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The Independent Culture
Last Orders by Graham Swift (Picador, pounds 5.99) In the 1996 Booker winner, four veteran Sarf Londoners carry their butcher-pal's ashes to Margate in a sort of latterday Canterbury Tale. Marked by deep craft and complex decency, this seems nonetheless to be a novel that many readers admire rather than love. Why? Swift is that troublesome animal, a writer's writer. As with subtle chamber music, his weaving of the four distinct voices as they review their tangled lives may wow the pros but leave the laity cold. Still, it's hard to fault the stoic wisdom of this rueful crew as they approach their terminus (in every sense). "What you've got to understand is the nature of the goods. Which is perishable."

How to be a Minister by Gerald Kaufman (Faber, pounds 8.99) The Commons' best (and only?) expert on classic Hollywood musicals dusts down his 1980 primer on another kind of song-and-dance. Aimed at promoted party hacks with their hands on the Red Boxes at last, Kaufman's guide to survival in Whitehall advises office-holders how to stop the wiles of the civil service from turning them "into a pod straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Robust, witty and sardonic, his book only loses the plot in its dated anecdotes. Tales of Our Hero, in his glory days of the 1970s, trumping the Sir Humphreys to rescue a widget mill in Pontefract or Dewsbury have all the sepia charm of a Wakes Week photo album. Laugh? I almost went out for beer and sandwiches with the TUC.

Hungry Ghosts: China's secret famine by Jasper Becker (John Murray, pounds 13) The media requiems for Deng Xiaoping have given the impression that only the Tiananmen Square carnage seriously blotted the Great Reformer's copybook. Yet, in his loyal Maoist days of the mid-1950s, Deng helped launch the mis-named Great Leap Forward in the Chinese countryside. Botched collectivisation and Stalinist mumbo-jumbo dressed up as genetic science managed to ruin the rural economy. A staggering total of up to 30 million peasants may have starved from 1958 to 1962 in this, the century's worst man-made calamity. As for Deng, Becker's superbly researched and horrifying history shows that he did, in time, come to respect the damning evidence. He launched a campaign to reverse the deadly policies in favour of sane farming, made an enemy of Mao and so provoked his own disgrace during the Cultural Revolution. On Deng's part, the famine may count as a fatal blunder rather than a crime - but that made little difference to its victims.

The Unruly Queen by Flora Fraser (Papermac, pounds 10) Although there are sinister parallels between our current version of the Princess of Wales and poor Caroline of Brunswick, whose fate it was to marry the Prince Regent in 1795 - they both suffered from crowded marriage syndrome, caused constitutional uproar by separating from their husbands and were suspicious of palace courtiers - Diana wins hands down when it comes to fashion. Caroline, as Flora Fraser notes in this excellent biography, was a short, dumpy sloven who owned nothing but coarse petticoats, wore her stockings inside out and, on the eve of her wedding, had to be given "some frank instructions about her washing habits" by Lord Malmesbury. It's hardly surprising that Caroline finally took revenge on her adopted country, attempting to storm Parliament during the Coronation and asking while on a visit to inspect the maimed pensioners at Greenwich Hospital: "Do all Englishmen have only one arm or leg?"

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