Paperbacks: Extreme Cuisine

Tales from the Torrid Zone

The Accidental American

The Voice of War

You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free

The Italian Boy

The Swallows of Kabul

Extreme Cuisine, by Jerry Hopkins (BLOOMSBURY £12.99 (320pp))

What do old Rolling Stone editors do when they tire of rock? In the case of Hopkins, they move to Bangkok and devote themselves to the pleasures of the table - though pleasure might not be the right word for dog (served as "a kind of tartar with dog's blood and bile"), jellyfish ("no taste. None"), stir-fried bat ("a somewhat pungent odour"), tarantulas ("resemblance to soft-shell crab") and creamed slugs on toast ("must be simmered with several changes of water"). Cat lovers will be pleased to learn felines have been off the menu in Hanoi since 1997. This delicacy was previously so popular that "the number of rats multiplied at an alarming rate". Such celebrated foodstuffs as fugu, durian, shark's fin and bird's nest soup are present, but Hopkins draws the line at human flesh. Well, almost. His recipe for placenta paté ("a couple of guests actually tried it") appears on page 113. Other surprising inclusions are Marmite and black pudding. Though the lack of an index to this cornucopia is near-criminal and the photographs are as off-putting as any I have seen in a mainstream publication, this is a remarkable work by a gastro-adventurer. As Anthony Bourdain notes in his introduction: "Compared to Cheez Whiz or pineapple pizza, a lot of this stuff is pretty damn good." CH

Tales from the Torrid Zone, by Alexander Frater (PICADOR £7.99 (380pp))

From the most engaging of all living travel writers, this evocative voyage is the fruit of a lifelong love affair with the tropics. Frater renews his acquaintance with South Sea islanders who worship Prince Philip. A Yemeni khat dealer expresses surprise ("Stone the crows!") at Frater's resemblance to a deceased scoutmaster: "He tickle our balls!" Chatting his way through the book, Frater describes a journey up the shallow Irrawaddy: "Our man, prodding the bottom with a cane, ordered the engines full astern". As tempting as the tootling of the Pied Piper. CH

The Accidental American, by James Naughtie (PAN £7.99 296p))

This book utilises an in-depth account of Blair's compulsive relationship with Bush to probe behind the façade. Unsurprisingly, we learn that the Blair smile is "a disguise". One of his "closest friends" says: "Tony always has been a loner and we all know it." That's why a "deliberately remote figure" ignored anti-war protests, including a letter from 52 former UK diplomats. "There was plenty of pain," in deciding on the war, writes Naughtie, but "in turning his leadership into a question of conviction, he found himself". The war may be Blair's Achilles' heel, but it is also his great strength. CH

The Voice of War, ed. James Owen & Guy Walters (PENGUIN £8.99 (628pp))

This revelatory anthology offers a vivid and multi-faceted account of the Second World War through the words of its participants. In September 1939, a Prussian aristocrat, later executed, says the Nazis speak "the German of the latrine wall and the pimp". In Naples, the 10-year-old Sophia Loren sees two German soldiers, "flames trailing from their hair and uniforms", trying to kill a "ragamuffin" boy who had blown up their tank with a Molotov cocktail. Liberating Belsen, Alan Moorehead discovers "the most terrible thing in the world is not destruction... but indifference". CH

You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, by James Kelman (PENGUIN £7.99 (437pp))

This comic, sometimes sinister but deeply romantic novel sends a classic Kelman narrator across the Atlantic. Now 34, clever, feckless and lovelorn, Jeremiah Brown from Glasgow ponders his rocky past and muddled present from a small-town bar in the snowy Midwest. His virtuoso soliloquy (truly, more Robbie Burns than Rab C Nesbitt) showcases the skill of a writer capable of tremendous humour and tenderness, as well as a barbed satirist of US values. As our hero picks over his missed chances, Kelman crafts a political subplot about immigrant insecurity, and how "being an outlaw is a serious affair". BT

The Italian Boy, by Sarah Wise (PIMLICO £7.99 (347pp))

Wise plunges into the murky world of London's "resurrection men", engaged in the lucrative business of supplying corpses to medical schools in the 1830s. The source of their supply became a cause célèbre due to the "suspicious freshness" of a body who might have been an Italian beggar. Wise's brilliant exhumation of the case ranges from "sledge beggars" (amputees) to the Old Bailey, notorious for draughts and smells. A chapter on Smithfield meat market provides light relief. CH

The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra (VINTAGE £6.99 (195pp))

"Yasmina Khadra" is the pen-name of a French-based Algerian ex-officer who chose a female pseudonym to avoid army censorship. Brutal, lyrical, his novel unfolds in the Taliban-ruled Afghan capital as two couples struggle against a savage theocracy. They fight to stay sane in the "collective hysteria" of torture and fanaticism. The bleakness is offset by a rapturous style, well caught in John Cullen's translation, that soars and sings above all the pain and terror. BT

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