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The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Speeches, Married Alive, The Craic, The Mistress of Lilliput and Love is a Four Letter Word
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The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Speeches ed Brian MacArthur Penguin, £9.99, 525pp

The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Speeches ed Brian MacArthur Penguin, £9.99, 525pp

It is not the most inviting of titles. You can imagine the book being snapped up by Harry Enfield's acneous Tory Boy. But MacArthur's bulky compilation offers a fascinating, if distorted version of the last century. His oratorical scrapbook ranges from Lloyd George's chilling "pinnacle of sacrifice" recruitment speech in 1914 to Clinton's lachrymose confession of Oval office hanky-panky: "This matter is between me, my wife and our daughter - and our God."

Blair makes a couple of contributions, typically both bland and ardent ("It's pretty simple, the type of country I want"). There's also Portillo's mea culpa from 1997, but nothing from Hague, though MacArthur might have included his pubescent spouting to the Tory faithful. The high points are a world away from such oratorical homunculi. Many from the Thirties and Forties still deliver a high-voltage thrill. Leo Amery quoted Cromwell in his ringing denunciation of Chamberlain: "In the name of God, go." Similarly, Churchill felt no embarrassment reaching back to the 17th century: "Be ye men of valour."

Inexplicably, MacArthur omits Churchill's magnificent "We will fight them on the beaches". Even more oddly, he awards the palm for greatest speaker to the ranting Hitler - "he changed a nation with his oratory" - compared to the British leader, who "roused a willing nation to war".

The lure of rhetoric emerges. Enoch Powell's couldn't resist quoting from Virgil in his notorious "River of Blood" speech. Charles's "monstrous carbuncle" reveals him as both irresponsible and reactionary. In a book low on humour, it is pleasing to encounter Denis Healey's view of Mrs Thatcher as the "Great She-Elephant". As in real life, many items drone on a bit, but from Trotsky's "the dust-bin of history" to Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner", the book demonstrates that the sound-bite is nothing new.

Married Alive by Julie Burchill Orion, £6.99, 213pp

As you might expect, the 30-something heroine of Julie Burchill's latest novel is ten times brainier than Bridget Jones and gets through a lot more sex and empty calories. This page-turning farce tells the story of Nicole Miller, a successful illustrator in possession of a Docklands loft, a smarmy husband and lots of girlfriends called Emma, who brings her Tizer-swigging gran home to stay - for ever. Racism, class warfare and the rules of grown-up kiss chase come under Burchill's lazer-sharp scrutiny.

The Craic by Mark McCrum Phoenix, £7.99, 416pp

It is a shame that a book which aims to get behind the clichés of Ireland is saddled with a title which launched a thousand theme pubs. In fact, McCrum's jaunt puts the reader vividly in touch with both populace and landscape, as when an Aran lawn suddenly ends ("Jesus!") in a 300ft drop off a cliff. He wears his learning lightly and has a keen eye for oddities. The Troubles flow through the book like a dark torrent, but McCrum's encounters are so richly tantalising that Ryan Air will make a fortune.

The Mistress of Lilliput by Alison Fell Anchor, £6.99, 351pp

Swift over looked the life of Gulliver's wife Mary, but Alison Fell fleshes out her adventures in a farce, awash with satirical wit and gamey language. At 16, Mary Barton, "formless lump", daughter of an upwardly mobile hosier, is married to Dr Gulliver. Seeing marriage as a way to self-improvement, Mary is quickly put in her place by her husband, who finds intellectual and sexual curiosity in women abhorrent. Avid for adventure she pursues Gulliver on his travels, squashing several Lilliputians underfoot as she goes.

Love is a Four Letter Word by Claire Calman Black Swan, £6.99, 315pp

An enjoyable romance from first-time novelist Claire Calman, about a 33-year-old who moves out of London, buys a house with a vegetable patch and falls in love with her bouncy-haired gardener. More jolly than hip, Calman's heroine still wears Eighties pixie boots and makes rather gruff-sounding quips about sex and condoms. Her previous existence as an attached woman is told in a series of tearful flashbacks, but you end up skipping these to see whether she's managed to get the gardener out of his muddy jeans yet. Wish fulfillment in semi-rural Kent.

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