Review by Imogen Carter

The Big Necessity

Rose George

The Observer

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The British may be renowned for loving lavatorial humour but, as George reveals in this eye-opening guide to the world's sanitary habits, human waste is no laughing matter. Each year, millions die in developing countries because of poor hygiene. George is an entertaining reporter who only occasionally digresses into excessive technical detail. She visits London's overwhelmed sewers, examines Japan's passion for hi-tech lavatories and reveals how sewage is used to fuel China's stoves. But it's her tales of the Indians and Africans who defecate in the open or in ramshackle latrines, consequently consuming several grams of one another's faeces a day, that really shock in this thought-provoking, character-filled book.

Review by Rachel Redford

Call for the Dead

The Observer

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Afghanistan in a Nutshell

The Observer

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Collected Poems by Seamus Heaney

The Observer

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Afghanistan in a NutshellTim Albone and Mark Hudson; read by Benjamin SoamesNaxos £8.99, 79 mins

Afghanistan, with its poppies, forbidding geography, earthquakes and internecine clashes, has been invaded since the fourth century. This history ends with the present invasion by Nato forces and explains the tensions between Russia, USA and Britain that led to it.

Collected PoemsWritten and read by Seamus HeaneyFaber £50, approx 15 hrs

Heaney's entire oeuvre from 1966, written with his "squat pen" and read in his thick, soft voice. Subjects range from his childhood, to Ireland's Troubles, history and myths and the power of his language constantly astonishes, even in something as simple as "the dried-out undulating thwack" of shaken-out sheets. A fabulous treasure box.

Call for the DeadJohn le Carré. Dramatised with Simon Russell Beale as George SmileyBBC Audio £12.72, 1hr 30mins

Smiley can't accept that a civil servant has committed suicide and so uncovers a conspiracy rooted in his own wartime secrets. The period details of le Carré's first novel are fully exploited by this classy dramatisation.

Review by James Purdon

Casanova

Ian Kelly

The Observer

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One hundred and thirty. That, give or take a ménage à trois, is Ian Kelly's estimate of the number of notches on the bedpost of Giacomo Casanova, the man long renowned as the world's greatest lover, whose name now lends itself with fitting promiscuity to both a stylish honeymoon hotel and a clinically diagnosed fondness for philandering. It's an impressive figure, especially for a man who began his career as a libertine by studying for the priesthood. He ended it, having found his true vocation, by writing the world's first great kiss-and-tell memoir, the 12-volume Histoire de ma vie

But there's more to Casanova than his reputation implies. He was a prolific author of fiction and philosophy, a connoisseur and cabbalist, a student of medicine and an accomplished musician. He was also, as Kelly reminds us, one of the 18th century's most prodigious travellers. Each chapter of this immensely enjoyable biography is headed with a neat illustration of a carriage, as it might be, or a gondola, the changing forms of transport bearing witness to Casanova's wanderings across Europe and the level of luxury matching the rise and fall of his material fortunes. While those fortunes rose and fell, the number of conquests kept rising. But how much of his extraordinary story can a biographer really believe?

The surprising answer, according to Kelly, is most of it. You could trust Casanova's word, even if you couldn't trust him with your daughter. That said, even contemporaries had their doubts. When he entered a Venetian seminary at the age of 18 to begin his theological studies, the young Casanova "felt slighted ... he was insulted by the need to sit an exam, insisting, correctly, that he was already a doctor". It was true. He had gained his legal qualifications at 18, shortly before losing his virginity.

Kelly writes with just the right blend of scholar and libertine, neither prudish nor prurient, and with an engagingly relaxed turn of phrase. I cringed for a moment at his description of Casanova's "adolescent snogging", then reflected that Casanova, the aged roué with the well-notched bed, might well have cringed, too.

Review by Sarah March

An Indian Odyssey

Martin Buckley

The Observer

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Though little known in the west, The Ramayana, or The Wanderings of Rama, is one of the great books of the ancient world: a red-blooded epic and holy writ, cast in the form of an adventure story. Rama's wanderings began in Ayodhya, but reached their climax in Sri Lanka, and over the course of Buckley's travelogue-cum-spiritual quest we witness him following in the hero's footsteps. Along the way, Buckley uses The Ramayana to shed light on India's tangled history, revealing how contested readings of this sacred text encapsulate many of the fault lines in the modern-day continent. Best of all is Buckley's cracking translation of the story itself, which he weaves through An Indian Odyssey, a tale comparable to Homer's Odyssey in its mythic power.

Review by Emma Duncan

Free: The Future of a Radical Price

Chris Anderson

The Observer

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Chris Anderson is a guru of the information age. Under his editorship, Wired, the voice of the digital world, has won zillions of prizes. His speeches on the economics of the internet command vast sums. He's a brilliant journalist; I know that, having worked with him before he was a big shot. But it is as an author that Anderson has gained most fame. He writes, broadly, about how digital technology has made the world a better place. His first book, The Long Tail, was hugely influential. In the bricks-and-mortar world, it said, in which the costs of marketing and distribution are high, companies make money by selling vast quantities of a few blockbuster items. In the digital world, in which the costs of marketing and distribution are low, companies can make money by selling small numbers of lots of different items.

This idea appealed to everybody. Business people liked it because it seemed to explain to them what to do about the baffling business of the internet. Creative people liked it because it implied that they had a better chance of making money from their slim volumes and weird music that hardly anybody wanted to buy. Cultured people liked it because it implied that book, music and film buffs would be able to enjoy not just the latest blockbuster, but also the German philosophy, 18th-century folk songs and expressionist movies that make up the long tail of the distribution curve. It's a great idea and an optimistic one. Unfortunately, data have recently emerged that seem to undermine it. An analysis last year in the Harvard Business Review of online music and movie retailing suggests that it is just as dominated by blockbusters as is offline retailing.

Free is another examination of how digital technology is changing life and business, this time through the spread of what the book's subtitle describes as "a radical price" - zero. Businesses based on offering free stuff aren't new - broadcast television and radio, for instance, entertain viewers and listeners for free in return for their attention - but there's certainly more free stuff around than there used to be.

Free stuff is spreading because of one fundamental difference between the bricks-and-mortar world (which Anderson calls the world of atoms) and the digital world (which Anderson calls the world of bits). In the world of atoms, each item is expensive to produce and distribute; in the world of bits, it costs close to nothing. This has all sorts of consequences. Pricing models become infinitely variable. Copying costs almost nothing, so piracy mushrooms. People can create stories, songs and movies and distribute them to other people, gratis. The collapsing costs of production and distribution are both benefiting consumers and killing companies. Wikipedia, for instance, offers the world, the universe and everything in detail to anybody with an internet connection, while destroying the encyclopaedia business. File-sharing has brought costless pleasure to millions while threatening the existence of record companies. Piracy has introduced millions of Chinese to the joys of Hollywood films while making it virtually impossible to sell music, software or recorded music in the country.

Newspapers have two sources of revenue - advertisers and readers - and the internet is taking away both. Advertising works better online than in print: try finding a room for less than £100 a week in a non-smoking, girls-only flat on the Victoria Line on Craigslist, then try the same through print. For readers, news is newsier online and not just because big companies like Google provide it free. People, increasingly, tell each other what's going on: Twitter and Flickr have been the best sources of information and pictures on the Iranian unrest. The migration of advertising on to the internet and the proliferation of free information may be killing the newspaper; many local papers in both Britain and America have shut down. Some of the spread of free stuff was predicted. When the world started to go digital 15 years ago, clever people in the music and film businesses were frightened because they knew how much easier it would make copying. But some of it is entirely unexpected. Wikipedia and open-source software, for instance, are the products of something that has floored economists - that people enjoy doing, and will do for free, all sorts of things that other people regard as work.

In this way, and in most ways, the spread of free stuff makes the world a better place. The demise of newspapers is a sad thing, but as the Iranian unrest shows, digital technology is a far better way of spreading information about governments' misdeeds than print is. Technological advance always kills old businesses, as the Luddites knew, but consumers benefit, new companies get created and mankind moves on. Yet there are dangers implicit in new ways of doing things and this book illustrates them.

Free observes an interesting phenomenon, but doesn't take the reader far beyond the notion that there's a lot of free stuff about. It pulls together information about current trends and is dotted with abstruse bits of learning - divergent views of competition among 18th-century French mathematicians, for instance - which seem to be there more to lend the book intellectual heft than to strengthen its arguments. But it doesn't have the weight of a fully worked-through idea. It ends not with a discussion of where this trend is leading but with "50 business models built on free", presumably addressed to the businessmen who may be attending Anderson's speeches on the subject.

The book's weakness may lie in its origins. Like The Long Tail, it started life as a Wired article which Anderson blogged about and people commented on. No doubt there are advantages to having readers contribute to research, but it may be that the old-fashioned method, which requires a lonely author to think hard about an idea, works better in the end. And has Anderson been using free stuff a little too freely? The Virginia Quarterly Review has found similarities, including an erroneous date, between passages in the book and in Wikipedia and other online sources. Anderson attributes these "screw-ups" to his failure to find a good way of citing web sources. He is right that free stuff has made the world a better place, but it has its pitfalls.

• Emma Duncan is deputy editor of the Economist

Review by Robin McKie

Franklin

Andrew Lambert

The Observer

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In an elegant garden in Waterloo Place, near the Mall in London, the statue of Lord Franklin peers over well-kept shrubs. His demeanour is haughty but calm. On the plinth, a tableau depicts his Arctic burial. His crew stand, bowed, before his coffin as the setting sun illuminates the great Northwest Passage, which Franklin's men have just discovered. "They forged the last link with their lives," states the statue's motto.

It is a touching scene - and complete fiction, says Andrew Lambert. "From concept to motto, the monument is a lie," he states. There was nothing successful or noble about Franklin's expedition in 1845. He did not discover the Northwest Passage. As for his men, they were driven mad by scurvy and lead from contaminated tinned food after their ships were trapped in sea ice. All 129 died, many eaten by deranged comrades, who left their bones and their splintered skulls strewn on Canada's King William Island.

The story is "a unique, unquiet compound of mystery, horror and magic," Lambert states. It is mysterious and horrible - but scarcely magical. Highly disturbing, I would say. Certainly, Franklin, along with Scott, his Antarctic counterpart, has done little for the reputation of British polar exploration.

Born in 1786, John Franklin was the son of a Lincolnshire merchant. He joined the navy and fought at Trafalgar where he was deafened permanently by the cannonades. He shone as a navigator and led several Arctic expeditions, surviving one only by eating his footwear, earning the nickname "the man who ate his boots". He married well, prospered and by 1836 was "fifty, famous and fat: a favourite with his king ... and an international celebrity".

He was appointed governor of Tasmania, fell out with locals and was recalled - "traduced by a corrupt official". By now obese and almost 60, he was selected to lead an expedition to study magnetic variation in the Arctic. The Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route to the Pacific, was an afterthought, says Lambert.

Franklin's ships, Erebus and Terror, fitted with steam-driven propellers to push through pack ice and laden with tinned provisions, set off for the Arctic and were observed, by whalers, sailing into Lancaster Sound in late July 1845. They were never seen again. The nation was transfixed and more than a dozen rescue expeditions, all unsuccessful, were launched over the next decade, until the first evidence of the horrors was uncovered. The country was now mortified: civilised men - British men! - had eaten one another.

It was too much for the Admiralty. With Franklin's widow, Jane, it conspired to discredit these unpleasant discoveries and slowly drip-fed the public with the idea that the Northwest Passage had actually been discovered by Franklin, who died "happy and full of hope", as his London statue suggests. It was pernicious and dangerous nonsense, Lambert argues, for it promoted the idea of the nobility of death in service. "The version that his [Franklin's] widow created lasted two generations, helping to send Captain Scott to an icy death and several millions Britons to the muddy hell of the Western Front," he says, which is rather overstating the case, though you can see his point.

Lambert has worked hard to give a balanced view of a man first deified by opportunists and then vilified by revisionist biographers. He presents us with a vision of a decent, well-regarded officer who was just unlucky when it came to weather, route and sustenance on his last voyage. It is an absorbing story, and Lambert tells it well, though there are drawbacks. The book is overlong and rambles badly over Jane's machinations with the Admiralty. Some crisp editing would have worked wonders. Worse, the maps, crucial for understanding the routes of Franklin and his "rescuers", are cramped and almost illegible.

The book is intriguing and readable, nevertheless, and Lambert is to be commended for being aware of the modern significance of Franklin's expedition. The ice that claimed his life is now melting and the sea warming, thanks to climate change. The Northwest Passage is opening, threatening the Arctic ecology and the Inuit way of life. "Indeed," says Lambert, "it may soon bear witness to another human tragedy - on a scale that threatens the very survival of the species."

• To order Franklin for £18 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847

Review by Kate Kellaway

The Sixties

Jenny Diski

The Observer

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The 1960s have been over-remembered to such a degree that on sighting the perky, psychedelic cover of Jenny Diski's book you think: why write it, let alone read it? But the answer is apparent within minutes. This book at once recalls the decade in a way that those who experienced it will recognise and is a singular rethink of that time. Diski is not polemical or doctrinaire. Her writing is calm and wry and her gift is for thinking about the 60s as if they were happening now, as if they were an ambiguous present. There are so many fixed ideas about the era, like badges on a lapel, but she stands by, ready to tweak slogans as required. She begins with "the personal is political", insisting that, actually, the personal was also always "personal". This seems a suitable motto for a personal memoir about how she inhabited the decade and it inhabited her.

Diski is 61 and often looks back at herself as if she were her own parent. One of the many pleasures of her writing is that she somehow manages to be old and young at the same time. She sends herself up but has respect for the person she was. She never patronises. She understands, comprehensively, what it means to be young. She introduces herself - a size-eight sprite, with painfully straightened hair. Did her appearance matter? You bet it did. As she revisits Biba (inevitable this: it was the boutique of the time), I became aware of an oddity: the double nostalgia involved. For Biba's look was mistily directed at a distant (quasi-medieval?) past (those bell sleeves that dipped into your soup). Anyway, Diski appears dressed in black (Biba occasionally permitted this), modelling herself on an ice skater. She is ready to step out into the 60s and to fall too (she does, at least once).

The book - slender as she is - covers the heftiest subjects: sex, drugs, politics, madness. She starts with drugs and writes shrewdly about the way they were often seen almost religiously, by her circle, as part of an earnest project. Mind-altering was, after all, the name of a bigger game. Her drug-taking was extensive: dope, LSD, methedrine and ether (for which she was expelled from school). She describes washing the syringes of a user friend, like a good housewife. She is always aware of the ironies - the ways in which attempts at new living were sabotaged by old questions (not least, who was going to do the washing-up).

This conflict between old and new is at its most insoluble in the chapter about sex in which she describes the oppressive aspect of a "permissive" society. She is funny and unsettling about the need to say yes out of politeness to offers of sex. She describes the fatiguing side of "free love". One of her friends, she remembers, was living in a commune where nightly swapping of sexual partners was compulsory. He would turn up at her place, exhausted, for "a few nights' regular sleep".

