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England: Travels Through an Unwrecked Landscape by Candida Lycett Green, Pavilion pounds 9.99. A collection of "Unwrecked England" columns from The Oldie magazine is an excellent idea. These are short essays on places discovered by the author for their particular character, embodying qualities of Englishness that we sense to be chronically threatened by crass developers, commercial internationalism and bureaucratic stupidity. But this is not a collection of heritage nooks and picturesque crannies. Lycett Green realises that "views of allotments in Wolverhampton or of fields behind the cooling towers near Pontefract are as beautiful to some as any crescent in Bath." Seeking places to lift her spirit, she finds as much solace at Cartmel racecourse as walking through the monastic ruins of Castle Acre or Rievaulx. Among her 60-odd destinations are York railway station (so commonly overshadowed by the London railheads), Godmanchester ("one of the grandest little towns in England") and Little Gidding, where T S Eliot pilgrimaged "while the light fails / On a winter's afternoon".

Stone Kingdoms by David Parks, Phoenix pounds 5.99. In a piece of sustained character identification, Parks adopts the persona of Naomi, a female aid- worker in an African refugee camp, and tells of her distressed upbringing in Ulster and, simultaneously, of the rather greater suffering she meets in Africa. Aid-workers are, of course, secular missionaries. "The good you will achieve will be a drop in the ocean," they're told. "There are no dramatic victories ..." But Naomi's approach to the task is so needy, she recalls Audrey Hepburn's character in The Nun's Story. And, like Sister Luke, she finally proves unequal to the task of patiently placing stones in the endless building of a "bridge to something better" with no guarantee of reaching the other side.

The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett, Pan pounds 8.99. "Britain in the late 1940s," mentions Barnett, "much resembled Russia in the 1990s." He is referring to the predominance of black over other markets and the meagreness of consumer goods, but can we stretch the correlation further? OK, there were no tanks in Westminster Square, no mafia and it's hard to imagine two leaders less alike than Attlee and Yeltsin. But think of the loss of empire, the recent history of industrial decline, the dependence on and "wasting of" US aid, the "cut-price, cut-short education and lack of training", the people's "bovine acceptance of their social lot" - and you have the makings of a wholly misleading comparison. On the whole, I don't feel the relentless negativity of Barnett's analysis is always justified. Do the first very difficult five years of post-war Britain really deserve to be bombarded the with the disdainful, schoolmasterly adjectives - "disastrous", "lamentable", "delusory", "backward" - which pepper this book's every page?

The Egos Have Landed: The Rise & Fall of Palace Pictures by Angus Finney, Mandarin pounds 7.99. A grimly interesting account of a British film company that soared to public recognition on the back of several box- office and Oscar successes before plunging into oblivion. We've been there before, of course - remember Goldcrest? - but the subject is a very vexing one. The deep reasons for the failure of Palace - remembered for hits like Scandal and The Crying Game as well as the turkey Absolute Beginners - do not finally interest this author. In fact, he hardly feels constrained to offer any kind of reason why, except to hint that they didn't make enough hit films.

Sam Golod by Sophia Creswell, Sceptre pounds 6.99. The title means something like "King Hunger" in Russian; for the artists whom Natalie, the young narrator of this novel, meets during her time as an English teacher in St Petersburg in the early 1990s, it is a personification of capricious Russian tyranny and the fatalism of the Russian people: "Sam Golod gives and Sam Golod takes away". When Natalie falls for a reckless young man, Pyotr, she too partakes of the burden of this fatalism and, as the desperate buying and selling of artworks and drugs brings Natalie's friends into inevitable contact with various types of mafia, murder soon steals onto the scene. This is a very nicely written and highly convincing first novel, with a delicate air of Russian melancholy wafting through it.

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