Paperbacks: Guernica<br/>Fifty Years of Hancock's Half Hour<br/>Hatchet Jobs<br/>Walter Sickert: A life<br/>Queer Street<br/>Out of Fashion<br/>Fairy Tales

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The Independent Culture

Guernica, by Gijs van Hensbergen (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (373pp))

The story of Picasso's modernist masterpiece is recounted in a biography of appropriate sweep and drama. Van Hensbergen begins with the event that inspired the vast canvas of screaming mouths. The German assault on the Basque town of Gernika in 1937 was the first case of saturation bombing in Europe, killing 1,645 people. Though Picasso's initial response was a pencil sketch "that took perhaps less than a minute", completing the canvas was an "epic battle". "When people scratch it," Picasso said, "a drop of blood will form." Shutting between the worlds of art and politics, Van Hensbergen tells the story of both the painting, which moved from Paris to London and New York, and its creator, who continued his explosive emotional life in occupied Paris. At New York's Museum of Modern Art, Guernica had a revelatory impact on Jackson Pollock, who created an equally huge painting known simply as Mural. It is described as "Olympian, bacchanalian, extravagant..." and so on, for another eight adjectives. The impact on Picasso himself was not so benign. When he attempted a second great political statement in 1951, the resulting Massacre in Korea was "trite, wooden, almost a caricature". Guernica is now in Madrid. CH

Fifty Years of Hancock's Half Hour, by Richard Webber (ARROW £8.99 (372pp))

Hancock's appeal is identified by his sidekick Bill Kerr: "You only had to listen to him for five minutes and you knew he was talking about you." Fans of "the lad himself" will lap up the minutiae in this biography of the radio/TV series, which includes details about all the cast. We learn that Simpson and Galton sat through The Lavender Hill Mob to discover the name of Sid James in the closing credits. But what will really draw devotees are the show synopses and an entire unbroadcast script. "The Counterfeiter" is full of gems. CH

Hatchet Jobs, by Dale Peck (NEW PRESS £8.99 (288pp))

To say that Dale Peck, fiction critic of New Republic, doesn't like the current state of the novel is like saying that Bin Laden doesn't like America. Peck is ferocious about Julian Barnes ("clever, tepid and soulless"), annoyed with Philip Roth (American Pastoral is "odd, maddening... a phantom novel") and plain incandescent about Jim Croce: "lowest common denominator... the embodiment of everything I despise about modern fiction." Intelligent, articulate, stimulating, but a little unhinged in his rampages, Peck is obviously a man of extremes. After this book, he declares he will "no longer write negative reviews". CH

Walter Sickert: A life, by Matthew Sturgis (HARPERCOLLINS £12.99 (768pp))

This is a big, well-wrought and wholly absorbing account of a British painter who has few parallels for his extraordinary, often shocking, images. Torn between being an actor and an artist, Sickert settled for the happy medium of painting theatrical subjects. Adventurous not only in his subjects, he also "wanted a good deal of variety" in his love life. Sickert not only enjoyed a long, active life for Sturgis to explore, but also provided a post-mortem bonus with Patricia Cornwell's accusation that he was the Ripper. CH

Queer Street, by James McCourt (NORTON £10.99 (577pp))

McCourt's vast, formless, but highly entertaining account of gay Manhattan from 1947-1986 is a high-camp version of Dos Passos' USA. Told in the form of dialogues, letters, poems, scraps of journalism, it is also a gazetteer of the Queer Street neighbourhood. "Some cross streets: Attitude, Camp, Jewellery, Lipstick... and little mews Seclusion, Betrayal and Go-to-Hell." The tone is shrill, but lively and entertaining.Even the arrival of Aids doesn't damp the crackle of camp repartee. The recurring themes of the book can be assessed by the index. In descending order, the longest entries are: Bette Davis, Maria Callas and Sigmund Freud. CH

Out of Fashion, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (FABER £6.99 (162pp))

"Clothes are a way of exercising love", says Douglas Dunn in his poem "Empty Wardrobes". Much of this sparkling collection, selected by poets who have each contributed a poem, confirms this view. Some of it, like Donne's "To His Mistress Going to Bed" is more interested in the absence of clothes. "For centuries," says Duffy, "poets have been urging their muses to get their kit off". Indeed. CP

Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (PENGUIN £7.99 (437pp))

This re-translated bicentenary volume of 30 fairy tales mixes familiar pleasures with fresh illuminations. Working from the original Danish, and not (as older editions often did) from German versions, Tiina Nunnally restores much of the wit, pace and colloquial zest to "The Ugly Duckling", "The Emperor's New Clothes" and a crowd of other well-loved stories. Be prepared for an author who can be shocking as often as sweet. BT

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