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The Independent Culture
Heading Inland by Nicola Barker, Faber pounds 5.99. Superficially flippant, Barker's stories are about people's hidden flaws and social disabilities. Two of them feature the same character, Wesley, who suffocated his brother in a fridge as a child and drags the memory like a ghostly ball and chain through life. In another, a blank young woman on holiday in Rome is pursued by two unappealing men. One, suffering as he does from a painful chronic erection, values only her counter-eroticism; the other is nastily attracted by her vulnerability. She turns the tables satisfactorily on both. Barker is an uneven writer - one story, about an independent-minded foetus, seems to me a grotesque failure - but at her best she is subversively affecting.

The Paper Museum by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Fontana pounds 14.99. The writer- presenter of last year's TV culture buster, A History of British Art, is the art critic of the Independent, whence these short, readable essays "about painting, mostly" are largely drawn. He admits that his accounts of art are in effect autobiographical, since "when we talk about the art that truly moves us we are always in the end talking about ourselves". The collection's inclusive sympathy is very striking. In an informative sweep through more than 50 painters - and a handful of sculptors - there are many heroes (some are the obvious names, but the list includes Gericault, Bonnard and Sickert) and not even one villain, unless you count Graham- Dixon's polite reservations about Freud and de Kooning. By contrast with many art critics one could mention, contumely isn't his style.

After Hannibal by Barry Unsworth, Penguin pounds 6.99. One of Unsworth's best creations in this expats-in-Umbria novel is Mancini, a scheming lawyer who solves the migrants' various legal difficulties in the manner of a chess grandmaster playing 20 games simultaneously. As Mancini realises, these were people being robbed of their illusions and "the real thief of dreams was generally not the one you feared but the one you trusted". In a clever multiple narrative, Unsworth shows these incomers being systematically cheated by greedy lovers, bent builders and, in the case of the wife of a Docklands property developer, by her own good intentions. Darker and subtler is the unease of Monti, haunted by the trickery of Hannibal in slaughtering the Roman legions, and of Ritter, a German whose father was involved locally in a wartime Nazi reprisal massacre.

Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop by Humphrey Carpenter, Sceptre pounds 7.99. This former Guards officer spent six weeks agonising over whether to take the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, because he "didn't want my private life to be taken away", and because he was uncertain about his own personal holiness. Runcie was part of the pragmatic, fix-it wing of the Church and, when Bishop Robinson's Honest To God came out in 1963, he recalls a friend's worry that it would release the cat from the bag about "the sort thing we believe"- the "we" being the liberal clergy. Last year, Runcie tried to withdraw his approval from this biography, but the indiscretion was his own. He'd previously given Carpenter his blessing, and hours of uninhibited taped interviews. He emerges as a not terribly careful administrator - remember the Waite affair - and no saint, with his weakness for moving amongst nobs and celebs. But he comes over as amusing and decent, and as a not inappropriate prelate for his time.