Paperbacks: Downing Street Diary<br/>My Life So Far<br/>The Spanish Inquisition: a history<br/>The Wreckers<br/>The Edwardians<br/>Never Let Me Go<br/>26a

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The Independent Culture

Downing Street Diary, by Bernard Donoughue (PIMLICO £16.99 (785pp))

Providing much of the factual basis for Francis Wheen's BBC 4 film The Lavender List, this insider's record of Harold Wilson's final administration is reminiscent of Macbeth. At the heart of Donoughue's enthralling account, written when he was head of the No 10 Policy Unit, is the spooky relationship between Wilson and his private secretary Marcia Williams, described on a fairly average day as "depressed, neurotic and paranoiac". In his introduction, Donoughue claims she could "reduce men to silent, shivering and even blubbering wrecks". Wilson, her most frequent target, was as aware as anyone of her bizarre behaviour. On page 117, the PM asks: "You think she is going round the bend?" On page 591, he says that she is "mad" and "evil". Donoughue insists that the bizarre "lavender list" of resignation honours - written in Williams's hand, it included David Frost, Jimmy Goldsmith and Lew Grade - was accepted by Wilson in order to "buy some peace". So what was the strange hold she had over him? Wilson's driver made allegations to Donoughue about money and "some story about a hotel in Liverpool in 1956". But it seems likely that the enfeebled Wilson needed Williams's steely character to screw his courage to the sticking point. CH

My Life So Far, by Jane Fonda (EBURY £7.99 (599pp))

Described as "intense" and "intelligent" by the Daily Telegraph, this great wodge of a book chronicles Fonda's repeated torments with her father, the radical Tom Hayden ("his emotional coldness reflected my father's") and the zillionaire Ted Turner. "Out of love and respect for Tom I will not go into specifics," she writes, but a strong hint is given 20 pages earlier: "I discovered he was sleeping with someone else." Fonda's declaration of fulfilment at 63 is more passionate than coherent: "Each story and individual, each metamorphosis - they live in me now and celebrate being here." Intense, yes, but intelligent? CH

The Spanish Inquisition: a history, by Joseph Pérez (PROFILE £8.99 (248pp))

In this brisk discussion of a 350-year spiritual spasm (astonishingly, the Inquisition stuttered on until 1834), Pérez suggests that the phenomenon was not as distant or alien as we tend to think. Though only one in 10 of those brought before the Inquisition were tortured, Pérez stresses the similarity between the 125,000 inquisitorial trials and Stalinist purges. He suggests that because the intolerance was "institutionalised, organised and bureaucratised", it "constituted an anticipation of totalitarianism." Anti-Semitic in origin, the Inquisition was modern, not medieval. CH

The Wreckers, by Bella Bathurst (HARPER £8.99 (326pp))

After her illuminating work on lighthouse builders, Bella Bathurst has turned to a darker side of coastal life. Wrecking, she writes, "has existed ever since ships first went to sea". Though she dismisses tales of lights being hung on cows' horns, wreckers can be both active and passive. Her circumnavigation takes in the Godwin Sands, where wrecking evolved into such subspecies as hovellers, smugglers and salvars, and Barra, where, in 1941, the 234,000 bottles of whisky on the grounded SS Politician inspired Whisky Galore. Bathurst's book is as irresistible as the glittering eye of the Ancient Mariner. CH

The Edwardians, by Roy Hattersley (ABACUS £9.99 (520pp))

As robust as a Northern town hall of the time, Hattersley's account of this brief but pregnant era is packed with vivid detail, from Queen Victoria's white funeral (suggested by Tennyson) to Edward VII laughing so heartily at Shaw's Irish satire John Bull's Other Island that he broke his chair. Despite its solidity, this is a persuasively radical view. Hattersley insists that it was not the First World War that changed Britain but the Edwardians. The modern world in a host of forms - trades unions, female suffrage, sport - gained impetus in this period. Russell questioned religion, while Rutherford laid bare the essence of matter. Hattersley is a spiffing guide. CH

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (FABER £7.99 (282pp))

Ishiguro's sixth novel is set in a boarding school deep in the English countryside. It soon becomes clear, however, that its pupils have bigger worries than exams. Kathy, the novel's narrator, and her friends Ruth and Tommy are, in fact, clones, bred for their organs and doomed to an early death. Ishiguro's trademark deadpan style is here brilliantly utilised in a process of revelation that's exquisitely nuanced and extremely moving. CP

26a, by Diana Evans (VINTAGE £6.99 (230pp))

This gem of a debut novel - funny, touching and tragic - justly won the Orange new writers' prize. Evans follows the path of the Neasden twins Bessi and Georgia - daughters of a Nigerian mum and Derbyshire dad - through the London of the 1980s and 1990s in fresh and vivid prose. Yet, for all its pin-sharp, street-smart wit, this is not another multi-culti metropolitan romp but a study of the secrets of family life, of intimacy and separation and - ultimately - of the solitary pain and grief that no one shares. BT

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