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Poetic fiction - the complete works The Stranger's Child By Alan Hollinghurst Picador Pounds 8.99

Cecil Valance is a poet, aristocrat and Cambridge undergraduate whom we meet in 1913, when he visits his friend and clandestine lover George Sawle at his home, Two Acres. Cecil also finds time for a brief flirtation with George's younger sister, Daphne, and writes a poem for her autograph album which becomes one of his most famous works - posthumously, as he is killed in the First World War.

The first 105 pages are a preternaturally vivid and deliciously readable evocation of Edwardian Britain, which might have been written by E M Forster or Ford Madox Ford, and the excerpts of Cecil's poetry are a pitch-perfect parody of the early 20th-century English pastoral genre of verse, written in jingling tetra-meters. The titles alone, "Two Acres", "Soldiers Dreaming" and "The Old Companions" suggest a kind of sub Rupert Brooke.

The next section is an equally vivid evocation of Britain in the 1920s; and the next section, Britain in the 1960s; and so on, up to 2008, and in each era the effects of Cecil's life and death on the survivors change, as the truth becomes overlaid by mythology.

A novel about time, and change, and art, and sex, and death which is also as light as a souffl. It's clever, subtle, melancholy and amusing at the same time. I know it is a reviewer's clich, but I did actually miss my stop on the Tube while reading this.

The Devil's handiwork, and how to end it

Zero Degrees of Empathy

By Simon Baron-Cohen

Penguin 9.99

This short, succinct book persuasively argues the thesis that what we loosely, emotively call "evil" is more precisely a lack of empathy. The thesis is not entirely new, but Baron-Cohen gives it a solid scientific grounding. He argues that evils such as the Holocaust are only explicable if we postulate an empathy spectrum, on which one's position is influenced by both genes and environment. He distinguishes between affective and cognitive failures of empathy, as exhibited by psychopaths and autistic subjects respectively. He also draws a positive conclusion: he argues that empathy is an under-used and under-appreciated resource, and that we should research ways of increasing it. Otherwise, conflict and cruelty are certain to persist in human affairs.

From a dark dawn to the final sunset


By Jeremy Paxman

Penguin 8.99

Empire begins with the British Empire's disreputable origins in piracy and the slave trade, and takes us through the story of its steady accretion of territory, and crises such as the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Indian Independence, as Indian nationalists call it) and the Boer War, laying bare the peculiar combination of greed, arrogance, sanctimony and religiosity that sustained it. …