Books: Paperbacks

Wilde's Last Stand by Philip Hoare (Duckworth, pounds 11.95)

This fascinating study reveals that the atmosphere of moral outrage stirred up by the Wilde scandal did not last long. As early as 1908, an adaptation of Wilde's Salome starring the siren Maud Allen was a huge success on the London stage. A decade later, she was a key figure in the libel case brought against the absurd but dangerous MP Noel Pemberton Billing, who claimed in his Imperialist scandal rag that 47,000 "prominent perverts" (he alleged the trial judge was one) were being blackmailed by the German government. Amazingly, Billing got off, but Hoare notes that for a new generation, the trial was "a tantalising introduction to Wilde's unnamed crimes". An enthralling and seductive exploration.

Larry's Party by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99)

Carol Shields's latest novel tells the life story of Larry Weller - a man whose career, penis (a whole chapter is devoted to this organ) and marriage prospects rise and fall with each passing decade. Starting off as a small-town florist from Winnipeg, by the late 1980s Larry is an established garden designer with a "heritage" house and a brainy post-doctoral second wife. Like some glorious cross-fertilisation between Anne Tyler and Alison Lurie, Shields's writing glows with humanity and sharp-eyed observation.

Flora Britannica Book of Wild Herbs by Richard Mabey (Chatto, pounds 10)

This handy extract from Flora Britannica, the monumental marriage of folklore and botany which appeared last year, is filled with fascinating detail. We learn that phosphate-loving nettles are always found near human habitations, even Roman villages deserted 1,600 years ago. Blackthorn not only gives us sloe gin but the Irish shillelagh. A pillow filled with native hops cured George III's insomnia. The "sinister, malodorous" henbane was used by Crippen to dispatch his wife. Seeds of Cannabis sativa found at an Augustine monastery in Scotland were probably introduced from the Middle East as a sedative. A companion volume does the same job for spring flowers.

Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen (Granta, pounds 5.99)

Even more readable than Amy Tan, Gish Jen's novel of two "born-here" sisters, Mona and Callie Chang, revels in the politically incorrect. It's 1968, and while everyone else is turning ethnic, teenaged Mona Chang is turning Jewish - not difficult when you are living in a Jewish enclave such as Bronx River Parkway. A regular at the neighbourhood's bar mitzvahs (and best friends with pig-tailed Barbara Gugelstein), Mona can tell which kid chants like an angel and which like a train conductor. Sequel to the author's well-received first novel, Typical American.

Female Tars by Suzanne J Stark (Pimlico, pounds 10)

Ignored by official histories, a surprising number of women were to be found aboard Royal Navy ships during the age of sail. Aside from the hordes of prostitutes allowed on board to prevent desertion while vessels were in port, many wives accompanied their husbands to sea, sharing deprivations and lack of privacy. Stark notes that "childbirth was not an unusual occurrence at sea" - it even happened during battles - but the most remarkable aspect of the book concerns the handful of women who joined the navy in travesti. Stark explains that "it is difficult for us today to appreciate how casually recruits were accepted."

Anything We Love Can be Saved by Alice Walker (The Women's Press, pounds 11.99)

Inviting mickey-taking, Alice Walker's latest collection of essays begins by thanking not only her great-great-great grandmother, Malcolm X and various high school teachers, but also Che Guevara and Fidel Castro for their "daring as revolutionaries". But squeezed in among some of the more half-baked chapters (including an almost convincing defence of Winnie Mandela) is a wonderful essay on Walker's mother ("My Mother's Blue Bowl"), and the scalp-tingling classics "Be Nobody's Darling" and "A Woman is not a Potted Plant".

James Herriot by Graham Lord (Headline, pounds 6.99)

After his acclaimed life of Jeffrey Bernard, a man who went to the dogs, Lord tackles a subject whom the dogs went to see. He describes Alf Wright (his nom de plume was stolen from a Birmingham City goalie) as "one of the kindest, gentlest authors ever to put typewriter to paper". The only shadow to cross his life was an intermittent depression caused by brucellosis infection. Despite making the life of a vet so entertaining, Wright persuaded his daughter to study human rather than veterinary medicine. "It was such a hard and dirty job that I couldn't bear the idea of her doing it." Lord traces the series of happy accidents which gave this Yorkshire vet an audience of millions. They will be delighted by his workmanlike portrait.

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