Paperbacks: The Bad and the Beautiful<br></br>Friends and Rivals<br></br>The Plague Race<br></br>The Lunar Men<br></br>Bush at War

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The Independent Culture

The Bad and the Beautiful by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair (Time Warner, £9.99, 380pp)

Prying, gossipy, sensational and wholly enjoyable, this "chronicle of Hollywood in the Fifties" begins with a bang. A Tinseltown smut-sheet called Confidential fairly leapt off the shelves with stories like "Mae West's Open Door Policy" and "Errol Flynn and His Two-Way Mirrors", until Robert Mitchum sued over "The Nude Who Came to Dinner". The floodgates opened to a host of claims against the rag. The editor hit the bottle and ended up shooting himself and his wife in a New York cab in 1958.

Despite their scorching subject matter, Kashner and MacNair write intelligently and take an interest in their subjects after their 15 minutes of fame. We learn that director Nicholas Ray, who enlivened the shooting of Rebel Without a Cause by affairs with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and (possibly) James Dean, ended up as a one-eyed alcoholic "who had worn himself out with years of drugs, overwork and abuse".

The rackety lives pursued by the authors range from "Big Bill" Tilden, seedy tennis trainer to the stars, to the director Douglas Sirk ("Trashiness is very important") and Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons, known as "love's undertaker" for her reports on celebrity break-ups. Among the more likeable figures is Gloria Swanson. Resenting being typecast as Norma Desmond after the success of Sunset Boulevard, Swanson voiced her annoyance at films that had 60-year-old actors in love with 20-year-old girls. She blamed the producers: "They think this is a normal way of life."

Friends and Rivals by Giles Radice (Penguin, £9.99, 376pp)

This brilliantly achieved triple biography yokes Crosland, Jenkins and Healey, the intellectual powerhouse of the post-war Labour Party. Radice delineates the characters of his heroes during the Second World War. Encountering a Botticelli in Florence during the invasion of Italy was "the most exciting moment of my life" for Healey. Stumped in his efforts to decode Russian cyphers, Jenkins immersed himself in political biographies at Bletchley Park. Though the minutiae of the Wilson era pall slightly, the energy, tensions and manoeuvring between these ambitious titans keep you enthralled.

The Plague Race by Edward Marriott (Picador, £7.99, 275pp)

Almost hallucinatory in its vividness, this account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Hong Kong in 1894 gets under your skin. Two medical rivals, a Swiss doctor and a celebrated Japanese academic, sought the cause of the "uniquely potent" contagion. The resonance of this chilling yarn is enhanced by Marriott's reports from recent plague sites in India and Madagascar. In Hong Kong, rats were pursued on a "ceaseless and vigorous basis" until the late 1980s. Now, there is a "clear volume" of rats on the island. "The real worry," says a researcher, "is the border with China."

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow (Faber, £9.99, 588pp)

The coterie of early industrialists and inventors who met each month in Birmingham is exuberantly brought to life in this splendid book. The Lunar Society included such stars as Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood ("I am just teazed out of my life with dilatory, drunken, idle worthless workmen"), but Uglow also reveals such lesser lights as botanist William Withering. His description of digitalis poisoning on page 275 is a marvel of cool observation. Disagreeing about much, the Lunar Men were united about "the greatness of the cosmos and its limitless possibilities."

Bush at War by Bob Woodward (Pocket, £8.99, 283pp)

The assiduous Woodward has produced an admirably terse, blow-by-blow account of the move to war after 11 September. During a national security meeting on the following day, Rumsfeld first raised Iraq as a possible target. Colin Powell's response was: "What the hell, what are these guys talking about?" Blair's relatively minor role in the build-up to war is reflected in the mere eight references to him in the index. Woodward's final sentence that "American combat deaths were less than the 148 deaths in the 1991" war may soon be rendered incorrect. At time of writing, the tally was 141.