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Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, Black Swan pounds 5.99. This book had a highly successful American film based on it and you can see why. From the start its narrator throws out a strong hook: 'Let me say this, being a idiot is no box of chocolates.' Forrest, though, is an idiot

savant, and his picaresque adventures in American society lead ever-accidentally upward from football star and war hero to astronaut and founder of a five million dollar shrimp business. 'Bred out of Voltaire' says the blurb: but this is no Candide. Despite that opening line, there's a sweet marshmallow centre to the satire.

Exit Into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe by Eva Hoffman, Minerva pounds 6.99. 'The hint of the unexpected is what we travel for,' declares Polish-American Hoffman as she proceeds from the Baltic to the Black Sea in 1990/1. She finds the whole region caught between 'rotting communism and raw capitalism' - a not very unexpected observation. Nor are there many surprises as she is frequently annoyed by late trains, duff amenities and uncooperative desk-clerks. However, she is too good a writer to let the American tourist in her overwhelm the book and - especially as she moves south from the country she knows best - her perceptions become noticeably sharper.

The Errol Flynn Novel by Geoff Nicholson, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Movies, gambling, sex and revenge: sounds like Jackie Collins. But Nicholson is a fish of a different stripe. His hero Jake, an unknown actor, accepts the lead in a film about Errol Flynn. The director, Dan Ryan, exudes an outlandish, dangerous, Flynn-like charisma which is, to Jake, irresistible. But, as Ryan's behaviour grows increasingly wild and Jake is dragged far out of his depth, somebody along the line is sure to get hurt. Nicholson's voice is distinctive. If you've missed his five previous novels, catch this one.

Marshal Petain by Richard Griffiths,

Constable pounds 12.95. Petain, utterly obscure until the age of 58, was hurled to fame by his defence of Verdun in 1916. This saved his country's bacon (he would say her honour) at a crisis point of the Great War. Thereafter he became an almost monarchical figure, more revered than any living Frenchman, even after the disaster of 1940. But then, as head of the puppet Vichy government, he slid into ignominy after failing to square honour with military humiliation. Griffiths's durable biography, written in the Sixties and in paperback for the first time, paints not a devil but a courageous, misguided man with a hole where others keep their political acumen.

Red Azalea: Life and Love in China by

Anchee Min, Gollancz pounds 5.99. Inviting obvious comparisons with Wild Swans, this (much briefer) memoir of a girl's Cultural Revolutionary upbringing is particularly revealing of the Red Guards' thumping puritanism. Like Victorian public schools, they emphasised cold showers, sublimated desires and sneaking on your fellows. Working on a harshly regimented farm, Min begins to have doubts about some of Mao's thoughts. Then, brought to the city to be (unsuccessfully) tested for the lead in a film about Madame Mao, her secret heretical belief in romance leads to a relationship with a complex and elusive older man, a symbol of all that is wrong with the Red Guard and their cruel simplicities.

About Time Too by Penelope Mortimer, Pheonix pounds 6.99. This second volume of memoirs (the first was About Time) is plain, direct, confessional and sometimes abruptly self-deprecating. She speaks of 'my so-called second novel' and how, as an ignorant book reviewer, she had 'simply relied on arrogance'. In fact, despite all this down-playing, Mortimer is clearly a formidable character. She is also well-attuned to misery. As she admits, she could understand her husband John's plunge into depression which ended their marriage. But she could not forgive it. And you can tell she feels the same about her own chronic bouts of unhappiness.

Urban Romance by Nelson George, Sceptre pounds 5.99. The story of Dwayne, an ambitious

musician, and Danielle, a would-be writer, set against the early days of New York's rap scene. Superficially a love story, George's underlying theme is the dilemma of college educated blacks, divided between street culture and more long-term (and, for them, possibly illusory) middle-class comforts. These are painful and important issues, but there is a pervading earnestness that slightly mars this promising first novel.

The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England Today by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Hodder pounds 9.99. 'Can it be right that a God-imitating institution should live so comfortably?' With determined irreverence, Graham astutely puts her finger on all that is, in fact, uncomfortable about the church. It is rich, but lauds poverty. It desperately wants to be loved but is increasingly ignored. Its staff are hired to be good but in fact (vide the new Bishop of Durham) they are no better than the rest of us. Graham's discomfort boils down to three questions which she'd put to the Archbishop if only he'd find time to see her: what do you do all day? How would you advise someone bad at praying to get better? Are you or are you not gloomy? A cartoon portrait but an apposite one.

Victorian Women by Joan Perkin, John

Murray pounds 12.99. The 19th century marked the high-tide of gender discrimination in modern British life. Joan Perkin's survey, from cradle to grave and palace to gin-palace, exposes the iniquity and inequity of the Victorian patriarchate while offering little which explains or mitigates. Perkin is particularly concerned to celebrate the coping strategies of subjugated women. For the

'unrespectable' lower classes it could be alcohol; for the aristocracy, extra-marital affairs; for the bourgeoisie evangelism, charitable works and (later) the stirrings of suffragism.

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