and exuberantly naughty letters must have cheered up many an out-of-work actor's morning. Luckily for us, he went to the trouble of carbon-copying his best efforts; and if you think that's a little anal, don't forget this is a man who enjoyed nothing better, as he wrote to John Hussey on 5 September 1951, than to spend a day painting his downstairs lav a pleasing shade of "erotic dirty yellow".

Flesh and Blood by Michele Roberts (Virago 6.99)

If anyone can write about blood it's Michele Roberts, whose sensual eye celebrates everything from blackcurrant jam to menstrual rags. Quite what the novel is about (fleshly encounters take place in London suburbs, French seaside towns and Italian palazzos) is a little more abstract. What keeps you turning the pages, though, are her stunning still-lifes - tables groaning with ripe Camembert, jellied veal, cherries and greengages and the "frilled bags, plump and yielding" of freshly steamed mussels.

Tiger Eyes by Shirley Conran (Pan pounds 5.99)

Who better to be crowned Queen of the shopping-and- fucking novel than Shirley Conran? At least her shopping instincts are on target. Plum is married to Breeze, and they kick off the New Year making love in New York's Ritz Cartlon. In between shopping at Tiffany's and lunching at the Odeon, Plum finds herself unwittingly at the centre of an art fraud scandal - a scandal that will reveal her marriage for the sham it is. A new lover and a farmhouse in Aquitane are the only solutions.

A Hard Day's Summer by Alison Hargreaves (Coronet Books pounds 6.99)

It would be easier to like Alison Hargreaves, and appreciate her great achievement - being the first person to climb six Alpine north faces in one season - if she didn't refer to her car as "Perkins" and her children as "The Sprogs". Her account of a summer scaling the Matterhorn, with the ever nurturing "JB" (her husband) back at base camp, is curiously uninspiring, and only occasionally uplifted by such memorable quotes from the children as "Dad, I want a Poo!"

Out of Control by Kevin Kelly (Fourth Estate pounds 8.99)

Tadpoles grow into frogs but a Boeing 747 cannot gain six inches without crippling itself. Just one of the argument for "neo-biological technology" advanced in this sprawling but stimulating survey of the freakier fringes of cyberscience. Kelly believes machines will adopt natural forms of swarms, flocks, webs and cites the example of a 1mm robot (fleabot) currently under development. The book is unwieldy and shapeless as a whole, but its constituent parts display admirable clarity.

Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin (Faber pounds 4.99)

Lured by a hefty fee, Rome cop Aurelia Zen returns to Venice to snoop into the disappearance of a rich American. As cover for this moonlighting, he also investigates a dotty widow's claim of assault by ghosts. Stalking his native city's silted backwaters, Zen uncovers police corruption and political chicanery but his rash methods result in murder and suicide rather than justice. For intelligence, atmosphere and sheer quality of writing, Dibdin's work is in the first rank of policiers.

Old Friends by Tracy Kidder (Granta pounds 7.99)

The author spent a year in an old people's home outside Philadelphia gathering material for this book. Not the sexiest of subjects, but the result is a fascinating, perhaps great, piece of humane reporting. Kidder uncovers subtleties of character in a way matched by few novelists. The central figures are two room-mates: Lou, a purblind engineer in his nineties, perceptive and endlessly curious about the world, and Joe, a stroke victim in his seventies, humorous and salty-tongued.

Summer of Love by George Martin (Pan pounds 5.99)

Despite inept attempts to widen its appeal, this is rather a technical book about how the maestro of the control panel coaxed the magical effects of Sgt Pepper from the archaic equipment at Abbey Road. Some interesting details emerge, and the relationship between the increasingly spaced out Fab Four and the somewhat starchy George Martin (they referred to him as the Duke of Edinburgh) prompts unconscious humour. Even so, it's one for the anoraks.

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