Paperbacks

All the best from this week's literary offerings
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The Road to Nab End by William Woodruff (Eland, £9.99, 374pp)

The Road to Nab End by William Woodruff (Eland, £9.99, 374pp)

Don't be put off by the fact that this memoir by a distinguished historian concerns his childhood in poverty-stricken Blackburn. Woodruff compares the Twenties to Lancashire weather: "generally awful, with bright periods". It was a time when the town still had its own executioner ("the happiest of men") and the knocker-up aroused those fortunate enough to be employed.

Though grim, Woodruff's early life was not lacking in startling incidents. One occurred when his sister was warned of a bigamist ("Thank God I got here in time") minutes before the marriage. Touchingly, Woodruff records how his grandmother put on a ball dress and danced with him a few hours before she died in a workhouse.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that his dour, gormless father ("the brains of a brass knob," opined the writer's sister) and impulsive, imaginative mother had been making good money in the US, but decided to return to Lancashire before their son was born in 1916. He describes the "madness" of having to burn cinders, despite living near the world's richest coal seams, and wearing cheap Japanese garments when Blackburn was clothing the world. While still a child, he saw a man killed by a police truncheon during a demonstration.

The book has a few flaws. Woodruff should have resisted the temptation to invent dialogue for his parents during their time in America. On the final page he succumbs to triteness: "I was lucky to have been born and bred in Lancashire; doubly lucky to have been born poor." Such blemishes aside, the book is a masterpiece. CH

Catastrophe by David Keys (Arrow, £7.99, 509pp)

The year 535 was the darkest of the Dark Ages. Events included the destruction of the Roman Empire, plague from Egypt to England, insurrection in China and the collapse of a Mexican civilisation. After this tour d'horizon, The Independent's archaeology correspondent explains that these catastrophes probably stemmed from a massive eruption which sundered Java from Sumatra and blotted out the sun in much of the world. If it happens again, Keys concludes, the West could go the same way as the Ancient World.

The Scottish Nation by T.M.Devine (Penguin, £9.99, 695pp)

Not the most racy of narratives, but Devine manages to inject an impressive amount of detail into this account. In two pages on Culloden, Devine notes that Charles Stuart's choice of an exposed battlefield "gave a huge tactical advantage" to the well-trained infantry of his opponant. Later, he remarks that Harry Lauder, described as "the purveyor of a unique brand of Scots kitsch", made his name at a teetotal rally. His account of Scotland's current vitality, both political and artistic, provides a stirring conclusion to a solid read.

Destiny by Tim Parks Vintage, £6.99, 249pp

Not as light-hearted an affair as his past investigations of the Anglo-Italian divide, Tim Parks's tenth novel kicks off with a shocking suicide. An English writer based in Italy, Christopher Burton's first reaction on hearing of his son's death isn't grief but the electrifying thought that he can now leave his wife. Married for 30 years, Burton, the archetypal repressed Englishman, has had enough of his wife's flamboyant ways. Told as a continuous internal monologue, Parks's prose lacks its usual fizz.

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman Sceptre, £6.99, 400pp

A writer with a high-voltage imagination, Sheri Holman brings a touch of Southern Gothic to the mean streets of 19th century Sunderland. Set in 1832 at the height of England's worst cholera epidemic, the novel's Dickensian plot revolves around an ill-fated pact between a 15-year-old prostitute and a respectable young doctor in search of classroom cadavers. The less palatable realities of 19th century urban life make for just as startling reading as the spookier horrors of the charnel house and open grave.

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