Diski has a relevant reading list for every occasion and explains how, as an adolescent, she found a sexual education hard to acquire via novels. The 60s, in her narrative, turn out to be the Age of Ignorance. (Perhaps her erotic novel, Nothing Natural, was an attempt to redress the balance.) For her - but maybe not for the majority - it was also an age of uncertainty. Writing about politics, she confesses: "'Other people's certainty always made me uncertain." She claims not to have been "political", but I question this: she emerges as political in the deepest, moral sense.

However, as a protester, she hilariously failed to distinguish herself. In an anti-Vietnam demo, she trips over and ends pinned up against a tree while the mounted police surge past her. It was the age of "doing your own thing" - another slogan she unpicks: "... being free to do your own thing became problematic when one's own thing clashed with someone else's thing." And she makes a chilling link between the 60s and the 80s, suggesting that "doing your own thing" led to the selfishness of the "Me generation".

Diski may not have been much of a marcher, but she did something remarkably militant: she started "South Villas Comprehensive", a free school with eight pupils, in her north London flat. The aim was to keep the children of a feckless neighbouring family - in trouble with the law - from being taken into care. As ever, Diski is anything but lofty about her ambitions. She hoped, she says, that the school might encourage the younger kids to be "more thoughtful criminals". It is a subject for a book in itself.

Strangely, we don't hear much from women here, but the men more than make up for it. I especially enjoyed two very different 60s drop-outs, who appear in the book and then drop out of that as well. Seymour is an American draft dodger whose pacifism turns him into a "small, dark invasion force of his own" on the anti-Vietnam march. Clon looks like a roguish version of Shelley and joins a therapy group, confessing nothing is wrong with him - he just wants to avoid the dole. If you removed the "l" from his name, would it spell out his identity? That is the comic point: no one can decide whether Clon is mad or not - or whether it matters.

Diski's experience of being treated for depression is fascinating but brief - as if she had run out of time. And I was startled when this involving, buoyant, thought-provoking book came to a grumpy emergency stop as she ponders the future: "Some fine souls are still battling; most of us who had the good fortune to be part of the 60s are plain discouraged." I refuse to believe that these are her last words on the subject.

Review by Natasha Tripney

Testimony

Anita Shreve

The Observer

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A sex tape surfaces at a New England private school. It shows a drunken encounter between three male students and one female student, the girl just 14. The headmaster tries to deal with the matter internally but it escalates beyond his control: the police are called, careers are jeopardised and lives unravel. Anita Shreve's narration is simple but not empty of invention. She uses numerous voices - not just those of the main characters, but also their parents and friends, creating a plausible backdrop against which such a scandal could unfold. But while the novel is compelling in places, its central twist is predictable and the girl at the heart of events is underdeveloped in comparison with the male characters.

Review by Olivia Laing

We Are All Made of Glue

Marina Lewycka

The Observer

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Marina Lewycka specialises in finding humour in things other people might not find particularly funny: the perils of immigration and old age, the travails of the powerless, ugly and dispossessed. While her brand of blackened comedy has won both critical and popular acclaim (her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been translated into 29 languages), it does require a strong stomach. We Are All Made of Glue is not tasteless, exactly, but the fusion of Holocaust drama and knockabout comedy makes for an uneasy, occasionally nauseating mix.

The glue theme comes courtesy of Georgie Sinclair, single mother, wannabe novelist and freelance contributor to Adhesives in the Modern World. Glue and its attendant metaphors occupy much of Georgie's thoughts, providing a convenient way of gumming together a sprawling plot. Who would have thought that the chemistry of adhesive bonding might reveal the essential truth of everything from handcuff-bound sex to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Georgie's journey begins when she ditches her smug husband, Rip, and bonds instead with a smelly and glamorous old lady she meets rooting through a skip. Stealing her neighbours' rubbish is not Naomi Shapiro's only unsavoury habit. She lives in a rancid mansion that reeks of "damp and cat pee and shit and rot and food mould and house filth and sink gunge"; she's a compulsive liar and racist; her Mittel-European accent is straight out of central casting; even her peach silk knickers are a touch "whiffy". She is, however, a grandly comic creation. Tending to her whims is just what Georgie needs to fill her days, distracting her from the miseries of single parenthood, not to mention her abysmal attempts to write a novel.

Lewycka has a keen eye for the grotesque. Naomi prepares what may well be the most awful meal in literature, while vomit, urine and semen make multiple appearances. When Naomi breaks a wrist slipping on ice, Georgie must defend her right to live out her old age in splendid disarray against the twin forces of greedy estate agents and heartless social workers. These ghastly caricatures of our nation's two most hated professions are gleefully done, particularly Mark Diabello, the estate agent with a penchant for Velcro.

Though she doesn't have designs on Naomi's house of horrors, Georgie is also motivated by greed. Incurably nosy, she's desperate to discover the truth of Naomi's past, stealing letters and photographs to fill in the many gaps. The story that emerges does not always sit comfortably with the rest of the novel, telling of a nightmarish journey through the ghettos, camps and partisan enclaves of 1940s Europe. It's a sober counterpoint to the comic capers going on elsewhere and it's hard to escape the feeling that these two strands have not been glued quite firmly enough together.

Having revealed the horrors of the Holocaust, Lewycka moves on to the Nakba and the miseries of the Palestine diaspora. This section is more successful, perhaps because it is voiced directly by Naomi's endearing Palestinian builder, Mr Ali. It's a brave novelist who attempts to encompass the subtleties of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a comic novel and the glibness of Lewycka's conclusions are also uncomfortable: "If you could just get the human bonding right, maybe all the other details - laws, boundaries, constitutions - would fall into place. It was just a case of finding the right adhesive for the adherents. Mercy. Forgiveness. If only it came in tubes."

What is appealing about Lewycka is that she refuses to deal in victims. While her humour relies on a caricatured battle between the weak and the strong, she resists the temptation to romanticise her more vulnerable characters. Her foul-mouthed, fag-smoking cast of old ladies goes a long way to redressing the soapiness elsewhere. And in a novel bursting with elderly eccentrics, Naomi Shapiro, and her bedraggled retinue of cats, stands out as a glorious vision of anarchy and autonomy that even ageing cannot quell.

Review by Robert Collins

City of Thieves

David Benioff

The Observer

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During the siege of Leningrad, Lev, a 17-year-old, chess-playing virgin, and Kolya, a charismatic ladies' man, are given five days by a Red Army colonel to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. Their road trip into a landscape gripped by near-starvation glints with heart-stopping sights; among the most disturbing is a family that has been cannibalised for food, their buttocks neatly sliced away. At the novel's heart is the charming odd couple of Lev and Kolya, who grow close as they stray into enemy hands. Benioff, who wrote the screenplay of The Kite Runner, can't resist packing in a love story and some workmanlike action. But it is Lev's vivid narration and the historical detail that make this an enthralling novel.

Review by Alain de Botton

In Search of Civilization

John Armstrong

The Observer

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John Armstrong, a Melbourne-based British philosopher, is out to lead philosophy back to its most urgent, traditional and noble task: that of helping us to live wisely and well. His new book, lyrical, courageous and uplifting, is seeking to do nothing less than reform the ambitions of western societies and encourage the growth of a set of values he captures with a highly unusual and intriguing word: "civilisation".

Armstrong acknowledges that the concept of civilisation has run into a good deal of trouble, being routinely identified with colonialism and a pompous, status-led interest in the arts. But, deftly, he insists that we must relearn to fill the word with the positive associations it once carried, at the same time as frankly acknowledging the many ways in which we have become (using another taboo word) "barbarians".

Armstrong is conservative in the best, entirely apolitical and neglected sense. His heroes are John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold. He dares to suggest that a truly civilised world will be one devoted to truth, beauty and goodness, a claim that cannot have been made in a book by a mainstream publisher for at least 120 years, though my sense is that Armstrong has the tide of history on his side. The next move in the realm of ideas is sure to be in favour of just the sort of values Armstrong is championing.

The central complaint Armstrong levels at the world is that we have become rich but not wise: "The problem of western civilisation is that material prosperity has increased rapidly while spiritual prosperity has not increased to the same extent. What this means is that there is a general disproportion between the material wealth of the west and its capacity to use that wealth for self-actualisation."

Armstrong goes on to articulate the qualities of his ideal world: architecture should be reformed, so that it promotes a vision of a balanced, noble life. The model here is the classical design of Edinburgh's New Town, while the enemies are those architects who wish merely to shock and therefore do nothing to provide their users with an ideal of how to lead their lives. In the psychological realm, Armstrong is interested in a term that he uses entirely without irony, rescuing it from the crowd of charlatans who have sadly taken it over: self-development. He suggests that we take on the task of trying to become spiritually more developed. From an entirely secular point of view, he urges us to take an interest in developing our souls, so that we may become more empathetic, friendly, kind, contemplative and sensitive.

Armstrong is especially interested in, and interesting about, money. One might expect him to come out strongly against commercial society, but he has the good sense and bravery to defend capitalism from both its right- and left-wing critics. He sees money as nothing other than a great opportunity, nothing but pure potential. There's nothing wrong with a market economy, he argues, for this merely means an economic system devoted to the efficient fulfilment of people's desires. What's wrong is the desires themselves. He wants to reform not the market, but the soul of the consumer; not the mechanism of supply, but the tenor of demand.

The job of improving our desires leads Armstrong to propose that we must reform academia so it can much more effectively compete with unhelpful notions propagated through society. He commends Cicero, ancient Rome's most famous popular philosopher, for taking learning out of the academy and out to where it could start to influence real behaviour, where it could "engage with people who would never be scholars, but who would be generals, governors and senators". Armstrong calls for "a broad social framework that could encourage people to be reasonable, patient, witty, mature, refined, courageous and self-controlled".

Armstrong isn't keen to identify bizarre examples of civilisation. He likes all the usual suspects: Athens, Florence and Paris in its golden ages. He admires Poussin and the Japanese tea ceremony. The point isn't to arrive at new instances of civilisation so much as forensically analyse the philosophical grounds for the greatness of previous examples. Throughout, Armstrong has the truly unusual virtue of being able to make the things he likes sound appealing. He comes across as an unstuffy friend, to whom one could confess an indiscretion or a naive hope without fear of humiliation - and in the hope of being met with a kindly and intelligent understanding.

In a particularly revealing passage, Armstrong talks of Abbot Suger, the medieval reformer of Saint-Denis, but he might as well be talking about himself: "Suger's primary concern is to raise people from mass to elite culture. And his way of doing this is not by being snobbish or hard on ordinary enjoyments. He takes the view that mass culture is just an undeveloped, beginning way of addressing exactly the same things that high culture serves more directly and with greater insight. We desperately need to bring to inner development the sort of clarity and respectability that goes with making your way in the material world."

John Armstrong's book is itself a work of the very sort of civilisation it argues for, a self-effacing, humane and unparanoid call to change our wealthy yet often barbaric world for the better.

• Alain de Botton's most recent book is The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Viking). To order In Search of Civilisation for £13.99 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847

Review by Sarah March

Deaf Sentence

David Lodge

The Observer

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Is there anything to be said in favour of deafness, wonders Desmond, the narrator of David Lodge's brilliant novel. To him, it seems an imminent, inevitable "drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse". But whereas blindness is tragic, deafness, he concedes, is often comic. His journal charts the embarrassments and comedy to which his condition gives rise. In Lodge's expert hands, the strains of Desmond's newly acquired role as house husband, the worrying problems of a mildly demented father and the dangerous attentions of an importunate, unscrupulous postgraduate groupie coalesce into a hilarious and moving account of one man's life under the sentence of deaf.

Review by Stephanie Merritt

The Angel's Game

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Observer

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The Angel's Game has been the fastest-selling book in Spanish publishing history and its author, Barcelona-born Carlos Ruiz Zafón, has become one of Spain's most successful literary exports since the 2001 publication of his first adult novel, The Shadow of the Wind. This follow-up is, in fact, a kind of prequel, a macabre Gothic fable set in the same twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona. In Zafón's imagination, the city, where fading grandeur coexists with Gaudí's strange and surreal constructions, takes on as much character and menace as Dickens's London.

has been the fastest-selling book in Spanish publishing history and its author, Barcelona-born Carlos Ruiz Zafón, has become one of Spain's most successful literary exports since the 2001 publication of his first adult novel, The Shadow of the Wind. This follow-up is, in fact, a kind of prequel, a macabre Gothic fable set in the same twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona. In Zafón's imagination, the city, where fading grandeur coexists with Gaudí's strange and surreal constructions, takes on as much character and menace as Dickens's London.

The author's affection for Dickens is imprinted through the novel like a watermark; his young narrator, David Martin, is dogged by the idea of great expectations, and the novel of that name, when it eventually falls into his hands, both threatens and saves his life. The Angel's Game - part murder mystery, part supernatural chiller - is first and foremost a book about books, a novel about the power of storytelling.

Born into poverty, David, who has much in common with Dickens's Pip, is raised by an illiterate and abusive father. As a young man, he is scraping a living writing pseudonymous penny dreadfuls when he receives an enigmatic invitation from a Parisian publisher. David turns up at the appointed time and place and experiences a hallucinatory, erotic encounter with his own fictional heroine; he later learns that the brothel he thought he had visited burned down years before. Over time, he continues to receive occasional communiques from this publisher, always bearing the same emblem of an angel on the sealing wax. But it is not until circumstances have reduced David to utter despair that he finally agrees to consider the mysterious Andreas Corelli's proposal.

Corelli is suave and handsome and anyone who knows their Bible will feel a frisson when he mentions that he was thrown out of his father's house long ago after a rift. In return for a small fortune, Corelli wants David to write the sacred text that will create a new religion. But the agreement is more than a commercial transaction: David has just been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour; Corelli promises that if he writes the book, he will live. With this Faustian pact in place, David's research into the myths of belief leads him straight to the history of his own Gothic house and the strange death of its previous owner, Diego Marlasca.

David becomes consumed by a book written by Marlasca, which he finds in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an underground library that also features in The Shadow of the Wind. Marlasca's book is an attempt to describe a religion that appears to have driven its author to madness and suicide. But is Marlasca really dead, and can David's own narrative be trusted or is he, too, slipping into insanity? Nothing is as it seems.

Books about books and writers are always in danger of spiralling into self-reference, and The Angel's Game is somewhat uneven, the first half dense with exposition before the action catches up in the second. Yet Zafón's fascination with the nature of faith and storytelling, though it may slow the narrative, can't help but engage anyone who believes that life can be shaped by books. Zafón also seems to have found the philosopher's stone of commercial storytelling: "All art that is worthy of the name is commercial sooner or later," David tells a young acolyte, perhaps in defence of his author.

Aided here by Lucia Graves's clear and unfussy translation, The Angel's Game draws with relish on all the conventions beloved of Wilkie Collins, Dickens and even the penny dreadfuls that David despises, then weaves them into something entirely original and surprisingly moving that holds the reader's expectations until the final twist.

