Paperbacks

Dear George by Helen Simpson, (Minerva, 5.99) Helen Simpson's second collection of short stories is every bit as exuberant as her first. Bucking the trend of short stories as brief illuminatory interludes, Simpson likes her tales to close with a dramatic ending or unexpected twist. In the title story a young girl's erotic fantasies are horrifyingly broadcast to an outside world, while in Caput April a family takes Roald Dahl-like revenge on a bullying father. Funniest are her stories about relationships under stress: To Her Unready Boyfriend will be appreciated by broody women everywhere.

Gorleston by Henry Sutton (Sceptre, pounds 5.99)

The East Anglian town of Gorleston (along with its pink bungalows, plastic rockeries and municipal carparks) is gradually crumbling into the North sea. But not so its population of lively old folk who pass their days in a sherry-soused whirl of social activity. Newly-widowed Percy invests in a new Marks and Spencer and joins the fray. Comic and poignant in equal measure, Henry Sutton's first novel pulls off the stunning feat of humanizing an out-of-season seaside resort.

The Great Divorce by Valerie Martin (Black Swan, 6.99)

Valerie Martin's latest novel jumps dramatically (almost comically) between past and present: moving between the lives of Ellen and Camille, who tend to the great cats at New Orleans Zoo, and Elisabeth, "Catwoman of St. Francisville," hanged in 1845 for tearing out her husband's throat. Double narratives are all the rage among novelists at the moment, but at least in Martin's case the two texts (both of which feature uncivilized men and feral sex) are equally compelling. A pleasant dose of gothic horror.

Brian Johnston by Tim Heald (Mandarin, pounds 5.99) The biggest shock in this enjoyable biography occurs on page 228 when the widow of the gateau-obsessed commentator reveals: "He didn't like cake" and never ate it at home. Heald speculates that he consumed enough at work. In many respects, Johnners appeared a real-life Bertie Wooster, with an infuriating love of practical jokes - but he was also "ruthlessly self-disciplined", failing to hit it off with the bibulous Arlott. The fact that only a couple of dozen pages are devoted to cricket reveals his spread of interests. While reflecting Johnston's love of fun, Heald probes beneath the breezy facade.

Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy (Flamingo, pounds 8.99)

Being a Canadian writer, Barbara Gowdy has inevitably been compared to Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields, and indeed she is like them, only on double speed. Her second novel introduces the Canary family: baby Joan (a brain-damaged toddler who lives in a closet), sister Marcy (who fancies her babysitter), Sonja (mother to baby Joan, though no one knows this), and their parents Doris and Gordon (both in the throes of homosexual affairs). Sixties Canada as you never knew it.

Oblivion by Josephine Hart (Vintage, pounds 5.99) From the author of Damage and Sin comes another glitzy-titled novel. But light entertainment it isn't. Examining an interesting idea - how the living kill off the dead through forgetfulness - the book tells how a young woman's death impacts on the lives of those leaves behind (sic) (particularly significant in the case of her husband and his newly rejuvenated sex life). Turgid stuff, especially the novel's middle section which consists of a series of ghostly monologues from the "other side".

Britons by Linda Colley (Vintage, pounds 8.99) A brilliant, gossipy account of 18th and early 19th centuries, when modern Britain came into being. Exploring the era with impressive erudition and a sharp eye for detail, Colley reveals that many factors underlying our current unease can be traced back to this period. Yet it would be a mistake to buy this book - or at least this edition. For another pounds 3.51, you can buy the larger Pimlico paperback edition, which contains illustrations of the many pictures which Colley discusses at length. It is also printed on decent paper rather than material which appears to be a by-product of the porridge industry.

The Red King's Dream by Jo Elwyn Jones & J Francis Gladstone (Pimlico, pounds 10) An engaging addition to the burgeoning library of Carrolliana. Its paradoxical title (did the King dream of Alice or vice-versa?) hints at the speculative discoveries of the authorial duo. They see the Alice stories as coded assaults on the Victorian hierarchy, with the Mouse's tale/ tail providing a vital key. A major target was Dean Liddell (Alice's father) but Tennyson, Ruskin and Darwin are other bit-players in Wonderland. Like Jonathan Miller's hallucinatory film - also inspired by the real-life originals of Carroll's creations - this book is a stimulating reading of these quirky masterpieces.

Cyril Connolly by Clive Fisher (Papermac, pounds 12) In his obituary of this seminal man of letters, Philip Toynbee described him as "one of the funniest men...for all his constant moaning". In this long, excellent biography, Connolly proves a splendid, if occasionally trying, companion. An Elizabeth David of the literary world, he devoted himself to informing the insular British about the wider world. Despite his unfortunate appearance, he was an indefatigable womaniser - his final affair (aet 67) was discovered when his wife found two pedalo tickets in his pocket - though this appetite was possibly surpassed by his passion for the pleasures of the table.

Lost Cowboys by Hank Wangford (Indigo, pounds 6.99) Famous as a yodelling gynaecologist - his backing band has the same name as this book - Dr W proves himself no slouch as a scribe in his account of the overlooked cowpokes of South America, which weaves together travelogue and history (from Bernado O'Higgins to Butch and Sundance) with the drawling humour of a born bronco. On the long trail from Patagonia to Texas, he was fortified by a prodigious intake of beef culminating in spinal cord soup in Mexico. Despite Hank's qualms ("No backbone, that's my trouble), it's a dish one would sooner eat there than here.

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