Paperbacks: The Short Life &amp; Long Times of Mrs Beeton<br/> It is Bliss Here <br/> Olivier <br/> The Classical World <br/> To See Every Bird on Earth<br/> The Secret River<br/> Arthur & George

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The Independent Culture

The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton, by Kathryn Hughes (HARPER £7.99 (525pp))

Though her subject died at the age of 28, Kathryn Hughes's long, immaculately researched biography is a work of astonishing interest. Every page dazzles with some startling aspect of Isabella Beeton and those associated with her. We learn, for example, that her publisher husband nearly ruined his bestselling magazine title by initiating a long correspondence on corsets that "verged into territory that was positively pornographic". A century later, the "utterly misguided" choice as Isabella's first biographer was her grand-niece, the "flamboyantly butch lesbian" Nancy Spain. This all may sound only distantly associated with the homely dishes that established The Book of Household Management, but so was Isabella, who "didn't know the first thing about cookery". She made good this omission by spirited borrowing. "There is no sentence that isn't a tweak or copy of someone else's work," writes Hughes. Nevertheless, this scissors-and-paste job rapidly became one of the great classics of the English kitchen. Regarded as a bit of an oddity in her time, Isabella still provides a template for Nigella and other high-powered females who can "spot a good subject ripe for repackaging". CH

It is Bliss Here, by Miles Hildyard (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (337pp))

At last, a war book with a difference. Evocative and intelligent, these letters reveal there was life beyond the battles. When not fighting, Miles Hildyard visits Vesuvius ("vastly hellish"), reads Havelock Ellis, muses on soldiering ("I could never feel any enthusiasm") and falls in love: "Mike is entirely un-homosexual... It is excellent for me to practice self-control." This likeable, unaffected man writes with an appealing stoicism. "I have no ambitions." This possibly explains why Hilldyard did not publish his remarkable account until 2005. The book appeared shortly after his death. CH

Olivier, by Terry Coleman (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (608pp))

Terry Coleman's epic biography of the great actor does not include analysis of Olivier's stage performances ("an impertinence"). Maybe this is just as well considering the book's brick-sized dimensions, but in other respects the thespian peer is not spared. We learn of his torment at the hands of the unhinged Vivien Leigh, the embarrassment of Peter Brook's Oedipus (a fertility dance round a huge phallus) and the post-mortem allegations of an affair with Danny Kaye (dismissed by Coleman, though another homosexual liaison is accepted). The result is a hugely entertaining account of this protean, but ruthless, actor. CH

The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox (PENGUIN £9.99 (704pp))

In this prodigious work, Robin Lane Fox offers an exhaustive account of the two great ancient civilisations. His impressive feat of concision does not come at the cost of detail. We learn that Persian kings wore make-up, Socrates was "strikingly ugly", the Egyptians had steam-powered toys, the Greeks had neither wheelbarrows nor horse-collars, Pompeii had a traffic-free zone in the centre and Claudius showed off by "fighting" a trapped whale. Lane Fox is admirably informative, though he might have told us that the Greek "ostracism" derives from oyster shells. CH

To See Every Bird on Earth, by Dan Koeppel (PENGUIN £8.99 (278pp))

With a tally of 7,200, Dan Koeppel's father is one of the world's top 10 birdspotters. It is "a triumph", writes his son, but "gives rise to imagining a life that didn't centre round a single, all-consuming interest." It cost Koeppel Snr his marriage, blighted his career as a physician and alienated him from his son. This tender, beautifully written account by an outstanding nature writer explores this obsession. Koeppel accompanies his father to the Amazon in search for his 7,000th bird. Soon afterwards, the 17-year obsession cooled and changed direction: "With butterflies I don't have to be a maniac." CH

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville (CANONGATE £7.99 (349pp))

In this dazzling novel, rightly longlisted for the Booker, Kate Grenville achieves a fine balance of sympathy for the Aboriginal population of her native Australia and for their colonial (ex-convict) oppressors. It's a gripping tale of griping poverty, unimaginable graft and iron determination, which begins in the dark, damp corners of 18th-century London and ends, tragically, in New South Wales. Stunning. CP

Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes (VINTAGE £7.99 (505pp))

Arthur Conan Doyle thought the evidence for psychic phenomena "incredible, but true". That phrase neatly fits the plot of Barnes's perfectly voiced documentary novel. Based on Conan Doyle's campaign for an unjustly imprisoned half-Indian solicitor, it yokes the lives of two outsiders - one bluff, one shy, each an "unofficial Englishman" - with precision and panache to probe the nature of truth, proof and identity. These still waters run deep. BT