PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Dangerous Pleasures by Patrick Gale, Flamingo pounds 5.99. The settings are English: a girls' boarding school, a Deanery coffee morning, the wedding- list department of a London store, a weekend cottage in Norfolk. Gale is a committed ironist who delights in exposing power structures and the consequences of lust - unwanted, unbargained for, unhoped for, but always cutting deep and lasting long. Although particularly at ease when using the feminine point of view (there are a couple of vicious backlashes here from vengeful suburban wives), Gale surpasses himself in "Old Boys", in which a father returns to his public school as a prospective parent and meets the older Old Boy who seduced him in the showers 18 years before. It shows a rare understanding of schools like St Cake's a generation ago: for this piece of social memory alone Gales' engrossing collection is worth the money.

A History of Roman Britain by Peter Salway, Oxford pounds 8.99. Originally published as the Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain, Salway's authoritative volume reaches paperback stripped of its pictures, but with its highly readable prose and scholarship intact. First we have the early forays of Caesar, then the invasion under Claudius. Rome experimented initially with client rulers like Cogidubnus (who, says Salway, probably lived at Fishbourne), but after the rebellions of Caractacus and Boudicca ("the bloodiest episode in Romano-British history") there was a change to direct rule and the encouragement of civil romanisation. Agricola's advance northward into Scotland left Britain by 100 AD largely under Roman control, though never wholly conquered. Not content merely to follow the legions scurrying up and down Watling Street, Salway's is a rounded social, military and political study of a distant but important imperial province.

I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, Vintage pounds 5.99. What happened 60 years ago to America's favourite between-the-wars aviatrix, when her plane failed to make it across the Pacific during a round-the-world flight? In all probability - with a useless radio and out of fuel - Amelia Earhart wandered off course because of the negligence of Noonan, her drunken, womanising navigator, and plunged fatally into the ocean. Mendelsohn, whose first novel became an American bestseller after a plug on a shock- jock radio show, offers the alternative possibility that the pair survived a crash-landing on a coral reef. The book then turns into a Goldingesque fable of precarious island life and, as the warring pair at last come together, into a squishy romance.

Man & Wife, Richard and Kay Titmuss: My Parents' Early Years by Ann Oakley, Flamingo pounds 7.99. A locked leather suitcase is left to a daughter, containing her parents' life together - letters, diaries, books, articles that were "meant to tell me something my mother thought I needed to know". Many a novel has been constructed on similar premises but, though Oakley has achieved fame as the novelist responsible for The Men's Room, this isn't fiction. Her parents played a part in the formation of the Welfare State. Theirs is a story of relentless high-mindedness, from an interest in the "science" of eugenics in the 1930s to the broader concepts of sociology and social engineering which informed the late 1940s and beyond. Oakley tries, perhaps too hard, to be objective about them: if resentments are bravely bitten back, the lack of affection makes for a somewhat chilly, analytical and preachy read.

All That Glitters: The Fall of Barings by John Gapper & Nicholas Denton, Penguin pounds 8.99. The Leeson debacle, whereby the holders of the Queen's own bank account took a tumble on the Singapore stock exchange, was all about the trade in strange investment vehicles called derivatives. The explanations of such exotic species in the financial ecology - along with arbitrages, equity warrants and other fleeting electronic life-forms - still make this reader's eyes glaze over, but the authors put considerable energy and journalistic expertise into this detailed and thrillerish narrative with plenty of fly-on-the-wall detail.

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