Paperbacks: The Darkness of Wallis Simpson <br/> Herman <br/> Winter in Madrid <br/> The Wave Theory of Angels <br/> The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations <br/> K. <br/> Benjamin Franklin and the Birth of America

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The Independent Culture

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson, by Rose Tremain (VINTAGE £7.99 (215pp)

Wallis Simpson's last days in Neuilly have proved a perennial source of fascination for writers and novelists. In her new collection of short stories, Rose Tremain takes a leaf out of Caroline Blackwood's controversial memoir with a title story that portrays Wallis as the hapless victim of her conniving lawyer- cum-carer, Maître Blum. Bedridden and diapered up, Wallis is imprisoned in her decaying body like "a ghost trapped in an old TV". Pressed by the inscrutable Blum for anecdotes about her royal past, all Wallis can conjure up is memories of a "pale little man", stabbing petulantly at his embroidery and feeding her spoons of caviar. Much more vivid to the increasingly gaga Duchess are scenes from her first marriage to the sadistic naval officer Winfield Spencer, including a life-changing visit to the prostitutes of Canton. The collection's subsequent stories continue to concern themselves with dubious final acts. "Loves Me, Loves Me Not" relates how an ageing American travels to London to set to rights the betrayals of a wartime love affair. In "The Beauty of the Dawn Shift", an East German border guard, disorientated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, freezes to death in a freight carriage. In this unremittingly bleak collection, Tremain remains emotionally detached throughout. EH

Herman, by Lars Saabye Christensen (VINTAGE £6.99 (183pp))

Lars Saabye Christensen is best known in this country for his prize-winning novel The Half Brother, a family saga spanning half a century of Norwegian history. Also set in Oslo, this much shorter novel, first published in 1992 and translated by Steven Michael Nordby, is a kooky coming-of-age story about a 10-year-old boy, Herman, who suffers from unexplained hair loss. His closet confidant is his grandfather, who is "completely bald except for three hairs by each ear". Christensen's engaging style suits this utterly Nordic evocation of the strangeness of childhood. EH

Winter in Madrid, by C J Sansom (PAN £6.99 (549pp))

After two books set at the Tudor court, historical novelist CJ Sansom seems to have no problems switching to the cloak-and-dagger politics of post-Civil War Spain. Harry Brett has just survived the horrors of Dunkirk when he's recruited by Whitehall to spy on old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, a businessman based in Madrid. As in any good Le Carré-style novel, adult espionage has its roots in prep-school politics, and Sansom adroitly switches between Harry's childhood and 1940s Spain. Romance, history and ideological conflict are seamlessly married in this impressive period thriller. EH

The Wave Theory of Angels, by Alison MacLeod (PENGUIN £7.99 (292pp))

Alison MacLeod's second novel daringly links September 11 with the medieval church. Set in 13th-century France and contemporary Chicago, the narrative switches between two young coma victims: Christina number one lapses into unconsciousness in 1284, waking just in time for the collapse of Beauvais cathedral. Christina number two, the daughter of a physicist, wakes up in time to witness the toppling of the Twin Towers. MacLeod boldly mixes physics and faith in a novel that's not nearly as loopy as it sounds. EH

The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, edited by Dennis O'Driscoll (BLOODAXE £9.95 (251pp))

"To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only shew the narrowness of the definer," said that king of quotations, Samuel Johnson. Well, yes and no. Dennis O'Driscoll's strangely gripping collection of aperçus on all matters poetic, culled from an eclectic range of sources, offers some startling insights into an artform that scares most people to death. Some are baffling, some are funny and some are alarming. "Now I have the time to become a poet," is a recent pronouncement from that well-known writer, Saddam Hussein. CP

K., by Roberto Calasso (VINTAGE £9.99 (327pp))

Not another vague theory about Franz Kafka, but a close-focus immersion in the novels, stories and diaries that brings his uncanny world into sharp relief. Roberto Calasso is an inspired publisher, as well as an expert writer about myth. Here, in Geoffrey Brock's translation, he matches a loving attention to the fine literary detail of the Prague spellbinder - and shows how funny he can often be - with a grasp of the archetypal forces that lurk within his tales. BT

Benjamin Franklin and the Birth of America, by Stacy Schiff (BLOOMSBURY £9.99 (477pp) )

In late 1776, already 70, the publisher, inventor and all-round fixer Franklin came to Paris to sell the idea of an independent America to France. Schiff makes an utterly gripping, often wryly funny, history from this epoch-shifting eight-year stay by a "cool-headed late bloomer". It should be compulsory for US Francophobes, French America-haters - and all badly informed Brits. BT

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