PAPERBACKS

! Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem by Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. This entertaining almanac for "366 days of British myths, customs and eccentricities" is also a guidebook to haunted places, superstitions and all kinds of arcane beliefs, entertainments and habits. Today is St Lide's Day. Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1729 sighting of the Hedley Kow, a shape-shifting Northumbrian bogle. And next Friday, if you're in South Queensferry in Lothian, look out for the Burryman, who will go about in a costume stuck with thousands of burrs bringing luck to all who give him alms.

! Reversed Forecast by Nicola Barker, Faber pounds 5.99. There's not a single middle-class character, not a French restaurant, merchant bank nor art history department anywhere in this metropolitan novel. It's concerned instead with the London of Ruby the bookie's cashier, utter nutter Vincent, Samantha the would-be cabaret singer, asthmatic Sylvia and Little Buttercup the failed greyhound. Barker is a superbly physical writer, and the rough material of her characters' lives is vividly realised. There is a fair quotient of quiet desperation, but also plenty of wit and spiritual toughness and it is all completely believable. A first novel which has you ready to queue for the second.

! Ibn Saud: Founder of a Kingdom by Leslie McLoughlin, Macmillan pounds 12.99. Ibn Saud was the most towering Arab leader of the century. His only possible lifetime rival was Hussein ibn Ali, Emir of Mecca, who raised the Arab revolt with T E Lawrence. Nasser, Gaddafi, Arafat, and Saddam Hussein are by comparison pygmies or bullies. Ibn Saud started as a young man with only a town - Riyadh - at his tribe's disposal. With unerring skill in desert warfare, patronage, diplomacy, blackmail and tactical marriage - he had more than 100 wives, with 35 sons and uncounted daughters surviving him - he built a nation which has become the political lynch-pin of the Middle East. This stirring tale shows how the entire Saudi government is derived from the biological seed of one man; that was its strength, but is certain before long to become its weakness. A fine, authoritative biography, banned in Saudi Arabia.

! Mothers & Other Lovers by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix pounds 5.99. The echo of D H Lawrence in the title is no coincidence. This story of teenage Eleanor's struggles with her mother, and the emotional/sexual awakening which ensues, won the Betty Trask Award, a prize reserved for "traditional" fiction. And, were she alive, Betty wouldn't half approve the choice. The locale may be modern rural Devon, but it is a tale as old-fashioned as a pair of gamekeeper's moleskins or a miner's fireside bath. Eleanor, reacting against the faded oatmeal-and-patchouli hippiness of her parents, would go along with Paul Morel's question: "Why can't a man have a young mother?" And her sticky sex scene with the thirty-ish Selma is somewhat reminiscent of Morel in the hands of Clara Dawes. This never approaches the ferocious complexity of Lawrence, but it is a good read.

! Serpent on the Rock: A Personal View of Christianity by Alice Thomas Ellis, Sceptre pounds 6.99. This discursive, combative essay on the state of catholicism quotes Pope Paul VI as saying, "If the world changes, should not religion also change?" and adds, with its author's characteristic asperity, "I would have thought that the obvious answer was 'No.'" The Universal Church has diversified in response to market forces but the move has brought only insecurity. The liturgy has been vandalised, its language functioning at the level of copywriting. Intellectually, catholicism is infected with psychobabble, while emotionally it is diluted down to tastelessness. Ellis's feelings are common to many Catholics born before the Fifties, and many will close this book with a heartfelt "Et cum spiritu tuo".

! The Far Corner: A Mazy Dribble Through North-East Football by Harry Pearson, Warner pounds 5.99. A contributor to Nick Hornby's compilation My Favourite Year, Pearson doesn't let you down in this disorganised account of the 1993/94 season in his home region. Each chapter is a match, starting with Newcastle and Spurs and ranging down to Dunston Federation Brewery v Billingham Synthonia: "the only team named after a fertiliser". Blokeish humour reigns: about the players' hairstyles ("he was a pioneer of the bubble perm"); the fans ("he was to Kevin Keegan what Ian Paisley is to the Pope"); or the pies (opening to release "the odour of a 1,000- year- old tomb").

X Ray by Ray Davies, Penguin pounds 6.99

The composer of Waterloo Sunset and Sunny AFternoon has always seemed the most sympatico fo 60s rock collossi and the one with the most to say about England. His autobiography is cast in the form of an earnest young reporter interviewing a paranoid rock legend in extreme old age. The device takes a little getting used to but it enables us to hear the story from the alternating angles of innocence and experience. Davies's sardonic account of a working class boy's dealings with the British Establishment is good; his hostile confrontation with the American Dream a revelation.

Looking for Trouble: SAS to Gulf Command by General Sir Peter de la Billiere, HarperCollins pounds 6.99.

This is a British soldier's life from Private via the SAS to General, told without literary pretension but with plenty of pace and atmosphere. The inner man is hardly given an airing. When tragedy hits, when doubts assail, when mistakes are made, you must simply box on. There is some awareness that no army (not even an SAS unit) operates in a vacuum and at one point the General reflects on how privileged he had been 'to hold a command [in Borneo] with such strong political overtones'. Yet his political analysis of colonial and post-colonial warfare since the early 1950s - much of which involved him - is strictly for the shirt cuff.

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