Paperbacks: Reviews

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The Book of Modern Scandal by Bruce Palling (Orion, pounds 6.99) Though it begins with Byron's loping prose (a dismissive letter to Lady Caroline Lamb), most of the 125 gamey gobbets in Palling's trawl are penned in the urgent staccato of the tabloid. Innocents who missed the ''Camillagate'' and ''Squidgy'' tapes will find transcripts here - though Fergie's toe- sucker is a sad omission. Many intriguing entries never made the headlines. Did you know that, like her, Sunny von Bulow's first husband spent years in an irreversible coma? Or that, in 1991, an Australian racing syndicate utilised the scam described in the Sherlock Holmes yarn ''Silver Blaze''?

The Benn Diaries selected by Ruth Winstone (Arrow, pounds 9.99) This superb summary of six volumes begins with school reports (''His French is really unsatisfactory'') and ends with our resilient hero being voted the Spectator's Backbencher of 1990 (''Fat lot of good that does''). The result is by far the most entertaining diaries of any Labour big gun. Despite battling to shed his hereditary title, Benn wisely retained his devastating public school charm. For one so ardent, he is surprisingly gossipy and humorous. The droll royal encounters are a highlight: ''I don't think the Duke of Edinburgh liked the comparison of Bessie Braddock with the Queen.''

The Beauty of the Beastly by Natalie Angier (Abacus, pounds 7.99) Amid the drab columns of of the New York Times, the sparky prose of this Pulitzer- winning science writer stands out like a humming bird among sparrows. She declares herself an unrepentant anthropomorphist (''though her description of proteins as ''distorted Nerf balls" is scarcely enlightening on this side of the Atlantic). Her speciality is the surprise revelation: male dolphins are aggressive towards females, sometimes slashing them; periods may be a mechanism against microbes delivered by sperm. Unfortunately, Angier's are vitiated by screechy feminism and trite self-centredness.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino (Vintage, pounds 5.99) While little more than a pamphlet, the Italian fantacist's final work is a hugely stimulating gift for all who are obsessed by literature. In these passionate essays, Calvino pursues the literary qualities which he prizes above all others: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Seizing examples from myth and science, celebrating authors as varied as Lucretius, Perec and - above all - Borges, it forms a wonderful valediction. Not the least of the book's delights is the one sentence tale by Augusto Monteroso: ''When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.''

Evening in Byzantium by Irwin Shaw (Phoenix, pounds 6.99) Set at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, this plodding narrative addresses the current celeb headache of stalking. Not that 48-year-old producer Jesse Craig, who appears to be an authorial self-portrait, is too distraught at being door-stepped by 22-year-old hack Gail McKinnon, with her "satiny flesh" and "jewel- blue eyes". The book does not rush its pleasures - it's page 167 before she sees his "insanely stalwart penis". There are a couple of twists in the tail but little entertainment en route - unless you count the Brits, who tend to be "hugely fat", "flabby" or "florid and overdressed".

The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan (Penguin, pounds 6.99) Garlic fields, garlic stalks, garlic farts: wherever they go the Chinese peasants of Mo Yan's rural epic can't escape the bulb's pernicious presence. Even the novel's two ill-fated lovers snack on the stuff after a night spent under the stars. A grim portrayal of life in post-revolutionary China (petty bureaucrats and evil-smelling jails), but relieved by sudden cinematic vistas of sun- tipped willows and seas of waving jute. It's easy to see why Mo Yan's best known book Red Sorghum, was made into a film.

Audrey Hepburn's Neck by Alan Brown (Sceptre, pounds 5.99) Toshi is fascinated by foreigners. Aroused at the age of nine by the sight of Audrey Hepburn's neck in Roman Holiday, he grows up with a taste for Western women and green-tea tiramisu. But despite his various successes - especially with the language teachers of Tokyo's ''Very Romantic English Academy'' - Toshi is unhappy with his sexual identity and starts to examine his past for clues. A comic and touching novel about the delights and dangers of cross- cultural canoodling.

Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian (Quartet, pounds 8) In 1959, while watching a film version of this novel, Boris Vian became so enraged that he suffered a massive heart attack - a suitably apocalyptic end for one of France's most combustible talents. Sometime jazz player, engineer and black American thriller writer (he found he sold more books this way), Vian's masterpiece about a group of friends and their addictions to the works of Jean Pulse Heartre and raspberry flavoured toothpaste sparkles as wickedly as it did in 1947. Who would have thought that surrealism, or the French, could be so funny.

Ghosting by John Preston (Black Swan, pounds 6.99) John Preston's very readable and funny first novel tells the unhappy history of veteran broadcaster, Dickie Chambers. A lonely childhood in North London spent listening to his mother's radio leads to local rep and finally a job as a filing clerk in the bowels of the BBC. Here Dickie gets his break when a large insect flies down the throat of the corporation's star radio announcer. Fifties London, and its emerging media world, is evoked in all its grotty glory. Lugubrious shades of Angus Wilson, and a story that could have been lifted straight from the obituary columns.

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