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The Independent Culture
! King David by Allan Massie, Sceptre pounds 6.99. In Massie's novelisation of the Book of Samuel, Israelite politics are more about personalities than principles, the infighting of the tribe as it struggles to become a nation. But it is real politics for all that and David, handed the chance to rise on the whim of old Samuel himself, seizes it as avidly as any Lloyd George or Harold Wilson. Not merely a shrewd politician, he's also bold in war and a tireless collector of Philistine foreskins. Massie's source is itself one of the Old Testament's racier passages, throbbing with action of a kind to quicken the pulse of any old-time studio boss. But this is no wide-screen treatment. It is solid historical fiction in a direct line from Robert Graves and Mary Renault, pleasingly written, deeply meditated and authoritatively researched, though not averse to tailoring time scales and the order of events to the rhythm of the tale. This is not great art, but there is a lot of art in it.

! Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic by Alexander Stille, Vintage pounds 8.99. "Sicily is a place where almost nothing is what it seems," writes Stille, whose heroes are two magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, killed by the Mafia three years ago because of their very ability to penetrate the seeming surface of Mafialand. Stille draws much on the records of their interrogations of arrested mafiosi, but his book bursts asunder its publisher's glib categorisation. This is not true crime but modern history, lucidly detailing the Italian civil war between the official government and the Mafia between 1978 and 1994. It culminates with the moment when, in a flux of revulsion, the Italian people rejected their political system, as they realised that hundreds of politicians and magistrates had been fighting on both sides at once.

! The Temporary by Rachel Cusk, Picador pounds 5.99. Boy, Ralph, meets girl, Francine, in modern London. They circle awkwardly around each other, neither really knowing what they want. An office temp, she's pretty but thick, while he seems to have had his personality removed with his adenoids as a child. Their relationship develops into one of those desultory affairs that expires with hardly a protest if something better happens along. Then she finds herself missing a period ... I was hoping for something a little more gothic than this particular plot-point, so beloved of early- Sixties novelists to force their young characters into growing up. These things must still happen, but the most intriguing aspect of the novel is the contrast between all this ordinariness and Cusk's polysyllabic prose.

! Little Is the Light: Nostalgic Travels in the Mini States of Europe by Vitali Vitaliev, Touchstone pounds 6.99. Raised in a country of more than 22 million sq km - the only assertion about the USSR to be taken on trust - Vitaliev had always been drawn to statelets too tiny to allow much secrecy. So he travels to Liechtenstein (whose 13 prisoners were fed three times a day by Room Service from the nearby Liechtenstein Hotel), Mount Athos (whose all-male population observes the Julian calendar, 13 days behind ours), the Isle of Man, San Marino and other nifty nations, cracking jokes and outrageously digressing, but being hugely genial all the way. He ends with a useful glossary for those going after him, eg "I am sorry, your seal is too large for my passport. Would you stamp my phrasebook instead?"

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