Books: Paperbacks

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A Life of Picasso Volume II:1907-1917 by John Richardson (Pimlico, pounds 20)

Richardson devotes the second part of his four-volume biography to just one-ninth of Picasso's long span - but what a decade it was, starting with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, "a shocking treatment of a shocking subject". Probing the possibilities of cubism in uneasy alliance with Braque, Picasso achieved his finest work. There were no shortage of muses. A succession of breathtaking mistresses flit through these pages, accompanied by the great names of modernism, particularly Apollinaire - with whom Picasso was accused of pinching statuettes from the Louvre. Not only revelatory art criticism, but also great entertainment, this book is a tour-de-force.

Women on the Case edited by Sarah Paretsky (Virago, pounds 6.99)

In Nevada Barr's unsettling short story "Beneath the Lilacs", a woman unearths her long-dead father's corpse while doing a spot of gardening. But for Barr, as for the other women crime-writers showcased in this collection, body parts and corpses are just an excuse to talk of other things. Among the book's better known authors, Frances Fyfield steals the show with her story of a middle-aged English woman and a holiday romance from hell. Goodies from Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George and Amanda Cross.

The Ultimate Spin Doctor: the life and fast times of Tim Bell by Mark Hollingsworth (Coronet, pounds 7.99)

Unlike many tell-all biographies, this one comes up with the goods. Much is revealed about the "salesman of Thatcherism" and his role in buffing up the image of such misunderstood worthies as David Mellor, Cedric Brown and Lord King. But it's a fair bet that what will lodge with most readers is Bell being found guilty of exposing himself in 1977 and the cocaine use which affected his work at Saatchi & Saatchi after the 1983 Tory triumph. "Governments listen to me," he said of the sibling bosses. "Why won't these two arseholes?" Sir Tim's hopes of becoming Lord Bell were dashed earlier this year and it's likely that this book played a part.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due (Piatkus, pounds 6.99)

Even more far-fetched than an Anne Rice story, Due's novel requires great leaps of the imagination. Jessica Jacobs-Wolde is a reporter working on a Chicago newspaper. Her latest assignment - looking into the abuse of the elderly in nursing homes - is complicated when her own husband is accused of bumping off an old lady. Even more complicated when she learns that hubbie is in fact over 400 years old, and has murdered (and been murdered) many times before.

Diaries Volume I: 1939-1960 by Christopher Isherwood (Vintage, pounds 9.99)

One of the finest prose stylists of the century, Isherwood brought the same precision to quotidian jottings as his exquisitely honed fictions. This is very much an LA journal, where Ramakrishna meets Paramount. Each page is a delight, whether describing his first feelings for lifelong partner Don Bachardy ("nearly pure joy") or a mescaline trip: "the only patterns I saw were stupid, sharp-cut, dull coloured, metallic". Though no great humorist, Isherwood's honesty is impressive: "my conduct in leaving England was irresponsible". A sprinkling of gossip ("Charles [Laughton] is an arrogant old fool") adds spice.

Groucho Marx and other Short Stories and Tall Tales edited by Robert S Bader (Faber, pounds 8.99)

Besotted by his hero, the editor of this collection of Groucho's prose pieces (there are no short stories in the conventional sense) claims that his "body of work" stands alongside the wonderful writings of Robert Benchley, S J Perelman and James Thurber. Sadly, this is not the case. As you work your way through the 40-odd fragments (many of them strain even to reach a page in length), it steadily becomes evident why Groucho wrote in 1927 that, "I believe the place for me to be funny is on the stage". In fact, there is scarcely an atom of humour in this book from start to finish - though the cover shot of the author is a treat.

Men in Black by John Harvey (Reaktion Books, pounds 12.95)

Men stopped dressing like peacocks during the mid-19th century. Dickens, Ruskin and Baudelaire all asked why, in an age of wealth and empire, men dressed as if going to a funeral. Harvey's study of the meaning and history of colour plunders western art and literature for references to the deathly shade, but arrives at the conclusion that many of us wear black because we think we look good in it.