Paperbacks: Dr Johnson's Dictionary<br/>Village Cricket<br/>Phiz: The man who drew Dickens<br/>Mozart in the Jungle<br/>Westminster Abbey<br/>The Sea<br/>A Long Long Way

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The Independent Culture

Dr Johnson's Dictionary, by Henry Hitchings (MURRAY £7.99 (278pp))

It is remarkable that the life and work of an 18th-century lexicographer - "a harmless drudge" in his own words - continues to generate so many works of the utmost readability. Samuel Johnson was the subject of one of the finest biographies of modern times, by Walter Jackson Bate. His biography by Boswell was itself the subject of a superb biography by Adam Sisman. Now Henry Hitchings has produced an absorbing account of Johnson's Dictionary that is as likeable as it is learned. No scholarly snob, Hitchings is happy to include the Blackadder pastiche of Johnson. He notes that Baldrick's definition of "cat" ("not a dog") is not too far from some of the senses Johnson gave to words, including "cold" ("not hot'), and "poor" ("not rich"). Deftly sketching the strange, sometimes desperate character of his hero, Hitchings explores how Johnson's idiosyncrasies suffused his mighty work. These include obscure words that richly merit disinterment, such as "potvaliant" ("heated with courage by strong drink"), and the fabulous amount of often dubious information that swelled the entries. Far from appearing obscure and obsolete, the Dictionary gains new life through Hitchings, who concludes, "it remains not merely readable, but vital". CH

Village Cricket, by Tim Heald (TIME WARNER £7.99 (248pp))

"'Village' and 'cricket' are two of the most emotive words in the English language," Heald claims. Yet this sentimental portrait of "the very essence of Englishness" is oddly partial. It is both unconsciously patronising ("The two state-educated teenagers more than doubled the score") and biased towards the south. Only three pages are given to Yorkshire, though there are 37 competing clubs in North Yorkshire alone. He notes that a recent final in the county ended in "some acrimony". It seems unlikely that many Yorkshire players would agree with Heald's conclusion: "As long as it's fun nothing else really matters." CH

Phiz: The man who drew Dickens, by Valerie Browne Lester (PIMLICO £8.99 (269pp))

Hablot Knight Browne's nickname came about partly through his "gift for etching 'phizzes' (faces)", and because it chimed with Boz (Dickens). He crystallised characters from A Pickwick Papers to A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, "then and always a micro-manager", must have been a trial; Phiz emerges as amiable and talented. The illustrations in this lively account by his great-great-granddaughter range from an "anthropomorphic train" to drawings for the Dickens etchings, which the young Beatrix Potter called "simply marvellous". CH

Mozart in the Jungle, by Blair Tindall (ATLANTIC £8.99 (318pp))

This book is subtitled "Sex, Drugs and Classical Music", and you meet the latter elements on page 2: " 'Wagner's so far out. What's with those Valkyries?' said Milton... He arranged a cocaine flower pattern on my toenail and snorted." You have to wait for page 73 for the sex: "'The section that plays together lays together,' Jayson panted, his hairless chest heaving." This steamy memoir by a professional oboe-player ("The whole band was in the hot tub") was praised by Norman Lebrecht: "Tindall tells it how it is." In that case, the world of classical music is riddled with cliché. CH

Westminster Abbey, by Richard Jenkyns (PROFILE £8.99 (216pp))

In a masterly addition to Profile's admirable "Wonders of the World" series, Jenkyns suggests that this "most French of all medieval English churches" is "perhaps the most complex building of any kind" in terms of history and functions. His elegant account is embellished with a host of human details. We learn that Elizabeth I objected to the smell of her coronation oil and Samuel Pepys molested the unburied body of Henry V's queen Catherine of Valois ("I did kiss her mouth"). Touchingly, Jenkyns notes that "Johnson lies as near to Garrick as when they set out together from Staffordshire". CH

The Sea, by John Banville (PICADOR £7.99 (264pp))

Time fails to heal The Sea's bereaved aesthete, and neither has it softened my belief that the Man Booker judges made a hash of the result. Yes, the victorious novel boasts sentences of a pale, sickly beauty, but in prose as neurasthenic as the connoisseur whose recall of a pivotal summer lends the book its slender plot. One tell-tale phrase about the "waxworks of memory" reveals a lot: not art, but the higher kitsch. Read it, though, and make up your own mind. BT

A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry (FABER £7.99 (292pp))

Sebastian Barry's tale about Willie Dunne, a builder's apprentice and volunteer for Kitchener's Army, is a devastating portrayal of the hell of war. It is also a gripping portrait of the complexities, and confusions, of Ireland at the time of the Easter Rising - confusions which not only killed, but tore families apart. Written in plain, understated prose, Barry's novel is almost unbearably moving. It would have made a worthy Booker winner. CP