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The Independent Culture
8 The Unruly Queen by Flora Fraser, Papermac pounds 10. As Prince of Wales, George IV married her for money and hated her on sight. He kept her short of money, restricted her access to their beloved daughter, excluded her from his coronation, spied on her and had her tried for adultery. Meanwhile he flaunted his mistresses for all they were worth. But Charlotte of Brunswick, though perhaps not the brightest, was a woman of remarkable resilience. She rebelled constantly, hitting back against her bullying husband when and where she could. Eventually she went to live abroad, where she struck up a relationship with a handsome Italian serving man. She returned to England as George ascended the throne, and became for a while an unlikely mascot of the mob, which rampaged through London on her behalf. Fraser's biography of this most unusual character, with her strong will and inappropriate sense of humour, is often highly entertaining. It is also exceptionally authoritative.

8 Storms of Silence by Joe Simpson, Vintage pounds 7.99. From the Himalayas to the Andes, via a pool hall in Sheffield, Simpson, the celebrated mountaineer, portrays his life in this third autobiographical book as a succession of responses to fear, danger and aggression. Climbing is one of the most visceral of all sports, its adrenalin expressed not in response to the artificial threat of another team or a competitor, but to the natural condition of absolute physical risk. Simpson's cult has contributed to a boom in climbing over the past few years. It's a philosophical, strong- but-talkative approach to masculinity which stands far above the broken- nosed posturing of all those SAS "memoirs".

8 The Trail of Lot 163 by Philip Mould, 4th Estate pounds 8.99. In the world of art dealers a "sleeper" is a work by some important artist that turns up unrecognised on the market, often at a country auction and for a satisfyingly low price. Mould's book tells the story of several of these acts of detection. In many cases the margin of error is slender, but the rewards proportionately great. He tells how a de Vries "Dancing Faun" turned up recently in a sale of garden ornaments. A lot only slightly more significant to the seller than a concrete gnome, it fetched a six-figure sum. Then there is the portrait of Pope Clement VII bought in Chester for pounds 180 and eventually sold to the Getty Museum for $6.5 million, or Mould's own discovery of a Van Dyck portrait which had lost its attribution when the lady's double chin was painted out. Good stuff for Antiques Roadies.

8 The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie, Mandarin pounds 5.99. It's a thumbnail-reviewer's convention (which you will now easily spot employed all over this column) to describe a book in terms of what it is a cross between: Coleridge meets Cantona, Homer reworked by Barry Norman, etc. The Gun Seller lends itself to this beautifully since it is what might have happened had Alistair MacLean bashed out a P G Wodehouse. The opening set-piece, in which our hero encounters a thug in a London basement, could hardly be better. He goes on to get entangled in arms-trading shenanigans that are not only convincing spy-thriller fare but also stuffed with running jokes, virtuoso metaphors and a Woosterishly splintered look at the world. You might not cry, but you'll laugh.

8 Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man by Derek Wilson, Phoenix pounds 12.99. Portrait subjects are catalogued as unknown because their names and deeds have been forgotten, leaving only the ambivalence of a visual image, the cast of a mouth or an eye, from which to draw inference. But Hans Holbein the Younger's case is the opposite. His name and career are remembered: it is those intimate telling details, the lines as it were on his face, the personal habits and interests, that elude us. His professional origins were in Basel where, through contact with Erasmus and his circle, he absorbed the new humanism that was helping create the reformation. But it was in London, at Henry VIII's court, that his career peaked, although survival was always precarious. Holbein's three great patrons, Thomas More, Ann Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, successively lost their heads. Wilson's characterisation of Holbein as a "truth seeker" seems incontrovertible. That he was a "loner" is less substantiated.

8 The Way We Are by Margaret Visser, Penguin pounds 7.99. Poised somewhere between Roland Barthes and Enquire Within, Visser's little three- and four-page essays, each with its own bibliography, originate in a Canadian magazine column. Here you will learn about the history of the shower, high heels and the umbrella, the sociology of expectoration and body language, the mythology of Santa Claus, the semantics of the heart. I was particularly struck by her neat reversal of Veblen's ideas about the lazy, self-indulgent leisure class and its conspicious consumption. Now, she argues, the reigning chic is to go around in work- or sportswear, cook for yourself, eat frugally, dig your garden and generally be conspicuously competent. Meanwhile the index of poverty is to be idle, unfit and eating food one cannot prepare for oneself.

8 The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, Picador pounds 5.99. This Whitbread prizewinner resembles a head-body-legs game, or perhaps a hybrid that scientists create just to prove that their skill. Put briefly, this is an edible novel. Masquerading as a treatise on food and provided with a dozen or so scrummy recipes, Lanchester's novel makes for an enjoyable Nabokovian crime story. The narrator of this confection-that-is-also- a-confession, Tarquin Winot, is the kind of elitist individual who reliably raises populist hackles. The digressive tale of Winot's dark deeds whilst on a solitary motoring holiday in France is richly marinaded in his tastes, opinions and prejudices.

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