Books: Paperbacks

Christopher Hirst
Saturday 10 January 1998 00:02

R D Laing: a life by Adrian Laing (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99)

Not many children would write about "the truly unforgettable, pungent smell" of their father's vomit - but thankfully, not many fathers are like R D Laing. Though for long spells Adrian was not close to his father - Laing had 10 children by three different partners - this work is something of an exorcism. Adrian's strong feelings occasionally flash from his calm, colloquial prose: "Ronnie's nauseating desire to rationalise external events began at an early age." With sad objectivity, he details how Laing's life fell apart under the pressure of drink, drugs and, worst of all, his acceptance of the role of guru.

Empire State by Colin Bateman (HarperCollins, pounds 6.99)

Newspaper columnist Colin Bateman's high-energy farce is set amongst the skyscraping buildings and egos of New York City. Featuring a Bill Gates-esque techno-nerd and a President with a weak spot for McDonald's hamburgers, the plot kicks off with a real live Woody Allen trying to pee into an Upper East Side urinal. Luckily for us (and for Woody), Bateman's easy-going prose lets him get away with the most unlikely scenarios - including the novel's denouement, a full-scale siege that takes place on top of the Empire State Building.

More Great Railway Journeys (BBC/Penguin, pounds 6.99)

Without the bonus of pictures, these seven postcards fall a bit flat, though there are jokes from Victoria Wood in Scotland ("We see a film crew from Sky TV. Or perhaps it is Skye TV"), and Alexei Sayle in Syria ("East Germany with Hummus"). On the minus side, po-faced Chris Bonington blows his top on a Canadian peak ("I've never been guided up a climb and I don't intend to start now") and Ben Okri, whose TV film was brilliant, feels impelled to include mediocre verse about his journey to Greece: "You have arrived and now you depart/ With a wiser and stronger heart." Save your money - wait for the repeats.

Designer Crimes by Lia Matera (Virago, pounds 5.99)

San Francisco DA Laura di Palma is known as a "ball-breaker with a problem". But when she attempts to sue her former uptown employers, White, Sayers and Speck, for defamation of character she finds herself at the wrong end of a loaded gun. Writing with all the authority of an ex-lawyer - particularly when it comes to the interior design of the average West Coast law office - Lia Matera matches fellow thriller writer Patricia Cornwell woman for woman when it comes to grisly body parts, and unresolved affairs with rugged co-workers.

Acting Shakespeare by John Gielgud (Pan, pounds 6.99)

Always entertaining, often surprising ("I am sure Shakespeare intends Iago to amuse the audience"), these reflections range from Julius Caesar in 1916 ("the forum scene was tremendously effective") to the film of Prospero's Books directed by Peter Greenaway, for whom the old boy expresses great admiration. Engagingly modest, Gielgud recalls his "great failure" when directing Ralph Richardson in Macbeth with all-black scenery: "Well, if I can't see the dagger, cocky, do you wonder the audience can't either?" Previously published as Shakespeare Hit or Miss?, this book is a real treat for players and punters alike.

The Cuckoo's Parting Cry by Anthea Halliwell (Black Swan, pounds 5.99)

Eight-year-old Iphigenia's boring school holidays start to look up when she makes friends with Chaz, a fair-haired boy offering a chauffeur-driven car and a constant supply of sherbet fizz to entertain her. Thus equipped, they are at liberty to explore the Welsh coast where Cardigan Bay spreads out before the two children, as strange and promising as the tea plantations "Fidgie" has so recently left behind.

Halliwell's book is a gentle evocation of a Thirties summer in which children lick ices and the grown-ups spoon.

Victorian Photographers at Work by John Hannavy (Shire, pounds 7.99)

Matadors and monarchs, midgets and mashers, the earnest faces gaze steadily from the wealth of images in this unpretentious account of a boom industry.

We learn that the albumen for photographic paper resulted in millions of egg yolks being thrown away each year. The most successful photographers of the era set up large-scale production lines on open-air sites. The great Roger Fenton took 700 glass plates in a horse-drawn van to the Crimea. Pleasingly, despite the unparalleled tenderness of her work, Julia Margaret Cameron "never exhibited any real understanding of the process she used".

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