Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
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Paddy & Mr Punch by RF Foster (Penguin pounds 8.99)

The leading historian of Ireland writes on politics and literature with equal acuity. Personified by the dominating figure of WB Yeats, the two themes are entwined in this investigation of tangled Anglo-Irish links over the past 150 years. Recondite subject matter is leavened with anecdotes and astringent humour. In the title essay Foster notes that by referring to Ireland as "Britannia's Cinderella sister" in the 1880s, Punch magazine unconsciously implied that Britannia was the ugly sister.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (Minerva pounds 6.99)

Ackroyd keeps chronological juggling to a minimum in his latest excavation of London's grisly past. This time he is working the motherlode of metropolitan crime: the Victorian East End. Gruesome doings in murky alleyways are counterpointed by the lurid grotesquerie of music hall life. Ackroyd's uncanny ability to inhabit murderous minds is disturbing as ever. With a cast including Marx, Gissing and a literally embryonic Chaplin, this is his most enthralling creation since Hawksmoor.

Younghusband by Patrick French (Flamingo pounds 7.99)

If you're only buying one book this summer, this should be it. French's audacious biography of an imperial adventurer is epic entertainment. In 1887, aged 23, Frank Younghusband traversed the unexplored Gobi. In 1904 he invaded Tibet, taking along a small army and 10,000 coolies. French follows in his footsteps, wearing puttees and eating kippers in emulation. Younghusband provided a biographical bonus in later life by becoming a proto-hippie, propounding mystic twaddle and free love.

Romans by Michael Sheridan. (Phoenix pounds 6.99)

The author, formerly the Independent's Rome correspondent, contends that it is the world's most pleasurable capital. But his evocative essays do not eschew darker aspects of the eternal city, from its "ragged and disputatious" cats to the corrupt and seedy district of Trastevere. Other topics range from vicissitudes in the Vatican to Shelley's inspiring but ultimately tragic spell in Rome. Though his eclectic slide-show is richly informative, Sheridan's Rome retains its essential mystery.

Good Company: Diaries 1967-1970 by Frances Partridge (Flamingo pounds 7.99)

Prying into these diaries, from a surviving member of Bloomsbury's inner circle, is like being at a grand party where you know nobody; fun but mystifying. Lacking adequate footnotes, we're often at sea among a huge, haut boheme cast referred to by their first names. Nevertheless this is an addictive, novel-like read due to Partridge's keen eye, zest for travel and acerbic views. The summer of love backdrop adds interest, with Bloomsbury's grandchildren essaying the hippie lifestyle.

Queens by Pickles (Penguin pounds 6.99)

A Swiftian panorama of gay London which takes the form of playlets, essays personal musings and a portfolio of George Grosz-style drawings. Over a 24-hour period, we accompany a queens' regiment of clones, leather boys, and fags in drag, as they flounce, bitch and pose in steamy clubs and Twyfords accoutred "cottages". Pickles is a satirist of a very high order but, be warned, some passages plum the depths. The scant mention of Aids indicates the historical nature of this work.

Sleepwalking by Julie Myerson (Picador pounds 4.99)

Susan and Alistair live together in yuppie splendour, amid toasters from Conran and sheets from Heal's. But just as Susan finally brings herself to admit that she isn't happy with her well-meaning husband, their hearts are fused in the multiplying cells of a unexpected child. Unlike most first-time novelists, Julie Myerson wipes away the mess of unhappy love with deft precision, and her observations will delight many a nappy- laden thirtysomething.

Evangelista's Fan by Rose Tremain (Minerva pounds 5.99)

As you might expect from the author of Restoration, Rose Tremain's short stories encapsulate the essence of a dazzling range of periods and places: medieval France, 19th-century Piedmont, Regency London. It's slightly surprising, then, that some of her best stories have contemporary backdrops. "The Unoccupied Room", a creepy tale of a doctor who wakes up to find herself in a strange apartment in a nameless European city, is particularly mesmerising.

The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar (Vintage pounds 5.99)

Thomas Jefferson is said to have fathered several children by a black slave woman, but although famous for this side-line, Jefferson was not, of course, unique. Fred D'Aguiar's novel takes place not far from Monticello and tells the story of Whitechapel, an ageing plantation slave, whose wife gives birth to the white overseer's son. The boy's fate is related by those who play a part in his short life - their voices as measured as the whiplashes that are dealt him.

The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing (Flamingo pounds 5.99) Once you realise that Lessing's novel isn't set in a Rhodesian suburb, but in an imagined city of the future, you can relax and stop trying to imagine what isn't there. First published in 1974, Lessing's 10th novel was hailed as a portrait of a society in disarray; but what is most striking is its detailed study of the relationship between two women - the narrator, a middle-aged woman, and Emily, the adolescent girl in her charge.

Dispatches from the Front Line of Popular Culture by Tony Parsons (Virgin pounds 7.99)

Being paid to "mouth off" is like a beautiful dream come true for Tony Parsons. A veteran of the NME in the Seventies, he skipped the Eighties, but reinvented himself as a Daily Telegraph columnist for the Nineties. Now in Tom Wolfe mode, he presents his collected best clever-Dickisms - though his interview with beautiful Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans) seems to have rendered him almost benign.

Price of Honour by Jan Goodwin (Warner Books pounds 6.99)

"A girl is born" is what Arabs like to say when an awkward silence falls on a room. Jan Goodwin's fascinating study of women in the Arab world reminds us that things were not always so dire. In the 1950s, Arab states were among the first to appoint female ministers, and offer women equal pay. What's gone wrong in the last 40 years? Could have something to do with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

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