Books: Paperbacks

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Secret Warfare by Adrian Weale (Coronet, pounds 6.99)

Though written in the terse, knowing patois of the military expert, this history of Special Operations Forces has some surprises up its sleeve. The book caused a stink by its suggestion that SAS war heroes Paddy Mayne and "Mad Mike" Calvert were both homosexual. Less controversially, Weale notes that the success of the SAS in quelling the Iranian embassy seige was counterbalanced by the pointless death of Captain Nairac when attempting to pose as a Belfast Republican and the botched involvement of the Bravo Two Zero patrol in the Gulf War. He insists, "there is room for doubt whether the tabloid cry `Send for the SAS!' is always appropriate."

Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99)

It's a nice change to read a Chinese-American novel set in Queen's rather than San Francisco. Ever since she was a little girl, Ruby Lee has wanted to marry her mother. Now 22, she still wants to rescue her - from her cigar-puffing husband and her long-ago memories of China. Like Amy Tan (to whom this first-time novelist will be favourably compared), Mei Ng writes about Chinese mothers and American daughters, and the magical powers of crab and black bean soup.

Queen Elizabeth I by J E Neale (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)

First published in 1934, this classic biography is still addictive, despite the somewhat archaic style. Neale tells his complex yarn excellently, wittily compressing a wealth of research. His account of the Queen's diplomatic skills is familiar today: "Her baffling powers of conversation... blurred the line so thoroughly, it was hard to say when she overstepped it." Neale makes no secret of his near-adolatrous esteem: "It is difficult to convey a proper appreciation of the amazing Queen, so keenly intelligent, so effervescing, so intimate, so imperious and regal". Swept along on the tide of his enthusiasm, it is hard to disagree.

Great Frauds & Everyday Scams by John Croucher (Allen & Unwin, pounds 6.50)

Over 100 rip-offs are detailed in this pot-boiler by an Aussie telly don. Despite being spiced up with a spot of sex ("a man born as a woman hid his true sex from his wife for 17 years"), the result is less than enthralling. The section on banking informs us that A$1.2 billion is annually diddled from Australian insurers, but the massive BCCI scam does not rate a mention. Croucher specialises in the valuable tip: beware of thieves snaffling your lap-top at an airport X-ray machine; don't give your credit- card number when a mistaken reverse-charge caller offers to reimburse you. Another useful way to avoid pointless loss is not to buy this book.

A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson (Faber, pounds 6.99)

Mona Simpson's "regular guys" are usually anything but. Restless and angry, they tend to leave a trail of peaky-faced women and children in their wake. Set in a lushly imagined California of citrus and oleander groves, Simpson's third novel tells the story of Jane - an intrepid ten- year-old who teaches herself to drive, and then goes in search of her missing dad. Like Alice Hoffman, Simpson's writing can verge on the hokey. But given the West Coast setting, it's a hokiness that fits.

Behind the Song by Michael Heatley with Spencer Leigh (Blandford, pounds 14.99)

Despite a weedy start with Heartbreak Hotel ("Though Elvis checked out for good in 1977, there are few who cannot empathise with this great song"), this exploration of "100 great pop and rock classics" is quirkily informative. It would be pleasing to hear the version of Je t'aime sung by Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield. However, the selection of songs is patchy. The poignant anthem Willin' by Lowell George is a great choice, but what on earth is Ferry Across the Mersey doing here? Moreover, the publishers should know that any book with both Ralph McTell and Gerry Marsden on the cover is destined for the remainder stacks.

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

The Joanna Trollope of her day, Angela Thirkell wrote her first novel in 1930 and thereafter churned out a book a year until her death in 1961. Recently reissued by Penguin, The Brandons is a family farce set in the picturesque village of Pomfret Madrigal, and features a well-rehearsed cast of merry widows, aging spinsters and flighty young things. As with other social comedies of the time, Thirkell's elaborately witty dialogue sometimes requires more patience than it's worth.

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