Review by Robert Collins

One morning in Sarajevo

David James Smith

The Observer

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On 28 June 1914, a 19-year-old Serb called Gavrilo Princip turned his head away as he fired two carelessly aimed shots at a stalled car in Sarajevo. The death of the passengers, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian empire, and his wife, Sophie, hastened an already tense Europe into the First World War a month later. David James Smith's lively biography of Princip and his fellow members of the "Young Bosnians", among them Nedeljko Cabrinovic, 19, whose bomb bounced off the archduke's car earlier the same day, elaborates in detail their plans to stage an act of Serbian martyrdom against centuries of Austrian rule, an act that, perhaps typically for two teenagers, had slightly wider consequences than they'd planned for.

Review by Avi Shlaim

Balfour and Weizmann: The Zionist, the Zealot and the Emergence of Israel

Geoffrey Lewis

The Observer

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Ernest Bevin, Labour's postwar foreign secretary, once told the Zionist leader, David Ben-Gurion, that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was the worst mistake in western foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century. From the perspective of British interests, it was certainly a strategic blunder. It committed Britain to support the establishment of a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine when the Jews constituted less than 10% of the population. Britain's promise paved the way for the establishment of the state of Israel, but also unleashed one of the most bitter conflicts of modern times.

The story of the Balfour Declaration has been told many times. Geoffrey Lewis has chosen to focus only on the part played by the two principal architects of the declaration: Arthur Balfour and Chaim Weizmann, the Gentile Zionist and the ardent Jewish nationalist. The result is a perceptive, elegantly written and fair-minded book.

At first sight, Balfour seems an unlikely candidate for the role of mover and shaker. He was a languid aristocrat with a philosophical turn of mind. A popular saying went: "If you want nothing done, Balfour is your man." Yet he was moved by a strong conviction that the case for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was wholly exceptional and that it overrode the natural right of the Arabs to self-determination.

Weizmann, a lecturer in chemistry at Manchester University, was a consummate diplomat and an eloquent advocate who converted many in the British establishment to the Zionist cause. The first meeting between Balfour and Weizmann took place in 1906, three years after the Zionist leadership had turned down the offer of a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Their conversation lasted more than an hour and contained within it the germ of the Balfour Declaration.

Balfour could not understand why the persecuted Russian Jews refused the offer of a safe asylum. Weizmann tried to explain why the Zionists could not accept a home anywhere but Jerusalem. "Suppose," he said, "I were to offer you Paris instead of London." "But, Dr Weizmann, we have London," Balfour replied. "That is true," Weizmann said, "but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh." "Are there many Jews who think like you?" wondered Balfour. "I believe I speak the minds of millions of Jews," replied Weizmann. "It is curious," Balfour remarked, "the Jews I meet are quite different." "Mr Balfour," said Weizmann, "you meet the wrong kind of Jews."

In fact, most of the leaders of British Jewry were opposed to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Prominent among them was Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India. Montagu rejected the notion that the Jews were a nation and warned that a Jewish home in Palestine would undermine the struggle for equal rights for Jews in the rest of the world. Balfour, however, was persuaded by Weizmann that race, religion and geography were linked in a unique way for Zionist Jews.

Weizmann's refusal even to look at the Uganda scheme greatly impressed Balfour. He concluded that the Jewish form of patriotism was without parallel, that Zionism was a noble project and that Britain ought to support it on idealistic grounds. This perception led directly to the famous declaration that bore Balfour's name, one that changed the course of Middle East history.

• Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. His books include Lion of Jordan: King Hussein's Life in War and Peace (Penguin)

Review by Rafael Behr

The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli

The Observer

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In the introduction to his new translation of The Prince, Tim Parks tells his reader that a grasp of Machiavelli requires "some sense of the complicated political geography of Italy in the 15th and early 16th centuries". Mercifully, after such discouragement, Parks makes amends by sketching the period rather neatly.

Machiavelli is less generous, assuming a knowledge of dynastic Florentine successions that even his contemporaries probably struggled to follow. Even with Parks's valiant modernisation, it can be a sludgy read. Machiavelli's name clearly became a byword for skulduggery with help from a lot of people who have never bothered to read a word he wrote. Conveniently for bluffers, popular understanding of the man's ideas - underhand ruthlessness in pursuit of power - turns out be a faithful summary of the strategies outlined in The Prince. There is no historical misunderstanding. Machiavelli is reassuringly Machiavellian.

The myth does perhaps neglect one historical source of controversy in The Prince - its blasphemy. Today, it might be commonplace to see politicians' professions of faith as hypocritical, but for Machiavelli actively to recommend false piety as a cover for vicious brutality was pretty racy for the Renaissance.

But much of his more specific advice fails to translate into modern power play. There is no "Little Book of Machiavelli" management guide hidden in the text. If such a thing were published, it would read like a self-help book for aspiring sociopaths, which, along with its godlessness, explains why the original scandalised Europe.

Review by Ian Aitken

Pistols at Dawn

John Campbell

The Guardian

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This book exudes the powerful aroma of a publisher's wheeze. I may be wrong, but I imagine I can hear the editor from Cape ringing up the great biographer and saying: "Oh Mr Campbell, we've got this wonderful idea for a book. It's right up your street, and it won't involve an enormous amount of work. The most you'll have to do is a bit of cutting and pasting from all those marvellous political biographies you've already written. We've got a lovely title, too. We're sure it will sell."

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Publishers' wheezes often produce perfectly good books, and this is a perfectly good book which will sell well, not least because it bears the name of one of Britain's finest political biographers. Wielding his paste pot and his scissors, he provides brief accounts of the personal battles between eight pairs of politicians, from Pitt and Fox in the 18th century to Blair and Brown in the 21st. It has a rather artificial feel in places, but is a rattling good read most of the time.

Campbell begins with some tired stuff about politics being about the securing and holding of power, adding that it also involves major issues of ideology, class and economic interests. He then adds the proposition that no great cause can be advanced except by the genius of an inspirational leader, and that it is the clash of these individuals that drives politics.

Well, no journalist is going to disagree with that, since the clash of individual politicians is the stuff of political journalism. Though Tony Benn insists that we should be concerning ourselves with "ishoos" rather than personalities, we hacks have consistently gone for the personalities. So far, Campbell is our man.

But a few pages later he goes further. He claims that the advent of mass democracy has brought politics full circle, back to the 18th-century world of patronage and mutual back-scratching where "there is nothing at stake but the achievement and retention of office and the opportunities for personal enrichment that it brings. Politics today is no more than a childish game played out by a small and introverted political class, largely ignored by a cynical and alienated electorate except when it throws up some titillating scandal."

The leader writers of the Sun and the Daily Mail will agree with that, but it is arrant nonsense nevertheless. Perhaps it was written just as rumours began to circulate about the seedy expenses fiddles of our MPs. If so, the bitterness is understandable. But a duck house, a moat and a bit of free gardening are hardly an "opportunity for personal enrichment". Indeed, it is the relative triviality of the sums involved which make the whole episode so squalid.

However, Campbell's views on our current democratic process are merely a bit of philosophical top dressing on what is essentially a potboiler. The entertainment is the eight essays on famous personal rivalries over four centuries, including the one which ended in an actual "pistols at dawn" encounter between George Canning and Lord Castlereagh on Putney Heath in 1809. Surprisingly, this is the least interesting of them all, mainly because it stemmed from convoluted personal intrigue on the part of Canning and pompous feelings of individual honour on the part of Castlereagh. The latter shot the former in the leg.

But then Campbell does not paint very flattering portraits of any of his 16 protagonists. Perhaps the one who appeals to him most is the most distant in terms of time - Charles James Fox, the fat, boozy, womanising enemy of the equally boozy but otherwise insufferably upright William Pitt. Campbell sees Fox as a cavalier to Pitt's roundhead, and suggests that all his eight pairs might be divided in this way. It is a nice thought, but I'm not sure it works for all of them. Between Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher, for instance, which was the cavalier and which the roundhead?

On the other hand, there wasn't much doubt which was which out of Gladstone and Disraeli (the prig and the embodiment of evil, in each other's eyes) or between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell (the bolshie miner and the prissy Wykehamist, as Campbell calls them) or between flat-footed Brown and charming Blair. During their 10 years as neighbours in Downing Street, Campbell sees Brown as the government's chief executive to Blair's non-executive chairman - ie the boss.

At the end of each chapter, Campbell asks who won. He thinks, for example, that Bevan lost to Gaitskell in the short run but has won posthumously because he has a monument in the NHS. And Brown and Blair? Well, Blair clearly won on a crude measure of success. But since the deal between them meant he had to cede virtual overlordship of his government, it is not clear cut.

And what of a second edition? Who will wield pistols at dawn in a Cameron cabinet? I reckon the editor at Cape is already keeping a file on it.

Review by Clive Wilmer

New and Selected Poems

Samuel Menashe

The Guardian

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The Waste Land, according to Ezra Pound, is "the longest poem in the English langwidge". As his spelling suggests, he was not being entirely serious. After all, The Waste Land is only 17 pages long. But Pound was pointing out a singular truth: that the bulk of a poem has nothing to do with the number of pages it covers. It is much more a matter of depth - of suggestion, allusion and verbal complexity. Condensation, he says elsewhere, is poetry.

For the American poet Samuel Menashe, now in his 84th year, this truth was the founding principle of his art. His poems take up far less space than Eliot's, but they too are much longer than they seem. No poem in his New and Selected Poems is more than a page long, and most of them are considerably shorter. And the shorter they are, the more there is to say about them. For instance:

A pot poured outFulfills its spout.

A spout is most fully itself in the act of pouring. In emptying itself. The same might be said of a poem. This is not to say that the pot is a symbol. The pot is simply a pot. But it can also be described as an emblem: a particular which, reflected upon, can tell us what the rest of the world is like. What is especially striking about Menashe is the fact that the poem itself, in all its materiality, is also emblematic. The sounds of the word "pot" are, as it were, emptied into the phrase "poured out" to be fulfilled (filled full) in the word "spout". As Christopher Ricks remarks in his introduction, even the American spelling of "Fulfills" seems part of it; British spelling would alter the poem's meaning. Menashe has a way of attending closely to the minutiae of his text as of the world. Nothing is too insignificant.

This might suggest someone fussy, pedantic and obsessive, but nothing could be further from the truth. Born in New York in 1925, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Menashe fought in the second world war and belongs to that generation whose arrival in adulthood coincided with the news of the Holocaust. "[A]s a survivor of an infantry company," he writes in his preface, "I was marked by death for life when I was 19. In the first years after the war, I thought each day was the last day. I was amazed by the aplomb of those who spoke of what they would do next summer. Later, each day was the only day ... Perhaps it is why I am still in the flat to which I moved when I was 31 years old."

Unsurprisingly, Menashe's poems are mostly about death, but they are rarely elegiac or regretful. On the contrary, they are passionately affirmative, the poems of a man in love with life and with no needs but for the things that make life possible. Death for him, like the spout's action, is the fulfilment of life - or the transformation of life into another mode. "Leavetaking", the last poem in the book and a very recent one, reflects on the coming of death:

Dusk of the yearNightfalling leavesMore than we knew Abounded on trees We now see through

Menashe enjoys clichés. In what he calls "homely expressions", he finds meanings contrary to the expected ones. Normally to "see through" something is not to be deceived by it. It can be associated with smug knowingness: you think of those types whom nobody ever kids, whom life never led astray, but who perhaps by that token have never fully lived. In Menashe, who like Socrates knows that he knows nothing, "to see through" recovers its literal sense. The trees in winter losing their abundant foliage, the particulars of day dissolving into night, the body fading away in old age: these are things in the process of becoming transparent - transparent to the life they are part of.

There is nothing sentimental in all this. Every now and then, Menashe makes us aware of what it means to be poor or to live near death and in danger. The poems are haunted, too, by his love for his mother, now long dead, and by his own solitude. But all these states are, for him, enriched by the processes of life, so the mother who once cared for him now nurtures his memory. "The more aware you are of death," he quotes her as saying, "the more alive you are."

These are religious poems. They are, in particular, the poems of a Jew, not a Hebrew speaker, but one whose holy book is the King James Version of the Jewish Bible. They are not doctrinally Jewish, nor are they exclusive in their sense of holiness. They are imbued with a sense that - in the words of William Blake, a poet who looms large in Menashe's pantheon - "Everything that lives is holy".

The literary world has not been kind to Menashe, as is often the case with poets who make no claims on it. (Again, one thinks of Blake.) He is almost unknown in the United States. His first book, in 1961, was published in Britain, and his chief admirers have been British, Ricks being an outstanding example. His rediscovery, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a major event, because he is one of the finest poets alive. This edition includes a DVD of Menashe reading, measuring the poems out, syllable by syllable, in his patient, musical voice.

• Clive Wilmer's The Mystery of Things is published by Carcanet.

Review by Catherine Taylor

A Reliable Wife

Robert Goolrick

The Guardian

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Snowbound Wisconsin, October 1907. Ralph Truitt, whose family, wealthy for generations, has given the town its name, waits conspicuously at the railway station for the arrival of a stranger. After years of buttoned-down widowhood, Ralph has advertised for a "reliable wife for practical reasons", yet the woman he meets possesses a beauty and worldliness belying the plain photograph he has been sent - and the tale of a missionary childhood he has been spun. Catherine Land has a deceitful, murderous agenda of her own, yet an unexpected ardour and quiet fascination between the pair delay her plan. When Ralph surprises her with an intriguing mission, it provides the catalyst for high drama evolving out of avarice and lust.

Review by Richard Williams

Boy Racer by Mark Cavendish and Fallen Angel

William Fotheringham

The Guardian

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Boy Racer by Mark Cavendish346pp, Ebury Press, £18.99

Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi by William Fotheringham283pp, Yellow Jersey, £16.99

A few weeks ago Mark Cavendish, a 24-year-old from the Isle of Man, became the first British rider since Tom Simpson in 1964 to win la primavera, as Italian cycling fans call the annual one-day race from Milan to San Remo. In the summer of 2008 he had become the first Briton to win three stages of the Giro d'Italia, and then the first to win four stages in a single edition of the Tour de France; but it was the victory in Milan-San Remo that cemented his place in cycling history. One of the five "monuments" of the sport, this is a race dominated by the memory of Fausto Coppi.

The other name for Milan-San Remo is la classissima - the classic of classics - and Coppi is still known, almost half a century after his death, as il campionissimo: the champion of champions. So far the closest anyone has yet come to a suitable nickname for Cavendish is "Cannonball": an apt epithet for a young man whose victories come when, in a last-minute blur of legs and elbows, he rockets out of the sweating, straining bunch to cross the finish line at a speed of around 45mph. Sprinters are the alpha males of cycling, but Cavendish's helpless tears after crossing the line in San Remo, having won by the width of the rim of his front wheel, expressed the nature of his achievement.

