! Push by Sapphire, Vintage pounds 5.99. "Listen baby, Muver love you. Muver not dumb. Listen baby: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. Thas the alphabet. Twenty-six letters in all. Them letters make up words. Them words everything." Sapphire's debut novel (she has previously written poetry, and teaches illiterate girls in New York) is an unforgettable hymn to literacy. A black street girl, 16 years old and pregnant, again, with her father's child, learns to read. From the opening pages, the reader is struck by the force of the rap-inflected cadences of Claireece Precious Jones's voice, and the pathos of her story as she tells it to her baby son. Precious's teacher is the catalyst for her rebuilding of the shattered fragments of her self ("You gotta push"). She does. Despite the horrors of her daily existence, which include enforced sex with her obese mother, and the discovery that her father has passed on to her the HIV virus, Precious's indomitable energy and eventual triumph of will over her circumstances make this a mesmerising and uplifting read.
! Lancaster & York: the Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir, Pimlico pounds 8.99. Popular historian Alison Weir plays to the crowd with this account of one of the most action-packed passages in medieval history. She's chosen her period well, filled as it is with strong characters caught in the floodlight of momentous events. Not much in the way of historical theorising, but lots of fierce, bloody battles, a gripping account of Henry VI's mental deterioration, and his wife Margaret of Anjou's corresponding rise to prominence in the Tudor dynasty.
! W B Yeats: A Life by Stephen Coote, Sceptre pounds 8.99. The publication of the first volume of Roy Foster's monumental life of Yeats last year overshadowed this excellent, relatively compact (at 611 pages) biography of the Irish poet. "Hammer your thoughts into a unity," Yeats wrote, and Stephen Coote shows how, in a lifetime of tumultuous creativity, Yeats strove to give new meaning to poetry, nationalism and philosophy. Nearly all the characters who crossed Yeats's path were built on the same grand scale as he was, and Coote gives us a sense of their magnificent, reckless passions. This is an entertaining and accessible version of the poet's life and times, but Coote is careful not to trivialise the conflicts of a nation struggling for political freedom or the development of a great literary genius.
! The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Last year's Booker winner was received by critics as a masterpiece. They described it as "amazing" (Ian Jack), "dazzlingly adroit" (John Updike) and a standard- bearer for Indian fiction, and they weren't just gushing. Roy's first novel marries a compelling epic of family life with an ambitious new voice intent on reworking language to communicate intensely felt details, thereby imbuing them with her own sense of grace.
The dazzling world of contemporary stage sets is showcased in British Theatre Design: The Modern Age by John Goodwin (Phoenix pounds 18.99). Alison Chitty's 1988 design for a cycle of late Shakespeare plays at the National Theatre consisted of a giant model of the Copernican system of understanding the heavens, suspended above the acting area. In the Worcester Swan's 1987 Tempest, damp creeps up the walls of Prospero's palace, filled with oversized doors and magic mirrors. Models, backdrops and sketches give an insight into the development of the designs. Costumes are equally colourful and inventive; above: Richard Hudson's costume sketch for the auto da fe scene in Bernstein's Candide (Scottish Opera, 1988)