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In May 1990, just six months before he died, Leonard Bernstein wrote a short poem beginning with the lines, "Afraid Died in my vocabulary Long ago . . ." It was an apt conclusion to a life lived to the full.

Born in 1918, the American conductor never faltered from his dedication to music but, as the pictures of him in Humphrey Burton's Leonard Bernstein (Faber Pounds 9.99) show, his was not a performance confined to the concert hall. We see him working on a cattle ranch in Wyoming in 1948, skiing in Idaho, proudly showing off a new fast car in Italy, making friends with Michael Jackson. But his exotic and often wayward behaviour, fully charted in this mammoth biography, seemed to enhance, rather than detract from, his musical life. As Stockhausen once wrote to him: "There is a secret relationship between your soul and Mozart's soul."

In The Children We Deserve (HarperCollins Pounds 6.99), Rosalind Miles turns her perceptive but often chilling gaze away from the sex war to the disturbing statistics relating to children: a 54 per cent increase in youth crimes in Britain in the last 10 years, a fourfold increase in drug addiction, a sixfold rise in the number of teenage abortions.

She begins with the Bulger case in Liverpool which graphically illustrated her point: that we are facing a situation in which the children at the margins of society are out of control. Why? There are no simple answers to her questions, but her book should be required reading for all prospective parents and teachers.

Ruthie Bolton was born and "raised" in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1960s. I say "raised" because Ruthie, who tells her story in Gal (Penguin Pounds 6.99), was given away by her 13-year-old mother when she was born and cruelly beaten by her step-grandfather when she was a teenager just for wearing nail varnish. She could have been a case-study for Rosalind Miles. Yet she escaped unscathed - and her book is written without an ounce of self-pity.

When Jan Goodwin first went to live in Peshawar in 1988 she befriended 11-year-old Maria, the daughter of her Muslim security guard. Maria had never been to school, was sent out to work at six years old, and when Ms Goodwin took her out for an ice-cream at a posh Westernised hotel she got into trouble for encouraging Maria to "be immodest".

Her experience led her to investigate the whole business of growing up female behind the veil of Islam. Price of Honour (Warner Pounds 6.99), a collection of interviews with Muslim women from 10 countries in the Arab world, is the result.

It's a discomfiting read: Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, but as it expands, so it appears to become more fundamentalist and extreme in its control of how people should think, behave, dress and live their lives.

It's a relief to turn to Marie Heaney's collection of Irish legends. In Over Nine Waves (Faber Pounds 6.99), she recounts the story of how the Tuatha De Danaan came to Ireland in a great fleet of ships and convinced the Fir Bolgs who lived there that they had "arrived in a magic mist" because they burnt their boats on landing on the western shore so that they would not be tempted to return home. Here, too, we have the exploits of Finn Mac Cumhaill, who ate the Salmon of Knowledge and earned the key to eternity, and the great patron saints of Ireland, Patrick, Brigid and Columcille, who brought Christianity to these island outposts.

Mark Girouard made his name by recapturing the spirit of life in the great houses of England. Now he has turned his attention to The English Town (Yale University Press Pounds 16.95). In his lavishly illustrated book, he takes us on a tour of the Shambles in Barnstaple, the backstreets of Nottingham, Bath's Lansdown Crescent and the bright lights of Blackpool. But he tells a tragic tale of wanton destruction and much rarer preservation.

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