"The best 10 seconds of my life," he calls that experience in his new autobiography, although it may be matched this summer if he succeeds in winning the green jersey awarded to the best sprinter in the Tour de France, an honour never achieved by a Briton. Boy Racer - expertly ghosted by the cycling journalist Daniel Friebe to catch the inner conflict between the impetuousness that makes Cavendish such a daunting competitor and the introspection that makes him an interesting person - winds its compelling way to the top step of the podium from BMX races as a 10-year-old via spells as a bank clerk in the Douglas branch of Barclays (saving his salary to buy a better bike) and as a resident of the academy run by British Cycling, the finishing school whose graduates scooped up so many medals in the Beijing velodrome last summer.

Cavendish was the only member of Britain's track cycling team not to return from China with a medal, despite having started the madison event - a complicated race involving teams of two riders - as the firm favourite. His partner, Bradley Wiggins, unable to produce his usual form on the night, is one of several people who will wince as they read this forthright narrative. Other targets include some of Cavendish's contemporaries at the academy, whom he accuses of lacking the hunger that makes champions.

It was hunger of a more literal kind that drove Fausto Coppi to become the most celebrated figure in the sport's history. When Coppi won his three Milan-San Remo victories, between 1946 and 1949, Italy was undergoing its post-war ricostruzione. William Fotheringham - whose biography of Simpson, Put Me Back on My Bike, has become a modern classic of cycling literature - is at his best when describing the emergence of a new national hero from a world of rubble and grinding poverty.

Born in 1919, the son of a Ligurian family who scratched a living from a handful of acres in the foothills of the Apennines, Coppi grew up in a cycling culture that offered him encouragement and supporting expertise. In his late teens he met Biagio Cavanna, a blind man with the special gifts of the soigneur: the companion who massages the rider's legs back to life after a long day in the mountains, supervises his diet and supplies advice (and, in the old days, provided the appropriate stimulants). After the prodigy's early career had been interrupted by war service in north Africa (and a spell as a PoW, working as a batman for a British officer who allowed him to train), Cavanna would be with him throughout a career in which Coppi won the Giro five times and the Tour twice, becoming the first man to win both in the same summer.

Married to a local girl, with whom he had two daughters, Coppi scandalised Italy when he began an affair with Giulia Locatelli, a doctor's wife who had been following him from race to race. In 1954, at a time when adultery was a criminal offence, they set up home together. His principal sporting rival, Gino Bartali, was a churchgoing man with an influential fan in Pope Pius XII, and severe criticisms of Coppi's conduct issued from the direction of the Vatican before, following a farcical police raid, Locatelli was arrested and spent four nights in jail. Huge crowds turned out for the trial of the couple on charges of abandoning their families, but Giulia, already pregnant with their son, was spared attendance at what seems to have been, according to Fotheringham's account, a singularly vicious process. In the end they received suspended prison sentences of three months.

Coppi was already in decline and the significant victories had dried up by the time he accepted an offer in December 1959 to join a group of French riders on a visit to the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), where their exhibition races were interrupted by a hunting trip. All the riders were bothered by mosquitoes, and three of them, including the 40-year-old Coppi, contracted malaria. Two recovered, but the Italian failed to respond to treatment and was dead within three weeks of being bitten.

"In life," Fotheringham writes, "Coppi had the champion's mystique, the champion's aura, and his death has left that aura unadulterated." Tens of thousands turned up for the funeral in his family's small village, evidence that his troubles had only intensified his appeal, and even today it is possible to start an argument in Italy by claiming that the scandal was all Giulia's fault.

? Richard Williams's books include The Perfect 10 (Faber) and The Last Road Race (Phoenix). To order Boy Racer for £17.99 or Fallen Angel for £15.99, both with free UK p&p, go to the Guardian bookshop

Review by Sue Arnold

The Angel's Game

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Guardian

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"Night falls on the city and the streets carry the scent of gunpowder like the breath of a curse." Thus begins 17-year-old David Martin's first gothic mystery; more follow about nymphets murdering their victims by kissing them wearing poisoned lipstick. This is the prequel to Zafón's bestselling The Shadow of the Wind, with Martin's story vaguely based on Pip in Great Expectations. I think Lloyd Jones did it miles better in Mr Pip, but what do I know? When this came out it was the biggest, fastest-selling blockbuster in Spanish history.

Review by Victoria Segal

The Complex

Nick Turse

The Guardian

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Conspiracy theorists still hung up on the military-industrial complex need to update their cold war-era vocabulary: according to national security writer Nick Turse, the war machine's ever-extending reach now stretches beyond petroleum and telecoms to include a "military-doughnut complex" where confectionery chains supply soldiers with glazed buns. In this acronym-heavy book, Turse describes a range of "microcomplexes" connecting the US military to some surprising areas of civilian life. The fact you might share fish-finger suppliers with the US navy is one thing; details of the Guantánamo Bay Starbucks are something else. Much of Turse's research holds the Pentagon up to ridicule: their golf courses, the fast-food-addicted army that waddles rather than marches on its stomach. Yet the book turns sinister when it exposes desperate recruiters who allow white supremacists to join up, or defence department plans to develop "weaponised" moths and sharks. References to The Matrix could make Turse seem a paranoid geek. Unfortunately, this is no sci-fi fantasy.

Review by Sue Arnold

The Aubrey-Maturin Chronicles by Patrick O'Brian, read

Robert Hardy

The Guardian

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Aficionados of O'Brian's epic naval series - 21 full-length novels, written between 1969 and 2000, that follow the mixed fortunes of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Doctor Stephen Maturin in the Royal Navy circa 1800 - may have reservations about these new "chronicle" editions. Three volumes have just been released, covering the first nine books (three per volume), from Master and Commander to Treason's Harbour. That works out at less than five hours a book. Unabridged, they're 16. Trouble is, unless you can afford the full-length novels (Soundings, £32.99) you can really only find them in libraries on ropey old cassettes.

Let me confess right away that I'm an O'Brian devotee. I have read the entire canon unabridged not once but twice, including the half-finished book he was working on when he died. It's a variation of OCD, I suppose - O'Brian Compulsive Devotion. It took a while, I admit, to come to terms with paragraphs that begin "Jack saw the ship's mizzen tops laid to the mast and the main and fore yards square so that the wind should thrust the stern away to leewards ... " but surprisingly quickly you get into ship-of-the-line mode. O'Brian's descriptions of decks being cleared for battle at breakneck speed, the roar of cannon, masts shattering, dying men shrieking and, in the midst of it, the captain coolly issuing orders are unforgettable. Adventure, romance, espionage, treachery - no one does them better. But it's the relationship between the two protagonists - brash, brave Aubrey and sensitive, intellectual, gauche Maturin playing violin and cello duets in their cabin after a skirmish - that holds it together. Nothing of that is lost in this brilliantly edited omnibus edition, which remains consistently true to the spirit of the original. As for the reading, I've heard some splendid actors read these epics but Robert Hardy is in a different league.

Review by Tobias Jones

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Paolo Giordano

The Guardian

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I was fully expecting, purely for reasons of professional envy, to dislike this book. Anyone whose first novel sells more than a million copies worldwide, and goes on to win Italy's most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, is bound to turn the rest of us slightly green. Add to that the fact that Paolo Giordano is the right side of 30 and that writing is, for him, but a hobby (he's actually a particle physicist) and you'll understand why I was tightening up my laces to give his pretentiously titled tome a good kicking.

But actually it's a very accomplished book and deserves all its success. It is ostensibly a coming-of-age novel about two lonely children who had traumatic incidents in their childhoods. Alice had a skiing accident, broke her leg and is forever labelled a cripple because of her limp. Mattia, meanwhile, abandoned his twin sister in a park; because she was mentally retarded, he found her an embarrassing encumbrance. She was never seen again. Giordano traces the next 24 years of their lives: their dislocation from society, their discomfort with their overbearing or overly solicitous parents, their distance from their schoolfriends and even from each other. The title comes from Mattia's notion (he's a maths buff) that Alice and he are "twin primes", like 11 and 13, or 17 and 19, lonely individuals that are forever linked but forever separated.

Much of the novel is taken up with the pair's painful, awkward teenage years. There are, inevitably, prolonged episodes of self-harm and anorexia. There's a tattooing incident and much anxiety about kissing and physical contact. There are many scenes about the cruelty, self-consciousness and forced spontaneity of adolescence. It's a pretty bleak read but hypnotic at the same time because, like a helpless parent, you come to care so much about these damaged children.

Mattia is the archetypal child prodigy who finds it easier to relate to numbers than humans. He's an antisocial character, unable to look people in the eye or unburden himself of his guilt. His only relationship in life is with mathematical patterns and geometrical shapes, with the result that he pulls out some pretty bizarre metaphors: kissing becomes "a banal sequence of vectors"; people wave their hands "as if imitating the shape of a helicoid"; when his legs tremble the word "anelastic" springs into his head.

Alice is only slightly more functional. She tries to bring Mattia out, to coax him into an adult world, but she herself remains in the grip of a disorder. She's repulsed by the physicality of food and her life starts to stutter to a halt like a car running out of petrol. Other minor characters, such as gay Denis or smooth Fabio, are equally convincingly portrayed, as are a series of tiny observations, such as the fact that during an argument inanimate objects become "terribly insistent".

Part of the success of the book comes from its minimalism. Scenes, dialogue and descriptions are - in sharp contrast to the florid nature of much Italian fiction - brief, almost terse. It would have been easy to fall into melodrama and produce a happy resolution, but Giordano remains as icy as his characters, offering only misunderstandings and missed opportunities until the bitter end. The moment of truth comes with Mattia locked in a bathroom, forced to make a decision. Instead of concluding that "things are meant to be", that there might be meaning or purpose or fate or providence, he simply concludes that people clutch at coincidences "and from them they draw a life". Mattia, it's clear, is not one to clutch at coincidences, let alone a woman.

It all makes for a melancholic, but strangely beautiful, read. Shaun Whiteside's translation is exemplary and the acute descriptions of teenage competitiveness, angst and aspiration bring to mind Alan Warner's writing. In some ways the book's cult status is similar to Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and perhaps for the same reason: it's strangely enjoyable, almost consoling, to read about other people's fictional tragedies.

• Tobias Jones's novel, The Salati Case, will be published by Faber in July. To order The Solitude of Prime Numbers for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

Review by Catherine Taylor

Ghosts and Lightning

Trevor Byrne

The Guardian

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Following a brief self-imposed exile in Wales, Denny is urgently called back to Dublin when his mother dies. The prodigal son's night-time ferry crossing is an indication of how the novel will proceed: lurching, wisecracking, poignant and drunken. When Denny returns to his old gang of arrested-development best mates and his sister Paula, who is convinced that the family home is haunted, an absinthe-fuelled séance is just one of his well-meaning, hapless attempts to control the confusion, grief and rage that have befallen his circle. Byrne's writing is simultaneously engaging, exuberant, hilarious and irritating - at times too much a cruel lampooning, an exposé of shambling not-quite-adulthood. Fans of Roddy Doyle will be agreeably entertained, while the semantically minded may be inclined to marvel at the numerous variations on the word "fuck".

Review by Michael Rank

When China Rules the World

Martin Jacques

The Guardian

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Martin Jacques has written movingly and angrily about the death of his Indian-Malaysian wife in a Hong Kong hospital, claiming that the tragedy arose from a deep Chinese prejudice against anyone with a dark skin. So it comes as quite a surprise to discover that, far from warning of the dangers of a world likely to be dominated by a racist superpower, the author admires the Chinese enormously and views China's self-proclaimed "peaceful rise" with a remarkable degree of equanimity.

Jacques claims that "In an important sense, China does not aspire to run the world because it already believes itself to be the centre of the world, this being its natural role and position", and discusses sensitively and in depth what it means to be the "middle kingdom". He also argues that China is essentially a "civilisation state" rather than a western-style nation state. "The term civilisation normally suggests a rather distant and indirect influence and an inert and passive presence," he notes. "In China's case, however, it is not only history that lives but civilisation itself: the notion of a living civilisation provides the primary identity and context by which the Chinese think of their country and define themselves."

One of the fundamental features of Chinese politics is the overriding emphasis placed on the country's unity, Jacques claims. This occasionally leads to contradictions which he does not entirely resolve, for he also stresses China's diversity, going so far as to claim that "China's provinces are far more differentiated than Europe's nation-states, even when eastern Europe and the Balkans are included". The question of unity and diversity leads to a stimulating comparison of China and India, a far more pluralistic - and democratic - nation, and Jacques notes how the enormous cultural differences between the world's two most populous countries have resulted in "an underlying lack of understanding and empathy".

The book is based on a well-informed and subtle analysis of Chinese history and culture, and as the title implies, Jacques is convinced that it is not a matter of whether China will dominate the world over the next few decades, but how. He is careful to avoid over-confidence in his predictions, however, and notes that "China's present behaviour can only be regarded as a partial indicator, simply because its power and influence remain limited compared with what they are likely to be in the future". But he is surely right to say that American confidence that "the Chinese are inevitably becoming more like us" is misplaced and is based on a view of globalisation that is seriously flawed.

Jacques is likely to raise eyebrows in some quarters by playing down China's military potential; he sees China's arms buildup as being aimed largely at blocking any possible Taiwanese moves towards independence rather than at achieving world domination, and he claims that its own technological level remains relatively low. In the face of US and EU bans on selling weapons to Beijing, its only potential foreign supplier is Russia, Jacques says, and Moscow is hardly eager to see a militarily powerful China.

But it is China's fast-growing economic power which has the world transfixed right now, and Jacques is confident that this will grow further. In the long term he expects China "to operate both within and outside the existing international system, seeking to transform that system while at the same time, in effect, sponsoring a new China-centric international system which will exist alongside the present system and probably slowly begin to usurp it".

In perhaps his most provocative remarks, Jacques praises China's communist leaders for their "remarkable perspicacity ... never allowing themselves to be distracted by short-term considerations". He appears to defend the party's failure to move towards democracy, stating that China has devoted itself to economic growth, having concluded that it cannot afford to be diverted by what it "rightly deemed to be non-essential ends".

Jacques observes, as commentators such as Jonathan Fenby have also noted, how the party has confounded western assumptions that the consumer boom over the last 20 years, the internet and the flood of Chinese travelling abroad on business or for pleasure would inevitably result in moves towards western-style democracy. He is not perturbed by this and is indeed sympathetic to the "not misplaced view that any move towards democracy is likely to embroil the country in considerable chaos and turmoil".

It is on race, not unexpectedly, that Jacques is most critical of China. He says "racialised ways of thought ... have been on the rise in both popular culture and official circles", and he expects this to continue, with China's "sense of superiority resting on a combination of cultural and racial hubris".

Some flaws are inevitable in such a lengthy and wide-ranging book. Jacques's discussion of Japanese culture is cliché-laden (the Japanese are "exquisitely polite", "You will never seen any litter anywhere" and the country is virtually crime-free) and it is surprising that his discussion of China's historical scientific and technological achievements makes no mention of Joseph Needham's towering contributions to the field. There are also occasional factual mistakes: Japan annexed north-east, not north-west China in 1931, and Shanghainese is not a dialect of Mandarin. In addition, the author occasionally cites dubious statistics: for example, I find it impossible to believe that 100 million Chinese tourists will visit Africa annually in the near future.

