Paperbacks: Bollocks to Alton Towers<br/>The Siege of Derry<br/>Robert Louis Stevenson<br/>Peter Brook: A Biography<br/>Oxford Dictionary of Architecture<br/>Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance<br/>The Darling

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Bollocks to Alton Towers, by Robin Halstead et al (PENGUIN £7.99 (389pp))

Deftly balancing the British characteristics of delight in eccentricity and disdain for organised pleasure, this book explores 40-odd idiosyncratic attractions. At the outset, the authors declare the central criterion for their selection: "Most importantly, no ghastly animal mascot with big velour feet will tell you to have a nice day." Yes, it is unlikely that you would encounter such patronising horrors at Barometer World, the Cumberland Pencil Museum or the British Lawnmower Museum. The recommendations are associated with days out that involve "a tartan blanket, a Thermos of tea, three kinds of sandwiches... and a bit of map-reading". Kelvedon Nuclear Bunker is described as "the world's most terrifying bungalow". Dug in the early 19th century, the tunnels of Joseph Williamson in Liverpool are "scrupulously constructed, mad, useless and simply enormous". In the "dark, fusty and bewildering" Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, the authors delight in finding an exhibit marked "tip of human tongue". Though it sounds as if it might come from Sarawak, it was carried as a charm in Tunbridge Wells. As the authors say, "We laughed a lot making this book." CH

The Siege of Derry, by Carlo Gébler (ABACUS £8.99 (364pp))

The smell of gunpowder permeates Gébler's excellent account of the 105-day siege of Derry in 1689, the pivotal event in England's tempestuous relationship with Ireland. The book is packed with detail, ranging from the suicide at London Bridge of William III's Secretary of War ("May he have an abler servant than I") to the fugitive who was killed with a sword swipe so hard that his "upper skull, complete with brains, was cut off like the top of an egg". The butchery of the siege still resonates, but Gébler concludes that "compromise and accommodation" must prevail. CH

Robert Louis Stevenson, by Claire Harman (HARPER £9.99 (503pp))

Illuminating as the lighthouses that R L Stevenson's family constructed, this is an exemplary life. The driven, passionate, bohemian Stevenson emerges as a very modern sort of man, not least in his restless travelling. Harman brilliantly sketches Stevenson's epic adventures, both physical and fictional. She notes that Dr Jekyll mirrored Kraft-Ebbing's dark revelation published in the same year, while his late work The Ebb-Tide presaged Heart of Darkness. Conrad borrowed not only the theme but also the best line. "The horror, the horror" comes from Stevenson's story "The Merry Men". CH

Peter Brook: A Biography, by Michael Kustow (BLOOMSBURY £9.99 (334pp))

The great theatrical magus has always aroused controversy. His Russian immigrant father invented a laxative called Brooklax, which prompted actors to refer to his son as "the little shit". The pleasure provided by this book depends on whether the reader is a devotee or a doubter. Even those close to him are ambiguous. "I think he's a clown," says Frances de la Tour. Kustow balances his own enthusiasm with the views of less enchanted critics. The director's own comments, nebulous and windy, explain why he has been happier in Paris. CH

Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, by James Stevens Curl (OUP £10.99 (880pp))

Along with pithy technical definitions, the 6,000 entries here include succinct coverage of styles and periods. Curl's aphoristic style is best deployed in his micro-biographies. Frank Lloyd Wright's writing is described as suffering from "rather obvious conceit, prolixity and dense obfuscation". Curl finds room for detail about Mies's Nazi links and le Corbusier's plan to replace central Paris with 18 skyscrapers. The brief entry on Frank Gehry describes a Seattle project as "one example of Blobismus too many". CH

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, by Matthew Kneale (PICADOR £7.99 (277pp))

Matthew Kneale's first collection of short stories offers startling, witty and at times moving glimpses of ordinary lives in an "age of abundance" - lives spent grappling with moral dilemmas or the boredom of middle age. The opening story, "Stone", about a Chinese holiday that goes horribly wrong, is worth the cover price in itself. CP

The Darling, by Russell Banks (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (408pp))

Between New England and Liberia, US counter-culture and African civil wars, the zeal of youth and the insight of age, Banks's novel delivers a smart reader's blockbuster that deserves loud ovations. Hannah's sour-sweet voice carries us from the country chicken-farm she runs back to the leftist guerrilla stunts of the 1970s, then to the tormented African state where she made a new life, and gained and lost a family. Boldly imagined, deeply felt, convincingly told: an epic, gripping fusion of personal and political passions. BT

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