Books: Paperbacks

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Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (Vintage, pounds 8.99)

Somehow, Woolf's suicide still shocks. As Lee notes, "she went on living and changing after death". Subtle and persuasive, this magnificent life explores the manifold facets of the great novelist: the resentful daughter ("my father spent perhaps pounds 100 on my education"), the spirited 27-year-old who blacked up as an Ethiopian for the Dreadnought hoax; the sexual rebel who urged her lover Vita Sackville-West to "throw over your man"; the snob who attacked the gay penchant for rough trade ("Why this passion for the porter, the policeman and the bootmaker?"); the spikey wit and observer. But below the brilliance lay the dark shadow of manic-depression.

Full Disclosure by Andrew Neil (Pan, pounds 5.99)

On the cover, the author wears a stern expression and braces borrowed from CNN's Larry King. Sadly his career as a US anchorman was of briefer duration than King's, but the title of his abortive show came in handy for this classic of unconscious humour. Neil is the personification of thrusting Eighties Man as he ruefully muses on the stinginess of his pounds 1m severance package from Murdoch ("Maybe I should have demanded more") and refuses to believe ("though a single man with an active social life") that AIDS can be contracted through heterosexual sex. Yet it is impossible to think of anyone else in British journalism who could have written anything even half as entertaining about their career.

Heading Inland by Nicola Barker (Faber, pounds 5.99)

Nicola Barker's short stories have a strong urban edge. Unconventional, often very funny, they get down to the nitty-gritty of relationships as played out against the mean streets of Plaistow and Stamford Hill. In her best story, "The Three Buttons Trick", a wife dumped by her boyishly charming husband (he deliberately misbuttons the toggles on his duffle- coat to get female attention), takes up with an 83-year-old gent she meets at the opera; while in the fantastical tale "Inside Information" a foetus accompanies his mother on a shop-lifting trip to Liberty's. Will Self for girls.

The Crime and Mystery Book by Ian Ousby (Thames & Hudson, pounds 12.95)

Ranging from E A Pope and Wilkie "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait" Collins through to Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy this zippy celebration of whodunits, spinetinglers, policiers and hard-boiled pulps combines some splendid cover-art (Spillane's I, The Jury winningly describes itself as "Tough, torrid, terrific") with knowledgeable and perceptive criticism of the genre. Did you know that Simenon announced Maigret's retirement as early as 1934? This bumper book of sleuths includes sections on female, amateur and academic 'tecs, together with a valuable chronology and glossary: "To kill: blip off, bop, bump, croak, poop, pop, rub out" and so on.

Ring Lardner: selected stories (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

Being a sportswriter is still regarded as the acme of cool by aspiring young journalists, and this is in part due to the career of Ring Lardner, the Chicago hack who stumbled into short-story writing and became the darling of Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald and H L Mencken. He first struck gold when he published a story in the Saturday Evening Post called "A Busher's Letters Home" - the first person narrative of a baseball player called Jack Keefe, who delighted the public by writing the way most people spoke. Even now Lardner's stories, like those of his contemporary Damon Runyon, are so fresh sounding you wouldn't be surprised to hear the lines spoken in the latest Elmore Leonard.

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann (Penguin, pounds 9.99)

Re-issued to tie-in with the forthcoming film, this new edition features a rather too flamboyantly pretty Stephen Fry on the cover. It is hard to conceive what the new audience drawn to this brilliant but somewhat austere portrait will make of Ellmann's extended investigation of 19th- century aestheticism or even his revelation of Wilde's preference for "intercrural" sex. This is simply not a popular biography. Ellmann focuses so tightly on his subject that the Victorian milieu which Wilde first delighted, then scandalised, is no more than sketched in. But the biographer's passion for detail brings the sad, familiar story of Wilde's self-destruction shockingly alive.

In Home Altars of Mexico (Thames & Hudson, pounds 14.95), photographer Dana Salvo documents the flamboyant backroom shrines of the rural poor. The images are partnered by essays on Mexican folk religion by Salvatore Scalora, William Beezley and Ramon Gutierrez

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