Despite such foibles, this is an extremely impressive book, full of bold but credible predictions. Only time will tell how Jacques's prophecies pan out, but I suspect his book will long be remembered for its foresight and insight.

• Michael Rank is a former Reuters correspondent in China

Review by Alfred Hickling

A Most Wanted Man

John le Carré

The Guardian

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At his best, John le Carré's writing seems not only prescient but prophetic. His latest novel deals with extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists but also foresees the collapse of the world financial system. Tommy Brue, the Scottish inheritor of a moribund private fund based in Hamburg, has long ago come to believe "the staple of your private banker's life is not cash, bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It is cock-up." What he doesn't realise is that his late father had allowed the bank to function as a launderette for mafia funds, and is suddenly faced with a Chechen fighter who has entered the country in a shipping container and wishes to make a withdrawal. Le Carré draws a picture of weary old-school spooks supplanted by "the swiftly risen managers of the post-9/11 boom trade in intelligence and allied trades". But it's done with such surety it's impossible not to be impressed with how the great chronicler of cold war subterfuge has slipped into his new role as a profound fictional commentator on the "war on terror".

Review by Steven Poole

The Lightness of Being

Frank Wilczek

The Guardian

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Gremlins permitting, the enormous particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider will begin operating in anger this autumn. What are the LHC scientists hoping to find? What will it mean if they do find it? Better ask a Nobel-winning physicist. Luckily Wilczek is one and has written a highly engaging book to bring the reader up to speed on the current model of particle physics, and to sketch out one "unification" hypothesis that the LHC might illuminate.

Wilczek likes to use his own terminology - he finds the "standard model" of quantum physics "a grotesquely modest name for one of humankind's greatest achievements" and renames it the "core theory"; he employs the name "the grid" for "the primary world-stuff" of spacetime and fields ("Ordinary matter," he argues in one quasi-Platonic moment, "is a secondary manifestation of the grid"). The discussion of colour gluons and antiquarks gets crunchy, but there are also many jokes and a pleasingly ecumenical philosophy. Wilczek takes the Jesuit credo "It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission" as his own scientific ideal, and inverts Popper for the splendidly Colbertian condition that a good theory should be "truthifiable". He explains how he found his vocation: "When I was growing up, I loved the idea that great powers and secret meanings lurk behind the appearance of things." Maybe scientists are the best conspiracy theorists.

Review by Julia Eccleshare

Oddly

Joyce Dunbar and Patrick Benson

The Guardian

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Patrick Benson's exquisite illustrations give enormous charm to this story about the big questions of life. Wandering too far from home, a little boy meets Lostlet, Strangelet and Oddlet, three unusual creatures each in search of something, but they are not sure what. Posing their questions and pooling their responses, the creatures and the boy come to realise that the answers to all lies in love. Benson's understated text and spare illustrations deliver a satisfyingly uncloying resolution.

Review by Victoria Segal

The Long-Player Goodbye

Travis Elborough

The Guardian

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In one of the entertaining footnotes dotting this history of the LP, Travis Elborough drifts into an iTunes-enabled fantasia where Ringo Starr fans edit the Beatles' oeuvre to exclude all that boring Lennon-McCartney stuff. Digital culture has made such picking-and-remixing possible, and as a "life-long fan" of vinyl, Elborough is rueful about listeners consuming albums "in the manner of small children nibbling away at sandwiches and leaving the crusts". Yet while many might think albums are as relevant to modern life as the lute, this beguiling book restores the long-player's revolutionary credentials, rummaging through the form's genesis like a record collector in a charity shop. Before the overfamiliar rock'n'roll years kick in, the chapters on comedy and jazz offer vivid proof of vinyl's totemic power, while the analysis of easy listening is as evocative of 50s affluence as chicken cordon bleu. It's not quite filler-free - nobody needs another account of the Beatles' career - but Elborough hits a compelling groove.

Review by Steven Poole

In Search of Civilization

John Armstrong

The Guardian

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What is civilisation, anyway? Have we got any of it? This book's approach to the question is, it says here, "philosophical": not "discovering what other people have thought about civilisation" but answering the question: "What do I think?" (Never mind that actual philosophy very often involves discussing what other people have thought.)

What Armstrong thinks is that the past 30 years of western "arts and humanities" have been a washout: we live in "a profoundly damaged culture", because "mockery, irony and archness are not what we need." Speak for yourself, weirdo.

Ambling with no philosophical exactness around ideas of civilisation as an enabler of "high-quality relationships" or as adaptation of nature to suit human needs, Armstrong eventually decides that civilisation is a combination of "material and spiritual prosperity". Peculiarly, there is nary a mention of science, but along the way the author does manage to feel superior to an old boss, to tourists in Florence, and to scholars of the renaissance, doomed as they are to unearthing mere "obscure facts" while Armstrong courageously philosophises. Personally, I'll take the obscure facts.

Review by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Fever Crumb

Philip Reeve

The Guardian

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There's a story that sometime in the 1980s, the Japanese government paid for a kind of state-of-the-art Mass Observation scheme, in which thousands of citizens were asked to keep diaries and store them on huge, metal floppy disks. A snapshot of daily life, a gift to the coming generations. The disks were indestructible - unlike paper - but they are already obsolete. Sometimes our most considered monuments turn out to be nothing but future litter.

Future litter is one of the great themes of Philip Reeve's brilliant Mortal Engines series. When I first read these books, I felt as if the pages themselves were charged with electricity. They are set in a remote future in which London has become a huge vehicle - a traction city - roaming around the "darkling plain", swallowing up and asset-stripping smaller settlements in accordance with the laws of "municipal darwinism". It's a heady mixture of the strange and the familiar - Brighton is a slave-trade hub, floating on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic. As an image of the future, it's both fantastical and convincing - a kind of steampunk Planet of Slums.

Fever Crumb is a prequel to the series. Here London is still stuck to the ground, though it is already being menaced by a coalition of wandering, northern tribes called the Movement. Fever Crumb herself is a foundling who has been brought up in the rarified and ultra-rational atmosphere of the Order of Engineers, who live and work inside the head of a colossal ruined statue - an image that mashes "Ozymandias" with Planet of the Apes. When she is sent out to work on an archaeological dig, her composure and reason are tested, first by the madness of the city itself, and next by the emotional wounds she opens as she uncovers the mystery of her own parentage.

Reeve's vision of a society that can no longer afford technology but which is still strewn with the non-degradable detritus of our "civilisation" could not be more timely. Sometimes this detritus is good for a laugh (there's a clever joke about Space Hoppers), and sometimes it's chilling, as when the true nature of "Medusa" is revealed in the earlier books. I occasionally felt uncomfortable in Fever Crumb because of the way these heavyweight issues sit alongside some fairly weedy puns - there's a Krishna-ish cult called Hari Potter, for instance - but I suppose that captures the indifference of time, which will happily reduce the manuscripts of Euripides to dust while inexplicably preserving shopping lists. Bizarrely, Fever Crumb's London bristles with Bowie references. There's a pub called the Mott and Hoople, and the ferocious Skinners' warcry is adapted from Diamond Dogs.

That album in its turn was a response to George Orwell's 1984. Reading Fever Crumb made me nostalgic for the days when books and music talked to each other a bit more. Lord of the Rings, for instance, was surprisingly influential in rock music (T Rex, Led Zeppelin, and so on), board games (Dungeons and Dragons), the hippy press (Gandalf's Garden) and computer games. That doesn't really happen nowadays, when successful books are filmed - and therefore trussed up in copyright law - much more quickly. Even though they are so cinematic, there don't seem to be any immediate plans to film Mortal Engines. Good. It'll be interesting to see what happens to these astonishing, important images if they're allowed to float around in the culture for a while, like pop songs.

Fever Crumb is a terrific read, a sci-fi Dickens, full of orphans, villains, chases and mysteries. There's even a balloon-chase climax. I worry that if you read it before reading the others, you'll miss out on the electric shock I had when I was plunged straight into that jungle of predator cities. Like The Magician's Nephew, or the story of how your parents met, it's a beginning better told at the end.

• Frank Cottrell Boyce's books include Cosmic (Macmillan). To order Fever Crumb for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

Review by DJ Taylor

Heartland

Anthony Cartwright

The Guardian

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Most of the action in Anthony Cartwright's impressive second novel is glimpsed through the prism of a pair of football matches. The first, played out in a Tokyo stadium before an audience of millions, features England versus Argentina. Watching it from behind the clotted tables of a Black Country pub are many of the participants in the second, played out on a park pitch between Cinderheath FC and a local Muslim XI. Just as the sight of David Beckham squaring up to Gabriel Batistuta has a resonance beyond sport, so the fixture booked to decide top-spot in the West Midlands League becomes a parable for tensions and anxieties of multicultural Britain five years after the bright New Labour dawn.

Several contemporary talents, including Amanda Craig and Tim Lott, have recently lamented the supposed inability of homegrown novelists to deal with the here and now. Heartland might have been written expressly to appease them. There is the grimy urban backdrop of run-down factories and boarded-up shopfronts; the mosque being built on the site of the defunct steelworks; the BNP hopeful standing in the council elections. There is the waterlogged cargo of blighted hopes, here typified by a father-and-son duo of failed professional footballers. There is even - that final, authenticating garnish - a torrent of Wolverhampton-to-Dudley patois, which renders large parts of the dialogue more or less unintelligible on a first reading.

The danger of this approach is that you end up with the contemporary world by numbers, a stagey and stage-managed landscape in which the novelist himself lurks on the margins ticking off issues on a metaphorical clipboard. While Cartwright's cast exchange a fair amount of creaky badinage, what redeems the occasional lapses into dramatised sociology is the resonance of the personal dilemmas: Rob, the former Aston Villa trainee, now, as a classroom assistant, reduced to policing whey-faced illiterates at the local comprehensive; his uncle Jim, a veteran Labour councillor whose community is disintegrating around him and whose only hope of re-election lies in limiting the number of people who struggle out to vote.

Full of symbolic incident (a stabbing in which Jim's teenage son is implicated) and vocal testimonies to "what has gone wrong", the novel's strongest moments are straightforwardly elegiac: Rob remembering his childhood; his father recalling the smashed knee that denied him a career in Stan Cullis's all-conquering Wolves side of the 1950s. Heartland is also distinguished by its calculated lack of resolution. As the police helicopters whirr overhead and the touchline crackles with racist abuse, Rob's team scrapes a draw with the Muslim lads, only to see the local Sikhs win through on goal difference. The BNP is narrowly defeated, but threatens a return. Like the England/Argentina game, Rob and Jasmine's relationship could go either way. The same refusal to settle for easy solutions can be seen out there in the novel's wider frame. As one of the characters notes, to blame Mrs Thatcher for everything is to ignore a more substantial landscape of which she was only a part. If some of this vagrant human tide have been let down by society, then others have been let down by themselves or the people around them. But this is a study of possibility, not recrimination.

• DJ Taylor's new novel, Ask Alice, is published by Chatto & Windus. To order Heartland for £9.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

Review by Sue Arnold

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters

The Guardian

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Ghost stories - apart from that one about the bishop's cat by MR James - are not my favourite literary genre. It says much, therefore, for Sarah Waters's storytelling talent that not for a single minute in her latest novel, about a family being persecuted by things going bump in the night, did I think of fast-forwarding. It's set in rural Warwickshire after the second world war, a time of significant political and social change. The narrator, whose mother worked for the Ayres family living up at the manor, Hundreds Hall, is now the local doctor. When he is asked to treat a young servant girl working for the Ayreses, Dr Faraday becomes inadvertently involved with the family's lives, financial problems and, most of all, the malevolent ghosts that terrorise its members. I miss Waters's velvet-and-lace clad Victorian lesbians, but for spine-chilling spookiness, her post-war poltergeists are better value. Simon Vance reads it in such a reasonable, matter-of-fact way, you believe every word.

Review by Patrick Ness

Sunnyside

Glen David Gold

The Guardian

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Glen David Gold's first novel in the eight years since his bestselling, much-loved debut Carter Beats the Devil opens with the death of Charlie Chaplin. Not on Christmas Day 1977, as is usually reported, but on November 12 1916, drowning, of all things, in a sinking dinghy off the coast of northern California.

Or at least, that's what Leland Wheeler sees. Leland, a handsome lighthouse-keeper, spies the struggling boat in the middle of a dangerous stretch of rocks. Dumbfounded by what seems to be the Little Tramp himself in full costume, Leland sets off to rescue him, but watches in horror as the boat disappears under a wave. Up bobs "the battered black derby, with a single strand of seaweed, like a rose upon a coffin". Chaplin is dead.

Meanwhile, in Beaumont, Texas, the townsfolk gather in their finery to greet a train bringing Charlie Chaplin on a whirlwind visit; but when the train arrives, it carries only awkward, snooty Hugo Black, an overeducated young railway engineer. The citizens respond by setting fire to the train and knocking Hugo unconscious. Afterwards, no one can quite remember why they were expecting Chaplin in the first place. In hotels and private clubs all across the country, the name of Charlie Chaplin is announced and sought. He is seen everywhere, expected everywhere, in more than 800 separate locations, and yet he is nowhere, not even drowning off the coast of California.

He is, in fact, on the roof of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where he makes his home, drinking a cup of tea, oblivious for the moment to the extraordinary mass delusion that has swept the country, a delusion that reveals for the first time the impact of the moving picture. The Little Tramp has briefly stepped off the screen in a single, shared moment of national yearning for the most famous man in the world.

It is a bravura opening sequence, purportedly true, and the perfect beginning to Gold's massive, hugely researched explication not just of Chaplin and early Hollywood, but of America's involvement in the first world war, of the French trenches and the Russian front, of wild west cowboys and Bolsheviks, of Mary Pickford, Kaiser Wilhelm, Douglas Fairbanks, Leon Trotsky, and eventually even Rin Tin Tin.

Though they never actually meet, Leland, Hugo and Chaplin make up the three strands of the story. Leland has a face made for the screen and secretly auditions for film jobs. His formidable mother, for reasons of her own, is horrified at the thought of Leland working in showbusiness and leans on him to enlist for the coming war just as he's about to have his first success. Bitterly, Leland discovers that his father was none other than Wild Duncan Cody, a poor imitator of Buffalo Bill. Duncan died a drunkard shortly after performing the world's worst wild west show for the kaiser in Berlin. Leland takes the Duncan name and ends up servicing planes in France, where one day he discovers two Alsatian puppies in a bombed-out kennel. Here, at last, is a reason for surviving the horrors of war.

Hugo Black, meanwhile, a priggish young man who even at nine was "as rigid and duty-bound as if he were 45", ends up going to the Russian front, eventually fighting under the (real) British general, Edmund Ironside. These were the largely forgotten soldiers left behind after the armistice to fight, unsuccessfully, the Bolshevik threat in the frozen Russian hinterland.

Far and away the best strand of the novel, though, is Chaplin himself. A genius, and an overwhelmingly popular one, he is nevertheless finding it harder and harder to connect with his audiences. Unhelpfully, the US government has asked Chaplin not to enlist, but doesn't allow him to make this known. White feathers begin to appear among his fanmail, and he's on the verge of despair. "The fact was, at this moment, he wanted the world to love him forever so he could tell them, forever, what idiots they were for doing so."

