Paperbacks: Blood of the Isles<br/>UEA Creative Writing Anthology 2007: Cheque Enclosed<br/>Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain<br/>The Extra Large Medium<br/>Symphony of the Dead

Blood of the Isles, By Bryan Sykes (Corgi &pound;8.99) <img src="" alt="threestar"/>
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Over the past decade, many academics have been wondering whether the distinction between English and Celt might not be illusory. Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford, has cut through the tangles by concentrating his attention on the genetic evidence. In so doing, he gives the quietus to one infamous myth, and validates some lesser known ones. The supremacism that led Victorian "thinkers" to imagine that they were racially superior to their Celtic neighbours, and by extension, to "natives" elsewhere, is revealed as nonsense.

He shows how the matrilineal line (in mitochondrial DNA) and the patrilineal line (in the Y chromosome) point to an essential continuity. In other words, the Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Norman invasions made little impression on a genetic stratum established 6,000 years ago, and those who call themselves Celtic and those who call themselves English are both genetically Celtic.

So what has been proved? Our genetic ancestry refutes any notion of genocide by the Anglo-Saxons. The earliest source for that theory is Gildas in the sixth century, but although he paints a bleak picture he does not suggest genocide. Similarly, when Bede and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle use the verb exterminare, they mean "drive off" rather than slaughter.

Not everything in the old story can be so efficiently dispatched, however. A Germanic language, not a Celtic one, is now general in the British Isles; all records agree that the Saxon invasion was a violent one, and clearly one culture overwhelmed another. But Sykes has kicked away a vital crutch in the racist argument that the English are the Anglo-Saxons and born to rule. One must hope that such rigour and sanity spreads its good medicine to other lands, where equivalent myths are alive and festering.

UEA Creative Writing Anthology 2007: Cheque Enclosed (UEA £6.99) threestar

The creative writing course at the University of East Anglia has become, for many, an unanswerable challenge to those who maintain that the craft of writing cannot be taught. This collection amply reinforces that challenge.

The editors emphasise its diversity. I can't quarrel with that, but one quality binds these writers: they are Royalists not Roundheads, hedonists not puritans. The imaginative range is astonishing: a funny and even sexy lesbian murder mystery, a fable of Crouch End in which a goatherd is revealed as a most problematic spiritual guru, a tale of bitter divisions in a ballet company, a peripatetic brothel.

The poetry section has, perhaps, more good lines than good poems. But the good lines are very good indeed. The editors' decision to call the non-fiction section "Life Writing" has an air of defensiveness about it, but the pieces amply justify the title: two of them, one set in Cairo, the other in Croatia, show, in their different ways, how you cannot return without sacrifice.

Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain, By Judith Flanders (HarperPerennial £6.99) fourstar

"Victorian" has become an adjective connoting the pious and the repressed. Judith Flanders is not the first to point out that this is rather less than the whole story, but her account of how the Victorian age democratised pleasure and ordinary convenience should become a classic.

The Industrial Revolution is often presented as having advanced nations rather than people. The real revolution, as the author reveals, lay in the realm of leisure. The benefits brought by the bridge-building of Brunel are well known, less well known are the tricks based on his principles that were used to entertain the masses in theatres. The steamer built an empire, but it also gave ordinary people the chance to visit the Isle of Man. It seems that every invention designed to advance the cause of King and Country could also be adapted to that of the people.

This book will not convince those implacably sceptical of the idea that capitalism could ever be benign, but it should give them pause for thought.

The Extra Large Medium, By Helen Slavin (Pocket Books £6.99) threestar

Annie Colville has inherited an ability to see and hear the dead; you couldn't really call it a blessing, given that most of their messages are stupefyingly banal, generally concerned with lost bits of Royal Doulton. Some, however, are extremely insistent: the girl by the lake who leads Annie to a murderer, for example.

The dead all wear chocolate brown. Oddly, those closest to her – her mother, as generous with her hospitality as with her body, and Evan, her husband, who disappeared one night and never came back – obstinately refuse to manifest themselves. Deciding that her skills might as well serve as many people as possible, Annie joins a spiritualist church, and there discovers a vast crowd of chocolate people, a bogus medium, and Jim, whom everyone is asking for. Who is he?

Annie's strange, whimsical wander through life, guided by the kindly dead, is witty and heart-warming and a little eerie. If only this charming, moving fable, as kooky as it is spooky, were not so frequently obscure. Still, the happily hymeneal ending is a joy: goodness the girl could use a break, you think.

Symphony of the Dead, By Abbas Maroufi (Aflame £8.99) fourstar

The Urkhani family is in perpetual, though unacknowledged, mourning: for dead Father, whose little body casts a great shadow; for Ideen, the second son, whose brilliance mulches into madness; for Ida, his twin sister, lost to the family through an unsuitable marriage; for Youssef, the eldest, gentle and simple, who saw Russian paratroopers landing and tried to do the same, with an umbrella; for Mother, dying of consumption and wailing for Ideen. But no one mourns for Urkhan, the third son, as outwardly dutiful as he is secretly spiteful, who often takes the role of narrator of this novel.

The translation, despite the odd syntactical slip, evokes with great delicacy a world of gnawed-at souls. The images are very fine: Father, in his grave, "could no longer even cough." "I feel," says Ideen, at the onset of madness, "as if people are washing their clothes in my stomach."

Abbas Maroufi was the victim of bigotry in his native Persia. That the ban on this work was lifted in 2003 and that we can now read this superlative tale of family breakdown and redemption, should be a source of (tentative) hope.