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Black Sea by Neal Ascherson (Vintage, pounds 7.99)Over-shadowed by the Mediterranean - with which it exchanges water in a curious two-way flow - we are woefully ignorant of this "kidney-shaped pond" which was the birth-place of civilisation and barbarism. In Ascherson's absorbing amalgam of history, archaeology, myth and politics, every page is freighted with rich and fascinating detail: wild Russian hippies in a mountain redoubt; a legion of female warriors from 5BC; murky figures snorting coke in a ''crate-new'' Honda. This sad, wonderful book merits a place alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor's masterpieces.

Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess (Vintage, pounds 8.99)In this treat for bardolaters and neophytes alike, Burgess uses his profound knowledge of the era to put flesh on the poet's obscure bones. It is a chatty biography, though not overly loquacious, and pleasingly subjective. "Let us try to keep Will likeable," AB remarks, when discussing Shakey's famously stingy bequest to his wife. Burgess' sapient asides are a constant pleasure - did you know "Syphilis" was the name of a stricken shepherd in a poem about the disease by a Verona physician? How sad to think we will hear no more from the polymathic bard of Manchester.

The Unkindest Cut by Joe Queenan (Picador, pounds 6.99) Believing erroneously that the acclaimed film El Mariachi was made for just $7000, mordant critic Queenan decided to do the same. His reasoning was simple: ''I wasn't a moron. Most people in the film industry are.'' After polishing off the script of Twelve Steps to Death in eight days, he started a nine-day shooting schedule, using neighbours as actors. The result was a 93 minute movie which ended up costing a ruinous $65,193 and received a critical drubbing. But from this trauma has emerged a laconic masterpiece. Probably the funniest- ever book on film-making.

Back Rubs: Transitional Tales by Women (Serpent's Tale, pounds 8.99) An bouquet of yarns about the gear-shifts of life. The cusp is familiar short-story territory - though particularly potent in these twitchy times. "My ambition is to live calmly," declares an ageing wild child to the discomfiture of her vacuous pal. An ultra-straight heroine suddenly buys a strap-on dildo ("I hid it in the tool shed") and is arrested in a gay gang-bang on Hampstead Heath. A Russian intellectual is disconcerted that national liberation has initiated a new assertiveness in his wife. The tiny narratives bristle with quirky insights.

Hood by Emma Donoghue (Penguin, pounds 6.99) The Author of Stir-fry follows up her first success with an even better second novel. Potentially mawkish subject matter - how a young gay woman gets through the week following her partner's death - makes for an unexpectedly absorbing and humorous read. Recalling their life together in suburban Dublin, Pen seeks distraction from her grief in large hunks of cheese and cups of tea. But when it comes to finding real comfort, it's her unsuspecting mother she turns to, rather than the embraces of sympathetic friends. Donoghue's fresh and sylish writing always succeeds in making the ordinary interesting.

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