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Private Words: Letters & Diaries from the Second World War ed Ronald Blythe, Penguin pounds 7.99. Blythe raided friends' attics and Imperial War Museum archives for these quiet but illuminating first-person accounts of the fear, danger, privation, loneliness and - often - sheer boredom and banality of war. No literary bravura, just honest and good-humoured attempts to make do and muddle through, whether the writer is a young Englishman about to sail into battle or a GI trying to deal with that commonplace of the era, the shotgun wedding.

The Shaping of Black America by Lerone Bennett, Penguin pounds 6.99. This vivid history of African-Americans was widely acclaimed when it was first published in 1974. Rewritten to take into account new research and developments, it is just as powerful now. Bennett hits the right balance between generalisation and example, and his prose is both tough and moving: 'Back there, centuries ago, at the turning of the worlds, the African had the labor, the Indian had the land, and the European had a plan - and the necessary fire-power.'

Queen of Desire by Sam Toporoff, Picador pounds 5.99. A fiction about Marilyn Monroe which, while displaying a happy disregard for accepted versions of events, is a splendid antidote to all that Marilyn-jabber and may contain more truth than the recent welter of overheated biographies, with their conspiracy theories and sheer guesswork. In spare, unhurried prose, it reinvents a dozen moments in the life - encounters with Bob Hope and Simone Signoret, a one-night stand with Sukarno of Indonesia, the experience of plastic surgery - to create a moving and complex portrait of the woman who long ago crossed the blurry boundary between fact and fiction.

The Orient Express by Gregor von Rezzori, Vintage pounds 5.99. An American tycoon, born in central Europe, runs from his emigre life as a 'cast iron financier'. Aboard the Orient Express from Venice to Paris, a Finnish tour guide reminds him of his sexual initiation on the train 50 years ago. A girl on the ferry (or the angle of his scarf in the wind) evokes Kitty, his first sweetheart at home in Braila. Drunk as much on self-disgust as on vodka, Aram casts out the dross and finds nothing left. Although not as well received as his earlier Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, this is an affecting meditation on cultural homelessness.

Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Quest for the Secret of the Universe by Denis Overbye, Picador pounds 7.99. As a fully-fledged science, cosmology is younger than the century, but an awful lot has happened since the Twenties, when grave and grand astronomer Edwin Hubble reported news about the cosmos 'as if it had been handed to him on stone tablets'. This marvellously readable book tells the whole astonishing story so far: the brain-straining discoveries and speculations, as well as the personalities - ambitious, eccentric, warm and rivalrous - that lay behind them. Required reading.

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