Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, Flamingo pounds 6.99. More than 600 pages of compelling reading: an extraordinary account of three lives - the author's grandmother (warlord's concubine at 15), her mother (a Communist hero) and herself (a victim of Maoist brainwashing). She records the transformation of a quasi-feudal state into modern-day China with honesty and humour alongside the pain. A work of great talent.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Penguin pounds 5.99. The much- hyped, thinking-person's chiller. A group of classics students at a posh US university become entwined in a folie a cinq that grows towards murder. En route, smart talk covers a heart of darkness.

Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the 17th Century by David Underdown, Fontana pounds 7.99. This reconstruction of Dorchester and its 600 inhabitants will make you wonder why school history was so boring. Underdown brings the English Civil War to life, showing the increasing disaffection with the royal government (Ship Money was as unpopular as the poll tax) through the eyes of colourful local characters.

In the Psychiatrist's Chair by Anthony Clare, Mandarin pounds 5.99. Twelve celebrities are probed by the psychiatrist who occupies a position between Terry Wogan and Sigmund Freud. Some survive it well - Anthony Hopkins's own introspection beats Clare's perceptive questioning - others, like Claire Rayner, come unstuck.

Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson, Vintage pounds 6.99. Water may be both body- and mind-cleansing, but the cult of bathing in the West is a recent phenomenon. This book explores the pleasures and dangers of swimming from the 19th century on, throwing in anecdotes about Shelley, Byron, Rupert Brooke, Tennessee Williams and others. An agreeably obsessive book rippling with odd info: frogs were once kept in tubs by the Serpentine to instruct novice swimmers.

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