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A History of the American People

by Paul Johnson,

Phoenix, pounds 12.99,

1130pp

DESPITE ITS bulk, this book is a miracle of compression. Johnson is particularly thorough on the founding fathers. Not until page 538 do we meet Billy the Kid ("not a socio-economic phenomenon but a young scoundrel"). Though Johnson's narrative is readable and amusing, his view of Vietnam is misjudged - he blames "tendentious news presentation" for turning Americans against the war. Worse, the virtual destruction of Native Americans is compressed into five pages. Yet Johnson's epic is an irresistible page-turner.

The Best Friends' Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhoood

by Vicki Iovine,

Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99, 208pp

MOTHERHOOD SELLS more books than babyhood these days. American mommie expert Vicki Iovine may be from Malibu - where maternity hospitals have "Honeymoon Suites" and the doctors look like George Clooney - but has more than won her stripes as a mother of four. Particularly good on what she describes as the "woulda, coulda, shouldas" of the first year of motherhood, she's as clued up on the pitfalls, and joys, of parenting as her more prosaic British counterparts. How a Playboy centrefold came to write such a smart book is another story.

Living at the End of the World

by Marina Benjamin,

Picador, pounds 6.99, 281pp

THIS EXPLORATION of the recurring belief that we're at the brink of doom begins with an insightful, if slippery speculation on the importance of apocalypse now: "The approach of 2000... forces millenarianism and secular pessimism into some kind of conference". Benjamin goes on to survey 57 varieties of eschatology, ranging from the Book of Revelations, through Joanna Southcott and the Panacea Society (still trying to open the box), to Joseph Smith and the Mormons, concluding with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation of Arizona, home to 34 cryonic "suspendees".

Virginia Fly is Drowning

by Angela Huth,

Abacus, pounds 6.99, 189pp

"I'LL BE in a large field, breast-high in buttercups" anounces the heroine of Angela Huth's elegantly eccentric novel, 31-year-old art mistress and virgin, Virginia Fly. "I'll see this beautiful young herdsman, very brown and thin guiding a herd of cows. He'll leave them all and come over to me. Neither of us will speak, and he'll lash at the buttercups a bit with his stick, in a titillating sort of way." After sharing this fantasy on television, Virginia is besieged by a bewildering variety of suitors anxious to make hay while the sun shines, including a music professor and a visiting American.

Second Skin

by Wendy Perriam,

Flamingo,

pounds 6.99,

440pp

THE MIDDLE-AGED male heart attack is becoming a regular feature in novels written by and for 40-somethings. Deborah Moggach and Joanna Trollope have both used cardiac arrests as a means of liberating their intelligent but frustrated wives and, with her latest heroine, Wendy Perriam adds another name to the ranks of the happily widowed. Catherine's husband collapses while jiving to a Little Richard record and before you can say credit card Catherine has opted for spiced-plum highlights and a groovy new life in Camden Town.

Jazz

by Mervyn Cooke Thames & Hudson,

pounds 7.95, 200pp

IN EXTENDING its World of Art series beyond painting and sculpture, Thames & Hudson was optimistic in attempting to cover an entire art-form in a single volume. However, Cooke's tour of jazz is admirably deft and concise, while finding room for quirky asides: did you know that Lord Haw-Haw included the music of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt in his broadcasts? After be-bop, the book loses sparkle, with Cooke expressing lukewarm views on Parker ("a potentially major figure") and Coltrane ("not to everyone's taste"). A breathless finale covers the last 30 years in 20 pages.

Miss Bugle Saw God in the Cabbages

by Sara Yeomans,

Piatkus, pounds 6.99,

286pp

SARA YEOMANS's comedy of manners does a nice line in Joyce Grenfell- like school mistresses. Among Form 4A's more redoubtable teachers are country dancing enthusiast, Miss Laetitia Willow (known by the girls as "Tit"), the headmistress Miss Bugle, an alarming spinster of uncertain years and Miss Cameron (rumoured in the Upper Sixth to be the granddaughter of someone Thomas Hardy didn't marry). Twenty years on Miss Bugle's girls are called back to Tarminster High to defend the school's honour. The Happiest Days of Our Lives transplanted to Fifties Devon.

The Factory of Facts

by Luc Sante,

Granta, pounds 12.99,

276pp

AFTER LOW Life, Sante's exhumation of New York's hidden history, this autobiography-cum-social history, which reaches back many generations in his native Belgium, is a disappointment. Though assiduously researched, his portrait of this engaging country is marred by all manner of post- modern trappings. The first chapter consists of nine false starts and the succeeding narrative is scarcely less jumpy. Yet Sante writes well about modern rootlessness and his eye for pungent detail is strong as ever. In 1843, we learn, "a woman could buy a kippered herring for every two buckets of urine she collected."

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