He finds two unlikely saviours. Avuncular secretary of the US treasury William McAdoo convinces Chaplin to take part in the Liberty Loan tours, fundraising for the war effort. Even with Chaplin's pacifist misgivings - at the biggest rally, it is Chaplin alone who meets the haunted eyes of a returned soldier - McAdoo's intervention saves him from the accusations of cowardice. And then there is the glorious Mary Pickford, Chaplin's most hated Hollywood rival. Blessed with a head of unearthly curls which conceal a startlingly sharp business brain, Pickford dances around Chaplin in the press. When she announces Hollywood's first million-dollar contract, Chaplin renegotiates his for $1,025,000. But as studio bosses close in, it looks as if only an alliance might save both their careers.

Sunnyside is a big novel in all senses: 560 dense pages, with a huge cast and an authorial tendency to pile diversion on diversion until it nearly collapses under its own weight. There are breathtaking moments here - three paragraphs on the treatment of Native American soldiers in France are so piquant and engrossing they could be a novel in themselves - but too often it feels as though Gold can't help including nearly everything that struck his fancy. He can be both immensely charming and wildly imaginative, but Sunnyside is finally too obsessive to be an entirely comfortable read. The Chaplin strand, for example, is superb, a close-up examination of the difficulties of genius, particularly for the genius's acquaintances. But it's sandwiched between two lesser stories and any number of digressions on war finances or dog training. Gold has said he cut Sunnyside from its original 1,000 pages. Perversely, I wonder if that might have been the better book, a real once-in-a-career epic which, with more room for the facts to breathe, would paradoxically move faster and therefore feel shorter. This is a novel that inspires impatience, not least because so many good ideas are fighting to get out that none of them quite gets the airing it deserves.

• Patrick Ness's The Ask and the Answer is published by Walker Books. To order Sunnyside for £16.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

Review by Marina Lewycka

Life According to Lubka

Laurie Graham

The Guardian

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The countries of eastern Europe are many-layered, with deep histories of occupation, suffering and betrayal that throw up surprising and sometimes contradictory attitudes. So Laurie Graham's light-hearted comedy Life According to Lubka made uncomfortable reading for me. Whereas I feel perfectly OK lampooning eastern Europeans myself, I don't much like it when other people do it. It's like having outsiders criticise your family - they may be crazies, but they're my crazies.

Lubka Lilova, the eponymous heroine of Graham's book, comes from a small village in Bulgaria called Gorni (it means "in the hills") and has a homespun philosophy which reminded me of my mother, except that Lubka is a fan of Ronald Reagan ("Because he did give us new Bulgaria. He did tell Gorbachev, open this door. Fall down this wall. And it did fall down"), whereas my beloved but infuriating Mum revered Mrs Thatcher. Lubka even has a go at my hero, Mikhail Gorbachev, which I find a bit unforgivable, so I didn't warm to her as much as Buzz Wexler, Graham's narrator, evidently does.

Buzz (Beryl Eunice Ermengild: BEE - geddit?) Wexler is 42, a big name in music PR, used to travelling with the hippest out-on-the-edge urban music bands, and determined to stay on top of her game. But her life is thrown into chaos when she is dumped by her latest half-her-age lover, sidelined by office politics into the uncool scene of world music, and sent off on tour with a group of middle-aged to elderly Bulgarian singers.

The Gorni Grannies, as these five ladies are called, have been "discovered" by an ethnomusicologist and propelled from their rural backwater into the heady world of popular music. Under the leadership of Lubka, and accompanied by Buzz and her sidekick Mal, we travel with them on a tour of unglamorous towns in England and the US, sharing their triumphs and near-disasters through a series of comic episodes. The tone is upbeat and almost relentlessly feel-good - comedy without a dark underside. Life in this world is uncomplicated. The goodies all dress in eccentric brightly coloured clothes and speak terrible English; the baddies are all bandits, communists or boring and speak terrible English.

And that brings me on to the next issue - the bad English. Now, you may imagine that writing bad English is easy - you just write in "normal" English, then jumble it up, right? Oh, no, no, no! In reality there's eastern European bad English, German bad English, Arabic bad English - in fact, as many bad Englishes as there are languages whose speakers learn English. There's even bad bad-English, which is really a language of its own - Funnyese.

The problem with bad/bed English is that it can be a struggle/straggle to read. Yes, I know I'm the wrong person to say this, being probably among the worst offenders, but you can have too much Funnyese. True, it can really make you laugh - there are some great puns in this novel, and I loved the bit where they unwrap the fortune cookies: "Avoid unnecessary gambols." "Relax. No man is floorless." "You deserve admiration of your pears." But "Speak no evil, hear no elvis"? Sometimes you have to resist the temptation to make yet another funny mistake.

The emotional focus of the story is on the growing friendship between Buzz and Lubka, and the problem here was that I didn't really warm to Buzz, either. It wasn't so much her hard-talking, hard-drinking, pill-popping, man-eating surgically enhanced style that annoyed me, it was the fact that she keeps whingeing on about how old she is. At 42. Please!

For me, the most appealing character in the book was her intern, Mal, who is resolutely sensible to the point of fogeydom, and has some of the best one-liners. I kept wishing he would turn out to be her new love interest, but ... I won't spoil the ending for you.

This is a good-natured and entertaining book. You're probably not from eastern Europe, and will enjoy it much more than I did.

• Marina Lewycka's novel We Are All Made of Glue is published by Fig Tree. To order Life According to Lubka for £10.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

Review by Catherine Taylor

How to Sell

Clancy Martin

The Guardian

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"Never be ashamed of being a salesperson. It's one of the few honest trades. Jesus Christ was a salesman. Mohammed. Allah." Bobby Clark, barely 16, emotionally green yet a veteran petty thief, leaves Canada for Texas to join older brother Jim at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange. It's the late 80s and the place teems with vicious sales techniques and crystal meth highs. Bobby, who quotes Spinoza and Schopenhauer to fine-tune his patter, is soon notching up the deals along with snatched sex with Jim's girlfriend Lisa, a super-saleswoman with endless legs and a serious drug habit. Hovering in the background is Jim and Bobby's absentee schizophrenic father. So far, so Bret Easton Ellis. Ten years later the Clarks are running their own successful business when Lisa stumbles into their lives once more. It's a tawdry cautionary tale, heavily autobiographical, smart, devious and sad.

Review by Vera Rule

City of Heavenly Tranquility

Jasper Becker

The Guardian

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Jasper Becker seems by temperament to be a "bannerman", one of the imperial Manchu followers whose amused calm and stoicism made them the gentlemen cockneys of Beijing. He has all their enduring qualities; but he's also angry (not so much a bannerman trait) on behalf of the Beijing where he arrived as a correspondent 25 years ago, since demolished in pursuit of the quick yuan and a fantasy of western-ness more absurd than the fake rococo pavilions in the Summer Palace. When he wasn't filing for this and other papers, he used to wander around the enslummed buildings of a thousand years of city history, a past its citizens have been forbidden to remember, tracking architectural and human evidence of what once was. So this is a work of travel - Becker ecstatic at reaching the real Xanadu; of national as well as local history - Becker finding the location of liberal martyrdoms on nondescript traffic islands; and of personal loss - the ancient pagoda never visited on the way to the new Ikea store.

Review by Nicola Barr

Evening is the Whole Day

Preeta Samarasan

The Guardian

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There are points in this debut novel, set in 1980s Malaysia, where the Rajasekharans look like a normal family. Wealthy and privileged, their lawyer father, Appa, is a pillar of the community. But theirs is a house of secrets and manipulation, and of caste and racial prejudices that the author clearly sees as a mirror of Malaysian society. Seemingly a member of a household - and a country - of racial harmony, Amma, the poor girl who married the rich lawyer and bore his children, secretly suffers the abuse of Paati, her mother-in-law. Even her children grow up considering her beneath them. But it is Chellam, the family's servant girl, who is the real scapegoat of this tale, and it is towards her that "blame will pick its way through the crowds and put its arm around her waist" as, unable to defend herself, she is accused of Paati's death. This is a claustrophobic novel of one family's emotional failure. Samarasan's inventive prose is stunning, but the overall effect is oddly distancing, easier to admire than to love.

Review by James Buchan

The battle on the streets of Tehran and the provincial towns of Iran arises not merely in a disputed election but in the clash of two views of Persian history that have become hard to reconcile.

For Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared the 10th president of the Islamic republic in what even his supporters hail as a "miracle", history ended on 1 February 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris to inaugurate the new revolutionary government. The story of humanity, which up to that moment had been the persistent thwarting of God's will by Jews, Arabs, heretics, kings, drunkards, liberals and the British, had now entered its end phase. It was just a matter for a learned cleric to administer first Iran, then the whole world, until the Lord of Time revealed himself to his favourite nation and ushered in an age of justice and the end of the world. The Lord of Time, or Mahdi, the 12th descendant of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatemeh, escaped Arab persecution as a small boy in Iraq and went into hiding in 874. Present in the world in flesh and bone, the Mahdi passes unrecognised through the Shia cities, walking perhaps even among the Tehran crowds streaming between Enqelab and Azad.

Yet for many supporters of the defeated candidates in the election, there is another view of history that rejects Khomeini's fantastic theories of clerical government, the religiosity of Ahmadinejad, the grinding air of eschatological menace and, above all, the regime's metaphysical liberties with the truth. This view has it that Iran, in cutting itself off from the mainstream of world affairs, has squandered its God-given wealth and condemned itself to insignificance or ridicule. We British, with our blase attitude to our parliament and its venal members, forget just how long and hard the Iranians have fought for representative government.

This liberal Iranian view has its best expression in the opening to Ahmad Kasravi's Tarikh-e Mashrute-ye Iran, or History of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, which first saw the light in Arabic in 1921, came out in various Persian forms in the 1930s and is now partly available in a superb English translation:

"We know that when Nader Shah was killed, the greatness his efforts had given Iran vanished. But Iran was still included among the renowned countries of Asia, and if Karim Khan and his successors did not add anything to the country, neither did they subtract from it. But in the times of the Qajars, Iran became very weak and lost much of its greatness, prestige and renown. This was chiefly because the world had changed and countries had stirred, but Iran remained in the same state in which it had been. There were violent movements and unparalleled historical events in Europe, such as the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and his incessant wars, the movement of the masses, progress in the art of war, the appearance of machinery and so on. Iran was ignorant of these changes and did not benefit from them at all."

Ahmad Kasravi was born in modest circumstances in 1890 in the Turkish-speaking city of Tabriz in north-west Iran. Bred up for the Shia clergy, his life was changed in 1905 by the popular movement to secure parliamentary government from the feckless and extravagant Qajar monarchy. A protest against mismanagement and famine and the sale by the Qajars of mining and trading concessions to shady City of London interests changed on the streets of Tabriz and Tehran into a full-blown movement for liberty and the rule of law. To this, the first democratic revolution in Asia, Kasravi brings a mixture of philosophical sensibility and direct experience:

"They aren't demanding cheap bread. But want do they want?""They want a constitution.""Constitution?! What's a constitution?""Go yourself and find out what a constitution is."

In this long book, which runs to 905 pages in the best Persian edition, Kasravi recounts how the spontaneous alliance of clergy, bazar, craftsmen and intellectuals forged in 1905-6 disintegrated when the Shia clergy became aware of some of the wider consequences of Enlightenment ideas. They were shocked to learn that liberty included liberty not to pray or wash, and equality might even be extended to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. In short, the new parliament, instead of merely interpreting and enforcing the divine law known as sharia, would actually give law to the Muslims. As Kasravi writes: "The interests of the mass of people diverged from those of the mullahs and village owners, particularly in Tabriz, where liberal ferment was more effective." Meanwhile, the liberals had the bit between their teeth: "Those who had visited Europe recalled things about the European way of life which they brought home like souvenirs." Many of the clergy turned against the revolution, including the most learned and courageous of the Tehran divines, Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, who was to be a firm influence on Khomeini. Sheikh Fazlollah was executed by the constitutionalists on 31 July 1909.

This break in the alliance between clergy and liberals is the dominant theme or tragedy of modern Iranian history. It has permitted a succession of government coups d'etat, first when the Qajars' Cossack forces bombarded the parliament in 1908, and then in 1921 when a Cossack officer named Reza Khan seized power and established the Pahlavi dynasty. Reza, and then his son Muhammad Reza, imposed despotic government for much of the period from 1925 to 1979.

Under the Pahlavis, the clergy conspired in the royal coup against the popular government of Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, while the liberals turned a blind eye to the persecution of the clergy both in the 1930s and after Khomeini took on the Pahlavi court in 1963 and was driven into exile. The two groups composed or papered over their differences in the late 1970s, when it seemed that for a second time Iran was being sold to foreigners under Muhammad Reza. Together they were able to mobilise millions of demonstrators over the winter of 1978/79 and send Muhammad Reza into exile. The Iraqi invasion of 1980 and the eight years of war forged a solidarity that persisted into the 1990s.

These two wings split apart again soon after polls closed on 12 June this year. A reading of Kasravi's History suggests that by far the most likely outcome of recent events in Iran, from a purely historical point of view, is despotism. One wonders if Khomeini's successor as regent or leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as he looked down on Ahmadinejad kneeling in the front row at Friday prayers at Tehran University on 19 June, had the leisure to reflect: "How in the name of God are we going to get rid of this gentleman in four years' time?"

For all his historical insight, profound linguistic knowledge and purity of style, Kasravi shares in good measure that violence of thought to which Iranians were prone in the 20th century. A judge in the secular courts in the 1920s and a university teacher in the 30s, he repeatedly quarrelled with the Pahlavi regime. He was not free of eccentricity. Kasravi had a peculiar aversion to Persian poetry, considered by many to be one of the glories of Iranian civilisation and quite a match for poetry in English. "Iranians have been plagued by poetry for many years, and have suffered a lot for it," Kasravi writes in the History

His principal bugbear was superstition, or rather the parade of Shia ceremonies that punctuate the Iranian calendar, the cursing of the early caliphs, and the self-flagellation and mourning for the prophet's family, persecuted and done to death by the Arab dynasties. While the Orientalist historians were charmed by these bloody ceremonies, finding them both picturesque and distinctively Persian, Kasravi saw them as mere mechanisms for despotic control. For him, the Iranians of 1905 were "a people who had for centuries borne the yoke of oppression and autocracy, knowing nothing except sectarian conflict, pointless Moharram and Safar ceremonies and such, being so unfamiliar with the meaning of nation and country and so on, and having had no freedom to discuss their sufferings."

The prophet Muhammad performed no miracles, but the Iranians know better. Khomeini loathed popular superstition. Not so his successors. Addressing the UN general assembly in New York in 2005, Ahmadinejad says he felt an aura of light around his head that kept the delegates transfixed in their places for almost half an hour. The famous halo is the butt of endless ridicule in Iran, most recently in a song addressed to Ahmadinejad in the style of the medieval poet Molavi, which has become a sort of anthem of the Tehran June: "You are violence without sight/ A halo without the light."

