PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! Tales of the Second World War by Martin Gilbert, Phoenix pounds 14.99. Lucid, eloquent, massively researched, Martin Gilbert's fact-showering opus, all 850 pages, carries us from Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 to the surrender of Japan in August 1945, weaving political, diplomatic, military and civilian affairs into a tapestry of human engagement. It is a vast undertaking, encompassing six years, 46 million fatalities, and fronts as far afield as New Guinea and Iran; but Gilbert is up to the task, conjuring order and coherence from chaos and savagery. Opinion and emotion are eschewed in favour of terse, tell-it-as-it-was objectivity, yet the very dryness of the prose is in itself poignant, as page after fact-filled page hammers home the soul-ripping enormity of the struggle. Masterful.

! Fish, Fishing and The Meaning of Life selected by Jeremy Paxman, Penguin pounds 8.99. Who would have thought it? Paxman the pundit, wry-faced scourge of the political classes, has compiled a wonderfully eccentric anthology of angling. He Who Must Be Answered reveals himself as a closet fish fanatic, landing a delightfully heterogeneous catch of literary snippets on all subjects piscatorial. Plutarch, Chekhov, Orwell, Huxley, Hemingway, Kipling and others give us their fishy wisdom. Topics range from trout autopsies to pike attacks: even the most ardent non-angler will find something to tickle his fancy. As well as selecting the contributions, Paxman provides dreamy asides on the joys of fishing: one suspects that if only Tory MPs were to disguise themselves as sturgeon he might treat them with a bit more respect.

! Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson, Gollancz pounds 5.99. Are You Being Served meets Gormenghast in this wickedly anarchic tale of shenanigans in an up-market department store. Opaquely billed as a "Shopping and Terrorism Novel" it revolves around not particularly good writer Charlie Mayhew who, in order to fund his not particularly good writing, bags a job at Haden Brothers, the world's most exclusive emporium. From his lowly position in the store's bowel-like stockroom Charlie becomes involved with a motley selection of absurd characters - Machiavellian Anton Heath from furniture; toy department siren Vita Carlisle; solitary depressive Arnold Haden, last of the Haden line - a cartoon cast strapped to the fenders of an out-of-control retail juggernaut. This provides an irresistibly jaundiced satire on the world of shopping and its dysfunctional inhabitants. Sublime lunacy.

! The Historical Figure of Jesus by E Sanders, Penguin pounds 7.99. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without at least one book purporting to tell the true Jesus story, although this is better than most, both in the quality of the writing and the breadth of scholarship that underpins it. The subject, of course, is a potential minefield, and Sanders treads warily, avoiding knotty theological issues for the less contentious ground of recorded historical fact. In the process he paints a surprisingly coherent picture of a religious radical whose theology carried him well beyond the pale of conventional Judaism yet who would have been horrified to find his teachings usurped as the corner-stone of a breakaway faith. Little of this is entirely new, and the real value of Sanders' work lies in the lucid synthesis it provides of modern Jesus scholarship. Material on the religious context of Christ's ministry is particularly interesting, and it is testament to the author's sensibility that he has demythologised history's most celebrated figure without debunking him.

! The Wizard Mask by Diana Norman, Penguin pounds 6.99. It is surely a comment on the drabness of modern Britain that so many writers are setting their works in times gone by, or times yet to come, or indeed any times other than the present. This roistering bodice-ripper transports us to sleazy Restoration England, where strait-laced American Penitence Hurd arrives to visit her Aunty Margaret, only to discover that the latter works in a brothel. Her puritanism in tatters, Penitence embarks on a rip-roaring odyssey of self-discovery through the insalubrious backstreets of 17th- century London, losing her virginity, meeting Aphra Behn, becoming an actress and getting bound up in the rakish intrigues of the court of Charles I. It's all good, dirty fun, shot through with more serious insights into the historical treatment of women, and perhaps, in its association of sex, sleaze, greed and politics, not so far removed from present realities after all.

! The China Voyage: A Pacific Quest by Bamboo Raft by Tim Severin, Abacus pounds 8.99. Personally I prefer Stena Sealink but explorer Tim Severin has a more heightened sense of adventure, and his account of an epic, 5,500 mile sea-voyage aboard a disintegrating bamboo raft stands as one of the most vivid travelogues of the last decade. Testing the theory that Chinese mariners reached America some 1,500 years before Columbus, Severin and his crew set off across the Pacific aboard their alarmingly flimsy 60- foot raft Hsu Fu, encountering en route storms, pirates, killer currents, dangerous fish and other nasties. It is an utterly compelling tale of human endurance and ingenuity, as revealing about the mentality of the obsessive explorer as it is about the rigours of an ill-fated sea-journey. Illustrated with beautiful line drawings by Nina Kojima, and a variety of photos of the crew looking miserable, it's a good antidote to the pampered mundanity of urban existence.

! Partly Cloudy, by Bryan Forbes, Mandarin pounds 5.99. Crimbo pratfalls aplenty in this chaotic tale of yuletide mayhem. Kate and Tony Chivers, suburban couple par excellence, are convinced this Christmas can't possibly be any worse than last year's but - you guessed it - they're wrong. Festive spirit is stretched to the limit as sartorially-challenged brother Roger rolls up announcing he's found God, son Martin arrives with an unintentionally pregnant older woman, Father ends up in hospital and everything that could go wrong obligingly does so. It's all pretty obvious, employing the tried and trusted ingredients of traditional Christmas farce - frightful relatives, obtuse neighbours, nasty coincidences, pug-faced policemen - but is nonetheless carried off with such outlandish gusto that you can't help but chuckle along with it. Fast, furious and very fruity.

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