Paperbacks: Matisse: the Master<br/> Oak <br/> The Moundbuilders <br/> We Could Have Been the Wombles <br/> Why The Allies Won <br/> Frankenstein <br/> Shalimar The Clown

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The Independent Culture

Matisse: the Master, by Hilary Spurling (PENGUIN £14.99 (512pp))

The second volume of Spurling's portrait maintains the exemplary standard she set in The Unknown Matisse. Taking up the artist's life at the age of 38, we're plunged into the creation of his 1910 masterpiece, Dance. His aim was "peace and harmony", but critics said it was "grotesque, primitive, diabolic". This was soon followed by his revolutionary Red Studio, "a prolonged meditation on art and life, space, time and perception" that again puzzled observers. "You're looking for the red wall," said Matisse. "That wall simply doesn't exist." The work influenced a generation of New York abstractionists, but Matisse himself "came close to pure abstraction" in his magnificent Moroccan canvases of 1913. We learn revelatory detail about Matisse's volatile mental state and his sources of inspiration, such as the Covent Garden conflagration while he was designing sets for the Ballets Russes. "Look at the pink reflections... What if I made my costumes pink?" Dismissing any suggestion of collaboration during the war - Matisse was in a wretched state of health at the time - Spurling gives an illuminating account of his final glory. Any reader of this superb account will view the master's work in a new and brilliant light. CH

Oak, by William Bryant Logan (NORTON £10.99 (336pp))

Not the tallest, oldest, strongest or fastest-growing of trees, the oak has achieved pre-eminence by never specialising. Logan's excellent book ranges from acorn cooking ("the first principle is to mix it with something that has flavour") to the scarfs (linear joints) that medieval carpenters borrowed from shipwrights for the hidden joinery of buildings. Maritime oak reached its apogee with the American vessel Constitution of 1797. British cannonballs bounced off its 22in sides. In explaining the crafts of oak, Logan displays a precision of language that would be envied by any poet. CH

The Moundbuilders, by George R Milner (THAMES & HUDSON £12.95 (224pp))

When European settlers probed eastern North America, they found thousands of mounds ranging from shell heaps to large zoomorphic earthworks. Though many were destroyed in the 19th century, one striking survivor is the Serpent Mound of southern Ohio. Several hundred feet in length, it apparently depicts a snake swallowing an egg. Milner admits that "surprisingly little work" has been done at this spectacular site. But his impressive exposition includes a number of beautiful artefacts that confirm the sophistication of pre-Columbian societies east of the Prairies. CH

We Could Have Been the Wombles, by Tom Bromley (PENGUIN £8.99 (334pp))

What do Clive Dunn, Mr Blobby and Serge Gainsbourg have in common? They were all one-hit wonders, though Bromley admits that the phrase is "unfairly applied" to the author of "Je T'Aime". "He would be up there with Leonard Cohen... But he was French." The reluctance of the British public to cough up twice for the same gag is encapsulated by the fact that "The catalogue number for Loadsamoney's single was DOSH1. There wasn't a DOSH2." A knowledgeable survey of pop at its most poptastic. CH

Why the Allies Won, by Richard Overy (PIMLICO £9.99 (494pp))

Brilliantly marshalling a prodigious quantity of information, Overy sets forward a convincing case that Allied victory stemmed from much more than Germany having to fight on two fronts. He ranges from tactical detail, such as how the Russian army gained dominance in the urban battlefield of Stalingrad, to the economic strength that transformed both the US and USSR into superpowers within two years. Overy suggests that the main effect of the Blitz was to convert Allied leaders to strategic bombing, but in this revised edition stresses that it "was not consistent with liberal values". CH

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (BLOOMSBURY £4.99 (212pp))

"For a man it was excellent, but for a woman it was wonderful," was the verdict of Blackwood's Magazine on Mary Shelley's mesmerising tale of scientific hubris gone mad. Benjamin Zephaniah's verdict - "this is not a boring book" - is less electrifying, but it's clearly aimed, in the introduction to this funky new edition, at the reluctant younger reader. Just read the original text. It's amazing. CP

Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie (VINTAGE £7.99 (398pp))

A stormy, exhilarating landscape in a fussy frame. Rushdie sets up his grand and gripping Kashmiri novel with tricky business about his LA-exiled heroine and her man-of-mystery father. Back in the gorgeous but accursed valley of Kashmir, the prose burns as fiercely as anything he's ever done. This tragi-comic drama brings to blazing life a land caught between state and Islamist cruelties, in a "time of demons" we all share. BT

To order these books call: 0870 079 8897