Though sympathetic in the History to the courageous divines of 1905-6, Kasravi became more and more bitterly anti-clerical. In the course of the 1930s, he came to argue that the Shia itself was a perversion of the prophet's Islam. That brought him to the attention not only of Khomeini but of a young seminarian, Muhammad Navvab Safavi, who had been influenced by Khomeini's early writings on Islamic government and founded a terrorist group called the Fedayan-e Islam ("Devotees of Islam"). Brought to trial for his anti-clerical stance in Tehran, Kasravi was butchered in open court along with his secretary, Muhammad Taqi Hadadpur, on 11 March 1946.

According to a recently published interview with a Fedayan-e Islam veteran, one of the assassins, Hosein Emami, appeared at the central police station waving a blood-stained knife and crying: "I have killed Kasravi! The man who is burning the Qur'an!" He was turned away as a madman and later pardoned. The Fedayan went on to assassinate the prime minister and may have been behind the attempt on the life of Muhammad Reza in the garden of Tehran University in 1949. Navvab Safavi was executed by the Pahlavis in 1955, and his followers dispersed into Khomeini's movement, where they performed some of the rough work. Navvab Safavi is commemorated by a metro station and parkway in Tehran. Khomeini, himself a brilliant stylist, conceded on television in 1979 that Kasravi knew his history and was a good writer, but was a vile man who sought prophethood. When, in 1989, Khomeini declared Salman Rushdie's life forfeit, older Iranians remembered Kasravi.

The fine new translation from Mazda Publishers is by Evan Siegel, a professor of mathematics at New Jersey City University who also happens to be expert in many of the languages of the Middle East and the Caucasus. Of the History, Siegel has translated the first third, and plans to complete volumes two and three this year. If there is a difficulty for the general reader, it is the strange nomenclature of that period before the introduction of surnames by the Pahlavis in 1921, and the baffling proliferation of aristocratic titles: Eye of the State, Trustee of the Throne and so on. Sometimes, the same title is carried by three different individuals. If he negotiates that difficulty, he will pass into the wide plain of Iranian history with its haunting echoes and compulsive repetitions.

Review by Justine Jordan

This Is How

MJ Hyland

The Guardian

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"This is it. I need to shit and I need to cry and I can do neither." How the subject of MJ Hyland's outstanding third novel comes to be thrust into a shared prison cell, physically and emotionally paralysed by inner trauma and external circumstance, is a narrative that seems as inevitable and arbitrary as life itself: it reminds us that there are some truths only fiction can carry.

Patrick had grown up without, as his father cruelly identifies, that "knack for happiness" that enables one to breeze through the world: a late child, too bright for his family, he excels at school only because "I could stomach the idea of failing even less than the idea of passing." When he drops out of university to become a car mechanic, his family understand that even less. He finds calm and satisfaction in his work - engines being so much easier to understand and better constructed than people - and a fiancée, Sarah, until she breaks it off, accusing him of not knowing how to express his emotions. "The thing is, I didn't have that many."

As the novel opens, he has come to a boarding house in a small seaside town to start again: to escape Sarah, his family, the shame of his past, himself. "I don't have to think about it again if I don't want to." But of course the hotbed of repressed emotions throbs behind his every step, flashes of imagined violence erupting in his muffled narration of seaside walks and English breakfasts, his mother's unwelcome arrival and his attempts to forge some new romantic connection. The ominous atmosphere builds, as Patrick repeatedly itemises - yet also, in a revealing act of self-betrayal, contrives to lose - his precious toolkit, damps down his pain with booze, and struggles to realise the freedom of a new start in the dead ends of pub, café, single room.

As in previous novels, Hyland tells her story in a supercharged present tense, tremblingly aware of physical detail; the book is heavy with dialogue, yet we are never told about tone of voice, while actions are continually observed from the outside rather than experienced from within (the most striking example of disassociation being the times Patrick hears himself speaking aloud). The reader, as a result groping for emotional bearings, enters fully into the tension of Patrick's inner self, his claustrophobic sense of being subject to the physical world yet isolated from its meaning. He can apprehend events, but not how they are connected. In its most extreme form, this dislocation is to be his undoing.

"Have some fun. Relax for once," his fellow boarder Welkin tells him. A teasing, provocative presence, given to garish displays of sexual prowess and unnerving emotional intimacy, he is Patrick's opposite; but Hyland subtly uncovers the various layers of attraction and repulsion in the charged atmosphere between them. "I want his friendship," Patrick realises, "but I don't want the hot and cold threat of it all," just as his tangled attitude to his easy-going mother - a beautifully drawn, tender portrait of doomed family love - encompasses both social shame and social jealousy. Very skilfully, Hyland combines a timeless story about emotional repression and unease in the world with a restrained portrait of late 1960s mores: Patrick is the product of a particular set of historical assumptions about class and sexuality, hovering on the threshold of wider opportunities for education, mobility, self-expression (a gay subtext resonates throughout the book).

It is a hard novel to review without revealing too much, but if the first half is involving, the second, in which Patrick is imprisoned, is extraordinary. Hyland renders the stages of shock and nausea, denial and self-deception - the "blasts of hope and fear" - with edge-of-the-seat immediacy as Patrick staggers through his trial and sentencing. The bureaucratic detail of the legal process and the close quarters of prison life fit her gift for existential claustrophobia perfectly. Patrick's cellmate is a study in repulsion:

"Stevenson gets up from his cot and comes over to my cot and sits right down next to me.

I sit up.

His breath's as bad as old vase water and his skin's parched and lined from heavy smoking, but it's oily too, like it's got resin all over it.

'I can kind of tell what you're thinking,' he says. 'But I'm not as bad as all that.'

My heart's thumping in my throat.

'No,' I say. 'You seem like a decent bloke.'

'I am that,' he says, as he puts his hand on my leg. 'I'm a pretty decent bloke.'"

Yet there's a grim comedy in Stevenson's obsessive interest in his bowel movements ("black as a pair of socks ... and rock-hard too"), as well as an awful tenderness between cellmates. There are echoes of Beckett's many double acts to be found in this delicate, disgusted accommodation between men stuck with each other as well as in Hyland's title. We see prison life changing Patrick: his language, his limitations, his desires. Most tragic of all is his admission that "I'm sometimes happier in here ... life's shrinking to a size that suits me more."

The narrators of Hyland's two previous novels, How the Light Gets In and the Booker-shortlisted Carry Me Down, were troubled adolescents of more than usual solipsism. Like them, Patrick is an outsider acute enough to see how life has stunted and excluded him; and again, Hyland refuses to draw conclusions, leading to the open-ended, impressionistic sense of a life temporarily revealed (the spark for this novel was a series of biographical interviews with murderers). But what's new in this book is that we catch sight throughout of other stories, other lives: her imaginative sympathy extends beyond Patrick to each of her characters, giving the novel depth as well as force. Bleak yet moving, mercilessly dispassionate yet shot through with kindness and wit, it is a profound achievement.

• To order This Is How for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

Review by Lynsey Hanley

After the Car

Kingsley Dennis and John Urry

The Guardian

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From the perspective of a deliberate non-driver, the car is indefensible. It's the devil's chariot, death on wheels, the ultimate privatised commodity. Motorists, meanwhile, believe car ownership to be a right.

The authors of After the Car, both sociologists in the field of mobilities - the study of how people, things and information move and get moved - are firmly in the "devil's chariot" camp. Dennis and Urry exhibit a refreshing understanding of the sheer inefficiency and inconvenience of cars, describing them bluntly as "steel-and-petroleum" machines, and roads as the "killing fields" of contemporary societies.

Significantly, they talk about cars not as discrete objects, or tools for personal use, but as components of a system which has become more entrenched with every decision, or "disruptive innovation", and which has led to private transport almost totally displacing public transport, as is the case, for instance, between the two coasts of the US.

More than a million people worldwide are killed every year by cars, whether as drivers, passengers or pedestrians, yet we do not have million-strong demonstrations to restrict their use or draw attention to their dangers. The car system gives the illusion of freedom while glueing users into a dependence on traffic management, oil, and money to pay for oil. Meanwhile, the local administrator of the system in question - your government, in other words - is forced to spend most of its own time and money maintaining good relations with suppliers of oil, in order to sustain that illusion in the name of economic growth. Although Dennis and Urry put it more elegantly than this, the car system is absolutely batty.

But what's the point in complaining? It's not as if anyone's listening. The most recent economic boom was, arguably, the first experienced in the knowledge that car use contributes to climate change. Yet by its end, the number of two-car households in Britain had surpassed the number with no car at all. Suburbanisation - "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world", according to the social critic James Kunstler - continues apace in rich countries, while the IMF estimates that the number of cars in China is likely to increase from 21m (in 2005) to 573m by 2050.

As Dennis and Urry point out, it is younger people, who have been educated in and will inherit all the problems of a hotter planet, who are keenest on driving. Car ownership is "a sign of adulthood", creating a "dominant culture generating new ideals about what represents 'the good life'". There is no new generation coming up that is refusing the basic pleasure of being able to travel privately at will.

The authors present several scenarios in which the car system will be affected by increasingly scant resources and human attempts to limit damage caused by climate change. The most frightening, for its depressing plausibility, is that of "regional warlordism", based on the fight for post-peak oil. We may already be living in this period.

More enlightened, but less likely unless governments are prepared to tell voters things they don't want to hear, is the model of "local sustainability", in which all travel, but especially car travel, is reduced hugely and people return to living in compact urban neighbourhoods and getting around on foot.

• Lynsey Hanley's Estates: An Intimate History is published by Granta

Review by Catherine Taylor

The Harrowing

Robert Dinsdale

The Guardian

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This account of two brothers' odyssey of reconciliation and redemption on the battlefields of Flanders is the debut of a writer of raw talent. William and Samuel grow up in a tough working-class part of Leeds. William, quiet, academically ambitious, is the older by two years; Samuel, the scowling underachiever. William is about to join the Chapeltown Rifles when Samuel, in a reversal of the Cain and Abel story, smashes his head in with a brick on the moor. While William lies comatose in hospital, their parents make Samuel pay the ultimate price - with forged papers he is sent to war in his brother's place. On recovery, William absconds to find Samuel and bring him back. Dinsdale's depiction of war is sensational, but what appears to be an attempt to craft a prose poem about the conflict is clumsily frustrating.

Review by Ian Pindar

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux

The Guardian

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This is Paul Theroux's contribution to what he calls "the literature of revisitation", his own prose version of "Tintern Abbey" or "The Wild Swans at Coole", as he recreates the journey he took by train from London to central Asia in 1973 (as recounted in his bestselling book The Great Railway Bazaar). Travelling makes him feel like a ghost, he says, and "memory is a ghost train". Written in his characteristic aphoristic prose, Ghost Train is an enjoyable read, a meditation on ageing and change. The young Theroux regarded the world as his immutable playground, but this time around he encounters "an undependable world that was visibly spoiled" (although the now-famous Theroux does get to call in on Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami and Arthur C Clarke). Ghost Train has an elegiac tone, as Theroux proves the truth of Heraclitus's dictum that nothing is permanent but change. Young people are boring and deluded and shallow, he concludes, whereas "only the old can really see how badly the world is ageing and all that we've lost".

Review by Tom Holland

The Empire Stops Here

Philip Parker

The Guardian

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That the gods had granted them the rule of the entire globe was a claim forever being trumpeted by the Romans. "Imperium sine fine", they termed their empire: "dominion without limit." The truth, of course, was somewhat different - as the Romans themselves were reluctantly aware. The haughtiness of their pretensions, as is so often the case with successful imperial peoples, was combined with a hard-edged realism. This was why, in the cause of securing the continued viability of their empire, they were prepared to accept that it might, after all, have limits. The wild and profitless extremities of the world could legitimately be left to barbarians. The result, snaking for thousands upon thousands of miles across three continents, was the ancient world's most astounding frontier.

Indeed, that the empire is long gone, and the frontier with it, paradoxically serves to make the immensity of territory that once acknowledged Roman mastery appear all the more stupefying. Perhaps only those prepared to tramp the moors of Northumbria, the sands of Arabia and everything in between can truly hope to get their heads around its sheer scale. That is why the idea which underpins Philip Parker's new book is such an intriguing one: to trace the entire length of what the Romans themselves termed the "limes", the frontier zone of their empire. The result was a journey epic enough to satisfy even a Virgil. As Parker sums it up, with justifiable pride, "I have encountered more than five centuries of Roman history, in some 21 modern countries, covering a range of climactic variations from a snowstorm in Switzerland to a sandstorm at 45 Centigrade in Egypt's Dakhleh Oasis, and have covered more than 20,000 kilometres on the ground."

Yet his book is far from being a conventional travelogue. Once the introduction is done, the first person barely intrudes. Neither a work of history, nor a scholarly gazetteer, nor a guide, but rather a blend of all three, The Empire Stops Here is a book in which weather-beaten masonry serves to crowd out human beings, and in which the people who most truly come alive are those who have been dead for 2,000-odd years. The effect, in the opening chapters, can often be alienating - and all the more so for the fact that Parker has chosen to open his odyssey with Hadrian's Wall, long a staple of less serious travel writers. When he comes across an advert posted by "Jefficus", a Roman re-enactor, for instance, it echoes the very similar serendipities that so delighted Hunter Davies in his warm and witty book, A Walk Along the Wall. Unlike Davies, however, Parker has no interest in dwelling on whimsy. The scale of his ambitions do not permit it. Germania and Pannonia, Cappadocia and Egypt: all are awaiting him. Jefficus is accordingly dismissed in a sentence.

Further re-enactors are encountered in the course of Parker's travels - some Dutch office-workers practising archery, a class of Austrian schoolchildren dressed up as gladiators - and again, he does nothing so vulgar as actually to engage with them. By the time we have followed him to Austria, however, we are starting to wake up to the full originality of his project; and Parker himself, perhaps, has grown more comfortable with it, and more self-assured. Increasingly, like early-morning mist veiling a mountain range, his Brysonesque stabs at observational humour fade away, to reveal in all its magnificence a quite breathtaking and eccentric edifice of scholarship. Parker's true models, it turns out, are not the modern generation of travel writers at all, but rather the ancient geographers, scholars such as Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, who thought nothing of using their travels as pegs on which to hang entire histories of the world.

Certainly, barely a place is visited but it affords Parker an opportunity to examine some fascinating aspect of the Roman past, be it the chronicle of a campaign, the character sketch of a Caesar or an analysis of some aspect of daily life, from Mithraism to gladiators to baths. The result is a portrait of the empire very similar to some of the more impressive monuments that Parker visits, which, reconstructed by archaeologists out of assorted fragments, serve to hint at the vanished whole. Indeed, it is a curious effect of his method that even the most brutal intrusions of the modern on the ancient past - whether it's the construction of a noodle bar over a hypocaust in Vienna or of a prison across the corner of a legionary camp in Algeria - seem to diminish not antiquity, but rather the present. Perhaps that is why the book's most haunting and atmospheric section should be the one that covers the eastern frontier, where the mute ruins of great cities set among deserts, or else "barred off by swathes of barbed wire", stand as the most eloquent witnesses of all to the empire's fall.

