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Incidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner, Penguin pounds 5.99. Last year's Brookner is a love triangle, with Maud, young, provincial and French, having to choose between two Englishmen, the glamorous cad Tyler and the reliably dull Edward. Hackneyed though such an outline may seem, the colours and the details are distinctively those of Brookner at her best. So are the characters, loving where they shouldn't, unable to love where they should and tending to harbour a gaping emotional void at the core of their being. But they eventually manage to adjust to the long haul of disappointment, drawing melancholy strength from their own pride and the memory of golden, long-ago summers when desire was not a tattered piece of unwanted luggage dragged through life behind you, but an object complete in itself.

Churchill's Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57 by John Charmley, Sceptre pounds 14.99. Charmley's account of transatlantic diplomacy in the 1940s and 50s features a double-act as ludicrous and wicked as the Ugly Sisters - Churchill and Rooseveldt. Winnie he regards as a capricious old windbag, who thought America would shore up Britain's post-war global power, a delusion that only served to ensure its collapse. FDR is a shifty operator with the one idea of replacing imperialism with international New Dealism. Stonily unseduced by these personalities and their cults, Charmley yet identifies them so closely with the nations they headed that he tacitly endorses the notion that personality and policy are interchangeable, and that history is merely the record of struggle between villains and heroes.

John Major: From Brixton to Downing Street by Penny Junor, Penguin pounds 7.99. Why has Penguin waited three years to paperback this biography? Could it be that it is too embarrassingly sycophantic? It is certainly authorised. The PM gave Junor several audiences and allowed family and friends to do so too. When supporters have praised Major's decency and are stuck for further words, they can turn to Junor's book. Here he's hard-working, diplomatic, dogged, unassuming, likes a good chinwag, adores our national games, loves animals and babies, never talks shop at home and his favourite poem is "If". All these qualities feature in the average politician's disguise-kit, but there is evidence that Major really is the Steve Davis of politics - he quoted Kipling two years before he came top in a national popularity poll.

Age & Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut by P J O'Rourke, Picador pounds 6.99. O'Rourke was once, on his own account, a longhair with a red bandanna and a five-skin joint tucked into it, who ranted in the underground press about revolution whilst sloping around in a state of mind like a fairground crockery-shy. Now he is a cigar-puffing pundit in tie and braces who gets column inches in the Wall Street Journal. That's rather an interesting journalistic journey, and it is traced in this collection. The earliest stuff is PJ's juvenilia - suitably mocked in brief introductory paragraphs. The latest are his thoughts on Whitewater ("I'm a Republican, I'm in favour of sleaze") and other current issues. This is often very funny; especially recommended are the short stories entitled "The Truth About the Sixties and Other Fiction".

Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle by Simon Heffer, Phoenix pounds 12.99. At his height, in the mid-19th century, Carlyle was a literary titan. He was a friend of Goethe, John Stuart Mill and Dickens, had written a monumental history of the French Revolution in a passionate, outrageously experimental style and was revered as an oracle as well as a historian and man of letters. But his inner life was a stormy chaos. His marriage was blighted by sexual unhappiness - perhaps impotence - and he was fatally at cross-purposes with the age, railing against materialism, democracy, machinery and the established church in a language infected with the divine mist of Old Testament prophecy. By the time of his death in 1881, the sage of Cheyne Row was no longer taken seriously; nor has his legacy been enhanced by the (true but misleading) vision of Goebbels reading him to Hitler in the bunker. Heffer tells an interesting story well.

The Double Tongue by William Golding, Faber pounds 5.99. This is the second draft of Golding's final work (it was about to go through a third when he died in 1993) and it makes explicit for the first time the classicism that underlies all his work. It is the story of the Delphic oracle - that is of a pythia, or priestess, who gives voice to the gods' pronouncements - in the first century AD. The girl's name is Arieka, and she is chosen by Ionides, the High Priest, to devote her life to the task. He is a cynic, using the oracle to bring in money and perhaps bring some rational influence to bear on the course of history. Golding will eventually be regarded as the most powerful of the British novelists who made their names in the 1950s, and his great themes - of human suffering and the yearning for a faith to transcend both savagery and civilisation - here find an unexpected tenderness of expression.

Mapplethorpe: A Biography by Patricia Morrisroe, Papermac pounds 12. Mapplethorpe came to the camera relatively late, his problem with concentration (worsened by drugs) making painting impossible. Morrisroe makes more of the childhood Catholicism, an emotional environment in which the diabolic was real and an iconography of torture and ecstasy combined with uniquely theatrical ceremonies. Another former altar-boy, Warhol, was an early role model but Mapplethorpe became "disappointed by the artist's vacuous personality". He filled his own inner vacuum with sex ("the only thing worth living for") and drugs ("he started the day with marijuana and cocaine, then ... whatever else he had at his disposal"). A thorough biographical job.

Charlie Chaplin: The Art of Comedy by David Robinson (New Horizons pounds 6.95) goes beyond the familiar details of the rise of the world's best- loved clown from penury to superstardom; did you know that he composed the scores for City Lights and Modern Times? A useful index gives Chaplin's thoughts on comedy - "humour... activates our sense of proportion and reveals to us that in an over-statement of seriousness lurks the absurd" - and tributes from luminaries like Cocteau and Howard Hawks