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! Saint-Exupery by Stacy Schiff, Pimlico pounds 12.50. If it is difficult for us to understand the particular allure of Saint-Exupery in his time, that is because we have no modern counterparts: at least not until Damon Hill starts writing books in the style of Lewis Carroll. Saint-Ex was both a famous avaitor - quite the coolest and most daring thing to be in the 1930s - and the author of France's most enduring children's story, The Little Prince. Saint-Ex was a charmer but, as a pilot he was either a klutz or completely reckless, always crashing but somehow surviving - at least until a day in 1944, just two weeks before the liberation of Paris, while flying near Lyons for the Free French. His life was an endless succession of scrapes and adventures, making this an enthralling biography.

! Dance With Me, by Louise Doughty, Touchstone pounds 5.99. Doughty's earlier Crazy Paving was an accurate and detailed painting of office life. Here, in Iris, we have that lonely post-redundancy figure, the freelance consultant. Both stories are tinged with gothic madness but set against a deadly accurate social background. The narrative focuses on the hidden life of Peter, Iris's ex-lover who has died, leaving his house to her successor, the glamorous Bet. One woman has known Peter all too well, while the other is yet to find out the truth. Doughty describes with sympathy Iris's isolated drudgery, chasing one tedious assignment after another: marketing plans, seminars, training weekends. It is the life of a temp but with the added burden of having to market oneself: a situation into which, all too believably, madness may stalk.

! A Pacifist's War by Frances Partridge, Phoenix pounds 6.99. By the time World War II broke out, Bloomsbury had migrated to the country - the Woolfs and Bells to Sussex and the Partridges to Lytton's old house in Wiltshire. Bloomsbury cultists will seize on the detail in these wartime diaries: Frances's discovery (in Blitzed London) of "Vanessa and Duncan's studio pulverised", her reaction to Virginia's suicide or Maynard's peerage, her not entirely sympathetic portrait of Gerald Brenan, so kindly treated in Holroyd's Life of Strachey and the recent film, Carrington. The rest of us can just enjoy the honesty with which she records her feelings about the war, always from the point of view of the convinced pacifism she shared with husband Ralph. Partridge has the successful diariest's sure touch when recording an overheard phrase or telling image.

! The Hanging Tree: Execution & the English People 1770-1868 by V A C Gatrell, Oxford pounds 10.99. Gatrell is against the return of capital punishment, at times espousing a blanket dislike of all judicial retribution. Yet his book may become a magnet for true-crime ghouls, the modern descendants of those that flocked, deplorably but in their tens of thousands, to public hangings in the period covered by his research. He is an expert narrator of detailed case histories - a servant girl hanged in Colchester in 1800, traitors strangled and decapitated at Tyburn in 1820, a rapist condemned and reprieved in Coalbrookdale in 1829. Those that went and those that stayed away had equally irrational feelings, and the historian clearly relishes the complexity of what he observes, the unpredictable mixture of elation and horror that accompanied these public enactments of death. Could it come back? He believes that "humane feelings prevail when their costs in terms of security or comfort are bearable". Atavism lurks in those dark bushes up ahead.

! Primary Colours by Anonymous, Vintage pounds 6.99. Choosing presidential candidates can seem to be an exercise in robotics, with hopeful candidates dropping out of the race like toys in a battery commercial. But reading this novel about a primary campaign to win the Democratic Party's nomination, you're never in doubt that these politics are organically grown form a unique compost of greed, idealism and ego-gratification. The author scarcely bothers to hide the identity of his models for candidate Jack Stanton, baby-boomer and governor of a southern state most Americans have hardly heard of, and for his equally political wife Susan - though he did try to conceal his own name until exposed this year as Joe Klein, a Newsweek columnist. Klein's book is far more than a satire on the Clintons. It is an absurd, extreme story but at the same time a startling revelation - in short, an excellent novel and a primer both.

! Frontiers of Heaven: a Journey Beyond the Great Wall by Stanley Stewart, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Stewart begins in Shanghai by teaming up with a 99-year- old who had known Madame Mao but could not remember her. He travels up the Yangze by river boat to Chiongqing, and keeps on going and going, around the rim of China until he comes down in Rawalpindi. On the way, travelling the Silk Road from the Eastern end, he has witnessed a sophisticated sting practised by a village girl on one of China's new entrepreneurs, proposed marriage to a Wuwei ticket clerk as a method of acquiring a rail ticket, passes through Ili, China's place of ultimate, far-flung banishment - these among many other delightful adventures.

! Junk Mail by Will Self, Penguin pounds 7.99. In this collection of journalism are 15 pieces about drugs, a scattering of humorous sketches and cartoons and a bunch of reycled book reviews, some of which you may have read in this paper. Funny how the concepts of will and self keep coming up. Here Self loses the will to watch TV or say the word "British" or resist flying First Class; there Will muses on the essence of himself - here "an uncircumcised Jew", there a "closet Englishman". But it is above all fitting that the collection should climax with a Martin Amis interview for, never mind his personal habits, the author's name alone qualifies him to be taken on as a supernumerary character in London Fields.

According to Robert A Sobieszek in Ports of Entry: William S Burroughs and the Arts (Thames and Hudson pounds 15.95), the junkie icon's work in photomontage, collage and painting anticipated important developments in 20th-century art. He inspired Basquiat, Keith Haring and Robert Rauschenberg as well as long-time collaborator Brion Gysin. Above: Crazy Man, 1988

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