Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Culture
The Sign of the Cross by Colm Toibin (Vintage, pounds 6.99)

Brought up an Irish Catholic but estranged for years, Toibin visits those parts of Europe where the old religion holds sway. There's not so much on bells and smells here - he spends more time in bars than basilicas. Though often alienated - by the Pope's granite inflexibility, fanaticism in Croatia, hysteria in Spain, peasant gullibility on miracles - Toibin's search for faith is heart-felt and beguiling.

Under My Skin by Doris Lessing (Flamingo, pounds 7.99)

Written with daring brilliance, this experiment in autobiography covers Lessing's first 30 years. The circumstances, recalled with scalpel-sharp clarity, are extraordinary enough - childhood in Persia, being the first to cross Russia after the Revolution, flirting with communism in Rhodesia - but what really lifts this work is Lessing's commentary on events and emotions. A tremendous book with the universality of great fiction.

History: The Home Movie by Craig Raine (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

Nobody does similes better than Raine: "flannel vests like salted cod", "sherbet fountains fused like sticks of dynamite". In this ambitious narrative of the curiously inter-married Raine and Pasternak families over the first 50 years of this century, his staccato verse is superbly sustained, but some may feel that his unique vision is more suited to poems of conventional length than a 330-page domestic epic.

Coming Back Brockens by Mark Hudson (Vintage, pounds 7.99)

"So you're writing a book about Horden. I think a leaflet would do it," a coal official said incredulously of the author's decision to spend a year in the Durham pit village where his forebears lived. Even Hudson sometimes wondered what he was doing. But the result is an fascinating exploration of the gulf between a proud industrial past and deep contemporary malaise. Despite its grim theme, a delightful, often funny book.

Desert, Marsh and Mountain by Wilfred Thesiger (Flamingo, pounds 7.99)

This terse lament for the world's wild places, which first appeared in 1979, is something of a scissor-and-paste job by the veteran explorer. Much of it is an unsatisfactory condensation of his masterpieces, Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, while the photographs - which include an excessive number of engagingly tousled young Bedouin - are far better reproduced in his recent Visions of a Nomad.

A New Grand Tour by Godfrey Hodgson (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

CS Lewis once said that the biggest division in history was not between the ancient world and the dark ages, but between the modern world and that of Jane Austen. In this spirit, Hodgson proposes a new Grand Tour - one that goes in search not of Europe's classical past, but of her modernist beginnings. His essays on the continent's most thriving cities are written with the zest of a seasoned European.

Who was David Weiser? by Pawel Huelle (Bloomsbury, pounds 5.99)

With the sea-front chock-a-block with a freak tide of sticklebacks, the school boys of the little Polish town of Oliwa are compelled to look elsewhere for their holiday entertainment - and find it in the person of David Weiser. Skinny, clever and Jewish, Weiser possesses mysterious powers that will keep his classmates occupied long after the summer is over. An atmospheric account of childhood transgression.

From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner (Vintage, pounds 10.99)

Once upon a time, in the far off Kingdom of Kentish Town, a dark-haired maiden named Marina decided to go to the aid of the Fairy Tale - a creation dismissed as "pre-literate trash" by some, and even "girly" by others. Her study is a worthy (and hefty) contribution to a seam first mined by Alison Lurie and Angela Carter - though it lacks the witchiness that made them so absorbing on the subject.

Purcell by Maureen Duffy (Fourth Estate, pounds 7.99)

Duffy and her best friend passed the winter of 1947 as ardent royalists. Perched on top of school radiators they imagined themselves at the court of Charles II, hob-nobbing with Pepys, and swooning with passion to the exquisite refrains of Henry Purcell, the supreme "musical exponent of desire". Duffy has tried hard to piece together the fragmentary evidence of her hero's life, but, sadly, he remains as elusive as ever.

The Metropolitan Critic by Clive James (Picador, pounds 6.99)

After two years of trying to write a Life of Louis MacNeice, the young James faced the fact that he was happier downing drinks at the Pillars of Hercules, and dashing off the odd book review for the New Statesman. This reissue of his first reviews gives him a chance to qualify, and even alter, some of his embarrassing excesses - a luxury not granted to many writers. Not nearly as bright or funny as his television reviews.

In Cold Domain by Anne Fine (Penguin pounds 5.99): When Barbara announces to her assembled family that she has met the love of her life - Miguel- Angel Gippini Algaron Lopez de Rego, a waiter from the pub next door - they go into overdrive, not least her mother, the blue-rinsed harridan, Lilith Collett. Set in the garden of the family estate, Cold Domain, Anne Fine's comic farce involves a hearty dose of camp innuendo and bare bottoms, and all told with a gusto that should make writers of BBC sit- coms hang their heads in shame.

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