Granted, the news that Rome has gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre hardly comes as a bombshell. The inherent mutability of things has been standard fare in travel writing, from Pausanias to Sebald. Nevertheless, the disjunction between antiquity and the present is very far from being Parker's only theme. Most of what he sees inevitably bears testimony to the ruin of Roman greatness, but he is also fascinated by the enduring trace elements that it has left in the world of today. For every Petra or Palmyra, cities so abandoned as to appear half as old as time, there is a Vienna or a Budapest, contemporary metropolises that "owe their existence to their origins as Roman legionary camps, sites whose location was so strategically placed that their associated civil settlements survived the catastrophe of the empire's fall in the west, continued to grow and eventually became capital cities."

In truth, historians tend to dispute the degree to which urbanism in western Europe actually owed anything to Roman foundations: for even when European cities stand on the physical sites of ancient predecessors, there is a sense in which it is only the continuity of their location which has survived from antiquity. Yet it is indisputably moving, for all that, to recognise the common residue of inheritance that so many different countries, so many different regions and so many different peoples share. The same Constantine, for instance, who was hailed as emperor in York, who founded the city that would become Istanbul, and who built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, has also, so Parker informs us, bequeathed his name to the airport that serves his birthplace: what is now the city of Nis in Serbia. "It is," we are informed, "the only such facility anywhere to have been named after a Roman emperor": grist to the mill of anyone setting a pub quiz.

Unlike Shelley's traveller from an antique land, Parker does not write in scorn of the colossal wreck that he has witnessed, but rather in praise of it. His travels, he confesses, prompted in him two emotions: "wonder that after close to 2,000 years so much can survive, and sadness that for all our sophistication, we are unlikely ever again to create something so enduring." At least he can console himself with the reflection that, with this extraordinary book, he has raised a monument all of his own.

• Tom Holland's books include Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (Abacus). To order The Empire Stops Here for £23 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846. Philip Parker talks to Claire Armitstead at guardian.co.uk/books

Review by Ian Black

My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness

Adina Hoffman

The Guardian

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It is hard to keep up with the flow of books about Israel and Palestine - and harder to find much in their irreconcilable narratives, claims, counter-claims and competitive victimhood that illuminates or humanises the conflict in that divided land.

Adina Hoffman's biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali is a rare exception. Taha was little known until recently - certainly compared to giants such as Mahmoud Darwish or the novelist Emile Habiby. But his life, spanning his people's tragedy (and century, as in the book's subtitle), is a rich tapestry of the personal, the literary and the political, skilfully woven by a sympathetic writer.

Taha was born in a Galilean village called Saffuriyya, near Nazareth, in 1931, during the British mandate, but his youth was overshadowed for ever when Israel's independence became the Palestinians' "nakba" or catastrophe in 1948. Hoffman's vivid reconstruction of Saffuriyya's conquest is crowned by the discovery of an Israeli document (a military report marked "destroy after reading") confirming the hitherto apocryphal story of a bombing raid that helped to send the villagers into panicked flight. "They fled," Hoffman writes - in a blunt but telling comment on the acrimonious historical debate over exactly what happened in 1948 - "because they were driven out by someone or ones who wanted them to flee."

Saffuriyya, like 400 other Palestinian villages, ceased to exist that fateful summer. It was renamed Tzippori, a biblical Hebrew name that may have been corrupted into Arabic centuries before, and settled by Jewish immigrants from central Europe, some of them Holocaust survivors. Its lost landscape provides the emotional backbone of this book and the poet's slow-burning inspiration over the decades that followed.

Scattered at first to a refugee camp in Lebanon, Taha and family later managed to return to Nazareth to register as "present absentees", a Kafkaesque bureaucratic classification for Palestinians living within the borders of Israel though not permitted to return to their prewar homes.

Taha is portrayed as an engaging autodidact whose day job was running a Nazareth souvenir shop ("a Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews"). He became part of the effort to keep alive the flame of Palestinian Arabic literature in the wake of the "nakba". It was a small pond, cut off from what was left of Palestine in the (Jordanian-controlled) West Bank and the wider Arab world, though one that bred remarkable talent in the shape of writers such as Samih al-Qasim, Rashid Hussein and Tawfiq Zayyad.

Unlike them, Taha tended more to the personal, the homespun and the contemplative than the overtly political. But struggling little magazines and poetry festivals organised by the Israeli Communist party overcame censorship, curfews and harassment to make literary creativity a form of "popular passive resistance". Rare meetings with sympathetic Jewish writers lapsed into embarrassed silence: though the Arabs learned Hebrew, the Jews, with the exception of a few native-speaking immigrants from Iraq, knew no Arabic.

Horizons broadened suddenly after the 1967 war, when Israel's conquests reunited the Palestinians on either side of the old "green line" border. Taha and friends revelled in a flood of previously unobtainable Arabic books. In Nablus, Habiby found an Arabic translation of Voltaire's Candide, or the Optimist, which inspired his classic novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist

Israel's Arab citizens (then as now) were better off in nearly every sense than their kinfolk living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But they were clearly second-class. In 1976 a notorious Israeli government memorandum openly discussed the "Judaisation" of Galilee and measures to encourage emigration to ensure that the Arab minority remained manageable. This was the era of the rise of the PLO and Yasser Arafat's electrifying "gun or olive branch" UN appearance, punctuated by the wars and intifadas that formed the background to the life of a maturing poet.

Hoffman, an American Jew living in Jerusalem, makes clear that this is not a story about Palestinians alone. "For better or worse," she notes, "there are others in this picture, and I am one of them." She writes gracefully, her distinctive voice intruding often into a narrative founded on a mass of interviews and superbly thorough research in Arabic and Hebrew sources. Taha's quietist temperament clearly suits her own. "As anyone will understand who lives in a part of the world where 'the news' is the chief national export, the 'major events' do matter, and sometimes desperately so, but - as reported in the bird's eye terms favoured by most history books - such happenings have little to do with what it feels like to wake and work and eat and think and move through the hours of one's day, every day."

Anton Shammas, a more famous Israeli-Palestinian writer - a virtuoso of Hebrew prose and fellow Galilean, now living in exile - once quipped wisely that there was nothing quite so Israeli as an Israeli Arab. Hoffman's intense but often humorous book is a powerful reminder of the singularity and complexity of this most intractable of conflicts and of the ability of the human spirit to be creative in adversity.

• To order My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness for £16.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

Review by Nicola Barr

Devil May Care

Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming

The Guardian

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Asking Sebastian Faulks to write the new Bond novel was, according to the author, "like asking someone who writes complex symphonic music if they would like to write a three-minute pop song". Still, despite being better known for detailing inner lives rather than underwater explosions, Faulks seems to enjoy his slumming, and wholeheartedly embraces the Bond brand in this old-fashioned cold war thriller, where James must save the world from one Dr Gorner and his new drug, heroin. Irresistibly, said villain has a monkey's paw for a hand and a sidekick called Chagrin, whose speciality is putting chopsticks in enemy eardrums and banging them together. Then there is the enigmatic, resourceful, beautiful Scarlet, whose twin sister, Poppy, must be saved from Gorner and his drug. No one expects or wants subtlety from Bond, and Faulks delivers a thriller that manages to feel reassuringly familiar rather than predictable, though whether it's a fun, clever pastiche as opposed to a tired reprise of racist and misogynistic set pieces is a tougher call.

Review by Craig Taylor

I Like My Job

Sarah Herman

The Guardian

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For those who thought Dilbert lacked angst, here's a graphic novel examining the life of a sensitive office worker. As the title suggests, the nameless, androgynous hero likes but doesn't love the job at hand. There's a pleasant-enough Ikea lamp shining nearby, but office life has a way of turning even the keenest into "content-free old-timers". Herman's drawing style falls somewhere between James Thurber's whimsy and the menacing weirdness of David Shrigley. Because they look as if they were scribbled on loose paper between presentations, the black-and-white line drawings can be both charmingly obscure and literal. This approach is most successful when Herman dissects the pettier battles of office life, such as how to deal with too many leaving-dos in a row. When Herman tells the story of a co-worker's suicide, the light minimalism doesn't quite carry the weight of the situation. But there are enough sharp observations here to make this an excellent leaving gift for any departing white-collar worker.

Review by Ian Pindar

Finding Moonshine

Marcus du Sautoy

The Guardian

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"What's it all for?", Marcus du Sautoy was asked by a promising student who had decided to abandon higher mathematics to work in the City. This, and his impending 40th birthday, plunged him into a mild existential crisis. Why had he spent his life studying group theory and the problem of symmetry? Finding Moonshine answers that question. He once revelled in the unworldly nature of his subject, but now feels impelled to emphasise its relevance to our understanding of nature. The "non-mathematically sensitive" should probably avoid his discussion of the Monster (a huge symmetrical object first constructed in 1980) and moonshine (a modular function) - especially his mindbending observation that you can "see the moonshine glinting on the Monster" - and instead head for discussions of maths in music (Bach, Mozart, Xenakis). Maths is a "tribal" subject, Du Sautoy writes, and we are introduced to some eccentric members, one of whom hates being touched and mumbles "ooze" under his breath until he has cracked a problem.

Review by Terry Eagleton

Enlightening

Isaiah Berlin

The Guardian

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The child of Hasidic Jews who fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, Isaiah Berlin spent the rest of his days in an Oxford that might have been purpose-built for him. Oxford is one of the great hubs of the British establishment, but prefers to see itself as a haven for free spirits and flamboyant individualists. A don might endure the inconvenience of standing for hours in a pub with a parrot on his shoulder, simply to hear the admiring whisper: "He's a character!" Eccentricity was valued more than erudition. In Berlin's day, the colleges were full of men (and the odd woman) who mistook a snobbish contempt for the shopkeeping classes for a daring kind of dissidence.

Oxford thus had the best of both worlds. It was firmly locked into the circuits of power, wealth and privilege, yet it cultivated a cavalier indifference to them. Its colleges mixed luxury with monastic austerity. The place was worldly and lofty at the same time. Berlin himself was as much at home in the US Congress as in the senior common room. Dons could win themselves some vicarious power by churning out the political elite, while posing as genteel amateurs. The trick was to talk about Hegel in the tones of one talking about Henley regatta.

If Oxford was a centre masquerading as a margin, it proved a suitable home for Berlin, an exotic outsider who nevertheless hailed from an impeccably anti-revolutionary background. As with other of Oxford's blithe spirits, his taste for the off-beat and idiosyncratic served to disguise a deeper conformity. He shared with Oscar Wilde and TS Eliot the outsider's ferocious hunger to be accepted (he was the first Jew to be elected to an All Souls fellowship) and turned himself into a deadly accurate parody of the English establishment, all the way from his well-tailored waistcoats and quick-fire donnish gabble to his careless habit of overlooking western political crimes while denouncing Soviet ones.

Above all, Berlin was a flattering presence among his peers. He spoke learnedly of obscure European thinkers unknown to his colleagues; yet he spoke of them in ways they could thoroughly approve of. Far from threatening their own provincial values, his cosmopolitanism seemed to confirm them. His Oxfordian delight in the "gay" and "amusing", favourite terms of praise in these letters, lent him the air of a nonconformist when it came to the staid, unstylish middle classes. But it was also his entry ticket to the world of the Rothschilds, Sackville-Wests and Lady Diane Coopers, in whose patrician presence his critical faculties could be quickly blunted.

Like Maurice Bowra and AJ Ayer, Berlin was that amphibious creature, a high-society intellectual. In English culture, this is not as self-contradictory as it sounds. What Oxford did, with its Hellenistic sense of human existence, was to provide some high-sounding rationales for upper-class frivolity. It was agreeable to know that in popping the champagne you were vaguely in line with some ancient Greek thinker or other. In yanking each other into bed, Oxford men could feel they had the glories of ancient civilisation in there with them.

Berlin was not only a compulsive chatterer; he was in a chattering class of his own. These letters are great splurges of urbane speech, which at times come close to stream-of-consciousness mode. Fragments of political philosophy blend with upper-class gush ("divine", "delicious", "adorable"). There is the odd, respectfully restrained note to Winston Churchill, along with loquacious missives to Arthur Schlesinger, John Sparrow, David Astor, Richard Wollheim, Violet Bonham Carter, Bernard Berenson and a glittering array of others. Berlin's parents are kept informed of the socially glamorous crew he has just dined with in Paris. All the time the man himself is darting from Harvard to Aix-en-Provence, Italian castles to Tel Aviv, penning his views on the Palestinian question while his social life proliferates hopelessly beyond control.

Those liberals for whom Berlin is a walking-on-water figure will not be entirely enthralled by what they find here. In turning down the wardenship of Nuffield College, he describes the place as "a bleak Institute near the Station, dedicated to local government, Public Administration, Black men ... a cross between an inferior London School of Economics & Sheffield University ..." This is not the civilised western mind at its most admirable.

In less repellent vein, it tells heavily against him that he feels "lowered" and revolted on reading the ecstatically funny Lucky Jim, a novel which in his view would be enough to "cure one of a desire to be a socialist". It is not a cure that Berlin himself ever stood in need of. If he had a passion for individual freedom, he had a remarkably purblind eye for poverty and exploitation.

Despite the odd feline side-swipe at a colleague, Berlin emerges in these letters as a remarkably good-natured soul. He betrays nothing of the brutal egoism of a Bowra or the suave spite of a Sparrow. Not even his sternest critic could fail to be impressed by his exuberance and vivacity. He was a man who lived life not to the full but to the impossibly overcrowded; and the idea that he is not still chattering away somewhere is almost as hard to credit as the popular belief that he once wrote a song called "White Christmas".

• Terry Eagleton's most recent book is Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale). To order Enlightening for £32 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

Review by Steven Poole

Guardianwork

Ian Carpenter

The Guardian

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This is one of that rarely advisable species, the book of a blog, whose author spent four months applying for every job in one 2007 issue of this newspaper. It's fitfully amusing, but also illustrates that there is no ecology of space in blogs as there is in books, so these pages are filled up aimlessly by replicas of online questionnaires, silly application letters, poorly reproduced photographs, domestic trivia, comments on the news and so on. A chronological series of preserved blog posts also tends to read as just one damn thing after another, rather than a carefully patterned work of prose, and there is no overarching analysis of what the experiment amounts to, or of the world of modern work in general. It was perhaps a diverting blog; printing it out doesn't make it a book.

Review by Julia Eccleshare

Big Bad Bun

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

The Guardian

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Roll into one all the things that are seen as bad behaviour, and Fluff, or Big Bad Bun as he becomes, does them all. From joining the Hell Bunnies and dying his tail to piercing his ears and crashing his bike, Fluff is a typical tearaway. Or is he? As the joke of the story warns, pushy parents should take heed that there are worse things than a bad school report. And they might also remember never to believe absolutely what their children tell them.